On Atheists and Bonobos
A conversation with Frans de Waal

Everyday we are confronted with choices; most are relatively mundane, but occasionally we must carefully weigh different options and struggle to determine “good” from “bad”, and “right” from “wrong”. These notions emanate from, and are influenced by a system of values, a system of morality.



About Frans de Waal:

Frans de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behaviour in the Emory University Department of Psychology. He is also director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre. His research focuses on various aspects of primate social behaviour includin...


Some Additional Resources:
New Books Network Interview with Frans de Waal

Marshall Poe interviews Frans de Waal on The Bonobo and the Atheist

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

by Frans de Waal

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

by Frans de Waal

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

by Frans De Waal

"Moral behavior in animals"

TED Talk by Frans de Waal
Frans discusses morality in primates in this lecture which includes videos of some of the experiments.

"Frans De Waal Says Primates Can Teach Us A Great Deal About The Origins Of Justice, Power And Morality"

BigThink Talk by Frans de Waal

Aping Morality (Commentary Excerpt)

A close examination of the combined origins of religion and morality has long been a deeply unsettling experience.

In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask: “Do the gods love the pious because it is pious, or is it pious only because it is loved by the gods?”

Abstract philosophical mumbo-jumbo? Well, consider the modern theistic version, then, which rippled down like a thunderclap over the centuries, sending monks scurrying to their wine cellars in search of some form of earthly solace: “Does God will the good because it is good? Or is it good merely because God wills it?”

If God, who is presumed omnipotent, has even His moral standards constrained by some pre-established measuring stick, then clearly He is not so omnipotent after all. Even God, in other words, can’t make killing your neighbour the right thing to do.

But then, if God is not constrained by any higher moral guide – if God can decide that killing your neighbour is somehow the right thing to do if His mood strikes – then the difference between good and bad, between moral and immoral, simply becomes arbitrary, a measure of what God saw fit to decide upon on the spur of the moment. That hardly seems terribly satisfying either, to put it very mildly. Hence the need for larger monastic wine cellars.

Nowadays, ensconced in our modern secular world where theological disputes can be safely relegated to the quaint and irrelevant, most of us sleep untroubled by these ancient conundrums.

But we shouldn’t. Because they haven’t gone away.

Of course, they never did. From Kant to Mill, from Nietzsche to Dostoyevsky, some of the greatest minds of history have butted heads squarely with how we might somehow ground our moral sense in a coherent and meaningful way, with or without God.

Lately, in the United States at least, with the increasing prevalence of gladiatorial-style theatre between strident neo-atheists and unflinching fundamentalists, the public spotlight is once again shining on moral values and religion, but this time largely devoid of any clear understanding of previous insights.

While religious literalists trumpet the Bible as the sole mode of ethical understanding and moral relativists crow that all is permitted, astutely self-promotional polemicists like Sam Harris reveal that science can successfully determine moral principles through a particularly jejune sort of tautological utilitarianism where “human values” are simply those that necessarily lead to “human flourishing”.

Into this crowded, if turgid, intellectual landscape steps Frans de Waal, Emory University’s celebrated primatologist...

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