The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the PrimatesThe Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans de Waal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To review this book, I have to start with this video:

That’s the author of The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal narrating the video. What we see here is a clear demonstration of a Capuchin monkey protesting about receiving what she perceives as an unfair reward, or at least, a reward that isn’t equal to what the other monkey is getting.

What the The Bonobo and the Atheist is about is the question of whether certain animals, especially those closest to humans, have any sense of fairness, of right and wrong. The monkey experiment indicates that many do. De Waal has been studying animal behavior for decades and his conclusion is that morality is something innate in social animals, like apes and monkeys, and humans. It’s what he calls “bottom up morality.” Instead of the popular theory of “top down morality” in which people need to be taught about things like cooperation and fairness, de Waal makes the case that such feeling are an evolutionary necessity for animals that like in social groupings.

To support this thesis, he takes the reader through numerous experiences of various animals cooperating to obtain a reward. We meet elephants who work together to pull too ends of a rope to get some food. In this experimental setup, if just one elephant pulls on the rope, it unravels and the elephant gets nothing. Only by cooperating and pulling together, can they get the reward.

In another experiment, two chimpanzees are confronted with a box containing a treat. Only one chimp can access the box while another has the tool needed to open the box. Only if the second chimp passes the tool to the other can the box be opened. If chimpanzees were motivated totally by selfish desires, the first chimp would keep all of the treat for himself, since the second chimp can’t reach the treat once the box is opened. Instead, he invariably shares it with the second chimp.

There are more stories like this about chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates acting to keep the peace among their group and enforce rules that appear to be universally understood by everyone. The behaviors he notes include consciousness of guilt and even justice.

It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

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