Frans de Waal’s “The Bonobo and the Atheist”: The Objective Morality of a Subjective Moralist

Franz de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist is interesting for several reasons.  As the title of this post suggests, it demonstrates the disconnect between the theory and practice of morality in the academy.  It’s one of the latest brickbats in the ongoing spat between the New Atheists and the “accommodationist” atheists.  It documents the current progress of the rearrangement of history in the behavioral sciences in the aftermath of the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s a useful reality check on the behavior of bonobos, the latest “noble savage” among the primates.  And, finally, it’s an entertaining read.

In theory, de Waal is certainly a subjective moralist.  As he puts it, “the whole point of my book is to argue a bottom up approach” to morality, as opposed to the top down approach:  “The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover.”  The “bottom” de Waal refers to are evolved emotional traits.  In his words,

The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.

My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior.  A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.  This approach deserves attention at a time in which even avowed atheists are unable to wean themselves from a semireligious morality, thinking that the world would be a better place if only a white-coated priesthood could take over from the frocked one.

So far, so good.  I happen to be a subjective moralist myself, and agree with de Waal on the origins of morality.  However, reading on, we find confirmation of a prediction made long ago by Friedrich Nietzsche.  In Human, All Too Human, he noted the powerful human attachment to religion and the “metaphysics” of the old philosophers.  He likened the expansion of human knowledge to a ladder, or tree, up which humanity was gradually climbing.  As we reached the top rungs, however, we would begin to notice that the old beliefs that had supplied us with such great emotional satisfaction in the past were really illusions.  At that point, our tendency would be to recoil from this reality.  The “tree” would begin to grow “sprouts” in reverse.  We would balk at “turning the last corner.”  Nietzsche imagined that developing a new philosophy that could accommodate the world as it was instead of the world as we wished it to be would be the task of “the great thinkers of the next century.”  Alas, a century is long past since he wrote those words, yet to all appearances we are still tangled in the “downward sprouts.”

Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the academy, where a highly moralistic secular Puritanism prevails.  Top down, objective morality is alive and well, and the self-righteous piety of the new, secular priesthood puts that of the old-fashioned religious Puritans in the shade.  All this modern piety seems to be self-supporting, levitating in thin air, with none of the props once supplied by religion.  As de Waal puts it,

…the main ingredients of a moral society don’t require religion, since they come from within.

Clearly, de Waal can see where morality comes from, and how it evolved, and why it exists, but, even with these insights, he too recoils from “climbing the last rungs,” and “turning the final corner.”  We find artifacts of the modern objective morality prevalent in the academy scattered throughout his book.  For example,

 Science isn’t the answer to everything.  As a student, I learned about the “naturalistic fallacy” and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong.  This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution.  Scientists had been much involved in the genocidal machine, conducting unimaginable experiments.

American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics.  They advocated racist immigration laws and forced sterilization of the deaf, blind, mentally ill, and physically impaired, as well as criminals and members of minority races.

I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality’s handmaiden.

One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good.  I happen to belong to the first camp.

None of these statements make any sense in the absence of objective good and evil.  If, as de Waal claims repeatedly elsewhere in his book, morality is ultimately an expression of emotions or “gut feelings,” analogs of which we share with many other animals, and which exist because they evolved, then the notions that scientists are or were evil, period, or that science itself can be morally impure, period, or that humans can be good, period, or evil, period, are obvious non sequiturs.  De Waal has climbed up the ladder, peaked at what lay just beyond the top rungs, and jumped back down onto Nietzsche’s “backward growing sprouts.”  Interestingly enough, in spite of that de Waal admires the strength of one who was either braver or more cold-blooded, and kept climbing; Edvard Westermarck.  But I will have more to say of him later.

