Of Mice and Men and Empathy

I have a pet mouse. It’s not exactly a pet because it doesn’t live in a cage, but it lives in my office and uses my internet cable as a ladder to the air vents in the wall to enter and leave the house. It does this every evening, so I often see it scurry behind my desk, up the cable and out through the air bricks. Sometimes, my pet mouse stops at just about eye level and turns around briefly to check me out, but if I so much as blink, it races off. I don’t blame it.

As I sit at my desk working or web surfing, I often think about my mouse and what it thinks about when it looks at me. I’m pretty certain it is not burdened with language centres like I am, but is it conscious or is it, as so many learned scientists like to believe, just an unconscious or dimly conscious creature incapable of thought, reflection or random acts of kindness?

Rats in loveOne of our greatest human conceits amongst countless others is the contention that “only humans are capable of feeling empathy or compassion.” Anybody who has a pet dog knows that is nonsense, but now even science is coming to the party. Recent studies have proven pretty decisively that mice may be better “Christians” than we are. In one study, an uncaged rat went out of its way to free a caged rat and had to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to figure out a way to open its cage. Not only that, but it chose to engage in this act of compassion despite the enticement of freely available chocolate, which apparently rats love. To make matters even more interesting, it released its captive before it ate the chocolate and freely shared it with the other rat after releasing it. (Sources: Psychology Today and Science Daily)

Or how about this one, also from Psychology Today, Wild Justice and Emotional Intelligence in Animals:

CeAnn Lambert, director of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, saw that two baby mice had become trapped in the sink and were unable to scramble up the slick sides. They were exhausted and frightened. CeAnn filled a small lid with water and placed it in the sink. One of the mice hopped over and drank, but the other was too exhausted to move and remained crouched in the same spot. The stronger mouse found a piece of food and picked it up and carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could drink. CeAnn created a ramp with a piece of wood and the revived mice were soon able to scramble out of the sink.

On the other side of the equation, just the other night I saw a story on TV about a group of people on a beach in California who stood by and watched a man drown. Even though he was not in deep water and they had the means to save him, not one of them went to help him because they were afraid of the legal consequences if they did. In another segment on the same program, which was exploring just how selfish and brutal we have become (actually it was about America in particular), firefighters came to a burning house but refused to put out the fire because the owners hadn’t paid a $75 fee that entitled them to the firefighters’ services.

battery hensSome animals kill other animals, just like we do, but they don’t tend to torture them or slaughter them unnecessarily. They’re hungry, they kill and they eat. Foxes didn’t invent bizarre torture chambers like these cages for battery hens, for instance. Humans came up with that idea.

Now that I’ve removed us humans from the pinnacle of goodness, let’s take a quick look at evil, because this is where we reign supreme. Those of us who like the triune brain/frontal lobes theory like to believe the frontal lobes are the most evolved parts of the brain and are responsible for our feelings of empathy. There might be some truth to that, but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog and others have written about more eruditely elsewhere, the frontal lobes are now thought to be the seat of the executive centre and only incidentally connected with empathy or compassion. I can’t think of a single “less evolved” animal that regularly and methodically plans and executes the kinds of evil deeds we do. The fact that we undertake them consciously and upon reflection justify and “improve” our torture and murder techniques  just makes it worse.

We frontal lobe lovers like to lay the blame for ego and evil on our reptilian brains, but that really doesn’t hold water, either. Crocodiles don’t torture their prey and they certainly don’t go to elaborate lengths to invent horrible ways of killing others just for the sake of gaining, say, some oil-rich land.They kill, they eat and then they sleep or make baby crocodiles. There’s nothing inherently evil in any of that, so calling the reptilian part of the brain “reptilian” and saying it’s the seat of evil is kind of an insult to crocodiles.  Besides, our “reptilian” brains work tirelessly to keep us breathing, so we should show them a little gratitude.

Okay, I know you can come up with stories about cannibalism and infanticide in the animal kingdom. I’m not saying they’re all ascended masters or saints – just that an objective look at the facts seems to indicate that we are very far down on the evolutionary ladder (if there is such a thing) when it comes to stuff that really matters, like love and empathy.

So if evil can’t be so easily explained away, where does it come from? Well, I’m way above my self-imposed 500 word per blog limit, so I’ll save that for another post. Or you tell me. Thanks for visiting.

About Rob

Born in Southern California, Rob Schneider migrated to Australia in 1985. He is currently living in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he works as a freelance content writer.
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5 Responses to Of Mice and Men and Empathy

  1. Tess says:

    Outstanding read! Well worth reflecting on. And, of course, one can see the eyes of any animal. They tell their story.

  2. James Walker says:

    The “problem of evil” is traditionally taken to include animal suffering as well as moral evil inflicted by humans on each other. It is only a problem if you believe that the universe was created by God, or has some other higher purpose which is supposed to be “good”. If you take the view of the Vedanta (“maya”), some higher forms of Buddhism, and A Course in Miracles, there is no evil except in the imaginations of our minds. And, as Nietzsche pointed out, there is no “good either” (Beyond Good and Evil) and certainly no God either in the traditional sense (“God is dead”). I think along those lines.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks, James. I’m the first to admit that I’m caught up in maya. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be here. I’m not concerned with a higher purpose. I’m concerned with the systematic infliction of suffering on other “illusory” beings. In my illusory world, I see acts of selfishness and anger all the time (and commit them), but they don’t fit into my personal definition of evil. Evil is a bunch of people sitting down and planning a strategy for the destabilisation and destruction of a nation for the sake of profit and power. Someone else said that evil is a human concept. I didn’t really get his point. Saying that evil is a human concept is another human concept, and so it goes. Some things are felt viscerally and are not dependent on words or concepts. Hence a rat knows that helping out his fellow rat is the right thing to do. Even Darwin saw the survival benefit of that, so God is not necessary.

      Anyway, I get your point and thanks again.

    • Rob says:

      Actually, James, your reply was more helpful than I realised at the time. If I was a rat, I imagine I would go about my business instinctively. Whether or not I was conscious on a “higher” level is beside the point. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time getting caught up in the illusion that my thoughts about good and evil had any bearing on doing the right thing.

  3. Pingback: What is Evil? What is Good? | A Cookbook of Consciousness

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