Primatologist Frans de Waal has a new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. Below is an excerpt from an early review in the New Republic (click photo for the Amazon listing; the Publisher's Weekly blurb is here).
Those familiar with de Waal’s previous books ... will recognize many of the same arguments resurfacing here, including the idea that human morality has biological origins. “Fairness and justice are … best looked at as ancient capacities. They derive from the need to preserve harmony in the face of resource competition.” De Waal uses the bonobo—a peaceful, sex-loving primate who may be as closely related to us, or more closely related, than the more Machiavellian chimpanzee—to attack the prevailing notion of human nature as selfish and violent, and that we are constantly battling to suppress our terrible “animal nature.” “Everything science has learned in the past few decades argues against this pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.”
What’s new here is that de Waal wades directly into the atheism-versus-religion debate, which he claims is often mistakenly cast as a science-versus-religion debate. He argues that a biologically evolved “bottom-up” morality obviates the need for the “top-down” morality imposed by religion. And yet, he sees science (and himself) as aligned with secular humanism, which is not necessarily anti-religion. He would like to see the influence of religion fade, but acknowledges that a moral code is not all religion provides: “The question is not so much whether religion is true or false, but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place.”