Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

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