Rat and ant rescues 'don't show empathy'

Aug 02, 2012
Rat and ant rescues 'don't show empathy'
Ant rescues aren't evidence that individuals understand another's feelings. Photo: L Gomes Moreira

(Phys.org) -- Studies of how rats and ants rescue other members of their species do not prove that animals other than humans have empathy, according to a team led by Oxford University scientists.

– recognising and sharing feelings experienced by another individual – is a key human trait and to understand its evolution numerous studies have looked for evidence of it in non-human animals.

The ability to rescue another individual in distress, a typical empathic response of humans, appears in several other . Two recent laboratory studies led by US and French researchers looked at how rats and ants will attempt to free individuals of the same species they share a cage or nest with which have been restrained. However, writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, the Oxford-led team argues that such studies are not rigorous enough to separate examples of 'pro-social' behaviour, the tendency to behave so as to benefit another individual, from genuine empathy.

'Empathy has been proposed as the motivation behind the sort of ‘pro-social' rescue behaviour in which one individual tries to free another,' said Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, lead author of the article, 'however, the reproductive benefits of this kind of behaviour are relatively well understood as, in nature, they are helping individuals to which they are likely to be genetically related or whose survival is otherwise beneficial to the actor.

'To prove empathy any experiment must show an individual understands another's feelings and is driven by the psychological goal of improving another's wellbeing. Our view is that, so far, there is no proof of this outside of humans.'

The team highlights how interpretations of pro-social behaviour vary – rat rescues, for instance, are regarded as being motivated by empathy whilst ant rescues are not – even though the observed behaviour (pulling on the legs or tail of the trapped individual, followed by biting at the restraint) are very similar.

In order to prove empathy any experiment would need to show that changed their response if the circumstances changed; for instance moving away from a trapped individual if that reduced the trapped animal's distress. It would also need to disentangle empathy from acting simply to stop the trapped animal's stress signals – something that can be psychologically selfish and does not need to involve empathy.

Solving the riddle of empathy would have important implications not just for the sciences but for philosophy and ethics. However, the team concludes scientists will have to come up with new, more rigorous studies to show that empathy exists outside of humans.

The article, entitled 'Pro-sociality without empathy' is published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

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User comments : 13

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Deathclock
3 / 5 (8) Aug 02, 2012
The action is helping those of your own kind, that action is evolutionarily beneficial and was therefore selected via natural selection, the motivating factor for taking this action is a feeling we get that we call "empathy", which is actually the thing that was selected for... Similarly, sex is evolutionarily beneficial and was selected for, and the motivation for that action is the awesome feeling of having sex. A third example is fear, fear protects us by heightening our awareness in dangerous situations, so it clearly has an evolutionary advantage, but the feeling of fear is different than the actions that feeling causes us to take, the feeling is the motivation and the feeling is what was selected for...

If other animals show the actions associated with empathy in humans, then there must be a motivation to take that action... so if it is not a feeling similar to empathy than what is it? That is what they should be trying to answer...
Satene
2.3 / 5 (7) Aug 02, 2012
..to prove empathy any experiment must show an individual understands another's feelings.. so far, there is no proof of this outside of humans...
I don't think it's necessary to understand another's feeling to demonstrate empathy. For example, if I see the women hanging in window, I don't analyse, if she feels fear or it's just suicide attempt. For example chimpanzees demonstrate empathy toward other members of group with repeating of yawning. They don't repeat yawning after submisive males though - which means, their demonstration of empathy isn't reflexive, but a product of rational decision.
Deathclock
2.3 / 5 (6) Aug 02, 2012
"It would also need to disentangle empathy from acting simply to stop the trapped animal's stress signals something that can be psychologically selfish and does not need to involve empathy."

That's what empathy IS!

