Lead book review

Discover your inner wolf and lead a better life

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

For a practical at medical school on the subject of the nervous system, it was thought unwise to wire students up to a live electrical circuit, so we used worms instead. The task was to measure lumbricus terrestris’s giant neurons as they fired. My worm’s bruise-coloured rings concertinaed in a final effort to escape before I made the necessary incisions, stuck pins through its body, and connected its extremities to the electrodes. The paper instructions suggested: ‘You can if you wish cut off the worm’s head.’ I guess we were lucky; apparently similar lessons used to be taught using live dogs.

I’ve always disliked the spirit of historical re-enactment involved in amateur lab work. You try to replicate experiments first carried out in the 1960s, for which you already know the answers. As I worked on the worm, the voltmeter sat persistently at zero. How depressing and painful, I thought, noticing my anthropomorphic reflex to project my feelings onto this poor creature. Though surely it’s not inconceivable that my worm and I both felt blue.

Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to take such ideas seriously. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, had a blasphemous idea at its heart: emotional complexity is not exclusively human. Darwin was well acquainted with Victorian prejudices and knew it would be less threatening to highlight the human aspects of animals, rather than the animal aspects of humans. He also chose subjects that were comfortably familiar in domestic settings, such as dogs and cats.

Although academic circles have been quiet on the subject, the issue of animal emotions has never really gone away. By 1987, The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour made the concession that ‘animals are restricted to just a few basic emotions’. Today the question is not whether animals have emotions, but how scientists afforded to overlook them for so long.

The Wisdom of Wolves and Mama’s Last Hug are two among many recent books about our affective affinities — here, lupine and simian. Elli Radinger explains how wolves are like humans (the safer strategy favoured by Darwin). For Frans de Waal however, humans are like apes. The difference in emphasis may seem subtle, but the latter makes a far deeper claim on us to revise our relationship to the natural world.

Radinger was working as a lawyer in Frankfurt when she decided to abandon the rat race and chase wolves instead. She describes this transformation with some help from Katy Perry, entitling her first chapter: ‘How I Kissed a Wolf and Became Addicted.’ It started at a research institute in Indiana, and more than 10,000 wolf sightings later, she has apparently ‘never felt threatened or scared’. Her 25 years of experience have amassed anecdotes and photographs of these majestic creatures. ‘Every educated person today knows that wolves don’t eat people,’ Radinger writes (I didn’t know this, and a statistically insignificant poll among my reasonably educated friends returned a range of responses, including the conviction that wolves are baying for our blood).

Unfortunately, The Wisdom of Wolves descends into the genre of self-help. Humans are ‘lost in technology’, Radinger insists, which endangers moral order. By looking to wolves we can be reminded of a conservative idea of humanness: love your family, value your home, respect your elders, be altruistic, have fun! Mating is described in romantic terms. An alpha male in Yellowstone called Casanova made ‘all the females weak at the knees’. There’s even a touch of mindfulness when Radinger wishes, like wolves, ‘If only we could live more in the present!’

The most interesting aspect of the book is the political debate into which it steps. While absent from the UK, wolves are thriving in Germany. After the wall came down, they arrived from Eastern Europe. Today in the territory around Berlin, 26 wolf packs have been documented, when ten years ago there were none. These animal immigrants have divided communities down party lines: the left and the Greens welcome them, while the right and the farmers do not. Radinger hopes to convert sceptics by demonstrating wolves’ compatibility with traditional values. But in doing so, the curiosities of animal life that sit outside this worldview are tidied away.

A century after Darwin’s Expression, the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal upset the establishment by publishing his book Chimpanzee Politics. Now he is back to claim that ‘the rejection of similarity between humans and other animals [is] a greater problem than the assumption of it’. His central argument is that no emotion is more basic than any other, and none is uniquely human. Anecdote, laboratory research and fieldwork are used to puncture the arrogance of human exceptionalism. Rather than a single hierarchy topped by humankind, de Waal asks whether it is not more likely that ‘each animal has its own mental life, its own intelligence and emotions, adapted to its own senses and natural history’.

Mama’s Last Hug refers to a viral YouTube video of the biologist Jan Van Hooff in an embrace with one of the world’s oldest chimpanzees as she lay on her deathbed. The pair had known each other for 40 years. Mama smiles and strokes Van Hooff’s hair, although chimps are usually capricious and attack intruders. The encounter is unfailingly moving. So why doubt that Mama feels tenderness, or even love?

De Waal distinguishes feelings (subjective inner states) from emotions (how these states are involuntarily and non-verbally communicated). Animal behaviour, facial expressions and vocalisations betray emotion. Yet we remain uncertain what animals experience internally because they can’t use language to tell us. Their feelings are known unknowns. But this is no excuse to smother our curiosity or turn away. That would be truly unscientific.

Animals also share our ugly feelings, such as disgust and greed. Both humans and apes, after touching hands with another member of our species, will ‘lift it casually close to our face to gather a chemical whiff that informs us about the other’s disposition’. In an experiment designed by de Waal, two monkeys were fed pieces of cucumber. One was then given grapes instead. The other rejected the less tasty cucumber snack, seeing the unfairness. For apes as for humans, wealth is relative. But some monkeys who were given grapes rejected the treat, suggesting a capacity to recognise unfairness even if it confers benefit. Here, we may be observing a grassroots morality from which ours has evolved.

De Waal knows his research is vulnerable to accusations of softness and sentimentality. But he questions whether self-critical anthropomorphism is such a bad thing after all. It can guide questions for further research and prevent us from blindly enjoying rewards that result from ignoring animal emotions. It’s convenient to buy caged eggs, delicious to eat bacon and the norm to wear leather. Reassessing the ways we think about animals means changing our ways of being human.

De Waal is not primarily bothered about eating animals (he avoids meat in an ‘imperfect and undogmatic fashion’), but rather how we treat them. We would certainly do better if we spent time observing species in their own umwelt and thought this worthy of our attention. Let us also not assume the sole value of understanding animals’ emotional lives is to illuminate our own.

You don’t need to go on a Yellowstone wolf tour or visit the rainforest to develop this sensitivity. On a shelf in his study, Darwin had pots filled with soil and worms so he could watch and learn ‘how far they acted consciously’. To consider the ‘actions of one of the higher animals and of one so low in the scale as an earthworm, may appear far-fetched’, he admits. Yet Darwin’s sensibility now seems on the right side of history, when he adds: ‘I can see no reason to doubt the justice of the comparison.’

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