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On this page we share our monthly book review as published in the magazine, and we also list ten other selected book titles. These books are not exclusively related to Humanism, and some are viewed as adding to, or even challenging, the overall lexicon of thought and values that are important to the Humanist dialogue.  

Book Review by David Warden 

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David Warden provides our monthly book review, and this month he reviews

'The Bonobo and the Atheist' (2013)  by Frans De Waal

Frans de Waal is a Dutch primatologist and ethologist and Professor of Primate Behaviour in the Department of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


Frans de Waal made his name with a book called 'Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes' published in 1982 and reissued for its 25th anniversary in 2007. One of the most shocking scenes in the book was the author’s description of the outcome of a
power struggle between three chimps in which the losing male, Luit had his fingers and testicles bitten off. He died from his injuries. But this level of violence was rare in the colony at Arnhem in the Netherlands Dominance struggles between males was commonplace, but the chimps’ social system maintained a relatively stable ‘balance of power’ rather than a state of war of all against all. An elderly female chimp called Mama was definitely the matriarch. The most touching scene was a report of the chimps watching a documentary film about their own colony. They were visibly moved when a deceased member of the colony appeared on screen.

The Bonobo and the Atheist, however, is a more
interesting book. De Waal positions humans  somewhere between common chimps which are muscular and relatively aggressive and bonobos which are more peace loving and into casual sex. Both species like sex of course, but bonobos routinely use genital rubbing as we might use a handshake to establish a friendly connection. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is De Waal’s rejection of the ‘veneer theory’ of human morality which holds that we are basically savage with just a thin overlay of
civilised behaviour. His observations overturn this idea by showing that all mammals, and especially primates,

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engage in prosocial behaviour because keeping the group together is essential for survival. Of course, animals also compete for dominance and sexual privileges, but these drives are kept in check by social codes and reward centres in the brain which make altruism and empathy pleasurable.

 

De Waal thus argues for a ‘bottom up’ theory of morality rather than a ‘top down’ account, whether from religion or rationality. Morality in this sense is at least 100,000 years older than religion which developed in response to civilization and the growing size of social groups. Religion reinforces moral codes, it did not create them.

 

De Waal sides with the moral philosopher David Hume rather than Immanuel Kant: prosociality is part of human nature, not alien to it. We can make the world a better place by cultivating our natural sympathies, not by imposing moral rules.

Some other selected books for your consideration

At Humanistically Speaking we feel that book ownership brings two universal truths with it. The first is that each book is personal to the individual, and the second follows on from the first, in that, if someone is daft enough, or worse, opinionated enough, to list their 'best books', then it's near certain that there will be some form of response. ​ Below is this month's selection of titles. 

 

Braiding Sweetgrass

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two ways of knowledge together.

Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings - asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass - offer us gifts and lessons, even if we've forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.

 

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Number One Court

Court Number One of the Old Bailey is the most famous court room in the world, and the venue of some of the most sensational human dramas ever to be played out in a criminal trial.

 

The principal criminal court of England, historically reserved for the more serious and high-profile trials, Court Number One opened its doors in 1907 after the building of the 'new' Old Bailey. In the decades that followed it witnessed the trials of the most famous and infamous defendants of the twentieth century. It was here that the likes of Madame Fahmy, Lord Haw Haw, John Christie, Ruth Ellis, George Blake (and his unlikely jailbreakers, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle), Jeremy Thorpe and Ian Huntley were defined in history, alongside a wide assortment of other traitors, lovers, politicians, psychopaths, spies, con men and - of course - the innocent.

 

Not only notorious for its murder trials, Court Number One recorded the changing face of modern British society, bearing witness to alternate attitudes to homosexuality, the death penalty, freedom of expression, insanity and the psychology of violence. Telling the stories of twelve of the most scandalous and celebrated cases across a radically shifting century, this book traces the evolving attitudes of Britain, the decline of a society built on deference and discretion, the tensions brought by a more permissive society and the rise of trial by mass media.

 

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The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

This wonderful book could easily be called 'How to Build a Human', as it takes the grand unifying ideas of biology and synthesises them into a manual of development from conception to birth. Each one of us starts our tenure on Earth as a single cell, and ends up as 100 trillion (or so), all specialised for function.

Alice Roberts takes you on the most incredible journey, revealing your path from a single cell to a complex embryo to a living, breathing, thinking person. It's a story that connects us with our distant ancestors and an extraordinary, unlikely chain of events that shaped human development and left a mark on all of us.

 

The author uses the latest research to uncover the evolutionary history hidden in all of us, from the secrets found only in our embryos and genes - including why as embroyos we have what look like gills - to those visible in your anatomy. This is a tale of discovery, exploring why and how we have developed as we have. This is your story, told as never before.

