Mama's Last Hug: Book Review

In 2016, the 80-year-old biologist Jan van Hooff visited his old friend Mama, a dying 59-year-old chimpanzee matriarch. Their videotaped emotional reunion was seen around the world. In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal begins with that endearing goodbye, then dives into his decades of experience studying our fellow hominids.

With wit and scholarly perspicacity, the renowned primatologist and ethologist offers an abundant study of animal and human emotions, urging a kinder, gentler approach to those with whom we share our planet, from apes and rats to plants and single-cell organisms. Citing a wealth of experiments and studies, the genial scientist raises new awareness of our shared evolutionary history and suggests that a strictly behavioral model is no longer accurate or adequate. In fact, de Waal writes, previous theoretical constructs were largely based on assumptions (made by men) about male dominance. The matriarchal society of bonobos offers a conflicting example. These primate hippies make more love than war and are pros at peacemaking. Perhaps we humans are more like them—or should be.

Chief among de Waal’s studies are animal emotions: who has them, how they work and why humans should care. De Waal provides examples of a full range of emotions experienced by our fellow hominids like empathy, sympathy, disgust, shame, guilt, fear and forgiveness. He proves that rats enjoy being tickled; chimps and elephants can console, conspire and retaliate; and plants release toxic scents to protect against predatory insects.

We are all animals, de Waal reminds us, and he has provided a rich perspective on—and an urgent invitation to reconsider—every aspect of life around us.

Mama's Last Hug

By Frans de Waal

ISBN 9780393635065

Nonfiction / Science & Nature