Having spent several years studying primates, Nederland-born biologist Frans de Waal hopes to shed some light on humanism and whether religion really does play a part in altruistic behaviour. By studying apes (specifically chimpanzees and bonobos, who are our closest living relatives on the genetic family tree) he was able to see first hand the similarities between humans and our distant cousins.
When it comes to the chimpanzees, they tend to be male dominated and somewhat aggressive. They follow an alpha male and being mostly omnivorous will hunt in addition to foraging. Adult males are known to kill lesser males and even babies to protect their place.
Bonobos are a female dominated species and rarely ever show aggression (they can, it’s usually with a purpose like hunting). They have a matriarch that leads the group and disputes are generally settled with sex, are not restricted to heterosexual partnering. Young apes are protected by everyone in the group, their well-being being placed over everyone else. Bonobos also tend to be more egalitarian than their chimpanzee counterparts.
This information was all fairly well-known already. However, what hasn’t really been discussed much is altruism, and just how much empathy a simian without any knowledge of a deity could possess. Does one need to believe in a god and understand the concept of an afterlife to behave altruistically.
This is the topic of Frans de Waal’s latest book, and he does it without attacking religion or even scorning it. He approaches humanism in a way that both followers of faith and nonbelievers alike can (if they were able to do so) agree on. The video clip shown here is from one of de Waal’s talks and shows a few examples of the early work with altruism in tests with various apes and monkeys. The book somewhat starts from there and builds from that point.
“Atheism will need to be combined with something else, something more constructive than its opposition to religion, to be relevant to our lives. The only possibility is to embrace morality as natural to our species.”