Humanism and Primates

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Drawing on his primate research, Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, professor of primate behavior at Emory University and author of The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, argues morality comes from within, not from religious belief.

*This live interview originally aired on April 10, 2013. An edited version was re-aired on May 27, 2013 as part of a special Memorial Day show.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

By Frans de Waal

Chapter 1 Excerpt

After my lecture in Ghent, fellow scientists took me on an impromptu visit to the world’s oldest zoo collection of bonobos, which started at Antwerp Zoo and is now located in the animal park of Planckendael. Given that bonobos are native to a former Belgian colony, their presence in Planckendael is hardly surprising. Bringing specimens from Africa, dead or alive, was another kind of colonial plunder, but without it we might never have learned of this rare ape. The discovery took place in 1929, in a museum not far from here, when a German anatomist dusted off a small round skull labeled as that of a young chimp, which he recognized as an adult with an unusually small head. He quickly announced a new subspecies. Soon his claim was overshadowed, however, by the even more momentous pronouncement by an American anatomist that we had an entirely new species on our hands, one with a strikingly humanlike anatomy. Bonobos are more gracefully built and have longer legs than any other ape. The species was put in the same genus, Pan, as the chimpanzee. For the rest of their long lives, both scientists illustrated the power of academic rivalry by never agreeing on who had made this historic discovery. I was in the room when the American stood up in the midst of a symposium on bonobos to declare, in a voice quavering with indignation, that he had been “scooped” half a century before.

The German scientist had written in German and the American in English, so guess whose story is most widely cited? Many languages feel the pinch of the rise of English, but I was happily chatting in Dutch, which despite decades abroad still crosses my lips a fraction of a second faster than any other language. While a young bonobo swung on a rope in and out of view, getting our attention by hitting the glass each time he passed, we commented on how much his facial expression resembled human laughter. He was having fun, especially if we jumped back from the window, acting scared. We now find it impossible to imagine that the two Pan species were once mixed up. There is a famous photograph of the American expert Robert Yerkes, with two young apes on his lap, both of whom he considered chimps. This was before the bonobo was known. Yerkes did remark how one of those two apes was far more sensitive and empathic than any other he knew, and perhaps also smarter. Calling him an “anthropoid genius,” he wrote his book Almost Human largely about this “chimpanzee,” not knowing that he was in fact dealing with one of the first live bonobos to have reached the West.

The Planckendael colony shows the difference with chimpanzees right away, because it is led by a female. The biologist Jeroen Stevens told me how the atmosphere in the group had turned more relaxed since their longtime alpha female, who had been a real iron lady, had been sent off to another zoo. She had terrified most other bonobos, especially the males. The new alpha has a nicer character. The exchange of females between zoos is a new and commendable trend that fits the natural bonobo pattern. In the wild, sons stay with their mothers through adulthood, whereas daughters migrate to other places. For years, zoos had been moving males around, thus causing disaster upon disaster, because male bonobos get hammered in the absence of their mom. Those poor males often ended up in isolation in an off-display area of zoos in order to protect their lives. A lot of problems are being avoided by keeping males with their mothers and respecting their bond.

This goes to show that bonobos are no angels of peace. But it also indicates how much the males are “mama’s boys,” something not everyone approves of. Some men feel affronted by matriarchal apes with “wimpy” males. After a lecture in Germany, a famous old professor in my audience barked, “Was ist vrong with those males?!” It is the fate of the bonobo to have burst on the scientific scene at a time when anthropologists and biologists were busy emphasizing violence and warfare, hence scarcely interested in peaceful primate kin. Since no one knew what to do with them, bonobos quickly became the black sheep of the human evolutionary literature. An American anthropologist went so far as to recommend that we simply ignore them, given that they are close to extinction anyway.6

Holding a species’ imminent demise against it is extraordinary. Is something the matter with bonobos? Are they ill adapted? Extinction says nothing about initial adaptiveness, though. The dodo was doing fine until sailors landed on Mauritius and found these flightless birds an easy (if repugnant) meal. Similarly, all of our ancestors must have been well adapted at some point, even though none of them is around anymore. Should we stop paying attention to them? But we never stop. The media go crazy each time a minuscule trace of our past is discovered, a reaction encouraged by personalized fossils with names like Lucy and Ardi.

