Studies of how rats and ants rescue other members of their species do not prove that animals other than humans have empathy, according to a team led by Oxford University scientists.
Empathy – recognising and sharing feelings experienced by another individual – is a key human trait and to understand its evolution numerous studies have looked for evidence of it in non-human animals.
The ability to rescue another individual in distress, a typical empathic response of humans, appears in several other animals. Two recent laboratory studies led by US and French researchers looked at how rats and ants will attempt to free individuals of the same species they share a cage or nest with which have been restrained. However, writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, the Oxford-led team argues that such studies are not rigorous enough to separate examples of 'pro-social' behaviour, the tendency to behave so as to benefit another individual, from genuine empathy.
'Empathy has been proposed as the motivation behind the sort of ‘pro-social' rescue behaviour in which one individual tries to free another,' said Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, lead author of the article, 'however, the reproductive benefits of this kind of behaviour are relatively well understood as, in nature, they are helping individuals to which they are likely to be genetically related or whose survival is otherwise beneficial to the actor.
'To prove empathy any experiment must show an individual understands another's feelings and is driven by the psychological goal of improving another's wellbeing. Our view is that, so far, there is no proof of this outside of humans.'