In some regards, I found this a frustrating book. On the one hand, it’s important, clear, well written, well argued and timely. On the other hand, I found (as I did with this author’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?) that the book failed in some of its goals.
Subtitled Animal Emotions And What They Teach Us About Ourselves, the book is a brilliant survey of the blurred, perhaps nonexistent, boundary between animal emotions – or more accurately what people have traditionally thought of such emotions – and human emotions. The author, a highly experienced primatologist, knows his subject and has a huge amount of scientific, personal and anecdotal evidence to support his argument, which in a nutshell is that animals do have emotions, from which our own are derived. He sticks the boot in to all those who try to separate human beings from other animals, and in most cases does this with skill and judgement.
Yet, to me, his own assessment of what an emotion might be is incomplete. I agree with his emphasis on the body, on the idiocy of the notion that we have a separable “spirit,” and on his emphasis on the cognitive aspect of emotion. He also notes that physical symptoms are essential, which I agree with. Yet, despite all that, he considers love, and even revenge to be an emotion. Now, even as a child I don’t recall myself ever feeling revengy. Angry, yes. But not revengy.
The other downside to this otherwise excellent book is the final chapter on sentience. As I mentioned in my review of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, I think this author has a bit of a blind spot caused by over-asserting the similarities between human beings and animals. I myself do think there is a qualitative difference between animals and us; a moot point, of course. As for consciousness, de Waal is quite happy to tell the reader that the question is aeons away from being answered. Obviously he’s never read the work of that other brilliant primatologist, Nicholas Humphrey.
A final criticism. These sentences stood out for me: Our ancestors deviated from the apes by hunting animals larger than themselves, which required the sort of camaraderie and mutual dependence that is the root of complex societies. We owe our cooperative nature, our food-sharing tendencies, our sense of fairness, and even our morality to the subsistence hunting of our ancestors. What is the author saying here? That pre-Agricultural Revolution societies hunted meat? He might as well tell us what bears do in the woods. Or is he saying that hunting was in fact the root of human society? Such absurd theories were touted by male anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century, but they are mocked now for their sheer ridiculousness. And yet this is the same author who earlier in the book namechecks Sarah Hrdy and who clearly has sympathy for feminism and the dire situation of women in science.
Alas, I have spent a lot of time on criticisms and not much on positives. This is a terrific, insightful book, packed full of evidence of many kinds. The sections on animal cognition and grasp of social milieu are outstanding. So I enjoyed most of the book, albeit feeling a little frustrated and disappointed by what, to me, is incompleteness. Still – it is well worth a read.