Apes and atheism

The scientist Frans de Waal has some entertaining stories about chimps but he is too tolerant of religion
March 20, 2013

A bonobo chimpanzee; there are no sharp differences between human and primate emotions, says Frans de Waal © Cyril Ruos/JH Editorial/Minden Pictures/Corbis

It was once regarded as a cardinal sin to anthropomorphise in discussing non-human animal emotion. The danger of “reading in” empathy, sympathy, concern and (perish the thought!) altruism was so great, and the conservative impulse to regard all behaviour as explicable solely in terms of food-finding and gene-bequeathing so compelling, as to make generations of ethologists shut their eyes to anything else. The person who, almost single-handedly, has effected a revolution in this regard is the primatologist Frans de Waal, whose new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, has just been published.

For de Waal there are no sharp differences between the great apes and their human cousins in respect of emotions and intentions. Indeed he sees no difference, only a continuum, in the emotional lives of mammals in general; he freely cites empirical work showing that rats and elephants also display concern for others with varying degrees of obviousness. Chimpanzees and macaques take this even further.

As a result it is now far more acceptable to talk of prosocial behaviour among apes in the same emotional terms as we apply to humans. In his writings de Waal goes the whole way, unapologetically describing the apes he studies as feeling grief, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, sympathy, concern, affection, need and regret. His big point is that human morality is an outgrowth of the capacity for empathy evident not just in other apes, but in mammals in general; and with colleagues he explores the neurological basis of empathy in the mirror neurons which enable mammals to represent—indeed, to literally experience themselves—what others are experiencing.

Uncommonly among scientists, de Waal is knowledgeable about philosophy, especially moral philosophy, which interests him because of his thesis about the origin of morality in the mammalian capacity for empathy. Most scientists think of philosophy in the form of its “postmodern” aberration, which is what they encounter at its scientifically ignorant and posturing worst. De Waal takes the better forms of philosophy seriously, and engages with it well; his strictures on utilitarianism—the “greatest good for the greatest number” theory—are both swingeing and apt, not least in being convincingly backed by empirical observation of primate behaviour.

In the opening chapter of his 2005 book, Our Inner Ape: The Best and Worst of Human Nature, de Waal tells the story of Kuni, a bonobo chimp who cared for a starling that had stunned itself by flying into the glass wall of her enclosure. She climbed a tree to lift the bird up so that it could fly away; when it was unable to get far, she watched over it until it recovered and flew off. In other anecdotes of cross-species empathy de Waal tells of whales trying to lift an unconscious human from the bottom of a tank, of chimps sympathising with injured people, and (of course) dogs reacting sensitively to the moods of their human companions.

It is hard to resist the implication that de Waal draws from this, that empathy is essential to the social character of social animals, and a more than sufficient evolutionary source of human morality. What else could underlie bonding, mutual awareness of needs, sharing and co-operation, and the readiness with which group harmony is restored after outbursts of conflict, than recognition of the emotional states of others? His early empirical work in primate ethology was on competition, deception and conflict resolution among chimpanzees (his first book Chimpanzee Politics, published in 1982, reported the outcome), and it led naturally to this view about the emotional continuum with human beings. The view was highly controversial at first, but de Waal has been progressively winning the argument ever since; and by extending his ethological studies to include elephants he has secured the ground for saying that empathy is the evolutionary basis of human morality.

Surveying the case he makes, it is now hard to see how his forerunners in ethology could have been so stiff-necked about “anthropomorphising,” given every other obvious continuity between humans and the rest of mammalian nature. Indeed one does not have to have spent years studying chimpanzees to see the point—one has only to live with a dog.

De Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, addresses a matter that he says he had left insufficiently clear in earlier books. The move from descriptions of primate co-operation and conflict resolution to human morality might be a natural one for many people, but to those for whom morality and religion are inextricably linked it is not so obvious. His book is intended to explain the point to them.

The book is, however, an oddity. Besides the stated aim it is a mixture of memoir, a repetition of de Waal’s now familiar views, and a hostile discussion of the “new atheist” movement. The result is a somewhat unfocused ramble, the main point of which, apart from rehearsing the already-won “apes R us” argument, appears to be to distance himself from the “new atheist” attack on religion. He is himself an atheist, he tells us; as an educated scientific Dutchman from secular Europe where religion is a minority if sometimes noisy sport, what else could he be? But he does not like the “new atheists,” and takes the view that religion, though false, has a role, and should be left alone.

Why, he asks, are the “new atheists” evangelical about their cause? “Why would atheists turn messianic?” He cannot see why Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and others attack religion and believers, and why they robustly and even aggressively argue the case for atheism. He can see why the advocates of religion do it; the more believers, he says, the more money they get. (Here, as a sympathiser, he should perhaps recognise that some religionists sincerely believe they have the Truth that will save us, and might be trying to be helpful; not all of them want money.)

Well: here is the answer to de Waal’s question. Some atheists are evangelical because religious claims about the universe are false, because children are brainwashed into the ancient superstitions of their parents and communities, because many religious organisations and movements have been and continue to be anti-science, anti-gays and anti-women, because even if people are no longer burned at the stake they are still stoned to death for adultery, murdered for being “witches” or abortion doctors, blown up in large numbers for being Shias instead of Sunnis… One could go on at considerable length about the divisions, conflicts, falsehoods, coercions, disruptions, miseries and harm done by religion, though the list should be familiar; except, evidently, to de Waal.

