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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  2,642 Ratings  ·  298 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
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Apr 16, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dov Zeller
Frans De Waal makes a well researched and eloquent argument about the source of human morality.

He is not feverishly opposed to organized religion, though he is an atheist. He is opposed to the kind of violence that any kind of fundamentalist mind-set can bring.

He describes empathy, and, by extension, morality as a mammalian and certainly a primate thing. He sees its formulation as a'bottom up' rather than 'top down' approach, arguing that morality doesn't come from religion but from the mammal
Sep 04, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 14, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Çağrı Mert Bakırcı
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
Sep 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: atheism, animals
De Waal begins with a famous Nietzsche quote: "Is man only a blunder of God? Or is God only a blunder of man?"

The central question of the book seems to be: "Where does morality come from? Does it come from above or from within us?" As someone who thinks scientifically, I believe it obviously comes from within, but how and why?

De Waal speaks of apes holding a door open for another ape to get food even if it means they will eat less. And capuchin monkeys would rather play a card that gets food f
Mar 30, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 (
Dec 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, science
The must frustrating thing about this book was how much of it was quotable. I listened to it as an audiobook, and I use the bookmark feature of Audible regularly, but that means I have to go back after the fact and transcribe all the passages that I liked into Evernote. I probably have literally 30-40 passages I'm going to have to do that for with this book because it was just so tense with stories I want to capture, pithy lines, or surprising scientific findings. (OK, I don't really "have to,"- ...more
If you’ve ever wondered about the evolution of morality and whether humans are the only moral creatures, this is a good exploration of the idea. Frans de Waal posits that we have an innate sense of morality, and like Jonathan Haidt, suggests that this sense dictates what we do – the emotional tail wags the rational dog, rather than the other way round, in Haidt’s terminology.

The main attraction for me is not the ideas, which I’ve come across plenty of times before, but the anecdotes about the be
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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...
“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.” 16 likes
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