Book Talk: Of apes and atheists - is empathy evolution?

JOHANNESBURG Thu May 16, 2013 1:55pm IST

Frans de Waal, a psychologist who studies primates at Emory University, who is the director of the four-day conference on Animal Social Complexity and Intelligence, is pictured at the conference in Chicago, August 23, 2000. REUTERS/Files

Frans de Waal, a psychologist who studies primates at Emory University, who is the director of the four-day conference on Animal Social Complexity and Intelligence, is pictured at the conference in Chicago, August 23, 2000.

Credit: Reuters/Files

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - For biologist Frans de Waal, a peaceful species of great ape in Africa is a mirror of humanity and a living argument that empathy and cooperation are far from unique to mankind.

"The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates", argues that both traits may be evolved behaviours based on his studies of the bonobo, which is found only in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other primates.

De Waal, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, may gain some support from so-called neo-atheists since he sees religion as something made by humans to fit characteristics that our species evolved long ago.

He spoke with Reuters by telephone from his home about his book and take on religion, evolution and monkey business.

Q: You say in your book that few people would take issue with evolution if it did not include humans. As someone who lives and teaches in the U.S. South, why do you think it touches such a raw nerve, especially with American evangelicals?

A: I'm not sure how that happened because before the 1920s there was not much resistance by religious people to evolutionary theory ... I don't know why that happened but it is clearly focused on the human. If you talk about the evolution of plants or let's say from fish to land animals or that kind of evolution, no one in this country blinks an eye. It's when we get to the human that things get really nasty. And that's why my book has this particular theme, that has to do with the fact that they believe if humans are not created by God but are a product of evolution then anything goes and you can throw morality out of the window.

Q: You have the biologists' exasperation with those who deny evolution in favour of creationism or its offspring intelligent design, and you have joined the swelling ranks of lapsed European Catholics. Yet you do not share the emerging neo-atheist contempt for religion. Why is that?

A: I need room to discuss this topic ... the two parties are shouting at each other, which is really what is going on here in the U.S. Here we have the neo-atheists shouting at the Biblical literalists and the other way around. If they keep shouting like that, then we can never have a discussion about the origin of morality. I want both parties to calm down a little bit and start thinking instead of shouting.

Q: You provide many examples of what can be interpreted as empathy from the mammal world, especially among primates. You say this illustrates the survival value of group life in your book. What evolutionary advantage does this confer?

A: Many animals live in groups and they live in groups for reasons. We know that primates, when they don't live in a group, they don't survive very well and the same is probably true for humans. We humans are intensely social animals and I think sociality is bred in our bones because sociality is how we survive. And that also means that if you survive in a group then you have to worry about your other group members. And so empathy is a beneficial characteristic because it helps you pay attention to others. It is part of that social fabric and so it has a very high survival value. I say in my book that the origin of it is probably maternal care and in that case of course we have no trouble recognising the survival value.

Q: Are bonobos really so peace-loving compared to the warrior chimps?

A: Until now, we have no observation in captivity or the field of one bonobo killing another bonobo. One of the big differences with chimpanzees is that when chimpanzee groups meet each other they are very hostile and the males may kill each other and that has been observed. When bonobo groups meet each other they yell and shout a little bit at each other for a few minutes and then they start mingling and they have sex with each other and they groom each other. So there is a very fundamental difference with chimpanzees.

(Editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski)

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