I have enjoyed a lifetime of reading literary criticism. In junior high, when I first found myself blown away by some writers who would become literary friends for life, authors like Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and so many more who have provided me with a rich reading experience continuing today, I also found that I wanted to read and learn as mud as I possibly could about them and their art. I found the New Yorker (on our living room coffee table) and started reading it. At the Westfield, New Jersey public library, where, the fiction lady who had taken a liking to a snot nosed 13 year old nerd me, introduced me to New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review (we had the Times delivered to the house but I hadn’t found this section on my own yet, none of my 13 year old friends, English teachers or anyone else ever mentioned it) and, since then, I’ve enjoyed these three publications and many more like them.
Over the past few days, I thought about starting to write book reviews myself. I hope to write about books I’ve read in a context that fits with the general themes of this blog: disability, blindness, science, skepticism, humanism, atheism and the like. I have no idea if I can write good book reviews and, as with anything else, I hope to get better with time and practice.
While I’ve had a lifelong passion for reading, an enthusiasm that started when I was three years old and shocked the adults at my birthday party by reading aloud from “Go Dog Go,” a Dr. Seuss book I had never previously seen. When they realized that I wasn’t reciting from memory, they all got excited and I felt real proud and been reading ever since. At the same time, though, I studied computer science and mathematics in college, not English (I did return to school in 1997 when, having lost so much vision, I thought I couldn’t be a hacker anymore as I didn’t know screen readers existed and studied ENglish at Harvard but dropped out when I got the job running the software engineering department at Henter-Joyce) Hence, I have no formal background, either in writing or understanding the tools of literary criticism. So, because I really enjoy the subject and because this is my blog and because I want to give it a try, here we go with book review number one.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and the science and philosophy that surrounds it. First, inspired by my buddy Alastair Somerville and his ideas about a more compassionate and accessible use of vocabulary, the talk Rebecca Goldstein gave at the Women in Secularism conference last month in DC, Stephen Pinker‘s  book, “The Better Angels of our Nature” and a whole lot of things I’ve been reading all around the Internet on the subject.
On a few of the podcasts I listen to, I heard Frans de Waal interviewed about his latest book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist” and found that he, from a perspective of evolutionary biology and primatology, had written about these same issues and I got the book from Audible.com and we listened to it in a marathon car ride from St. Petersburg, Florida to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Over the past couple of months, whenever I tweet about empathy, I find I can expect some of my friends to react by telling me that empathy is “irrational,” “emotional,” and “incompatible with a skeptical way of thinking.” My research into empathy is, of course, informal, I’m just a dilettante, educated entirely by self study on the interesting work in this area going on around the world; Frans de Waal, is a career primatologist, a noted expert in the field and this book presents a lot of compelling research on the evolution of empathy and on how it is not a human characteristic built in “feelings” or “emotion” but, rather, that it exists in all mammals. He also demonstrates how birds and even crocodilians have also evolved to have empathy via different, currently not understood, evolutionary strategy
The Biology of Bonobo and the Atheist
Frans de Waal, shows that, for a really long time, the science of empathy fell mostly into the psychology department at universities. The best scientific minds of the time agreed that empathy only existed in humans and came from emotion and psychology so it’s not at all surprising that many people will believe this as it governed the literature for many years and,for most of the millennia humans have spent studying and discussing empathy, really until the past decade, they had to do so without the tools of neuroscience as they hadn’t been invented or applied to this field yet.
Empathy comes not from emotion or any other bit of human psychology, it happens when something in our brains, discovered in the 1980s by a research team in Italy, called “mirror neurons” fire. These, according to the Wikipedia article, are”neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” Through these neuro-mechanics we can “feel” what another critter experiences. To put it as simply as possible, when a man sees another man get kicked in the gonads in a movie, he will likely reach for his own crotch as he will, neurologically, share the experience.
