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

4.02 of 5 stars 4.02  ·  rating details  ·  1,151 ratings  ·  174 reviews

In this lively and illuminating discussion of his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal argues that human morality is not imposed from above but instead comes from within. Moral behavior does not begin and end with religion but is in fact a product of evolution.

For many years, de Waal has observed chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors and bonobos share

ebook, 1st edition, 289 pages
Published March 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2013)
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I am a fan of Frans DeWaal's and have read much of his work. I think he has been instrumental in opening up our view and making us less homocentric. Unfortunately, this book seems like something his editor asked him to write so as to catch the current secular wave. There is so much he could have written but didn't and so much he did write and should not have. His incessant focus on the art of Hieromimous Bosch is inexplicable. Why spend so much time discussing a piece of art (even if it is a mas ...more
Taede Smedes
A book about religion from one of the foremost primatologists in the world. In this brilliant book, De Waal defends his thesis that morality is not an invention of religion, but that religion is a cultural scaffolding that builds upon and enhances biologically innate moral rules. Even more, De Waal acknowledges that religion is so deeply engrained in human nature that it has become one of the defining characteristics of humanity. Interestingly, De Waal’s conclusions resonate deeply with the find ...more
For centuries, the popular idea has been that the world of animals is savage and ruthless, that man is constitutionally inclined to such "animalistic" behavior, that his morality is a thin veneer and that, but for commandments from above--whether imposed by a church or holy book, in the case of religion, or by the state, in the case of secularists--we would degenerate into savage anarchy, a sort of perpetual "Lord of the Flies" scenario.

Some thinkers, in reaction to this, try to have it the othe
A well written and at times fascinating explanation of the author's views on similarities between humans and mammals, with other primates taking center stage (obviously as De Waal is a primatologist).

He also has interesting things to say about the origin of morality in primates, including in humans but the book falters a bit in my opinion when he tries to invent a conflict between his views and atheists' in order to give his book a problem to solve.
Not only does he generalise atheists heavily (
Melissa Choi
Frans de Waal is a very accomplished primatologist, and in addition, he also possesses the rare gift for elegant prose. This book reinforces the growing scientific perspective that morality is not the exclusive domain of homo sapiens, and instead is a result of evolution. Indeed, the study of animal behavior has revealed that primates and apes exhibit rudimentary forms of morality such as reciprocal altruism, co-operation, and a sense of fairness/justice. Although the book title features the bon ...more
A strong 4.5

A real thinker of a book. Right from the beginning I was challenged by de Waal’s approach to religion and atheism. He is very passive. Dogma on either side does not help. People’s minds are not changed by dogma. And both science and religion have a horrible track record of justifying atrocious acts in the name of the greater good. Both religion and science are imperfect.

In chapter 4 the author dives deeper into the ideas of religion and atheism. I went back and reread this chapter t
There are things I liked about this book, and things I can't agree on. I learned a lot about primatology that I didn't know before, I feel he is quite an objective expert in this. It surprised me to learn bonobo had a sense of consequence, or played pranks on each other. This was well written and I learned quite a bit.
I couldn't agree with De Waal's perspective on human issues. He opposes a "top down" morality imposed by religion but not religion. He talks about Genital mutilation and circumcis
For the most part, this book was lovely. A loving and critical exploration of the roots of morality in the whole brain itself, not just the little veneer of cells that characterizes us smug humans. He recounts many well documented stories of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, whales, rats, and dogs being better than they had to be; showing compassion, empathy and insight.

The sour note was his discussion of atheists. He clearly doesn’t like most of us. He keeps accusing us, sometimes in the voice o
Mutlu Cankay
Yazar, metnini Kitap boyunca sıklıkla alıntılayacağı Bosch'un "Dünyevi zevkler Bahçesi" yorumlamaları ile açıyor. Evrim konusundaki çatışmanın gerçeğin kendisi ile değil onunla ne yapılacağıyla ilgili olduğunu belirten yazar, Dostoyevski ve Karamazov kardeşler atfından bulunmuş. Memelilerin birbirlerinin duygularına karşı duyarlı olduğunu, kuşların dahi birbirlerinin acısını hissettiğine dair kanıtlarıyla sunan yazar, bir hayvanın ne kadar az sayıda yavru dünyaya getirirse onlara o derece iyi ba ...more
ე.ი. რა შემიძლია ვთქვა..მთლიანობაში ეს წიგნი არა იმდენად მაიმუნებზეა,რამდენადაც ადამიანებზე. ავტორი განიხილავს მორალის წარმოშობის საკითხებს და მიდის იმ დასკვნამდე, რომ მორალის ღრმა მექანიზმს გააჩნია არა ინტელექტუალური, არამედ ბიოლოგიური ფესვები. ანუ ადამიანს ,როგორც ყველა სხვა ძუძუმწოვარს აქვს რაღაც პროსოციალური ალტრუისტული იმპულსი, რომელიც შესაძლოა შემდგომში ალტრუისტულ ქცევაში გადაიზარდოს. ამ იმპულსს კი საფუძვლად ემპათია უდევს.
ხაზგასასმელია ტოლერანტული წერის მანერაც. ერთადერთი რაც ავტორისთვის მ
Hanan Elsharif
In her 1985 book Sex and Friendship in Baboons, Barbara Smuts was the first to apply the term “friendship” to animals,

ha ha. her name is Smuts. um. Back to some serious reading now

In all honesty, I chose to read this book to learn about Bonobos and didn't want to fully enter into any religious debate. That part of the book I really enjoyed. However. since this book is titled 'The Bonobo and the Atheist', I will make a few comments.

