Do animals possess empathy? A loaded question. A couple of recent studies have claimed they do (think of rescue rats and yawning dogs). But, as I asked in the post about the yawning dog study, is that really what is shown? A recent article in Biology Letters addresses this query. (See also the Oxford University Media post)
To begin, the authors make a critical distinction.
There is empathy, or
the capacity to recognize and share feelings experienced by another individual.
And then there’s pro-sociality, or
the tendency to behave so as to benefit another individual.
It is a mistake to consider these traits as equivalent.
Nevertheless, the question of whether animals possess empathy is an interesting and valid one. After all, (most) human beings have it. And to understand how that happened evolutionarily, looking at other species is a good idea.
But, how do you provide evidence for empathy? In an attempt to answer this, the authors compare two similar studies. One showed rescue behavior in rats, the other one in ants (references below). Despite showing similar phenomena, the interpretation of these studies differed markedly.
(Rat to the rescue. Source: Youtube, by Sergeytule)
Rats possess empathy, ants do not. Whence this difference? Are we more likely to anthropomorphize rats? Possibly. Do we assume that a larger brain indicates a higher probability of possessing empathy? Possibly. The reason for this discrepancy aside (an interesting research avenue in its own right, how do our implicit assumptions influence the interpretations of animal behavior? In a cartoonesque kind of way, you can just imagine a group of scientists observing animals which, in turn, is observed by another group of scientist), the authors propose that
Evidence for empathy requires showing that actor individuals possess a representation of the receiver’s emotional state and are driven by the psychological goal of improving its wellbeing.
Thus, the authors conclude that, so far, animal studies have failed to provide unequivocal evidence for empathy.
Empathy has profound significance not only for cognitive and behavioural sciences but also for philosophy and ethics and, in our view, remains unproven outside humans.
Now, this does not mean that animals do not possess (some degree) of empathy. It just means that, if it’s there, it hasn’t been proven beyond doubt. Yet…
Bartal I., B.A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats. Science, 334 (6061), 1427-1430 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210789
Nowbahari, E., Scohier, A., Durand, J.-L., & Hollis, K.L. (2009). Ants, Cataglyphis cursor, Use Precisely Directed Rescue Behavior to Free Entrapped Relatives. PLOS ONE, 4 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006573
Vasconcelos, M., Hollis, K., Nowbahari, E., & Kacelnik, A. (2012). Pro-sociality without empathy. Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0554