Hope Reese | Longreads | March 2019 | 10 minutes (2,624 words)

Humans are not exceptional — at least not when it comes to our status in the animal kingdom, according to primatologist Frans de Waal. De Waal has been studying primates for decades, researching their capacity for cooperation and ability to express guilt, shame, and other nuanced emotions, and has written more than a dozen books on these topics.

In his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions, de Waal delivers persuasive evidence that shows exactly how animals can display deep and complex emotions — which are, it must be noted, different from feelings — and how closely connected to humans our primate siblings really are. Despite the inclination of many researchers to dismiss the concept that animals have rich emotional lives, de Waal illustrates how behavioral research provides evidence that not only do animals experience the same emotions as humans, but that there are no “uniquely human emotions.”

De Waal — who is currently a professor at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center — spoke to me over the phone from his office in Atlanta. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese: In your research on animal and human emotions, you are “hard-pressed to pinpoint uniquely human emotions.” Do we really share emotions with all other species?

Frans de Waal: In psychology, the six basic emotion theory is very popular. It is is based on facial expression studies, and postulates that there are six emotions — anger and fear and so on — that we share with other species, and that we share them across the board. And that all of the other emotions [besides those six] must be uniquely human. So if you talk about, say, jealousy — that’s a human emotion, because it’s not on the list. Or love is not on the list. Even though we have quite a bit of evidence of the Oxytocin system [a bonding hormone] in other animals. There’s a lot of evidence that attachment and bonding occur in other species, of course.

But the more I think about it, I cannot name any emotion that is uniquely human. There are maybe emotions related to religion — let’s say spirituality — but even for that, I cannot exclude that animals have those kinds of feelings. Who says they don’t? In humans, religious feelings are not expressed in the face. That kind of emotion is not visible. And if emotions are not visible, how can we exclude that it exists in other species?

I explore emotions like guilt and shame — and even for those emotions, there may be some differences. We internalize our own wrongdoing more than other animals, and in that sense, we feel guilt, but certainly animals know when they do something that is not accepted by their group. And the way we express shame and guilt, by lowering our eyes and looking down and making ourselves look smaller — that is behavior that you can see in other species.

In my time as a student, the professors would deeply frown on anything related to the emotions. It was off-limits.

I’ve heard frequently that because of how many facial muscles we have, humans have the greatest ability to express complex emotions — but you disprove this common misconception.

There was a time when it was very much accepted that we humans have the most muscles in the face. It was repeated over and over that we must have more emotions because we have a more flexible face. Five years ago there was a study of chimpanzee faces — two postmortem analyses of chimpanzee faces, and they found exactly the same number of muscles as in the human face.

Anyone who knows the apes know they have an enormous range of expressions. Bold and dramatic expressions, like we do — laughing and crying — but also subtle expressions. That whole story that we have a richer facial palate is not true. And even then, if you look at a species like the dolphin — that doesn’t have this facial musculature — that doesn’t necessarily mean that the dolphin has fewer emotions than we do. The dolphin may have more sound expressions.

You’ve been studying animal emotions for decades, and you write about some of the resistance you’ve encountered from the scientific community on the subject. Why is that?

It started with people like Darwin and Nadia Kohts speaking very openly about animal emotions. That was in the 19th century. You could freely talk about it. Then we went through a very dark period of behaviorism, which came from the US, [B.F.] Skinner and [John] Watson and so on. They placed a taboo on that. And not just for animals — that’s the funny thing — but for humans. They felt that emotions were irrelevant, we shouldn’t pay attention to them. We only should be talking about externally visible stuff — even though I think emotions are externally visible. Until about the 1970s, emotions were not a very respected topic. I remember speaking with Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, who did empathy research on children, and she said it was not an acceptable topic — empathy was for women’s magazines.

In my time as a student, the professors would deeply frown on anything related to the emotions. It was off-limits. My professor did research on facial expressions in primates, which you really cannot discuss without reference to the emotions, and even he was scolded for using that kind of terminology. It’s only in the last 25 years that we have opened up, both in terms of the cognition of animals — we are now allowed to talk about their intelligence and cognition in different ways than previously — and also the emotions. I credit the neuroscientists for much of that change. The neuroscientists who were not strictly behavioral — they were often more interested in the brain than in the behavior — started studying things like fear in the amygdala [a region of the brain]. They would do that in rats and humans and dogs. And the amygdala is always involved in fear. So if you have neuroscientists telling us that there are certain emotions related to attachment and fear that are similarly activated in the brain in totally different species, from rats to humans, it’s very hard to resist the concept of emotion in animals.

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You write about how emotions are sometimes considered distinct from the intellect — the mind versus the body. How have you seen the two as integral to each other?

I think part of the resistance to the emotions is that the emotions are linked to the body. They float somewhere between the body and the mind. There’s always a body component to strong emotions. A lot of philosophy and psychology are obsessed with the mind. And obsessed with cognition. And emotions they look down on. “The flesh is weak, and the mind is strong.” There’s a certain arrogance of the mind in Western civilization. The body is secondary. That’s how the older philosophers, the Greeks, looked down on women, because they were more closely associated with the body. And they certainly looked down on animals, because they were closely associated with the body. They did not have a high opinion of the body.

But emotions are a part of the body. And they activate the body in so many ways. And they are recognized in the body and in the face and in the voice. To come to terms with that is that we humans are not just floating minds, but we are residents of bodies that affect us.

The most extreme case, I find, is these people who think you can take the human mind and take all of the information out of it and put it in a machine, and you have preserved yourself.

