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Nonhuman empathy

Michael Edelman mje at mich.com
Thu Feb 11 09:11:09 EST 1999

Jason Ebaugh wrote:

> There is a controversy about whether animals besides humans are
> capable of empathy. It appears to me that scientists who think that
> animals can empathize(sp??) are in the minority, with the majority of
> scientists holding on to the ideology that only humans have such
> qualitites.
>         My box turtle empathizes on a regular basis. When I am walking around
> the room he is usually fine and ignores me. But if I take an interest
> in him and look at him, he gets nervous and goes into his log to hide.
> He knows that  I "see" him. That's empathy.

What you're doing is commiting the anthropomorphic fallacy- you're assigning
human emotions, thoughts, etc. to an animal without justification.

When we see a dog pull the corners of his mouth back we're liable to thing oh,
look, he's smilingt- when the dog is actually getting ready to attack. When you
say your turtle "gets nervous", you're assigning human emotions to him without
justification. We don't know what his emotional state is. Perhaps he's fleeing
from a perceieved predator threat. Maybe it's something akin to fear. Maybe he's
on the verge of attacking.

Despite various sorts of use and misuse, *empathy* is the ability to conceptually
project  yourself into the condition of another, through shared experience,
typically.  It requires both conciousness and similar experiences.  If I see your
turtle running from your dog, I can sympathize with him, but I can't empathize.

- mike                 http://www.mich.com/~mje

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