Reader Phil called my attention to a new book by primatologist Frans de Waal that will be published next year, The Bonobo and the Atheist (March 2013, W. W. Norton, though Amazon says Feb. 25).
The Norton description sounds intriguing:
Drawing on his landmark research, esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal traces the biological roots of human morality.
In this thoroughly engaging book, leading primatologist and thinker Frans de Waal offers a heartening, illuminating new perspective on human nature. Bringing together his pioneering research on primate behavior, the latest findings in evolutionary biology, and insights from moral philosophy, de Waal explains that we don’t need the specters of God or the law in order to act morally. Instead, our moral nature stems from our biology—specifically, our primate social emotions, which include empathy, reciprocity, and fairness. We can glimpse this in the behavior of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: chimpanzees soothe distressed neighbors, and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to their own food. Building on a wealth of evidence, de Waal reveals that morality is not dictated to us by religion or social strictures. Rather, it is the inevitable product of our biological nature.
The fact that the roots of morality can be seen in some of our closest relatives is a common theme of de Waal’s work. And the rejection of God-given morality implied by the description is heartening—a good palliative for the “Moral Law” argument of Francis Collins.
What worries me a bit, though, is what Frans posted 24 hours ago on his public Facebook page:
The book is almost done! It is a reflection on religion and the origins of morality. It questions whether we get any closer to the truth by bashing religion, the way neo-atheists have been doing, even though I also believe that morality antedates modern religion. The book is of course heavy on primate behavior, but also covers philosophy, discusses medieval art, and seeks a way of bridging the gap (loved by philosophers) between facts and values. All in one book!
De Waal has gone after New Atheists before, most notably in a New York Times piece I highlighted in October of 2010. There he said this:
Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It 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 was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
I welcome de Waal’s demonstrations and arguments for the origin of morality as at least a partial inheritance from our primate ancestors. But the atheist-dissing seems gratuitious, something that doesn’t belong in a book of this type unless de Waal is trying to occupy some nonexistent “middle ground” (“halfway to crazy town,” as P.Z. calls it). The goal of New Atheism, as I see it, is not mainly to insult religious individuals, but to question the tenets of belief, point out the invidious consequences of unsupported belief, and question the unwarranted privilege that religion has arrogated to itself. Surely that’s something that a scientist like de Waal would approve of.
And what would morality look like without religion? Have a gander at Scandinavia. That doesn’t look too bad to me; in fact, the region looks more moral than the U.S. Please, Frans, lay off the gratuitious and incorrect characterizations of New Atheism.
But I will of course read Frans’s book, as I’ve greatly enjoyed his other books on primate behavior. You can order it here.