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20210110 – The bonobo and atheist




The main idea of this book is to express author’s believe about natural development of morality in human societies with god(s) being invented just to support and enforce already existing norms, rather than being actually existing supreme law givers. Author uses multitude of experimental data with animals that demonstrate practically the same behavior that could be typical for moral humans even if they have no religion, no formal laws and even no language.


Author starts with reference to his place of birth Den Bosch and discusses triptych by Bosch “The Garden of Earthly Delight” showing humanity free of guilt that author uses to discuss sin, religiosity, and contemporary discoveries that demonstrated unexpected features of animal in natural world such as altruism and other behaviors that humans consider highly moral. Author discusses his encounter with Dalai Lama and discussion with him about animal empathy. Then author moves to discuss similarities between humans and their biological relatives:

A very important point of this discussion are bonobos and their history when for long time people would not recognize them as different species from chimpanzees except for their behavior, which is much more peaceful. Finally author concentrates on explaining main points of this book: analysis morality as it relates to animals and is not necessarily depends on religion to such extent as usually thought.

This chapter starts with the story of dying chip who carefully hided any sign of sickness to the end and was helped by others. Author discusses how “The incident illustrated two contrasting sides of primate social life. First, primates live in a cutthroat world, which forces a male to conceal physical impairment for as long as possible in order to keep up a tough façade. But second, they are part of a tight community, in which they can count on affection and assistance from others, including nonrelatives.”  Author then discusses morality, altruism, and their costs. Whether such behavior genetic or learned, role of kin selection, and works of scientists that make contribution: Maynard Smith, Haldane, Ronald Fisher, von Neumann, and Price. The general conclusion is:” Mammals have what I call an “altruistic impulse” in that they respond to signs of distress in others and feel an urge to improve their situation. To recognize the need of others, and react appropriately, is really not the same as a preprogrammed tendency to sacrifice oneself for the genetic good.”

Author looks in detail at work and life of Thomas Henry Huxley – Darwin’s bulldog. It brings issue of morality and God, as its necessary condition. Author also mentions Veneer Theory and Darwin’s rejection of this theory:” He speculated, for example, that morality grew straight out of animal social instincts, saying that “it would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness.” Darwin saw the potential for genuine altruism, at least at the psychological level. Like most biologists, he drew a sharp line between the process of natural selection, which indeed has nothing nice about it, and its many products, which cover a wide range of tendencies. He disagreed that a nasty process ipso facto needs to produce nasty results.” Author also provided graphic representation of this theory:

After that auithor discusses his own research and life experience that demonstrated that goodness is not just veneer, it comes naturally:” Given its intrinsic rewards, some like to label care for family and close associates “selfish,” at least at an emotional level. While not incorrect, this obviously undermines the whole distinction between selfishness and altruism.”

This is extended look at bonobos and their place in relation to humans and other apes.

Author narrates history of bononos recognition that came late and only after long time of mixing them with chimps. Author then discusses specific of their organization and behaviours, which includes female dominance and massive use of sex as communication, interaction, and cooperation tool. At the end of chapter author concludes that bonobos and their super free love is not necessarily good example for humans to follow and that “the emphatic brain” could use other methods of expression.

Author was born and raised as catholic, which was bound to create some cognitive dissonance when he became biologist. In this chapter he explores his history of coping and becoming atheist, but then coming to America and encountering this weird culture where people like guns, do not like soccer, and read Bible.  Author also discusses relation between faith and science and notes that in his experience scientist often behave with huge deference to authority, denying on practice their proffered believes and demonstrating that they are not that different from believers. At the end of chapter author discusses “Somethingism”, which is probably the true believe of majority of people.

Here author is using example with elephants to demonstrate how poor understanding of animals leads to poor design experiments, leading to incorrect conclusion about animals’ abilities. One such example with mirror and elephant’s ability to recognize itself is really typical. After that author discusses a number of well-designed experiments that demonstrate animals’ ability to cooperate and emphasize with others. Author uses parable of good Samaritan and shows that even rats could and do help other even if it involves opportunity cost. In this case humans not necessarily do much better as was demonstrated by this experiment:” University students were ordered to hurry from one campus building to the next while a slumping “victim” was planted in their path. Only 40 percent asked the “victim” what was wrong. Students who had to make haste helped far less than students with time on their hands. Some literally stepped over the moaning “victim.” They did so even though, ironically, the topic they were to address in their lecture was the good Samaritan.”

