The Bonobo and the Atheist

This presentation given by researcher Frans de Wall presented a great elaboration on the similarities primates and humans share when it comes to social behaviors. Throughout this forty-minute long talk, de Wall explained that the roots of morality can be found in a society of primates. He explained that bonobos can portray human characteristics through their comfort for others and competition for resources.

So why did he call this presentation “The Bonobo” and THE “Atheist”?  One of the huge concepts which came up in de Wall’s conversation related to religion. Frans de Wall explained that he is not an atheist, but an apathist, someone who does not care about religion. He then explained how god, science, and reason can lead to morality from a top-down approach, but evolution can then lead to morality from a bottom-up approach. By the end of his conversation, de Wall explained that we had morality before religion, which can easily be backed up by our “gut” instincts and emotionally driven ideas.

Throughout de Wall’s commentary on primate societies, he made sure the audience was responsive, for he would make sure to include plenty of humorous videos and photographs which would drive his point home. Personally, I went home to look up more interesting things animals do. The funny thing about these videos is that the actions these animals exhibit are similar to our own actions in every day life.

In the context of AP Biology, the points Frans de Wall presented in “The Bonobo and the Atheist” come from the field of evolutionary study. The topics de Wall presented which stemmed from morality included reconciliation (something cats do not take a part of), bonobos themselves, empathy, self-awareness, altruism, and fairness. All of these may have roots in primate societies, but evolution can explain how these topics have been taken in and studied by humans themselves, which evolved from primates. Frans de Wall stated that “the chimp is more like a human than it is to a gorilla”, something that is completely DNA based and accurate, not just a guess that stems from anthropology. When comparing humans and bonobos, de Wall explained that bonobos have the ability to understand and share feelings of one another through mimicry and perspective taking. However, de Wall also swayed from primates in order to explain similarities between humans and other animals, like elephants. Like us, elephants can collaborate, learn, and wait–something de Wall learned through an experiment he conducted, where he observed two elephants trying to learn how to work together in order to reach a source of food they both needed. After this tangent, we were introduced to more ways in which primates can be as social as us humans are. All of these similarities between the morals of different organisms can be explained by evolution. These morals are what keeps a society intact and allows for reproductive success. Through these morals, any organism can find a mate and be able to pass down his or her genes to the next generation of species. This is why there is such a deep study among primates, because they do things that many of us do in our everyday lives. However, we came from primates, so in essence, we do many things that they did before we were an established species on this earth, things which have allowed us to reproduce exponentially and become a dominant species on this planet.

After this presentation, I was in awe of how similar we are to many animals on this Earth. We are similar to elephants, primates, dogs, and lions, among others. All of these similarities explain that we all came from a common ancestor. We share certain characteristics because it allows for reproductive success in this world. Without the morals presented by Frans de Wall, many societies would ultimately fail to spread in their habitats and would fail to establish a niche for themselves. With the help of evolution, these morals are able to spread around the globe to allow for the best species to pass their genes to future generations.

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