Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal.

Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. Photo courtesy de Waal.

Asked what he thought of the recent creationism debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham—which apparently helped fund Ham’s Noah’s Ark theme park—Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal doesn’t mince words:

“I didn’t [watch it]. I’m not very interested in that kind of discussion because it’s between two people who will not change their minds. I don’t think that’s a real discussion.”

De Waal isn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he is certainly interested in real discussions. The author of many books—his most recent being The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primatesde Waal is an outspoken proponent of humanism and the importance of empathy.

Next week de Waal will speak at an event sponsored by the Yale Humanist Community. In advance of his talk at Yale, I spoke with de Waal about the Nye-Ham debate, why he is critical of the idea that we have “selfish genes,” and what nonreligious people can learn from religion.

Chris Stedman: In his debate with Bill Nye, Ken Ham said that without the biblical divine origin story we’re “just animals” and suggested that this position undermines human dignity. What do you think about the view that we’re “just animals”? What can we learn about our moral nature from looking at other animals?

FDW: People who say that view undermines human dignity obviously have a low opinion of animals, which I don’t share at all. It’s perfectly fine to be associated with dolphins or elephants or chimpanzees.

In my view, and that’s basically the Darwinian biological view, there is complete continuity between us and other animals. As far as we know, the human brain has no parts that are not present in a chimpanzee brain. It has no processes that are new. Basically, it’s a bigger brain—three times bigger than a chimpanzee’s—but it’s not a different brain, and as a result we are not fundamentally different. Intelligence and morality and politics and culture; those are the things that are mentioned as uniquely human. But in all those areas you can put question marks and say, “Well, primates have this, or elephants have that,” and it all connects in a way.

CS: In Our Inner Ape, you describe human morality as being “firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core.” Can you say more about the importance of empathy?

FDW: I think the two pillars of human morality are empathy and compassion on the one hand, and reciprocity, justice, and fairness on the other. I don’t think we can even imagine a moral system without those components. That doesn’t mean that they are sufficient—I see empathy and compassion in other animals, and I see reciprocity and even a sense of fairness in other animals. But I would not necessarily say that chimpanzees have morality in the way we do because they don’t try to justify rules, for example. There are certain elements missing.

Empathy and compassion are very critical components of human morality. If you don’t empathize with others, then you’re not really interested in others. If you’re not interested in others, how could you ever be a moral being? It’s an absolutely essential component.

All mammals evolved the neural circuitry for empathy. But people sometimes forget that, even though empathy is automatically activated, it is also quite selective. It’s biased towards individuals who are similar and familiar. So we have trouble empathizing with strangers, and even more with enemies.

CS: You are very critical of what you call “Veneer theory,” which has been connected to Richard Dawkins’s work in The Selfish Gene. Why?

FDW: Veneer theory was very popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s basically the standpoint that we are not really nice—that we don’t have any altruistic tendencies and, if people are nice, they’re probably putting up a show to get your money or to get something from you because we have selfish genes and we’re only out for ourselves. Dawkins literally said that altruism doesn’t come naturally to us, and a quote by Michael Ghiselin was repeated over and over in the literature: “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

I’ve always protested against that view. I thought it was total nonsense because I think there’s genuine kindness, concern, and empathy going on in humans and other animals.

That view began to disappear around the year 2000 because neuroscientists were saying empathy activates our brains, and economists were saying that we’re actually much more cooperative and altruistic than you would expect, and anthropologists were playing the ultimatum game all over the world and finding that humans like fairness, and as a primatologist I was saying, “Well, actually sympathy and empathy are not uniquely human.” And so the whole Veneer theory—a very cynical view of humans being purely dog-eat-dog and competitive—which was at one time very popular and accepted, began to crumble, and has now disappeared from view, as if it has been permanently erased.

CS: Do you think that humanism can fill the role that religion has played, and still does play, when it comes to questions about human nature and morality?

FDW: You would hope so. In my book I struggled with the idea of how society would look without religion in the traditional sense. Since we don’t have societies that are completely nonreligious, I don’t think we have the answer. So we need to be modest in that regard. A reduced role of religion is of course already happening in much of the world. But a complete elimination of religious practices and religion? That’s a question. What would happen then?

'The Bonobo and the Atheist' by Frans de Waal.

‘The Bonobo and the Atheist’ by Frans de Waal.

There are theories about why moralizing religions arose. In Big Gods, Ara Norenzayan argues that when societies got very big—much bigger than a monkey troop or a chimpanzee community—we couldn’t maintain our moral system without some sort of supernatural supervision. In a small human group of 100 or 200 people, everyone keeps an eye on everybody. That’s how you can keep a moral system, because your reputation will be damaged if you don’t behave in a particular way.

