Empathy Outside the Species
August 26, 2010 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Why do species feel empathy and aesthetic attraction (non-sexual) toward members of other species?

I've read a bit on empathy, but I'm very much a novice on this topic. I was having a discussion though, and suddenly it struck me as odd that species - not just humans; there's a story I saw about a chimpanzee and a dog, for instance - would develop empathy with other species to the point of forming intense bonds with those species. We even have empathy toward predatory species (when we're not being hunted by them) - we find tigers and panthers attractive. Any good explanations?
Related to this: why do we find things cute?
posted by outlandishmarxist to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
posted by bricoleur at 7:13 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've heard the cute thing in particular explained as our parental instincts gone overboard. Individuals who are smaller than us, with eyes that are big relative to their face shape, trigger our "ohhh, a baby" instinct. Most cute animals are smaller than us and/or have gigantic eyes, so they seem cute, even though the reason they probably have big eyes is to see better in the dark (not to tickle humans' cute-bone).
posted by vytae at 7:14 AM on August 26, 2010

This doesn't answer the whole question, but regarding why we find things cute, we as humans find baby humans cute because they are our babies and need to be cared for. The characteristics that make them cute (big eyes, round features, smallness, vulnerability), are often shared by other non-human animals such as baby kittens or pandas.
posted by DeltaForce at 7:14 AM on August 26, 2010

Related to this: why do we find things cute?

Because their disproportionately large eyes and heads tap our primal desire to care for our own human baby.
posted by applemeat at 7:15 AM on August 26, 2010

I guess I'm wondering, though, why we don't filter out other species.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:17 AM on August 26, 2010

I guess I'm wondering, though, why we don't filter out other species.

Pure evolution doesn't have a "why"— it is totally blind. If you believe the universe is dependent in a metaphysical sense on a greater organizing intelligence, then you'll have to ask it.
posted by Electrius at 7:22 AM on August 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am not in any way a Scientician.

But! As this is an evolved instinct, I think that simply there was no need to filter out other species. Since it evolved, it only serves the purpose of enabling our offspring to be raised in order to further our species. There has been no need to put in a species filter for the "big head and large eyes"="baby! AAWWWW" likely because we don't have dopplegangers trying to get us to raise their own babies for us. If anything, this lack of a filter better enables us to care for other animals such as cats and dogs and livestock that serve our own purpose.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2010

Many species are able to form symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationships with other species. An interesting example involves a species of fish called the cleaner wrasse, which eats parasites off of the scales of other fish; no predator eats the cleaner wrasse. It's services are appreciated by all.

Humans have all kinds of partnerships with domestic animals, and even if you are concerned about issues of cruelty to animals (chickens and pigs are raised in horrible conditions by the big factory farms) domestication of animals originated as arrangements of mutual convenience, in which people fed animals and protected them from predators, and received a variety of benefits from those animals in return. Even if the animal was at some point slaughtered and eaten, it may still have had a better life than what it would have had in the wild. So from the viewpoint of symbiosis, it makes perfect sense that one species could get along with another.

I think that there is another element as well. The genetic basis of empathy between one human and another human is not so precisely tuned that it will excluse other species who have human-like traits. People can have beautiful eyes, but lots of animals have eyes that are very similar to human eyes and are similarly beautiful, and when you look into those eyes, you recognize a connection to our own species.

What about esthetic appreciation of a species that is not domesticated, and has no symbiotic relationship with people, and does not resemble people, yet is still beautiful? Esthetics involves many complicated features, and people can learn to appreciate a wide variety of things based on such features as interesting patterns (pattern recognition is very important to human psychology), novelty, bright colors, efficient design, or ecological function. Even if a species does nothing for human beings directly, it probably does something useful for a species that does something useful for another species that does something useful for people. In an ecological system, everything interconnects in some way.
posted by grizzled at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

We learn to find pet animals cute because our culture encourages that - you don't have to look far to find cute, anthropomorphised animals. And I'd guess that that has a lot to do with the domestication of animals; when our ancestors started to actively nurture animals for food, milk and other products, they observed and could identify with the way other animals cared for their young. It's not difficult to guess why our instincts towards our own young have rubbed off on our relationship with other animals, particularly those we've domesticated to the point of selectively breeding out many undesirable adult behaviours. And given that most of us no longer have to kill and butcher our animals, there's little incentive to maintain a degree of detachment.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:30 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Grizzled: I think the latter part of your answer gets at precisely what I'm trying to understand. Do humans find neoteny in all species attractive simply because of the nurturing instinct in their own species isn't so finely honed that it only applies to humans, or has there been selection for degrees of cross-species attraction (predators are obviously less likely to want to nurture a member of another species and more likely to want to eat it)?
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:39 AM on August 26, 2010

I guess I'm wondering, though, why we don't filter out other species.

Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002) suggests the existence of "spandrels" - side-effects of beneficial evolutionary adaptations. For example, rainforest canopy trees have a propensity to be toppled in hurricanes. This propensity evolved not for the competitive benefits of falling over - rather, it is a side effect of the trees being tall, which was evolved for its own benefits.

As long as the benefits of being tall (getting to sunlight) outweigh the disadvantages of its faults (falling over in storms) the adaptation will be a net advantage.

If we assume the mechanism that lets humans feel empathy towards other humans and recognise cuteness in human babies is an evolutionary advantage, it could be that a side-effect of that mechanism is feeling empathy towards animals and recognising cuteness in animals.

As long as the benefits of the adaptation (liking cute babies) outweigh the disadvantages of its faults (liking cute kittens) it will be a net advantage - so it's likely to be kept. Liking kittens could be a spandrel.

So why not evolve a second mechanism that could filter out liking cute kittens, so as to avoid the disadvantages of liking cute kittens? Well, evolution only selects for things which are a competitive advantage; perhaps not liking kittens just doesn't have substantial benefits, because liking kittens does not have substantial costs?

(Anyone discussing evo psych online should read Problems in evolutionary psychology.)
posted by Mike1024 at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

I personally believe that there actually is some evolutionary advantage to the capacity to like animals, given that animal husbandry has played a very important role in the success of the human species. Of course, we could in theory still be able to ride horses even if we felt no empathy for horses, but I think it works better if we do. But the point about evolutionary spandrels, made by Mike1024 above, is also very well taken. Human empathy for animals might actually be an accidental by-product of our empathy for other humans (and particularly for human babies). And there is no reason why evolution could not have been influenced by both of those factors, being partly functional (as an aid to symbiosis) and partly accidental.
posted by grizzled at 8:08 AM on August 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm not a scientist, but it seems to me there's a strong evolutionary benefit to recognizing the emotional state of animals. IE, correctly identify a dog as friendly and it will help guard your cave. Incorrectly identify a dog as friendly and it will bite you.

And given that the decision to flee a hostile animal has to be a split-second one, you'd want the ability to recognize animal emotions to be instant and intuitive.

So, a creature that can empathize outside its own species has a definite evolutionary advantage.
posted by yankeefog at 8:10 AM on August 26, 2010

We learn to find pet animals cute because our culture encourages that

Cultural conditioning is definitely part of it. In some cultures, cats are considered vermin.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:12 AM on August 26, 2010

Evolution isn't a master plan cooked up by some creator, its just mutations that happened to work. For instance, we admire cuteness and it makes us feel good. This means its less likely we'll abuse babies and more likely we'll admire young girls. This leads to more successful reproduction. The side-effect could be that we also find animals cute, afterall baby mammals do tend to look alike, but on the flip-side we also have pedophiles and bestiality.

For every good mutation there must be a bazillion side-effects that were not important enough to make a difference in reproduction thus natural selection won't select out. We have stereo vision, but we also are susceptible to all sorts of weird optical illusions because of it. People with sickle cell anemia have a strong resistance to malaria but the diseases causes a host of other issues. We have flight or fight responses to perceived harm or predators, but we also have anxiety disorders and panic attacks over nothing, etc, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:28 AM on August 26, 2010

Some kinds of parasitic species will put their own young in the home or nest of a parent of another species, and the host will unwittingly form parental bonds with the intruder and raise it to the detriment of its own children. For example, cuckoos. Apparently this is called "brood parasitism", thanks Wikipedia.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:34 AM on August 26, 2010

The symbiosis between humans and dogs goes back a long, long way. Nobody knows for sure, but it could be as much as 50,000 years.

It's existed long enough so that the dogs have changed considerably from their wild ancestors (which you can tell just by looking at them) but humans have changed, too. Evolutionarily, humans who like dogs and keep them have done better than those who don't, so there was an evolutionary advantage to human brains which included circuitry for liking dogs and dealing well with them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:54 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anecdata time. Cultural aspects of empathy for animals came up at lunch today when one colleague was telling us how they had at some point managed to lose one of their cats newborn kittens. They searched the flat and eventually came to the realisation that they must have tidied it up and thrown it in the garbage chute. Panic ensues, they call the super, and start going through bags of garbage in the cellar, the children are in hysterics the parents are crying as well, and so on and so on. Before we get any further I will tell you the kitten was upstairs asleep in a shoe.

Three young middle-eastern women (who have lived a fair few years here in Sweden all the same) listened to this story with dropped jaws and then asked "But why were you all so upset, what was the hysterics about, surely you could buy a new cat if it's that big a deal?". None of these ladies have empathy issues in general, seemed just not to extend too far into the animal kingdom, none of them had ever had pets either fwiw.
posted by Iteki at 9:09 AM on August 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tangentially, dogs have evolved to have empathy for humans, or at least to understand human facial expressions. It's been beneficial in terms of getting protection, food, and breeding privileges.
posted by jander03 at 12:23 PM on August 27, 2010

« Older Name that tune/video.   |   Reinstall single font Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.