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…