Bonobos & Apatheists

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!

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10 Responses to Bonobos & Apatheists

  1. Donna Maurillo says:

    I tend to be agnostic, though one of those agnostics who hopes there is a deity, however defined. I think my reason is that I want life (human life, any life) to have some purpose other than recycling perfectly good food and turning it into manure. I understand people who need to believe there is a literal Bible interpretation. I understand people who need to believe there is no deity at all. I just wish that each of them would stop preaching so hard and ridiculing the other side. None of us has the definitive answer, and we may never have it. I find science intriguing, and the answers we uncover do convince me that there is a higher intelligence. But I have no idea if that intelligence knows about us as individuals or if we are nothing more than bacteria living on that deity’s body. I would hope there’s more.

    • liveoaklinda says:

      for whatever reason, it seems that life’s purpose is primarily to reproduce. lucky for we humans (& our ancestors), we’ve found other avenues of enjoyment & drama along the way – like eating, music, & politics, & religion. thanks donna.

    • Rich H says:

      See Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained” to find out what decades of interdisciplinary research says about why people tend to believe there’s some kind of ‘higher intelligence’ despite the one-over-infinity problem with the infinity of possible magical explanations.

  2. Sue g says:

    Linda, I love your blog and wish you wrote more often.
    I agree that we can learn so much from our cousins, I, including how to truly be human. As far as religion and belief systems, after tasting most of the Protestant denominations, Catholcism, Mormonism, Moonies and Buddhism, i think that they all have positive aspects. What really grabs me these days is the wonder our planet and being alive every day to enjoy what comes our way!

    • liveoaklinda says:

      yeah i’ve kind of been in a funk w the blog…who wants to hear what i have to say anyway? but this book helped me recover…as in, if de waal can go on about this stuff in a published book, i can do it in my lowly blog. so there. thankfully he knows a lot more about bonobos than i do. thanks sue!

  3. Jean Brocklebank says:

    I love the two pictures you included with this blog, Linda. Wonderful. I just keep staring at them.

    A purpose for human life? I long ago accepted that the purpose of life is…well, life. This realization is so incredibly awesome. It does not diminish our worth, for me. Quite the contrary, I feel invigorated to be a part of the miracle. Yes, this biologist and a-theist, sees life on this planet as miraculous. I am excited every minute of every day and never want to squander a moment…just too precious to waste.

    I have always appreciated your blogs. Each one. “Lowly?” No way!

  4. Buffy says:

    I enjoy your blog too even if I don’t usually respond. Thanks for writing, for making me think and see connections I may not have made on my own!
    Love you!

  5. liveoaklinda says:

    thanks gals. just to be clear, i’m pretty sure there’s no omniscient being out there calling the shots, unless one day we discover that it looks alot like gravity. as my friend lisa said on our walk yesterday, ticks are all the evidence we need that there is no god. on the other hand, i’m becoming more interested in the role religion & human belief systems have on human communities…more to come!

  6. Allan says:

    Religion … go on !

    We live in a world with fragile perceptions of it. What we “know” (perceive) depends upon an imperfect biological system; a sensory system that transmits signals to our brain that then does its best to construct a perception of what is going on using genetic memory and experience (new memories).

    How do we “know” what is true? I’m of the utilitarian view. If it can be used to reliably predict and/or used to certain ends, it is as true as we can hope for.

    The notions about god(s) are contradictory, unreliable and unpredictable. God is like an afterthought, a mind experiment that so far is akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    However, the notion of god seems to me to have a survival benefit. The placebo effect is prominent in human biology. Thirty to, as much as, fifty percent of subjects will respond to a placebo in controlled experiments. That is, a perception that they are receiving something that will provide relief, in fact gives them relief. Would not this hope of relief be useful in this uncertain, often cruel and uncaring, universe? Would not a vision of a god give humans emotional strengths to persevere in the face of adversity? Does god only exist in our brains as a useful trait (genetic or acquired)? Is the notion of god but a contrivance added to “sociability” and “selfishness” traits?

    Devising experiments to study placebo effects in primates might be illuminating.

    • liveoaklinda says:

      allan – your suggestion to study placebo effects in primates (assuming you mean non-human ones) is interesting but challenging…it seems that the p effect is so much a result of how our human brain works…we want to believe in the efficacy of the cure (god/s, meds, alignment of the stars, whatever…) & therefore that affects the outcome…not sure how we could test that propensity in bonobos or chimps. really appreciated your response – yes & yes again!

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