Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Man (and Woman's) Best Friend: They Feel Empathy, Don't They?

As the guardian/steward of four furry four-legged sentient beings (a/k/a canines), who rule my life and my household, it distresses me when I hear anyone describe them as 'mere animals' or 'property' -- which is why I was delighted to come across this week Scientific American blog on "Do Animals Feel Empathy":
'Do animals feel empathy? This question could draw scoffing dismissal from many scientists only a few decades ago. Now it receives marvelously productive attention in neuroscience, psychology, and the burgeoning field of neuroethology. Below, two leaders in these fields, Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal and University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason, review both the history of animal studies of empathy and a particularly thought-provoking recent mouse study from the McGill University lab of Jeffrey Mogil. As de Waal and Mason note, this clever study holds surprises about both the baseline and the limitations of empathy in these small, "simple" rodents. One can't read these reviews without seeing one's own empathetic capacities and limitations in a new light.'

Which only serves to illustrate that our relationship with all living beings, human or otherwise, is not something that can be neatly classified into nice little hierarchical packages -- our relationship with the other living beings on this planet is much complicated and nuanced than the "Great Chain of Being". A recent article and the corresponding open peer commentaries in the American Journal of Bioethics, Thinking About the Human-Neuron Mouse, suggests that conferring humanity is an an either/or proposition -- that one is either a human (and therefore, a person) or one is not (and therefore not a person, but mere property). Funny thing about the way the law has developed, though --
corporations and even ships are recognized as persons, even though they are not human. So perhaps it is time to start looking at in-between categories, a recognize that our differences are more of a continuum, rather than clear cut dichotomy. No one thing is for sure, as the above article and the recent AJOB article suggest: More work is needed on the question of cognitive abilities of human and non-human entities and what, if any, differences, there are.

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