Caring Bonds Among Sentient Beings Refute “Anthropodenial”

(p. 1) The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

. . .

(p. 16) Instead of worrying about anthropomorphizing animals, we should fear making a far worse mistake, what de Waal calls “anthropodenial.” When we deny the facts of evolution, when we pretend that only humans think, feel and know, “it stands in the way of a frank assessment of who we are as a species,” he writes. An understanding of evolution demands that we recognize continuity across life-forms. And even more important, achieving realistic and compassionate relationships with the rest of the animate world requires that we honor these connections, which extend far and deep.

A few years ago, I found myself in a situation almost identical to the one de Waal describes at the start of his book. My friend Octavia was old, sick and dying. We hadn’t looked into each other’s eyes for a long while — nearly a fifth of her life span. I came to say goodbye. When she caught sight of me, Octavia, with great effort, using some of the last of her limited strength, rose to greet me and enveloped me in her arms.

There were a few differences between the opening scene of “Mama’s Last Hug” and the one between Octavia and me. Mama and Van Hooff shared an ancestor perhaps five million years ago; my friend and I had last shared an ancestor in the Precambrian Era — before limbs or eyes had evolved, back when practically everyone was a tube. Van Hooff and Mama had almost identical facial muscles and skeletal structure; Octavia’s mouth was in her armpits, she had no skeleton at all and her arms were equipped with 1,600 suckers. Octavia was a giant Pacific octopus. Yet she and I cared for each other — enough for both of us to delight in one last, tender, emotional embrace.

For the full review, see:

Sy Montgomery. “Animal Care.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 3, 2019): 1 & 16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 25, 2019, and has the title “Frans de Waal Embraces Animal Emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’.”)

The book under review, is:

de Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019.

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