What Is Permitted—To People and Bonobos

The Sources of Morality

By Walter Cummins

Review of The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (W. W. Norton, 2013)

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Copyright: 123RF Stock Photo


Primatologist Frans de Waal in his book The Atheist and the Bonobo (W. W. Norton, 2013) uses bonobos to take on God, or more precisely those people who are convinced moral standards would not exist without the authority of a Supreme Being. From that perspective, morality is an attribute limited to the human realm, essential to our unique and special status in the eyes of one’s Creator, a set of tests for the judgment that will determine our eternal status in the afterlife. For de Waal, that’s counterfactual thinking. From his long career of observing primates, bonobos among them, he finds a form of moral behavior innate to their interactions with others of their kind, similar to that of all mammals and possibly even other animal species. Such animal morality predates that of humans, and what humans exhibit—or hope to exhibit—shares the same roots. According to de Waal, moral codes aren’t dictates of divinity but rather manifestations of inborn compassion that existed before human religion.

To epitomize the belief he is denying—the conviction that people require the imposition of rules from a divine source—de Waal refers to a statement attributed to Ivan, the atheist of Dostoevsky’s three Karamazov siblings. In de Waal’s version it is, “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!” Most people quote Ivan as saying, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” It turns out that those words are also inaccurate. What Ivan said in the novel (as translated from the Russian in the Pevear-Volokhonsky English version) is, “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything.” Although the familiar and inaccurate condensed version may imply the necessity of a deity to control human wantonness, the inclusion of “the future life” actually completes the argument: if people didn’t have the threat of eternal punishment hanging over them—along with the corollary reward of eternal bliss—they would have no incentive to behave morally, no reason to restrain their innate tendency to run amok with unrestrained license.

For many in the secular West, including those who would read de Waal’s book, he may be restating the obvious in denying a divine basis for moral codes. Yet Ivan’s proposition in its various iterations resonates for billions of people who have never read The Brothers Karamazov and perhaps don’t even know such a novel exists. Those billions believe humanity needs the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient punisher and the promises of a rewarder.


The Pew Findings

A 2014 Pew survey reveals a geographic set of responses to the notion of God as requisite for morality, and national or regional clusters of believers. This study of 40 countries produced dramatic differences according to continent and region. Great majorities in Africa and the Middle East consider a deity necessary for moral behavior, as do 99 percent in certain Asian countries. Europe overall goes in the opposite direction, but the U.S. is split. Of course, some are skeptical about the validity of such surveys. Still, despite the American exception, one conclusion might be that the more affluent and technologically advanced a country, the less likely its citizens are to believe they need a deity to make them behave, and another that the Pew people are onto a wide global split in beliefs about the relationship of God and morality.

Contrary to the religious believers, de Waal argues that divinity has nothing to do with morality. In the book, he presents evidence to build a case that if God does not exist, everything is not permitted to bonobos or chimpanzees or, for that matter, kittens and puppies. More accurately, they do not permit themselves everything.


Tooth and Claw

Some in the secular world who find de Waal’s dissociation of a deity and morality old news might consider his view of the natural world more problematic. They make a fundamental distinction between the human and animal realms, with immoral animals indulging their vicious predatory appetites, supported by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Pulitzer Prize winning essays of Annie Dillard, and the fiction of Joseph Conrad. Although he does not refer to these writers by name, de Waal in his observations of animal interactions mounts an argument against assumptions such as theirs.

Tennyson famously claims a fundamental opposition between Nature and God’s love in Canto 56 of In Memoriam:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

Here the poet echoes the Great Chain of Being theory, where humans exist in a unique realm. As St. Augustine puts it, “Man is an intermediate being, but intermediate between beasts and angels. A beast is irrational and mortal, while an angel is rational and immortal. Man is intermediate, inferior to the angels, and superior to the beasts.” While literal acceptance of that theory may have faded, belief in the unique status of humans has dominated for millennia. Descartes considered animals essentially automata unable to feel pain, and most have followed his lead, at least in assuming that animals don’t deserve the moral consideration reserved for humans because they are “other.”

