I just finished Frans de Waal’s book “The Bonobo & the Atheist”. The premise is that we derive our ‘community concern’, empathetic, altruistic & cooperative nature from our mammal & primate heritage, not from human-imagined religion. Uh, duh.
An enthusiastic storyteller (‘My Life as a Toilet Frog’ is one chapter title), accomplished primatologist, artist, & Hieronymus Bosch aficionado, de Waal’s most recent, rambling take on the where-does-altruism-come-from/science v. religion debate reminds us that science is the new kid on the block, & that human belief systems have had much longer to take root & flourish, providing a key role in social cohesion along the way. His bonobo stories are by far the best arguments for his point of view.
De Waal’s 1997 book “Bonobo, The Forgotten Ape“, produced together with amazing photography by de Waal’s countryman & Santa Cruz local Frans Lanting, re-invigorated my interest in primate evolution. At that time, amidst a gathering storm in my work life, learning that there’s another chimp species out there (kinda like learning that you have a sibling or a cousin that you didn’t know about, & there are only three of you altogether) was both fantastic & shocking: how is it possible we hadn’t learned about these bonobos in anthropology class? Why wasn’t this front page news?? It was another reminder that what we think we know changes every minute, just like the rest of life.
The endangered bonobos, who I’ve posted about earlier here & here, are our cousins as much as the more familiar chimpanzees; you can’t look at these photos of bonobos without feeling the kinship. Some anthropologists think that bonobos are more representative of our ancestral primate species than chimpanzees; their homeland was separated from the rest of central tropical Africa (as well as from other chimp species & gorillas) by rivers less than 1 million years ago, essentially creating an ‘island’ species. While there doesn’t, yet, seem to be much evidence to back up that assertion, knowing bonobos are there – at least for now – sure helps me feel more magnanimous toward our own primate species.
So, back to the book. While tending too much to blame the science defenders – whom he characterizes as ‘evangelical’ & ‘neo’ atheists - de Waal notes that mammal moms’ way of caring for their babies is ‘the most altruistic act of all’ & a ‘template for all the rest,’ – ‘almost too obvious for theoreticians to consider’. Hard to argue with that. He made me laugh though when he says ‘we barely notice the daily efforts on behalf of our progeny’…spoken like a true male primate!
& I learned a new word which I actually kind of like: ‘apatheist’ – a label for those of us who feel most comfortable understanding the world through the lens of science but who also acknowledge that what we think we know at this point in our evolution is not, uh, scripture. E.g., I don’t feel the need any more to spend energy debating whether the Earth is 4.5 billion or 6000 years old. On the other hand, we know we’re really just beginning our understanding of this home planet & (home?) universe we share with unimaginable suns; the deep satisfaction of this discovery process is what feeds me these days (…well, along with spending time with my family – mammal mom & grandmom that I am).
Anyhow, thank you, de Frans’s, for your deep empathy toward our bonobo & chimp cousins, & toward the challenges of understanding our human primate selves. Empathy rules!