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

On WID's Bookshelf: The Bonobo and the Atheist.

The Bonobo and the Atheist

Written by Frans de Waal

Read by Steve Paulson, Distinguished Scholar at Discovery and Executive Producer of WPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge

“The next time you tell your kids to stop monkeying around, or you mutter under your breath about the big gorilla in the next office, you might want to reconsider hurling around those kinds of insults. We often forget that we’re also apes — just the hairless variety. And so much of what we care about — empathy, fairness, even cultural learning — is shared by other primates. That’s the provocative message of the new book by Frans de Waal, the renowned primatologist at the Yerkes Primate Center. He argues that human uniqueness is largely a myth. De Waal acknowledges that our language skills set us apart, but otherwise, he believes we’re not so special. ‘There is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain,’ he says.

De Waal’s book is filled with fascinating case studies of empathy, peacemaking and social negotiations among groups of chimpanzees and bonobos. He also riffs on the building blocks of moral behavior, the origins of religion and his lifelong obsession with the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. I was astonished by de Waal’s stories of how chimps will often go to considerable trouble to help older, disabled (and often unrelated) members of the colony. For years I’ve wondered how exceptional humans really are; this book challenged some of my basic assumptions. A fascinating read!”

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