A new book on the emotional lives of animals reminds us how much we have in common with our fellow creaturesby Ray Monk / April 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
On YouTube there is a moving clip of a brief encounter between a dying chimpanzee called Mama, and the Dutch biology professor Jan van Hooff. The two had known each other for over 40 years. At the beginning of the clip, we see Mama curled up in the foetal position. She is 59 years old and looks as if she has lost the will to live. We see her refusing food and drink. Then Van Hooff enters her cage, making soft, reassuring grunting noises.
At first she takes no notice and refuses the grape he offers to her. Then she does a double take and realises that this new intruder is her old friend. Upon recognising him, she changes her attitude completely. She raises her head, and is clearly delighted to see him. They hold hands and she touches his face and his hair softly and tenderly. After then, finally accepting the grape in his hand, she reaches out and pulls him towards her for a hug, her fingers drumming the back of his head as the two embrace. The clip has been watched over 10m times.
Watching it, one wonders why anyone has ever questioned whether animals have emotions. Yet according to Frans de Waal’s hugely informative, engaging and readable new book, Mama’s Last Hug, until recently the existence of emotions in non-human animals was denied, or at the very least avoided, by more or less the whole of science. “Science doesn’t like imprecision,” he writes, “which is why, when it comes to animal emotions, it is often at odds with the views of the general public.” He continues: “Ask the man or woman in the street if animals have emotions, and they will say ‘of course.’” On the other hand, if you ask scientists, “many will scratch their heads, look bewildered, and ask exactly what you mean.”
Led by De Waal, Van Hooff and many others, this is beginning to change. “Today we dare speak of animal mental life,” he says—and speak about it De Waal does, in absorbing detail and to great effect. His aim is twofold: to understand the emotional lives of animals and to use that understanding to teach us about ourselves. He achieves both aspects of his aim, and his book has much to teach us. However, the caution of his colleagues about studying animal emotions has evidently left a mark.
In his prologue, De Waal draws a sharp distinction between feelings and emotions, a distinction to which he refers repeatedly throughout the book. I have the impression that, within his specialist field, the way he draws this distinction would not be controversial, but it will strike many outside his field as counter-intuitive.
“Our emotions and our feelings are not the same,” he insists. The difference, as he understands it, is that “feelings are internal subjective states that, strictly speaking, are known only to those who have them. I know my own feelings, but I don’t know yours, except for when you tell me about them. We communicate about our feelings by language.” Emotions, on the other hand, “are detectable on the outside in facial expression, skin colour, vocal timbre, gestures, odour, and so on. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.”
An important consequence of drawing the distinction in this way is that it allows De Waal to concede that science cannot study the feelings of animals, while insisting that it can study their emotions. But the partly public emotion/purely private feeling distinction strikes a philosopher, especially a Wittgensteinian philosopher such as myself, as a little strange.
It is not only philosophers who are likely to trip up on De Waal’s sharp distinction. For it does not capture the ordinary meaning of the words “feeling” and “emotion.” We talk indeed about feeling emotions (sadness, pride, guilt, for example), and I do not think we ordinarily conceive them as things that are always shown. We talk of hiding our emotions, or (what would often be taken to be another way of saying the same thing), hiding our feelings. And, with regard to the idea that we can only know each other’s feelings when they are put into language, I think many of us would side with Wittgenstein when he says: “If I see someone writhing in pain with evident cause I do not think: all the same, his feelings are hidden from me.”
Equally, when we watch the clip of Mama and Van Hooff, we surely have no hesitation in saying that Mama feels very happy to see him, nor that she feels great affection for him. For most of us, I think, writing about the emotions of animals cannot be done without attributing to them certain feelings. So, despite what De Waal himself says, I would regard this book as being about the emotions and the feelings of animals.
Understood thus, it is a fascinating book. De Waal is a primatologist and most of his examples are taken from the study of apes and monkeys. He uses the poignant Mama story as a springboard for an extended discussion of the intricate social and familial relations observed in colonies of apes. From there he goes on to analyse a range of specific emotions, concentrating on the ways in which they are expressed. He provides, for example, a compelling discussion of smiling and laughing, drawing attention to the often overlooked differences between them.
His analysis here gains much from his work with primates. He cannot bear, he says, to watch movies or television shows that feature simian actors, because he knows that the silly grins they produce are an indication not of happiness, but of fear: “only punishment and domination can call forth these expressions.” Smiling, he says, “started as an expression of fear and submission, which became a sign of non-hostility and ultimately affection.” Laughter, on the other hand, started as a play indicator, triggered by roughhousing and tickling, “then turned into a signal of bonding and well-being, even fun and happiness.” It turns out that a surprising number of species enjoy a good laugh. Rats, for example, love to be tickled and, when you tickle them, they produce their own version of laughter: a high-pitched chirp.
