Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461
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,...
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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 connection between emotionality and intelligence, de Waal is attempting to break down the traditional mind-body dualism that has framed much of Western scientific thinking since the sixteenth century. For example, in chapter 6, he says,
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about emotions is that they are the opposite of cognition. We have translated the dualism between body and mind into one between emotion and intelligence, but the two actually go together and cannot operate without each other.
The toothy grin of a chimpanzee upon recognition of a loved one, the wrinkled eyes and upright nose of disgust when presented with an unpleasurable foodstuff or smell, the play of young monkeys, or the final embrace between Mama and her caretaker—these are just some of the ways in which primates (as with other animals) make their emotions seen and known. Mama’s Last Hug challenges the somewhat narcissistic point of view some human beings have regarding their supposed singular ownership over emotions and emotionality. Why, Frans de Waal questions, should animals be denied their inner-selves? Why should those organisms with whom we share so much of our genetic information be regarded as so alien in their ability to experience the world around them? As de Waal himself concludes, “The question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long.” The time has come, he maintains, to rectify this misperception.