Monday, September 23, 2013

review of de Waal's The Bonobo and the Atheist

A subset of our old book club recently got back together to discuss Frans deWaal's latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. (This is my second de Waal book after reading Good Natured.)

DeWaal is a good writer who provides a layperson's guide to evolution in general-- and ape research in particular. But from the title, one can tell that he has another fish to fry-- in particular, sharing reflections on evolution, religion, and atheism. In a word, deWaal is a moderate voice among atheists. This is generally true in his discussion of the science-- and certainly, in terms of interacting with those who are religious. (Here, of writers I've read, he joins Neil Shubin-- across the aisle from Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Then, there are moderate theists who are active in this realm-- e.g., Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins; see: p. 40.)

DeWaal's primary purpose is to discuss the presence of emotions and morality in general-- and empathy, altruism, and gratitude in particular-- among non-human animals (particularly mammals). He provides a ton of really cool examples, especially among bonobos-- but also other apes and other animals.

Since the Bible describes animals as having a spirit/breath-- the same term used for humans (1:30, 2:7)-- this does not seem to be problematic biblically. The other fascinating Biblical angle is deWaal's discussion of animal "awareness of death". Biblically, it reminded me of Genesis 6 and Leon Kass' observation about man's response to his (known/seen/experienced) mortality in the run-up to the Flood, as recorded in the 3rd Creation Account.

As an economist, I'm fascinated by tastes and preferences-- although we largely take them as a given or at least as derived in a complex/black box. This extends from pizza toppings to ideas about "equity" (what's fair or not). Apparently, there is some research on variance in preferences within and between species. Between species is not all that interesting to me. But from what de Waal presents, it looks like there is some variance within species. It would have been nice to see more on that (if the literature exists).

DeWaal touches on econ a few times and does ok-- at least compared with others (ok, I know that's a low bar to set).

Most important to the purpose of the book: he's not clear or consistent on his definition of altruism (27-28, 32-33, 50, 52-53, 122). He notes (correctly) that the term implies a voluntary choice to bear costs for the individual in order to benefit another. But the choice to bear costs and achieve benefits is itself (generally) thought to be the best net-benefit choice at the time.

Likewise, economists talk about "self-interested" behavior, distinguishing it from "selfish" behavior. Often, I eat pizza or write a paper because the benefits of an action exceed the costs to me (directly). But economic models are plenty large enough to incorporate how my actions can derive from an awareness of benefits or costs for others. (See also: deWaal invocation of a narrow economic model of behavior on p. 42.)

In the case of altruism, benefits and costs to others become paramount to me. For example, although a charitable decision is not selfish, it is "self-interested" since I thought the benefits would outweigh the costs of the alternative uses of that time/money. (Likewise, deWaal misapplies "irrationality" in describing the Ultimatum Game [232]. Lack of clarity on such things-- see also: incoherent but common definitions and applications of the term "greed"-- is regrettable but quite common.)

-He misunderstands/misrepresents ID (170).
-He notes the "science" of eugenics, Tuskegee, and torture (22).
-He cites Jonathan Haidt's work (41-42)-- an appropriate and cool connection.
-He notes, in passing, that early theorizing about Evolution "skipped complexities" like empathy (33). (This is something that really bothers Thomas Nagel-- whose book I read at the same time and will review shortly.)
-It was fascinating to see deWaal pit Darwin against Huxley and Dawkins.
-One really interesting argument: that starting society all over, we would definitely get religion (even without revelation), but it's not clear that we would get science (214-218).
The other big theme in the book is sporadic and then concentrated discussion of atheists-- and how silly they are to:
-be against something more than being for something (109)
-worry about something that (supposedly) is not real (96)
-use moronic or dishonest arguments. (He takes the "Flat Earth" argument to task for using "pure propaganda", frustrated that its proponents would "pee in their pants with delight" in using such an inaccurate argument [91]. See also: his fun with literalists on "the heart"-- p. 8)
-fight against something that others enjoy and benefit from (216; so the science says)
-not recognize the limits of science-- both in what's been discovered, what will be discovered, what (relatively little) can be discovered (19-21), and how far science speaks (106)
-"serially dogmatic" as atheists (87-91)-- to the point of "fundamentalism' (103)-- as it is dangerous from believers (84)
-fail to recognize the possibility of bias (and other problems) in scientific endeavors (97-99)
-fail to recognize that "the field still teems with 'just-so' stories that are hard to take seriously" (103; the just-so story puts one, at best, on par with Creation/theism)

DeWaal closes by encouraging atheists to "stop sleeping furiously". Of course, I would go a step further and encourage them to inquire again earnestly-- at both what they have and what they don't have intellectually and otherwise.


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