I welcome bonobos precisely because the contrast with chimpanzees enriches our view of human evolution. They show that our lineage is marked not just by male dominance and xenophobia but also by a love of harmony and sensitivity to others. Since evolution occurs through both the male and the female lineage, there is no reason to measure human progress purely by how many battles our men have won against other hominins.7 Attention to the female side of the story would not hurt, nor would attention to sex. For all we know, we did not conquer other groups, but bred them out of existence through love rather than war. Modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we carry other hominin genes as well. Viewed in this light, the bonobo way doesn’t seem so alien.

Reprinted from The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates Copyright © 2013 by Frans de Waal. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Frans de Waal

Comments [40]

fuva from harlemworld

Years ago, I had 3 cats. One of them -- beloved Neffa -- got her neck caught in the back of a closet and choked to death. I discovered her because Ayo -- a cat that played fetch, expertly -- made a ruckus outside the closet, beckoning me. He was soooo devastated at her death that he became dehydrated and died weeks later. This very hard way, I learned that I should have been more attentive. I regret it to this day.

May. 27 2013 11:26 AM
Ed from Larchmont

That one is an atheistic humanist because one wants to make decisions based on human factors only and not outside influences makes perfect sense, now I understand that. But what if God became man?

Apr. 17 2013 05:46 AM
Ed from Larchmont

That 98.5% of our DNA is the same as the bonobo - our bodies have similar forms, at the same time remembering that the length of the DNA is so long that 1.5% is a long distance - is evidence for the soul. How is are bonobos and humans so different with such similarity in DNA (like horses and zebras)? It's because the soul is so different.

Apr. 10 2013 03:48 PM
Garth from World

Christianity + Islam = Judaism nuff said on the whole patriarchy male dominated clap trap.
Mesopotamia Innana ruler of heaven and earth = culture language literature and mucho sensual and highy pornographic religious ferver

As seen today in Patan and Kathmandu Nepal's most religiopus sites

II too like any other "man" worth his salt and of sound mind and body ....welcome our sexually promiscuous female rulers... I think I will fit in just fine....

World of Garth

Apr. 10 2013 02:15 PM

Hanry from Manhattan ~

There is no arguing with the initiated.

Abortion from Larchmont has his mind made up. Don't muck it up with logic or facts.

Apr. 10 2013 01:23 PM
Henry from Manhattan

@jgarbuz from Queens

You complete me.

Apr. 10 2013 01:03 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Henry

Last word. There are not many bonobos left to be observed, and not because humans are harming them. And the land they live on is land no chimps would want to live on. If we decide to adopt bonobo behavior, we will shrink in population, along with our economy of course, and militantly patriarchal groups, say Islam, will eventually predominate in numbers and take over what is left of the country.
Alternatively, the government will use new medical technologies to produce babies and they will be raised in alternative ways.

Apr. 10 2013 12:48 PM
Henry from Manhattan

A bonobo has never been observed killing one of their own species.

In this basic fact alone, they are way ahead of humankind in the morality department.

Apr. 10 2013 12:23 PM
Hanry from Manhattan

Ed from Larchmont said,
“Still, the purpose of religion isn't morality.”

That’s for sure!

Ed from Larchmont said,
“the purpose of morality is so that we can worship and be in communion with God.”

There can be religious (theistic in particular) secularism, but the time and energy spent worshipping, pledging loyalty, and communicating with (taking orders from) a non-human entity (whose existence isn’t universally accepted) tends to go against the notions of why humanism was established. That should answer your inquiry as to why humanism is better understood as a secular pursuit.

In a theistic worldview, the whims of deities (or rather, what followers project as the wishes of their supernatural leader) trumps the moral considerations of fellow humans, leading to divine justifications to oppress others.

As you stated, the purpose of your morality is father figure leader worship.

I disagree entirely. The purpose of morality is to get along well with everyone.

Apr. 10 2013 12:22 PM
Henry from Manhattan

jgarbuz from Queens said,
“A female dominated society will self-destruct in a matter of time in the face of strongly patriarchal societies...”

Yet, bonobo societies have been around far longer than humans and I’m not so sure that we should be proud of the fact that humans will most likely cause their extinction.

Please, continue with your “might makes right” philosophy and how morally superior it is. Bonus points for describing how women and homosexuals should be oppressed for the sake of patriarchy.

Apr. 10 2013 12:09 PM
Henry from Manhattan

Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn said,
“I understand that bonobos have sex the way human beings shake hands. I wonder exactly what kind of morality that is.”

You are conflating sexual behavior with morality. It’s generally a mistake (see bigotry against homosexuality, rejection of women’s reproductive rights, protests against interracial coupling, etc).