In a previous book, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, De Waal traced human morality back to the emotional life of primates, concentrating on the evolution of empathy, sharing and -co-operation. Here, in the same spirit, he offers an extremely enlightening discussion showing that apes, monkeys and other animals have a surprisingly sophisticated conception of fairness. A clip on YouTube shows two capuchin monkeys, separated from each other by mesh through which each has a good view of the other. The experimenter drops a small rock in their cage, and when the monkey retrieves and returns the rock, it receives a reward.
What is interesting is that, to the monkeys, it does not matter what the reward is, so long as they are each treated the same. If they both receive a slice of cucumber, they are happy. However, if one of them receives a grape (which they much prefer), and the other a mere slice of cucumber, the latter becomes irate and indignant, throwing the rock and the cucumber slice out of the test chamber in annoyance. It is as if the monkey is yelling, “that’s not fair!” Exactly the same reaction has often been observed by dog-owners, not to mention parents of toddlers. It can be seen also, according to De Waal, in birds.
Apes go a step further and exhibit a sense of what De Waal calls “second-order fairness,” which is not the resentment of seeing someone else receiving preferential treatment, but a refusal to receive preferential treatment oneself. De Waal tells the story of Panbanisha, a bonobo, who earned large amounts of milk and raisins for a task she had performed. After a while, she began to refuse any further rewards and, looking at the experimenter, she gestured towards her friends and family watching from a distance. Only when they received some of the treats did she eat hers.
In drawing connections between the behaviour of animals and humans, De Waal does not shy away from the obvious—he describes Donald Trump as “strutting like a male chimp on steroids,” for example. But he does also stress the differences between Trump and a “true alpha male,” the most important of which are Trump’s lack of empathy and his failure to lead those whom he dominates. “Instead of uniting and stabilising the nation or expressing sympathy for suppressed or suffering parties, he kindled the flames of discord.”
Empathy is perhaps the theme of the book, the empathy that animals have with each other, and the empathy that we have with them. The most natural way of understanding empathy is surely to see it in terms of feeling. When we see a horse in pain, we wince; when we see a dog happy in play, we laugh. Empathy is a sharing of feelings and emotions (the two being inseparable). But De Waal’s discussion is hampered by his insistence on that sharp feelings/emotions distinction. He struggles, too, with the way we can move from empathy to attributing sentience to animals, that is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience subjective states.
Most of us do not have a problem with attributing sentience. No one who owns a dog or cat will hesitate to describe their pet as being, for example, proud, confused, afraid, even embarrassed. De Waal, however, admits that it is only “with some trepidation… that I wade into the morass of animal sentience and consciousness.” That trepidation, it seems, concerns the fact that the “morass” is not only intellectual but also moral. For, as he says, behind the debate about animal consciousness “lurks an issue that many scientists would much rather avoid: what humanity does to animals.” When we deny, ignore or forget that animals have sentience, treating animals badly comes relatively easy to us. To someone who studies the emotional life of animals, on the other hand, this mistreatment means that “we have a serious moral dilemma on our hands.”
As De Waal points out, farm animals constitute three quarters of “the entire terrestrial vertebrate biomass on earth.” Each of those animals has an emotional life and each of them is sentient. De Waal’s response to the massive moral problem that arises from this fact is, however, the most disappointing aspect of the book. He is clearly appalled at the way factory-farmed animals are treated and, to a certain extent, uncomfortable with the idea of killing and eating animals; but, he says, “I am too much of a biologist to question the natural circle of life.” We eat meat; that, he believes, is simply our nature. Yet he concedes that we do not need to eat meat. He admires those who try to maintain a vegetarian diet, “and have joined it in my own imperfect and undogmatic fashion by banishing practically all mammalian meat from my family’s kitchen.”
To many vegans like myself, this will seem a bit half-hearted. As De Waal himself says, “A plant-based food revolution is under way that hopefully will force meat producers to change their methods. It would be great if humanity could cut its meat consumption by half while drastically improving the lives of the animals that it does eat.” Fine, but even better would be eating no meat at all. This, De Waal seems to think, is not a possibility. His hopes lie in the development of artificial meat, which he sees as a “moral imperative,” but one “best accomplished if we honestly face where we come from rather than spinning the fairy tale… that we are meant to be vegan. We are not.”
If a book were written that investigated the emotional lives of pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens with the same sensitivity and care with which De Waal has studied the emotional lives of monkeys and apes, it would not, I think, seem so obvious that we are not “meant” to be vegan. Until that book comes along, Mama’s Last Hug does an effective job of reminding us of the continuities between our own moral and emotional lives and those of our fellow creatures.
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal is published by Granta (£14.99)