I will say that I enjoyed reading about Veneer theory. Unfortunat
H Wesselius
The title is somewhat misleading. De Waal is not writing a tight coherent account of morality and humanism among the primates. He is instead writing meandering thought provoking but far more personal account of humanism and science. His constant reference to the Bosch painting which he uses as a metaphor is an irritant. From this and his forays into philosophical discussions on the nature of God and morality, its obvious he's writing more of a personal discussion which he's entitled to after yea ...more
Dick Zeeman
The subject of the book is very interesting. Frans de Waal has a very nice style which makes for an easy read.
However, he does not convince me of his opinions, even though I share many of them. Mainly he does himself what he accuses other scientists of: cherry picking, confirmation bias and even stating his opinion as fact.

For example (I don't say I don't agree with some of the below, the point is the way he presents his ideas and opinions):
"Such behaviour is sure to be selected against" (page 7
Adam S. Rust
This book is a mixed bag. Its best contribution involves its rebuttal of the "scientific Calvinism" of more dour interpretations of Darwinian theory advocated by early evolutionary popularizers like Huxley. De Waal labels this view as the "the veneer theory" of human morality. Basically it comes down to the belief that any moral action is "really" about looking out for ones own benefits. De Waal's critique based on recent scientific research into the moral reasoning of primates and other mammals ...more
Taede Smedes
Wow, wat een boek, ik kan niet anders zeggen! Ik wist in eerste instantie niet helemaal wat ik ervan moest verwachten. Ik ken Frans de Waal lang genoeg dat ik niet verwachtte dat hij een Dawkins-achtig atheïstisch pamflet zou schrijven. Maar toen ik eenmaal aan het boek begon, werd mij al snel duidelijk dat het van een on-Amerikaanse nuchterheid is, luchtig, relativerend zonder relativistisch te worden – en dat in een tijd dat zelfs in een tolerant land als Nederland de gemoederen hoog oplopen w ...more
Robert Bor
I got this book from my friends, who appreciate my interest in evolution, politics and society. Frans de Waal weaves two different threads in this book. On the one hand, he proceeds to show clearly how animals (the Bonobo primate in particular) have an extremely good sense of moralistic behavior. This undermines the argument that moralistic behavior is one of the primary consequences of religion. No, not just undermines, evaporates. This is where he weaves in the other thread, where he distances ...more
This was a surprisingly interesting argument on the origin of morality. In a spiritual context, morality is something that is imposed by God with commandments and injunctions, etc. deWaal, however, draws from his many years as a primatologist to suggest that morality is an internal motivator, something that is inherent within us and those species most closely related to us. The bonobo is his primary example of a primate that clearly demonstrates moral qualities such as empathy. I found it very i ...more
A thoughtful consideration of the origins of morality in humanity's evolutionary past. The author's work with primates, and less frequently with other social mammals, provides convincing evidence for a continuity of development of consciousness and empathetic/moral behavior between humankind and other animals. It successfully combats the idea that humans and other social animals are at the core selfish, with altruism as a thin, self-serving veneer; that without top-down religious mandates, such ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
Where do morals come from. For many it is believed that they were written in stone from the mouth of a deity. Franz de Waal looks at our primate relatives and finds a natural source for our moral intuitions in nature. This book compares the Bonobo's social instincts to our own and develops an explanation of how our morals developed in a highly refined way from natural sources. Seeing the beginings of morals in animals gives us incite on where they come from and how nature can give us hints on w ...more
Victoria Haf
Leí este libro porque me interesan los primates, en especial los bonobos. Tiene ejemplos interesantes de casos particulares en los que animales llegan a demostrar moralidad (sobre todo primates ya que es la especialidad del autor pero también otros mamíferos sociales como ballenas y elefantes) pero sentí que el libro se quedó corto, quizá al autor le falta más conocimiento sobre las religiones ya que generalizaba mucho y básicamente sólo se refería al cristianismo para sus ejemplos. Además, tamp ...more
The book really should have been titled "The Bonobo and Human Empathy". The two pillars of all philosophy are empathy and reciprocity. He completely examines the first pillar, empathy, by illustrating empathetic behavior in Bonobos (and other animals) and linking it to our behavior.

