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The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates [Hardcover]

by Frans de Waal
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 25, 2013 0393073777 978-0393073775 1st

In this lively and illuminating discussion of his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal argues that human morality is not imposed from above but instead comes from within. Moral behavior does not begin and end with religion but is in fact a product of evolution.

For many years, de Waal has observed chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors and bonobos share their food. Now he delivers fascinating fresh evidence for the seeds of ethical behavior in primate societies that further cements the case for the biological origins of human fairness. Interweaving vivid tales from the animal kingdom with thoughtful philosophical analysis, de Waal seeks a bottom-up explanation of morality that emphasizes our connection with animals. In doing so, de Waal explores for the first time the implications of his work for our understanding of modern religion. Whatever the role of religious moral imperatives, he sees it as a “Johnny-come-lately” role that emerged only as an addition to our natural instincts for cooperation and empathy.

But unlike the dogmatic neo-atheist of his book’s title, de Waal does not scorn religion per se. Instead, he draws on the long tradition of humanism exemplified by the painter Hieronymus Bosch and asks reflective readers to consider these issues from a positive perspective: What role, if any, does religion play for a well-functioning society today? And where can believers and nonbelievers alike find the inspiration to lead a good life?

Rich with cultural references and anecdotes of primate behavior, The Bonobo and the Atheist engagingly builds a unique argument grounded in evolutionary biology and moral philosophy. Ever a pioneering thinker, de Waal delivers a heartening and inclusive new perspective on human nature and our struggle to find purpose in our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“The perpetual challenge to atheists is that moral behavior requires religion—all that prevents tsunamis of depravity is a deity or two, some nice hymns, and the threat of hellfire and damnation. De Waal shows that human morality is deeply rooted in our primate legacy, long predating the invention of that cultural gizmo called religion. This is an immensely important book by one of our most distinguished thinkers.” (Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv)

“De Waal’s decades of patient work documenting the ‘building blocks’ of morality in other animals has revolutionized not just primatology but moral psychology. By revealing our commonalities with other species, he gives us more compassion for them and also for ourselves. It’s impossible to look an ape in the eye and not see oneself, de Waal tells us, and this beautifully written book is one long riveting gaze.” (Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion)

“Frans de Waal offers us a wealth of inspiring observations from the animal realm, combined with thoughtful reflections on the evolution of morality. He makes a convincing case for the natural foundations of a secular ethics that is fully independent of religion without being dogmatically against it.” (Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, scientist, and author of Happiness and The Quantum and the Lotus)

“Frans de Waal’s new book carries the important message that human kindness is a biological feature of our species and not something that has to be imposed on us by religious teaching.” (Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape)

“Primatologist De Waal seeks to move beyond the faith-vs.-science divide in this reflection on the origins of morality,drawing from his famed work studying apes.... Readers will enjoy De Waal's affectionate, colorful accounts of animal behavior, and those of religious faith will especially appreciate the author's respectful attitude.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A well-composed argument for the biological foundations of human morality.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“This is a writer marshaling the evidence of his life, particularly his life as a scientist, to express a passionately held belief in the possibility of a more compassionate society.” (Meehan Crist - New Republic)

“A primatologist who has spent his career studying chimpanzees and bonobos, two of humanity’s closest living relatives, Mr. de Waal draws on a lifetime of empirical research. His data provides plenty of evidence that religion is not necessary in order for animals to display something that looks strikingly like human morality.” (The Economist)

About the Author

Frans de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist who has been named among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of Our Inner Ape among many other works, he is the C. H. Candler Professor at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center. De Waal lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (March 25, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393073777
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393073775
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 3.6 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #188,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
97 of 106 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Re: The bonobo, the atheist, the primatologist and the pope

I finished reading what the bonobo would say to the atheist just as the conclave of cardinals was preparing to convene in Rome to select Pope Benedict's replacement. What better time to have one of the world's wisest primate ethologists remind us of morality's "humble beginnings". Far from anti-religion, de Waal seeks to replace notions like original sin with a more scientifically justifiable "bottom up perspective" according to which "morality predates religion". Rather than "imposed from above or derived from well reasoned principles...", sensitivity to others, concern for "fairness", "love of harmony" and other "moral laws" derive from "ancient capacities" of apes with a deep history of social living. If our "incredibly superstitious species" is receptive to Christianity it is "because of our evolved grasp of the value of relationships, the benefits of cooperation, the need for trust and honesty..." Far from nihilistic, de Waal's wonderfully literate, disarmingly candid, and wonderfully entertaining romp though the animal origins of morality bears a potentially promising message. As the Australian anthropologist Les Hiatt once commented (writing about de Waal's predecessor, the evolutionary anthropologist Edward Westermarck who a century earlier, on the basis of far, far less evidence about other animals, similarly sought to trace morality's origins): "The policy of expanding amity symbolized by the dove, may be something of an evolutionary novelty; but when the hawks hover, it is comforting to remember that (amity's) roots in the human lineage run very deep". Nor is it just a matter of hoping so. As de Waal points out, there is considerable evidence that it is so. I loved this book.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
A book about religion and morality from the hands of one of the foremost primatologists in the world. In this brilliant book, written in a lucid, essayistic style that is personal and even conversational, De Waal defends his thesis that morality is not an invention of religion, but that religion is a cultural scaffolding that builds upon and enhances biologically innate moral rules. Even more, De Waal acknowledges that religion is so deeply engrained in human nature that it has become one of the defining characteristics of humanity. Interestingly, De Waal's conclusions resonate deeply with the findings of the cognitive science of religion (De Waal hints to this resonance himself in the final chapter). I am curious to see where this will go in the future.

