15 December 2011

Mrs. Frisby had the right idea

* source *

I don't know about you, but I spend the better part of my day listening to NPR streaming at work.  I'd rather be doing work, but that's a (long, foul-mouthed) rant for another day.  Last Friday, I heard this great story on Morning Edition: rats will stop to help out their caged rat-buddies (and further coverage on Science Friday - how much do I love Ira Flatow?*)!! The conclusion of the researchers was that rats are empathetic, perhaps even moreso than people (that is my own conclusion).  Even when chocolate is on the line, rats will stop to help another trapped rat. I have to say, I might not be so considerate in the face of such an offer.

What, if anything, do you think this new study tells us about empathy and altruism in other animals? I can see arguments for both sides. Perhaps it is not empathy at all, but just a primal instinct to protect your species (survival of the whole group, not just the individual).  If that is true and the rat's intentions are neither noble nor honorable, does it really matter? Whose to say that, at our basest level, our acts of humanity are driven by anything greater?

* The answer: Almost as much as I love Ira Glass. Seriously, how did NPR get all the good Iras?


  1. I think NPR got the only two Iras in existence. I'll fight you for Flatow.

    I didn't hear this story, but I'm going to listen to it on my ipod - faithful Science Friday lover here. Man, how I wish I'd have heard this when I was still teaching Animal Behavior!

  2. I think you're pretty spot on - if empathy is "just" instinct in rats, then its obviously "just" instinct in humans, too. But, since humans place so much emphasis on creatures' ability to 'feel' in regards to how much we should care about them, I think this is pretty compelling evidence!

  3. I agree- I often laugh at the word "humane" because humans are anything but humane.