De Waal takes on ethicists from Socrates to Kant who believed morality is a function of reason. He argues that our sense of the Good springs from emotions, from an inherent sensitivity to the plight of others that we share with other animals, especially primates.
De Waal, 64, director of Emory University's primate research center, the Living Links Center in suburban Atlanta, said in a recent phone interview that most mammals have "a general form of empathy. That is, that you are sensitive to the general state of others. . . . It's the same kind babies show when they hear other babies cry: They start crying, too."
That does not exactly turn one into Gandhi.
"There are more complex forms of empathy," de Waal said. "Here I take your place, place myself in your shoes and understand your situation . . . . Well, dolphins, apes, and elephants have these." Likewise, those three species display self-awareness: They can recognize themselves in the mirror.
Examples abound in The Bonobo and the Atheist, a clear, concise, and lively text aimed at the general reader.
Chimpanzees, who are not swimmers, will risk their lives to save a drowning chimp. Chimp females will break up a fight between two males, forcing them to reconcile. "Chimps have a ritual for reconciling," said de Waal. "They will kiss and embrace."
Fairness seems to be a value also shared by other primates. De Waal writes of an instance when a female adolescent chimp happened by two younger chimps fighting over a branch of yummy leaves.
She made them stop. Then, "she took the branch away from them, broke it into two, then handed them each a part," de Waal writes.
In an even more startling example, de Waal describes how a bonobo named Panbanisha refused to eat the treats given to her by the researcher until her friends and family, sitting nearby, were given the same food.
"She kept gesturing to the others until they, too, got some of the goodies," he writes. "Only then did she finish hers."
De Waal said despite commonalities between primates and humans, he would not call a chimp "a moral being." Human ethics does spring from our embodied, animal sentiments, but also depends on our rational ability to universalize moral ideals.
So much for the ethicists.
De Waal also takes on evolutionary biologists, who hold that the only rule nature recognizes is the selfish struggle to survive.
De Waal says this view is an oversimplification, encouraging what he calls the "veneer theory of morality" - that morality is a social construct we force upon our naturally violent, egoistic instincts.
What if we also had moral drives? An equally inherent biological tendency to empathy, reciprocity, and fairness? Morality would look radically different. "I think we need to start thinking about grounding our moral systems in our biology," de Waal said.
The Bonobo and the Atheist includes a passionate defense of religion. De Waal insists that, historically, religion has been the best way we have refined our empathy and built viable moral systems.
Although a nonbeliever himself, de Waal says ethicists are still in thrall to a challenge issued more than a century ago, when Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud announced the death of God.
"We still don't know what happens to morality if you remove religion completely," he said. "We have yet to realize a totally secular morality. But I still believe it is possible."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.