The Bonobo and the Atheist is also interesting from a purely historical point of view.  The narrative concocted to serve as the “history” of the behavioral sciences continues to be adjusted and readjusted in the aftermath of the Blank Slate catastrophe, probably the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  As usual, the arch-villain is Robert Ardrey, who committed the grave sin of being right about human nature when virtually all the behavioral scientists and professionals, at least in the United States, were wrong.  Imagine the impertinence of a mere playwright daring to do such a thing!  Here’s what de Waal has to say about him:

Confusing predation with aggression is an old error that recalls the time that humans were seen as incorrigible murderers on the basis of signs that our ancestors ate meat.  This “killer ape” notion gained such traction that the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey showed one hominin bludgeoning another with a zebra femur, after which the weapon, flung triumphantly into the air, turned into an orbiting spacecraft.  A stirring image, but based on a single puncture wound in the fossilized skull of an ancestral infant, known as the Taung Child.  It’s discoverer had concluded that our ancestors must have been carnivorous cannibals, an idea that the journalist Robert Ardrey repackaged in African Genesis by saying that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels.  It is now considered likely, however, that the Taung Child had merely fallen prey to a leopard or eagle.

I had to smile when I read this implausible yarn.  After all, anyone can refute it by simply looking up the source material, not to mention the fact that there’s no lack of people who’ve actually read Ardrey, and are aware that the “Killer Ape Theory” is a mere straw man concocted by his enemies.  De Waal is not one of them.  Not only has he obviously not read Ardrey, but he probably knows of him at all only at third or fourth hand.  If he had, he’d realize that he was basically channeling Ardrey in the rest of his book.  Indeed, much of The Bonobo and the Atheist reads as if it had been lifted from Ardrey’s last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, complete with the ancient origins of morality, Ardrey’s embrace of de Waal’s theme that humans are genuinely capable of altruism and cooperation, resulting in part, as also claimed by de Waal, from his adoption of a hunting lifestyle, and his rejection of what de Waal calls “Veneer Theory,” the notion that human morality is merely a thin veneer covering an evil and selfish core.  For example, according to de Waal,

Hunting and meat sharing are at the root of chimpanzee sociality in the same way that they are thought to have catalyzed human evolution.  The big-game hunting of our ancestors required even tighter cooperation.

This conclusion is familiar to those who have actually read Ardrey, but was anathema to the “Men of Science” as recently as 15 years ago.  Ardrey was, of course, never a journalist, and his conclusion that Australopithecine apes had hunted was based, not on the “single puncture wound” in the Taung child’s skull, but mainly on the statistical anomaly of numbers of a particular type of bone that might have been used as a weapon found in association with the ape remains far in excess of what would be expected if they were there randomly.  To date, no one has ever explained that anomaly, and it remains carefully swept under the rug.  In a word, the idea that Ardrey based his hypothesis entirely “on a single puncture wound” is poppycock.  In the first place, there were two puncture wounds, not one.  Apparently, de Waal is also unaware that Raymond Dart, the man who discovered this evidence, has been rehabilitated, and is now celebrated as the father of cave taphonomy, whereas those who disputed his conclusions about what he had found, such as C. K. Brain, who claimed that the wounds were caused by a leopard, are now in furious rowback mode.  For example, from the abstract of a paper in which Brain’s name appears at the end of the list of authors,

The ca. 1.0 myr old fauna from Swartkrans Member 3 (South Africa) preserves abundant indication of carnivore activity in the form of tooth marks (including pits) on many bone surfaces. This direct paleontological evidence is used to test a recent suggestion that leopards, regardless of prey body size, may have been almost solely responsible for the accumulation of the majority of bones in multiple deposits (including Swartkrans Member 3) from various Sterkfontein Valley cave sites. Our results falsify that hypothesis and corroborate an earlier hypothesis that, while the carcasses of smaller animals may have been deposited in Swartkrans by leopards, other kinds of carnivores (and hominids) were mostly responsible for the deposition of large animal remains.

