Intelligent Life

arewesmartPerhaps the most pervasive trait of religion is its ability to construct worldviews. Even when the religion is eventually abandoned, the worldview remains. Most scientists would deny that religion lies behind their perspectives, but in the case of human exceptionalism it remains the most logical cause. I always eagerly await new books by Frans de Waal. Ever since I read his book on empathy and apes, I couldn’t wait for the next one. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, although the title is a mouthful, does not disappoint. As I’ve noted before about his works, de Waal is perhaps the most sensible person writing in science today. He considers the evidence and takes his own biases into account. In a competitive world where science money is often doled out to those who can exclude others, de Waal is willing to leave the door open when the evidence demands it.

What is really ironic is that evolution has become the line in the sand between biblical literalists and science. As de Waal points out, the idea that people are different from the animals from which they evolved—in some qualitative way—is an idea based on religion. Many scientists still hold to it in a way that can only be described as, well, religious. This is very strange when evolution works by gradual changes over long periods of time. When did humans gain whatever trait that separates them from “the animals”? When I was a child it was tool use. When that was disproved, it became language. When that was disproved it became consciousness. The latter is the safest since nobody really knows what it is. As de Waal amply demonstrates the Behaviorist school was clearly wrong about animals (including humans). What no Behaviorist wants to admit is that the idea that we alone are conscious comes from the cultural interpretation of the Bible.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is, like many of de Waal’s books, full of wonderful observations of the ways animals actually behave. They solve problems. They learn from experience. They anticipate the future. In some cases they have been shown to outperform humans on cognitive tasks. And yet we still insist that people are somehow different. Better. Interestingly this is one area where religions and science tend to agree. People are just more important than animals. I wonder if one of the underlying reasons—not addressed by de Waal—is that we have come to depend on a lifestyle that unfairly exploits animals. After all, we eat them, use them for work, and even experiment on them. If we admit that they are intelligent we would need to, yes, rethink all of this. Given what’s happening in the world today, it is perhaps time to admit what we don’t really know.

Apes’ Asherah?

As a part of my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, since we were dealing with the earliest textually recorded religions, I explored origins. Specifically, the origins of religion. For years I told my students that biologists had observed behavior among chimpanzees that was proto-religious. Imagine my delight in seeing an article on New Scientist headlined “What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion?” The article, by Rowan Hooper, describes chimpanzees banging rocks before a “sacred tree” and storing the rocks in the tree in a ritualized fashion. That’s a long way from Episcopalians putting on their Sunday finery, but it is a fascinating piece of a larger puzzle. As the article points out, other symbolic action among chimps has been observed—some of it the basis for what I discussed with my students. The impulse to acknowledge the power of the Other runs deeply within animals, particularly mammals and birds.

This may seem an odd thing to suggest. We do know, however, that among the earliest attested behavior or Homo sapiens, along with hunting and seeking shelter, is religious behavior. It is part of who we are. Primatologists, such as Frans de Waal, have noted that the great apes engage in altruistic behavior. It is only when they become billionaires, apparently, that the urge dies. Again, other mammal species and some birds also show altruistic behavior. We are part of the natural world. Our religion, rather than being a collective insanity, is part of a continuity with that natural world. It is much a part of who we are as is seeking food or putting on clothing.


The more rakish side of my imagination goes to the fact that this article begins with a sacred tree. Tree worship is part of early religions. Some scholars suggest it is part of Asherah’s cult in the ancient world. (I discussed this in technical terms in an article some years back; take a look at my Academia page if you can’t sleep without reading it.) Goddess or not, trees are essential for our survival—call them a godsend. Would it not make sense for religion to include reverence for trees? It seems that some great apes, at least, agree. Are these primates religious? We can’t say. One thing, however, is certain. Our fellow animals show more moderation in their use of the environment than our species does, and that in itself is both logical and religious.

In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.

Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.

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)

Being Human

Within the first three pages, if you’re not mortally offended or inexplicably happy, you’re probably not an American.

Growing up with pets, I had a hard time understanding the hard and fast line drawn between animals and people. The failsafe fact used back then is that only people used tools. When we looked closer at animals we found that wasn’t quite true. Well then, only people have language. A large question mark has grown from that assertion too. The final fallback, the sine qua non was souls: only people have souls. It is also the safest of assertions, since it can be tested for neither people nor animals.

This way of thinking, according to Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, arises from the western religious tradition—a religious tradition that grew up in relative isolation from other primates. Many world religions do not feel the necessity of making people absolutely different from our animal cousins. In Christianity at least, heaven itself rides on it. What are we so afraid of?

I posted, a couple years back, on Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. Having just finished The Age of Empathy, I have reaffirmed my earlier accolades—he is one of the most sensible and important writers alive. Step by slow, evolutionary, cautious step, de Waal illustrates that one of the taboos of science—that animals don’t have emotion—is patently wrong. Not only do they experience emotion, but apes, cetaceans, and dogs at least, know empathy. Even scientists don’t like to admit this because science grew up in the shadow of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim worldview of human superiority.

But there’s even more at stake. As de Waal makes perfectly clear, the unbridled capitalism of the United States goes against nature. The unlimited acquisition of the vast majority of the resources by the few sets our primate sensibilities on end. Empathy, the ability to feel for another and take their perspective, is not only part of animals’ experience of the world, it is also a mandate of our religions. In order for society to survive, we must come to know this truth. Falsely applying Social Darwinism as factual, biological Darwinism, the few have taken more than either biology or religion permits.

The Age of Empathy should be on every school’s mandatory reading list and corporate climbers should learn that even selfishness has a very steep price tag. Not only for themselves, but for all of us.

