Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, May 2019 | Go to article overview

Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019; 336 pages; $27.95

For most of his career as a student of animal behavior, Frans de Waal has campaigned against the extreme behaviorism that characterized ethology in the mid-twentieth century. According to then-fashionable B. F. Skinner and his followers, the inner lives of animals, if they existed at all, were not a proper object for science, since there was no way that they could be directly measured. To think otherwise was to commit the fallacy of anthropomorphism, a flawed stance that de Waal would rather call (with a nod to the current climate debate) anthropodenial. As de Waal emphasizes in this latest of his popular works, the emotions of animals are as amenable to scientific study as are the emotions of humans, revealing likely truths about their inner lives-and ours.

Emotions, de Waal notes, are not the same as internal feelings, and are manifest as changes in physiology and behavior that are fair game for ethological research. Emotions show up as facial expressions, such as the toothy grins of chimpanzees (which are actually signs of fear, not joy), or the wrinkled look of disgust, called a "rain face" that the apes assume when caught in a tropical cloudburst. There's overt body language, too, as when monkeys converge to pat and kiss a whimpering infant, or when Mama, the matriarch of the Royal Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands, embraces her long-time keeper on her deathbed.

Whether these behaviors can be interpreted as evidence of animal consciousness remains a contentious side issue, but de Waal argues fearlessly for the positive. …

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