Right, the transhumanists…

Yes, there are these people who pay a fortune to freeze their heads. They think that, somehow, they’re going to come alive if the information from their brain is transferred to a machine. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I don’t think a machine is the same as a body. They have the illusion that the human mind is a free-floating existence that’s worth preserving without the body. There’s this whole cerebral obsession in the west, and in my thinking, that is completely a misconception of how we operate.

I do think we live in a Machiavellian world in many ways. Psychology is often in denial about that … For some reason, these are taboo topics.

You’ve written that in terms of research, “we need more observations of human affairs.” Can you explain what you think is missing?

Psychologists have turned completely to the questionnaire methods. The developmental psychologists who work on children are the closest to what I do. The children are not often good verbally, are too young to use language, so [those psychologists] actually study behavior, which I think is so much more informative. But as soon as you go to the ones who study adult humans, the students working on their PhD thesis — that’s the first thing they have to do: develop a questionnaire. How many questions to present? How to look for internal consistency within the system. How to analyze it. Basically all they do is put an adult human subject in front of a computer screen and have them click on things. Recently, an article appeared about the state of psychology, saying that basically instead of studying behavior, psychology has become the study of computer clicks.

People are answering these questions — but I don’t trust people. I don’t trust what they tell me about themselves. You can ask people: Are you empathic? Do you have a high level of empathy? And you may want to say “yes,” because we all know that’s a better thing to say. We give all of these answers that you think the experimenters may want to hear, or that give a good impression. I would much rather study [interactions].

Recently, there was a study published in PLOS ONE — observations of a security camera of what happens after a burglary in a business. What they found was that policewomen tended to make physical contact with the victim. Hold them, embrace them, sit next to them. The men did not do that. Reassuring body contact was not provided by men. I find that so much more interesting than someone clicking “I am empathic” or “I am not empathic.” This is actual behavior, and the authors speculated that women are more empathic, and that it is also possible that male police have learned that they could get in trouble if they made too much body contact. So there may be secondary reasons. But it’s much more interesting to speculate about this.

When you study the differences between how the genders express emotions and behavior, do you think about how the differences can sometimes be used to hold women down, or devalue women?

I’m not sure that women and men are so different. It’s often said that women are more emotional. I’m not convinced by that at all. If you’ve ever seen a Dutch man watching a soccer game by a Dutch team, you see a level of emotion that you barely ever get to see in women. Men express emotions under different circumstances. Group-related emotions are very strong in men, and that’s why the reaction is strong to football games and soccer games. But I’m not sure we have physiological evidence that women are more emotional than men.

When we consider the hierarchy, in terms of intelligence across species, what does it look like? How do humans compare with bonobos, for instance?

I don’t think there’s a ladder. I think there’s a tree with branches in all directions. On the bird tree, you have very smart birds, like the corvids and the parrots. Humans are on the primate branch. There was a time when the anthropology textbooks would say that humans are 25 million years separate from the other apes from which we descend. But now we have DNA, and we know it is maybe 5 or 6 million years. We are right in the middle of the ape family — we are not, physically, very different from the apes. So some taxonomists believe we should call humans apes, and put them in the same genus as chimps and bonobos.

We do have a bigger brain, but we don’t have a different brain — our brain is exactly like a primate brain. There are no new parts. And if humans were so totally different from the rest, you would expect we’d have a few different parts. So the human brain is essentially a large monkey brain that is probably more powerful, but is not different. So in terms of the emotions and our social life and social preoccupations, I don’t think there are fundamental differences. Language is the one area where I do see a difference.

Researchers are often afraid of acknowledging how humans have a desire for power. You see the philosophers as less afraid to recognize that. Why is this?

Yes. In terms of the power motive, Machiavelli was the one who was clear on that. That’s the reason many people don’t like Machiavelli. That we have all of these power motives and we are looking for the best ways to achieve power. And I do think we live in a Machiavellian world in many ways. Psychology is often in denial about that. When you look in the index of psychology books for dominance and power, you find very little. For some reason, these are taboo topics. But the philosophers like Nietzsche and Hobbes and Machiavelli were open about it.

There’s a tendency for certain people to want to reach the top. We know that. As soon as you walk into the boardroom of a company and there are 25 people sitting there, within two minutes you know approximately the hierarchy among those people. The body language, how they dress, how they sit, how they talk. We are very quick in sizing up the hierarchy. But at the same time, we act as if it’s not important. That we’re all egalitarians.

The Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker writes about how humans have become less violent over time. But you think that this is not exactly right, and that older civilizations were not necessarily more violent.

My opinion is that the aggressiveness of our species is overestimated by some people. And partly because over the last couple of thousands of years we have not been very nice to each other, have been frequently at war. So the mindset of those who look at our species is that we are very aggressive. But I think if you look further back, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there is not an enormous amount of violence. From everything I gather from anthropologists, most of the time they had very extensive networks between groups. They intermarried between groups. They let others travel through. They have economic deal-making. They are not always at war. We have a long history of little or no warfare. The evidence for warfare in our species goes back to the agricultural revolution, and not further.

In your years of studying animal emotions, what do you see as the most pressing unanswered questions?

The most unsolved question is what animals feel. I can talk easily about the emotions, because I can see them. I find it much harder to talk about their feelings. So the whole aspect of consciousness and feelings is beyond our science at the moment.

But it doesn’t need to stay that way. Who knows — with newer science coming up, we may find ways of getting at the question of consciousness and feelings. For the moment, it’s a step forward that we dare talk about emotions in animals.

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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky