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The Empathy of Rats, Again

The Empathy of Rats, Again June 30, 2021

Hi! While my blog editor is still on the fritz, I wanted to draw attention to this fascinating story about empathy in animals. A lot of folks still don’t realize that animals can do quite a few of the things we used to think only humans can do. Empathy is one trait I’ve heard those folks reach for as a human-only trait. Today, let me show you how they’re wrong: rats can, indeed, display the quality of empathy toward other rats.

Sweet rat friend!
No rage detected.

(I can’t underline links like usual. So going forward, the only time you’ll see bolding used here will be the auto-formatted links. They’ll open in new windows like usual. Oh, the things we do for love.)

The Law of Unjust Comparisons Strikes Again.

It doesn’t matter what we use as a comparison for some stuff. In these cases, we’ll be doing the comparison dirty somehow. I could compare some incredibly toxic Christian to a dung beetle, and I just know someone reading will go: Wait just a dadgum minute! Dung beetles aren’t bad! They fulfill an important role in the yadda yadda bing bong, so how dare you…

Well, rats are, unfortunately, one of the creatures often facing unjust comparisons. I’ve never gotten why people do that. Being a proud member of Generation X, I cut my teeth on that one 1982 animated movie with the rats, Secret of NIMH.

(Raise your hand if you totally crushed on Justin. It’s okay. Nobody can see.)

When a relative of mine let her kid get a pet rat some years ago (wayyy before Ratatouille made it okay), I was the only person she knew who applauded the move. All her friends criticized her for it. But that rat was a great companion for the child for years. As everyone who has ever tangled with pet rats could have guessed, her pet turned out to be ferociously intelligent and endearingly sweet and friendly.

So today’s story doesn’t surprise me at all. 

The Empathy of Rats, Again.

We’ve known for a while that rats show empathy. This ain’t new, baby. In fact, the image making the rounds on Imgur right now isn’t new at all. Here it is:

An empathetic rat
Click to embiggen.

It directly quotes and cites a 2011 story from Washington Post called “A new model of empathy: The rat.”

You can search Google Scholar and find all kinds of similar experiments and studies. They call this exact kind of experiment “release.” Their research confirms, over and over again, that yes: rats habitually display the quality of empathy toward each other.

Yes Yes, But What Does It Look Like: Rats and Toxic Christians Edition.

I’m not sure if toxic Christians still do this, but a few years ago they had this one question they were sure was a slam-dunk zinger:

Yes, well, but lots of invisible things really exist! You believe in LOVE, don’t you? So there’s one invisible thing you believe in! So my god could totally really exist too! Checkmate! Hooray Team Jesus! 

I suspect this zinger fell out of fashion because love isn’t invisible at all.

When someone feels love for something or someone, they show it in a lot of different ways. Only in the scary authoritarian world of toxic Christianity do people constantly claim to feel love without showing a single outward sign of it. Worse, what they do show and label as loving behavior looks exactly like hate and cruelty to anybody outside their dysfunctional group. They have no idea even how to gauge most emotional states — such as submission to divine authority.

Empathy works along similar lines. We can’t ask rats how they feel or what they’re thinking. What we can do instead is define some objective signs of emotional states and cognitive processes, then see if rats display these signs in their behavior.

And they do.

I don’t expect those sorts of Christians to learn anything from rats, but they’d only increase their own credibility as a group if they would. When rats outdo them as decent human beings, it’s time to take notice.

NEXT UP: I hope, I hope, I hope my tech issues are fixed soon. See you tomorrow, when we’ll hopefully be getting back on track.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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