Just a rat in a cage

Really enjoyed this Wired story about the scientific debate on whether rats have empathy (I’m quite persuaded that they do).  First, some of the experimental evidence:

On a table in Mason’s University of Chicago lab sits a plexiglass box about two feet square. Inside is a white Sprague-Dawley rat, a strain bred for laboratory study, and a plexiglass canister holding a black-and-white Long-Evans rat.

The trapped Long-Evans is clearly agitated. The white rat is too. Instinctively, she wants to stay in the corner; rats avoid open spaces, and navigate by touch, which is why you often see them scurrying along walls. Yet she rushes again and again to the canister, sniffing at the rat inside, nosing the glass, nudging the door. Eventually, she opens it, freeing the rat. They rub together.

At a purely descriptive level, you could say one rat helped another. Why that happened is the question. According to Peggy Mason and collaborator Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, the free rat appears to empathize with her trapped comrade. She recognized the rat’s distress, grew distressed herself and wanted to help. This appears to be a powerful impulse in rats. In tests of whether rats would rather eat than help another rat, the researchers found empathy’s pull to be as strong as their desire for chocolate — and rats do love their chocolate.

The two researchers first claimed rats might feel empathy in a high-profile 2011Science paper describing rats freeing their cagemates, rats they had been cohabitating with. They expand on those findings in the latest study, which describes rats helping strangers. It’s a radical, even controversial, claim. Some scientists recognize that chimpanzees, a few cetaceans and perhaps elephants could be empathic, but few have ascribed that trait to rats. If R. norvegicus can be empathic, that fundamentally “human” trait might in fact be ubiquitous.

Seems like a lot of the objections basically boil down looking for any explanation other than empathy or almost re-defining the word so that’s not what the rats are doing.  But I think the strongest case is actually a very logical one:

Other researchers defended the possibility of rat empathy. “Ants are not rats,”quipped Frans de Waal, an Emory University ethologist who has written extensively about empathy, on Facebook. “It would be totally surprising, from a Darwinian perspective, if humans had empathy and other mammals totally lacked it.” …

Frans de Waal thinks empathy originated with maternal care, with evolution favoring those mothers most attentive to their offspring. Of course it could work in the other direction, too: Evolution favors offspring who pay attention to their elders. Rat mothers, it should be noted, are historically renowned for their devoted affection.

“Given the importance of social learning in rats,” said Emilie Snell-Rood, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, and its usefulness “in a situation where a novel predator like humans are trying to kill you all the time, I would expect increased selection on social learning.”

Anyway, plenty more good stuff in here about how rats can help us understand cognition, etc.  Or as one scientist puts it:

As neurobiologist Peggy Mason, a pioneer in rat empathy research put it, “I’m perfectly happy thinking of myself as a rat with a fancy neocortex.”

Or, in other words… despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Just a rat in a cage

  1. S Robert Andron, AIA says:

    So in a study important to research in Autism, my understanding is that researchers have found that the hormone Oxytocin is common in people and dogs (man’s best friend). I believe it is called the empathy hormone. I don’t know whether it is proven that people with autism have less than most – but I know that studies were initiated to add it to people with autism to see if it helps.

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