In this wonderful book Frans de Waal points out that while Darwin concerned himself with the emotional life of animals, it became very unfashionable for more recent scientists to do so. Animals were considered as stimulus response mechanisms without an interior life and humans got to remain on their pedestal as far superior beings. Yet increasingly, younger scientists are challenging this view, performing studies that demonstrate the ability of various species to think, analyse, plan, remember, weigh consequences and of course, to feel. A non-scientist will readily infer emotional states in animals but until recently, scientists thought that even human babies could not feel pain, ridiculous as that sounds to anyone who’s ever had one. De Waal reminds us that evolution is a smooth process that rarely inserts something completely new, and that biologically, animal brains look very like our own. Having spent decades studying primates, his point of view could be summed up as: if it looks like a duck, talks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck. In other words, animals have emotions. We’re not kidding ourselves with those stories of elephants grieving or loyal dogs feeling sad when their owners die or the happiness of animals at play.
This has profound consequences for research and farming. Already, newer facilities for research are designed with respect for the social welfare of animals in mind and there are plenty of people who protest against factory farms. After reading such a sane, well-informed book such as this, a person would have to be mad not to feel the same. Refreshingly, de Waal, while acknowledging that chimpanzee society can indeed be very violent, reminds us that without large dollops of cooperation and trust, the species would have died out. He contrasts his point of view with that of Steven Pinker, who thinks that only increasing amounts of civilisation will save aggressive humans from themselves. He also wonders why peaceable bonobos aren’t taken more seriously as a model of how life could be lived. This is a richly rewarding book that is a joy to read. Hopefully, many will.