The bonobo and the 10 commandments (*)


While reading this fluently written work by Frans de Waal, full of interesting facts about animal behavior, I suddenly remembered a scene from my student days in the KUL (now K.U.Leuven). On the stage of the large auditorium, philosophy professor Jan Van der Veken danced around a chair. The philosophy course is one of the most feared courses of the candidatures and the majority of the students therefore watched with great attention and interest. I myself was in the grip of a giggle at the sight of this comic act. Frankly, at that moment I missed the message that the eminent professor wanted to give us: the importance of the search for the essence of things.

What is the “essence” of a chair? After some thought, one finds the logical answer: it is a utensil designed to make people sit comfortably. Now let’s imagine for a moment that a chair is shot at space and somehow lands unscathed with intelligent space beings who have no need to sit at all. They also cannot find out where this strange object suddenly came from. The chair would be subjected to a thorough examination, resulting in a clear description of the whole, the parts and the material used. But about the most important data, the intention and the designer of the chair, these space aliens would never know anything.

Modern atheists have placed themselves in the role of such extraterrestrial beings with regard to their own biological species. They assume that God does not exist, and they automatically eliminate anything that might refer to the existence of a Creator. Consequently, they remain without any explanation of the ultimate cause of the observable existing (that is there simply because it is there) and without any intention for it (for this would refer to a meaning and a creative authority). The conclusions of atheistic scientific research can therefore only highlight the material and technological aspects of the research object. In the case discussed here, this object is the basis of the moral principles and behavior of modern man.

More generally, a “purely scientific” anthropology takes into account the dividing line between the domains of religion and science. The first deals with the ontological aspects of our existence (its meaning and origin), the second deals with how we have “evolved” into the current human species. They are two completely different domains of knowledge, one based on a “belief”, the other on “observations”. Thus, they appeal to various forms of “intelligence” that humanity possesses. The Bible is not anti-scientific, while the theory of evolution is not anti-religious per se. The problems only begin when one of the two “camps” moves overconfidently into the territory of the other.

With his publications, Frans de Waal moves in and beyond the border area between the two aforementioned knowledge domains. If he has the courage to go a few steps further, he even runs the “risk” of becoming a religious believer in addition to being a scientist … Although he confirms that he is a proponent of NOMA (“non-overlapping magisteria”), he ignores this rule of non-overlapping and openly enters the religious domain. Admittedly, he also criticizes the scientific world, but his intention is clearly to demonstrate the supremacy of scientific thought. In fact, he seems to assume that he was largely successful. Here and there he is tempted to make “strong” statements, inspired by his “dogmatic” faith in Charles Darwin, the man who can count on a “patriarchal” veneration among many of his scientific followers.

The Dutch title of this book is already misleading. He suggests some connection between “the 10 commandments” and the social behavior of bonobos. On p.80, the author shows a family tree based on DNA research. On it we see that the bonobos split off from the joint branch with the chimpanzees only two million years ago. According to the same family tree, that is 4 million years after the “human” branch developed in our direction from the trunk we have in common with all great ape species (these dates are not absolute, but rather approximate and relative). A link with bonobo behavior therefore assumes that this behavior already existed about four million years before the emergence of the bonobos themselves and that our human branch has also largely continued this behavior since then. This scenario is not exactly “evolutionary”, but seems forced, speculative and dictated by materialistic presuppositions.

There is also no connection between the natural bonobo behavior and any human commandments. In both animals and humans, behavior is partly driven by basic instincts that are predominantly genetically determined.  In both cases, these are supplemented by environmental factors, such as group pressure and mimicry. But only man is guided (and in many cases even predominantly) by “commandments”: a set of abstract precepts that guide both our social and individual actions. Animals are not guided by this unless taught to it by humans in specific cases. In addition, the 10 commandments explicitly mention God and we do not know of any examples of animals that are aware of a Creator or Supreme Being.

