The Bonobo and the Atheist

  • by Frans de Waal
  • Narrated by Jonathan Davis
  • 9 hrs and 9 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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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- Christian Bonnell

Three threads-1st 5 star - 2nd 3 star - 3rd 1 star

This is my first de Waal listen. The bits about primates are interesting, informative, amusing and thought provoking. The guy knows his stuff and I wish there had been more of it.

The bits about the art of Hieronymus Bosch are a bit here nor there for me. They probably serve to give some kind of framework to the observations on morality, empathy etc from the primate bits but to be honest the whole "etenal verity of art" vibe goes straight past me in a blur. I'm sure the paintings are fascinating to study but I felt that they added little to this work.

The atheism bit was depressing.

In a world where people are still in the thrall of imaginary beings to the extent that they are willing to kill each other over them, de Waal's characterisation and interpretation of the "neo-atheists" is at best disappointing and at worst dangerous. He cites primate examples showing where, how and why this mindset can be evolved and completely misses the point that the local and small scale sanctions imposed by a troop of chimps or bonobos loses its efficacy if the bad chimp is armed with an AK-47.

In a world where an evolved brain has discovered the chemical formula for cemtex it is depressing to meet an intelligent man who thinks that "why can't we all just get along together" is an appropriate response to the kind of mental backwater that produces religious fundamentalism.

Some of his characterisations of the work of the so called militant atheists are completely at odds with my own reading and interpretation of those works. I am perfectly willing to accept that mine may be the erroneous view but am left with a bad feeling that an intelligent man has, at some level, stepped back from a position just because he has faced an argument that he has no chance, at the moment, of winning in a society that is overly reverent of mythical thinking.

And most of the bits about primates are about Chimps rather than Bonobos.

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- Ian

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-28-2013
  • Publisher: Audible Studios