Saturday, 30 January 2016

Even Voles Have 'Human' Emotions

Oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in rodents | Science.

It is probably one of the more subtle, insidiously harmful aspects of religion that they encourage humans to feel in some way superior to the rest of nature and somehow to be separate from it, rather than part of the whole with a close connectedness to all of it.

One of the ways it has done this is to inculcate a belief that only humans have 'refined' emotions such as love, empathy, compassion, even conscious thought itself. Fundamentalists even come at this from an anthropocentric direction and claim these emotions and morals could only have been given to them by the creator of the Universe because they can't imagine how else we could have these emotions.

So, it must come as a shock when science demonstrates that not only are these not unique to humans but that we are beginning to realise they are much more common in other species than we used to think and have been around since way before there were humans or even apes. Empathy has previously been demonstrated in highly intelligent, sentient species such as dolphins, elephants and dogs. Now team of researchers from Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA has shown that even a species of rodent - the prairie vole, Microtus ochrogaster - shows empathetic behaviour.

Abstract
Consolation behavior toward distressed others is common in humans and great apes, yet our ability to explore the biological mechanisms underlying this behavior is limited by its apparent absence in laboratory animals. Here, we provide empirical evidence that a rodent species, the highly social and monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), greatly increases partner-directed grooming toward familiar conspecifics (but not strangers) that have experienced an unobserved stressor, providing social buffering. Prairie voles also match the fear response, anxiety-related behaviors, and corticosterone increase of the stressed cagemate, suggesting an empathy mechanism. Exposure to the stressed cagemate increases activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and oxytocin receptor antagonist infused into this region abolishes the partner-directed response, showing conserved neural mechanisms between prairie vole and human.


Copyright © 2016, The American Association for the Advancement of Science. Reprinted with permission, under licence #3798720803645

The researchers found that the empathetic response, which consisted of increased grooming in a monogamous pair when one of the pair was stressed was moderated by the so-called 'love' hormone, oxytocin. They showed that the hormone level in the non-stressed vole increased to match that of the stressed vole.

Oxytocin has been shown to produce feelings of love in, for instance, parents when they look into a baby's eyes or when a woman breast-feeds a child. It has also been shown that domestic dogs, unlike their wolf ancestors produce oxytocin when they look into their puppies' eyes and it has been suggested that this is what makes it so easy to form a close bond between dogs and humans and why tame wolves were able to become domestic dogs in the final stage of their evolution.

How can science explain love? Easily; it's been evolving for at least 100 million years because social bonding and empathetic behaviour produce more descendants. Its close association with sex and child-care should have been a clue.

The last common ancestor of primates and rodents is thought to have lived about 100 million years ago. This finding suggest this oxytocin-moderated behaviour was present even then. So, a bit of a double whammy there for creationists and religious apologists trying to push the notion that only humans have these 'higher' emotions because we were specially made by a creator as something different and apart from the rest of nature. In fact, as this paper and many others show, we have evolved from a common ancestor and so share almost all of our characteristics with other mammals, including love, empathy and concern for the welfare and wellbeing of other people - the basis of ethical and moral codes. It also shows how love, pleasurable and wonderful though it is, is a hormone-regulated set of physiological responses and not something that needs a magic man in the sky to explain away.

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