Mama’s Last Hug attempts to reevaluate the long-standing, commonplace assumption that human beings hold a monopoly over emotionality and the ability to express self-consciousness. Instead, Frans de Waal argues that, far from acting purely on instinct, animals in fact operate from a deep-seated, inner intelligence. This inherent intelligence allows animals, exemplified in de Waal’s case by primates, to convey a wide spectrum of emotional states, such as remorse, shame, disgust, and guilt, which scientists have traditionally claimed was the sole prerogative of humanity.
The book takes its title from the dying chimpanzee, Mama, whom de Waal observed interacting with its life-long trainer, Jan van Hooff. Mama expressed genuine elation at the opportunity to have one last farewell with her old friend, an emotional state that de Waal maintains manifested most visibly in her facial expressions. He argues that by taking language (and by this de Waal is putatively referring to human language) as the sole criteria by which scientists assess the capacity of different organisms to express abstract emotions or feelings, these scientists are denying the possibility for other, non-human species to share in those characteristics that imbue life with personality and soul. Body language and facial expressions are two of the most telling examples that de Waal employs in order to demonstrate the emotive self-awareness of some animals. In fact, by recognizing the inherent...
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