Voices from the Third Estate

Discussions over the past week in that great wasteland we call state government have included talk of actually having millionaires taxed to shoulder a little of the state’s fiscal burden. Naturally there has been a strong backlash in this nation of deeply embedded plutocracy. Those who have their millions certainly feel little social responsibility, since the prosperity Gospel (or its analogs) comforts them with whispers that wealth is a sign of blessing. One of the most evil ironies of all is that many such folk have the chutzpah to cite the Bible as their backer. God loves the beautiful people.

Such virulent misreading of religion shrugs off millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf. Petroleum companies breed some of the wealthiest individuals around, and if we wipe out the marine life of the southern coast, well, that’s a small price to pay for individual privilege. Somewhere along the line an unholy matrimony between religion and greed produced the great plague that will lead to the fall of western civilization. This may be seen clearly among the apes.

Frans de Waal, an author whom I’ve quoted before, notes that in ape society when an individual (or individuals) takes advantage of the system, the group eventually brings an end to his (or rarely her) reign. Primate society can only tolerate abuses that damage a community for so long before a collapse is immanent. Consider Rome, “the eternal empire.” Every day politicians posture in the media about how they have the best interests of society at heart. As members of the privileged classes, they have lost sight of what it feels like to live in the constant umbra of the supercilious wealthy while millions have no jobs, no health care, no future. Millionaires owe nothing to the society that allowed them to become rich, for the Bible tells them so. Nature, however, begs to differ.

Thoughts Off de Waal

Although Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape was published half a decade ago, the monograph remains terribly relevant. I gave some primary impressions of the book last week, but one section has remained firmly in my head and has mingled with all the harsh rhetoric in the news about health care reform in the United States. Asking the question of whether Homo sapiens are still evolving biologically, de Waal withholds his final opinion on the matter, but he points out that statistics indicate Americans are falling behind much of the rest of the developed world in terms of general health. This he ascribes to the competition inherent in a free market economy that favors the best health care only to the wealthy while the average citizen is offered substandard options. The numbers bear him out on this – he notes that on the standards utilized to measure general health, the United States is not even in the top 25 industrial nations.

With the conviction of a true prophet, de Waal notes that privatization of health care has led to a precarious imbalance in medical care in the United States, where the top 1 percent of citizens has more income to spend than the bottom 40 percent combined. This, he believes, is because we have lost sight of the altruism inherent in apedom. Although the great apes are endangered (ironically, by their overly greedy genetic cousins) their societies show no such disparity. An ape family will assist a weakened or feeble member and give it extra care to ensure that it is offered a life as comfortable as possible. They do not discard the fragile and “expendable” members. Republicans, however, wave placards trying to shout down basic health coverage for the poor.

Does biological evolution continue among the human species? Have we stopped natural selection’s eternally ticking clock? Only time will tell. It does seem, however, that the very Bible pounded by the Religious Right (health care reform’s greatest opponent) would argue that the apes got it right. We should care for the poor, disadvantaged, and underrepresented. While the Tea Party belles are busy trying to rewrite history with America founded as a Christian nation they daintily wipe their mouths on the pages of the very book they treasure so deeply and claim as their authentic heritage.

Hate, in the Name of Love

I knew I was in trouble when I looked up the concept “codependency” on Wikipedia this morning and read, “This article has multiple issues.”

I was reminded of an article my wife pointed out to me on MSNBC earlier this week concerning Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. My thoughts about religious freedom clash with my outrage over what may be legally classified as a religion. I’ve mentioned Phelps before, but the deeper issue here is whether freedom of religion can truly be free. Westboro is being sued (rightfully, imho) in a case that is going to the Supreme Court. His codependent hatred is causing excessive grief to the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Phelps claims it is God’s will that he spread his Gospel of Hate.

Reading Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, it quickly becomes apparent that empathy is what makes human society possible. Without our ability to feel for another, nature would lead us on a selfish rampage that would not be satiated until everyone but the alpha male was ruthlessly butchered. This seems to be Phelps’ idea of Heaven. It should be a stark warning sign when apes have better bred manners than a pastor.

Hatred and religion may form a codependent bond. Each feeds off the fear and distrust of the other, striking blindly at anything that is different, challenging, or unclear. Religion does have its noble children – those who in the name of their faith try to make life better for others. If the world were run according to Phelps’ religion, however, I would opt for life on the planet of the apes.

Ape Versus Primate

I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve found in quite some time: Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. My attention was first drawn to the author when Rutgers University sponsored a talk he gave in the fall that I was unfortunately unable to attend. Simultaneously I saw his book footnoted in a text I was reading and decided to follow up on it. In addition to containing fascinating, documented anecdotes concerning ape behavior (he tells of a bonobo that attempted to help an injured bird fly!) de Waal holds a mirror up to the great apes and sees humanity reflected back. His discussion of the origins of morality makes far more sense to me than any theory I’ve seen a professional ethicist concoct. Our sense of empathy, de Waal notes with considerable evidence, derives from our common ancestor with the apes.

After discussing the understudied trait of kindness in the apes, de Waal writes: “With morality firmly rooted in sentiment it’s easy to agree with Darwin and Westermarck on its evolution and to disagree with those who think culture and religion contain the answer. Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial” (225).

These might just be platitudes if ample evidence did not demonstrate their veracity. Apes plan ahead, recognize fairness, and can even see issues from the point of view of others (something Gorgias Press might benefit from learning). They are clearly inheritors of the moral sense that evolution has crafted among all cooperative animals over the eons. Religions like to lay claim to the origins of morality: we behave this way because our god told us to. In a sense that may be true, but only if the “god” is nature itself and the instruction it gives is the way for a species to thrive. Caring for one another, all religions aside, is the formula that evolution presents as the most successful choice of natural selection.