In 'Mama's Last Hug,' Frans de Waal Explores What Animal Emotions Can Teach Us

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Biologist Frans de Waal, author of "Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Biologist Frans de Waal, author of "Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Do you have a better sense of humor than a chimpanzee? Are you more sensitive than a bonobo?

At the heart of these questions lies an evolutionary and biological mystery: do animals have the same emotions as humans? And if they do, do they experience them the same way we do?

In a new book, biologist Frans de Waal examines the social, cultural and emotional lives of primates, dogs, elephants, and even fish, to challenge the idea that humans are emotionally unique.

De Waal appeared at WBUR CitySpace Tuesday, 5/1 for a conversation with Here & Now animal correspondent Vicki Croke. See an excerpt of their conversation below. 

In fact, he says, we may not be the only species that experiences love, shame, fear, guilt, joy, disgust and empathy — all of which have all long been thought of as uniquely human.

The titular chimp in de Waal's book is Mama, a famous matriarch chimpanzee at the Royal Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands who died in 2016 at the age of 59. The video below shows what happened when she got a visit from an old friend, biologist Jan van Hoof, as she was nearing the end of her life.


Frans de Waal, scientist and author of "Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves."

Interview Highlights

On how we measure whether animals exhibit emotional response

"Their emotions in terms of the body are very similar to ours — in the primates certainly, the facial expressions are very similar to ours, and the whole body is similar. But you know, a rat who is afraid — you give the rat some odor of a cat and they become fearful — they will have cold feet, cold tail. We humans, we have cold feet when we get fearful. So you withdraw blood from the extremities of your body, and immediately it's activated in the rats when that happens, immediately it's activated in humans. So basically, our fear is very similar to a rat's fear in terms of how it is manifested in the body."

On how humans and science relates to animals and their emotions

"Through body language, we relate to them, and they relate to our body language. Actually, animals are excellent at reading our body language and hearing our voice and so on. A lot of people think this, but in science, for the longest time, there was a taboo on talking about emotions. The psychologists — the behaviorists, we call them — they told us never to talk about emotions, and I was taught as a student not to use the word at all. For example, chimpanzees kiss — I would have to call it 'mouth to mouth contact,' or if they reconcile, I would have to call it 'post-conflict contact,' or if you tickle a baby chimp and it laughs — because they do that, they have very laugh-like sounds — you have to call it 'vocalized panting.' So they wanted us to stay away from the connection with human behavior, and as a result, for the longest time we didn't talk about these things.

On the treatment of animals in the agricultural industry and in human care

"[In the book] I talk about agricultural practices which are not as well regulated as we would want them to be, and that we need transparency. I think the ideal would be if we know what's going on — for example, if you buy a piece of meat that you know how that animal was treated, and you see pictures or videos of it, because they keep they keep all this information from us. And it's actually not just agricultural animals, even though I think that's definitely an enormous number that is there, but pets also — there's so many abandoned pets. People have a dog and then a year later, they put the dog in a forest, which is also terrible. ... I'm probably too much of a biologist [to be a vegetarian], because we see this circle of life every day, basically. But I'm certainly worried about how we treat animals. I think these two things don't exclude each other — you can care about animals. The way we now treat all these agricultural animals, which are billions and billions of cows and pigs and chickens, is really wrong and it's not well regulated."

On why we should acknowledge animal emotions

"I'm a primatologist, so if you're talking about chimpanzees, which are so similar to us, I think in order to understand a chimpanzee you need to use human terminology and to assume a human-like psychology. The example, again, that I gave — if you tickle a chimpanzee baby and it has this laugh expression and laughing sounds, you have to call it laughing and not some other term, because you have to respect the evolutionary relationship that exists between us and the chimpanzee. Now that doesn't mean that if you interpret the behavior of an octopus or a fish that you can use a lot of human concepts there, I'm not sure that that's possible. But with animals close to us, I think it's a bigger problem to deny the similarities than to assume them."

This segment aired on April 30, 2019.

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