Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Bonobo & the Atheist by Frans de Waal

On my way back from New Orleans, I picked up Frans de Waal’s new book: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.  Anyone who is familiar with de Waal’s work will anticipate the thesis.  The building blocks of human morality are older than humanity and are observed, at least in primitive forms in other animals.
I read the first chapter on the plane.  I note only a couple of very interesting things that show up there.  One is the fact that chimpanzees are as good as we are at facial recognition and even at recognizing which individuals are related to one another.  Keeping track of which individual is which is an indispensable requirement for morality even if it does not indicate some level of moral consciousness. 
He also has some fascinating comments about bonobos.  These apes, near relatives of ourselves and the chimpanzees, have achieved a level of harmony and reduced violence that shames both man and chimp.  The secret to their success seems to be female coalitions, cemented by homosexual engagement.  The primary function of these coalitions seems to be to protect their sons against aggression by other males. 
Frans de Waal says that zoos keeping populations of bonobos originally made a disastrous mistake.  They would exchange males between colonies, the opposite of what happens in the wild.  In the wild, males stay in their native groups while females occasionally move to new groups.  A male bonobo moved from one zoo to another arrives with no mother or other female relatives to protect him.  Such an individual is often the victim of male aggression and has to be isolated for his own survival. 
What this tells us, as de Waal puts it, is that bonobos are not “angels of peace.”  All the aggressive instincts that characterize men and chimpanzees are still there in bonobos.  The bonobos are not more peaceful because they lack violent instincts but because they have evolved a system of managing those instincts.  That is interesting. 


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