If Apes Could Talk to Atheists: How Religious Life Has More to Do With Animal Instinct Than You’d Think
Frans De Waal’s new book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates” hits some hot button issues.
This article at Alternet is a good moment to challenge Franz de Waal’s bad science, and, since he takes on the New Atheists, the confusion of the secular humanists also.
De Waals, like so many in the field of biology, lives in a Darwinian cocoon, and never really encounters the critiques of that theory, a theory so entrenched that scholars in the dozens embark on research careers based on false premises. It is not a plus in his book that he takes on the New Atheists, as I do, because his own assumptions aren’t very different, and, as with Dawkins, his views of religion are based on Darwinism, a pseudo-science. Mr. De Waals, Darwinism is a pseudo-science.
We have pointed to the fallacy of thinking that ‘religion’ arose as some kind of evolutionary adaption, with a similar statement about the evolution of morality. It is entirely possible that ‘religion’ in some sense has genetic correlates, a different statement from any claim as to its Darwinian evolution. We don’t know how morality emerged in man, homo sapiens, and it’s unproven to say that it evolves ‘upward’ from below rather than ‘downward’ from above. The question is simply ambiguous, we don’t know how it happened. It is part of the immense disservice done to science, and secularists, by Dawkins, and not only he, by creating a kind of cultic belief system out of Darwin’s theory. As late as the forties, pace Gore Vidal’s classic, academic dissent of Darwinism didn’t cause an eyeblink, but then the synthesis took hold. The theory of natural selection, Act II. The whole legacy of (Neo-) Darwinism has been based on a series of confusions, ultimately stretching back to the beginnings of Wallace’s theory (not Darwin’s), a theory he later rejected because it failed on the issue of human evolution, and morality.
It is entirely apt to conduct research on ‘moral behavior’ in bonobos. But we cannot assume that anything we find in the primates shows direct continuity with the human reality, a moral reality so complex that noone has been able to describe it, as Kant made clear in his attempts to do that. The evolution of man, we suspect, was NOT a directly continuous result of primate givens. But even so, the line from the earliest predecessors of man (who were not the same as the parallel Chimps) is hardly a clear result of anything we see in the earliest apes. There might well be direct strains of primordial similarity, for sure. But the overall result in man’s moral behavior is not really clarified by evolutionary psychology. It simply isn’t. It is something new in evolution. Where is the proof of Darwinian claims? There is none. We do not have a continuous chain of evidence for the emergence of human morality, and, most important, we don’t really know what precedents there were in homo erectus, set aside the chimps for a moment. The step to homo erectus was decisive, but still primitive. The step to homo sapiens closed the case, as it were. How did it happen that such limited research with bonobos could enter the debates over religion, let alone the debates between theists and atheists.
The whole game is thus a feint, if not a fraud, to serve just this debate, and is phony. Dawkins’ obsessive faith that the miracle of natural selection proves the foundations of atheism. It is a pipedream of reductionist scientism. We can’t deduce how human morality evolved in man from any clear evidence in the record, and the evidence so-called from bonobos is beside the point. The primate anatomy prefigures man’s anatomy, and no doubt morality as such has some early intimations in the earliest primates. But it does not follow that this can tell us anything about religion, or the earliest forms of morality in man. Chimpanzees didn’t have religion. Religions are really complex constructs that emerge with civilization starting in the late Neolithic. The use of the term religion for the behavior of man in the Paleolithic is entirely possible if you redefine the terms, but that’s the problem, we can’t do that. Although Old Stone Age tribalisms might give some hints. That isn’t really religions, but tribal spirituality. But OK. It is possible to backdate the term ‘religion’, to some extent.
The assumption, due to the obsession of atheist humanists, is that morality was bottom up. Where’s the proof? De Waal’s vague arguments are absolutely not proof of anything.
The fact of the matter is that many biologists have always maintained that humans (homo sapiens) emerged fairly suddenly from homo erectus in thee 200k millennia BCE period onwards. And the anatomical transition seems to have had an additional behavioral transition, most significant. Hardware change, and then a software change, very sudden. After that language, moral something, and art, higher consciousness, a soul sense, and spirits beliefs take over. This is by no means proven, but it is simply significant that even many among the Darwin camp have conceded this point, so we are not obliged to share the assumptions, speculation, of Darwinists that homo sapiens evolved slowly from erectus, and ditto for early erectus. It is hard to proceed here, because we don’t know the content of this so-called ‘Great Explosion’ (which no doubt had a long concomitant aspect of slowly evolving side factors. We can’t be sure, but this model, freely granted by many Darwinists (cf. Richard Klein’s books with their going so far as to posit punctuated equilibrium), in some cases pegged to the era of ten to 50K intervals for this great explosion in the closing period before the great Exodus ca. 50-60K BCE from Africa to a global speciation of sapiens.
