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Up Your Family Tree with Frans de Waal

Updated on December 1, 2014

Our Heritage Isn't as Brutal as We Thought

Frans de Waal Introduces Our Oldest Family Values

Primatologist and popular writer, Frans de Waal wants us to understand that human nature isn't something that has only to do with us but is rich with features embedded in nature, nature we share with our great ape cousins and other primates.

His research, reflected in his exceptionally readable and bestselling books, shows how clearly we are part of the expanding tree of evolution and how much we have in common with our primate cousins.

"The enemy of science is not religion," he writes in The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.

"The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma."

But don't get the idea he takes the side of science over other sources of understanding.

He sees scientists, especially prominent, vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as susceptible to blinding dogmatism as religious advocates.

He even has a fun time describing a debate between the two camps and describes the participants as "the usual suspects."

What he sees as a hopeless crusade by militant atheists to persuade people away from their religious beliefs amounts to "trying to save fish from drowning," as humorously observed by novelist Amy Tan.

But before he took on the conflict between reason and faith, his mission was to understand how humans got to be moral animals and the role religion and nature have in moral development.

Frans de Waal

Insightful author of The Bonobo and the Atheist
Insightful author of The Bonobo and the Atheist | Source

The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal

De Waal's latest book takes his research findings farther into the discovery of our place in nature. A question he has long been interested in - Where does morality come from? - is convincingly answered.

For centuries, the unchallenged answer was "religion" or, at least moral and philosophical teachings.

But as his book shows, morality predates homo sapiens - modern humans.

Empathy, rules, regulations and fairness permeate primate culture, no religion necessary. A community's need to work together in harmony trumps the selfish impulse animals are often tagged with.

Just yesterday in a news story, a vicious criminal was described as not being human but "an animal."

According to the evidence, this seems unfair to the animals, assuming we believe, contrary to reason, that we are not animals ourselves.

The Conflict Between Us and Them

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

We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them.

They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.

Frans de Waal writes well.

What gives his books power is his ability to be sure, without being cocky, his willingness to keep an open mind and to render his conclusion with compassion for all and, frequently, a healthy dose of humor.


Other Favorite Books by Frans de Waal

Barbara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was a revelation for me. Tuchman held the Twentieth Century up next to the Fourteenth and asked us how much the centuries changed us.

De Waal takes the question deeper.

In his books, de Waal goes back millennia to find what we have in common with our great ape ancestors and what we can learn from that.

What he finds should make anyone feel a sense of relief.

Morality evolved, just as brains did and our preference for walking upright. Living in groups helped communities survive and taught us the benefits of compassion and cooperation.

We really just need to get used to the idea that morality, kindness and empathy are not exclusive to humans.

We got all that from our oldest ancestors and built on it.

Mirror Neurons Make Us Human

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society
The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

Reading this book, everything I thought I knew about society changed as de Waal wrote in detail about "mirror neurons," the things within our brains that that carry our inheritance of empathy.

Important for our understanding of who we in nature, he shows how our primate cousins have the same structures within their brains and how it's carried out in communities.

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

This is the first de Waal book that hooked me.

This scientist has, in abundance, the quality that I learned (from Scott Fitzgerald) marks a truly great mind: he can hold two opposing ideas in his mind at the same time.

This quality helps him be both fair and insightful.



Are humans just another ape or something very different?

Frans de Waal on moral animals of all species.

© 2014 David Stone

What do you think?

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    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Lorelei Cohen: De Waal thinks we're the most bi-polar ape species, with excesses in kindness as well as brutality. Thank you.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Brite-Ideas: You took it to another level, Barbara. Lots of unknowns out there. Thanks.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 

      4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      We are energy, everything is energy, (that's my belief) we live on in a different form after this body is done - and I would have to agree with that famous saying, 'we are one' - I do believe that we do in fact originate from, one - are we apes? - if we're all energy, we're neither apes or human in the end

    • Lorelei Cohen profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Many species of animals mate for life. Their devotion to their family unit far exceeds that which man often gives to his own. Humanity and morality are definitely not ensnared within religious beliefs or even within our own species.


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