To begin with, a clear distinction must be made between “behavior” and “morality”. Frans de Waal’s book is full of examples of animal behaviour, a fascinating subject that is masterfully explained by this world-renowned expert. He shows his enormous capacity to empathize with the motives and behavioral mechanisms of chimpanzees, bonobos, macaques and other monkey species. He describes in detail the interaction between human researchers and the animals studied. We are sometimes amazed at what our closest animal relatives are capable of.

In the course of life evolution, they, like humans, have developed patterns of behavior, which, as mentioned, are instinctively controlled. The leading instincts or “emotions” are fear, aggressiveness, and empathy. The first puts a brake on spontaneous impulses, the second helps to defend one’s own position and that of the group and the third is indispensable for the maintenance of a peaceful and healthy social life. In solitary animals, the latter is the least developed. Man, like bonobos, is a social being and so it is perfectly normal for our basic instincts to have similarities. But that does not result in similar patterns of behavior, in terms of relationships (sexual and other), hierarchical recognitions, relationship of authority between female and male group members, the development of enemy and friendship, etc. In humans, non-instinctive factors also play an important and often decisive role.

Frans de Waal describes many moving examples of empathetic care in primates and other animals, which touch us emotionally as humans and should warm us up for the acceptance of an evolutionary link between animal behavior and human morality. Some of them seem quite sensational, e.g. crows that take care of their friends with their beaks after they have been defeated by other congeners. But in fact, all animal lovers can give examples of this and most of us have already experienced, for example, how loyal and affectionate a dog can be. Are not loyalty and affectivity “moral” qualities? Do bees that give their lives without hesitation in the defense of their nest not show “heroism”, something for which people are given decorations, statues, or street names?

That is why the author writes on p.28 “Instead of having developed our morality through rational reflection, our past as a social species has given us a big boost”.  According to him, this big boost consists of a gradual Darwinian behavioral evolution from which our morality would have flowed. But that reasoning does not take into account that what we humans consider “morality” is a set of written or unwritten precepts, which are abstract in nature. You can imprint them in the heads and minds of human children, but not as such in the brains of animals. Animals do not listen to a voice in their brain telling them to care for their loved ones or defend their community, they do so automatically, propelled by their instincts and assisted by learned automatisms (via peer pressure, fear of reprisals from a higher-ranking animal, examples of maternal care, etc.).

As human beings, on the other hand, we listen to our conscience, in which the different values we have internalized are weighed against each other before we make concrete decisions. Since we have free will, they can be both good and bad. This does not mean that we ourselves are naturally good or bad, but that our actions “make” us good or bad. Those deeds can also be words, as Christ taught us: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles man; but whatever comes out of the mouth” (Matt.15:11). A Christian man, of course, also knows fears and other instinctive impulses that can determine his concrete behavior, but if his free will and religious convictions are strong enough, he will control them and, if necessary, let himself be cast before the lions, believing in the promised resurrection. Animals cannot “believe” in things that are not directly experienced or perceptible and their behavior can therefore not be influenced by this. You don’t get “patriotism” sold to any bonobo, but many bonobos will probably instinctively and without hesitation defend their group if it is in danger.

If one digs a little deeper or thinks beyond a compellingly delineated materialistic framework, one must conclude that there is indeed a “gap” between the basis of human and animal behavior. That gap cannot be bridged evolutionarily. After all, it has a spiritual character, because it is above all the result of what we believe and with what we identify ourselves. For someone who believes little or not in supernatural or spiritual realities and who finds a large part of himself in animals, it can indeed be difficult to take this fundamental distinction into account. The outcome of his reasoning is strongly influenced by this. Frans de Waal apparently sees little or no difference between faith and superstition and the result is that he underestimates or loses sight of the great influence of the former on our moral behaviors and gets bogged down in evolutionary explanations.