Here is nice graphic representation:

In this chapter author discusses morality and dominance using quite appropriately example of rich and powerful politician DSK and cleaning lady in hotel. Author also provides here his definition:” Morality is a system of rules concerning the two H’s of Helping or at least not Hurting fellow human beings. It addresses the well-being of others and puts the community before the individual. It does not deny self-interest, yet curbs its pursuit so as to promote a cooperative society.” He then provides multiple examples that this is completely applicable to many animals.

Here author moves to the issue of morality and God. After reviewing both theoretical and theological ideas and experimental data he concludes:” …my own thinking that morality predates religion, certainly the dominant religions of today. We humans were plenty moral when we still roamed the savanna in small bands. Only when the scale of society began to grow and rules of reciprocity and reputation began to falter did a moralizing God become necessary. In this view, it wasn’t God who introduced us to morality; rather, it was the other way around. God was put into place to help us live the way we felt we ought to…”

At the end of this chapter he discusses secularization of Europe and expresses believe that god is not required for morality:” a recent study compared the reasons why believers and nonbelievers assist others. It found nonbelievers to be more sensitive to the situation of others, basing their altruism on feelings of compassion. Believers, in contrast, seemed driven by a sense of obligation and how they ought to behave according to their religion. The behavioral outcome was the same, but the underlying motivations seemed different. Clearly, there are many reasons for kindness, and religion is just one of them. The secular model is currently being tried out in northern Europe, where it has progressed to the point that children naïvely ask why there are so many “plus signs” on large buildings called “churches,” and where people have no idea anymore of the biblical origin of their expressions, from “washing your hands of the matter” to “a drop in the bucket.” Civic institutions have taken over many of the functions originally fulfilled by the churches, such as care for the sick, poor, and old. Despite being largely agnostic or nonpracticing, the citizenry of these countries stands firmly behind this effort. It is a giant experiment, both economically and morally, that may tell us whether large nation-states can forge a well-functioning moral contract without religion. If one believes, as I do, that morality comes mostly from within, there is every reason to support this effort…”

This final chapter summarizes author’s understanding:” 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. The most fundamental one derives from the survival value of group life. The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved, prompts us to do everything in our power to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend. Other social primates share this value and rely on the same filter between emotion and action to reach a mutually agreeable modus vivendi. “


I generally agree with this approach. Similarly, I believe that morality is natural product of evolution when survival of individual is highly dependent on behavior of other individuals in the group, creating dual evolutionary pressure to act in such way as to assure survival of both, individual and group. Such duality provides for very complex patterns of behavior when combination of internal state of individual and external circumstances lead to variety of outcomes sometimes more beneficial to individual at the expense of group, but sometimes more beneficial to the group at the expense of individual. Moreover, I do not think that it is possible to create such environment, either via religious training or secular indoctrination, that human individuals would consistently prefer interest of group over their own. Actually, I believe that if one includes into “own interest” psychological condition of individual, then it would come down to resolution of internal conflict of preference between fear of material deterioration of one’s circumstances and fear of psychological deterioration of one’s condition from acting against norms one is indoctrinated into. Since choice depends on unpredictable and highly variable combination of internal and external circumstances, the outcome would also be unpredictable. I think that the one and only way to improvement is to minimize possibilities of such conflict, so action in interest of individual survival would not conflict with group survival.

I think comparing war and business would be a good illustration of this point. In a war the group of individuals who put own survival first would always loose to the group of individuals ready to sacrifice for common cause. In this case the objective is simple and obvious – to win and it is defined by one or a few individuals that are dominant in the group, which in practice means sacrificing by individuals at the bottom of group’s hierarchy to benefit of individuals at the top. However, in much more complex situation of business when mix of goods and services produced defined via competition between multiple individuals, who believe that their offer is better, suppression of individual choices of individuals at the bottom to will of individuals at the top would lead to selection of inferior products, especially if individuals at the top are not limited to the same selection. So, my conclusion would be maximizing morality and enforcement of deference to decisions of superiors in small number of war and war-like situations and expand individual’s ability to decide for themselves in all other situations. This way the competing values of group survival vs. individual survival would be applied in situations when they most effective and efficient.

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