When, according to the author, scientists found mirror neurons in other primates, they seemed surprised. The assumption being that nature is cruel and harsh, a set of notions based purely in the discredited philosophy of “survival of the fittest” and, when such were found in all mammals the shock spread even more wildly. Simply, the philosophical idea of human exceptionalism was, once again, debunked. Humans, biologically and neurologically, just aren’t that unique.
Where Do Humans Fit In?
The author writes that humans share exactly the same amount of DNA with chimpanzees as we do with bonobos. Like both, we naturally tend toward hierarchical societies. Sometimes, we’re violent and aggressive like the chimps, other times, we’re highly compassionate and even sexy like our bonobo cousins. All three primate groups, humans, chimps and bonobos act in a manner toward each other based in empathy.
I’ll take a bit of an aside to go a bit more deeply into what empathy actually means here. Alastair wrote a terrific blog article on the dark side of empathy in “In a mirror, darkly” in which he shows how “dark mirrors” allow us to take violent action against other humans. In “Bonobo and the Atheist,” the author shows us how, through empathy, we can understand just how horrible something would feel and, using empathy, humans can design torture techniques. Empathy isn’t always touchy-feely but, rather, a natural process that allows us to share both good and bad feelings with others. Empathy is neither good or bad, it just is.
Chimps are from Jersey; Bonobos are from Boulder
I grew up in New Jersey and, back in the 1970s, I had many friends with dads who worked as longshoremen in really rough places like The Port of Newark and Elizabethport. Their jobs and, in many cases, their lives were dominated by organized crime and a strict but unwritten hierarchical set of social standards. These men knew their place in the world, didn’t question it and violence, toward their co-workers, kids and sometimes their wives and any other man who may make them angry in a barroom or baseball stadium. Their place in this structure was enforced and maintained by violence, aggression and verbal abuse.
I enjoy visiting Colorado and Boulder seems to be the home of its happiest and most enlightened people. I like that marijuana is legal there, that Boulder has one of the lowest crime rates in the US and that within that, it has virtually no non-domestic violent crime or other acts of violence within its borders. Hippies, punks, intellectuals, nerds and, yes, cowboys all seem to live in and around Boulder in relative harmony. Boulder was also one of the first cities in the US to openly welcome gay and lesbian people to their community.
Chimpanzee society, according to de Waal, sounds a lot like the New Jersey where I grew up. The social structure seems severe to most humans from other places. Chimpanzees, like the thug like people I knew in the 1970s, enforce social structures with violence and, like humans, will even kill other members of their species.
Bonobos, on the other hand, have never, in captivity or in the wild, been observed killing another bonobo, not once in years of observation. Bonobo tribes, when they encounter another one, will make a lot of aggressive gestures and sounds toward each other, they will show their teeth and act angry. Then, according to this book, the two tribes will merge and the adults will all have sex – females on males, females on females, males on males and in groups. When two members of the same troop have a conflict, they will be brought together by adult females in authority, perform what appears to be some sort of apology ritual and, then, have sex. Bonobos, like our friends in Boulder, are our hippy primate cousins.
Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Elephants and Disability
So, you ask, “What does any of this have to do with disability?” a pretty obvious question at this point in your read. I’ll tell you:
De Wall shows us, in chimpanzee society, a social structure that appears and, to a human, actually is, quite brutal, there are “rights” for chimps with disabilities. This has been observed repeatedly in the wild and captivity and seems to be strictly enforced by chimpanzee social norms. When a chimpanzee gets too old or infirm to climb up into the tree, against their own self interest which would be to get into the tree and eat as much before others can get there, the adolescent males will help the older ones into the tree before they eat their own food. If the adolescent males do not do this, adult males charged with such in that society, will attack them violently to ensure that the elders can get to their food.
When a chimpanzee gets too old or infirm to get into the tree at all, younger females will go into the tree, gather food and bring it down to where the older or sicker animal waits and deliver it to them. The young females, in these situations, deliver the food to the stricken ones before they can eat – an act against their individual self interest but accepted and enforced as a norm in their society.
