The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates
Frans de Waal
W. W. Norton, 2013 ($27.95)

Chimpanzees are said to be about as clever as toddlers, but who is the more superstitious ape? In one study that set out to investigate this question, young chimps observed a researcher using a stick to retrieve candy from a clear plastic box, employing both effective and ineffective motions. The chimps quickly discerned the candy-releasing moves and proceeded to repeat only those. Four-year-old children who watched the same demonstration, however, imitated the entire routine, including the unnecessary moves. The children seemed to put their trust in the experimenter and thus invest some magical significance or “blind faith” in actions of no practical value—perhaps a symptom of the human predisposition for superstition, de Waal posits.

The ease with which our brain suspends reality—call it irrationality, imagination or faith—has been crucial to the development of religion in human culture, according to de Waal, a respected primatologist and avowed atheist. He has a scientist's curiosity about religion. Unlike prominent neo-atheists of our time, he has no interest in disproving God's existence or proving that religion poisons everything. Instead, in this richly observed and intelligent book, de Waal ponders our natural receptiveness to religion, how religion evolved and what if anything might take its place.

De Waal's dispute with religion is its self-assigned monopoly on morality. The greatest enforcer of good behavior isn't the wrath of an omniscient deity or any dogmatic ethical framework, the Emory University primatologist says, but our emotions. De Waal offers vivid examples of emotionally guided moral behavior in animals: elephants recruiting friends to help pull a heavy box, chimps refusing undeserved rewards and bonobos comforting losers after a fight. Empathy and reciprocity, the basis of prosocial behavior, appear to have deeper evolutionary roots than religion.

If morality comes from emotions and religion from superstitions, what explains their entanglement? De Waal suggests that as communities grew larger and more impersonal, religion gained influence as a supervisor of moral behavior. But he believes secular humanism could serve a similar role and do so by appealing to human potential rather than defaming human nature.

Along the same lines, de Waal rejects Darwinian fundamentalism, which supposes that all our actions, whether ostensibly naughty or nice, are dictated by selfish genes. We can extrapolate only so much about human nature from genes and social insects that lack the neural circuitry necessary for empathy.

De Waal's view of human nature is optimistic but not naive. The good news is that if we didn't already lean in an ethical direction, moral rules “would be like seeds dropped onto a glass plate.” The bad news is that both our innate empathy and the religions we create have strong in-group biases. In an ever more globalized society, humanity's greatest moral innovation—to make prosocial sentiments universal and impartial—will demand more than clashing faiths or biology.