Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans De Waal

I picked up The Bonobo and the Atheist my senior year of college when I was leaving my religion and highly concerned with such things as atheism and its relationship with religion, particularly my brand of Evangelical Christianity. It sat on my shelf and followed me through several moves until it ended up one of the few conversations pieces in my office I hadn’t read. It had always intrigued me but it wasn’t until I picked it up that I fell flat on my ass in wonder.

I’m glad I didn’t read it when I was first rejecting my own beliefs because at the time I wasn’t in a position of exhaustion over the constant fighting between left and right, Atheist and Christian, etc. and et al.

The weekend before I started the book I visited with my mom for an afternoon. We wandered Greenlake and grabbed some Mighty-O and just fell more in love with each other with every word. We don’t always agree but we always love each other. When I picked up the book I felt like the author had listened over our shoulder and was saying in a more creative, better supported way what she and I said to each other.

The author’s main point is that atheists need to chill the F out (my words, not his) when it comes to religion for two reasons: one being why are you getting so worked up over a principle that isn’t important and the other that it won’t work to shepherd religious beliefs out any faster. I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about.

Religion speaks to something deep within us, emptiness in some, fullness in others, altruism in some, selfishness in others. It codifies our own inclinations and gives our feelings the validity of ultimate authority. We wrench our religious beliefs in whichever direction suits us whether that’s feeding the homeless or picketing funerals and use it to find and support community wherever we go. It is beautiful and ugly, priceless and worth less than dirt, uplifting and depressing. Atheists picking apart the facts of a particular belief system are doing nothing more than reinforcing their own dogma and alienating many good and useful people in the process.

We’re seeing that ideological alienation happening now, both nationally leading up to and in the wake of last year’s election and locally in the pro and anti sex workers movements. I could get into my personal politics but that’s not why I felt compelled to write about this book. I felt compelled to write about this book because I so deeply identified with the author’s core message which is our ultimate goodness and potential for a bright future.

Those of you who haven’t had much experience leaving a religion may not exactly resonate with these ideas but my fellow ex-evangelists will know exactly what I’m saying.

Frans De Waal is a Dutch Primatologist and social scientist who has been studying primate behavior for decades. He’s been a speaker and a teacher and a writer and all his experience over all his long life tells him that we, humans, are capable of all things great and socially just.

In TBATA, De Waal pulls on various sources such as his own research, the research of psychologists and other primatologists, and some historical artwork to illustrate his strong, and I believe true, belief that morality and ethical behavior comes naturally out of our social desires for love, acceptance, and fairness. That children, apes, canids, and other mammalian species exhibit empathy and a sense of at least first degree fairness, second degree in the case of many apes*, is to me a strong argument for the base nature of our social goodness. He argues that the commandments aren’t from God but from a sense of community we evolved by virtue of our social nature and need for community.

Setting aside the religious argument, I just loved the book for his almost childish innocence. His attitudes toward behavior are exuberantly optimistic and fit with my thoughts on humanity like pieces in a humanist puzzle. I think that the tendency of people to fall into discord and antisocial behaviors has more to do with malfunctions of the group or the individual than the natural inclinations of either. While we are all self serving, our altruism and empathy serve us just as much as our greed and elitism, if not more. Humans are basically good but don’t understand how to operate on a global level which is why we have such widespread issues with the ‘outgroup’. His closing arguments include “…even though I believe that morality is firmly rooted in the emotions, biology has barely prepared us for rights and obligations on the scale of the modern world. We evolved as group animals, not modern citizens.” He quotes Christopher Boehm saying “Our moral codes apply fully only within the group” which sparked my marginal commentary “’Don’t hurt people’ is universal; the definitions of ‘hurt’ and ‘people’ are not.” Which is something I’ve been saying since my Junior philosophy class.

There’s just so much in this book that spoke to me I could write about it for ages. I don’t underline books. I’m too lazy and usually there’s nothing that stands out enough to warrant noting. In this book, there’s hardly a page without my notes in the margins. Nearly every statement hit me like a house. This book fits so tidily into my worldview it’s almost spooky and I encourage you to read it, wherever you’re coming from. He’s an educated, tolerant optimist who writes very well and you can never go wrong with that.

*First degree fairness is simply: “he got paid with a doggie bone for his handshake and I’m doing it for free? No way, I won’t do it.” Second degree fairness is “I’m getting bananas and grapes but my friend in the cage next to me is only getting lame carrots. Unless they get at least some grapes I won’t take anything but carrots.” Third degree fairness is “There are children in the Phillipenes who don’t have food or running water. I’m going to send money to people who say they will fix that.”