Friday, 29 August 2014

Yawning Wolves Show Empathy

Yawning Spreads Like a Plague in Wolves | Science | Smithsonian

More evidence emerged this week that the ability to empathise with members of the same species, and even, in some cases, across species, is not unique to humans but is also present in non-humans. A paper published today in PLOS One by a team of researchers from Tokyo University showed that yawning is contagious in wolves (Canis lupus).

Yawning is generally regarded as an empathetic response when it is copied. It is very difficult for humans to stifle a yawn when someone near them yawns, and especially if that person is socially close to them.

We showed that the wolves were able to yawn contagiously, and this is affected by the emotional bond between individuals, which suggests that familiarity and social bonds matter in these animals the same way as it does in humans.

Teresa Romero, University of Tokyo
The same has been observed in both common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (P. paniscus), in baboons and domestic dogs, and has even been demonstrated between humans and chimpanzees and between humans and domestic dogs. Some studies have even shown contagious yawning in some birds.

This comes on top of studies showing empathetic behaviour in elephants, which are even believed to grieve and pay their last respects to dead associates, and even rats which help a friend. As Teresa Romero of the University of Tokyo points out, "More and more research is supporting this idea that basic forms of empathy are very ancient, and they are present in a wide number of species, at least in mammals".

The problem for theologians of course is that they make a big thing of the existence of morality in humans and claim not to be able to understand how we know right from wrong without having been told what's what by their favourite god. The well-known author of fairy stories and Christian apologist C.S.Lewis even claimed it was his inability to work out how he knew right from wrong that convinced him he had just happened to be born to parents who believe in the one true god and giver of moral laws to humans.

In fact, of course, the ability to tell right from wrong derives from the ability to understand what you would want you to do if you were the other person. In other words it derives from the Golden Rule which is variously expressed as "Do as you would be done by", "Don't be an asshole" and "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you". Humans can do this because we can empathise with other people and see things from their point of view.

The professed inability to understand the difference between right and wrong, and the professed inability to understand why one should behave decently and with humanity towards one's fellows without the promise of a reward or to avoid a punishment says a great deal about theists, although, to be fair, few of them seem to think it applies to them personally; it just applies to everyone else.

More and more research is supporting this idea that basic forms of empathy are very ancient, and they are present in a wide number of species, at least in mammals.

Teresa Romero
Now it seems that this ability to empathise is not only not unique to humans but, because it is present in such disparate groups as rodent, canines and apes, it probably evolved way back in early mammalian evolution and expresses particularly in group behaviour where codes of conduct, or 'ethics' are essential to made cooperative groups work. That, in turn, requires sentience or self-awareness.

So much for yet another religious apologetic based on ignorant incredulity and a desire for easy, self-confirmatory answers with a low regard for truth and an idiotically arrogant notion that somehow humans are a different sort of organism altogether.

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1 comment :

  1. From wolves it's a short step to dogs. Here's an article about canine empathy: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201206/canine-empathy-your-dog-really-does-care-if-you-are-unhappy .

    In that article you also, indirectly, can see how empathy may have evolved. As usual, here are some quotes from the article I just linked to:

    [Some] scientists tend to believe that something more primitive [than genuine empathy] is going on, namely emotional contagion. This is where an individual responds to the emotions of another, without fully understanding what that individual is feeling.

    A simple example is when in a nursery one infant starts to cry and this causes all of the other infants within earshot to do the same. Those other infants are not showing empathy but rather are responding to and adopting the first child's emotion state without understanding why.

    Thus [some] researchers suggest that when your dog sees your emotional distress [ e.g. observes that you're weeping] they are in effect "infected by it" and, in response to their own feelings, they come to nuzzle you. Their aim is not to comfort their human, but rather to gain comfort for themselves.

    Some other scientists are even more cynical, not even crediting the dog with reading the person's emotion, but rather suggesting that in response to seeing a person acting in an unusual way and the dog is coming over to sniff and paw at them out of curiosity.

    And finally my own comment to this: Maybe that sort of reasoning also gives us a hint about how the emotion of empathy once evolved. Step #1 = Approaching by sheer curiosity (to see what's happening). Step #2 = Approaching to make it easier to share a special feeling or emotion (= emotional contagion). And step #3 = Approaching and thereby demonstrating genuine and cognitively (more or less fully) understood empathy.

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