29 July 2019

Frans de Waal: Mama's Last Hug. Emotions, Sentience, Morality, Meat, Vegetarianism, Veganism.

Frans de Waal (2019) Mama's last hug.
Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

Mama's last hug is about animal emotions. If animals have emotions, this has consequences Frans de Waal says in his new book Mama's last hug. What are those consequences? 
"None of this is to say, however, that we have to keep eating the way we do, or even eat meat at all. Animal protein may be overrated. We live in different times with different possibilities, and we have promising alternatives in the works, such as in vitro and plant-based meats that can be stuffed with all the vitamins we need." (269/357).
And that is not all. De Waal puts his views into practice: "I admire the effort [of vegetarians] though, and have joined it in my own imperfect and undogmatic fashion by banishing practically all mammalian meat from my family's kitchen." (270/357) [4].

I am pleased, but also surprised. This is the first time he says in print that he has taken the first steps to lower his meat consumption. In 2017 de Waal defended his meat eating on Dutch television [3]. But then he said nothing about reducing his meat consumption. Strangely, in chapter 7 he repeats the same already refuted pro-meat arguments. Why repeating pro-meat fallacies, when you have stopped eating cows and pigs? Here we find ourselves in the middle of a confusing mix of contradictory pro- and anti-meat arguments.

Sentience: What Animals Feel

For example, in chapter 7 'Sentience: What Animals Feel', de Waal presents all the usual pro-meat arguments: we humans have a long evolutionary history of hunting and eating animals, we have an omnivore anatomy (multifunctional dentition, relatively short intestine, massive brain), nutritional value (meat provides the optimal mix of calories, lipids, proteins, vitamins), we owe our cooperative nature, our food-sharing tendencies, our sense of fairness, and even our morality to the subsistence hunting of our ancestors, the natural cycle (every animal plays a role by eating or being eaten), and so on. Again, if these facts are true and the arguments are valid, then why stop eating meat?

This is his explanation: "We live in different times with different possibilities." [7]. Well, that is absolutely true! But different times with different possibilities don't have the power to change our long human evolutionary history, isn't it? And our anatomy and physiology did not change either, nor the nutritional value of meat, etcetera. We are still omnivores, I suppose. But all these facts are routinely used to propagate the 'meat-is-natural' theology. If these views contain any truth, how can they stop being arguments for meat eating? De Waal does not notice the problem. I think that the biological and evolutionary facts did not change, but our ethics. Those carnism arguments never were and never can be arguments for meat eating, simply because one cannot infer values from facts. "I am an omnivore, therefore it is morally acceptable to eat meat" is obviously false. Such a conclusion must follow from a moral principle. Living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle simply does not contradict the facts of our evolutionary history. They are simply facts, and you need a moral system to change your behaviour.

Frans de Waal explains why he eats meat to Janine Abbring
on Dutch television, August 20th 2017 youtube

I am too much a biologist...

There is another story in the same chapter I have no problem with on its own, but I wonder what practical and moral conclusions we are supposed to draw from it. It starts with the infamous "I am too much a biologist to question the natural circle of life...". What follows is a general biological view about what it means to be a living being. A plant lives from the sun. Plants do not need to kill other living beings. Animals need to kill other living beings to stay alive. Carnivores kill other animals. Herbivores kill plants. Omnivores kill both plants and animals. The principle behind all this is the interest in staying alive of each and every creature on earth. In Darwins words: 'the struggle for existence' [1].
Plants defend themselves with toxic chemicals to repel herbivores. Plants don't like to be eaten. He dedicates a few pages to the plants [2]. In order to stay alive every organism must detect attacks. An organism needs sentience. Sentience is defined as the capacity to experience, feel, or perceive. Plants do react to environmental changes, but that is not the same as experiencing them, according to de Waal. Plants do not have a central nervous system. We must assume plants do not feel pain. Plants 'do not cry out in pain'.

