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Nonhuman empathy

Sergio Navega snavega at ibm.net
Mon Feb 22 08:11:47 EST 1999

Chuck Kristensen wrote in message <7ale58$gsh$1 at winter.news.rcn.net>...
>Sergio Navega wrote in message <36c19bb7 at news3.us.ibm.net>...
>>No, that's not empathy, that's only a reaction to a stimulus perceived
>>as dangerous. Empathy is a different sort of thing. What we mean by
>>empathy is a much rarer behavior. It seems to happen to bonobos, a
>>kind of chimpanzee, able to use symbols to communicate (see Sue
>>Savage-Rumbaugh's book about Kanzi). In an experiment, a man is put
>>in front of a bonobo chimp. Then suddenly, the adult looks to the
>>ceiling, pretending having seen something strange.
>>Impressively, the bonobo also looks at the ceiling, trying to see
>>what that strange thing is. This not only reveal the amazing perceptive
>>abilities of the bonobos but also its empathetic abilities
>>(recognizing the human's intention in looking for something strange).
>>Now try to do this with your dog. The result will be no recognition,
>>showing that dogs (as with most other animals) do not have enough
>>"brain machinery" to present this kind of behavior.
>>Sergio Navega.
>I do not know how to measure empathy in other animals, but your comparison
>of chimp and dog seems to fall far short of the mark which you were aiming

I can agree with you that most evaluations of animal empathy is
distorted by subjective accounts of the experimenter. But the fact is that
from recent studies of bonobos (Kanzi being the most known of them)
suggest that some chimps really do have, in relation to humans, closer
cognitive capacities.

>It does not sound like you have spent much time watching packs of wolves
>other canines) in their natural environment. These animals are responsive
>far more subtle changes in behavior of other animals in their pack and
>prey than the behavior which the chimp responded to.

I must confess that I have few knowledge of animal cognition and I couldn't
say much about the behavior of wolves. However, we must be cautious about
what is a learned capacity and what is an innate trait. Birds may be very
"smart" when assembling nests and shelter. I doubt that this came from
learning. It resembles one ability that have been molded by evolutionary
(selective) pressures. Learning, on the other hand, is an ability that
is much greater in higher forms of life, such as chimps, bonobos and
humans. It is interesting that our (human) behavior is much more
influenced by learned knowledge (compared with innate traits) than
the equivalent ratio with birds, dogs and wolves.

>I would also suggest that it is easier for a chimp to recognize human
>expressions than it is for a dog and not simply because of higher
>intelligence in the chimp. Dogs have and respond to very different
>expressions .... they don't speak the same lingo.

I think you're right, chimps do have a much closer genetic proximity
to us than dogs and that certainly influences their ability to empathize.
However, the difference between apes and bonobos is significant, given
that the latter are able to learn a simple language with symbols,
while the former don't. There's something very important in the size
of neocortex that allows bonobos and humans to perform well in
cognitive activities, empathizing included.

Sergio Navega.

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