Whatever the case, it is VERY hard to think that standard selectionist thinking can explain the complexity of homo sapiens. Those who protest exceptionalism have missed the point. Man has roots in chimps, in dinosaurs, in amoebas, but so what? He is exceptional because he shows transition crossings of factors such as language, differential consciousness, and finally morality. The issue of consciousness suggests the real core of religion coming into being. That has less to do with morality than with the ability to escape mechanical consciousness into real self-consciousness, and, perhaps later, into the final ‘consciousness’ sometimes pegged with the misnomer ‘enlightenment’. But here’s the mystery, that totally defeats Darwinian thinking, that potential was there from the beginning, but began to manifest with the arising of the religions of the yogic type, probably in the late Paleolithic.
Whatever the case, the issue of religion has been muddled by biologists, taking theism, or moral behavior as the defining characteristics. But monotheism was a very late development indeed and isn’t relevant to discussions of early men, whose behavior may way have resembled earlier forms of what Paleolithic men exhibit in their beliefs in ‘soul’, magic, and spirit visitation.
We have to suspect that the anatomical frame of man suddenly began to acquire the characteristics of a hyper-body in the form of a ‘soul’. We can’t even define what we mean by that (and Kant gave a drastic warning as to either belief or negation there), but every generation of homo sapiens (until the coming of the idiots of modern scientism) ascribed to some belief in the human soul. The Kantian system allows one to derive the meaning of that in about a two line (controversial, but scientifically informed) demonstration of the mind and the faculties of space-time. It is thus not hard to guess why science can’t even locate a ‘soul’, a myth in decline at all periods, but always sensed. And, of course, the factor of language, a VERY complex instrument science can’t even describe yet, was mixed in with all the rest. Now here we would like to know how much of this homo erectus had. It is hard to figure without this piece of the puzzle. But, whatever the case, there is no proof that the emergence of homo sapiens was bottom up, especially given evidence of such a rapid closure on the human definition. Sit down, for pete’s sake, and ask if you really believe that an instrument (take the Chomskian brand of theory here) of such subtlety emerged slowly over time as a piecemeal and random set of mutational changes. What is strange is that this belief it taken as science dogma.
I am sorry to say it, but the evidence suggests it was all top-down in some sense we don’t understand. Here the creationists are themselves confused, and can’t seem to apply their own myths to man’s emergence, for the obvious reason that the Bible had no idea of evolution, and records only the interaction of Adam and Eve with a peculiar kind of serpent/devil. But, remarkably, that myth does record (I will risk saying this out of earshot of creationists) a curiously confused intimation of the results of emergent man, a developed consciousness with the issues of will, thence good and evil, and a loss of innocence. It is a curiously muddled tale, but one with echoes from some primordial era of man. It is highly probable that this hoary myth (clearly transmitted from yore and clearly pegged back via dozens of tales told to the Sumerian thence earlier sources) records something of the by then distant beginnings of human consciousness able to play the higher music of self-consciousness. This is not to pursue the Old Testament brand of religion, which always ends in useless confusions. But it is significant something probably still survives in the OT of man’s earliest preoccupations. Indeed, in parallel India a far more advanced form of religion than the Canaanite/Egyptian/Sumerian nexus (?) that produced monotheism was emerging in India, and there we see the whole legacy of the instrument of consciousness brought to a kind of perfection in the onset of Buddhism (whose sources go very far back via Jainism, probably to the Paleolithic). This pure form of the saga of consciousness proliferates in other forms in a wider domain of culture in the beliefs in the magic, etc… But the Indian preserves something that is almost scientific in its precision.
The religion of monotheism is therefore not the issue for evolutionary psychology. Monotheism is a very late development, and, mirabile dictu, we see at once that its association with the Axial Age shows unmistakable evidence of top-down dynamics. The Axial Age is mystery, because it gave birth to both an atheist and theistic religion of monotheism, and much more than that, a veritable seedbed of cultural innovations, including secularism itself in the Greek case. That should tell us something: secularism and religion came into existence in parallel.
