Do We Need God to be Moral?

Days later the vet revisited the zoo and held up her bandaged left hand. Lody looked at the hand and retreated to a distant corner of the enclosure where he held his head down and wrapped his arms around himself, signs of both grief and guilt.

And here's the amazing part. About 15 years later the vet returned to the zoo and was standing among a crowd of visitors when Lody recognized her and rushed over. He tried to see her left hand, which was hidden behind the railing. The vet lifted up her incomplete hand and Lody looked at it, then at the vet's face, then back at the hand again.

Was he showing shame and grief? Or was it fear of a possible reprisal? The ape at least realized he had done something wrong, de Waal argues, showing the seeds of moral behavior.

There are scores of other examples showing deep grief over a dying colleague and compassion for a mother ape that has lost her young and care for young apes that have lost their parents. All those things are signs of what we would call unmistakable morality, if the subjects were humans, not apes.

"Some say animals are what they are, whereas our own species follows ideals, but this is easily proven wrong," de Waals writes. "Not because we don't have ideals, but because other species have them too."

When an ape expresses grief or guilt or compassion he is living out the blueprint for survival in a culture that is becoming more complex, and possibly more dangerous. He is acting from within, not because he believes in God who defined right and wrong. De Waal puts it this way:

"The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time."

He cites at least one instance when those "ingrained values" led to action among bonobos that seems like a divine solution to a nasty problem that confronts human society around the world.

Bonobos, according to his research, know how to avoid war.

Over and over he has seen neighboring bonobo colonies gather near a common border as the males prepare to do battle. Ape warfare can indeed be violent. But when the bonobos are ready to fight, the females often charge across the boundary and start making out with both genders on the other side.

Pretty soon, the war has degenerated to what we humans would call an orgy, after which both sides are seen grooming each other and watching their children play.

So an orgy is moral? Maybe these guys understand it really is better to make love, not war.

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