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

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  3,893 ratings  ·  402 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
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
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
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 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
Dec 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
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 (
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
Emily Carter
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
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
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
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
John David
Aug 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, psychology
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
General Drachen
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
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
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
Apr 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I haven't read Frans De Waal before, but I am glad I picked up this book. As every good book does, this one left me with more questions than when I started reading it. The topic of morality, and whether it antedates religion or is a product of it has been debated and contested for ages. De Waal offers conclusive evidence that morality has evolved, and though we may not understand all the drivers behind it, moral codes are present in apes, primates, and canids, among others. De Waal very delicate ...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
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
Jim Razinha
Nov 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Wonderful book. de Waal seems careful in not making definitive pronouncements, but he does state quite explicitly what he concludes from his research and experience with respect to apes, and other animals, possessing senses of what is right and wrong...without the "benefit" of a religious canopy. I'm primed to like this clearly and conversationally written work, in part because I read part of The Age of Empathy (must get back to it now), and in part because morality/empathy as a product of evolu ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jenny by: Dr. Jim Fitzgerald
Shelves: frans-de-waal
Great book, informative, humorous at times, makes you reflect on humanity and kindness. As an agnosticist myself, I agree with Frans de Waal about how there is no point to disprove religion when the need for it is rooted deeply in humanity. I enjoyed reading about all the experiments but not so much about the paintings, albeit it is largely relevant to prove the point. I also enjoyed learning how anthropologists disregarded the link between bonobos and human because the male bonobos aren't as ma ...more
Kevin Larsen
May 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: atheism, anthropology
This is a great view of the "religion is necessary for morality" debate between believers and atheists from the perspective of a highly-trained primate watcher who gives light on what humans inherited from their primate ancestors. He shows the subtle inclines between religion and morality, science and morality, and evolution and morality. He describes why philosophy is probably not enough to establish morality. Numerous observations of animal behavior and experiments are in this book to show his ...more
Feb 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.
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?
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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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