Of rats and men

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Scientists have long experimented on mice and rats to test new drugs and treatments for human illnesses.

I’ve always imagined that there must be many similarities between our species — at least on a cellular level or in organ systems — for that to make sense. But I haven’t been much bothered by the fact that these physical similarities exist because I subscribe to the notion that we humans are part beast/part divine.

So, if experimentation on rats could help us develop cures for human diseases, I could accept the notion of some kinship with rats.

But I’m still coming to terms with the conclusions of the latest experiments, published last month in the journal Science, which you may have read about.

Researchers at the University of Chicago believe they’ve proven that rats (particularly female ones) feel empathy for the suffering of other rats. Furthermore, they appear to have shown that rats behave altruistically in coming to the aid of their fellow creatures, even sharing treats (chocolate chips) with them.

In the experiments, free rats were placed in an area with another rat they were familiar with, but the latter was trapped in a smaller plastic cage. The free rats learned how to release their fellow imprisoned rats, and repeatedly did so.

Furthermore, when another cage containing chocolate chips was placed in the same area, the rats often freed their fellows first, then opened the treat cage and proceeded to share the chocolate with the former captive. 

My first reaction to scientists ascribing what I have long considered uniquely human traits or moral behavior to rats is to get a little touchy. After all, I know plenty of people who probably think twice before offering to share their chocolate chips! (No, honey, I don’t mean you.)

But then I read a quote from Jeffrey S. Mogil, a McGill University neuroscientist whose experiments apparently demonstrated that rats feel each other’s pain. (He calls it “emotional contagion.”)

When asked by the Washington Post whether a rat frees a trapped comrade to relieve its own stress or the stress of the other animal, Mogil replied, “It’s more likely to be the former. But even if it is the former, I’m not sure that’s so different from humans.”

Well, I took even more umbrage at that – until I thought about it and discussed it with my wife. Isn’t the point of a moral education to make people feel uncomfortable about doing immoral things, or about not doing the right thing when they could but don’t want to?

We want our children to have an internal compass that makes them emotionally inclined to act as they should and to feel bad when they don’t. So is it less moral to take an action to help another because NOT taking the action causes us stress?

In the case of the rats, Peggy Mason, one of the researchers, was quoted as saying she believed the rats were acting in a “sub-cortical” fashion. That is, rats show empathy in more of a reflexive manner than a thoughtful or moral one.

The underlying idea is that empathic behavior supports the survival of the species and thus gets passed down through evolutionary processes.

Maybe that’s how we humans also developed. Is empathy hard-wired or learned?

In many issues of the Beacon, we write about volunteers who devote hours, weeks and years of their lives to helping others. Some do this throughout their lives; others find it a way to make their retirement years more meaningful.

But nearly everyone we’ve ever written about will say at some point in the interview, “I get at least as much — or more — out of volunteering as do those I help.” 

People do good things for others because it feels good. It’s nice to be appreciated, yes. But it even feels rewarding to do good when it’s not directly or obviously rewarded by others. It feels good inside.

This may be because of our genes, because of our education, or both. Perhaps further experiments will help us decide.

In the meantime, there’s one conclusion we don’t need researchers to corroborate: that it’s nice to reward oneself with a few chocolate chips now and then.