Meanwhile, we find that none other than Stephen Jay Gould has been transmogrified into a “hero.”  As documented by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, Gould was basically a radical Blank Slater, unless one cares to give him a pass because he grudgingly admitted that, after all, eating, sleeping, urinating and defecating might not be purely learned behaviors, after all.  The real Steven Jay Gould rejected evolutionary psychology root and branch, and was a co-signer of the Blank Slater manifesto that appeared in the New York Times in response to claims about human nature as reserved as those of E. O. Wilson in his Sociobiology.  He famously invented the charge of “just so stories” to apply to any and all claims for the existence of human behavioral predispositions.  Now, in The Bonobo and the Atheist, we find Gould reinvented as a good evolutionary psychologist.  His “just so stories” only apply to the “excesses” of evolutionary psychology.  We find the real Gould, who completely rejected the idea of “human nature,” softened to a new, improved Gould who merely “vehemently resisted the idea that every single human behavior deserves an evolutionary account.”  If anyone was a dyed-in-the-wool habitue of the Blank Slate establishment in its heyday, it was Gould, but suddenly we learn that “Several skirmishes between him and the evolutionary establishment unfolded in the pages of the New York Review of Books in 1997.”  I can only suggest that anyone who honestly believes that a new “establishment” had already replaced the Blank Slate prior to 1997 should read Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, published as recently as last year.  No matter, according to de Waal, “The greatest public defender of evolution this country has ever known was Stephen Jay Gould.”

Perhaps one can best understand the Gould panegyrics in connection with another of the major themes of de Waal’s book; his rejection of Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheists.  De Waal is what New Atheist Jerry Coyne would refer to as an “accommodationist,” that is, an atheist who believes that the atheist lions should lie down with the religious sheep.  As it happens, Gould was the Ur-accommodationist, and inventor of the phrase “nonoverlapping magisterial,” or NOMA to describe his claim that science and religion occupy separate spheres of knowledge.  One can find a good summary of the objections to NOMA from the likes of “New Atheists” Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Coyne on Prof. Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True, for example, here and here.

It’s hard to understand de Waal’s bitter opposition to atheist activism as other than yet another example of Nietzsche’s “climbing down onto the backward pointing shoots.”  Indeed, as one might expect from such instances of “turning back,” it’s not without contradictions.  For example, he writes,

Religion looms as large as an elephant in the United States, to the point that being nonreligious is about the biggest handicap a politician running for office can have, bigger than being gay, unmarried, thrice married, or black.

And yet he objects to the same kind of activism among atheists that has been the most effective antidote to such bigotry directed at, for example, gays and blacks.  For some reason, atheists are just supposed to smile and take it.  De Waal accuses Dawkins, Harris and the rest of being “haters,” but I know of not a single New Atheist that term can really be accurately applied to, and certainly not to the likes of Dawkins, Harris or Coyne.  Vehement, on occasion, yes, but haters of the religious per se?  I don’t think so.  De Waal agrees with David Sloan Wilson that “religion” evolved.  I can certainly believe that predispositions evolved that have the potential to manifest themselves as religion, but “religion” per se, complete with imaginary spiritual beings?  Not likely.  Nevertheless, De Waal claims it is part of our “social skin.”  And yet, in spite of this claim that religion “evolved,” a bit later we find him taking note of a social phenomenon that apparently directly contradicts this conclusion:

The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naively ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches.”

Apparently, then, “evolved religion” only infected a portion of our species in northern Europe, and they all moved to the United States.  Finally, in his zeal to defend religion, de Waal comes up with some instances of “moral equivalence” that are truly absurd.  For example,

I am as sickened (by female genital mutilation, ed.) as the next person, but if Harris’s quest is to show that religion fails to promote morality, why pick on Islam?  Isn’t genital mutilation common in the United States, too, where newborn males are routinely circumcised without their consent?  We surely don’t need to go all the way to Afghanistan to find valleys in the moral landscape.

As it happens I know of several instances in which my undergraduate classmates voluntarily had themselves circumcised, not for any religious motive, but because otherwise their girlfriends wouldn’t agree to oral sex.  One wonders whether de Waal can cite similar instances involving FGM.

Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Anyone who believes in a “bottom up” version of subjective morality can’t be all bad, according to my own subjective judgment, of course.  Indeed, de Waal even has the audacity to point out that bonobos, those paragons of primate virtue extolled so often as role models for our own species do, occasionally fight.  Along with Jonathan Haidt, he’s probably the closest thing to a “kindred spirit” I’m likely to find in academia.  The icing on the cake is that he is aware of and admires the brilliant work of Edvard Westermarck on morality.  What of Westermarck, you ask.  Well, I’ll take that up in another post.

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