But when you get societies of several thousands or millions, that whole system is going to collapse. You cannot maintain that—and the argument is that at that point religion became necessary to keep everyone on the same set of standards by having a God who looked over you from everywhere. So now you’re asking, “Can we do it without God?” Then the question is, “Do we need to put something in its place? Something else that is equally effective? Does that exist and what would that be?” So that’s the question at this phase, but I think it’s possible.

CS: What do you think the nonreligious can learn from how religion has considered and addressed morality?

FDW: Religion provides two things that are not necessarily tied to the belief in the supernatural: community and narrative. Rituals are part of community building, and religion is great at building community. Religion also provides narratives. It doesn’t just say you need to do this in your life; it explains how Jesus did it or how somebody else did it. It has a story to tell about why you might want to behave like that. It has a narrative that’s more than just a philosophical justification—it offers emotional justification.

Those are two elements that don’t require a God, that somehow need to be mimicked if you want to replace religion with something else. I do think humans have all the basic inclinations and the capacities that are necessary to be moral without God, so I’m not personally convinced that we need God for morality. But you need to have the other elements in place. Without them, I don’t think it’s going to happen.


  1. Susan Humphreys

    Atheists (in my opinion) have failed to grasp that religion serves many purposes and IF you want to get rid of religion, they will have to find another way to meet those different purposes, offer something better. This is pointed out by Frans de Waal with his comment about religions providing “community and narrative”. I know many religious folks who would be lost without their church, the support system it provides them, the activities they participate in, family activities, groups for women only and for men only, and for kids. Church’s at one time were the glue that held small towns together. Now they are part of the problem that tears those same towns apart. My little town of 1000 has five churches, all struggling to stay afloat. They rarely cooperate on joint community projects, and definitely not on secular (historical society) projects, or participate in the Chamber of Commerce. This town could use a “better” alternative! But community is only one purpose of religion.

    • If there’s one thing that religion does well it’s community. It’s great to feel part of an in group of likeminded people. But any in group needs a defining out group of people who for whatever reason, are not members of the group. And that’s the problem. Look at your small town of five church’s where no single church has enough resources to do substantial charity work. Religion suppresses cooperation and blocks progress. It’s ironic that you argue the practical benefits of religion while remaining blind to this clear downside. But that’s another thing that religion does well.

      • Susan Humphreys

        How can you say I am blind to the downside when I pointed it out quite clearly with a concrete example? It seems that you just look for an attack point whether it is grounded on fact or not. The point is there are positive sides to religion and many Atheists refuse to acknowledge this dimension AND there are negative sides and many Religious folk refuse to acknowledge the negative dimension. People need to be aware of both.

    • The mental gymnastics going on here are just incredible. All we need are the facts of life and each other. It is a fact we exist on this earth. It is a fact that working together we can help each other and build a better world. It is a fact that we can learn how to be nicer to each other, it’s a fact we enjoy each other’s company… That’s all we need, we don’t need to share beliefs in myths to achieve this… One myth is that you need any kind of belief system or philosophy or religion at all to get along and enjoy life… one thing we do need is to understand the various facts of life such as 1. There is such a thing as mental illness, people aren’t possessed by demons. 2. People are born gay, can’t be changed, and it’s natural like in other animals in nature 3. There is no evidence that we survive death or that we can communicate with spirts. Yes we need facts in order to make the right choices, I think everyone already agrees on that, it’s just what do you think the facts are…

    • Plenty of atheists grasp the functions religion serves other than the facilitation of a belief system. Just as any commonly held belief among a community strengthens their ability to communicate and cooperate, so too would religion. There are plenty of religious people who can’t separate religion or their sense of community from their belief in the supernatural, and hence think atheism is amoral or cynical. There are also atheists who want or need a ritualistic commune, and have formed ‘Atheist Churches’.

  2. Bill Nye not willing to change is mind??? http://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/bill_nye_on_creationism_show_me_one_piece_of_evidence_and_i_would_change_my_mind_immediately/

    Also I don’t believe the selfish gene is not about being selfish: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/10/22/richard-dawkins-explains-how-selfish-genes-result-in-altruistic-individuals/?onswipe_redirect=no

    • Ham did show Nye a piece of evidence, ie, the 45,000 year old wood encased in a rock millions of years old. Did Nye change his mind? Nope. He just ignored it. Just because someone says evidence will change them doesn’t mean it will. Nye just wanted to sound like a “reasonable” man, but clearly he isn’t.

