Altruism – Empathy Likely Biologically Universal

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Jerry

There have been countless scientific articles written documenting experiments which show all manner of empathy, altruism, and cooperation between higher mammals and especially those with highly developed prefrontal cortices.  This behavior has been repeatedly identified in human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, bottlenose dolphins, and elephants.  More broadly it has also been seen in the behavior of the more developed mammals.

But what about the lowly, lesser forms of animals, are they indifferent to each other?  Are they nothing but dumb brutes competing with peers for survival with no sensitivity to each other’s plight?  Researchers Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments that indicate that even with rats there is empathy and reaction to each other’s distress.  Their experiments led them to conclude there was strong evidence for “biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior”.

When there was a free rat in an arena with another rat that was confined by a restrainer, the “free rat learned to intentionally and quickly open the restrainer and free the cagemate.”  The free rat performed this release even when social contact between the animals was prevented and when an alternative access to chocolate was offered as a distraction to freeing the confined animal.  In the case of the chocolate within a different restrainer, the free rat “opened both restrainers and typically shared the chocolate.”

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: The Human Odyssey, Chapter 6 – Human Uniqueness, the book quotes and affirms Charles Darwin who said, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties…The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not kind.”  This set of experiments indicates we should expand Darwin’s observation to include the lesser animals as well.

Use the following link to access the study results in Science Magazine:

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Katherine Nicole Says:

    Heck, we could go even ‘lower’ on the evolutionary chain to find altruistic gestures…What about the various ‘sacrificial’ bacterium, amoeba and spores that die to form a stalk or encasing that allows the other members of the colony to either disperse (and escape the harsh conditions) or securely ‘huddle’ (and thusly escape the harsh environment through a protective barrier)?

    Of course, these organisms aren’t capable of higher thought, but as researchers discover (traditionally) lower and lower forms of animal intelligence displaying thought processes usually associated with the higher forms, isn’t it plausible we might turn out to be hard-wired to do good (or at least to do good for our own species)?

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