I recently had the pleasure of watching a Nova special on PBS entitled The Last Great Ape, which profiled the bonobo ape, an endangered species found exclusively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Aside from its intelligence, the most remarkable aspect of the bonobo is that its matriarchal culture operates on co-operation, not the confrontation and violence that defines its chimpanzee cousin’s way of life. The program tells us that the two species diverged about two million years ago. Given the fact that we all evolved from a common primate ancestor, the program reminds us that human society has elements of both species in its makeup, both the capacity for terrible aggression and life-affirming co-operative behaviour.
So why is this so important to appreciate? I just read a thought-provoking book by Chris Hedges called I Don’t Believe in Atheists, the thesis of which is that both religious fundamentalists and the new atheists (people such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens,) are equally dangerous in that both cling to ideologies that ignore some basic truths about human nature. While the fundamentalists prescribe a very narrow set of beliefs as the way to salvation, condemning all others to the fiery pit of hell, scientist- atheists such as Hitchens and Harris argue for the perfectibility of humanity through scientific progress, going so far as to advocate the extermination of Muslims because of the extremist element responsible for terrorism. What makes both polarities so dangerous is the intolerance of all opposing beliefs, the arrogant belief in the absolute truth of their own positions, and the failure to recognize that humans, by their divided animal nature, can never achieve perfection, either through the acceptance of religious or scientific doctrine.
I found both the program and the book refreshing. As implied in the Nova documentary, and made explicit in Hedges’ book, until we confront and completely acknowledge the immutability of the animal side of our natures, real progress (but never perfectibility) in the human condition is not achievable, and we will be forever susceptible to those demagogues, both religious and secular, who try to convince us that salvation is to be found in a set of beliefs, a set of actions, or a ‘final solution.’