Book of the week
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
‘Mama’ embraces her old friend.
Frans de Waal’s new book about animals’ emotional life “surprises us on every page,” said Sy Montgomery in The New York Times. Take the opening scene, in which a 58-year-old chimpanzee on her deathbed is approached by a biologist she’s not seen lately. She’s known him for 40 years, though, and when she notices him, she smiles broadly, reaches out to stroke his hair, then pulls him toward her in a hug. Millions watched the video of Mama and the researcher when it was posted online, but too many of the scientific experts among them would resist saying they had witnessed a warm reunion of two old friends. De Waal, a veteran primatologist who scored a best-seller with a 2016 book about animal intelligence, wants to change such thinking. That makes this latest volume “even bolder and more important.”
De Waal “chips away, example by example, at any notion of human exceptionalism in the emotional realm,” said Barbara King in NPR.org. Admitting that we can only observe displays of emotion rather than know what any one animal feels, de Waal then provides story after story of animals seeming to express feelings. Rats squeak when tickled, and come back to their keepers’ hands for more. A capuchin monkey will protest if she sees her human handlers are giving another monkey better rewards for the same conduct. De Waal’s own research indicates that chimpanzees can be skilled at conflict resolution, said John Carey in The Sunday Times (U.K.). But he goes too far when he argues that we are, emotionally, essentially the same as chimpanzees. He rejects the possibility that human emotional life is different because language gives us a different way to experience feelings. In fact he writes, “The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.”
Given all that he’s invested in promoting respect for animals’ emotional complexity, his ideas about corrective measures seem “small-scale, even trivial,” said Mark Cocker in the New Statesman. He suggests, for example, that supermarket shoppers should be able to use their phones to scan the bar codes on supermarket meat products to see how the butchered animal was raised. At a time when human population growth has put countless species under threat of extinction, that’s not enough. Though de Waal should be congratulated for the work he’s done here, “if complex emotions really are a common heritage of the whole animal kingdom, then we need to reimagine our responsibility to, and relationship with, the creatures that share this planet.” ■