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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Bonobo and the Atheist

Author: Reilly Capps/Wednesday, September 25, 2013/Categories: environment

By Reilly Capps 

I know that my college degree -- in something called "Humanities -- is not worth the dust that's settled on it, but every day I read something that makes me think that not only is it worthless, it's actually a negative. 

Humanities folks pass their glazed eyes over histories, novels, plays, religious prophets and ancient Greek scrolls and Roman sages. We internalize truths about Hobbes's Leviathan and Rousseau's Social Contract. In trying to figure out why things are the way they are, humanists study great men, philosophers and gods. 

And it turns out that what we should have done was burn all those books in a Paganesque fire and sit around watching monkeys. 

That's how Fran de Waal has passed his life, and it seems like primates have more to teach us about ourselves than we can teach ourselves about ourselves. 

I just read his new book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,” and I continue to find explanations of human behavior through the lens of other animals so compelling, so interesting, so deep. We are who we are, de Waal argues, not through complicated reasoning or culture or religion, we are who we are because it is in our nature to be so, and we know that it is in our nature to be so because there are so many echoes and correlates in the behavior of other mammals. 

He attempts to answer enormous questions through specific examples. In the last book I read by him, “Primates and Philosophers,” he asked one of the deepest questions: are humans good or bad? The question is particularly relevant because there are a lot of thinkers who are lately answering -- maybe have always answered -- “bad.” They argued that what we do to appear good is really just that -- appearances, a performances, with selfish motives underneath. For example, they would say, when I help you move, I am only doing it out of the secret belief that you will help me move at some later date. In other words, my helping is actually selfish. But de Waal, by watching primates for so long, has seen ways in which these beasts act in inexplicably benevolent ways, ways in which they could not possibly expect reciprocity. My favorite example was the chimp who found an injured bird, scooped it up, climbed to the top of a tree and tried to flap its wings for it and toss it out into the air. What selfish motive could there possibly be for that? I consistently see humans doing the equivalent: mailing money to Africa, helping a lost child, giving up their seat on the bus. We do these not because of any intellectual decision, not because Ayn Rand's philosophy is less compelling than Socrates's, but because we are animals -- and animals are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. Popular writers like to portray the lives of animals as either Hobbesian or idyllic, that "it's a dog eat dog world" or "as gentle as a butterfly," “but in fact it’s never one or the other,” de Waal notes. Dogs don't generally eat dogs, and butterflies can be jerks. 

This book, "The Atheist and the Bonobo," is written as a response to the neo-atheists such as Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. De Waal, even though he's an atheist, wants to soften the antipathy secularists feel toward believers. “For me, understanding the need for religion is a far superior goal than bashing it," he writes. 

And so if you want some hints about why we believe in Jesus, Mohammed, Zeus and Aman-Ra, you could do worse than watching chimps closely. Chimps, after all, are so much like us. “It’s impossible to look an ape in the eye and not see oneself,” de Waal writes, and this “shock of recognition” at a “personality as solid and willful as yourself” “radically change[s] not only how [we] viewed [our] subjects but also [our] own place in the world.”  Personally, I am totally convinced that whatever you and I have in the way of consciousness -- an id, an ego, a soul -- primates and elephants and canines have it, too. 

Here is the key point from the book: sometime primates behave in ways that appear astonishingly like religion. When faced with something great and mysterious, they act in mysterious ways. Just like us. A large waterfall, for example, is a great mystery. Where does all that water come from? Why does it fall? How does it keep falling and falling with no end? Well, chimps also appear to be vexed by waterfalls; some charge at them, as if they were beings in themselves. Jane Goodall used to see chimps stamp at and throw rocks at waterfalls in a “waterfall dance.” Rain, too, seems to create in them a sense of something bigger, with a real brain behind it. Chimps huddle under trees while rain falls. They're hoping it ends. Sometimes, upon seeing the rain worsen, macho chimps get up and swagger at the rain, running at the drops. It is as if they were trying to scare the rain away, as if the brain were coming from a sentient being. When the rain eases, they sit back down again, and those who watch the chimps do this get the sense that the chimps think that they are the ones who stopped the rain. Primatologists call this the “rain dance.” They are interacting with senseless nature as though it were alive. No one will go so far as to call this religion, but if that whole scene doesn't remind you of prayer, then I don't know what will. "Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, down on the plowed fields of the Athenians," was how the Ancient Greeks prayed. The earliest known religious totems are fertility goddesses. "Ask rain from the Lord ... and he will give showers," says the Old Testament. 

Religion also probably comes from our natural desire to work together and be cooperative, de Waal writes, and so religion may be as natural to us as all our other forms of community, our hierarchical society, our sense of right and wrong. The neo-atheists like to pit science against religion, but de Waal thinks that that’s a fruitless fight, one that that science can never win. A religious worldview exists in every human society, and pervades all history; a scientific worldview, by contrast, is a relatively new and not particularly pervasive one. 

Religion likely got its start as a way to bring the group together, as a way to defend yourself and your family against other tribes. Thus religions create a belief in the group's chosen-ness, its rightness. The impulse to help your in-group is strong. “Even plants recognize genetic kinship, growing a more competitive root system if potted together with a stranger rather than a sibling. There is absolutely no precedent in nature of individuals that indiscriminately strive for overall well being. The utilitarian proposal ignores millions of years of family bonding and group loyalty.” It's a group loyalty made stronger by religion. This is a point made more fully and convincingly in Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God." 

De Waal shows the value of studying things close up, of looking at them intently before drawing any conclusions. He praises Fiona Stewart, who “did what no one had done before: sleep in tree nests built by chimpanzees.” She found that she slept better, with fewer bugs, than she would have on the ground.

And it's important to look beyond chimps if you want to learn about our true nature. We are just as closely related to bonobos, and bonobos are practically animal role models. While chimps can be brutal murderers of one another, there has never been a documented case of bonobo-cide. Bonobos are straight out of the 60's -- sex-crazed bi-curious love machines. Primates are kind to other primates who have a kind of primate Down syndrome. 

Because of its deep roots, De Waal warns against simply chucking religion. “There is no point getting all worked up about the absence of something, especially something as open to interpretation as God,” de Waal writes.  “Anti-something movements will go the way of the dodo unless they manage to replace what they dislike with something better. They will need to come up with a viable alternative.” 

I also like de Waal's humility, in contrast with the bombast of Hitchens and Harris. De Waal quotes Charles Renouvier on this point: “Strictly speaking, there is no certainty; there are only people who are certain.”

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