The scientist Frans de Waal has some entertaining stories about chimps but he is too tolerant of religionby AC Grayling / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…