Biology, Ethics, and the Persistence of Religion – By Phillip Sherman

Phillip M. Sherman December 3, 2013 2

Phillip Sherman on Frans De Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates


Frans De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 304 pp., $27.95

Chimpanzees are prone to extreme violence when confronted with a territorial dispute. Hierarchy and the maintaining of proper boundary lines are issues of central importance to the larger social group. Much the same can be said of academics and their respective disciplines. No matter how fervent the interdisciplinary moment in which we find ourselves, there are boundaries that must not be crossed. The transgressor will be met with a swift and decisive rebuke. The invocation of “expertise” is the usual weapon of choice. Nowhere is the issue of interdisciplinarity felt more acutely than in debates surrounding the interaction of the Humanities and the Sciences. Moral philosophy provides an excellent example of the nature of the conflicted relationship between these two spheres of study.

What is the foundation of human morality? This meta-ethical query is usually thought to belong to either the theologians or the philosophers. The answers offered differ, accordingly. To theologians, morality is variously grounded in the will of a deity (so-called varieties of Divine Command Theory); those who look for non-theistic answers consider morality the result of careful, empirically based calculations of the various consequences of human actions (utilitarian approaches), the cultivation of a particular set of character traits (virtue approaches), or the rational articulation of a system of universal rules and rights (deontological approaches). Each of these classical approaches, however, contains an implicit anthropology, a presumption about what sort of thing a human being actually is. Partly for this reason, the study of ethics has taken a biological turn over the past several decades.

Is our nature as a certain sort of primate relevant to understanding the origin and development of human moral behavior? Can philosophers and theologians, unaided by the natural sciences, explain the ultimate foundation and origin of human moral action? E.O. Wilson is the most famous antagonist regarding the failure of theology or philosophy to resolve the question of how best to live a moral life. In his seminal work, Sociobiology: Towards the New Synthesis, he charged that one must examine the biological foundations for social life to understand the nature of human moral capacities. Drawing on the Humean tradition in ethics and its focus on the “moral sentiments,” he asserts that

The biologist, who is concerned with physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and the limbic system of the brain. The centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions — hate, love, guilt, fear, and others — that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and the limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. That simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers.

If you wish to know what an ethical human being would look like, you must first understand what a human being is and where humanity has come from. More recently, Sam Harris has also sought converts to his claim that “science can determine human values.” The plurality of answers theologians and philosophers have provided — historically and in the present — to questions concerning the foundations and particulars of moral action leads to new questions from those more concerned with objectivity and foundational principles. Such plurality is viewed as a failure, and it calls for the application of a new, more scientific and empirical, approach to determining the best way to live a moral life.

Into this debate on the proper role of the biological sciences and the study of human moral action enters the primatologist. Frans de Waal is fighting a battle on a number of fronts. His arguments are with the diverse likes of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Francis Collins, which should tell you something.  Here is the conflict into which de Waal is wading: “One can consider humans as either inherently good but capable of evil or as inherently evil yet capable of good. I happen to belong to the first camp.” One might object to having only two choices, but it does help to focus the discussion.

Perhaps one might think of it in slightly different terms. When human beings are acting in a way that is generally considered ethical or moral, are they working with or against their evolutionary history? De Waal sides with the former option and has been gently and insistently arguing that human morality can be understood best by exploring the (moral?) lives of our closest primate relatives, the Chimpanzees and the Bonobos. His earlier works, The Age of Empathy and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, already cover much of the material found in his most recent work, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. The new work is a mix of professional memoir, engaging storytelling of decades of study with our closest animal relatives and the implications of his research, and reflection on the continuing — and likely necessary — role of the religious impulse for human moral behavior. Two assertions are woven throughout the material present in the work: human morality arises from our evolutionary heritage and religious systems are one highly efficient (perhaps the most efficient) way of harnessing and developing this innate moral tendency in human nature.

De Waal, the director of the Yerkes Primate Laboratory at Emory University, is an ardent foe of what he terms “veneer theory.” This is the claim that human moral behavior is imposed from outside (non-biological) forces — cultural, theological, or philosophical. Left to our own natural inclinations, the argument continues, we would not likely engage in moral actions: we are too selfish to be altruistic without help. It would be difficult to explain why natural selection would favor altruistic behavior at the level of the individual. Charles Darwin was already aware of the paradox. In The Descent of Man, he states that the altruistic individual would “on average perish in larger number than other men … the hero would leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.” De Waal charges that both the theological traditions and the scientific tradition have erred in the same manner when it comes to the foundation of human morality.

The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that human beings don’t know how to behave and that someone must tell them.

