Of Primates and Behavioural Politics: Why Humanism Needs to Transcend Religious vs. Atheistic Discourse

Of Primates and Behavioural Politics: Why Humanism Needs to Transcend Religious vs. Atheistic Discourse October 17, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. I spent the bulk of my (Canadian-Thanksgiving-in-Colombia!) long weekend working on a new sort of story for me, a secret project that tested my humanism in ways I look forward to discussing post-delivery. (In particular, I look forward to talking more about the stories that can better accommodate us all.)

But when I looked up from that writing process, I also noticed that a religious friend was caught up in some religious-vs.-atheist discourse (from the side of religious incredulity, sadly), and I felt a twist of exhaustion. It was one of those Are we really going to be fighting these battles forever? moments.

We probably are, though, aren’t we? We know that Ancient Greece had its atheists alongside its pantheon worshippers. We know atheism existed throughout the medieval period. We know that some of atheism’s most pointed philosophical works were penned in the Enlightenment and the Victorian period. We’ve staked our claim throughout the 20th century, and the large size of religious families even today won’t ever stop us from existing well past our climate’s ruinous end, into the dystopia beyond.

What exhausts me, then, isn’t the idea that we’ll never be on a purely atheistic planet. (How boring that might be!) Rather, what grinds my gears is that we might be foregrounding the same religious-vs.-atheist rhetoric until kingdom-(doesn’t)-come.

Is there any hope of us pursuing a more inclusive humanistic discourse?

Any hope of an active social philosophy in which the most pressing question isn’t “Who and how many are your gods?” but “What are you going to do with your cosmology?”

I know what a lot of fellow secular folks will want to say. They’ll want point across the aisle with a firm accusing figure and say, “No! There’s no hope! Because these religious people are impossible!”

But I want to argue today that our hope doesn’t lie with changing individual minds.

It lies with changing the environment we all inhabit.

Primate Primacy: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Human Beings


I’ve already written about a slice of this concept, in my appeal for a compassionate humanism of anti-desperation. Instead of castigating desperate people for relying on faith, I asked you to strive to eliminate the plank of suffering that makes so many feel there is no other hope for themselves but through religious discourse.

Today, though, let’s look at the lessons the natural world gives us, regarding how distinctly our environments shape our outcomes more broadly: as a species.

Let’s look, then, at humanity’s nearest kin, the chimpanzees and the bonobos. Both are 99% genetically similar to us, and 99.6% genetically similar to each other. And yet, our social behaviours trend in wildly different ways.

Chimpanzees, a patriarchical species, are notoriously individualistic, prone to aggression, and “indifferent” to altruism–which is not to say that they can’t be altruistic, but that there is considerable variability in terms of when they choose to be.

Bonobos, a matriarchical species, are famously prone to using sexual congress as a social binder, keeping the peace in highly altruistic and empathizing collectives that also share the benefits of their hunts with others.

And homo sapiens sapiens? We whose genetics are pretty much equivalent to both close cousins but whose anatomy is closer to the bonobos? We who can share in the awe and triumph of seeing Voyager 2 out of the heliosphere, while also rationalizing the hell out of ongoing genocide and the preventable deaths of children in other countries?

Well, we’re a bit of a mixed bag, aren’t we? And though many of us like to use “animal” as an insult (e.g. “He’s behaving like an animal!”), often acting more like the right sort of fellow primate might actually be a step up from where we are.

And that’s where “environment” comes to the fore.

That’s where the key to our divergent behavioural evolution lies.

(Not-a-Scientist Caveat!)

Now, my lay-person’s understanding of the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos (the latter only fairly recently recognized as a distinct species) first arose with the work of primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal. His research in relation to altruism, co-operation, and notions of fairness among chimpanzee, bonobo, and capuchin populations should be essential reading to any atheist plagued with inane questions about how humanity can be moral without a creator. (The Bonobo and the Atheist  [2013], I should note, has a few tediously snide remarks about religion that aren’t necessary, but it’s still a solid overview!)

And of course, for general human neurobiology as it is informed by primatology, Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) is a brilliantly comprehensive and accessible compendium of the monumental wealth of insight we have into how biology informs the same human behaviour we often wish to think of as free-willed.