Annie Dillard, in The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, through her close observation of the creatures she encounters during her Thoreau-like retreat to nature in western Virginia, describes the teeming fecundity, waste, and death she finds all around her. She sees evolution as the source of these destructive excesses, and her findings could be considered a detailed case against the claimants of intelligent design. Multitudes of living creatures, from the microscopic on up, are lost along the way, while only a fraction survive. “It’s a hell of a way to run a universe,” she writes.

Dillard essentially separates humanity from the natural realm where “[e]volution loves death more than it loves you or me.” Nature values the individual being “not a whit,” while humans value the individual “supremely.” In the context of the Great Chain of Being, she might find such valuing an angelic attribute far apart from those irrational doomed beasts. For Dillard, the distinction is stark:

But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt. It is fixed and blind, a robot programmed to kill. We are free and seeing; we can only try to outwit it at every turn to save our skins.

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad dramatizes the lure of the bestial. As Conrad’s narrator Marlow illustrates through the story of Mr. Kurtz, who started off as the ideal of European civilization and ended up a headhunting barbarian, the irrationality of the beasts is the stronger force, pulling us downward, requiring a great effort to resist. “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow tells of Mr. Kurtz to three other seasoned seafarers on a yawl moored on London’s Thames at twilight, where a speaker cites the achievements resulting from the many voyages that began from the river. Marlow puts those triumphs into perspective: “And this also . . . has been one of the dark places of the earth.” “We live in the flicker,” he adds, implying that such light—enlightenment—is easily extinguished as we revert to the brutality lurking at the heart of us.

Not so, says de Waal. Not so in any way. He cites findings that hearts of most species are not dark at all. He would judge Marlow’s claim a version of Veneer Theory, a once-dominant biological belief that morality is just a thin surface concealing the entirely selfish nature of creatures, including humans. That theory, de Waal asserts, has recently been disproven by “overwhelming evidence for innate empathy, altruism, and cooperation in humans and other animals.” He cites neuroimaging evidence that we have “biases toward cooperation,” our brains activate positively when we assist others.

In fact, de Waal might be considered to be reversing The Great Chain of Being, with our—human—better sides not the result of angelic emulation but rather rooted in the altruistic inclinations of so-called beasts.

According to de Waal, moral systems are basically structures of social codes supported by two re-enforcers—from within, empathy and good relations with others to avoid trouble, and from without, the threat of penalties by higher-ups. For de Waal, that doesn’t mean a deity capable of meting out eternal damnation. Bonobo actions emanate primarily from within much more than from the threat of punishment, although bad behavior can be prevented by watchful eyes or, if it occurs, be disciplined by authority figures.


Boost and Share

For de Waal the word for such cooperation is “compassion,” and he finds that quality in animals demonstrated daily. He cites examples of younger chimpanzees supporting an arthritic old female by bringing her water from a source and boosting her to climb to a higher level, as well as evidence of smaller primates sharing food rather than fighting over it. As a result, he considers that “Contrary to the customary blood-soaked view of nature, animals are not devoid of tendencies that we morally approve of, which to me suggests that morality is not as much of a human innovation as we like to think.” Instead of tooth and claw, it’s often boost and share.

Noting paleontological findings that Neanderthals cared for afflicted individuals, he considers this information evidence of a communitarian heritage that “suggests that morality predates current civilizations and religions by at least a hundred millennia.” De Waal documents animal empathy to prove mammals give and want affection, perhaps because most mammals spend their early days with mothers who nurture their young. He does recognize that birds exhibit similar characteristics of caring and loyalty, also asking if some reptiles can be placed in the same category.

He tells of an exchange he had with the Dalai Lama, who wondered if animals as a whole, in doing all they can for themselves and their progeny, reveal that “all life is caring” and that “compassion goes to the root of what life is all about.”

Other researchers have discovered what they consider altruism in acts such as bees dying for the hive or slime mold cells cohering into a single organism to allow reproduction. But de Waal makes a distinction between such behavior and mammalian empathy, calling what bees and slime mold do a “preprogrammed tendency to sacrifice oneself for the genetic good”: “Mammals have what I call an ‘altruistic impulse’ in that they respond to signs of distress in others and feel an urge to improve their situation.”

