Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Not So Special After All

I just finished reading Frans De Waal's "The Age of Empathy" and just recently listened to a lecture by Dr Robin Murphy entitled "Does Rule Making Make Us Human?"

De Waal is a primatologist of world fame, Robin is a Darwinian psychologist.
One studies primates, the other studies rats.  Both relate stories of animals showing real signs of empathy - such as sharing food, returning grooming, trying to rescue a fellow.

Rats refusing to press a lever that would release food if the consequence is a fellow rat being shocked - Robin relates the story of a rat depriving himself of food for several days in order to avoid inflicting pain to his friend.

De Waal argues that empathy is an innate ability that many animals have.  Empathy, he argues, implies having a sense of who we are and he relates experiments involving dolphins and primates able to recognize themselves in a mirror.  If a primate mother dies, other females take care of her orphan.  He even mentions cross-species adoptions that have been witnessed in several zoos across the globe - like a tigress nursing piglets.  He explains these unusual behaviors as "motivational autonomy".  He adds that some psychologists deem unusual behaviors, such as cross-species adoption, as "mistakes" because the behavior exhibited does not fulfill its natural function (much like sex for fun instead of reproduction, or a bengal tigress nursing piglets instead of eating them).  De Waal argues that "mammals have been endowed with powerful impulses to take care of vulnerable young, so that the tigress is only doing what comes naturally to her.  Psychologically speaking, she is not mistaken at all."

Empathy, therefore, is an innate ability shared by many species and manifested in many different ways, like a female bonobo picking up a bird, spreading its wings to let it fly; or a female elephant leading her blind elephant friend to where she can be safe and find food.

In his lecture, Robin relates experiments on rats that clearly demonstrate rats are indeed able to learn rules and apply them, much like human children learn rules when they acquire language skills.
The rules the rats learned were patterns that yielded different results, for instance sounds ABA would release food, but BBA would not.  The rats were then submitted to different sounds C and D, and were able to use the pattern they had learned to release food (i.e. CCD).  The rules were then made more complicated and again the rats managed to learn and use them in novel circumstances.

What was demonstrated was that rule learning does not make us human and that there seems to be some type of continuity between species.

What did I learn?  That science is evolving and that it is slowly but surely lifting the veil of delusion that humans comfort themselves with.  We are special, but maybe not as special as we would like to think!
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