And what about the Neanderthal? (**)

Where he talks about our much-studied species relative, the Neanderthal, his explanation becomes more relevant. Did this subspecies of homo sapiens possess a moral consciousness largely comparable to that of modern man today? From the foregoing we see that this largely depends on the “beliefs” that these hominids may have cherished. The problem is that it is a tour de force to deduce, from sporadically recovered artifacts, the spiritual world of the ideas of its creators or users. If we find graves, we may suspect that there was a belief or hope in an afterlife, but it may just as well be a general expression of reverence, accompanied by the concern for the preservation of the remains of a valued tribesman. In the book discussed here, examples are cited of elephants that approach the remains of their peers with respect and chimpanzees that show mourning behavior at the death of tribesmen.

Before we draw conclusions from archaeological publications about Neanderthals, it should be noted that part of their content consists of “interpretations”, obtained on the basis of imagination, projection, and comparison with possible ethnographic models. Much is already known about this extinct species with which we are closely related. Most likely, they had many forms of behavior similar to ours, since they had a large brain volume (even slightly larger than ours), reached a certain technological level (mainly referred to as the Mousterian) and in all likelihood had developed a certain ability to speak. The latter is an important step towards the possibility of abstract thinking, which, as stated above, is a basic requirement for arriving at a human “morality”.

Current research results show that Neanderthal man partially mingled with modern humans (± 4% of European human DNA is of Neanderthal origin) and that he buried his dead. He would even have left some traces that can be labeled as “art”. On pp.77-78 Frans de Waal mentions four cases that have to show that the care for the weak already existed with the Neanderthal, but two of these belong actually to modern humans. The two others belong to the more recent Neanderthals (Shanidar1, ± 50,000 BP, and La Chapelle-aux-Saints, ± 60,000 BP).

t is not at all clear to me to what extent the noted achievements come from Neanderthals or are the result of contact with modern man. According to Frans de Waal, who assumes a “bonobo-like” evolutionarily ingrained goodness of man, this proves that “morality is at least a hundred thousand years older (?) than today’s civilizations and religions” (p.78) and that our ancestors may have befriended neanderthals and felt sexually attracted to them (p.77). Personally, I think it’s much more likely that they hunted Neanderthals and took some of them in their midst as “slaves.” History shows that their descendants made slaves of their own kind, why wouldn’t they have done it with an anatomically very different subspecies? Whether various traces of cannibalism have been found among Neanderthals is still under discussion and we do not take it into account here.

Evaluation from a Christian perspective

The examples cited by Frans de Waal seem to indicate a “natural goodness” that would exist in creation, in addition to the evident presence of competitive and aggressive behavior. As Christians, we would of course gladly welcome these findings, but it is clear that the concrete behaviors of modern man in many cases, do not correspond to them and that from our earliest history we were anything but angels to each other and even less to our fellow creatures. Human history has been marked from its beginning by the struggle between good and evil, between altruism and egoism, between faith and unbelief, etc. Despite all the religious or secular exhortations for love, this discord will always be there.

Nor should there be any doubt that Frans de Waal’s proposed replacement of religious morality with “morality” based on or derived from evolutionary science will solve this fundamental problem. After all, man has a free will, which in turn is willed by God. Scientifically defined “empathy” could theoretically be taught and imposed, but this cannot lead to “sympathy” and even less to love. The latter needs freedom, and since the God we believe in as Christians loves us and wants us to love Him reciprocally, he has endowed man with free will, with all its consequences. Accepting and understanding this basic truth can only be done from the belief in God. Science can’t teach us anything about that.

This is also, for example, on which rests the eternal value of Christian marriage. A promise for eternity can only be made to The Eternal. On this in turn is based the fourth commandment, that of respect for parents. That respect can only come about within a stable relationship, in which the children know, acknowledge and above all love their parents. Love is the key word here, and the solid foundation of this love is the one we cherish for the One who gave us life in the first place, even before our parents passed this gift on to us. Marriage must be protected, not only outwardly but also inwardly: “You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor.” Start explaining that to sex-hungry bonobos.

