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

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  4,565 ratings  ·  465 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
Hardcover, 289 pages
Published March 2013 by W. W. Norton Company
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Apr 16, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Michael Perkins
Nov 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful, beautiful book. As the subtitle suggests, the author was in search of humanism as an inbred trait in primates. Most of the discussion is documenting this reality. He connects this to the origin of morality in humans. In the process, he rightly challenges the dark portrayals of humans that are advanced by the likes of Augustine and Thomas Hobbes and the unsubstantiated portrayal of evil in Lord of the Flies. These notions were the basis of social darwinism, which was a direct ...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
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
Dov Zeller
May 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Apr 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: red
Frans De Waal is the sort of guy who, even within an alternative subculture, is fond of espousing alternative viewpoints. For example, he's a scientist (specializing in primates, especially chimpanzee and bonobos), and it's not much of a surprise to discover he's an atheist, but he also seems to think that Dawkins, Harris, and their ilk get too worked up about it. He doesn't like the term "brights" that some atheists wish to use for themselves, and says "what good could possibly come from insult ...more
Dec 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, non-fiction
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
Mar 30, 2013 rated it liked it
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 (
Ioana Vasi
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you would like to get some insight into ethology and more specifically primate behavior, this looks like a good start.

Bonobos’ society is governed by strict hierarchical rules that can even pertain to ostracising the most rebellious members.
More surprising than anything, the Alpha male/female is often times a skilled mediator.
The majority of the tell tale signs of almost proto-spiritual features documented in the book are mostly highlights that were collected by observing captive bonobos, bu
Emily Van Herik
Apr 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I highly recommend this book to anybody who is passionate about religion and science, particularly the intersection of the two. The central argument is that morality predated religion, and that religion would not be such a strong force in the world without our species having evolved from other community minded creatures. My personal favorite point, however, is peripheral. He asserts that atheists who are vehemently opposed to religion likely grew up in fundamentalist religions, and they simply r ...more
Udit Nair
Frans de waal presents an eloquent and well researched argument claiming that human morality comes from within and is not a result of top down approach as it is envisaged to be. At the start of the book he offers insights into bonobo behaviour and how it starkly differs from chimpanzees. Meanwhile in the book he also refers to issues like fundamentalism of any dogma. He equally criticizes religious authorities for imposing their beliefs and well neo atheists too for rampantly assaulting the reli ...more
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
De Waal should stick to biology, because he's weak on philosophy and logic. I found the discussion of "morality" in bonobos and chimps interesting and compelling. It's absolutely clear that morality doesn't depend on religion. And he seems to acknowledge that religion is just a comforting lie, but that doesn't seem to bother him. Atheists are rude to point this out, he says. No, they aren't. Aren't we all obligated to speak the truth? ...more
Steve Wiggins
Apr 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Frans de Waal is one of the most sensible biology writers alive. This the third book of his I've read and he has never failed to please. Cogent observations and ultimate good sense. See more at: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. ...more
John David
Aug 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: psychology, science
This is an awkwardly named book, partially because it has nothing to do with humanism, per se. de Waal seems to think that “humanism” seems to be roughly definitionally coterminous with “secular morality,” but there are plenty of humanists who don’t subscribe to secular morality and many secularists who aren’t humanists. The book could have been better had that word not been in the title at all.

“The Bonobo and the Atheist” presents a pretty uncontroversial thesis, even for someone like me whose
Jul 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, nonfiction
I finished this a few months ago so I can't find the exact passages that stuck with me the most. While I definitely appreciate the defense of humanist morality (and this book really is an important, well-written read, though not necessarily new - see The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology), I can't help but think that the skeptic/humanist world is too saturated with the old white male perspective.

Perhaps this is what lies behind de Waal's critici
Dick Zeeman
Apr 26, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Mar 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
John Kaufmann
Sep 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Despite its title, this book does not trash religion or espouse atheism. The main premise is that morality is not the stepchild of religion - on the contrary, morality predates religion and comes from within (i.e. human nature). de Waal discusses how morality is grounded in emotions and social interaction, citing various "pre-moral" behaviors among primates, bonobos, and even other animals. In small groups, these behaviors can be enforced by shunning and other direct punishment. But as societies ...more
Jun 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In an area fraught with ill will and name calling, Frans de Waal offers a warm, optimistic and peaceable view of the "conflict" between science and religion. The real conflict is with dogma, which can appear on both sides. This beautifully written book is the product of a lifetime of studying primates, whom he sees as natural moralists -- as are humans, who share an evolutionary past with them. His stories of bonobos gave me a feeling of kinship with other living creatures and a better understan ...more
⚧️ Nadienne Greysorrow ⚧️
Mar 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Very much worth the read, particularly if you love reading about stories of how intelligent animals are and how very much like them we still are, in spite of our continued insistence that we are not (an idea to which I do not subscribe).

To sum up, "morality" is not uniquely Human, and in fact, what we consider morality is, in fact, simple evolved and learned behavior that our closest animal cousins, as well as many other social animals, have developed to help them survive, adapt, and thrive.
Melissa Choi
Sep 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Religion augments an innate morality that allows social creatures to create and maintain harmonious groups while dealing with scare resources and power structures. This morality is innate to humans because we see similar moral qualms and normative positions in our closest relatives, the apes. This seems to imply that religion is not what prevents us from acting like immoral brutes but is instead a later addition to supplement our innate tendencies in a world that involved interactions with stran ...more
Aug 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Halli Lauren
May 31, 2020 rated it liked it
I read and enjoyed De Waal’s “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are”, so when I saw this book was written by him, I was pretty intrigued! As a baby atheist myself, and someone who is interested in studying bonobos, this seemed like the perfect book for me. Unfortunately, De Waal spent way more time talking about chimpanzees than bonobos. He also spent way more time talking about Heironymus Bosch than was necessary. What was the point of that??
I was pretty on board with the author’s
Adam S. Rust
May 16, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Phelecia Odima
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Frans de Waal brings forth a beautiful display of the intersection between primatology and humanity in "The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates". This book will prove a mind-blowing piece of literature for the modern human being catching flights around the globe, enjoying advancements in technology and perhaps understandably, forgetting that we are just animals-primates-and we have a lot in common with our closest relatives, the bonobos. De Waal seeks out to answer t ...more
Dec 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
What is the role of religion in determining our personal moral codes as well as how we treat others? Is religion the source of morality to such an extent that without it we all would just do whatever we want without regard for anyone else (the theory of the entertaining if not always wise Ben Carson)? Or does religion reinforce pre-existing ideas we've always held about fairness and empathy?
In "The Athiest and the Bonobo", Frans De Waal comes down on the side of the latter by looking at our ne
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Frans de Waal has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, among many other works, he is the C. H. Candler Professor in Emory University’s Psychology Department and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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“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.” 43 likes
“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)”
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