An interview With Nathan Bupp
de Waal, Ph.D. is an eminent primatologist and
ethologist. He is the Charles Howard Candler professor
of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology
department in Atlanta, Ga., and director of the Living
Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research
Center. His books include "Chimpanzee Politics," "Our
Inner Ape," and most recently "The Age of Empathy:
Natureís Lessons for a Kinder Society."
Q: You are
currently working on a book called "The Bonobo and the
Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,"
scheduled for release in the early Spring of 2013. This
is an intriguing title. What themes will you explore in
A: My book is about how morality doesnít come from
above. It is rather an evolutionary product. The book is
rooted in my research on monkeys, apes, elephants, and
other animals, and my conviction that they show the
beginnings of morality. I have written about this
before, but now I am bringing religion into the mix.
Even though I donít think religion is absolutely
critical, it is also not irrelevant. The question how
humans would fare without it is hard to answer for the
simple reason that religion is universal. There are no
societies that are not now and never were religious.
Even though I myself am not a believer, the word
"atheist" in the title does not refer to me but to the
new brand of atheists, who hate religion and make fun of
it. This is easy to do, but the bigger issue is not if
religion is true or false, but why humans everywhere
believe in the supernatural and how it is linked to the
distinction between right and wrong.
Q: How has your study of the higher primates shaped
your views on the origins of human morality?
A: Morality promotes cooperation. It asks us to put
our personal interests on the back burner and work for
the common good. It is a complex system that religion
and philosophy have tried to capture in simple rules
(such as the golden rule or the Ten Commandments), but
these rules provide only imperfect summaries. We like to
think of morality as top-down, but this is merely a
leftover of the story of God on the mountain top. There
is no evidence that it started out as a top-down system.
Science is rather coming around to the Humean view of
morality guided by intuitions and passions.
Looking at other primates, we recognize many of the
same tendencies that underlie our morality, such as
rules of reciprocity, empathy and sympathy, a sense of
fairness, and the need to get along. Monkeys, for
example, object to unfair distributions of resources
(see the end of my TED talk), and chimpanzees do each
other favors even if there is nothing in it for
themselves. Bonobos are probably the most empathic
animals of all, and the recent genome data places them
extremely close to us.
Human morality goes further than this, but all of
these tendencies play a role. We have been indoctrinated
that nature is "red in tooth and claw," and entirely
selfish, but we are now learning about conflict
resolution, cooperation, empathy, and the like in our
fellow primates. They are far more harmony-oriented than
people realize. I donít necessarily call apes "moral
beings," but we share with them an old psychology
without which weíd never have become moral.
Q: What role do you assign to religion (if any) in
morality, both for the individual and culture and
A: Cooperation and social harmony have always been to
the advantage of our species, long before modern
religions arose, which is just a couple of thousand
years ago. Biologists are unimpressed by that kind of
time scale. I am sure our ancestors cared about each
other, and about joint efforts and fairness, for a
million years or longer. Things changed with the
agricultural revolution, however, about 12,000 years
ago. We began to expand our societies to include
thousands, and now millions, of people. Rules of
reciprocity, empathy, and monitoring everyoneís
contributions didnít do the job anymore. It became too
easy to cheat the system. A top-down approach became
necessary to enforce the same degree of cooperation,
preferably one backed by an omniscient supernatural
force who kept an eye on everyone and promised heaven or
hell dependent on how well you behaved. In this view,
modern religion is not at the root of morality, but
arose as an addition, as a way to fortify the system.
The big question is how essential this addition is for a
well-functioning society. And if it was essential in the
past, is it still today?
Q: I know that you have been an observer of the
atheist/freethought/humanist movement. You have also
been critical of some of the "new atheists." (See "The
God-Science Shouting Match," New York Times, Opinionator
Ė online 11/4/10.) Are there any changes in direction
that you would like to see in the secular movement in
general? How do you envision secular Humanism playing a
constructive role in the marketplace of ideas?
A: I do not divide the world in believers and
non-believers, but rather in dogmatists and reflective
thinkers. I have little patience with the first category
whatever they believe or donít believe. With their claim
to being rational, their disregard for the historical
intertwinement of science and religion, and their
willingness to antagonize even moderate believers,
neo-atheists fall on the dogmatic end of the spectrum.
Their stance has been particularly harmful to the
evolution debate. Who is going to listen to biologists
claiming how well-documented evolution is, if the first
thing out of their mouth is that you are an idiot?
Neo-atheism has put this debate back 50 years.
I am from a country (The Netherlands) where no one
bats an eye if you say youíre an atheist. It really is
no big deal. It also isnít a very interesting position,
because all it does is state that God doesnít exist. It
leaves unanswered what to do with your life, where to
find meaning, why we are here, and how to connect with
the larger whole of human society and the universe.
Atheism is a rather hollow position.
Fortunately, people are moving to more substantial
issues. My book addresses perhaps the most important
one, which is whether we can be moral without religion,
and where we would find the strength and inspiration to
lead a good life. Humanism had it right from the start.
It never focused much energy on negatives, such as
countering religion or denying God, but instead focused
on positives, such as human strengths. Its main question
is how to forge a good society using natural human
Apart from discussing animal and human behavior, my
book tries to connect with the Humanist movement and
particularly its rich Dutch tradition going back to
Erasmus, Hieronymus Bosch, and Spinoza. I use the
paintings of Bosch to explain how he undermined the
Churchís narrative about human goodness by giving us a
sexualized paradise without an expulsion, a hell on
earth, and a corrupt clergy. I love visuals, and Bosch
is the richest source for anyone writing on morality. He
depicted human behavior in a way that a primatologist
Q: E.O. Wilson has been sounding an optimistic note
of late on the future of humanity, pointing especially
to "human eusociality" as a justification for his
optimism (see his new book The Social Conquest of
Earth). This bucks a recent trend of a slew of fairly
pessimistic assessments of where we are headed as a
species. How do you rate the human prospect?
A: What is so interesting about human prosociality is
precisely that it is not of the "eusocial" kind, which
promotes sacrifices for the greater genetic good. We,
humans, maintain all sorts of selfish interests and
individual conflicts that need to be resolved to achieve
a cooperative society. This is why we have morality and
ants and bees donít. They donít need it.
Insect models ignore the specific neural circuitry of
mammals, which makes us sensitive to the emotions of
others, such as when we feel distress at the distress of
others. This is what connects us to others, and is the
main motivator for altruism. It makes for a much wider
reach of altruism than found in the insects, such as
when we adopt unrelated children, care for a dying
spouse, or extend our care to other species. There are
excellent primate examples. For example, chimpanzee
males in the wild have been seen adopting orphans of
their own species, carrying and sharing food with them
for years, even if DNA tests show these orphans to be
unrelated to them. Anyone who studies empathy can
understand how this may be possible, yet traditional
biological models have trouble with such behavior, and
insect comparisons offer no help.
I believe that humans have all the basic capacities
to achieve a good society. I am not sure we need
religion, but we do need to build upon our natural
social tendencies, our compassion and sense of justice,
and ignore the usual warning that we are inherently
selfish and violent, which, if repeated often enough,
becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the end I may be
as optimistic as E.O. Wilson, but for quite different
reasons. Instead of genes, I stress learned preferences
for certain outcomes. All mammals learn that certain
kinds of behavior get them into trouble with others, and
that other kinds make for a harmonious whole that allows
them to benefit from cooperation. This understanding is
the starting point for human morality.