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The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 171 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393073775
ISBN-10: 0393073777
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Editorial Reviews


“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)

“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 has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of Our Inner Ape, among many other works, he is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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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: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (171 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #291,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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The Bonobo and the Atheist was a most unexpected read. As a primatologist, de Waal has synthesized the rich tapestry of European humanism with the precocity, warmth and altruism of bonobos; and it's a commendable, often moving effort. However, to the detriment of the material, de Waal has also taken his most recent literary endeavour to try his sleight of hand at polemics. Akin to Alain de Botton, whom de Waal cites, he assumes the role of impartial agent, and is incumbent upon vindicating Steven Jay Gould's NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). The dialectical arguments considered aren't inherently disjunctive, as the title suggests there is indeed a case to be made for humanism divorced from dogmatism, but de Waal fails to bridge his work on the altruism of bonobos with the latter day cultural demands of religion and lack thereof with atheism. De Waal is irreligious and he makes no attempt to obfuscate his condemnation of the absolutism of religious dogma, but he also has an axe to grind with the so-called neo-atheists: Hitchens, Harris and, of course, Dawkins. De Waal contends that these figures of atheistic populism are as equally guilty as their natural opposition, because they fail to divorce themselves from their dogmatic preconceptions. I resist this argument, particularly de Waal's straw man that Hitchens referred to atheists as "brights" as a means to promoting in-group elitism, and personally believe that it marred the flow of an otherwise impressive narrative.

His critique of Skinner's operant conditioning is refreshingly sober and emphatic, however. B. F.
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