Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bonobos, Christians, Scandinavians, Atheists, and Government

There is a tenet propagated by many religious believers that religion is what separates us from animals.  It is our religious beliefs that provide the moral rules that have allowed our civilization to develop.  This notion that rules of human behavior have been handed down to us from above has aroused Frans de Waal to come to the defense of both the animals and humans, pointing out that each are better-developed morally than they are given credit for.  He is a primatologist who is a professor at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia.  His arguments are presented in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.

The bonobo is, from the human perspective, a lesser known, less abundant species of chimpanzee.  An anthropologist from another planet would categorize us as three species of ape.  It is the view of this alien anthropologist that de Waal wishes us to consider.

From the human perspective, we split off from the chimpanzee line about six million years ago.  The bonobos split off that same line about one million years ago.  The bonobos were geographically isolated from the better known common chimpanzee and evolved differently.  Their body structure is more like that of a human and the society it developed is as different from that of the common chimp as is the human.  What de Waal sets out to demonstrate is that these three quite different apes all possess common traits that are necessary for animals to coexist in groups.  These are traits that we would associate with pro-social behavior, as opposed to anti-social behavior. These pro-social behaviors are equivalent to living according to a moral code.

 The claim then can be made that it is not religion that provides us with the moral precepts necessary for civilization; rather, it is the innate set of traits that millions of years of evolution have provided us that forms the base upon which religion was able to evolve.

The common chimps, being more numerous and more extensively studied, probably provided sufficient data for de Waal to prove his thesis.  The existence of data for another species can only strengthen his case, but one suspects that bonobos are just so damned interesting that he couldn’t resist focusing on them.

 Bonobos differ from the common chimp by having a matriarchal society.  A group will possess an alpha female.  There will also be a dominance hierarchy for males, but their prestige and authority are derived from their mothers.  One observer described the dominant male as a general who gets his orders from the female prime minister.

Bonobos are much more peaceful than common chimps.  This moved an observer to claim that if two unfamiliar bands of bonobos were to wander into each others’ path it is more likely that an orgy would break out, rather than violence.  One of the more interesting traits of bonobos is the way they use sex in social interactions. It is a way of relaxing the tension associated with meeting a stranger; it is a way of bonding with another male or female; it is a way of expressing gratitude or sympathy; it is way to have fun.

From de Waal we are provided this perspective:

“Even if becoming a primate sexologist was never my goal, it was an inevitable consequence.  I have seen them do it in all positions one can imagine, and even in some we find hard to imagine (such as upside down, hanging by their feet).  The most significant point about bonobo sex is how utterly casual it is….We use our hands in greetings, such as when we shake hands or pat each other on the back, while bonobos engage in ‘genital handshakes.’  Their sex is remarkably short, counted in seconds rather than in minutes.  We associate intercourse with reproduction and desire, but in the bonobo it fulfills all sorts of needs.  Gratification is by no means always the goal, and reproduction only one of its functions.  This is why all partner combinations engage in it.”

“The contrast with their fellow species is striking.  Most observed chimp killings take place during territorial disputes, whereas bonobos engage in sex at their boundaries.  They can be unfriendly to neighbors, but soon as a confrontation has begun, females have been seen rushing to the other side to copulate with males or mount other females.  Since it is hard to have sex and wage war at the same time, the scene rapidly turns into socializing.  It ends with adults from different groups grooming each other while their children play.”

While not all bonobo interactions end with this degree of congeniality, violent interactions are rare.

Bonobos provide an interesting alternative to the popular assumption that human development is characterized by the need to resort to violence in order to attain dominance in intra-group activities as well as in conflicts between groups.  This seems reasonable given the warfare that has existed since history came to be recorded.  However, that period is just a brief instant in terms of human evolution and was driven by enormous changes in how humans lived.  The relatively peaceful bonobos society could just as easily be the better paradigm for early human societies.   

“I welcome bonobos precisely because the contrast with chimpanzees enriches our view of human evolution.  They show that our lineage is marked not just be male dominance and xenophobia but also by a love of harmony and sensitivity to others.  Since evolution occurs through both the male and female lineage, there is no reason to measure human progress purely by how many battles our men have won against other hominins.  Attention to the female side of the story would not hurt, nor would attention to sex.  For all we know, we did not conquer other groups, but bred them out of existence through love rather than war.  Modern humans carry Neanderthal DNA, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we carry other hominin genes as well.  Viewed in this light, the bonobo way doesn’t seem so alien.”

