08 August 2019, The Tablet

Beasts and belief

Beasts and belief

Does this baby chimp have something to tell us about our own emotions?
Photo: PA/DPA


Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves
(Granta, 348 PP, £14.99)
Tablet bookshop price £13.49 • tel 020 7799 4064

Genesis: On the Deep Origin of Societies
EDWARD O. Wilson
(ALLEN LANE, 160 PP, £17.99)
Tablet bookshop price £16.19 • tel 020 7799 4064

Queen Victoria famously thought the apes at London Zoo were “disagreeably human”. Contemptuous she may have been, but she proved herself a better ethologist than many who have earned their living studying animal behaviour.
For decades, arguably centuries, animals have been treated as fundamentally and quali­tatively different from humans. From René Descartes in the seventeenth century to B.F. Skinner and the behaviourists in the twentieth, the idea that animals had inner lives, let alone ones that were comparable to ours, was ­dismissed as unscientific (and irreligious).

Frans de Waal is a primatologist who has spent his life among chimpanzees and other primates, and written a number of excellent books on animal intelligence, morality, society and behaviour. His latest, Mama’s Last Hug, tackles the question of animal emotions. Its title comes from a film, now viewed over 10 million times, in which “Mama”, the aged matriarch of a chimpanzee colony at Burgers Zoo, says goodbye to Jan van Hooff. Mama, 59 and hardly able to move, lies curled up in the straw of her nest. Van Hooff had known and studied her for years, and arrives to say goodbye. It takes Mama a while to recognise him but, when she does, she grins, gently strokes his hair, and then drapes one of her arms round him to pull him closer. She died not long after.

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