I’m going to speak in very loose terms compared to the rigour of all the above careers and publications, and I encourage you to Ask a Scientist for clarification on any of the following accords.

The Geopolitics of Behaviour

Specifically, I just want to note what this bounty of research is revealing in the way of a firm case for centring geopolitics in our humanist discourse about the origins of moral behaviour.

Our more socialist bonobos, after all, are a rather isolated species, found south of the Congo River in lowland humid forests. Our enterprizing chimpanzees, conversely, are found north of the Congo River, widely dispersed among a range of habitats. In behavioural-science circles, a very simple explanation of chimp/bonobo societal differences (though hopefully not also simplistic in my summary of it here) thus arises from the needs of these different territories.

Namely, if you are in a fairly contained, flat region with predators, grouping together and supporting one another longterm is going to be a successful strategy for ensuring an active alarm system and consistent access to food stuffs. Conversely, if you’re ranging across a range of environments with a slew of variable threats, there are fewer incentives to create much beyond communities of convenience–communities that can scatter easily, and be re-formed through easy shows of force when necessary.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t shit-disturbers in bonobo communities (usually young males trying to sneak sex out of matriarchical order), and this doesn’t mean that there aren’t meaningful bonds formed between chimpanzees.

It’s just to observe that there are more natural pressures that favour the development of empathetic and altruistic behaviours in certain environments, and fewer in others.

The Human Correlate

Are you noticing the possible implications for humanity? If not, consider which societies have small populations in politically stable terrain and fairly homogenous populations. Now think about the ones that cover wider, more variable landscapes, perhaps in distinct population clusters. Where do we usually see more volatility? Where do we see more socialist interactions?

The problem with this whole, stupid, religion-vs.-atheism business, especially as it relates to notions of altruism and collaboration, is that it tries to keep our discussion about moral virtue in an utterly disembodied arena. It relentlessly tasks us to forget our bodies, and that our corporeal selves live in and are informed by a corporeal world.

But what if we were to have this conversation–about altruism, about compassion, about empathy, about the building blocks of a truly humanist approach to our fellow human beings–with our geopolitics more plainly foregrounded as a critical factor?

What if we remembered the lesson in our closest genetic kin: namely, that wide variations in moral imperative can emerge in different environments over time?

Well, then you might have something like this recent retraction of a study that many atheists were crowing about when it came out in 2015. Ha ha! the study seemed to suggest: Religious children are less altruistic than non-religious children!

But no, not exactly. As the study’s authors wrote alongside their retraction:

 An error in this article, our incorrect inclusion of country of origin as a covariate in many analyses, was pointed out in a correspondence from Shariff, Willard, Muthukrishna, Kramer, and Henrich (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.06.031). When we reanalyzed these data to correct this error, we found that country of origin, rather than religious affiliation, is the primary predictor of several of the outcomes. While our title finding that increased household religiousness predicts less sharing in children remains significant, we feel it necessary to explicitly correct the scientific record, and we are therefore retracting the article.

In other words, geopolitics is a huge component of this equation–so much so that, even if household religiosity does correlate with reduced sharing, the fundamental causation for this difference in outcome lies significantly outside the study’s reach.

Changing the Conversation

Now, I do agree with many of my fellow secular folks, that it feels sometimes like religious persons are the ones relentlessly trying to keep moral discourse in a disembodied realm. For many, their faith is predicated on believing themselves to be far more than physical beings, so any fixation on human biology, let alone other-animal biology, can be quite unsettling.

However, it take two parties to engage in that nonsense, and I also strongly suspect there are plenty of religious folks who–as humanists themselves–just want to focus on using their cosmology to improve the world as it stands.

So, let’s talk more amongst them, and amongst ourselves, about the world as it stands, and the lessons nature yields about how circumstances guide our habits in certain, sometimes-awful ways. Let’s have those difficult conversations about how society is an environment–and one, furthermore, that can either bring out the best and most bonobic in our nature (wild sex parties only by consent, of course)… or leave us resigned to acting with the laxer mores of other primate cousins, whose own difficult circumstances have shaped their behavioural trends in ways that we homo sapiens sapiens, at least–in our supposedly far greater self-awareness–have no damned excuse not to try to change.

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