      • Bill Nye did address this: he suggested that the wood perhaps had slipped into some moving plated of older rock.
        I was curious about this Australian find myself, so I did some research on-line. Guess what–all the accounts of this “find” are in creationist journals from the 1990s, not one in a scientific journal with a high impact factor. Something very fishy here.

  3. The first link was cut off: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/bill_nye_on_creationism_show_me_one_piece_of_evidence_and_i_would_change_my_mind_immediately/

    • Certainly not from the Abrahamic ones.

      Their believers are the most morally relativistic people out there. Everything is permitted if you say God told you to do it. No personal moral decisions, just outsource it to arbitrary and capricious authority.

      Buddhism does morality nicely. More telling yourself what to do and less telling others.

      • Zen At War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_at_War#Further_reading
        Zen War Stories: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=10817
        Buddhist Warfare: http://books.google.com/books/about/Buddhist_Warfare.html?id=cXORqV4AZjcC
        Buddhist Fundamentalism: http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2013/04/11/buddhist-fundamentalist-attacks-on-christians-and-other-minority-religions-in-sri-lanka-deplorable/
        Buddhism and Violence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_Terrorism

        The evidence is quite clear that Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence and even war over the past 1,600 years. Their reasoning is just as arbitrary and capricious as the Abrahamic religion you’re attempting to marginalize.

        Our compulsion to moralize the world seems to be a universal innate “appetite” for rightness; and appetites have powerful and sometimes perverse potential. This creaturely behavior is so basic and so disturbing that we rarely pause to acknowledge that in our escape from evil we may be compulsively feeding an appetite for more self-righteousness

        • Fine, Have it your way.

          That means there are no religions with a real concept of morality. I was willing to cut religious belief a bit of a break. But obviously it is not worth the effort.

          Might as well marginalize them all. :)

          • It is tempting to marginalize all religions yet we cannot ignore the fact that religion has a place in the lives of people for which it seems that secular humanism is trying just as hard to make the world the opposite of what it is ‘religious’. We moderns are creating our own ‘private religions’ apart from the group of religionist over there with our individualistic creative agnostic workings being the expression of our heroism and the justification for it. Somehow we begin to believe that our individuation (morality) is unique enough to give us some sort of personal salvation that our own transcendence and not that of the herd will deliver us.

            Whether we’re religionist or secularist each is trying to win converts for their point of view because morality is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula. Of course when it comes to the issue of immortality everyone has the same self-righteous conviction of putting forth diametrically opposed views with the same maddening certainty.

            It seems to me that religion is not somehow on the decline but the religious narrative of where people appropriate power, meaning, and purpose is shifting from the immaterial to the material. If you don’t have a God in heaven we will simply use what is nearest at hand to work out our problems; for we are as religious about our politics, economics, technology, and entertainment.

        • Susan Humphreys

          There has been violence committed by Hindus as well, all religion and I mean this in the broadest use of the word (group with a defined philosophy/dogma) are subject to an “us and them” mentality and the willingness to use their beliefs to justify and sanctify their actions (good and evil actions). Green Peace activists have done it, Civil Rights activists did it and we see what is happening in the Middle East and Africa now. I think your last comment tis right on, the cure can sometimes be worse than the original illness! IF we aren’t careful and cognizant of what we do.

          • So one should not bother to look towards any religious belief for a moral guide. They have none.

  4. Sociobiology is a broad and interesting field. De Waal’s work with primates is remarkable. It provides a glimpse into the evolutionary development of our own moral sense. However, his work is the tip of an iceberg. Scientists are conducting studies with populations of microbes, insects, plants and animals, to investigate the biological basis of social interactions. They study things like cooperation and altruism. I am confident that their studies will ultimately reveal a biological foundation of our own morality.

  5. great interview.. I’ve also interviewed Frans de Waal about the role of empathy and collected quite a bit of material about his views on empathy. see

    Edwin Rutsch
    Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

  6. So atheism with an added sense of community and narrative leads to humanism? Not so sure about that one. Any sports fan will tell you that they can get plenty of community and narrative from supporting their local team. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, and when it’s really intense it can lead to pseudo religious devotion even including charitable work. But morality? Humans get their morality from sources beyond empathy like biology. Babies have an innate sense of morality. Google this to see more:

    Can babies tell right from wrong? Inside Yale’s ‘Baby Lab’ – CNN.com

    • Susan Humphreys

      Youth Gangs (and criminal gangs) are very successful because they provide the same sense of community that is provided by your sports team fan group example. The problems stem from Black and White thinking, “us versus them”, things are right/moral/good or they are wrong/immoral/evil (not just bad but evil). In Chinese Philosophy we get the concept of Yin and Yang, two parts of one whole, there is a little good in things that are bad and a little bad in things that are good, assets can also be liabilities and liabilities can also be assets, there are no absolutes in either direction.