He might respond with the usual points: on one side the charity, art and solace inspired by religion, and on the other side Hitler and Stalin as examples of the crimes of atheism. And the usual replies have wearily to be given: non-believers also engage in charity and make great art, and their love and care for others provides solace too; and the totalitarianisms are just alternatives of the great religions at their worst, possessing their own versions of the One Truth to which all must bow down. (Incidentally, Hitler was not an atheist—”Gott mit uns,” (God with us”) said the legend on Wehrmacht belt buckles—and Stalin was educated in a seminary, where evidently he picked up a few tricks.)

An anxiety to protect religion from invidious comparisons with science leads de Waal to devote several pages to how fallible human scientists are, suffering confirmation and disconfirmation biases (that is, looking for the evidence that will support their pet hypotheses while ignoring counter-evidence), gripped by professional jealousy and rivalry, quashing new findings that upset their cherished successes in discovery, and the like. He then says, “Science is a collective enterprise with rules of engagement that allow the whole to make progress even if its parts drag their feet.” And that surely is the essential point. By contrast, religion is a collective enterprise with rules of engagement designed to make no progress and to punish those who wish to vote with their feet.

Interestingly, de Waal himself tells us why his view of religion is so benign, moving him to say that it is no more harmful than the false beliefs we have in the cinema when we know that Leonardo di Caprio does not drown on the Titanic but we still shed a tear for the character he plays. The reason is that he was brought up a Catholic. Oh those Catholics! How well they know to sink the barb so deep that it cannot come out. Protestantism has never achieved either the psychological finesse of Catholicism, or the total swamping effect of Islamic belief, in exerting a hold over the human mind, other than by fear and bullying, which are the instruments of Calvinism, or the barefaced promises of wealth and success which bring the singing arm-wavers to today’s megachurches.

He tells us that the Roman Catholic church never formally proscribed Darwin’s Origin of Species, as if this exculpated them from every other effort made to resist the march of science, as for example in burning Giordano Bruno at the stake and forcing Galileo to recant on pain of the same fate, both for accepting the Copernican heliocentric view. De Waal insists that religion’s opponents are wrong to say that if religion had its way, we would still believe that the earth is flat—his reason being that the ancient Greeks already knew that the earth is a sphere. What then does he make of the fact that in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine warned a scientifically minded monk against the Copernican view, on the grounds that Psalm 104 explicitly states that God has “fixed the foundations of the earth that it might never be moved”?

If de Waal thinks this is all “mere history,” let him look around at the creationists and intelligent design “theorists” trying to subvert the teaching of biology in today’s schools, opposing stem cell research, preventing girls from going to school in some Muslim countries, persecuting homosexuals—and so on again through the familiar litany. And he still wonders why some atheists are evangelical?

In any case he has the nature of the debate wrong. Atheists, whether new or old (the “new” is a canard), are mostly not interested in pursuing the metaphysical debate about whether the universe contains or has outside it supernatural entities or agencies of some kind—gods and goddesses, fairies and so forth. As Jonathan Swift said and de Waal quotes, who expects to reason a person out of something they were not reasoned into? Their militancy—for such indeed it sometimes is, for the good reasons sketched above—is about secularism, not metaphysics; it is about the place of the religious voice in education and the public square where it is at best an irrelevance and at worst a cancer.

For historical reasons the religious voice is vastly over-amplified in the public square —in England where 3 per cent of the population go regularly to services in the state-established Church, 26 bishops (plus a number of life peer ex-bishops) can sit in the House of Lords, voting on legislation that affects the whole population (not just of England but the United Kingdom at large). There are at least four religious programmes on the publicly funded BBC every day. There are prayers before each day’s sittings of both chambers of Parliament. An “act of worship” is statutorily required in state schools each day. Again one could go dismayingly on. This is one reason why children give up believing in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, but the equally contentless belief in gods and goddesses (or at least one such) falters on, so reinforced is it in these publicly supported ways.

Only think: the dates of English school and university spring terms are set according to when Easter falls, and the date of Easter is set by the phases of the moon—this in the 21st century! This seemingly trivial point is the tip of an iceberg of the way that the superstitions of our prehistoric ancestors still distort lives today.

Now, de Waal invokes the mirror neuron-generated capacities inherited from our evolutionary mammalian ancestors to explain the basis of morality, and with this I agree. But one would not want the evolutionary history of all aspects of our psychology to entail that, merely in virtue of that fact, they should all be left as they are. A large part of moral reflection is devoted to overcoming or tempering the evolved capacities for aggression, greed, concupiscence and partiality that disrupt rather than enhance community living. These, too, are inherited along with capacities for empathy and concern and what these make possible in the creation of social bonds.

The chimp and bonobo stories in de Waal’s writings are, as always, entertaining and charming. These animals have an emotional life not too distant from humans, but free of the perversions and limitations of sexuality that have been forced upon us by the religions de Waal defends. His stories make me think that were reincarnation true, quite a few people would not mind being reborn as bonobos.