Bonobos, smaller, far more scarce and seemingly filled with more empathy are frequently observed helping those afflicted in one way or another until they recover or die from old age, disease or attack by other kinds of animals (including humans who eat them). Young bonobos have been observed guiding their blind troop members around from site to site, bringing them food and water and providing all sorts of assistance and, as bonobos do, including them in their sexual escapades. One might question the evolutionary purpose to including sick and otherwise disabled in mating but these people mistake “survival of the fittest” with the actual mechanics of evolution which is far more complex, includes empathy and, at least in the mammals described in this book, often requires acts seemingly against the obvious interest of the individual. Evolution isn’t obvious.
What about the elephants? You said “elephants” Gonz, tell us about them. OK, I will.
Elephant behavior and elephant empathy has not been studied much. We humans assumed, as we did for millennia, that elephants were “wild” animals without “human” characteristics like empathy or compassion. Recently, though, as the “survival of the fittest” myth has been debunked, scientists have started studying these natural characteristics in animals in genera other than primates and have found mirror neurons in all mammal species where they looked for them and, yes, elephants have them in spades.
Strictly based on observations in the wild of blind elephants, the people who watch elephants for a living have found incidents of adolescent , typically female, elephants guiding their blind elders by walking hip to hip with them when the herd is on the move. Yes, folks, elephants, driven by empathy, help the blind members of the community.
What of the Atheist Aspects of the Book?
While De Waal’s chapters on the primatology and evolutionary biology are, in my opinion, excellent, well sourced and based in decades of peer reviewed publications, the philosophical chapters on atheism, new atheism, humanism and the community of people who make up the movement to promote secularism, the driving enlightenment philosophy used by James Madison to craft the US Constitution, are, in my opinion, poorly sourced, intellectually inconsistent and sound more like rants than information worthy of actually reading.
In the spectrum of atheism, I fall into the humanist branch. I accept that there is evidence that all good things that have ever happened to humans, from the secular philosophy of Plato, Socrates, Democritus, Hortensia and others to the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system (then thought to be the entire universe) to the compositions of Ludwig Van Beethoven and Duke Ellington, to the US Constitution, to the works of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, to the eradication of small pox to landing Curiosity on Mars and everything else that makes life worth living has come directly from human activity. Is there some sort of supernatural being driving this, I can’t disprove that there is but I can say with absolute certainty that there is zero evidence for such where there is profound evidence for the human contributions. I find that accepting anything without evidence, although I and all humans do it, should be avoided whenever one realizes that their belief has nothing to support it.
De Waal attacks the “new atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Greta Christina and others primarily for stating their philosophy in public. He rails that Dawkins calls god a delusion and for the vocabulary and not the substance of the work of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism”. The author states his opinions on these matters without sources to demonstrate the harm that he claims these people cause. In fact, he doesn’t even say what harm they cause, just that he thinks that they do.
Recently, I wrote a blog article called “Am I A Militant?” in which I challenge the hyperbolic language used by people around the blindness community to describe me, the National Federation of the Blind (an organization of which I’m a member but that any regular reader knows I don’t care much for) and any other person or group who makes an assertive statement or takes any kind of action to further our civil rights. They seem to love to call us “militants” when, at most, we use assertive language, civil procedure and, in NFB’s case, holds the occasional peaceful protest. People like Mark Maurer, like me and other outspoken people with vision impairment have never been heard inciting or even suggesting we take up arms, bomb a building, engage in random terror or any other “militant” action.
De Wall, using the same sort of intellectually vacant language of accusing atheist leaders and individuals of being militant. I’ve read most of Dawkins, a bunch of Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, Amanda Marcott and other new atheists and, not once, did I read a single word that intended to suggest a militant approach to anything.
