Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist : Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist
By Frans de Waal

Enjoyable and interesting.   de Waal discusses research on how bonobos, chimps and other animals empathize and live by social behavior rules, which ensure smooth social relationships.  He posits that human ethics/morality developed in a bottom-up fashion, evolving from emotions and good day-to-day social interaction behaviors, rather than in a top-down approach of religion dictating good ethical behavior.  In this manner, he argues that ethical and moral behavior existed long before any organized religion and can therefore exist in a society without any central religion.

I found his description of the research on animal behavior to be the most interesting.  He particularly focuses on bonobos, since they are unusual for the ape family: the groups are led by females, and bonobos are comparatively peaceful (i.e. unlike chimps, who are highly territorial and will brutally kill others, it's possible for two separate groups of bonobos to merge or coexist with one another.)  However, he does describe experiments and anecdotes with a number of varying animals, which demonstrate psychology and social traits, which are very familiar to us.

For example, a story of how bonobos care about the social welfare of others:
Apes do seem to worry about the possible death of others... Upon hearing sudden screams in the swamp forest, fieldworkers found a male, Malusu, crouching with a metal snare around his hand... Other bonobos unfastened the snare from the lianas, and tried to remove it from Malusu's hand. He kept getting stuck, however, and was left behind while the others traveled to the dry forest where they usually slept. The next morning, these bonobos did something never observed before: they returned over a mile distance straight to the same spot where they had last seen Malusu. Once there, they slowed down and searched around. Given their knowledge of snares, the bonobos may have made the connection with the loss of a group member. They failed to find Malusu, but a month later he rejoined the community.  Despite a permanently mangled hand, he had survived his ordeal.
Some of their experiments demonstrate that apes have a psychological sense of fairness:
This became an immensely popular experiment in which one [capuchin] monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task.  The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings... The monkey receiving a cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart.
He also gets into the environment of scientific testing and specifically, how scientist bias in believing that humans are unique, negatively influences research:
This bias was ignored not too long ago when humans were considered good at face recognition. Apes had done poorly on the same tests as applied to humans with the same stimuli, which meant that the apes had been tested on human faces. I call this the "anthropocentric bias" in ape research, which is responsible for much misinformation.  When one of my co-workers in Atlanta, Lisa Parr, used the hundreds of photographs I had shot in Arnhem to test chimpanzees on portraits of their own species, they excelled at it. Seeing the portraits on a computer screen, they were even able to tell which juveniles were offspring of which females, doing so without personally knowing the pictured chimps.
His intention in bringing up research into empathy, social behavior and fairness of bonobos and chimps is to make the link that humans may have similarly developed their sense of ethics and morals from being in a social communities, well before organized religion.  I found this linkage to be rather weak.  As de Waal's focus is in animal research, he does not go into any similar human psychology experiments, which would make this point more explicit.

With that being said, he does have some nuanced thoughts on the current atheist vs believer and science vs religion 'war' taking place in American media/society.  His thinking goes along the line that it's completely feasible for a society to be ethical and moral without organized religion.  He, however, disagrees with neo-atheists' view that 1) those who believe in religion should be mocked and 2) religion should be replaced with science and rationality:
Science isn't the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the "naturalistic fallacy" and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been very much involved in the genocidal machine... Children had been sown together to create conjoined twins, live humans had been operated on without anesthesia... I have never forgotten this dark postwar period, during which every scientist who spoke with a German accent was suspect.  American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics...
  ...As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior... While I do welcome a science of morality, I can't fathom calls for science to determine human values. Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? ... I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality's handmaiden.
Lastly, I should mention that de Waal also refers to the works of the artist, Hieronymus Bosch, frequently throughout the book.  He mentions on the first page: "I was born in Den Bosch, the Dutch city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself", so clearly the works of Bosch seem personally special to him.  However, his descriptions of the works and his attempts to link to the other topics were both weak and distracting to me, particularly without being able to see the works being described.

All in all, the research and points that de Waal does explore and discuss were interesting enough to make this a worthwhile read.

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