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Rat Empathy January 24, 2012

It will be no surprise to readers of Indigenize! what Univ. of Chicago researchers found in their most recent rodent study, published December 9, 2011 in Science.

According to Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, one of the co-researchers, it turns out that rats will spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how to open a cage if they see another rat trapped in it.

In fact, if faced with two cages, they’d choose to free their pals just as often as they’d choose to open a cage full of delicious chocolate for themselves. Now *that’s* compassionate action! The freedom of their friend was as just sweet to them as a big hoard of chocolate chips.

Further, even when the rats got the chocolate, they weren’t stingy with it. In more than half the trials, rescuer rats left some chocolate to share with the newly freed. Researchers were surprised by this rodent kindness or perhaps shared celebratory meal. Bartal says, “The most shocking thing is they left some of the chocolate for the other rat. …It’s not like they missed a chocolate. They actually carried it out of the restrainer sometimes but did not eat it.”

This was not the first time such an experiment had been done; not by a long shot. Stéphan Reebs reported in the October 2007 issue of Natural History reported on a study done at the University of Bern, Switzerland in which researchers Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky trained rats to pull a lever that gave food to a rat in a neighboring cage. These rats were then placed either next to other helpful, lever-pulling rats’ cages or near those untrained to be generous in that way. On the sixth day, they discovered that

“…rats that had been paired with helpful neighbors were, on average, 21 percent more likely to pull a lever for a new neighbor they had never encountered than were test rats paired with unhelpful neighbors. What’s more, the rats could distinguish between strangers and former benefactors. In another experiment, test rats that encountered a rat that had given them food earlier were—not 21 percent—but 51 percent more likely to return the favor. Notably, Rutte and Taborsky studied only female rats. No word on whether males would be equally obliging.”

Similar empathetic behavior has long been observed in other animals as well. Franz de Waal’s brilliant work Peacemaking Among Primates comes immediately to mind, as does the chapter about animals in the “Anarchist Prince” Pyotr Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Not to mention all those videos on YouTube.

What do such studies prove? Scientists now state it’s plausible these rats demonstrated “empathically motivated pro-social behavior.” The same behavior exhibited in people would generally be called helpfulness and even kindness or compassion. In the Swiss study, we also see how empathy begets more empathy; kind actions spread and come back to benefit the generous. University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason said, “Rats help other rats in distress. That means it’s a biological inheritance. That’s the biological program we have.”

So we can read into this finding a very important message for the currently dominant culture: Collaboration is hardwired into us as animals. Not cold, me-first, gotta win and get mine and the hellwithyou competition, but cooperation and collaboration. It’s NOT “survival of the fittest,” as ‘social Darwinists’ Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer mutated the message to be. It’s as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace themselves originally observed: “survival of the FIT,” meaning those who best adapt to the situations in which they find themselves. Both anthropological studies and game theory statistically show that cooperatively working together creates the most likely conditions for long-term survival.

You can read more about the U of Chicago rat study in this accessible report by Laura Sanders in the Dec. 31, 2011 issue of Science News:  He’s no rat; he’s my brother

Rat liberation: gotta love it.  I’ll end by saying that if we have to do studies on our kindred in other kinds of bodies, I like this trend of doing studies that involve the animals as themselves, instead of merely as test items for some product.


5 Responses to “Rat Empathy”

  1. Kevin G. Says:

    Just imagine, if they had noticed this earlier we could have saved ourselves a hundred years of the social darwinists trying to justify their selfish behavior by using the animal kingdom as an example. Sigh.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Suddenly I don’t mind being born in the year of the Rat anymore. Thanks, Ratsister.

  3. Debbie Lucien (facebook link) Says:

    My Rat buddy is Becky!

  4. Moira Hill (facebook link) Says:

    Lovely post Tina, thank you!

  5. Tina Empol (facebook link) Says:

    I shared this with a friend that has 7 rats. He is not a believer.

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