Empathy, Morality, Community, Culture—Apes Have It All

Image: Illustration by John Hendrix/NAUTILUS
Primatologist Frans de Waal takes exception with human exceptionalism.

By Steve Paulson | NAUTILUS

Frans de Waal calls his new book Mama’s Last Hug in reference to an emotional encounter between Mama, a 58-year-old chimpanzee, and Jan van Hooff, an 80-year-old biology professor. Mama is frail and near death when Van Hooff, who had overseen her care for decades, enters her cage at Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands. Mama smiles and Van Hooff bends toward her. She strokes his white hair and drapes one of her arms around his neck, patting the back of his head with her long fingers. “This was typical Mama,” writes De Waal, who had long observed the chimpanzee. De Waal gave her the name Mama because of her matriarchal position. “She had the air of a grandmother who had seen it all and didn’t take nonsense from anybody,” De Waal writes. “I had never sensed such wisdom and poise in any other species but my own.” When Van Hooff entered Mama’s cage, “she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him.”

The touching scene between Mama and Van Hooff has been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube. Clearly it has struck a deep emotional chord in people, no doubt because of the joy and tenderness that the chimpanzee displays at the end of her long life. De Waal, who runs Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, uses the scene to open his investigation into the emotions of animals, from primates to dogs to rats. “Let me start off with a radical proposal: emotions are like organs,” he writes. “They are all needed, and we share them with all with other mammals.” Those who are familiar with De Waal’s research know the proposal is not so radical, as the primatologist has for decades been showing humans that we are not as special as many of our species seem to think we are. The title of his previous book offers a keen summary of his outlook: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

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