Again, we must ask the question what moral imperative follows from this analysis? Nothing, unless one has endorsed already a moral principle. De Waal writes: 'Humans should respect all forms of life' (270). It is clearly not a statement of fact, it looks like a moral principle. He gives three reasons for this principle:
  1. the inherent dignity of all living things
  2. the interest every form of life has in its own existence and survival
  3. the capacity to suffer
Unfortunately, there are some problems with these statements. First, 'inherent dignity of all living things' is beautiful, but too vague. It cannot distinguish between good and bad actions. It is too broad, because we kill bacteria with antibiotics to save human lives, we destroy malaria mosquitoes and all dangerous parasites to combat disease, and we eat plants. These actions are rather difficult to avoid. So, the first principle fails as a moral guideline.

The second statement is factual and true. It is fundamental to all life. Interpreted as a moral guideline we violate it as soon as we start eating. So, we cannot follow it.

The third statement 'the capacity to suffer' is a descriptive statement, not a moral principle. That is a important difference. Because, one could rightly claim that the experiencing pain is natural. Above that, 'the capacity to suffer' does not apply to all living beings.
These three statements together are –strictly speaking– not moral principles.

But there is no need to invent a moral principle. Jeremy Bentham remarked 140 years ago:
The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Jeremy Bentham, 1879
This position has been elaborated  by philosopher Peter Singer into a moral philosophy. Singer wrote famous books such as Animal Liberation (1975), and The Expanding Circle (1981). 

De Waal criticised Singer's animal-rights activist position in his book 'Primates and Philosophers' [8]. De Waal objects to the idea of animal rights. We now know that de Waal consumed meat at the time and reasoned accordingly. Remarkably, Peter Singer is missing in Mama's last hug !

De Waal wrote that it is a moral imperative to reduce meat consumption or even ban it altogether (270/357). That is exactly what vegans like Peter Singer practice. The famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall is mentioned in Mama's last hug, but de Waal apparently does not know she is a vegetarian/vegan.

So, if you really want to practice the principle 'do not cause pain to other living beings in so far they are capable of experiencing pain', then it does not make sense to attack vegans [4],[5].

Again, if you really want to commit yourself to this moral principle, then you cannot simultaneously hold:
  1. "it is a moral imperative to reduce meat consumption" (270/357)
  2. "Even if I have no problem with meat-eating per se ..." (269/357).
De Waal does not have a moral problem with meat-eating per se? [6]. Doesn't that contradict his moral imperative?


There is a fundamental tension between the moral principle 'inherent dignity of all living beings'  and the descriptive 'natural circle of life'. De Waal did not resolve this tension. On the contrary. He wants at the same time to legitimize meat consumption with 'the natural circle' philosophy, and legitimize his reduction of meat consumption with a 'inherent dignity' philosophy. 
What we need is a coherent universal moral system that is detached from the 'natural circle of life' and from any personal interests and circumstances. 

As de Waal himself wrote in Primates and Philosophers: "Moral emotions ought to be disconnected from one's immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level." [8].

The human species has the biggest brain and is the most intelligent animal ever seen on the face of the earth. That species has the highest self-awareness and the most sophisticated language of all animals. That species wrote holy books with the 'Ten Commandments' and produced an ethics culminating in 'the Golden Rule'. That species uses its superior intelligence for inventing bad excuses for killing members of other species.

Conclusion expanded 17 Aug 2019

Disclosure. I am too much a biologist to question the fact that milk and cheese come from cows, and cows are mammals. I am too much a biologist to question the fact that birds have a central nervous system and that eggs come from birds. I think, we don't have to keep eating the way we do, or even eat animal products at all. I am a vegan. In that sense I am biased. But, I hope without fallacies.

(This blog is an improved version of the previous blog in Dutch.)


15 Aug 2019
By the way, are you vegetarian or vergan?

After writing this blog, I discovered the interview of Michael Shermer with Dr. Frans de Waal (12 mrt. 2019) about the book Mama's Last Hug
Check out the last minutes of the interview about meat (57th min), especially the question "By the way, are you vegetarian or vergan?"(58:46). Frans de Waal: "No. I do eat less meat, and I try to avoid eating mammals." Why, why, why is it so hard to stop, if you know for certain they can feel pain???