Sure, there are issues with sexual relationship with underage individuals that bonobos do engage in and for good reason humans shouldn’t (it generally harms our young, while this doesn’t seem to be the case with bonobos). But not wearing clothing and other sexual behaviors humans have hang-ups over have a lot less to do with fairness or harm against others.

The obsession with taboos and social control over human sexuality is better understood through the lenses of patriarchy. Take note of some of the comments in this discussion.

Apr. 10 2013 12:06 PM
steve from queens

how about humanism in birds? I know this may not be humanism - and for the goose involved it was self-serving - but I still to this day cannot believe that anything like this happen with a wild animal. I was cycling around a lake some twenty years ago when I saw a pair of geese with one of the pair trying to bite something on the neck of its mate. I realized the one goose had a fishing lure hooked into its neck. I got off my bike and the geese approached me - with the injured bird fearlessly coming quite close to me - possibly fully aware that I was looking at the lure. I stopped another cyclist and explained the situation and that i wanted to catch the bird and remove the lure. Now, I used to raise ducks and I told the man I was asking for help that since this goose was going to try to flee, it was going to be important for him to hold the goose from behind (anyone who knows birds knows they never ever let someone approach their backs - instinct) and keeps its wings held to it body so it would not injure them. The goose let me approach from the front and let the man come up from behind and as the man got close we realized one thing - this animal was not going to attempt to flee. I went up to the goose and was prepared to grab the animal around the neck and remove the lure and I did not have to do so. the goose stayed there and allowed me to remove the lure. all the while its mate was attacking me trying to bite me. you know, I was this animal's only hope and it very well seemed to know that -

Apr. 10 2013 12:03 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tony

Tony, you didn't sound "grouchy." Unlike Liberals, I cannot "feel" you but only read you :) That is, only read what you wrote. It didn't "sound" grouchy. "Sounded" funny. Yes, I am aware, thanks to PBS documentaries, that humans and our nearest primate kin are of a common ancestor, not directly related except only if we go back eons in time.

Apr. 10 2013 11:53 AM
Tony from Canarsie

jgarbuz from Queens -- Please excuse me if I sound a bit grouchy. I woke up on the wrong side of the branch.

Apr. 10 2013 11:48 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

But eventually it doesn't matter, because before the end of this century, children will be produced in factories and marriage will be seen as an ancient, barbarous relic of the past. Nobody will be "married" to anybody. Nobody will fear pregnancy. "Promiscuity" will the norm and irrelevant because production and rearing children will be done by corporations under contract to the State. "Brave New World," I love you!

Apr. 10 2013 11:41 AM
Tony from Canarsie

jgarbuz from Queens -- To answer your question, Father's Day was an atrocious Robin Williams/Billy Crystal movie.

But seriously, it's on Sunday, June 16.

Apr. 10 2013 11:39 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

It's all about emasculation and the war against men for female power. It's an ancient gender war that females are now have begun to win. What happens with their victory remains to be seen :) Like the victory of COmmunism in Russia :)

Apr. 10 2013 11:36 AM
Tony from Canarsie

jgarbuz from Queens -- I neglected to mention below that, contrary to what you may think, humans did not evolve from bonobos or any other ape. We share a common ancestor which existed 5 to 8 million years ago.

Learning about evolution is FUN-damental!

Apr. 10 2013 11:35 AM

Why do "scientists" hate to be called "agnostic"? Because agnostic means admitting that you can't know something, and that's something certain "scientists" will never do. The fact that we can never know what early preliterate humans believed or how they organised their society, or even in literate ancient societies where most of the evidence has turned to dust, doesn't stop these fools stating "this is how we developed and this is how we thought and lived".

And to celebrate the term apathy, even if ironically, shows how much more he still has to learn from other primates. If he's making up terms, may I suggest the term "Hubrisist" would be more appropriate.

Apr. 10 2013 11:35 AM

Henry from Manhattan ~

...typed the words right out of my head!!


Apr. 10 2013 11:32 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tony again:

Why do we think we find all these little ancient "goddesses" around from the earliest pre-literate societies? It was females who "discovered" agriculture back around camps while the males were out hunting for protein. So the "miracle" of agriculture was first considered a magical discovery given by the goddesses. But in time, territory had to be defended as the human population grew rapidly. Then it was bands of men who were expected to go out and fight to defend the land that fed them all.

Apr. 10 2013 11:31 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tony

Do you know when Father's Day is?

Apr. 10 2013 11:26 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I can't wait till Empathy replaces Ecstasy as a drug!

