One of the world's leading primatologists believes his decades of research with apes answers a question that has plagued humans since the beginning of time.
Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?
Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.
Most religious leaders would argue it's the other way around: Our sense of what's moral came from God, and without God there would be no morality.
But this is a column about science, not religion, so it's worth asking if de Waal's own research supports his provocative conclusions, documented in the newly released book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist."
Just the title answers one question: he is an atheist, although he disparages the efforts of other atheists to convince the public to abandon all beliefs in the supernatural. Religion serves its purpose, he argues, especially through the rituals and body of beliefs that help strengthen community bonds.
De Waal is a biology professor at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. He is widely regarded as one of the world's top experts on primatology, especially the sometimes violent chimpanzees and their fun-loving sexually obsessed cousins, the bonobos, sometimes called the forgotten apes because they have become so rare.
Through years of research all over the world, de Waal has reached these basic conclusions: Chimps and bonobos and other primates clearly show empathy with others who are suffering. They have a sense of fairness, they take care of those in need, and they will share what they have with others who are less fortunate.
Those and other human-like characteristics, that have been clearly documented by other researchers as well, at least show they have some grasp of morality. It doesn't mean they are moral -- especially chimps, which can be very violent -- but they have the "basic building blocks" for morality, de Waal argues.
Chimps, he says, "are ready to kill their rivals. They sometimes kill humans, or bite off their face." So he says he is "reluctant to call a chimpanzee a 'moral being.'"
"There is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves," he writes. Yet, "In their behavior, we recognize the same values we pursue ourselves.
"I take these hints of community concern as a sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and we don't need God to explain how we got to where we are today," he writes.
Our sense of morality, he continues, comes from within, not from above. Many activities he has witnessed show that apes feel guilt and shame, which also suggest a sense of morality. Why should anyone feel guilty if they don't know the difference between right and wrong?
For example, Lody, a bonobo in the Milwaukee County Zoo, bit the hand -- apparently accidentally -- of a veterinarian who was feeding him vitamin pills.
"Hearing a crunching sound, Lody looked up, seemingly surprised, and released the hand minus a digit," de Waals writes.