Monday, April 19, 2021

A review of Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions

By Madeleine Kando

In his latest book, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal continues to show beyond any doubt, that animals are not only sentient and intelligent creatures, but have an emotional life that is as complex as ours.

The book opens with a heart wrenching description of a dying chimpanzee called Mama, the matriarch of the colony at the Royal Berger Zoo in Holland.

She receives a visit from Jan Van Hooff, an 80 year old Professor whom she has known for 40 years. As she recognizes him, her whole face turns into a huge smile. She strokes his grey hair, puts her large hand on his shoulder and makes yelping sounds to show how happy she is to see him. Then, like my own 100 year old mother did, when I went to see her before she died, Mama curls up again into a ball. The brief visit took all the strength she could muster at that moment.

De Waal doesn’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to debunking false beliefs about primates and humans. The fact that we descend from an ‘apelike’ ancestor, does not mean that the primates of today are a more primitive version of us. The evolutionary history of the bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas goes as far back in time as our own. They are not our evolutionary parents, a more primitive version of us, but have separately evolved for as long as we have.


What made Mama the Alpha Female of the Colony? In one of his famous Ted Talks: ‘The Surprising Science of Alpha Males’, de Waal explains that the qualities that make a good leader are not strength and bullying, but traits like generosity, peacekeeping and empathy. Mama had those traits in abundance. She was what de Waal calls ‘the consoler in chief’. She was the boss because she broke up fights, knew how to compromise and make coalitions.  Not only was Mama the boss, she was also the focus of intense male attention. By describing the colony’s sexual habits, de Waal shows us that we are not the only species capable of impulse control. Mama’s admirers did not openly fight to have 'a go at it': they knew that by allowing one of them that privilege, the price was to receive a grooming session afterward. If one of them broke the rule, there was hell to pay.

Grief and a sense of finality
After Mama died, her body was made accessible to the rest of the colony to inspect. There was a lot of touching, moving, checking for a breath.. One chimp brought a blanket, another started grooming the dead body. For the colony, Mama’s death generated the sad flip side of the strong bond they had with her: a sense of loss.

De Waal makes a strong point of distinguishing ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’. Emotions are rooted in the body. They are physical responses to a situation. Fear makes your heart race, you sweat, you tremble. Feelings, on the other hand, are the conscious awareness of these emotions. We even have clever verbal labels for them: happy, sad, angry, bored etc. The way animals express feelings is with voice and facial expression, since they cannot tell us how they feel.

De Waal even goes one step further and demonstrates that empathy is felt with the body, not just the mind. Who hasn’t cried when others cry, laughs when others laugh? Empathy jumps from body to body. When facial mimicry is blocked, as when subjects are made to hold a pencil between their teeth, empathy suffers. Botox treatment has a similar effect, since it stops one from mirroring the faces of others, which prevents one from feeling what someone else feels.

The old notion of nature being this ‘dog-eat-dog’ place, where the law of the strongest rules, has been refuted by a mountain of fresh data. Animals (including humans) are inherently social creatures, so how can constantly trying to outdo, kill or exterminate each other be good for the species? De Waal shows that our foremost inclination is cooperation, not competition. Empathy is the glue that binds animal and human societies together.

So how do we explain the cruelty that we see all around us, you might ask? Because empathy, like strength or intelligence, is a neutral capacity. It can be used for good or evil, depending on one’s intentions. But cruelty in nature is often unintentional. A shark killing a seal, a snake swallowing a frog, is that cruelty? Cruelty is the domain of more complex brains that inflict pain knowingly.

This is a book about emotions, and de Waal skillfully weaves many of them into his narrative. Emotions that are believed to be purely ‘human’, such as hope, worry, revenge, forgiveness and gratitude are all found in adult apes and other animals.

Sharing is a big part of the chimpanzees' life, but there is sharing and sharing. Apes show gratitude by sharing food with those who have been kind to them in the past - a grooming session, a sexual encounter. The ones that did not give favors are left hungry.

Gratitude’s ugly sister’ is revenge and chimps are particularly good at it. When a band of chimps harassed Nikkie, the soon to be alpha male, he waited until each member was sitting alone, minding their own business, before he beat up each one in turn. The law of ‘an eye for an eye’ is alive and well amongst chimpanzees.

Forgiveness is so common in mammals that a species wouldn’t survive without it. Making up after a fight is what keeps groups together, whether in a family or in a chimp colony.

These 3 emotions: gratitude, revenge and forgiveness have to do with the past, but hope and worry have to do with the future. Those are also present in chimps. If a chimp expects a piece of banana to be hidden under a cup and it is secretly replaced with lettuce by a heartless experimenter, a chimp will throw a fit and throw the lettuce back in her face.