It IS psychologically selfish, everything we do is... it is natural to NOT LIKE seeing people in situations that we would not want to find ourselves in, so we WANT to help them. There are no unselfish actions, when we do good we feel good, and when bad things happen to others we feel bad, acting to help people so that we feel good about ourselves rather than bad about what we witnessed or our inability to help is the definition of psychologically selfish.

It seems like these researchers are far off base here, that they put humans on a pedestal far above all other animals, but we are animals, we clearly share traits with other animals...
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Aug 02, 2012
Our view is that, so far, there is no proof of this outside of humans

How do adoptions of herd young that have lost their mother factor into this?
How about the documented adoptions accross species? That's certainly not because the young animal being adopted is 'genetically close' or otherwise beneficial to the adopting animal.
Deathclock
2.3 / 5 (6) Aug 02, 2012
How about the documented adoptions accross species? That's certainly not because the young animal being adopted is 'genetically close' or otherwise beneficial to the adopting animal.


Exactly, it is (in some regard) a misapplication of a trait that was selected for because that trait usually increases the fitness of the population. The fact that such a misapplication can occur is evidence that these actions occur based on some motivating factor that does not discriminate or distinguish between circumstances where action will benefit the species and circumstances where action will not benefit the species.

Humans do the same thing, our sense of empathy was selected for because it is mutually beneficial for the population when humans help other humans, but a human helping a dog doesn't help our population at all, and if we ONLY helped dogs then it would have never been selected for, but the feeling that motivates us to help humans also incidentally works on other animals.
PJS
5 / 5 (4) Aug 02, 2012
empathy in humans is just a magnified version of that found in rats -- the root biological mechanism and benefit is the same. humans just have a lot more intellectual processing involved.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2012
but a human helping a dog doesn't help our population at all, and if we ONLY helped dogs then it would have never been selected for

It might. E.g in the case of species that live in a symbiotic relationship.

Example: taking in stray members of species X will later on give you a pet that will protect you against predation of species Y - this may well give you a survival advantage and therefore be a trait that is 'selected for'.

Contrary if there is fierce competition among individuals of the same species (because of overpopulation where commonly needed resources aren't enough to go around) empathy may be detrimental and could be selected against.

So I could well envision a selective environment where members of species X are selected for by their empathy for species Y but selected against by empathy for their own species.
Deathclock
2.3 / 5 (6) Aug 02, 2012
Yeah... that's a good point, but what I was really saying was that just because a trait is selected for doesn't mean that trait will ONLY lead to the actions that caused it to be selected for, it might lead to other fitness-benign actions as well.
fully attached
not rated yet Aug 02, 2012
battle at kruger, google the vid. see for yourselves.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Aug 02, 2012
" It would also need to disentangle empathy from acting simply to stop the trapped animal's stress signals something that can be psychologically selfish and does not need to involve empathy. "

When have non-human animals ever been shown to help each other just because a distress noise was bothering one of them, and how was it proven ?

What kind of insane logic is that ?

Sinister1811
1 / 5 (4) Aug 03, 2012
I've certainly seen that there are some people that don't show empathy. For example; those that bully other people. I suppose it's something that depends solely on the particular individual.
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2012
@Isaacsname this video clearly shows buffalos rescuing their own from the clutches of lions, this suggests "Theory of Mind" and empathy, something thought previosly to be only the province of human animals !

The are prepared to put their lives at risk warding off predators !

http://www.youtub...DDYz68kM

We do know humans are sometimes easily annoyed and will stop the noise of a crying baby or pet just to get peace with little concern for suffering of the cause of the noise.

Is it a stretch that animals could do the same thing whilst not having to predate upon the victim ? I would think very likely vegetarians like hippos are known to attack to protect territory and my experience of cats show they will definitely react as annoyance to a high pitched whistle which disturbs their sleep.

The parallels between all mammals are considerable and differ only in degree and not necessarily in kind.
MysterySecret
not rated yet Aug 04, 2012
"Lassie, I hurt my leg, go get help. Lassie go get help girl"

"GRRRR, I'm gonna just sit here and watch you suffer!"