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True focuses on the hard evidence that proves evolution by natural selection to be a fact.

 

Weaving together and explaining the latest discoveries and ideas from many disparate areas of modern science, this succinct and important book will leave no one with an open mind in any doubt about the truth - and the beauty - of evolution.

  • While other books describe the concept and the processes by which evolution proceeds, Why Evolution is True presents the evidence: using modern science to demonstrate the 'indelible stamp' of the process first proposed by Darwin.

  • Allows the reader to understand all the evidence, drawn from diverse areas of modern science, which supports Darwinian evolution.

  • Presents the very latest research from the fields of genetics, palaeontology, geology, molecular biology, anatomy, and development.

  • Written by one of the world's foremost evolutionary biologists

  • Besides examining the evidence, the book dispels common misunderstandings about what evolution is: whether it is a fact or 'only' a theory, and what its implications are for human culture and for our sense of purpose and meaning.

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The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is an internationally acclaimed author and a committed Humanist.

The God Delusion caused a sensation when it was published in 2006. Within weeks it became the most hotly debated topic, with Dawkins himself branded as either saint or sinner for presenting his hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types.

 

His argument could hardly be more topical. While Europe is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world.

 

In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between 'intelligent design' and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries religious dogma from medieval times still serves to abuse basic human rights such as women's and gay rights. And all from a belief in a God whose existence lacks evidence of any kind.

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Atheist Delusions

Among all the great transitions that have marked Western history, only one—the triumph of Christianity—can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution” In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism.

David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

 

Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

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Is Nothing Sacred

We call many things sacred, from cows, churches and paintings to flags and burial grounds. Is it still meaningful to talk of things being sacred, or is the idea merely a relic of a bygone religious age? Does everything - and every life - have its price?

Is Nothing Sacred? is a stimulating and wide-ranging debate about some of the major moral dilemmas facing us today, such as the value of human life, art, the environment, and personal freedom.

Packed with clearly presented controversial issues, we are asked to decide whether we should revere life when someone chooses to die, preserve the giant California redwoods, cherish Vermeer's originals for their own sake, or curtail personal freedom for the greater good. Ronald Dworkin argues that the concept of the scared is essential to any human ethics, and Simon Blackburn explains why he thinks 'a humanist should not feel guilty at the emotions of awe and reverence that can be inspired by great religious works of art. Throughout, the idea of the sacred in a secular age is hotly debated amongst the authors and put to the test: should it be abandoned altogether, or does it still have something to teach us?

Is Nothing Sacred? brings together outstanding philosophers and thinkers, including Suzanne Uniacke, Michael Clark, Alan Holland, Simon Blackburn, Richard Dawkins, Richard Norman, Alan Howarth, Nigel Warburton, Matthew Kieran and John Harris.

God created Humanism

For those that might be interested in the relationship between Humanism and Christianity, this book attempts an insightful study as to how the two have been painted with a false dichotomy.

 

In this compelling account of the origins and evolution of our secular worldview, Theo Hobson shows how Christian values continue to underpin our public morality, how faith remains indispensable to Western humanism, and how atheistic humanism represents a dead end.

At the same time, he offers a timely warning against the dangers of a religious-secular culture war, given the radically politicized and destructive forms of religion endemic in the world today. Here is a fresh and provocative argument about religion and politics but one that doesn t fit into the normal boxes. It suggests that although the public creed of the West is best described as secular humanism we can only really understand and affirm secular humanism if we see how firmly it is based on Christian norms and values. If we don't, the West is divided: mired in a stagnant stand-off between fundamentalist atheism and an equally hard-line Christian theism.

 

This book offers a more nuanced and historically more persuasive way forward, showing just how much our secular morality owes to Christianity, and how it can only find coherence through a new and positive view of its origins.

Atheism for Kids

Atheism For Kids tackles these questions head-on, in a fun and beautifully-illustrated book written for children who are exploring religious ideas in an increasingly secular world.Atheism For Kids asks open-ended and non-judgmental questions about religion, with suggestions for how we might choose to live if we opt for an atheist or humanist lifestyle instead.

An indispensable guide for anybody parenting atheist children or interested in explaining religion to children, this book:
 

  • Encourages critical and evidence-based thinking.

  • Offers the foundations for a moral and spiritual framework outside of religion.

  • Promotes key humanist values including tolerance and compassion for all, regardless of religious background or experience.

  • Atheism for Kids was written alongside the British National Curriculum, and is ideal for home educators or those teaching atheism in schools

Sapiens                                       

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?