Moreover, even though De Waal explicitly admits he is an atheist himself, he argues against the militant new atheists (whose behavior he slightly controversially but with reason describes as having a religious zealousness), that religion should perhaps not be done away with before atheists are able to come up with an equally solid and generally convincing scaffolding. Not surprisingly, some of these atheists, such as Sam Harris, have already responded to De Waal's view with ridicule. Such a response is unfair and does not do justice to the fact that De Waal is trying to bring into practice what he preaches throughout the book: that cooperation and mutual support ultimately serves the future better than polarisation and detachment.
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137 of 170 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Let me start with an admission: I didn't finish reading this book. Please take that into consideration when reading my comments...

I love bonobos and I'm an atheist, so I expected to submerge myself into a great read, but I'm struggling with this one. Reading de Waal's book is uncomfortable. I feel like I've walked into a private argument between people who evidently have spent years sniping at each other from afar -- but now de Waal has decided to take it to his opponents, personally.

I wanted de Waal's insights to help explain why people think they need religion to be moral, but I have no idea what the hell he's talking about. He'll write a bit about apes, and then take off into an argument with "theoreticians" or (gasp!) "scientists" who evidently have tried to make points with which he disagrees. Who are these people he is criticizing? Is this another one of those arguments between humanists, skeptics, free-thinkers, and atheists? And what did they say that has pissed him off so much?

I get it that he doesn't agree with the strident "new" atheists. I understand that a segment of the atheist community finds Richards Dawkins a bit, well... a bit too much. And Christopher Hitchens is an acquired taste, especially when he's at his angry best. (Disclosure: I enjoy reading Hitchens, and I value the time I saw him speak - a couple of days before he was told he had stage four cancer.) Are you with me, reader? If you don't know what I'm talking about, de Waal's book will make absolutely no sense to you. Even though I know some of the arguments of the popularized atheists Frans opposes, I still got lost when he started into people I don't know.

De Waal has so much insight to add to the discussion of evolution, science, morals, and religion.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting
That's all I have to say. I would recommend it to others. I like that he does not vilify or promote religion, but explains its is needed by many people as part of their social &... Read more
Published 17 days ago by M.
5.0 out of 5 stars evolution of belief
An interesting perspective into what links us to our closest primate relatives. A very convincing argument for a Darwinian approach to religion, faith and belief (including the... Read more
Published 27 days ago by frances lansing
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!
This author is uniquely qualified to present his conclusions.
References to Atheism seemed slightly ancillary, to the the primary theme of Humanism among primates, and its'... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Cal Mathews
5.0 out of 5 stars Always a pleasure reading Frans de Waal
I happen to profoundly admire both Frans de Waal and Sam Harris as scientists. They are honest fellows with very elaborated points of view on Religion, although very different... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Andre Lima
4.0 out of 5 stars Morality comes from within, not without, hints the bonobo
Slow clap, Frans de Waal. I can’t find a single thing in your book I disagree with. Doubly impressive since you made bold, paradigm-shifting cases about morality’s innermost... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ryan Chynces
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Argued, and Then Argued Again and Again
De Waal makes a strong and readable case for the biological root of what we have come to term as morality. Read more
Published 2 months ago by JFMP
5.0 out of 5 stars BOSS!
Its a good book looking @ the connection of religion vs genetic decisions. Worth a second or third read easily. It is a little dense
Published 3 months ago by Thomas R. Esponnette
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best science books I have ever read
I loved this book! Frans de Waal fills his book with great examples of how bonobos, other mammals and humans are similar. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Laurencia Wright
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read
Very good book. Full of insightful anecdotes of primate behaviour and very useful in shedding some light on evidence of moral behaviour in animals. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Colm O'Murchu
5.0 out of 5 stars An entertaing and documented mix of biology and philosophy
A courageous lesson of humility which goes against some crazy ideas which are more than rampant in a large part of the "civilized" world, based on factual observations and... Read more
Published 3 months ago by musmkw
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