Curiously, both theological and biological approaches to ethics converged with regard to the veneer theory. Traditional Christian approaches to the question, for example, had ample scriptural and theological justification for claiming that humanity is fundamentally flawed and (perhaps) fallen; only divine assistance could restore humanity to its pre-lapsarian state. Evolutionary arguments, already during Darwin’s time, claimed that while natural selection was a law governing biological history, it could be thrown out when it came to human moral standards. It was frequently asserted that no one would want to live in a moral universe designed on Darwinian grounds. When it came to morality, humanity had the potential to transcend its  biological history.

The recognition of a biological basis for human moral action started to go wrong with Thomas Huxley, (in)famously known as Darwin’s Bulldog. De Waal stresses that Huxley was not particularly qualified to defend Darwin and his theories. Despite the fact that Darwin had recognized an evolutionary basis for human moral potential, Huxley derailed the conversation for almost a century. Human morality could not arise naturally, according to Huxley, drawing on a botanical analogy to make his point. Gardens are not naturally occurring phenomena; they require gardeners to tend to them, to remove weeds and other creatures that would threaten them. The gardener, in other words, attempts to impose order on wildness.

Morality has a similar goal. During the famous Oxford debate in 1893, Huxley claimed: “the practice of that which is ethically best — what we call goodness or virtue — involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.” Morality is opposed to survival. Nearly a century after Huxley, another bulldog, Richard Dawkins, focusing on our selfish genes, consoled his readers by allowing that “in our political and social life we are entitled to thrown out Darwinism.” Ethics has proven resistant to being biologized. But if it is not a result of our evolutionary heritage, how did it ever arise in homo sapiens?

In contrast, de Waal argues for a “bottom up” form of morality. He claims that human beings, just like our primate relatives, engage in emotionally grounded, pro-social behavior; such concern for the well-being of the larger social group means that our moral behavior, far from being a deviation from our nature, is actually part of what it means to be human. The shift in focus here from survival at the individual level to survival as a member of a larger social group is significant. Empathetic behavior is particularly pronounced in mammalian forms of life, although it is not entirely absent elsewhere. Violence and conflict are also innate to our condition, of course, but it is our deeply evolved concern for those within our kinship group, our willingness to fight and kill to protect them, that is at the root of much of our bent to violence against those who are “not-us.”

Throughout, de Waal draws on decades of work with primates to highlight the ways in which the emotional foundation for human moral action seems to be present in other animals. Whether or not we want to go so far as to call altruism amongst Bonobos, a sense of “fairness” amongst Cappuchin monkeys, or the defense of elephant calves by non-relatives “morality” is a larger philosophical question. The real strength of de Waal’s work is his easy going manner and his conversational approach to demonstrating — time and again — that the basic building blocks of human morality are not working against the grain of our evolutionary origins but are largely grounded in the particularities of our mammalian descent. If there is any reason for humanity to boast of its moral superiority (an open question), it is our ability to move from the concrete realm to the abstract. “There is little evidence,” he suggests, “that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves. This is what sets human morality apart: a move toward universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring, and punishment.” It is de Waal’s focus on systems of “justification, monitoring, and punishment” that lead to a consideration of the role of religion in human culture and its relationship to moral systems.

Looking at ethics in light of the evolutionary history of the species remains a relatively new approach for moral philosophers. One important question presents itself: Which traditional theories make the most sense, which are most compatible, with the insights de Waal articulates? Which ethical theory is credible in the presence of the primatologist? If it is fair to suggest that an ethical theory is more likely to be effective if it builds upon a correct understanding of human nature — and I suppose it is credible to suggest that an ethical theory ought ultimately to transform human nature — which theory is best positioned to incorporate de Waal’s findings?

It is apparent we cannot salvage traditional models such as Divine Command Theory. It would seem that deontological ethics, with its focus on highly abstract categories and its deep suspicion of the role of emotions in the moral life, would also be marginalized in a biologically sophisticated theory of ethics. Our moral impulses arise from our emotional responses. On first blush, the utilitarian concern with the biological fact of sensitivity to pain and pleasure might appear somewhat promising. A common charge against utilitarianism, however, is the lack of absolute standards for pleasure and pain and the impossibility (at least at present) of the level of omniscience required to make the system work. Replacing an all-knowing deity with an all-knowing humanity provides no ethical advance.

Natural Law Theory would likely be the most interesting conversation partner for de Waal. There is, of course, no single definition for what is meant by Natural Law Theory, and many modern proponents of ethical naturalism are also committed to medieval and pseudo-scientific understandings of what constitutes “natural.” Human nature has changed a lot since the days of Aristotle and Aquinas. Of all the classical theories, however, a concern for understanding ethics in relationship to the “nature” of humanity has the potential to take the empirical reality of the biological sciences with the greatest degree of seriousness. To be blunt: any ethical theory that suggests human beings can only be ethical when they are not being human beings, when they are attempting to override their very nature, is going to have mixed results at best and risk wrecking actual human lives at worst. An attempt to be alienated from the deepest biological truths about ourselves is a pitiful foundation for ethical behavior.

