The Bonobo and the Atheist

Is she a good dog?  Sure she is –  but is she a GOOD dog?



Why doesn’t the idea of a sinful dog make sense?  People can be good, bad or indifferent, but dogs are just…dogs.  When they sit on command we say ‘Good dog!’ but we don’t really mean “Good” dog.  We mean, obedient dog! Well done, dog! Not bad,for a dog!

Are people really the only animals with a moral sense?  Where did it come from, this whole right and wrong thing?  Was it implanted by God or gods, or do you need a certain size cerebellum to manufacture it, kind of like religion and physics?

If you’re interested in this kind of thing – and lots of people aren’t – try The Bonobo and the Atheist.  It’s by Frans de Waal, a celebrated primatologist with an office overlooking the zoo.  As he sits in his office, he sees things, like a group of younger chimpanzee girls helping an old lady chimp with arthritis onto a tree branch to sit with the others.  He sees an ape recognise another’s coming death before the veterinarian does, and grieve for it.  He conducts experiments, and finds that non-human animals have a deep sense of what is fair and unfair.  He finds that they will look after the sick and disabled, and that they don’t like clan members who break the rules.  When I owned a few horses, I noticed this myself.  Horses don’t like bullies and the bad-mannered – they chase them out of the herd until they’ve learned to play nice.

What are morals really but a complicated form of ‘playing nice’?  When you read this book you realise (if you didn’t know already) that we humans aren’t so different from the rest.  On the flip side, the ‘atheist’ part of the book is a complete red herring.


Recently, being an indie author myself, I’ve been reading other indie authors trying to make it, and have promised to do some indie reviews.  My first review is of Charles YallowitzBeginnings of a Hero: Legends of Windemere.  It’s a sword and sorcery novel set in Windimere, a strange and dangerous world full of elves, gods, half-elves, dwarves, soul-eating lichs and zombie gangs.  On my first read, I thought, hey, this is like a really good set up novel for a Dungeons and Dragons convention (the third person present tense gives it a ‘playing now’ ambience).  On my second read I got the tongue in cheek humour.  To wit, my favourite line in the book ‘More importantly, I came here to train and I will not get kicked out because I got caught with a naked girl who has the personality of a rampaging dread boar’!  Although I’m not a fan of this genre, I liked it.

Black and Red, by Sarah Jayne Nantais, is also a sword and sorcery novel.  It’s about the magical adventures of Terentya and Kalan, in a world full of beautiful sorceresses and powerful warriors vying for dominance and return to their native worlds.  The novel’s strength is in plot and imagination, while the writing is direct and naive.  If you enjoy the work of Emily Guido and her Lightbearer series, you’d probably enjoy this novel.

Here’s the thing. If you’re publishing as an independent author, it’s very hard to get people to read your work unless you’re REVIEWED. And guess what, it’s very hard to get reviewed if people haven’t read your work. Not all reviews can be good reviews, but at least they can help you become a better writer.  So if you’ve read a book by an indie author on Kindle or Smashwords, leave a review – we need it!


  1. Ha ha … I was about ready to comment here when I read your comment at my place. 🙂

    Good points about right and wrong extending beyond humans! Although they may be at a different degree, it still exists.

      1. I don’t know! It sounds ominous and sinister. yes you did have the name wrong, understandably, but only you have the power….(does that sound like the beginning of a fantasy novel?)

      2. Yes, there is a book there! At the very least a short story. My mind is so “unfantastical” though. My friend Katie O. used to get together and attempt to write “scary” stories when we were in Grammar school. Usually we just played some flute duets and watched her mom and dad get drunk. Good times.

        One of my other fantasies re: REVENGE! I would become invisible … search around my nemeses’ home to find out what mattered most to them, and DESTROY that. Just enough that no one knew what had happened. What fun. Happy little camper.

        Who’s pup? That’s your baby Rose. So lovely. Would love a cuddle!

      3. oh yes, that’s one of my babies. Coolac, her name is – she’s rather old. Anyway if you’re not fantastical at least you’re musical. I can’t play the flute. Or anything. Revenge..I don’t think I could be bothered. I’d feel bad about it. On second thoughts I probably am a homicidal maniac waiting for an invisibility spell to get out and live!


