Mama’s Last Hug review: Entertaining insight into animal emotions

Frans De Waal blends meticulously researched arguments with common sense and humour

Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions What They Teach Us about Ourselves
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions What They Teach Us about Ourselves
Author: Frans De Waal
ISBN-13: 978-1783784103
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Any academic who doubts the depth of animal emotions ought to get a dog,” says Frans De Waal, renowned primatologist in his new book on animal emotions. There is something reassuring about a scientist with a partiality for the YouTube viral hit Denver the Guilty Dog. Informed by years of dedicated research into the social and emotional lives of chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates, De Waal has an engaging personal style. Blending meticulously researched and reasoned arguments with common sense and humour, Mama’s Last Hug is entertaining, convincing and moving. De Waal believes that the science of the emotions is “the next frontier” for studying animal behaviour – with considerable implications for us fellow creatures sharing the planet.

There is a wealth of fascinating stories from the capuchin monkeys’ sense of fairness to jackdaws who die of broken hearts and rats who like to be tickled. Described by his publishers as “a whirlwind tour of new ideas and findings about animal emotion”, Mama’s Last Hug is a densely packed volume covering a range of emotions – empathy, sympathy, disgust, shame, sense of fairness – that we share with animals. De Waal considers emotions on a par with organs, as both “biological and essential…a logical position given how closely the emotions are tied to the body and how all mammalian bodies are fundamentally the same. They are part of our physiological makeup, we need them to survive”.

The Will to Power chapter is fascinating and funny, “when Sean Spicer… was discovered hiding in the bushes to dodge questions from reporters, I knew Washington politics had become truly primatological”. The pages on Donald Trump are hilarious yet the ultimate message is hopeful, cogently arguing that humans are not doomed to warfare, “the primate alpha male is a much more complex and responsible being than a bully”.

As De Waal works through the arguments of each chapter, he describes a sea-change as a new generation of scientists reject behaviourist taboos: “The level at which we put other species is inching up day by day… neuroscience is breaking open the black box to look inside the brain, offering accounts of how animals solve problems that rely less and less on the learning theories of the past. Behaviourism is dying a slow death...”


Laughing rats

The late Estonian-American neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer in the study of animal emotions was ridiculed by behaviourists for his theories of “laughing rats”. Using ultrasonic vocalisations in order to study joy, play, and laughter in rats, he showed how rats, probably rewarded by opioids in the brain, liked to be tickled by human fingers. BF Skinner’s school of behaviourism which ruled “human emotions… irrelevant and animal emotions suspect” was one of the strongest forces within the scientific establishment when Panksepp was breaking new ground. This meant that Panksepp never received much funding for his work even though he “did more than almost anyone to make animal emotions a respectable topic… He placed human and animal emotions on a continuum and was the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it”.

At an international conference about emotions and feelings in humans and animals in Erice, Sicily in 2016, De Waal talked with Panksepp between sessions about animals’ feelings: “I expressed my reluctance to be specific, saying, ‘I think I know what they feel, but it remains speculation’... He felt I should come out and be more explicit about my impressions. I now believe he was right”.

De Waal’s book follows the spirit of that vital conversation. Building solid evidence in case after case with a few educated guesses, always returning to carefully controlled experiments which show the humbling complexity of animals.

“For me, the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science… overlooked them for so long… Why did we go out of our way to deny or deride something so obvious? The reason… is that we associate emotions with feelings, a notoriously tricky topic even in our species.”

Feelings are variable and private. We hardly know what we feel ourselves sometimes. Do we even have free will which philosopher Harry Frankfurt claims to exist when a person refrains from his first desire to satisfy another? De Waal shows animals fitting this criteria yet Frankfurt grandly excludes “any species lower than our own”. Free will may be illusory. De Waal quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”. And we may have no choice but to change our relationship with animals. There are no “lower species”, we are all deeply connected.

Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest collection, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is published by Carcanet

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic