de Waal
Frans de Waal

Most recently, in Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (2019), De Waal declares that animals have emotions just like ours. It is astounding to me that he needs to convince his peers of this because, since reading the following quote from Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) forty years ago, the evolution of human emotions from apes has been the fundamental premise of my project.

We have also seen that expression in itself, or the language of the emotions, as it has sometimes been called, is certainly of importance for the welfare of mankind. To understand, as far as possible, the source or origin of the various expressions which may be hourly seen on the faces of the men around us, not to mention the domesticated animals, ought to possess much interest for us.

The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) T

However, between his first popular book in 1982, Chimpanzee Politics and this year’s Mama’s Last Hug, he has written no fewer than seven books stressing what we consider humane qualities in animals, such as empathy, consolation, reciprocity, and fairness. These qualities are particularly notable in chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, and elephants, but they are present to a surprising degree in all mammals.

De Waal’s project is the opposite from mine: his interest is in our similarities to animals, and I find the differences a much more intriguing evolutionary mystery. His main thrust is to challenge the bias that morality is solely a modern human phenomenon and the result of culture and religion, and to demonstrate that it has roots in animal behavior. I wholeheartedly accept all of De Waal’s careful demonstrations that the prosocial precursors of morality are present in mammals. However, I differ somewhat with his views about their cause, the reasons for their prevalence, and their evolutionary ascendance thereafter in hominins.

The principal distinction from De Waal’s ideas lies in the perspective of the emotion and motivation behind ape prosocial behavior. It is natural to focus on the goal-oriented pleasure principle behind these affiliative behaviors. However, it is the amygdala that determines the socially-mediated emotional response to pleasure. As Robert Sapolsky describes,    

. . .the amygdala isn’t about the pleasure of experiencing pleasure. It’s about the uncertain, unsettled yearning for a potential pleasure, the anxiety and fear and anger that the reward may be smaller than anticipated, or may not even happen. It’s about how many of our pleasures and our pursuits of them contain a corrosive vein of disease.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

It seems clear to me that the primary motivation to reconcile after a conflict is to lower the heightened anxiety that the conflict elicits among all the parties involved. It is central to my narrative that the fear of personal separation and the fear of social entrapment [at the periphery] are two fundamental social fears that are present in all primates—and highly intensified in humans. My claim is that these social fears do the heavy lifting by holding in check the power of the antisocial fight and flight impulses. The atavistic pleasure of aggression must be countered by sustained pain, not pleasure of a more tepid variety. The restraint and stability exerted by these social fears form the structure of primate dominance hierarchy, which allows the gentler impulses of attraction that motivate affiliation to seep into the social lives of apes during their relaxed behaviors such as grooming.

Through all of Frans de Waal’s books attempting to demonstrate that animals in general, and chimpanzees specifically are basically just like us, I am reminded of a dream he had when he first started working with chimps:


I clearly remember the first dream I had about chimpanzees. In it my preoccupation with the distance between them and me was apparent. During this dream the large door to their quarters was opened for me from the inside. The apes were pushing each other aside in order to get a good look at me. Yeron, the oldest male, stepped forward and shook my hand. Rather impatiently he listened to my request to come in. He refused point blank. That was out of the question, he said, and besides, their society would not suit me: it was much too harsh for a human being.

Chimpanzee Politics (1982)
First impressions are usually the most accurate.
World Series and Human Evolution
MORPH-OF-THE=WEEK: “You gotta be kidding”

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