Apr. 10 2013 11:25 AM
Tony from Canarsie

jgarbuz from Queens -- the idea that all human societies were in some distant ancient past matriarchal was debunked decades ago. The rest of your comment is equally baseless. Have a nice day and don't forget that Mother's Day is May 12!

Apr. 10 2013 11:24 AM
Nancy from Manhattan

Wow, empathy spray up the nostrils, ay? Would be a great treatment for sociopaths!

Apr. 10 2013 11:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Liberalism is bonoboism. It invariably leads us back to a defenseless, fatherless, sexually promiscuous and quickly shrinking society that will become extinct. That is why patriarchy kept down matriarchy for thousands of years, because the results of matriarchy had already been noted in early matriarchal primate societies.

Apr. 10 2013 11:24 AM
Henry from Manhattan

I for one, welcome our sexually promiscuous female overlords.

Apr. 10 2013 11:22 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

In chimps versus bonobos, chimps win. A sexually promiscuous, female dominated society, which cannot band to defend itself, will be defeated and reduced to a very marginal existence. Male dominated clans emerged precisely because they could defend territory and hence have territory to defend.

Apr. 10 2013 11:19 AM
Henry from Manhattan

Time Magazine has a piece on animal mourning this month.
The Mystery of Animal Grief
By Jeffrey Kluger
Apr. 15, 2013

Which dovetails nicely with their piece on animal friendship a year ago.
The Science of Animal Friendships.
By Carl Zimmer
Feb. 20, 2012

Just pointing out that Frans de Waal isn’t in anyway fringe in his speculation. The appreciation of the emotional lives of non-human animals is mainstream and well established.

Apr. 10 2013 11:19 AM

Do bonobos buy AR-15s??

Apr. 10 2013 11:19 AM

...oh, wait!!

Where's that genius, David Brooks???

Apr. 10 2013 11:17 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

If Bonobo society is the peak of "morality," then god - oops there is no god - help us. Because the Bonobos cannot defend their territory, which is why they are restricted to the least desirable land left in Africa. Only male-dominated chimps can band together to defend their territories, which is why chimps outnumber bonobos by at least ten or more times.

A female dominated society will self-destruct in a matter of time in the face of strongly patriarchal societies as emblemized by Islam. Just as chimps overran bonobo territory and left only lousy land for a few bonobos to play around in.

Apr. 10 2013 11:16 AM


Apr. 10 2013 11:16 AM
John A

Again Ed, learn how to reach your audience. Your first two paragraphs here were right on.
People Worship scientists right now. Start the cash register,

Apr. 10 2013 11:15 AM
MC from Manhattan

So these "lower animals" do all these compassionate things, WITHOUT FEAR of a god or the hopes of getting into a "heaven" ... makes you think .... why we have to say it's about something selfish like preserving a species that they are not aware exists

Apr. 10 2013 11:12 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

We are returning to our Bonobo roots as we speak. "Marriage" and all of that are homo sapien constructs created after we discovered agriculture and a need to own "property." But thanks to the right of women to have total power again, marriage and fatherhood mean nothing, and so we are just going back to where we came from. That is sexually promiscuous "society" where females essentially control what goes on. And since females do not need "family" and certainly not "patriarchy," we are simply returning to a female dominated, sexually promiscuous society where men have no say in anything.

Apr. 10 2013 11:11 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I understand that bonobos have sex the way human beings shake hands. I wonder exactly what kind of morality that is. I also fear that once the bonobo community is inflicted with some kind of fatal STD, they'll be wiped out faster than Chicago was wiped out by The Fire.

Apr. 10 2013 11:11 AM
Ed from Larchmont

This man is a delight. Still, the purpose of religion isn't morality. It's the other way around, the purpose of morality is so that we can worship and be in communion with God.

Apr. 10 2013 11:09 AM
John A

At any rate, a book telling how Athiesm, or the F-MRI, or M-brane theory, or ... Anything but religion will explain everything. That's the book that will sell in this moment, and that's the loss.

Apr. 10 2013 11:08 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course morality comes from within - it is inscribed on our hearts. But it also comes from without. 'Morality, ethics, and worship are interwoven. To subject man to law without the orientation toward God is to oppress him.' (paraphrase of Pope Benedict).

I assume that humanism above refers to atheistic humanism, which it need not do. The project here is perhaps to find all aspects of human society and experience in primates,and so to explain everything via evolution, to exclude God. Quite a project,lots of imagination and reach. Still, man is different from all other animals.

From a theological perspective, the end of creation was man. And isn't it predictable and lovely that there would be other animals who are close to man in different aspects.

Apr. 10 2013 08:35 AM

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