Does empathy exist in the animal kingdom?
Does empathy occur in nonhuman animals, or just seemingly kind acts? Let's see.
Many informative portals on the animal kingdom sometimes show us heartbreaking behaviors in nature: "a cat tries to wake up its friend after it has been run over". Here we see a feline, apparently in a state of grief, trying to revive another cat lying in the middle of the street with its paws.
A tear rolls down our cheeks, and as they say, "sometimes animals have more feelings than humans". Unfortunately, the scientific evidence does not yet point to the confirmation of this statement. Maybe the cat is really sad, or maybe it's just settling its paws on a warm, soft surface to lie down and rest.
Yes, cruel as it may sound, not all behaviors in nature respond to an act charged with feeling and content (indeed, in almost no case is this the case). (indeed, in almost all cases this is not the case). A cichlid fish does not seem to defend its offspring from predators with violence out of love: it is an evolutionary mechanism in which the animal's only interest is to preserve its genes over generations.
Thus, even if we err on the side of reductionism, biologists are suspicious of the "altruistic" acts of animals and their sentimental displays in many cases. This is not because we do not necessarily believe in them, but because, as the principle of parsimony indicates, sometimes the simplest option to explain the "altruistic" acts of animals and their sentimental demonstrations is not the simplest one, sometimes the simplest option to explain is the most probable one.. A purely evolutionary motor VS a neurological capacity complicated enough to develop complex emotions. Difficult dilemma, isn't it?
After this very extensive but necessary introduction, we will not delay any longer: does empathy exist in the animal kingdom? We try to give you the answer.
- Related article, "Do animals have a sense of humor?"
Does empathy exist in the animal kingdom: a difficult dilemma to answer
Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive, share or infer the feelings and emotions of others, based on the recognition of the other as similar.. It is a multifactorial ability, as several correlated mechanisms act in conjunction to form it. Thus, we can distinguish two general types of empathy that, when integrated, give rise to the skill as a whole:
Emotional empathy: the ability to be able to experience the emotional states of others. Cognitive empathy: the ability to know the mental state of others.
Here there are already two terms that are squeaky in nature: emotion and cognition. While it is true that emotions have been demonstrated in several animal taxa, it is quite difficult for us to argue in favor of a praying mantis being able to feel affection.
On the other hand, the concept of knowledge is even more restrictive, as its own definition includes only our species: "Facts or information acquired by a person through experience or education, theoretical or practical understanding of a matter concerning reality."
Thus, and in the opinion of the one who writes, it is necessary to make a clear distinction. We show it to you with two clear examples.
If we have a situation in which a lizard sees how a companion is devoured by a predator and runs away automatically, is this a case of empathy? At first, no, because we doubt that the lizard is capable of putting itself in its companion's shoes, let alone knowing the Pain of others. We can hypothesize that this is a purely evolutionary a purely evolutionary and survival responseI run in the face of danger.
On the other hand, if we have a primate that is carrying a fellow primate with a broken leg, maybe it's a different story, isn't it? Not being a direct descendant, we can't absolutely attribute this behavior to a genetic permanence mechanism of the individual..
Moreover, we can suspect in this case that the primate is capable of thinking the following: "this once happened to me, the pain is unbearable, my companion needs help". The difference between this example and the previous one is that here the primate is integrated and aware of the other's situation and acts accordingly.
Enough of speculative grounds, since there are certainly a great deal of research with mammals has yielded revealing results on the question of whether empathy exists in the animal kingdom..
Going back to 1959, the psychologist Russell Church subjected several rats to ethological experiments to quantify their empathic capacity.
In this research, a rodent was presented with a situation in which, by pulling a lever, it received food. Unfortunately, while performing this act, another individual experienced an electric shock, and the rat that had triggered the events could see it perfectly well.
To the psychologist's surprise, the rats ceased their activity as soon as they saw the shock being applied to a conspecific.What sense does this make from a survival point of view? The dominant rat gets food and the other individual of its species is not its offspring, so it should not care about the suffering of others, right?
This experiment cemented one of the first signs of empathy in the animal kingdom, but it is still not without controversy: does the rat stop pulling the lever out of empathy, or because it is afraid of the shock happening to it?
Possible signs of empathy in the animal kingdom
Beyond these experiments, which are so "primitive" because of the time in which they were carried out, animal behaviors have been observed that are difficult to explain if not by an empathic motor..
For example, several species of cetaceans have been recorded helping their mates to surface when they are injured in order to breathe, a behavior that can only be attributed (even partially) to some degree of empathy.
Other similar cases have been recorded in primates in controlled environments. For example, in reserve populations of target cercopithecus, certain behaviors have been observed that seem to indicate that altruism is present. In this particular case, a captive population was presented with the possibility of exchanging tokens for food in a machine. Most of the individuals successfully learned the mechanism, but one female in particular was unable to understand how the machine worked.
On three separate occasions over 12 hr, it was recorded how a male took the female's tokens, correctly inserted them into the machine, and allowed the female to access the food.. While such behaviors may not explain empathic behavior in its entirety, they certainly point to the fact that this ability exists in mammals with more complex brains and nervous systems.
We have other cases of an anecdotal nature, such as two hippo records that protected two impalas (African antelopes) from attacks by crocodiles and wild dogs, even risking their lives to save them from the jaws of the predators.. It is very difficult for a biologist to explain this behavior from an evolutionary point of view, since the hippopotamus gets absolutely nothing from this act, being the saved individual of another species different from its own.
Can animals feel empathy?
To the question of whether empathy exists in the animal kingdom we cannot give a clear answer beyond the following: theoretically yes it can, proving it in a 100% irrefutable way is more difficult. It has been recorded that empathy requires the action of the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula and prefrontal cortex.. Therefore, we cannot rule out that animals with these or analogous structures are capable of showing empathic ability.
On the other hand, a relatively recent discovery of "mirror neurons" makes things even more interesting. makes things even more interesting, for these are a certain class of neurons that are activated when an animal performs an action and when it observes that same action being performed by another individual. This mechanism and physiology has been clearly observed on multiple occasions in primates, so again, everything points to the fact that empathy in these living beings is present or at least can happen.
As we have already predicted in the previous lines, we cannot state 100% that empathy exists (or not) in the animal kingdom, since intentionality and understanding are two essential factors for this ability, and unfortunately, they cannot be registered by completely objective parameters in non-human animals.
Even so, species with more developed nervous systems, such as species with more developed nervous systems such as some mammals like rats, primates and cetaceans do seem to indicate with their behaviors that empathy is present, at least partially and in a partial form, and in some cases, that empathy is present.at least partially and in a limited number of taxa.
Does this mean that we can extend the ability throughout the animal kingdom? Unfortunately, no. We may not understand the interspecific meanings of the concept, as the term "empathy" has been coined by humans themselves, but it is very difficult to suspect such behaviors, for example, in invertebrate groups.
- de Waal, F. B. (2007). Do animals feel empathy?. Scientific American Mind, 18(6), 28-35.
- Kuczaj, S., Tranel, K., Trone, M., & Hill, H. (2001). Are animals capable of deception or empathy? Implications for animal consciousness and animal welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE-POTTERS BAR-, 10, S161-S174.
- Plutchik, R. (1987). Evolutionary bases of empathy. Empathy and its development, 1, 38-46.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)