De Wall goes so far as to say that wearing a t-shirt that expresses one’s atheism, humanism or anything else that may “offend” a believer is a militant act. He seems to accept that free thought is a good idea but free expression should be curbed to avoid offending anyone. While I don’t intentionally offend people of belief, we are a nation that celebrates free speech in our constitution and, frankly, no one has a right not to hear information contrary to their beliefs. Personally, I find the anti-evolution, anti-science slogans plastered on the chests of fundamentalists offensive and, yes, dangerous as they use such to effect science education in America and promote a science based on a bronze age text. The Bible contains a lot of good stuff, especially those printed in “red letters” the statements attributed to Joshua of Nazareth (Jesus to most) which, to me at least, seem entirely out of step with the general politics of fundamentalism but no bronze age text should ever be accepted as scientific as it was written before the scientific method was even invented so existed without the benefit of the best tool we have for describing nature.
The author then pulls out the oldest trick in the book, he brings up the Nazis. He, incorrectly, asserts that the rise of national socialism in Germany was motivated largely by a secular philosophy. It is true that Hitler, Himmler and other Nazi leaders wanted to end the reign of powerful religious forces in their country, the forces of Lutheranism and Catholicism but they were not atheists. The Nazi leaders wanted to replace the Jewish originated Christianity with Germanic mythology with its own set of gods and goddesses. I love these stories, especially as presented by Richard Wagner in his Ring Cycle but accept that they are as untrue as any other ancient religious belief, I’ll reject it as reality.
Then, De Waal moves onto Stalin who, indeed, seems to have been an atheist. Stalin, however, following the political philosophy of Nicolai Lenin, replaced religion with a vanguard, a pseudo-religious devotion to the memory of Marx and Lenin and banned free thought and free expression making the practice of humanism nearly impossible on a broad level in his Soviet Union. Stalin was a monster and not at all the sort of atheist that Dawkins would promote as an paragon of far more modern philosophy.
De Waal then claims that what historians call religious wars, actual acts of militancy, were actually motivated by economics or something other than religion. So, Hitler and Stalin were motivated by what appears to be a fictions obsession with atheism (a statement he makes without citing a single source) but, when religious groups get violent, he gives them a pass finding some more palatable excuse for their behavior. This is gross inconsistency and further serves to demonstrate my point that, while his science seems very sound, his philosophic chapters are pretty bankrupt. Even if the motives for religious based violence, the crusades, 9-11, the militant bombing of reproductive health centers and the like get their foot soldiers by appealing to their religious fervor so, in fact, most of the violence is carried out by the devout.
Then, De Wall shows us a bunch of good things that religion provides. I agree with him on this and, like the author who is also an atheist, I can see tremendous value in the secular services and community that religions provide. At the same time, he seems to believe that we atheists shouldn’t also congregate and enjoy a pot luck meal and the company of our like minded neighbors. I think we have the same desires for community as anyone else but De Waal seems to miss this entirely.
In the final chapter, De Waal contradicts the rest of his philosophical statements by presenting us with the cases of nations like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Scotland and Holland, where religious participation has dropped to stunningly low levels, he says that children ask why buildings called churches have “plus signs” on them, to illustrate just how little religion goes on there and then demonstrates how, in many ways supported by many peer reviewed studies, these nations have populations that are the happiest, most successful, most well satisfied and lowest crime locales in the world. So, if we don’t talk about secularism, humanism or any of the other underpinnings of these fabulously successful nations how can we bring their success to the rest of the world? He says these are the “best” places on Earth to live but also states that we humanists shouldn’t be part of the political or social debate. He basically says, against the evidence he provides, that we should just shut up and allow America to lose its secular roots and watch our long intellectual tradition decay and die from the attack of the theocrats.
Because the chapters in “Bonobo” on the science of empathy, neuroscience, primatology and the other scientific notions he presents are so good, I’ll recommend this book to my readers. If you’re a big fan of the Four Horsemen, you will find his philosophic ideas disturbing but let’s not fall into ad hominem and use the philosophical problems as a reason to discard the very sound science in this book. It’s available in all formats from Amazon, the audio book is on Audible.com and I’m sure you can get it from your local independent bookseller.