Introducing Dr. Frans de Waal

On Sunday, September 1st, I had the honor of introducing Dr. Frans de Waal as part of this year’s Decatur Book Festival. Dr. de Waal, you may remember, is a primatologist who has written several books for general audiences, most recently The Bonobo and the Atheist (we interviewed Dr. de Waal about this book in podcast #175).

Marc Merlin, coordinator of the immensely popular Atlanta Science Tavern, also coordinated the science track at the DBF, and it was a HUGE success! The ballroom was filled to capacity to hear Dr. de Waal. (Just before that, we heard Denise Kiernan speak about her book The Girls of Atomic City.) Anyway, many thanks to Marc for inviting me to participate.

And for those who are interested, here’s the text of the introduction:

INTRODUCTION FOR DR. FRANS DE WAAL (Sunday, Sept 1, 2013, Decatur Book Festival)

Thank you, Marc.

It’s a pleasure to be here for the first time at the Decatur Book Festival, and a pleasure to be introducing our next speaker.

When Marc approached about doing this introduction, he told me they were looking for either a bonobo or an atheist. Given the social habits of bonobos, perhaps it’s better for Dr. De Waal that there’s an atheist introducing him today.

Frans de Waal was born in Den Bosch, the Netherlands.  He earned a PhD in Biology and Zoology from the University of Utrecht. Since 1996 he has made metro Atlanta his home. He is currently the C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University, and the Director of Living Links at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

His research has done much to dispel the caricature of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” While it is true that Nature, our nature, our shared primate nature, exhibits violence, greed, competition and cruelty, it also exhibits empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation, and cooperation.

Dr. de Waal has also championed the argument that it is not inappropriate or misguided to attribute emotional states to animals; that is to say, non-human animals. His research has shown that we share many moral behaviors with our primate cousins, and, by implication, that our moral structure is pre-human; in other words, evolved.

A recitation of his publications, both for his peers and for the public, would fill the hour allotted to us this afternoon. His most recent books include The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society and The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds. His latest book is The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates.

While Dr. de Waal makes clear that he believes our moral structure is largely inherent, he cautions the so-called New Atheists against dismissing religion as hopeless and the religious as merely ignorant. As you can imagine, the activist community of non-believers has welcomed this criticism with warm and loving arms.

But as Dr. de Waal has said, “It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.”

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Frans De Waal.

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