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Chimps and Bonobos Prove that Moral Behavior is a Product of Evolution

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist

Dr. Frans de Waal doesn’t want to change your religion. He does, however, want to change some misconceptions about our human ethical and moral values; values he feels are very much a part of our evolutionary heritage. He finds his evidence in some remarkable studies of the bonobo (known also as the “pigmy chimpanzee”) and the chimpanzee, our closest evolutionary relatives.

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There are several books out by noted scientists that cast aspersions on beliefs in religion and God. De Waal is frankly appalled by some of these claims – he feels, while he himself is not a believer, that religion is an important social institution bringing many benefits to the human race. He sees no reason to disparage those who believe.

But he does take issue in his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, with the oft-repeated notion that our sense of morals and sin are the products of human constructed religion. He believes our ethics and morals are in fact based on evolutionary processes that promote cooperation and the moral high ground. Our ape ancestors, he believes, were in fact highly moral in many ways, and he sees that morality echoed in our close cousins in the primate kingdom.

His new book outlines an amazing series of experiments as well as observations in the field of wild apes to point out just how important fair play is for these primates. Indeed, some of the sharing shown by individual chimps and bonobos in captive experiments puts our own behavior to shame.

Bonobos and chimpanzees will adopt and rear orphans as their own offspring. In one instance, Dr. de Waal trained a female chimp to use a baby bottle to feed an orphan, replacing her own inadequate milk supply. She subsequently used the bottle to feed her own offspring as well. In ape communities, members are often observed trying to calm the group down following an altercation. They appear to sense what is “right” and “wrong”.

Chimps and bonobos appear to mourn for their dead kin, including mothers who lose their babies. Upon the death of an elderly female of the group, the mourning becomes universal for the whole group. It is the older females that maintain the group emotionally. Male chimps being harassed by other males in the group will flee to the arms of the oldest female for comfort and support.

Inquisitive bonoboby James Hopkirk, on FlickrInquisitive bonobo

Just to cite one example of Dr. de Waal’s many experiments that bring out the sense of fairness in chimps, he had two chimps in adjacent cages. One chimp would get to choose from two different tokens. If he chose one color, he would get a treat, but the adjacent chimp would get none. If he chose the other color, both would get treats.  Very quickly, the chimp controlling the treats would choose the tokens that brought treats to both of them. Dr. de Waal and his colleagues conducted many similar variations on this experiment. Indeed, chimpanzees understand the concept of fairness very well.

Dr. de Waal’s ruminations on these issues of religion versus our genetic inheritance are wry and convincing. His descriptions of ape behavior are easy to follow, like a conversation over dinner with an old friend. He does not belabor the reader, but draws the reader into his thinking, built over time with his extensive and groundbreaking work with chimps and bonobos.

Indeed, so convincing is his book, that he leaves one big question unaddressed:  If chimps and bonobos lead such moral and ethical lives, should we be keeping them in captivity to conduct experiments on them? Or should we be doing more to keep them safe in the wild? (Needless to say, wild primates are among the most endangered species on Earth.)

As I write this, the Nonhuman Rights Project has gone to court in New York on behalf of several individual chimpanzees being held in cages in that state, attempting to establish that these “nonhuman persons” should have a right to liberty and peace, free from captivity.

The question of nonhuman rights for animals is a large one. The writings of Dr. Fran de Waal and other researchers who work with these animals are an important part of growing public unease with seeing these animals in zoos and circuses, kept there for our amusement.  Is that “right” or “wrong”?

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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