Group Sex is the Answer

Bonobo and AtheistBOOK REVIEW: The Bonobo and the Atheist

BY: Frans de Waal

Reviewer: Justin Fox

Imagine a heated session of parliament ending in a mass orgy involving all parties, even the cleaning staff. If bonobos had any say in our politics, this would be a regular and desirable outcome.

In The Bonobo and the Atheist, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal contends that human morality is not imposed from above, but rather comes from within. In other words, our morality derives not from religion but from our animal ancestors and is a product of evolution, deeply grounded in the emotions.

Interweaving tales from the animal kingdom with philosophical analysis, De Waal presents fresh evidence for the seeds of ethical behaviour and fairness among primates. Instead of making us do things we normally wouldn’t, religion’s main contribution appears to be the endorsement and promotion of natural tendencies.

As examples of animal altruism he cites instances of apes voluntarily opening a door to offer companions food, or seeking rewards for others to their own disadvantage. This is not out of fear, as dominant monkeys are often the most generous. De Waal calls this behaviour ‘prosocial’.

Empathy is an important aspect of his research and he devotes considerable attention to the Parable of the Good Simian. Neuroscience demonstrates that there’s no sharp dividing line between human and animal emotions and that empathy runs from body to body. If you stick a needle in a woman’s arm, the pain centres in her husband’s brain light up. So too with our animal cousins.

Furthermore, primates respect the limits on their behaviour set by moral rules. Sometimes the morality is personal, such as an alpha male keeping order; sometimes it’s considered self evident by the group. In larger societies, like that of modern humans, a super alpha male (such as a god) is created to ensure cooperation. Humanity’s reverence for moral law betrays the mind set of a species that likes to stay on good terms with ‘higher-ups’. The ultimate driver of the process is a desire for integration. Fairness and justice are thus ancient primate capacities, derived from the need to preserve harmony in the face of strife.

One may be tempted to extrapolate from De Waal’s model an explanation for why South Africa is such a delinquent society. In a community with growing atheism and a paucity of alpha males worth their salt, we are left with a ‘teenage’ society of animals without the normal checks and balances of a troop (or a fearsome godhead, or an effective criminal justice system).

Most fascinating of all De Waal’s subject animals are bonobos. These ‘hippies of the primate world’, live in a matriarchal society that uses sex instead of violence as a method of mediation and control. Indeed, sex solves most problems. If there’s a confrontation between male troops, females rush in to copulate with members of the opposing group, both male and female (through genito-genital rubbing). Apparently the males find it too difficult to maintain the argument while everyone around them is having sex. So they reluctantly join in. It’s a bonobos life, but somebody’s got to live it. These creatures prove to us that our ape lineage is marked not just by male dominance and xenophobia.

De Waal’s approach has profound implications for our understanding of religion. In a modern, secular Europe, many fear the loss of moral authority with the demise of religion. Although De Waal’s contention that morality is innate provides comfort, it doesn’t completely dispel the suspicion that something is being lost in a purely secular world. Religion, he argues, is also ‘natural’. It has developed spontaneously in all societies and must therefore serve an important function. Natural selection has ‘chosen’ religion as a useful glue for society. It builds bonds, community and trust. Perhaps humans use religion a bit like bonobos use sex.

De Waal is not a hard-line neo-atheist in the mould of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. He resists attacking or denigrating religion and reserves his condemnation for dogma. He also acknowledges that science has no ready alternative to religion and cannot become an inspiration for the good.

De Waal suggests that the typecasting of primates by scientists often has political overtones. The same argument may be applied to the author. His political philosophy is that of a middle-class, settled, positive humanist living in the (devoutly Christian) American deep south. He is himself a kind of bonobo, trying to find middle ground between atheism and theism, science and religion. He emphasises the prosocial and harmonious in our lineage, seeing our species as natural moralists. The distinctly un-bonobo-like Dr Jekyll in our nature is largely sidestepped.

This is at times a patchy book with long digressions, countless examples to reinforce his arguments and an unnecessary sally into art history. Nevertheless, De Waal’s passion shines through and The Bonobo and the Atheist is for the most part an entertaining and compelling journey to the heart of that which make us (flawed) moral beings.

 

 

Advertisements
Comments are closed.
  • Buy Whoever Fears the Sea

    Buy Whoever Fears the Sea by Justin Fox
  • Buy The Marginal Safari on Kalahari

    Buy The Marginal Safari
  • Buy Under The Sway on Kalahari

    Buy Under The Sway by Justin Fox
  • Buy Cape Town Calling on Kalahari

    Buy Cape Town Calling edited by Justin Fox