Author: Frans de Waal
When Michael Jackson dangled his 9 month old baby off the fourth story balcony of a Berlin hotel in 2002 with one hand, no one had to think twice to view the act as morally obscene. It sounds stupid to even have to say it, it’s so immediately obvious. But how do most of us know right from wrong? Where do the answers come from? In the past, humankind’s moral compass has been viewed as something that separated us from the other animals. Many cite our morality as one of the most important benefits of a religious upbringing. But recent research has begun to reveal that the origins of morality may go back millions of years before the dawn of religion. Our primate ancestors exhibit a sense of right and wrong that is easily recognizable as similar to our own, as do other social mammals like elephants, dogs and whales. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, one of the world’s preeminent primatologists explores the origins of human morality.
Dutch biologist Frans de Waal has studied and written about chimpanzees and bonobos for most of his career. His office overlooks one of the chimpanzee enclosures at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta, which is affiliated with Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control. From his desk he’s able to watch the apes squabble, cooperate and console each other all day long. Over the decades, his studies have been instrumental in revealing many of the similarities between human and chimp psychology.