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

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

Frans De Waal. Norton, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-07377-5

Primatologist De Waal (Our Inner Ape) seeks to move beyond the faith-vs.-science divide in this reflection on the origins of morality, drawing from his famed work studying apes. De Waal’s name is particularly associated with bonobos, which provide a matriarchal, relatively peaceful, and sexually uninhibited contrast to chimpanzees, a violently competitive and male-dominated ape not unlike human patriarchy. He compares aspects of both species to humans, finding glimmers of supposedly unique qualities of human intelligence in both bonobos and chimps. Bonobos, “primate hippies,” are unmistakably touchy-feely, but the book also finds traits like friendship, inhibition, and empathy in the less obviously sensitive culture of chimps, as well as other kinds of apes and mammals. Readers will enjoy De Waal’s affectionate, colorful accounts of animal behavior, and those of religious faith will especially appreciate the author’s respectful attitude. While De Waal argues that morality is derived “from within,” not “from above,” he depicts the dilemma between rationalism and religion as a false one, urging fellow atheists to be more conciliatory toward believers. His personal, even idiosyncratic book—Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights forms a recurring motif—will likely not be received as the last word on its subject, but readers shouldn’t miss De Waal’s specific form of expertise. 12 illus. Agent: Michelle Tessler, Tessler Literary. (Mar.)