  7. It’s difficult to believe in any degree of social order when the laws of nature have seemed to bypass the human species. I mean, nature controls the populace of all species, but what controls the population of man? Where will evolution have the human race is 200 or 300 years?
    Evolution is a farce.

    • Susan Humphreys

      Homosexuality controls the population of man and our complex brain with the abilities to think, to ask questions, to make connections between seemingly disparate events, for abstract reasoning and visualization…… We have this great brain, too bad more don’t use it to its full capacity!

  8. DeWaal on “veneer theory”: …”they’re probably putting up a show to get your money or to get something from you because we have selfish genes and we’re only out for ourselves.”
    I’m surprised that DeWaal seems not to have got the point of The Selfish Gene! (Reminds me of the inordinate number of people who think The Ugly American was the bad guy!)

  9. Susan Humphreys

    Larry commented that no one should look to any religion for a moral guide because they have none. That comment shows great ignorance of religion. All the world’s religions have guides for correct, moral, virtuous, upright behavior. It is simply that many folks choose to ignore the recommendations! There is also great agreement across cultures and across religions about what is right and moral. The Golden Rule for example is found in all the world’s religions and the first written form appeared with one of those great pagan Greeks. It is still sound advice and we’d all be better off if we followed it, “do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

    • Not at all. Its just an understanding of what morals are and how they are really applied. Despite the assertions of many self-interested parties, morality is not the assigning of decisions to outside parties. Religious authority is always self-serving, prone to exceptions which undermine itself, and loaded with arbitrary and capricious rules.

      Religion does not guide morality as much as give a simple shorthand for very complex and philosophically difficult concepts. It does not create moral concepts, merely codify them for easy digestion. The Golden rule, reciprocity, does not require divine authority or divine origin. It is the simplest form of cooperation among groups larger than one’s family. It is based on intuition, awareness of one’s self and empathy of others.

      It is much easier to say something will please the Sky God watching than to explain how we are connected as people who feel emotions and can empathize with the existence of other people. :)

  10. This whole ‘where does morality come from’ seems all over the map. Everyone has a different opinion. What gives? The only morality is to do no harm to others. Beyond that lies endless arguments and the one with the most power wins!

  11. Gilbert Pilz

    People don’t need religion but they do need myths or that de Waal called “narrative”. Religion is the *misuse* of myth for political purposes. We need to liberate myth from religion and restore it to its proper function.

    • Susan Humphreys

      I agree with your comment about myth. I have discovered that many fundamentalists don’t understand myths. It is I think part of their black and white thinking, things are true or they are lies! They can’t grasp that a myth can be true in one sense (the message conveyed, morality tale, or origins story) and not true in another sense (the reality factor, real events, real people)! Those that fail to understand myths I think miss a great deal of what the Bible has to teach us as well as what we can learn from other religious and ethnic myths.

  12. Susan Humphreys

    Larry not all religious rules are arbitrary or capricious. There is great wisdom and rational thinking behind The Ten Commandments for example. Some such as “thou shalt not bear false witness” (lie or spread misinformation about another) are as valid today as when they were first written down (by whomever or whatever wrote them down!). Wise words, great wisdom, sound advice, need no claims of divine inspiration or scholarly credentials, they stand or fall on their own merits.

  13. Susan Humphreys

    Larry you are right in one sense, it is easier for people to claim that God justifies and sanctifies their actions rather than for them to accept responsibility for their actions. What is morality? You haven’t actually defined what you mean by the word so your comments don’t make a great deal of sense. deWaal mentions some aspects of morality in this piece (empathy and compassion) but he also doesn’t exactly define the term.

    • Morality as defined is the weighing in of personal decisions and choices to do something in consideration or for the good of others, beyond self-interest. It is the expression of empathy and compassion in terms of actions. The highest forms of morality consider humanity as a whole. What would be beneficial to any/all human beings.

      Religion tries to assign these decisions to outside sources. To forgo personal reflection, compassion and empathy in exchange to following authority. It also makes numerous exceptions to ideas and rules involving peaceful co-existence with others. Add to that a self-interest element with divine punishment and rewards. So religion doesn’t really create a really healthy climate for actual moral decision making.

      • Even within secular humanist societies such as Asia and Russia people ‘forgo personal reflection, compassion and empathy in exchange to following authority.’ In your opinion which society, if any, has created a really healthy climate for actual moral decision making?

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