More Empathetic: Rats or Republicans?

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Half of the comments in that quote from The Merchant of Venice have to do with emotions. After all, a lot of people would argue that our emotions are what separate us from the animals. But there has been a lot of research in the past decade that is showing more and more than the rest of the animal kingdom shares at least some of this ability.

Elephants mourn their lost loved ones in the wild. Dolphins are known to be temperamental. And of course there are our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and other primates that seem on the verge of being human.

In an earlier post, I talked about the “mark test” that supposedly reveals whether or not an animal is self-aware, one of the scientific hallmarks of intelligence. Stick a funny looking object on an animal and put them in front of a mirror. If they touch the mark on their own body, they realize its them in the mirror and not another monkey. The earlier post showed that a species of monkey – the macaque – not previously believed to be able to pass this test seemed now to be doing so.

Now, a recent study seems to be showing that another hallmark of “human” intelligence is showing up in the lowly rat, empathy. Most would argue that all humans are born with the ability to put themselves in another shoe and feel their pain, often giving rise to the desire to help out.

Others might argue that most of the current Republican Party has lost this ability, but that’s another post.

In the past, seemingly empathic behavior of rats helping each other had seemed to be observed in the wild. Specifically, they seemed to become upset when their peers were operated on. But observations are not scientific studies.

So to put the idea to the test, Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago came up with a simple yet genius way of testing. She first trapped a rat inside of clear plastic tube. Though it did the animal no harm, nobody likes being trapped and unable to even move, but the only way to get out was a lever on the outside of the contraption. Mason then let another rat into the cage and watched what happened.

Time after time, the rats hit the lever in order to release their cage mate. And once they learned how to do it, they did it immediately once they got into the cage.

But Mason took it a step further. She went as far as to offer the rats chocolate once they entered the cage. Which would you choose? Helping your fellow creature out first or gorging on some deliciousness and letting them wait a bit?

Surprisingly enough, I dare say the rats fared better than most people would. They were equally as likely as to go for the chocolate chips as they were to help out their compadre, and in effect, letting them share in the chocolaty goodness.

There are, of course, some limitations to the test. For example, perhaps the rats were just sick and tired of hearing the trapped rats bitch and moan about being restrained and freed them in order to take pity on their own ears.

Here, honey, take a $20 and go to DSW.

What if the rats were given the option of just running away? Would they still be so eager to help their fellow rodent? Only time will tell, as they’re planning on setting that scenario up in the near future.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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