In fact, Frans de Waal is completely wrong, for the simple reason that ” the morality” does not exist. There are Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, certain animistic, … morals. As already mentioned, they are all of an abstract nature and, moreover, they are supported by inviolable fundamental values. Therefore, the 10 commandments were carved in stone. According to the Bible story, these stone writing tables were handed over to Moses by God on Mount Sinai (Ex.50, 31:18). This can be taken literally, as the author assumes most believers do (p.202). But to many of today’s believers, it is more obvious that they were worked by Moses or his seconds after he had heard the commandments of God in the solitude of the desert mountain. The intention was that they were read, remembered, transcribed and preserved. Both the Israelites and their Jewish descendants have done so ever since. The Ark of the Covenant was for a long time the sacred repository of God’s commandments, and this tradition was later continued in the synagogues, where the Torah scrolls are kept in an “ark.” They include the “spiritual essence” of the Jewish people, as the gospels are for Christians and the Qur’an for Muslims. Chimpanzees can’t read, and even if they could, they wouldn’t understand anything about it.

It is good that we study the behavior of animals, because it teaches us to better understand them and to help them in their survival. It undoubtedly also teaches us something about the basic instincts and emotions that also partly guide our behavior. But we must not lose sight of the fact that each species has developed its own social patterns of behaviour and that animal rules of behaviour should not be confused with morality. The social behaviors of animals serve to maintain unity within their communities. This also applies to a certain extent to humans, but the fundamental distinction is that people have not only animal (physical) needs, but also spiritual ones and that the latter are primordial for most of them. A human community that bases its behavior solely on its biological impulses and necessities is evolutionarily “regressive.” It goes backwards instead of forwards. For proponents of aimless random evolution, it might not be so bad. But they too like to call themselves “civilized” and they probably realize that – including bonobos – there are no “civilized” animals whose behavior most people would like to adopt.

The aforementioned spiritual need and the human urge for freedom are the reasons why experiments with atheist states can only be maintained with a hard dictatorial hand and fail fairly quickly. This is also the reason why Frans de Waal himself has to admit (p.279): “As Robert Mc. Cauley says (…) religious symbolism is completely natural to man, while science is not. The first follows evolved intuition, the second forces us to suspend, or even thwart, our natural way of thinking.”  I don’t think scientific thinking and curiosity “go against our nature,” but everyone can at least see that certain forms of “faith” cannot be dispensed with. By the way, doesn’t “intuition” require a spiritual explanation? Why not speak of an “intuition suddenly mutated into the faith of God”?

Some people like to believe in the divinity of a ruler, others in the unlimited possibilities of science, etc. A Christian learns from the Bible that man, as willed by his Creator, must believe in Him and Him alone. As Christ taught us, this was so “from the beginning,” i.e., from the beginning of the first modern human pair, with which we are all connected both biologically and spiritually. The basis of this belief is not the fear of the irrevocable death (p.251), or the fear of God as an “absolutist ruler” (p.237), or superstitious fear of natural elements (p.261), or as “support for natural laws of conduct”, as a bonobo is put in the muzzle on p.309. True religious faith is based on the fundamental intuitive understanding that the miracle of life teaches us that there is a Creator and, moreover, on the fact that our spiritual nature is directed to love that Creator. That “intuitive” belief is not evoked or maintained by theological or scientific discourses, but by God himself, the Being, who taught us, among other things, “Don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Matt. 10:31).


(*) This title is the Dutch translation of the book from Frans De Waal The bonobo and the atheist.  W.W. Norton & Cy, 2013. The pages mentioned here are those of the Dutch publication.

(**) By “modern man” is meant the relatives of today’s people, descended from a common original family nucleus (in the Bible Adam and Eve). Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Denisovans, the dwarf man of Flores, any other related species and even the anatomically closely related members of our biological “subspecies” who lived simultaneously with “modern man” are not among them. The DNA research results show that there has been some degree of genetic mixing between modern humans and several of these groups, and also that the aforementioned groups as such have long been extinct.

A lot of research work is still needed in this regard, but based on the current state of affairs, we can assume that we all have the same common ancestral relationship and that all current human races belong to the same human family. In our “Creative Evolution” section, we dig deeper into this.

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