Rats, Men, Science, Transanimalism and the Display of Empathy

Warren Kinston 4. November 2012 10:00

Can we care for each other?  Perhaps not if you are a male rat.

display empathy  courtesy Flickr alsalbery's photostream

A study published in the prestigious journal Science (334:1427-1430, 2011) revealed that rats display empathy for each other.  In other words, they actively care about the suffering of a fellow rat.  In the experiment, the rats not only learned how to free a trapped cage-mate but shared their chocolate with them.

If rats can display empathy, surely people can.

Perhaps expecting a share of the chocolate is going too far, at least if it's dark chocolate in my case.

But some rats just didn't care.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they were all male.  Perhaps surprisingly and thankfully, only about a third of the male rats had this biological ability not to care about others.  Can you imagine the social impact such males might make if they were people? (Applying the 80:20 rule to that third, about 6% of people would be very nasty rats indeed. Where do they end up?)

I wasn't surprised by this finding.  I recall a study decades ago that showed cockroaches would curl up and die if they were exposed to situations that seemed hopeless and rendered them helpless.  Just like people.  And of course elephants cooperate and octopuses plan.

But back to being human, which is what THEE is all about.  Scientists tell us that they study animals to discover what is uniquely human: but if you study animals, you discover what is uniquely animal.  It works well when the focus is on a person as an animal.  Such a biological focus is vital for medical and surgical advances. But it fails when the focus is on a person as a person.  When the psychosomatic illness is more psycho- than -somatic.  Where do you go then?  I liked this short article in a recent British Medical Journal  that explains why "bad" science can be good medicine (read it as a public blog here). 

In social life, are we different from animals?  Is the rat experiencing concern for the cage-mate or are their reflexes being triggered by pheromones or postures?  Does the cockroach feel bad?  Or is just a matter of synaptic overload?  We now know the answer because scientists have signed a declaration announcing that mammals have subjective experiences, independently of any physiological instincts.  

As always, the scientistic urge is to emphasize that human beings are not unique.  We are animals.  I think we should call this mentality animalism, and I would encourage someone to generate a movement promoting transanimalism

Transanimalism would affirm that the issue when a mother cares for a baby is not whether there are biological triggers for that caring, like hormones that soften aggression and enhance bonding.  Nor whether or not she has subjective experiences that would not be there if we removed her brain.  Of course women are triggered and of course they have experiences.  Do we need these established facts to be promulgated as if they were socratic wisdom?

The issues that a human mother has to face are unlike that faced by any rat or elephant or octopus or even cockroach.  How is the caring going to be expressed in the immediate cultural context?  How are frustrations with the baby going to be managed in a particular domestic environment?  How is bonding to be reconciled with inevitable separations?  How is the motherhood and career-life to be balanced?  How will the budget be adjusted with an extra mouth to feed?  What precisely can be expected of (or negotiated with) the father?

These challenges require a creative response whose detailed expression will be a function of personal character, the society, material conditions, family structure, customs or religious traditions, and so on.  Any selected solutions are certainly not coded in the genes, determined by proteins, or triggered by hormones.  We cannot alter our biological inheritance.  Our creative challenge is to determine what use we make of it.

Is it enough to care for children by simply looking after their physical well-being?  Or should caring for children include educating them and instilling the value of learning?  After all, over most of humanity's existence, following the invention of writing, the vast majority of parents had no concern to enable their children to read or write.  Why don't we go back to that?

What about killing your own children if they become burdensome?  Will animalism provide the answers here?  Many animals would eat their offspring if they had a chance.  Even rats, at least under stress, will eat their young.  So there seems to be a limit to their compassion.  Does that mean there should be a limit to ours?

In caring for elderly parents, should we look to the animal kingdom for guidance?  Or do we need religion-based rules or secular laws to tell us what to do?  Or can we find something within ourselves that provides the answer?

Does it have to be something that tells us to create bureaucracies administering impersonal nursing homes where parents can be dumped?  Then we can just let others do the empathy thing.  Assuming their capacity for empathy is active and genuine. 

But that takes us back to those experimental rats.  

Perhaps we have to hope that animalism will save us—as long as we find a sensible way to identify and contain that 6% with in-built callous biology.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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