  1. Charles Darwin, Chapter III in the Origin of Species is entitled 'Struggle for Existence'. I wonder whether de Waal is describing the 'dog-eat-dog view of nature' or 'Nature red in tooth and claw'? That is precisely the view of nature he forcefully and indignantly rejects in other contexts! The useful function of predators in natural predator-prey systems is a well established scientific fact. However, the meat industry of our own species does not resemble the natural prey-predator systems in anyway and is in fact unnatural. Pro-meat advocates forget this.
  2. I have the feeling that the lesson of 'the natural circle of life' story among other things seems to be that vegetarians and vegans infringe upon the interests of plants! Vegans are plant-killers! Above that vegans tell fairy tales! That's why FdW is not a vegan?
  3. Frans de Waal on Dutch television: Frans De Waal uses a fallacy to defend eating meat, 3 Oct. 2017 (fragment)
  4. "...I admire the effort [of vegetarians] though, and have joined it in my own imperfect and undogmatic fashion by banishing practically all mammalian meat". (270/357). Sorry, 'undogmatic'? Vegans are dogmatic? Undogmatic implies be selfish and violate your own moral principle?
  5. Frans de Waal states that the goal will be best accomplished if we honestly face where we come from [our omnivorous past] rather than spinning the fairy tale, often heard these days [where? source please!], that we are meant to be vegan." (270/357). Sorry? How does that help? De Waal criticises those that have gone far beyond his own imperfect attempts to reduce meat intake? You cannot go further than vegans, unless you can live on air alone! [31 July 2019]
  6. Psychologist Naomi Ellemers perfectly describes the behaviour of people like Frans de Waal:
    "Thus, even though being moral implies being honest and reliable, those who are most keen to establish a moral image of themselves tend to be less truthful and reliable in reporting about their own moral behavior" (57/412). Naomi Ellemers (2017) Morality and the Regulation of Social Behavior.
  7. "We live in different times with different possibilities": that is to say, the first prominent modern vegetarian was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (History of Vegetarianism). Nothing new under the sun! [7 Aug 2019]
  8. Frans de Waal (2006) Primates and Philosophers, p.143 hardback. (quoted by Peter Singer). On page 152 Peter Singer writes: "... make me, I assume, a target of de Waal's criticism of animal rights advocates." De Waal objects to the idea of animal rights for silly reasons. Further, Singer observed that de Waal uses an ad hominem argument against animal rights activists (p.155). That was back in 2006 when de Waal was consuming mammals. [ added 8 Aug 2019 ]

Previous blog

  1. Killing Animals in the Age of Empathy. Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist explains why he eats animals. 26 September 2017.


  1. Gert,

    I can only admire all effort you've put in criticizing FdW's moral principles

    But don't you think that the ('approved Summary for Policymakers (SPM)') report of the IPCC, presented yesterday, August 8, overrules, all the talk about "Emotions, Sentience, Morality, Meat, Vegetarianism, Veganism."?

    I'd say the *facts* are crystal clear now, aren't they?

  2. Harry, thanks for your admiration!
    I heard about the news about food security, and it is not new for me, but I cannot find the exact publication. Do you mean this one:


    but that is dated October 8, 2018. not August 8 2019.

    I suspect that IPCC does not advice a vegan life style! only reducing meat consumption? But I do not know what exactly they propose.
    Anyway, the reasons behind the report are probably not moral reasons.

    You wrote '...overrules...'. I don't think so. It is important to note that Frans de Waal writes: "Humans should respect all forms of life", which looks a moral principle. Further: prevent pain (in mammals). I am certain that IPCC is not concerned about pain in animals (mammals)!

