Looking through Waterstone’s last week, I found in the popular science section Frans de Waal’s latest work, The Atheist Amongst the Bonobos, with a subtitle about Humanism in our nearest relatives. De Waal is a primatologist with an interest in using ape behaviour to try to explain human nature and society. One of his previous books had the title Ape Politics. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that his latest book is about Bonobos, rather than the chimpanzees that usually comprise the subjects of primate research. Unlike chimps, Bonobos are matriarchal, with the females holding considerable social power. They are also very promiscuous with sex used to counteract social tensions and prevent the formation of alliances amongst the male bonobos, which lead to violence in chimpanzees. It seems to reflect the hopes and expectations of ’60s radicalism that if women had more freedom and power, in politics and business and the Judeo-Christian taboos against sex were abolished, society would become much less violent and wars would cease.
Now it may be that if women had more power, there would be less violence and war. There have been numerous feminist movements throughout history that have attempted to end conflict. One of the latest was a group of mother’s in Northern Ireland from both sides of the sectarian divide. They had lost their children to the paramilitary violence, and so were campaigning for its end. On the other hand, the BBC’s veteran reporter, Kate Adie, in her book on women and war, noted that women could be just as belligerent and pro-war as men. She cited the women, who stood on street corners handing out feathers to men, who had not joined up during the First World War. As for the issue of sex and violence, the rise of the permissive society in Europe has effectively removed much of Judeo-Christian morality concerning sex. Sex before marriage appears to have become the norm, and there is more explicit depiction of sex and sexual relations than was usually permitted when society was governed by Judeo-Christian notions of sexual restraint. It’s arguable, however, whether society is less violent. Critics of the view that freer sex would mean less war and violence have pointed out that many of the most violent societies in the ancient world had far more permissive attitudes to sex than in later, Judeo-Christian societies. Babylonian religion, for example, featured fertility cults and sacred prostitution, which were strongly condemned by the Hebrew prophets.
De Waal’s book also seems to partake of a romantic view of primitive life that goes back to ancient Rome, and even found occasional expression in medieval culture. The Romans believed that the people of the Golden Age lived without tools, agriculture and civilisation in a state of paradaisical innocence, free of disease and war. Thte archaeologist, Stephanie Moser, in her book Ancestral Images shows a depiction of a family of hairy wild men from a medieval book illustration. The image of the Wild Man first appears in the 13th century or so. They are shown naked, with a club, and usually represent primitive violence set against European civilisation and chivalry. This particular picture, however, shows a Wild Man, with his wife, a Wild Woman, nursing their baby. An accompanying poem records how they live according to nature, eating wild plants, drinking water – but only when they’re thirsty – and sleeping out on the grass. Each stanza ends with the refrain, ‘And so I have, thank God, enough’. The Wild People of the picture are therefore held up as pursuing a natural, frugal, godly life, free of the luxuries and vices of human civilisation. A similar attitude appears to be behind de Waal’s books.
The use of chimpanzees and other primates as ideal models of basic human cognitive and social traits and behaviour has also been criticised, notable by the neurologist Raymond Tallis and and the BBC science journalist, Jeremy Taylor. Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, and Taylor in Not a Chimp both argue that human culture makes us profoundly different from chimpanzees. Taylor in particular points out that we are not as close to chimpanzees as has been frequently suggested. Instead of the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees being a mere 1 or two per cent, it’s more likely to be four per cent. And this is merely genetic difference. In these different genes lie the whole world of human culture and civilisation. Taylor notes that the last common ancestor between human and chimpanzees was six million years ago. And just as humans have been evolving in those six million years, so have chimpanzees. The total evolutionary difference between people and chimps is therefore 12 million years. Tallis points out that even the most basic, biological activities, like eating and going to the toilet, in humans takes place within a network of thought and symbolic culture that simply is not present in apes. Taylor aos points out that in humans, politics takes place within a network of rights, obligations and responsibilities of which chimpanzees simply aren’t aware. Both Taylor and Tallis find intensely distasteful and factually wrong the attempts to reduce humanity to another type of ape. Taylor is also extremely critical of the accompanying anthropomorphism of chimpanzees into another type of humans. He draws a parallel with the adverts for PG Tips tea which ran for years on British television. These featured a group of costumed chimps in humorous situations, trying to perform human tasks, like moving pianos, before settling down to a nice cup of tea. They were degrading spectacles, which are now mercifully discredited and taken off the air. Yet the attempt to gain specifically human rights for chimps and other apes is also degrading in its anthropomorphism. Rather than attempt to assimilate them legally to us, we should, in Taylor’s view, recognise their difference. Only through properly appreciating and providing for that, can we see that they and other wild animals receive the proper ecological protection they need and deserve.
As for atheism, nearly ten years or so now primatologists noticed chimps gazing into the distance. They suggested that this indicated that chimps also had a vague sense of the transcendance that forms the heart of religious experience. Now this is a long way from claiming that chimps or other primates are religious, but it does indicate that there is a beginning of the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – the sense of the divine in these related primates.
Taken together, bonobos, chimps and the other apes cannot be taken as models for human nature and society. Doing so mistakenly idealises and anthropormises them. Primatology can contribute much to our understanding of these creatures as well as humans, but the differences between apes and humans must also be respected. Between us and our nearest relatives there is a whole world of culture.