Behaving like animals: The Bonobo and the Atheist
Tessa Kendall reviews Frans de Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. How much of our humanist behaviour do we owe to our cousins in the animal kingdom?
Is human nature a beast that needs to be tamed? Should we “throw out Darwinism in our social and political lives”? Or are we naturally altruistic, empathetic and moral?
In Frans De Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, he takes on the thinkers who believe that morality has to be imposed on our brutish natures and catalogues the growing evidence that disproves them.
There is a long history of thought that the natural world is a merciless struggle for survival and that humans decided to live together “by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes), that natural selection is “a Hobbesian war of each against all” and ethics are humanity’s cultural victory over the evolutionary process (Huxley), that civilisation is achieved through the renunciation of instinct and the action of the superego – which men are more capable of than women (Freud), that children have to be trained to be sociable through fear of punishment and desire for praise (Freud, Skinner, Piaget), that moral behaviour is achieved through reason alone (Kant).
These ideas have their origins in Judaeo-Christian teaching that morals have to be imposed from above, that in our “natural state” we are unfit for society (or heaven) because of original sin.
What they all have in common is a kind of dualism between our “better angels” and the beast within, our Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The idea persists even now, albeit stripped of its religious origins. A lack of understanding of the difference between predation (of other species) and aggression (towards our own species) has led to the popular and persistent image of humans as “killer apes”. Matt Ridley has written that we are potentially but not naturally moral. Richard Dawkins has said that “we, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (The Selfish Gene) and that “in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world.” (via Behaving like animals: The Bonobo and the Atheist | Tessa Kendall | Science | guardian.co.uk)