The issue of morality is very difficult to resolve, because we can’t easily describe what human morality is, let alone how it might have evolved. Kant made the issue clear. We don’t have to really explain morality, because it hardly exists yet. A set of beliefs and behaviors of the moral variety exist in all forms of men, but what do we mean by this? And here we are getting suspicious. We consistently reject design arguments because they invoke all the confusions of creationist, and, indeed, the religious confusions that came into being in the emergence of monotheism, in the Axial period (with anticipations before). Biologists have confused the issue by a tendency to equate morality with altruism, which is mechanized as nearly illusory as a byproduct of natural selection in the bogus theories of Hamilton et al. It doesn’t work.
There is no way to reduce the whole of morality to the single trait of altruism, or, indeed, the phases of group consciousness and cooperative survivalism. That misses the point, that the Old Testament gets it better: the will, and associated consciousness emerges and with a sense of good and evil, however naive the whole game,wrongly but insightfully rejected by Nietzsche in another crackpot evolutionary scheme. But the Old Testament and Nietzsche both get a sense of a ‘new man’ or ‘overman (projected on the future from past, perhaps)’ or a new Adam with an incipient factor of (free) agency (if not free will) that must suddenly render judgments of good and evil. It is not hard to glimpse the primordial forms of that in earliest homo sapiens, whatever the facts. But the problem is that it is very hard to get free from a design argument. Ironically, the Old Testament makes the point that it wasn’t god but a being (serpent??) of far lesser rank, with questionable morals no less, who taught morality! Nietzsche smelled this rat, but missed the point. A sort of buddhist view can help here: morality is not a mechanical set of rules but a phase of insight based on higher consciousness. The real clue. But to what? We can’t conclude anything from this, but we must be honest to acknowledge that the emergence of higher consciousness in man is almost always associated with some kind of hermaneutic higher ‘power’, or guru. Usually, but not always. It is always possible that primitive man had a potential that he stumbled on in stages, in a kind of euphoria of self-discovery of his potential of consciousness, so like intoxication in its earliest phases (which no doubt involved a kind cave man tantra, the relation of sex and consciousness) More we cannot say. It is entirely possible that human higher consciousness appears from an unknown cosmic process unknown to us. It could be that the answer has been guessed at in a dozen works of science fiction. 2001 the movie, a great favorite of secularists, was actually a cleverly disguised design argument We have often talked here of Bennett and his view of the existence of demiurgic powers of nature, which we can discuss again later. The point is that supernatural theism can confuse the issue. A being in nature but at a higher level of technology than man can imagine could be involved in evolutionary transitions. We don’t know.
But it is not reasonable to conclude from the false findings of evolutionary psychologists like de Waal anything whatever about religion from research on bonobos. Can’t you sit down and look at the clear evidence of the Axial Age? That research into bonobos is of great value by itself, but its presumptions to explain human religion is simply false.
The whole debate over theism and atheims is almost beside the point. We can’t have a discussion in the confused context of biologists, and/or the New Atheists.
The following is a review ofThe Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates by Frans De Waal. (W.W. Norton , 2013)
For centuries, a dominant majority of western philosophers and intellectuals have asserted that humans are the “rational animal.” Our ability to reason, so the logic goes, is the one thing separating us from the plethora of other animals on the planet. Instinct, passion, and emotion, traditionally assigned to the animal side of life, often meant that being “good”—being the sort of human who behaves morally—required a removal of the animal or “beastly” nature that resides somewhere deep within our fleshy bodies.
In recent decades, however, this fragile logic has been falling apart. It’s become increasingly clear that while our digital technologies behave quite rationally, they are often deeply cruel. And on the other side of the ledger, the accumulation of data on animal behavior makes it more and more difficult to support the claim that “goodness” is something that only humans exhibit.
Primatologists, who study our evolutionary kin, have been in the vanguard of researchers and thinkers to upset the territorial boundaries that demarcate a spotlessly pure sort of human life. Jane Goodall’s fieldwork in chimpanzee communities allowed her to witness things like a young male chimp doing a rhythmic dance in front of a waterfall. It appeared, to Goodall, reverent and seemingly purposeless. She’s speculated that this might be evidence of something like ritualistic religion in the lives of other primates.
