Niamh Horan: ‘Lessons we all can learn about aping our animal friends’

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Niamh Horan: ‘Lessons we all can learn about aping our animal friends’

The world’s top primatologist says we can discover a lot about ourselves from the animal world, writes Niamh Horan


Kafi, a 12-year-old western lowland gorilla at Dublin Zoo, has become a mum for the first time. Picture: Patrick Bolger
Kafi, a 12-year-old western lowland gorilla at Dublin Zoo, has become a mum for the first time. Picture: Patrick Bolger

We’re always trying to teach animals new tricks. Making them a little bit more human with cute clothes and ascribing human traits to them, but what if we flip the script and look for animal characteristics in ourselves?

The world’s leading primatologist Frans de Waal has been studying primate social behaviour for almost four decades – how and why they fight, mate, share and reconcile.

He believes we can learn a lot about ourselves from the animal kingdom.

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In his new book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Can Teach Us About Ourselves, De Waal, who TIME magazine named one of the world’s 100 most influential people, shares his entertaining, intriguing and politically explosive findings:

Why it’s difficult to empathise with people who have had Botox:

The body is now front and centre to any account of empathy. And research has found that empathy suffers when facial mimicry is blocked, such as when a human subject holds a pencil between their teeth, so that their cheek muscles can’t move. Our face is much more mobile than we think, which helps us connect with others by mimicking their movements, even if ever so slightly. This has become a problem for people whose faces have been injected with Botox. It keeps them from mirroring the faces of others, which robs them of feeling what others feel. It also affects how others relate to them. Botoxed faces look frozen, missing the stream of micro-expressions employed in daily interactions. Their facial unresponsiveness makes others feel cut off, rejected even.

Why better relationships are more important to us than a fancy house:

One day at the Yerkes Field Station [in Atlanta, Georgia], we gave our chimps a brand new climbing structure in their outdoor area, a huge wooden frame with ropes and nests high above the ground, from which they could scan for miles. We confined the whole colony indoors for a few weeks, while we worked hard to erect it outside. We were so proud of our design, and so looking forward to the ape’s reaction, that when we released the colony, we expected they’d rush outside and enjoy the sights. But during their time indoors, they had been separated from one another in various areas, and now they clearly had a different idea. The first thing that happened was a gigantic emotional reunion. They barely glanced at the new construction, having eyes only for each other while hooting with excitement and joy. They walked from one, to the other, touching, kissing and embracing their long-lost friends and family. For them, the big moment was intensely social. It taught me that whenever we seek to provide optimal housing, social life beats physical conditions every time.

Why female world leaders are almost always older:

When you have a democratic system where women need to vote for leaders they may be reluctant to vote for young women because women see each other as competition up until a certain age and that competition is mostly mate competition; women compete with each other over access to men and that is more at a younger age than an older age. And so when women become menopausal, then men are not particularly interested in them any more because they are post-reproductive, and the women don’t see each other as competition any more and that’s I think why all the main female leaders we have in the world are post-menopausal.

What US President Lyndon Johnson’s dogs can teach us about ourselves:

In 1964 US President Lyndon B Johnson, standing before the press on the lawn of the White House, lifted one of his beagles up into the air by its floppy ears. The incident caused an outcry. Huge piles of hate mail arrived at the White House. In fact he reportedly received more angry mail about this single event than the entire Vietnam war.

Does this mean we care more about the mistreatment of one dog than about the violent deaths of over a million people? Rationally speaking, I can’t imagine we do. But our visceral reactions are informed by our senses, not numbers. Johnson’s bad luck was that the dog incident was photographed. Our greatest sensitivity is always to bodies and faces. Reading about a terrible disaster in a distant land is unlikely to move us as much as seeing pictures. A single picture of a three-year-old Syrian boy lying facedown on a beach shifted the public debate about a massive refugee crisis that had been going on for years.

Why the real Alpha Male is a ‘peace keeper-in-chief’:

You do sometimes have Alpha males who terrorise everyone, and everyone is scared of him and that sometimes doesn’t end very well because they are not popular, so when the group gets the chance it revolts. But the typical Alpha male is one who keeps the peace and is the consoler-in-chief when someone is distressed and he shares food very easily. They are usually very popular thanks to their leadership qualities. It means if their position is ever challenged by a younger male, the group will put its weight behind them.

What optimistic pigs tell us about our daily lives:

In one study, groups of pigs were housed either in small pens with concrete floors or larger pens with fresh straw and cardboard boxes to play with. They were then trained on a sound: a positive sound would announce an apple, and a negative sound would announce only a plastic bag waved in their face. After this training, the pigs were presented with an ambiguous sound. What they would do depended entirely on their living conditions. The pigs in an enriched environment expected good things to happen to them and eagerly approached the ambiguous sound. The ones in the barren environment stayed away. If their housing was changed, the pigs’ responses followed suit, indicating that their daily life affected how they perceived the world.

Why you get angry at another office worker’s pay packet:

We do inequity experiments with monkeys where we give one monkey a grape and the other a piece of cucumber for the same task. One will get very upset if the other gets more than him. People can try this experiment at home if they have more than one dog. Make your dogs work for food, give you the paw for example, and then give them unequal rewards for the action. One dog might get a piece of meat and the other a scrap of bread. You will find they are perfectly willing to work for the same reward. But if one gets more, the other will be not happy and revolt. Even animals have an innate sense of fairness.

Why trust might even be more important than love:

Blushing is highly communicative yet involuntary. Why does our species need a shame signal that other primates lack? We trust people whose emotions we can read in their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. The white sclera around the eyes also fits the same pattern. They make our eye movements stand out more than those say of a chimpanzee, whose eyes are dark. Whereas humans have trouble obscuring their gaze direction or hiding restless glances that betray nervousness. During evolution, trustworthiness must have become such a premium that deceptive capacities had to be handicapped. It made us more attractive as partners.

Sunday Independent

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