He's such a good writer even when he wrote about things I completely disagreed with I would find the book thought provoking. I thought he trivialized the arguments of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and John Stuart Mill. Bu
Stephan Renkens
Normaal gesproken koop ik van boeken die oorspronkelijk in het Engels zijn geschreven, de Engelstalige uitgave. Hier niet dus, want in de winkel ging ik er te gemakkelijk van uit dat een Nederlander zijn boeken in het Nederlands zou (laten) opschrijven. Thuisgekomen merkte ik dat ik bezitter was geworden van de Nederlandse vertaling van The Bonobo and the Atheïst - in Search of Humanism among the Primates. Zo heb ik dus een boek gelezen van een Nederlander die naar eigen zeggen ondanks zijn lang ...more
Muddy thinking, misrepresentation (or ignorance?) of atheist arguments, and lots of irrelevant passages on Hieronymus Bosch. I've really enjoyed other books by Frans de Waal, but this is an unsuccessful departure from his areas of expertise.

Insofar as I can figure out what de Waal is arguing for, I agree with most of his premises:
1. Moral conduct exists on a continuum, including the behaviours of other animals.
2. Dogmatism is terrible and should be avoided.
3. Religion is superfluous to morali
Evanston Public  Library
The Dutch primatologist, Frans de Wall, has a message for ‘the atheists’: religion is an overall force for good…and it’s not going away. Religious desire, he believes, is not a man-made phenomenon, but rather something genetically ingrained: a product of evolution that’s deeply rooted in pre-human animal morality for the purpose of ensuring communal cooperation. De Waal’s proof comes from his experience researching and observing our closest primate cousins: apes, chimps and, in particular, the b ...more
Disconcerting to think that benobos appear to have better instincts than many of us seem to have. Perhaps advancing the species to the point where a more comfortable life can be led (food stored instead of searched for every day and ipods)leads to materialism and selfishness but as it is unlikely that we will ever go back to a truly simple life, maybe all we can take away from this book is that buried in us there could be an inate drive to care for our fellow creatures.
Çağrı Mert
It is certainly a great book in terms of animal behavior and about the quest to find the scientific basis of morality. I really enjoyed the first-hand experiences de Waal delivers, as well as the examples from the field about the relationships between the primates and even some elephants, dogs, etc. It is not up to me to criticize his knowledge in the field of ethology.

However... I am shocked by how naive he is and how much information and insight he lacks about atheism debates. He is so unfamil
Nietzche primatlar ile ilgili bu çalışmalardan haberdar olsa idi keşke...
Pozitif bilimlerden uzak kalmamak lazım, tarih karşısında komik duruma düşürebilir insanı(pek tabi bunda Nietzche'ye herhangi bir gönderme söz konusu değil :D). Büyük filozofların düşüncelerinden geçerliliğini yitirenlerin büyük kısmı bu yitime pozitif bilimler dolayısı ile uğruyor. Perspektifte sharpness ayarı misali bir etkisi oluyor benim zihin dünyama genetik, sinirbilim, biyoloji ve benzeri bilim dallarının. Flu görü
Peter Ellwood

In essence, it is a book about animal behaviour, topped and tailed with some modestly interesting remarks about what the observed behaviour implies for humankind. What it is NOT, is a long and deep discussion of what observed animal behaviour can teach us about ourselves. Except for the implied connection, most of the book is about chimps and bonobos, with barely a reference to homo sapiens.

It’s none the worse for that – but still it’s not what the packaging implies. The title of the book impli
Frans de Waal's research is impressive, and I found his insights into primate behaviors, including those of humans, very interesting. However, if the purpose of his study had to do with religion and morality, then he failed to connect the two sides of the book (primatology and religion). By the time I finished the book, my big questions were, What does religion have to do with this study? and What does Bosch have to do with primatology? Personal admiration for the painter does not constitute exp ...more
Hilary Walker
De Waal explains that 'the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom-up approach' (p. 23) to morality.

But he is very muddled in his thinking.

Is God Dead?

'The whole idea of a moral “law” suggests an enforced or enforceable principle, which makes one wonder who the enforcer might be. In the past that answer was obvious, but how to apply this idea without invoking God?' (p.170)

Why is an answer that was obvious in the past no longer valid? God hasn't changed, simply because humanity entertains the
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"Frans B.M. de Waal, PhD (born 29 October 1948, 's-Hertogenbosch), is a Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist. He is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and author of numerous books including Chimpanzee Politics an ...more
More about Frans de Waal...
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved The Ape and the Sushi Master: Reflections of a Primatologist

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“Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously gave us the ‘God is dead’ phrase was interested in the sources of morality. He warned that the emergence of something (whether an organ, a legal institution, or a religious ritual) is never to be confused with its acquired purpose: ‘Anything in existence, having somehow come about, is continually interpreted anew, requisitioned anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose.’

This is a liberating thought, which teaches us to never hold the history of something against its possible applications. Even if computers started out as calculators, that doesn’t prevent us from playing games on them. (47) (quoting Nietzsche, the Genealogy of Morals)”
“Perhaps it's just me, but I am wary of any persons whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.” 8 likes
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