Public debates about religion in the contemporary U.S. are still rooted in debates about belief. Prominent public atheists like Richard Dawkins speak about religion as though it’s something we need to understand rationally. How would these public debates change if we were to start thinking about the animal edges of religious life—the ways in which religious life has more to do with so-called animal instinct than we’ve often imagined? This is, precisely, where primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book The Bonobo and the Atheist (W.W. Norton, 2013) appears to be intervening into these hot-button conflicts.
People like Dawkins, says de Waal, are going about things in the wrong manner. “The question is not so much whether religion is true or false,” he writes, “but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place if we were to get rid of it the way an Aztec priest rips the beating heart out of a virgin.” What this violent metaphor is meant to gesture towards is “the gaping hole” that would be left by “the removed organ’s functions.” It seems to suggest that religion is some serviceable physiological element in the human body politic.
But de Waal isn’t really trying to “save” religion from atheists like Dawkins; there’s much about religion that de Waal finds troubling and problematic. The big targets for de Waal are what he calls “top down morality” and human exceptionalism. Top down morality is linked to the assertion that morality comes to human life from somewhere “on high,” which might be taken to mean that human life receives its morality from a transcendent, out-of-this-world, divine.
But de Waal notes that top down morality isn’t a purely religious problem. He attacks, for example, the philosophical presumption mentioned earlier, that morality is a matter of reasoning—that we reason our way “up” to moral action or decision. Likewise, de Waal takes issue with human exceptionalism—the idea that morality is something that only humans are capable of—regardless of its origin. Religion is a target, for de Waal, to the extent that it supports each of these presumptions.
The book, then, is a conversation about the common ground among atheists and bonobos. According to De Waal, for example, both make it clear that religion has—lamentably and unjustifiably—been given credit for human morality. De Waal emphasizes over and over again that morality is probably embedded into our biologies, though he also seems to suggest that the communal life of primates like bonobos may also indicate that this social thing we call “religion” is more biological than many atheists would have us believe.
The bulk of the book is spent supporting his central claim that morality comes from the “bottom up”—that it’s an aspect of social life we share with other creatures. In this regard de Waal’s case is deeply convincing. Presenting evidence from his studies of bonobo and chimpanzee communities (as well as work done among other animal populations, by other researchers), de Waal argues that morality comes from a kind of “altruistic impulse” that’s part of our complex embodied emotional life as social primates. He points to example after example of forms of care in the social life of other creatures—instances where they look after the welfare of one another, even when it doesn’t appear to be in their own best interest as individual entities. Apes, particularly bonobos, display many examples of what often goes by the name of “goodness” in human life. De Waal describes this as a form of “community concern” and suggests that this is the crux, or seat, of a bottom up analysis of morality.
What this community concern also marks, for de Waal, is a point of distinction between the social primate we call human, and other creatures. That is to say, he believes that humans display a level of community concern that’s more nuanced and abstract than what he’s witnessed in other creatures. “Humans,” he argues, have taken “community concern to a level unmatched by anything seen in the apes.” What he believes this means is that humanity, “may have taken moral evolution into its own hands.”
De Waal seems to believe that religion may have been part and parcel of this “moral evolution,” but that it may have done its job at this moment in human history. As a lapsed Dutch Catholic, de Waal promotes what boils down to a version of secular humanism, suggesting that this should be a viable trade-off that could help human societies ease religion out of the body politic without ripping it out like the virgin’s beating heart.
Secular humanism has, of course, also been accused of advancing forms of human exceptionalism by thinkers working with an eco-critical lens, but this is not a part of de Waal’s analysis. The book is ultimately most interesting and engaging when speaking directly about the social life of non-human primates. De Waal’s analyses of religion are much weaker.
On one level, it does seem that de Waal is attempting to destabilize the simplistic lines that have been drawn between complex, entangled phenomena, such as religion and science or religion and the secular. (He suggests, for instance, that scientists (as a community) get something akin to spiritual satisfaction from their involvement with scientific discovery.) But, while he argues that religion is “universal”—part of “our social skin” as humans—it sometimes seems that “religion,” for him, is basically Christianity, or a monotheistic belief in “the almighty God.”
This is not, as generations of scholars have been at pains to argue, a human universal. De Waal makes the claim that humanism is “nonreligious,” but it’s never entirely clear what makes it so—simply a lack of belief in the God of monotheism? De Waal’s latest book may help to shift the rhetorical frame of these high-profile, popular public debates over the role of religion in public life, but it remains unclear how much it will contribute to a more nuanced analysis of religion itself.