    The reason I write a Dutch and English blog about Frans de Waal is that I want to warn readers that he is not practising what he preaches, and so he is not a moral example for all of us. On the contrary, he is selfish. All website and newspapers reporting his new book praise the book. Nobody seems to know that he (still) eats meat and is posing as a friend of animals and making money from his books and lectures. And if that is not enough, he attacks vegans (those horrible persons that kill plants!) to show what a altruistic, empathic and reasonable person he is!

    Nobody asks questions or criticises him. Therefore, I do.

  3. gert


    the IPCC doesn't advice reduction of meat consumption. And indeed, the report is not about moral principles etc. It is just about the survival of our species.

    I'd say that should dwarf, trump, or transcend - and overrul- any concern about the moral inconsistencies of a primatologist writing best-sellers

  4. Harry, thanks for the link.
    You wrote "the IPCC doesn't advice reduction of meat consumption", but figure Figure 5.12 'Technical mitigation potential of changing diets' clearly shows that vegan diet is on top of the list, so is the best for the climate.
    The report does not advice anything, as far as I can see, but the data speak for themselves!
    Ultimately, only persons that do maintain moral values, adapt their diet to mitigate climate warming (moral value = climate warming is bad). Persons without any moral values read the report and say: I don't care! Fuck the climate!

    If you are interested in science, knowledge, reason, then you care about correct arguments isn't it? and that implies that you get angry when someone gets away with fallacies.

    We ordinary people need moral role models, persons we can admire and imitate. Frans de Waal could have been the ideal role model right from the start because of the subjects of his writings during his whole career. Do you admire egoists, hypocrites and cheaters?

  5. Nature 8 Aug 2019 wrote: Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet".
    Harry wrote: "the IPCC doesn't advice reduction of meat consumption"
    Did the UN report really recommend lifestyle change or just reported data on the climate impact of human diets? Or was it formulated in an if-then phrase?

  6. Harry said: "I'd say that should dwarf, trump, or transcend - and overrul- any concern about the moral inconsistencies of a primatologist writing best-sellers."

    No. Millions and millions of people like Frans de Waal keep the cruel and environmental- and climate unfriendly meat industry alive!
    Millions and millions of people like Frans de Waal keep the carnism ideology alive!

    see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnism

    Carnism is a prevailing ideology in which people support the use and consumption of animal products, especially meat as "natural", "normal", "necessary".

    An ideology needs fallacies and fairy tales!
    If people would stop using fallacies and fairy tales, it would be better for animals and the climate.

  7. Gert,

    Pan Survival in the 21st Century: Chimpanzee Cultural Preservation, Rehabilitation, and Emancipation Manifesto HUMAN EVOLUTION Vol. 34 - n. 1-2 (1-19) – 2019 DOI: 10.14673/HE201912047

    "A recent study of I.R. and colleagues exemplifies Pan’s similarity to Homo regarding meaningful informational-exchange (Roffman et al., 2015a). Particularly,
    Pan’s competency for giving testimony (figurative and abstract) and having structural bilateral communication with syntax via pantomiming fulfill the criteria for habeas corpus (Hall & Waters, 2000)."

    Pan rights, Okay. But what about Pan crimes?

  8. Harry, thanks for pointing out the article. Considering the fact that Frans de Waals' livelong chimp studies, and the manifesto is defending the rights of chimps & bonobos, it is mildly surprising that he is not one of the authors of the Manifest...

    (4 authors are from Israel).

    Even more surprising: de Waal is not in the References as main author, he only appears in one publication which has Richard Wrangham as first author. de Waal was never at the forefront of animal rights movement.

    Harry wrote "Pan rights, Okay. But what about Pan crimes? ".

    Read this: "Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 in order to respond to the need for long term chimpanzee care. The need for care extended to those chimpanzees no longer used in biomedical research, the entertainment industry or the pet trade."
    The US National Institutes of Health 'owned'(!) 300 chimps intended for hepatitis and HIV studies. How many chimps have been 'used' in medical experients? Is that what you mean by Pan crimes? Did chimps use humans for hepatitis and HIV studies?


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