[Morality would likely be an emergent property of human life. It is something that does not — cannot — exist apart from our biological reality. It arises as a result of our ability to empathize with the pain and suffering of others. At the same time, our ability to expand the circle of empathy to include those who are fundamentally not like us in small and dramatic ways builds upon the foundation of our nature. That nature, itself, is always in a state of evolution.]

But de Waal is after more than simply demonstrating once again that our ability for morality is consistent with our evolutionary lineage. At least two chapters of his work (“Is God Dead or Just in a Coma?” and “The God Gap”) explicitly deal with the question of religion and its historical and contemporary relationship to morality. De Waal has some harsh words for his fellow atheists — notable figures of the “New Atheist” movement such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — who he claims are overly antagonistic and dismissive of the role that religion plays and has played in human moral life. Some of the authors whom he calls out by name have criticized him sharply. De Waal comes close to accusing his antagonists of running backwards down the Damascus road when he states “the religion one leaves behind carries over into the sort of atheism one embraces.” He classes both the New Athesists and their devout interlocutors as “dogmatists” and notes a curious parallel between the two camps. “Believers will say anything to defend their faith and … some atheists have turned evangelical.” De Waal is unimpressed with their dismissive attitude towards religion. While he understands the importance of the questions they raise, he states: “[I]t is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never has been religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”

While de Waal shares some affinities with atheism in the mold of Alain de Botton, his concern with religion largely remains scientific. “Understanding the need for religion,” he claims, “is far superior to bashing it.” He is more appreciative of thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, who endeavor to understand why religion seems to be a near universal human phenomenon and how religions fit into the larger human experience. De Waal reviews a number of classical theories that attempt to explain the origin of religion in human beings: awareness of death, a means of expressing awe at the natural world, or the deep human need to belong to a group which provides meaning. Regardless of how the biologist might explain the origin of religious systems, de Waal does not anticipate that the religious impulse will disappear at any point in the near future. He suggests that our unique human ability to fashion abstract ethical principles may be a result of our religious impulses. Religions provide the presence of an omniscient viewer who can impose rules, regulate them, and punish bad behavior. The Bonobo could be an atheist without problem; religion was not necessary for our ancestors, whose social context was radically different to our own. “In smaller groups, similar to primate groupings, everyone knew everyone. Surrounded by kin, friends, and other community members, we had excellent reasons to follow the rules and get along with each other. We had personal reputations to uphold.” These smaller social settings lacked the omniscient eye of a divine being to enforce group related behavior. The anti-social Chimpanzee had no need of a wrathful God to punish poor treatment of fellow members of his social order; the wages of Chimpanzee sin are equally death, but the consequences follow much more immediately in the simian context.

Far from religion as a human phenomenon that poisons everything, in de Waal’s reconstruction religious systems serve as a vehicle to harness the kind of empathic concern for others that arises from our biology and enables the circle of empathy to expand outward, beyond the simplest social contexts that marked our earliest families. Religion provided a way for our ancestors to climb down from the trees and retain a concern for the well-being of others — even those outside our kinship group. For such a gift, religious systems ought to be thanked. They are in no way infallible or an unalloyed good. They have, however, provided a necessary mechanism for the regulation of human behavior. Whether or not other vehicles can provide the same sort of community formation technology that religion has traditionally provided remains an open question.

De Waal’s work raises many important questions and is notable for the vast disciplinary terrain over which it travels. Here is a strong and emphatic argument, supported by an entire career’s worth of observation and interaction with primates, asserting that scientific data does not have to be cut off from larger questions of value. Recognition of the emotional foundation of human moral action is not the last word de Waal speaks, however. Another feature of primates is our ability to utilize tools to accomplish new ends and to pass on our learning to future generations. De Waal concludes by highlighting the human intellectual ability to rationalize before stating that

… there is no reason to take the naturalized ethics advocated in this book as a prison from which we cannot escape. It offers an account of how we got to where we are, but we humans have a history of building new structures on top of old foundations.

For these new structures to be sturdy, for the ethical systems of the future to permit “global ethics” to emerge from beings who evolved as “group animals,” the evolutionary foundation must be understood and incorporated into the work of ethicists and religious systems.

Moral philosophers — secular and religiously committed — are still in the early stages of trying to assimilate the findings of the biological sciences into existing theories and models of human moral behavior. The model de Waal sets forth in this work, one of open communication and respect for various disciplines and their unique contributions, should be more systematically pursued in the future. Chimpanzees and academics may be given to territoriality, but they also increasingly recognize their common belonging in one human family.

Also Recommended from MRB:

  • jankel

    Pro Domo or advocacy pleading.

    Not scientific…..

  • Cathy Creswell

    Enjoyed this. Thanks.