Although de Waal cites behavioral examples of many animal species, both his own observations and those of other researchers, bonobo relationships are central to his conclusions. Dutch born and educated, his first extended research was conducted in the chimpanzee colony at the Arnhem, Netherlands zoo, resulting in his first book, Chimpanzee Politics. Since then he has written more than a dozen additional books as well as many articles, focusing on primate social behavior and conflict resolution. He now teaches at Emery University.

The existence of bonobos, despite their large and distinctive size, is a relatively recent discovery, a phenomenon of 1929 when both German and American scientists realized the creatures weren’t a subset of chimpanzees but an entirely different species, with unique anatomy, much closer to humans than any other ape. In an earlier book, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, de Waal discussed these primates in detail. In this recent book he uses examples of their behavior to support his position on compassion.


Bonobo Social Life

Bonobos differ significantly from chimps when it comes of aggression and conflict. Chimps will kill one another over territory. Bonobos, while initially hostile to neighbors by shouting and chasing, soon calm to engage in sexual activities with the strangers, actualizing the hippie mantra of the 1960s to make love, not war. De Waal quotes the Japanese primatologist Takeshi Furuichi: “With bonobos everything is peaceful. When I see bonobos they seem to be enjoying their lives.”

An obvious question arises. Are bonobos unique from other creatures in their inclinations? Or are they more benign examples of mammalian compassion, just far less prone to mixing in violence? While de Waal finds bonobos unusual in their blatant sexuality, he puts them on a continuum with chimps and humans. While the three species share many characteristics, a number are geared to each species and would be inappropriate if emulated fully by the others, such as casual bonobo public sex for people. He calls humans “bipolar apes,” as domineering and violent as chimps on bad days, as nice as bonobos on good.

Assuming that de Waal is right about the similarities between human and bonobo compassion and empathy, those similarities must be considered with a basic question: are animal emotions only similar to ours in some respects, or do they reveal evidence of a meaningful morality?


Future Lives

Beyond that question lies one more fundamental. Remember, the full English version of what Ivan Karamazov said includes “the future life.” Assuming that a life beyond this one exists, is it limited to human beings, alone of all living things in possession of a soul? And if a life beyond this one is the ultimate hope of humanity, can morality be merely a way station, a divine test that must be passed to earn a future in a state of perfect harmony, where such a thing as morality is no longer necessary?

Animals, even those as highly evolved as bonobos, don’t seem to have to pass such tests. In fact, they don’t appear to ponder, debate, and anguish over moral choices as humans often do. Their acts of compassion may be innate emotional responses. Consider a cat that climbs on the lap of an ailing human to purr comfort and an hour or so later pounces on a mouse to snap its neck. Humans, if the count of YouTube hits is any measure, can spend hours watching videos of kitten cuteness, then use that same computer to cheat on their income tax or log off to commit adultery with a neighbor’s spouse. The mouse-killing cat is just doing what comes naturally, without an instant of a qualm. The humans, the guilt varying with their degree of callousness, do know they are violating a rule.


The Range of Consequences

Of course, in the human realm, the ramifications of a specific action can be widespread, debilitating to hundreds and thousands of individuals and perhaps whole areas of the globe. We struggle with the question of whether it’s moral to send a drone to kill a single terrorist planning an attack that will kill hundreds, perhaps thousands. The worst a malevolent bonobo can do is kill another bonobo or two. And a bonobo would just act in an emotional outburst without all that preliminary mental baggage.

But are human choices a difference of degree or kind? Is it just the advances of technology that give humans the capabilities of drones, missiles, chemical poisons, nuclear devices, and other weapons that extend the range of pain and destruction far beyond the damage done by our prehistoric ancestors’ sticks and rocks? Would a furious bonobo push the button if it had access to such a button?

What often gives humans moral quandaries is the matter of consequences. In many cases, when a behavioral decision is more than an automatic response, we ponder what that decision means. If the question involves sending a drone to kill a terrorist, one immediate conundrum involves our right to take another human life based on the possibility that act will save many others. Some may consider such a choice a political or social dilemma and the decision a result of a cost-benefit analysis. Whether the problem is moral, social, or political, an act of contemplation is involved. Would a bonobo have the capacity or inclination to weigh such a moral choice or make such an analysis?


