Michael Trimble: The Evolutionary and Social History of Crying





Michael Trimble is an emeritus professor of behavioral neurology and a consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, and the author of the forthcoming book “Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain.”

IN 2008, at a zoo in Münster, Germany, a gorilla named Gana gave birth to a male infant, who died after three months. Photographs of Gana, looking stricken and inconsolable, were ubiquitous. “Heartbroken gorilla cradles her dead baby,” Britain’s Daily Mail declared. Crowds thronged the zoo to see the grieving mother.

Sad as the scene was, the humans, not Gana, were the only ones crying. The notion that animals can weep — apologies to Dumbo, Bambi and Wilbur — has no scientific basis. Years of observations by the primatologists Dian Fossey, who observed gorillas, and Jane Goodall, who worked with chimpanzees, could not prove that animals cry tears from emotion....

“It is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion,” said Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. And yet the Greek epics are filled with tearful heroes like Odysseus, Agamemnon and Achilles. In recent decades, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have normalized the sight of the weepy chief executive. Twice in the last week — at a campaign speech in Iowa on Monday, and addressing his campaign staff in Chicago after his re-election victory — President Obama choked up. Babe Ruth cried when he learned he had cancer, and Floyd Patterson after losing to Muhammad Ali....

THE association of tears with art has ancient roots. The classic Greek tragedies of the fifth century B.C. were primarily celebrations of gods, especially Dionysus. Tragedies, like poetry and music, were staged religious events. Even then it was recognized that crying in response to drama brought pleasure. (Hollywood filmmakers certainly know this, as do playwrights, television producers and even news presenters.)...

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