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Learning from animals’ facial expressions

Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal, W. W. Norton & Co., US $27.95, Pp 326, March 2019, ISBN 978-0393635065

Until recently, we believed that animals have no emotions — or at least not as we humans have. This belief was so strong even among the scientists that they didn’t care to study animals’ emotions. Early ethologists studied fish, birds, and rodents to find out how behavior patterns hang together. If they occurred in sequences such as freezing and escape, or threat and attack, they probably shared a motivation. Something was missing. Where did those underlying motivations come from? What were they? In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal says that the silence surrounding the emotions was all the more puzzling if we consider leading alternative proposal for the motivation of animal behavior. The prevailing view was that animals had instincts — a series of inborn actions triggered by a particular situation, or preprogrammed simple responses, such as one kind of action adapted to one kind of context. This is cumbersome because it could lead only to rigid behavior which would be a disaster under changing circumstances.

The question for Frans de Waal who has studied animals for more than 40 years is not whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long. Referring to Darwin’s pioneering book, de Waal says the science did not ignore animals’ emotions in the beginning but it certainly did that later. He says the possibility that animals experience emotions the way we do makes many hard-nosed scientists feel queasy, partly because the existence of feelings presupposes a consciousness that these scientists are unwilling to grant to animals. Why do we go out of our way to deny something so obvious? He argues that the reason is that we associate emotions with feelings. Feelings happen when emotions bubble to the surface so that we become aware of that. When we are conscious of our emotions, we are able to express them in words and make others aware of them. We say we are happy, and people believe us unless they see for themselves that we are not.

Animals act like us, share our physiological reactions, have the same facial expressions, and possess the same sort of brains. De Waal argues that it would be strange if their internal experiences were radically different. Language is irrelevant to this question, and the size of our cerebral cortex is hardly a reason to propose a difference. Neuroscience has long ago abandoned the idea that feelings arise there. They come from much deeper inside the brain, the parts closely connected to our bodies. It is even possible that feelings, instead of being a fancy by-product, are an essential part of the emotions. The two may be inseparable. After all, organisms need to sort out which emotions to follow and which ones to separate and ignore. If becoming aware of one’s own emotions is the best way to manage them, then feelings are part and parcel of the emotions, not just for us but for all organisms. It is time for us to squarely face the degree to which all animals are driven by their emotions.

Mama’s Last Hug is a ground-breaking revolutionary study of animals’ emotions. Frans de Waal busts the myth that humans alone feel emotions by showing that animals experience the same kind of emotions as humans and they express them in a similar way. In other words, what he is saying is that we humans should treat animals in a more humane way. Frans de Waal has done a great service to both humans and animals. As a gifted storyteller, Frans de Waal makes it as interesting as a storybook with his stories about animals. Moving, inspiring, gripping, entertaining, brilliant, captivating are some of the adjectives that come to mind while describing this full-of-passion book.

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