      4. Revenge is too easy. You’re much more fantastic than that. You have an imagination x infinity. Go with that.

      5. For my enemies, such as they are, ordinary nasty things are fine by me, like bricks falling on their horrible heads 🙂


      6. Yes, well, a brick to the head and “revenge” in theory (and thought) is anti-karm-atic! Right? I don’t want you to undo all your good work. Keep THAT up. You know, I could try (for free) to paint one of your children; or both. I could start with one. Not on their bodies, of course: Their likeness(es) on canvas or board/paper, etc.

      7. I’d like that. Maybe you could give me a pic and I could paint YOU, Mel. I CAN paint. Just not at all well. But I kinda can!


  2. She is a good dog, as long as she is the only dog, with any other dog around she may not be, at least from my limited samples of dog behaviours. And Yes, I will review your Mermaids, and I believe there is a book too 🙂

  3. It’s interesting … I was in a FB argument with a true believer who claims there is no scientific evidence of God’s existence. Why? Because the genetic code, what is mapped in our DNA, couldn’t possibly have just “evolved.” Somebody had to “write” that code because code doesn’t write itself. I think I’m going to need to read the book you reference here.
    Thanks for the shout out for Charles … he needs it.

    1. Actually, biological “coding” does produce it’s own code.

      Given an infinite number of monkies, an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite amount of time, you can eventually get the complete works of Shakespeare. As a matter of fact, you can get them in several languages with no guarantee that they would be produced in English first. 14 Billion years is not an infinite amount of time, but it is sufficiently long enough to have produced the universe as we “see” it.

      1. You’re right, of course. It’d be interesting to see if the monkeys really did do it. Bit of a long experimental timeframe though.


  4. I’m sure dogs “know” the difference between right and wrong – in the sense of things they are allowed / supposed to do or not. My dogs know they’re not supposed to get on our leather couch, the cloth couch is okay. When they think they won’t get caught, they climb on the leather couch and sleep (or chew their toys). When they get caught, they slink off and look back at you all guilty (tails between their legs). Sometimes they get off just before you catch them and sit there with that, “Nope, I’m not the reason that cushion is warm” look on their face.

    I’m not sure dogs understand the “moral” difference between them (right and wrong) – that is, things which may offend a specific deity. But then, I’m not at all convinced (by our actions) that humanity does either.

  5. I think they know what is right and wrong socially and in relation to each other. Humans make arbitrary rules for them which they don’t understand but find themselves having to obey. Dog rules on the other hand are apparently inbuilt – concepts of empathy, fairness, kindness, etc. They do have them, because it helps dogs get along with dogs.

  6. No such thing as an evil dog, btw. Why is always monkeys that help their own. Don’t dogs do this stuff? Chipmunks!? I protest!

    1. Dogs do, yes. That’s why they stick by humans even in adversity. But if there’s such a thing as a nice dog with helpful motivations, there must be such a thing as an awful dog with psychopathic tendencies. Not that I’ve ever met one 🙂

      1. I suppose that’s true. Talk about a BOOK? … well, i’m not sure that would go over well. Not with me. I wouldn’t want my dog to be killing people and all that. No way.

        We had a doxie who used to eat her poop and act a little crazy; but nothing malicious.

        Liz, D’s child, adopted a mini-Yorkie who is really stupid. I know that sounds harsh, but she is quite strange. Plus she acts insanely scared of me!? Doesn’t go over well.

        Must admit, as far as small dogs go, i like a doxie … but i’m a bit more enamored with the big guys now. I’m beginning to love Pit Bulls lately. There are many who need rescuing. OK, time to paint.

      2. What’s a doxie? It used to be old English slut, but I’m sure that’s not how you mean it here. My dog eats cat poo, she’s always snuffling for in people’s gardens. And she also seems rather dumb. Pit bulls..well,it’s not their fault they’re always in the soup for attacking people, I guess. Violent people tend to buy them and pass on their bad habits.


    1. Well, there’s the bull mastiff who savages the toddler, I guess. There’s GOT to be bad animals, otherwise ‘bad’ becomes ridiculously species-specific.


  7. I find animal interaction very interesting. Like someone mentioned, I’ve seen my dogs do things they were not supposed to do and their body language reflects it! Also, when I am in a sad mood my dog follows me around all over the house from room to room and puts his head on my lap – it’s like he senses it and wants to make it better! lol – I think he is very smart!

  8. Nice post, butimbeautiful! I really like Frans de Waal’s work and I’m certainly interested in the ethical questions related to animal and human behaviour. I think anyone who has had personal experience with higher animals, like you describe with horses, would recognise some of the things he has observed.

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