Does Empathy Exist In The Animal Kingdom?

Does empathy exist in the animal kingdom?

Many informative portals regarding the animal kingdom sometimes show us heartbreaking behaviors in nature: “a cat tries to wake up its friend after he has been run over.” There we see a feline, apparently distressed, trying to revive with its paws another cat that is lying in the middle of the street.

A tear wells up on our cheeks, and as they say, “sometimes animals have more feelings than humans.” Unfortunately, scientific evidence still does not fully point to confirmation of this sentence. Maybe the cat is really sad, or maybe he is settling his paws on a soft, warm surface to lie down to rest.

Yes. As cruel as it may sound, Not all behaviors in nature respond to an act loaded with feeling and content (What’s more, in almost no case is this the case). A cichlid fish does not seem to defend its offspring from predators with violence out of love: this is an evolutionary mechanism in which the animal’s only interest is to preserve its genes over generations.

Thus, although we are reductionists, biologists are suspicious of the “altruistic” acts of animals and their sentimental displays in many cases. Not because we do not necessarily believe in them, but because, as the principle of parsimony indicates, sometimes the simplest option to explain is the most probable A merely evolutionary motor VS a neurological capacity complicated enough to develop complex emotions. Difficult dilemma, right?

After this very extensive but necessary introduction, we will not delay any longer: Does empathy exist in the animal kingdom? We try to give you the answer.

Does empathy exist in the animal kingdom?: a dilemma that is difficult to answer

Empathy is defined as the ability to perceive, share or infer the feelings and emotions of others, based on the recognition of the other as similar It is a multifactorial ability, since various correlated mechanisms act in conjunction to form it. Thus, we can distinguish two general types of empathy that, when integrated, give rise to the ability in its entirety:

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Emotional empathy: the ability to experience the emotional states of others. Cognitive empathy: the ability to know the mental state of others.

Here there are already two terms that bother us when it comes to nature: emotion and knowledge. While it is true that emotions have been demonstrated in several animal taxa, it is quite difficult for us to argue in favor of a praying mantis being capable of feeling affection.

On the other hand, the concept of knowledge is even more restrictive, since its own definition includes only our species: “Facts or information acquired by a person through experience or education, theoretical or practical understanding of a matter relating to reality.”

Therefore, and in the opinion of the writer, it is necessary to make a clear distinction. We show it to you with two clear examples

If we have a situation in which a lizard sees a companion being eaten by a predator and automatically runs away, are we facing a case of empathy? Not at first, because we doubt that the lizard is capable of putting itself in the skin of its companion, even more so knowing the pain of others. We can hypothesize that it is a purely evolutionary and survival response: in the face of danger I run.

On the other hand, if we have a primate that is carrying a companion with a broken leg, maybe things change, right? Not being a direct descendant, We cannot attribute this behavior absolutely to a mechanism of genetic permanence of the individual.

Furthermore, we can suspect in this case that the primate is capable of thinking the following: “this once happened to me, the pain is unsustainable, my partner needs help.” The difference between this example and the previous one is that here we do integrate and know the situation of others and act accordingly.

First investigations

Enough of speculative land, because of course there are Many investigations with mammals have yielded revealing results regarding the question of whether empathy exists in the animal kingdom.

Going back to 1959, psychologist Russell Church subjected various rats to ethological experiments to quantify their empathic capacity.

In this research, a situation was presented to a rodent in which, by pulling a lever, it received food. Unfortunately, when performing this act another individual experienced an electric shock, and the rat that had triggered the events could see it perfectly.

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To the psychologist’s surprise, the rats ceased their activity as soon as they saw that the shock was applied to a conspecific What sense does this make from a survival point of view? The dominant rat gets food and the other individual of its species is not its child, so it should not care about the suffering of others, right?

This experiment cemented one of the first signs of empathy in the animal kingdom, but it is still not without controversy: does the rat stop pulling the lever out of empathy, or because it is afraid that the shock will happen to it?

Signs of possible empathy in the animal kingdom

Beyond these “primitive” experiments due to the time in which they were carried out, Animal behaviors have been observed that are difficult to explain if not for an empathic motor

For example, several species of cetaceans have been recorded helping their companions surface when they are injured to breathe, a behavior that can only be attributed (even partially) to a certain degree of empathy.

Other similar cases have been recorded in primates in controlled environments. For example, in populations in target cercopithecus reserves, certain behaviors have been observed that seem to indicate that altruism is present. In this specific case, a captive population was presented with the possibility of exchanging tokens for food in a machine. Most individuals learned the mechanism successfully, but one female in particular was not able to understand how the machinery worked.

On three separate occasions over 12 hours, It was recorded how a male took the female’s tokens, inserted them correctly into the machine, and let her access the food Although this type of behavior does not explain empathic behavior in its entirety, it certainly suggests that this ability exists in mammals with more complex brains and nervous systems.

We have other cases of anecdotal nature, such as two records of hippos protecting two impalas (African antelopes) from attacks by crocodiles and wild dogs, even risking their lives to save them from the jaws of predators It is very difficult for a biologist to explain this behavior from an evolutionary point of view, since the hippopotamus obtains absolutely nothing from this act, being the individual saved from another species different from its own.

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Can animals feel empathy?

To the question of whether empathy exists in the animal kingdom, we cannot give a clear answer beyond the following: theoretically it can, proving it 100% irrefutable is more difficult. It has been recorded that empathy requires the action of the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula and prefrontal cortex Therefore, we cannot rule out that animals with these or analogous structures are capable of showing empathic ability.

On the other hand, a relatively recent discovery of “mirror neurons” It makes things even more interesting, since they are a certain type of neurons that are activated when an animal executes an action and when it observes that same action being executed by another individual. This mechanism and physiology has been clearly observed on multiple occasions in primates, so again, everything indicates that empathy in these living beings is present or at least can occur.


As we have already been predicting with the previous lines, we cannot affirm 100% that empathy exists (or not) in the animal kingdom, since intentionality and understanding are two essential factors for this ability, and unfortunately, they cannot be recorded through completely objective parameters in non-human animals.

Even so, species with more developed nervous systems such as some mammals such as rats, primates and cetaceans do seem to indicate to us with their behaviors that empathy is present at least partially and in a limited number of taxa.

Does this mean we can extend the ability throughout the animal kingdom? Unfortunately, no. Perhaps we do not understand the interspecific meanings of the concept, since the term “empathy” has been coined by humans themselves, but it is very difficult to suspect this type of behavior, for example, in groups of invertebrates.