Can Animals Feel?

In Review: Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves,
by Frans de Waal; W. W. Norton & Company, 2019

Frans de Waal starts his new book with a hug. At Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands, an adult chimpanzee and matriarch of her community named Mama welcomes biologist Jan van Hooff into her night cage. The two have known each other for 40 years, but never interacted without a physical barrier between them. On her deathbed, Mama flashes a grin at the man who has studied and befriended her. She then wraps a long arm around his neck and strokes his hair.

mama and baby gorilla
“Emotions are like organs,” Frans de Waal he concludes in Mama’s Last Hug after logging thousands of hours observing displays of pleasure, sadness, sympathy, disgust, shame, and other emotions in primates and other animals. “They are all needed, and we share them all with other mammals.” Photo by angela n/Flickr.

Mama appears happy to see van Hooff, the way we might feel greeting a longtime friend. Or perhaps Mama hugs van Hooff as a form of sympathy: Sensing van Hooff’s trepidation in entering her domain, Mama may be attempting to calm his nerves. Following this opening scene, de Waal explores the science behind Mama’s hug and other displays of animal emotions, asking a question he calls a “romantic notion” in the world of scientific rigor: Do animals really share the same emotions we do?

Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, after logging thousands of hours observing displays of pleasure, sadness, sympathy, disgust, shame, and other emotions in primates and other animals. “They are all needed, and we share them all with other mammals.”

A primatologist and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, de Waal has published academic work based on observations of behavior like conflict resolution and food sharing among ape communities. His books take a more transcendent approach, spanning topics from morality and religion to culture and politics, and digging into the life lessons that scientific inquiry can teach us.

Mama’s Last Hug continues this tradition while turning a keen eye towards the state of scientific inquiry itself. He continues to ask the question that fueled and titled his previous book: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

The book rests on the principle that emotions belong to the body; they are biological realities. We too often associate emotions with psychology, the mind. But there’s a fine line between emotions and their associated feelings, argues de Waal, and that line has made the field of studying animal emotions “murky and messy.” While a bonobo or horse can’t tell us how they feel, emotions in all of us are physiological and observable states that, writes de Waal, “make our hearts beat faster, our skin gain color, our faces tremble, our chests tighten, our voices rise, our tears flow, our stomachs turn.”

That much seems intuitive. Pet owners know when their dogs are happy or sad, or bored or guilty. Viral videos of rescued chimps hugging their rescuer Jane Goodall, show what we perceive as gratitude. Mama’s Last Hug doesn’t need to convince its readers that animals feel emotions.

But scientific study of animals’ emotions is still nascent. In this book, De Waal shares his and others’ experiences stepping into these murky waters. He catalogues experiments conducted across the globe that have shown different animals’ emotional ups and downs: rats laugh when tickled, elephants sympathetically share food with the less fortunate, chimps seek revenge.

While chapters can feel long, the book reads like a lecture from a professor who enjoys telling humorous yet engaging stories, with the long career to back them up. He chronicles observations and data from his experiments, while also recounting his own emotions.

In doing so, de Waal criticizes those who see animals as automations driven by sex and survival. Many scientists might accuse him of anthropomorphism, but de Waal calls that argument anthropodenial, which “reflects the desire to set humans apart and deny our animality.”

In other words, de Waal offers scientific evidence that we’re not so different from our animal neighbors. He prods the next generation of scientists to drop human-animal duality, going so far as to say that we should stop stressing the specific point when we moved from ape to human. “That there was ever such a point in time is a widespread illusion,” he writes, “like trying to find the precise wavelength in the light spectrum at which orange turns into red.”

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