Kant’s Imperative

One thinker who says no is Emmanuel Kant of the categorical imperative, the theory that human morality is the result of our higher reason, absolute and unconditional, what we must do without an ulterior motive, such as the attainment of eternal bliss or avoidance of prison or eternal damnation. He distinguishes between rational beings, who are ends in themselves not to be used as means by others, and non-rational beings, who are things that may be used as means. In Lectures on Anthropology he elucidates further:

The fact that the human being can have the representation “I” raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth. By this he is a person . . . that is, a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion.

Kant qualified what he means by discretion, noting an obligation to relate kindly to animals ethically, but not because of what they are; rather, brutality to animals suggests cruelty to other humans.

De Waal, from his understanding of animals, dismisses Kant. He calls Kant’s elevation of “pure reason”—the notion that a true morality exists for human minds to discover—“an odd idea.” “The idea that morality can be argued from first principles,” he says, “is a creationist myth, and a poorly supported one at that.” Despite its complexity, moral law “doesn’t imply a logical design,” and de Waal finds no convincing argument exists to make that case.

Fundamentally, de Waal does not put humans and animals—bonobos—in such extremely disparate categories. A bonobo is an “I” just as much as any human, de Waal or you or me.


Bottom-up Morality

We know animals, at least those higher up the chain, can suffer forms of post-traumatic grief—the great ape who sees its mother killed, the elephant mourning in the graveyard of its species, the dog grieving for its master. But do they feel remorse and guilt, brooding for years over an act of questionable morality inflicted on another person or even a pet? Do animals crave forgiveness? Charles Darwin proposed six universal emotions shared by humans and animals (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise). We have seen that animals are capable of compassion. Researchers aren’t sure about guilt. But de Waal tells of a bonobo named Lody, who in a moment of panic bit off the finger of a veterinarian and immediately slunk off in remorse. When the vet returned fifteen years later, according to de Waal, Lody remembered and approached her, eager to see the hand he had bitten, an indication that bonobos care about relationships and possibly forgiveness.

Unlike the billions throughout the world, according to Pew, who find a powerful god a requirement as a source of morality, de Waal sees matters the other way around: humans need a concept of a god to help enforce morality, “to help us live the way we felt we ought to.” Even though de Waal is not a religious believer, he denies the stance of the contemporary militant atheists. Humans, he says, benefit from the communal connections of religion. That pragmatic justification, of course, would hardly satisfy the billions whose faith is crucial to their existence.

He calls his understanding of morality a bottom-up view:

The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather, it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time. The most fundamental one derives from the survival value of group life. The desire to belong, to get along, to love and be loved, prompts us to do everything in our power to stay on good terms with those on whom we depend.

Still, are human moral systems just an evolutionary advance on those of elephants, chimps, and bonobos? Rather than requiring a deity to tell people what’s morally right, do all those billions posit one to provide absolute authority for the behaviors they already value and the choices they make?

So what is permitted? That’s not a question a bonobo would ask. Bonobos possess an innate guidance system, just doing what comes naturally, usually something sexually pleasurable. Still, de Waal asserts that such actions are not without restraints because of group expectations and controls on conduct. All is not permitted:

Even if he [a bonobo] lacks notions of right and wrong that transcend his personal situation, his values are not altogether different from those underlying human morality. He, too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements. We may not wish to call it morality, but his behavior isn’t free of prescriptions either.

Humans also live by rules of guidance, often codified by ecclesiastical, legal, political, or cultural bodies. People, for the most part, know in advance the learned acceptable behaviors of their societies. At heart, those codes may only be systematized elaborations of the compassion other mammals have shown since there were mammals, and perhaps long before that.


Walter Cummins’s sixth short story collection, Habitat: stories of bent realism, was recently published by Del Sol Press. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

The photo copyright belongs to 123RF Stock Photo. The photo was taken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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