Tessa Kendall reviews Frans de Waal's new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. How much of our humanist behaviour do we owe to our cousins in the animal kingdom?
(de Waal) calls the idea that civilisation and morality are imposed on a violent, immoral, selfish nature Veneer Theory and concludes, "Everything science has learned in the last few decades argues against the pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature."
Human morality is "firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core" (De Waal, Our Inner Ape). The desire to treat others well comes from altruism which, in turn, comes from empathy...
For many years, De Waal's claim that other animals display altruism and empathy was ignored or rejected. What his latest book achieves is to put onto a firm evidential basis the fact that the roots of our social behaviour can be seen in other animals. The question is no longer whether animals have empathy but how it works.