The Current

Love, anger and grief: Animals can display wide range of humanlike emotions, says author

Do chimpanzees feel love the same way that humans do? Author and primatologist Frans de Waal says yes — and not only that, he says many animals feel a wide range of emotions that have historically been considered exclusive to the human race.

Frans de Waal explores the animal kingdom's emotional and social dynamics in his new book Mama's Last Hug

Female chimpanzee Mama celebrates her 50th birthday on May 3, 2007 with a fruit and vegetable at the Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, Netherlands. (Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images)
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Originally published April 10, 2019.

Do chimpanzees feel love the same way that humans do?

Author and primatologist Frans de Waal says yes — and not only that, he says many animals feel a wide range of emotions that have historically been considered exclusive to the human race.

"I don't believe, actually, in any uniquely human emotions," said de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre in Lawrenceville, Ga.

"I think all the emotions that we have, one way or another, you can find in other species," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

De Waal explores how the animal kingdom expresses these emotions and behaviours in his latest book Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves

The title was inspired by a visit between Dutch biologist Jan van Hooff and Mama, an ailing chimpanzee and matriarch of the chimp colony at the Royal Burgers Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands. A video of the interaction captivated millions, who interpreted it as a moment of familiarity and love between van Hooff and Mama.

The 59-year-old chimpanzee wouldn't accept food or drink, but when she saw van Hooff — who had known Mama since 1972 — her demeanour immediately changed.

De Waal referenced recent research in which researchers analyzed the faces of chimpanzees after death and found they share the same facial muscles as humans, allowing them to express the same range and shades of emotions.

"She looks up at him, and has a big smile, and then embraces him, and he embraces her," he said of Mama.

Mama died two weeks after the meeting.

Author and primatologist Frans de Waal. (Catherine Marin)
"What surprised me is how surprised [other] people were that Mama had gestures, hand gestures and facial expressions very similar to us," said de Waal.

 

But the pivotal moment between Mama and van Hooff only scratched the surface of complex emotional connections between chimps in a well-knit colony, he says.

When another female in the colony had died, Mama "adopted" her daughter, and became extremely protective of her new charge.

She also oversaw the process for choosing a new "alpha" male chimp when necessary.

"It's not like the biggest and strongest male will be the alpha male. It is the male who has the best connections. It's more like a democratic system, really," said de Waal.

Real emotion

In the past, de Waal says, these dynamics have historically been dismissed as unscientific anthropomorphizing.

Frans de Waal's new book is called Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. (W.W. Norton)
"A lot of professors in animal behaviour who would tell you never to mention emotions."

 

Anger would instead be described as aggression. Two chimps kissing would be logged as "mouth-to-mouth contact." If a chimp laughs, it's instead referred to as "vocalized panting."

"We had this whole separate terminology, which is really from a Darwinian perspective totally ridiculous in the sense that our behavior is connected with primate behaviour," he said.

The chimps' capacity for human-like conduct once manifested itself in grim fashion, as de Waal later witnessed two males in the same colony attack and kill a third male in "a very savage attack" akin to murder.

De Waal speculated that such a horrific incident may not have happened if Mama, who was instrumental in mediating disputes in the colony, was still alive.

As de Waal worked on Mama's Last Hug, he came to the conclusion that the connection goes both ways: just as primates are more human-like in the ways they express emotions, humans are more like primates and other animals than we may sometimes like to admit.

Humans like to call themselves "rational" beings in spite of evidence that we follow our emotions at least as often, he says, in part because of the notion that it sets us apart from other lifeforms on earth.

"I mean even our political choices: Look at the election in the U.S. Look at Brexit. They are emotional choices. They are not rational choices, because rational choices would probably be different," he said.

"And I think we underestimate the enormous influence of the emotions in our lives."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Frans de Waal produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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