The Bonobo and the Atheist

Contrary to what you might gather from the title of his talk, Frans de Waal began by making the distinction that he is neither an atheist nor even agnostic. He considers himself an apatheist, someone who does not believe or not believe in anything, rather someone who simply does not care about religion. Aside from the very beginning, de Waal’s talk barely scratched the subject of religion, but much of what he presented could have implications in religious thought. His fascination with the facts and avoidance of the implications gave credential to his self-described apatheism.

What de Waal discussed was animals (bonobos and chimps, our closest living relatives, as well as elephants) and morality. Morality, as he stated, comes in many forms including: reconciliation, empathy, self-awareness, altruism, and fairness. He presented a study where elephants were able to work together and collaborate towards a common goal, even when one of them had to wait a period of time for their partner to be ready to begin the task. He presented a study where this pair of monkeys was content as long as they both got the same sub-par reward. As soon as one monkey began to get a better reward than the other, the worse off monkey would yell and scream and refuse his award. Soon, even the better off monkey would refuse the good reward, because it wanted fairness. He also pointed to a particular instance where elephants used quick thinking and strategic unintuitive skills to save a baby elephant from drowning in mud. The implication of his many case studies is that morality predates religion on the evolutionary timeline.

Van der Waal avoids using the word atheism. If I were him I would take it a step further and avoid using the word morality. Although he claims to not care about it, de Waal is not religious because he believes religion is a human invention, as evidence by its evolution in us and not in other intelligent animals. But if religion does not exist, why does morality exist? To me, every instance of morality in the animal kingdom was not morality at all. He kept using the word altruism to describe acts of fairness, and to disagree with that. Intelligent collaboration and acts of fairness is not altruism, it is survival. Animals that live together need to survive by helping each other to survive. We can say that they are doing a nice thing, but in reality they are doing the very things they indirectly need to do in order to survive.

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