Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)

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2 responses to “Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

  1. I object a little to “still lacking in humans” in the title, since you’re apparently displaying empathy for the rats in this post.

    But that’s inter-species empathy (humans for rats). I wonder if there’s any intrinsic survival value to it, or if it is simply a byproduct of intra-species empathy?

    It’s most interesting to me that only 70% of male rats freed the captive, vs 100% of the female rats. I recall another study published earlier this year claiming that women given sublingual testosterone are less able to discern emotional states from looking at another’s face, making them presumably less empathetic. PDF: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/02/02/1011891108.full.pdf

    So I’ve been speculating as to the possible survival/reproductive value of not being empathetic that could explain why testosterone diminishes it. Could it be that as a hunter, you don’t want to have too much empathy for your prey? If you find the baby animals in their nest, and it’s between leaving them or feeding your family, not having too much empathy for them is probably in your long-term survival interests. I have an alternate theory about reproductive success that isn’t politically correct or terribly relevant here.

    The larger debate over whether non-human animals have empathy reminds me of the earlier debate of whether non-human animals felt pain. We’ve been moving in a more empathetic direction since the first days of vivisection. Now there are ethics reviews and anesthetics. There are still terrible cruelties to be certain, but over the long term we seem to be moving in a hopeful direction.

    Speaking of inter-species empathy, I ran across this while composing my reply:
    http://www.grist.org/list/2011-11-29-this-video-of-science-lab-dogs-being-set-free-will-make-you-bawl

    The music and title sentimentalize it. I recommend turning the sound off.

    • Thank you for reading my post!

      Maybe I should change the title to “Lacking in Some Humans”…:) You are clearly showing empathy as well. :)

      I feel inter-species empathy is probably a byproduct of intraspecies empathy (studies have been published on how our attraction to baby human faces results in an attraction to neotenous faces in general). No likely survival value at all, but that’s random evolutionary baggage I’m happy to be carrying along.

      Does testosterone diminish empathetic behavior or mask it, I wonder? Does the increased “aggression” (an array of behavior) induced by testosterone mean the organism feels no empathy at all, or that it still feels empathy, but, due to the influence of the testosterone, chooses another course?

      And yes, as much as animal research perturbs me, it is heartening to see the improvements.

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