A primate expert speaks on atheism, apes and the evolution of virtue

    (Note to readers: I wrote this story last week, before any of us could imagine someone would deliberately set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. But if anything, the event reinforces the prevalence of virtue and caring in our species. The malevolence of a small group or perhaps a single individual was answered by a wave of assistance, comforting of victims, blood-donation, well-wishing and life-saving medical intervention.)

    Frans de Waal has spent a career studying our fellow primates, and his experience has convinced him that virtue and morality predate not only religion but humanity itself. In his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, he argues that caring, empathy, cooperation and even a sense of fairness are traits we share with other animals and inherited from them.

    “Some people think that without religion, it would be a dog-eat-dog world,” he said at an interview this week during a visit to Philadelphia. Then we both laughed, realizing at the same time that of course dogs don’t make a habit of eating each other. “Dogs are very cooperative,” said de Waal, who was visiting Philadelphia from Atlanta, where he works at the Yerkes Primate Research Center.

    In debates against atheists, however, believers often note that without the order imposed by religion, people would just do what they wanted. “The assumption is that what people want is bad,” De Waal said. But observations of our fellow primates suggests otherwise. They have natural inclinations to cooperate, to help, and to share. Some show signs of a sense of fairness.

    Ironically, he said, it’s atheists who have taken issue with the book – though that’s probably because De Waal wrote disapprovingly of some of the most vocal representatives. Their difference isn’t over the existence of a God but over the role of religion in human life.

    De Waal says he feels no need to disparage religion. He does not see it as the root of good behavior or bad. Instead he argues that the morality codified in religious teachings originated somewhere in our evolution.

    And that’s where the bonobos come in. These apes are just as closely related to us as chimpanzees but they have very different natures. Chimpanzee males dominate the females, inflict violence upon each other and have been known to gang up and commit murder. In captivity at least, bonobos are ruled by females, commit less violence, and often use sexual acts and touching to mend disagreements.

    DNA shows we share equal amounts with both species, and yet De Waal says science has been reluctant to consider bonobo physiology and behavior as relevant to ours as chimp behavior. And even chimps aren’t bad animals – they have been known to comfort their friends who fall ill and help elderly chimps get food and shelter.

    The book is full of other examples showing the rudiments of virtue in our fellow mammals. There was an especially touching anecdote about a rhesus monkey named Azalea, who was born with trimsomy – a triple chromosome causing a condition similar to Downs Syndrome. Azalea couldn’t figure how to behave properly – making errors such as challenging the alpha male. But the other monkeys didn’t punish or harm her. They cared for her and helped her to survive.

    Virtue and selflessness are complicated things. In one experiment De Waal discussed, a group of bonobos were given some rewards for a task but one female was singled out, receiving better treats such as M&Ms. At some point she refused to keep getting the unfair reward. Her behavior might not be motivated by pure self-sacrifice, he said, because she might realize that the resentment building up in her peers could come to harm her later.

    In one of the more provocative parts of the book, De Waal wrote that science can’t tell us how to behave and it is therefore not a good substitute for religion. I marked the section and in our interview, asked whether indeed science – including his work – has told us that other animals are our relatives, and that many of them think and solve problems and experience emotions. Shouldn’t that scientific knowledge inform our morality?

    There De Waal agreed that science can give us information that steers our moral choices.Science can even go full circle and inform us of the ethics of scientific research. The chimp brain is smaller than ours, but it has all the same structures. “Ours is not a new brain,” De Waal said. And that understanding is shifting what kinds of research on chimpanzees we consider morally acceptable.

    And so we were agreed after all. Science can tell us that other animals feel pain. But what makes us recoil at the thought of inflicting pain on another sentient being? That’s the part that goes deeper and farther back than either science or religion. Evolution has woven it through the fabric of life.

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