Shame and Guilt
When you come home and find your favorite pillow ripped to shreds and your dog hiding behind the couch, you know there is guilt lurking behind that lowered gaze. Or is it just fear of being reprimanded? Why, then does your dog ‘look’ guilty?

The Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz showed how his dog Bully, completely broke down after he accidentally bit his master. For days, he was virtually paralyzed and ignored his food. He would lie on the rug breathing shallowly, occasionally interrupted by a deep sigh. He had violated a deep seated natural taboo never to harm a superior, which among ancestral canines could have had the worst imaginable consequences, such as expulsion from the pack.

War, Aggression and Murder
Showing that we share emotions with animals is one way to value animals more. But de Waal doesn’t shy away from discussing the less attractive emotions of aggression, rage and anger.

Here de Waal makes a distinction between modern warfare and our species’ aggressive instincts. The decision to go to war is usually made by older men based on politics. Napoleon’s soldiers did not die on Russian soil with anger in their heart. They just followed orders, the herd instinct made them march, not anger.

When it comes to primates, they are excellent at keeping the peace. De Waal does not agree with Steven Pinker’s notion that civilization is the only solution to dampen violence. There is no evidence of warfare before the Agricultural Revolution, when small bands of hunter gatherers traded with each other.

In a famous capuchin monkey experiment, 2 monkeys were fed pieces of cucumber. When one monkey was given a grape, but not the other one, the shortchanged monkey threw it back at the technician, in protest against the injustice. A sense of fairness is essential in a group that is dependent on the equitable distribution of the results of a hunt. If one member always gets more or most of the meat, the rest soon will abandon both the hunt and the greedy member.

Free will
Is free will that which makes us truly human? De Waal shows that animals also have free will by constantly fighting their impulses. A mother fights her impulse to grab her baby back from an adolescent who wants to cuddle him. Pulling on the infant’s arms in a tug of war would harm the baby, so she pretends it’s ok until the baby is safe back in her arms. Only then, does she go after the grabber and teaches him a lesson he will not soon forget.

In the hilarious marshmallow test, in which children were promised a second marshmallow if they waited until the experimenter returns. Griffin the parrot, was so good at finding ways to delay his gratification, that he moved the bowl out of reach, talked to himself, shook his feathers, yawned, even fell asleep, knowing that the longer he waited, the more candy would be added to his bowl.

The last chapter, ‘Sentience’, is the highlight of the book. It asks the ultimate question: do animals have consciousness? If they do, we deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, because of the way we are treating and have treated them. That is why we are so reluctant to attribute consciousness to the victims of our cruelty.

But what is ‘consciousness’ anyway? If consciousness requires a huge neural network, then humans qualify, but so do elephants, who have more neurons than we do. Does it require a large brain? Again, an elephant brain is larger than a human brain. Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science defines consciousness as: ‘any complex system that has the basic attributes of mind and has a minimal amount of consciousness in the sense that it feels like something to be that system."

In other words, if you know what it’s like to be you, you have consciousness. Animals cannot tell us whether they know what it’s like to be them. Does that mean they don’t have consciousness?

Other than sentience, there are two other reasons why humans should respect all forms of life: the inherent dignity of all living things and the interest every form of life has in its own existence.

We assign more dignity to a beautiful butterfly than to a mosquito, not because the mosquito’s life is worth less. They have as much right to their existence as we do, but it is also true that we assign more value to species that are more like us.

However, the old notion of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, i.e. God at the top and rocks at the bottom, with humans, animals and plants in between, (in that order), is no longer scientifically (or morally) tenable and prevents us from seeing our place in nature for what it is: one strand in an intricate network of living things.

Interest in staying alive
This, at least, is a straightforward reason for respecting life. It applies to every organism on earth, including plants which have incredibly complex defensive systems.

Sentience is most obvious in species with brains, or at least a nervous system. Your cat is obviously conscious of its environment and its actions. What is even more astounding, is that consciousness might have appeared more than once in the evolutionary process. The Octopus family (cephalopods) diverged from our branch many millions of years ago. Either consciousness predates this divergence, or else it evolved twice, since Octopus are incredibly intelligent and clearly conscious of their own existence. (See: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness)

Still, it is understandable that we think humans are exceptional, since we have managed to place other species on such a low pedestal. With every one of his books, de Waal is raising that pedestal. We can no longer hang on to the idea that humans are vastly different from all other species.

More importantly, we do not ‘have dominion over all creatures’, as the Bible says. If we continue to believe that we are superior to all other forms of life, that they are our property and we can do with them as we please, it will only contribute to our own destruction.

For me personally, the most important aspect of de Waal’s book is that it hopefully will change the unforgivable way we treat animals. leave comment here