Psychologists have been experimenting on humans to discover innate tendencies and have discovered that people are inherently pro-social.  The default option is to be considerate of others and to avoid hurting others unless they themselves have in some way been mistreated and feel free to retaliate.  This type of behavior is what is necessary if people are to exist in societies.  Much of de Waals book is devoted to providing evidence that this behavior also exists in chimps, bonobos and other mammals.  Furthermore it exists in infants of the various species so it is an innate attribute, not one acquired culturally.  There is an obvious evolutionary explanation why this behavior would have been selected.  For much of existence life was very difficult and survival depended on the protection and sustenance that could be obtained as a member of a cooperative group.  The alternative to living within such a group was often death.

In de Waals’s view, these pro-social tendencies were sufficient in a small group to keep members behaving in accordance with the social rules.  Everyone would be aware of any transgression and punishment was near certain.  There was no need for any imposition of a moral code.  Thus, early humans who lived in such small groups had no need for a religion to define morality and preserve rules.  Religion would come later as humans developed larger and more complex societies where some explicit mechanism was required to define and demand appropriate behaviors.  As societies evolved, religion evolved with them in order to continue to maintain control.

As an atheist, de Waal does not have to believe any of the claims of religious authenticity in order to view religion as a positive factor in society.  Therefore, as an atheist, why should he feel a need to argue about religious authenticity, especially when there is no way to prove who is wrong or right.  He has little sympathy for those aggressive atheists who seem to feel a need to wage war against religion.

“True, if being a self-declared atheist carries a stigma, as it unfortunately does in this nation, frustration is understandable.  Hatred breeds hatred, which is why some atheists rail against religion and talk as if its disappearance will be a huge relief.  Never mind that religion is too deeply ingrained for it to ever be eliminated, and that historical attempts to do so by force have brought nothing but misery.  Perhaps it can be done slowly and gently instead, but that would require us to appreciate and value our religious heritage at least to some degree, even if we regard it as outdated.”

Curiously, he argues that the moral behavior imposed by religion is necessary for society to function, but then proceeds to point to Scandinavia where there is a religious history, but with essentially no impact of religion on political life, as a model “being tried out” and as a “grand experiment.”

“Civic institutions have taken over many of the functions originally fulfilled by the churches, such as care for the sick, poor and old.  Despite being largely agnostic or nonpracticing, the citizenry of these countries stands firmly behind this effort.  It is a giant experiment, both economically and morally, that may tell us whether large nation-states can forge a well-functioning moral contract without religion.”

The Scandinavian experiment has been in place for generations and has produced some of the most stable and successful nations on Earth.  In fact, a look at the list of OECD nations, the most successful nations in terms of wealth, reveals only a few that could be considered to have societies whose actions are influenced by representatives of religions.  Most are stable, secular societies.  Many have levels of religious participation that are almost as low as in the Scandinavian countries.  In fact, many countries in Europe once had state-sponsored religions that possessed great political power.  It’s as if those countries have declared that that will never happen again and are aggressively secular.  The inherent pro-social tendencies of which de Waal is so fond, combined with secular enforcement of secular rules and regulations, works just fine in a modern society.

Historically, when groups of humans grew to significant size religion and political power were closely tied together.  Often rulers maintained their power by claims of divinity or by having been anointed by the god or gods.  While religion could be used to impose moral precepts, it could also be used to levy taxes, wage war, discriminate against groups of people (and other religions), and to exact punishments. 

It is unreasonable for de Waal to imply that religion and religious leaders are responsible for the good things in society and not for the bad things humans have done.  The iron rule of religion is that it will try to impose its beliefs on others.  This has led to uncountable religious wars, mass murder, and mass destruction.

The United States, arising late in history, followed a different path.  When it was formed it had four significant religions—four versions of Christianity with each despising the other three.  There could be no government-related religion under those circumstances.  Never having experienced the disaster of a theocracy, there are many who wish to see one established based on Christian law.

Consider surveys performed by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam.  In a New York Times article titled Crashing the Tea Party (2011), they provided some insight into what self-proclaimed Tea Party adherents are really after.  The authors performed a study of the political attitudes of 3000 people in 2006, before the rise of what would come to be known as the Tea Party.  They were able to go back and re-interview many of the same people several years later.  This allows them to correlate a person’s original political beliefs with the tendency to associate with the Tea Party.

The authors find that those who would be Tea Partiers today are merely the traditionally highly conservative wing of the Republican Party. The Tea Party is not a new movement, and it was not a grass-roots development born of the Great Recession.  These people have always been there.  The only difference is that now they have greater influence in a more conservatively aligned Republican Party.

And what are Tea Partiers most interested in?

“….they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek ‘deeply religious’ elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”

Those who are against putting God in government must fight back against these people who would impose their belief system on others.  Fortunately, history provides them with plenty of ammunition.  This issue is too important to worry about being polite in dealing with one’s adversaries.

The view of the role of religion in history assumed by de Waals is dreadfully naïve.  One need not look far to note examples of tragedies that follow from mixing religion and politics.  There are very good reasons why atheists might want to trash religion.

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