Is there empathy in the animal kingdom?

Many informative portals about the animal kingdom sometimes refer to showing us poignant behaviors in nature: “a cat tries to wake up its friend after being run over”. Here we see a feline, apparently saddened, trying to resuscitate with its claws another cat lying in the middle of the street.

A tear springs from our cheeks, and as they say, “sometimes animals have more feelings than humans”. Unfortunately, scientific evidence does not yet fully indicate confirmation of this sentence. Maybe the cat is really sad, or it can rest its claws on a soft, warm surface to tend to rest.

Yes. As cruel as it may sound, not all of nature’s behaviors respond to an act loaded with feelings and content (Moreover, this is hardly the case). A cichlid fish does not seem to defend its offspring from predators with loving violence: it is an evolutionary mechanism in which the only interest of the animal is to preserve its genes over the generations.

So even though we sin as reductionists, biologists suspect the “altruistic” acts of animals and their sentimental manifestations in many cases. Not because we don’t necessarily believe in it, but because as the principle of parsimony indicates, sometimes the easiest option to explain is the most likely. A purely evolutionary motor VS a neurological capacity complicated enough to develop complex emotions. Difficult dilemma, right?

After this in-depth but necessary introduction, let’s not linger anymore: Is there empathy in the animal kingdom? We are trying to give you the answer.

    Is there empathy in the animal kingdom ?: A difficult dilemma to answer

    Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive, share or infer the feelings and emotions of others, based on the recognition of the other as similar. It is a multifactorial skill, because several interrelated mechanisms work together to form it. Thus, we can distinguish two types of general empathy which integrated give rise to the competence in its entirety:

    Emotional empathy: the ability to experience the emotional states of others. Cognitive empathy: the ability to know the mental state of others.

    Here are already two terms that make us cringe when it comes to nature: emotion and knowledge. While it is true that emotions have been shown in various animal taxa, it is quite difficult for us to argue for a praying mantis capable of feeling affection.

    On the other hand, the concept of knowledge is even more restrictive, because its own definition only includes our species: “Facts or information acquired by a person through experience or education, theoretical understanding or practice of a matter relating to reality ”.

    Thus, and according to the opinion of which he writes, a clear distinction must be made. We showed it to you with two clear examples.

    If we have a situation where a lizard sees a companion eaten by a predator and automatically starts running, are we dealing with a case of empathy? Not at first, because we doubt that the lizard can put itself in the place of its companion, all the more in the knowledge of the pain of others. We can hypothesize that it is a purely evolutionary and survival response: Facing the danger rollers.

    On the other hand, if we have a primate carrying a man with a broken leg, maybe things will change, right ?. Not being a direct descendant, one cannot attribute this behavior in an absolute way to a mechanism of genetic permanence of the individual.

    Also, yes one can suspect in this case that the primate is able to think the following: “it happened to me once, the pain is unbearable, my partner needs help.” The difference between this example and the previous one is that here the situation of others is integrated and known and actions are taken accordingly.

      first surveys

      There is already enough speculative land, because of course there is a lot of research with mammals that has published revealing results regarding whether there is empathy in the animal kingdom.

      Going back to 1959, psychologist Russell Church subjected several rats to ethological experiments to quantify their capacity for empathy.

      In this investigation, a situation was posed to a rodent in which, by pulling a lever, it received food. Unfortunately, while performing this act, another individual received an electric shock and the rat that triggered the events could see him perfectly.

      To the psychologist’s surprise, the rats ceased their activity when they saw the discharge being applied to a co-specificity. What does that make sense from a survival standpoint? The dominant rat is given food and the other individual of its kind is not its child, so it should be concerned about the suffering of others, right?

      This experiment anchored one of the earliest signs of empathy in the animal kingdom, but it is still not without controversy: Does the rat stop pulling the lever out of empathy, or because it is afraid that the discharge happens to him?

      Examples of possible empathy in the animal kingdom

      Beyond these experiences so “primitive” at the time they were carried out, animal behaviors have been observed which are difficult to explain except for an empathetic motor.

      For example, several species of cetaceans have been reported to help their companions emerge to the surface when injured by breathing, a behavior that cannot be attributed (albeit partially) to a certain degree of empathy.

      Other similar cases have been reported in primates in controlled environments. For example, in the populations of the target reserves of cercopithecines, certain behaviors have been observed which seem to indicate the presence of altruism. In this particular case, a captive population had the option of exchanging tokens for food on a machine. Most people have learned the mechanism successfully, but one woman in particular was unable to understand how the machine worked.

      Three times for 12 hours, it was recorded how a male took the female’s chips, inserted them correctly into the machine, and allowed her access to the food.. While these types of behaviors do not explain empathic behavior in their entirety, they certainly point out that this ability exists in mammals with more complex brains and nervous systems.

      We have other cases of an anecdotal nature, such as two recordings of hippos protecting two impalas (African antelopes) from attacks by crocodiles and wild dogs, even risk their lives to save them from the throats of predators. It is very difficult for a biologist to explain this behavior from an evolutionary point of view, since the hippopotamus gets absolutely nothing from this act, being the saved individual of a species other than his own.

      Can animals feel empathy?

      To the question of whether there is empathy in the animal kingdom, we cannot give a clear answer beyond the following: theoretically, it is possible, to prove it 100% irrefutably is more difficult. It has been recorded that empathy requires the performance of the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula and prefrontal cortex. Therefore, we cannot exclude that animals with these structures or the like are able to empathize.

      On another side, a relatively recent discovery of “mirror neurons” this makes it even more interesting, as it is a certain class of neurons that activate when an animal performs an action and when it observes that same action when it is performed by another individual. This mechanism and physiology have been clearly observed repeatedly in primates, so again, all indications are that empathy in these living things is present or at least can occur.


        As we predicted with the previous lines, we cannot say 100% that empathy exists (or does not exist) in the animal kingdom, since intentionality and understanding are two factors. essential for this ability, and unfortunately, cannot be recorded using fully objective parameters in non-human animals.

        Despite this, species whose nervous system is more developed such as certain mammals such as rats, primates and cetaceans seem to indicate to us by their behavior that empathy is present, At least partially and in a limited number of taxa.

        Does this mean that we can extend the jurisdiction to the entire animal kingdom? Unfortunately no. We may not understand the interspecific meanings of the concept, as the term ’empathy’ was coined by humans himself, but it is very difficult to suspect this type of behavior, for example, in groups of invertebrates. .

        Bibliographical references:

        • de Waal, FB (2007). Do animals feel empathy? Scientific American Mind, 18 (6), 28-35.
        • Kuczaj, S., Tranel, K., Trone, M. and Hill, H. (2001). Are animals capable of deceiving or showing empathy? Implications for animal awareness and welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE BAR -, 10, S161-S174.
        • Plutchik, R. (1987). Evolving bases of empathy. Empathy and its development, 1, 38-46.

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