There’s a gap between what is and what it feels like

Recently,  it was social bacteria and chimps that adopt. And last time, it was bee swarms that decide like brain cells. Now, it’s rats with empathy.

While I’m pleased to see the growing case that human behaviour is an advanced form of the way life works in general, and not some special gift of some Special Spectre, one does have to be a little bit cautious in attributing human experiences to non-human creatures.

That is, while it’s instructive that bee hives organize themselves in ways similar to the ways our brain cells are organized, and it’s gratifying to learn that chimps can be unselfish surrogates, it’s at least premature — and maybe wrong — to take the leap and assume that a bacterium is a “social animal” or that a rat in need can count on his “friends.”

The latest rat study has been all over the press this week. Even the local papers, which seldom get further into “science” reporting than the latest baby panda picture, have both featured the news that rats have empathy. Details of the Nature study are available everywhere, so a short summary of the test outcomes will suffice here.

Laboratory rats were placed in cages where a fellow rat was confined in a connected “cell.” Many of the male rats, and all of the females, figured out how to open the confinement cell and free their cagemates. Even when there was a tempting chocolate treat available in another “cell,” the subject rats were just as likely to free their “friends” as they were to eat all of the treat themselves. In fact, some of the rats ate some of the chocolate, then freed the other rat, allowing the second rat to share the chocolate.

The key interpretation, as reported by Science Daily, is that “The observation … places the origin of pro-social helping behavior earlier in the evolutionary tree than previously thought. Though empathetic behavior has been observed anecdotally in non-human primates and other wild species, the concept had not previously been observed in rodents in a laboratory setting.”

One researcher is quoted as observing that “We are not training these rats in any way. … These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We’re not showing them how to open the door, they don’t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it’s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

Researchers suggest that their test shows that rats are motivated to act not just due to “emotional contagion” but because of a “pro-social” feeling. That is, they seem actively to seek another rat’s freedom.

The Science Daily report ends with the view that “the experiments also provide further evidence that empathy-driven helping behavior is not unique to humans — and suggest that Homo sapiens could learn a lesson from its rat cousins.”

Now, I’ve been as much an advocate as anyone could be of the mechanical similarities between the physical structures of animal brains at different levels, including our own. But that doesn’t mean that I’m always comfortable with the ways that these similarities are characterized, some would say personified.

There’s no controversy in showing how the behaviours of different animals are similar. If we are all products of a single evolutionary narrative, it can’t be a surprise that our physical apparatus are similar to the apparatus of other species. A whale’s fin and a bat’s wing and a frog’s hand and a horse’s foot are all variations of the same original structure. The same is true for the most primary parts of our brains.

The difficulty I’m having with “rat cousins” and similar characterizations is that while we easily can study the physiology and behaviour of rats, we can’t really have any idea of “what it’s like” to be a rat.

That is, behaviours that we experience as “empathy” and that come from “pro-social” motivations may be similar to the behaviours of other animals, but we have no real way of determining how, if at all, those animals experience their actions.

It may be that what we feel and understand as “empathy” is a phenomenon of a consciousness that, although it emerges from physical structures and behaviours, isn’t just a catalogue of those parts and actions but is a product of the specific evolution of the human brain.

What kind of consciousness does another creature — a social bacterium, or a signalling bee, or an emancipating rat, or an adopting chimpanzee — have of its action? Is it a consciousness like our own? An analogue? A useful metaphor? A convenient fiction? A misleading personification?

As much as I believe that there’s nothing that’s physical that we can’t in time decipher, and as much as I believe that there’s nothing more than physical that generates consciousness, I don’t therefore believe that consciousness is a mechanical or completely reducible phenomenon.

The best explanation of consciousness I can offer is that consciousness is our perception of the interactions of physical body and brain systems operating in dynamic relationships in changing environments. I know what that feels like, and I’m pretty confident that what I’m experiencing is quite close to what you are experiencing, given the great similarities of our brains.

But what the bee on the flower or the bacterium in my gut is “experiencing” is quite beyond my comprehension — and I suspect that my limitation is not going to change anytime soon, no matter how many physical parallels and common actions  we discover.

So let’s keep learning about what other animals can do, and how they do it.

But can we be a bit more careful speculating about rat teleology?

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