The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries

Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

Truth of the Matter


Science is not a path towards truth; therein lies its greatest strength.

"Tibetan Monkey" by Nathaniel Gold

"Tibetan Monkey" by Nathaniel Gold

In his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal describes a forum held at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia where he spoke alongside the Dalai Lama. De Waal reflected on the great interest that Tibet’s spiritual leader had in the findings of modern science and particularly the latest research on the evolution of empathy and compassion, areas central to Buddhist thought. It was, de Waal wrote, "a refreshing departure from attempting to drive a wedge between religion and science."

According to the Dalai Lama, there is no conflict between his own spiritual pursuits and those of modern science. Quite simply, if any principles of Buddhist thought are found to be wrong by employing the scientific method, "Buddhism will have to change." Just as he did in his 2005 address to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the Dalai Lama emphasized that his deeply held religious philosophy was both enriched and informed by an empirical worldview.

On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science share a deep suspicion of any notion of absolutes, whether conceptualized as a transcendent being, as an eternal, unchanging principle such as soul, or as a fundamental substratum of reality. Both Buddhism and science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect. From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism.

This is a rare perspective amongst religious thinkers. Discussions about the conflict between science and religion usually hinge on the question of priority: which path towards knowledge takes precedence in the pursuit of truth? However, this is a false premise. In the Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--empirical science is dismissed on certain questions because it either contradicts their cherished beliefs or, as in the recent case of former New York Times columnist and current Yahoo! News correspondent Virginia Heffernan, because creationism just has a "livelier" story, a position that resulted in widespread criticism.

Heffernan went on to write, "I think science is poetry, useful and not; scientists think science is truth that compels belief it [sic] itself." Where this sort of incurious perspective gets it wrong is the basic misunderstanding of what the scientific method and worldview actually is. Science is not concerned with truth, it is concerned with doubt. As I’ve discussed before, it is this that makes science and religious faith fundamentally different.

However, there are some important ways in which science and religion as institutions are the same. Having studied primates for many years (specifically bonobos) it is easy to identify commonalities both within and between human societies. All social primates, whether we are talking about macaques, chimpanzees, or humans, are inordinately fond of forming groups and developing social hierarchies. Individuals rise within these hierarchies based on ability and political patronage. This fact is so obvious that it is not often appreciated.

Scientists and Cardinals alike both rise to a given position in their careers based on how their peers regard their work and how well they play the political game. In order to form an alliance with a potential ally or curry favor with an individual of higher rank there are a few standard tactics. You help promote their work, praise them in public, invite them to conferences or conclaves, and help them advance in their field. In bonobos this is called social grooming (though, admittedly, bonobo conclaves are probably a lot more fun). This reflects a reciprocal political exchange that has been identified in every population studied in our species as well as most other social species.

Furthermore, scientists also have a creed, or a set of beliefs, that guide their action. This creed is that the natural world demonstrates predictable patterns that can be deciphered with careful analysis. Rather than study the Bible incessantly and debate what it can tell us about God’s plan, scientists study nature. If you like, you can even go as far as Thomas Carlyle in his criticism of Charles Darwin and state that scientists are beholden to a “Gospel of Dirt.” The method of science is to bounce ideas off of reality in order to separate the ones that work from the ones that don’t. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have their sacred text; scientists have theirs.

But this is where the comparison ends. In contrast to those religious proponents who believe that truth is revealed through their spiritual teacher or sacred book, science operates under the assumption that human reason is limited and that a theory is only valid until further evidence either refines or discards it for a better explanation. Science is never finished. It is a continuing work in progress and any accepted theory is merely “provisionally true” for the time being.

There is also no single observation that is independent of the observer. This was made abundantly clear thanks to research at the subatomic level. A particle, such as an electron, can only be predicted to have a specific location or to be moving in a specific direction. You can not have both. The action of measuring the electron, by hitting it with a photon of light in order to record it, changes its behavior. The investigator alters the investigation.

This is the case for biology the same way it is for particle physics. Manipulating bacteria in a laboratory or chasing after bonobos in the rainforest can alter the results that are recorded. Furthermore, the cultural biases of the scientist influence the very questions that they will ask in the first place. These biases might not be recognized for generations. It is for this reason that scientists value large sample sizes and try to collect as many observations on a given phenomenon as they can. Likewise, new theories only reach consensus once studies have been replicated and the theory's predictions are independently supported.

Acknowledging the difficulties inherent to empirical research does not undermine the power of science as an explanatory tool. What it does is limit our hubris. It is a worldview that religious thinkers who cling to an assumed truth could well learn from. After all, as we have seen time and again throughout history, it is the passionate embrace of a flawed "truth" that has visited great calamities on members of our species. The scientific method is one that accepts human folly for what it is and works within our limitations to discard the steady stream of ideas that are inconsistent with reality. It is a pursuit that is as meticulous as it is awe inspiring and, without a doubt, is the liveliest story I know.

This has been adapted from a piece that originally appeared at

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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