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The Bonobo and the Atheist

Written by: Frans de Waal
Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
Length: 9 hrs and 3 mins
5 out of 5 stars (3 ratings)

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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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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Lisa
  • 2013-06-10

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.

13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Christian Bonnell
  • 2014-07-18

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.

19 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • 2013-06-08

Masterful presentation of interesting topic

The book really should have been titled "The Bonobo and Human Empathy". The two pillars of all philosophy are empathy and reciprocity. He completely examines the first pillar, empathy, by illustrating empathetic behavior in Bonobos (and other animals) and linking it to our behavior.

He's such a good writer even when he wrote about things I completely disagreed with I would find the book thought provoking. I thought he trivialized the arguments of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and John Stuart Mill. But, I'm not bothered. I believe what I believe and I appreciated the different perspective.

The narrator did a perfect job.

The book is much better than most pop science books I have listened to and I'm much richer for having listened to this highly entertaining book and can definitely say because of this book I'm much closer to my goal of understanding our place in the universe. He does talk about philosophy but I enjoyed those parts as much as I did about bonobos.

(P.S. Matt Ridley's book, "The Rational Optimist", fully covers the second pillar of human philosophy, reciprocity. Also, my personal take on the author he seemed like an apologetic atheist and he didn't want to offend anyone. But as I say, I wasn't bothered by this, but I disagreed with him regarding those sections. Also, he seemed to characterized the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill in a comic book fashion. Once again I wasn't bothered but I don't want to leave the impression that I agreed with him on those two points).



18 of 20 people found this review helpful

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  • Ian
  • 2015-12-08

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.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • FRAP38
  • 2015-02-10

Great info on primate behavior

Theme seemed force. A good read, as always, on primate behavior but the addition of the authors thoughts on atheism and "new atheism" just seem out of place. As if the author used the book as a platform to vent on his displeasure for outspoken atheists.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Sean
  • 2013-06-06

Meandering but thought provoking

I'm a big fan of the author and really enjoyed "Our Inner Ape." I enjoyed this book less. The writing is interesting but the book has an unstructured, unfinished feel to it.

He draws on his vast primatology experience to address the question "how can we have morality without God?" Using many insightful stories about chimps, bonobos and other monkeys he demonstrates that evolution has given us an innate moral sense that only recently (in anthropologic time) has been transplanted to the institution of religion.

He never clearly lays out this very delicate and complicated argument. His style is more throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I never had a sense of what would be coming next and there was no systematic refutation of possible objections. As a student of philosophy I expect a clear premise and a well structured argument to back it up. I agree with most of what he says, but I honestly don't see how you could attack his argument if you didn't. There's no "If A, then B and if B then C. Now I'm going to prove A and B." Instead he gives us detailed analysis of several medieval paintings and anecdotes from his research.

I did appreciate his bristling at Hitchens and Dawkins' confrontational atheism. I like(d) them, but both frequently get a pass because of their divine status in the atheist pantheon.

In the end "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and he hasn't brought that.

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Csaba Turkosi
  • 2015-12-12

A fascinating glimpse into the origins of morality

The author clearly has a thorough understanding of primate behavior and offers a compelling argument for a natural, evolved origin of our innate, instinctive human morality.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • T. Prizer
  • 2019-02-01

The PERFECT narrator for a staggeringly brilliant work

This book goes further than anything I’ve read to complicate the relationship between religion and science. Should be read by absolutely everyone, regardless of faith or lack thereof. De Wall treats religion with the utmost respect despite being an atheist himself. In fact, he argues *for* its place in society, alongside science, rather than railing against it like so many of the “New Atheists” (he is damningly critical of Dawkins and Hitchens, showing that they too are dogmatists of the highest order).

A delightfully engaging book and a BRILLIANT narrator.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Clark Savage
  • 2017-08-14

The origins of morality

This well-written and accessible book reveals primate and mammal social behavior likely serves as the wellspring of human morality, ethics, and religion. Recommended.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Dave in Austin, TX
  • 2016-12-16

Very insightful

Perhaps the book should have been called the Chimp, the Bonobo, and the Atheist.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful