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Publisher's Summary

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 their food. Now he delivers fascinating fresh evidence for the seeds of ethical behavior in primate societies that further cements the case for the biological origins of human fairness. Interweaving vivid tales from the animal kingdom with thoughtful philosophical analysis, de Waal seeks a bottom-up explanation of morality that emphasizes our connection with animals. In doing so, de Waal explores for the first time the implications of his work for our understanding of modern religion. Whatever the role of religious moral imperatives, he sees it as a "Johnny-come-lately" role that emerged only as an addition to our natural instincts for cooperation and empathy.
But unlike the dogmatic neo-atheist of his book’s title, de Waal does not scorn religion per se. Instead, he draws on the long tradition of humanism exemplified by the painter Hieronymus Bosch and asks reflective readers to consider these issues from a positive perspective: What role, if any, does religion play for a well-functioning society today? And where can believers and nonbelievers alike find the inspiration to lead a good life?
Rich with cultural references and anecdotes of primate behavior, The Bonobo and the Atheist engagingly builds a unique argument grounded in evolutionary biology and moral philosophy. Ever a pioneering thinker, de Waal delivers a heartening and inclusive new perspective on human nature and our struggle to find purpose in our lives.
©2013 Frans de Waal (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Lisa on 06-10-13

Less science and more meditative

I suspect I'm being a little generous with 4 stars. It isn't that I don't enjoy the writing of de Waal; I do. I read de Waal's Age of Empathy (2009), which is why I moved on to The Bonobo and the Atheist (2013). Age of Empathy contains a good many anecdotes from research about animal empathy, which are informative and entertaining. The Bonobo and the Atheist is more meditative. de Waal considers matters of atheism and religion intellectually, but with much less research. Jheronimus Bosch is his companion in these meditations time after time, using the paintings as a guide in his reflections. There are some research-based anecdotes, one of which was so surprising to me that I immediately sought out a companion with whom to share it. (Did you know a juvenile chimpanzee used a log for hours as a proxy baby chimp, cradling it and gently placing it in a night-time nest? Imagination is alive in other primates.) However, that doesn't alter the overall meditative tone on atheism and religion from the European secular perspective rather than harder science. I just happen to like the European secular perspective and de Waal's thoughts about those matters.

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12 of 13 people found this review helpful

2 out of 5 stars
By Christian Bonnell on 07-18-14

Great research on apes, bad research on humans

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

Frans de Waal is a brilliant researcher when it comes to the Bonobos and Chimpanzees that are his primary research subjects, and I absolutely loved the chapters talking about those subjects.

Unfortunately, he spends about half of the book ranting about various human authors and speakers (Notably, Hitchens, Harris, and D'Souza). On these sections it is clear that he has only a nominal familiarity with the subjects, and in some cases he even grossly mis-characterizes the views or arguments of the humans in question. There was even one case where the author points out in his book "people will probably accuse me of saying X, but that is not what I am saying at all..." and goes on to elaborate and explain the point in greater detail. Yet de Waal still accuses that author of saying X, and spends most of a chapter explaining why the author is ignorant and mistaken. de Waal also spends a good deal of time critiquing American culture, but in such a way that I seriously doubt he really understands what is going with any of the groups in question.

I would have loved a book on ethics than contained not only good science (which this book definitely does), but also something intelligent and cogent to add to the philosophical topics of Ethics. In this case, the book definitely does not deliver.

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17 of 19 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
1 out of 5 stars
By Jan W. H. Schnupp on 08-10-14


I had very high hopes for this book - and found them sorely disappointed. Frans de Waal is no doubt a great expert on animal behaviour and has countless interesting observations and anecdotes to draw from. Sadly he is not a deep and careful thinker, and has a tendency to over-generalize and jump to unjustified and unjustifiable conclusions. A typical example might be the passage where the author blames "science" and "scientists" for the atrocities committed during Hitler's holocaust. Not only is this utter nonsense, it is insulting to scientists. And that is not an isolated example of dubious assertions made in this book in areas where the author is hardly an authority being presented as fact. All this in order to investigate the "biological mystery" of pro-social behaviours, which really isn't that hard to understand at all. (If creatures need to reproduce to persist down the generations, and if reproducing is easier in groups where we watch each others backs rather than stabbing them, the evolution of pro-social behaviours is hardly unexpected. What's the big deal?) All in all a laboured and unconvincing treatment of a non-problem, and the odd interesting story about our closest relatives was not enough to save it. I could not make it past the first half of the book. If you are interested in this sort of subject, you are likely to be much better off with Steven Pinker's "Better Angels of Our Nature".

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1 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By Yas on 07-08-14

Sheds light upon our beautiful Bonobos!

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, we are not alone in having a sense or morality in the world. Bonobos are clearly very intelligent and should be cared for and protected (as the rest of the animals on this earth should be) by us humans.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Bonobo and the Atheist?

The stories of the Bonobos lives were amazing as they showed that Bonobos have a sense of Morality.

What does Jonathan Davis bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

Allowed me to listen whilst on the go. Perfect narration.

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0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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