wed 21/08/2019

Frans de Waal: Mama's Last Hug review - animal feelings | reviews, news & interviews

Frans de Waal: Mama's Last Hug review - animal feelings

Frans de Waal: Mama's Last Hug review - animal feelings

Enlightening insight into animals' emotional and social worlds

Frans de Waal© Catherine Marin

Primatologist, ethologist, zoologist, biologist, social psychologist, behaviourist – how may ‘ists’ can one person have? Dutch-American scientist Frans de Waal has helped revolutionise how we think about the attributes of fellow animals. He writes for the lay reader without condescension, mixing anecdote with plenty of citations from controlled experiments.

De Waal has spent more than forty years studying primate colonies, notably chimpanzees and bonobos, mostly at the National Primate Centre in Georgia, helping to transform and change human understanding of our fellow animals who inhabit this planet.

More and more the human race is realising through scientific investigation that animals too have both emotions and feelings, and De Waal distinguishes between the two categories. His contention is that animals, with the same vital organs from brain and heart to liver and pancreas, don’t just react mechanistically to ensure survival. For the vast majority of living things – even single-cell life is adduced – actions are propelled by emotions.

Mama's Last Hug by Frans de WaalWhat we may never understand are the interior feelings of living things. Thus the moving episode that gives the book its title: the visit of the octogenarian biologist Jan Van Hooff to Mama, the long-lived matriarch of the largest colony of chimpanzees in captivity. Mama sunk in terminal lethargy recognises her visitor, shrieks in greeting and hugs him. Whether Mama realises her impending mortality is unclear; what is evident (the clip has gone viral) is the loving recognition the chimpanzee affords her human visitor.

Why animals have emotions beyond those needed for survival is the subject of De Waal’s enthralling book. His main academic study is what makes primates co-operate and work together as an alternative to competition. The social interactions of primates are exercises in political dominance and family dynamics which involve teasing, reconciliation and keeping the peace, but also gratuitous cruelty and even murder. (De Waal identifies chimpanzee behaviour in the alpha male antics of Donald Trump.) Bonobos – not so secretly his favourites – solve most of their problems through sex, share food across territories, and are led essentially by females, with mothers promoting the fortunes of their sons.

Along the way we learn that rats enjoy being tickled, that hermit crabs may feel pain and that the author’s six clown loaches in his garden pond were inhospitable to any newly introduced clown loaches. He even observes how a depressed goldfish communicates its distress to fellow fish.

His most startling – and heart-breaking – statistic is that of life on earth today only three percent consists of wild animals, while humans make up 24 percent. The rest are animals domesticated for our consumption. Because of the conditions in which most are kept, it had been more than inconvenient to acknowledge their sentience and emotional life. Though eloquent in defence of the best zoos, De Waal is scathing about this denial and extremely persuasive about ways to bring about better conditions – even if cynical about the likely outcome. (And the rest of us are not much help. Those of us who turn vegetarian are, it seems, typically only able to keep it up for about a year.)

Above all, the social lives of animals are nothing less than relationships beyond words. De Waal proposes that for humans as well as other animals body language is the most powerful communication tool of all. Far from anthropomorphism, so-called animal behaviour illuminates the human: under the skin we are all related. This book is a mind changing marvel.

of life on earth today only three percent consists of wild animals, while humans make up 24 percent. The rest are animals domesticated for our consumption

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Comments

Our "humane" species kills 10 billion sentient animals a year for the myth of protein and acquired taste while depleting necessary resources for our habitat to continue. ALL animals want to live, it's sad how destructive we are in our sleep.Dog and Cat lovers think nothing of eating dismembered styrofoam packaged limbs and organs from poor souls labelled as "food"

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters