It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.
His new book The Bonobo and the Atheist tackles religion more broadly:
I don’t think primates have religions, but they may have certain superstitions. For example, if a thunderstorm comes through with an enormous amount of noise and rain, male chimpanzees will put their hands up and start walking around bipedally, in a dancing sort of fashion. It’s called a rain dance and it has been observed with chimpanzees approaching a waterfall. We really don’t know why they do it. Are they impressed by what happens? Do they think they can stop it? Of course, that would be superstition. Are they somehow in awe of nature?
Previous Dish on de Waal here.