Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis
What makes you want to help out a friend in need or a mouse to feel the pain that their peer is experiencing? Neuroscientist Robert M. Sapolsky explores the connection between association and the ability to empathize with or practice compassion towards another being. Unfortunately, he uses numerous examples of both humans and nonhuman animals acting in a reciprocal manner only when the affected party is somewhat identifiable to those around it. For example, a male monkey that is beaten up by an alpha male may receive grooming from his peers, but only if the injured male didn’t antagonize the alpha to begin with. Essentially, according to Sapolsky, what or who we can differentiate and understand as being somehow relatable to our experience, are what we offer our most unconditional, loving feelings towards.
These demarcating tendencies towards the perceived “other” stem from evolved biological responses in the amygdala, that neurological center in the brain responsible for regulating fear and aggression. In a “Natural History of Peace”, Sapolsky explains further by stating that subjects in an experiment who were shown an image of a person from a different race, exhibited signs of an activated amygdala. Their “flight or fight” response was turned on, yet there is a silver lining. “Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.” This same bias unlearning and adaptable association has been shown in animals as well. An experiment on two African baboon species, in which one female from each species subgroup was put into the territory of the other, displayed that both introduced females relinquished their “species-typical behavior” to adopt the behaviors of their new cohorts within an hour.
But what if in the realm of animal rights, we thought about nonhuman animals as individuals instead of large groups? Would that make their sentience, and therefore their suffering, more palpable to us? Does thinking about nonhuman animals as individuals with their own unique tendencies, habits, and capabilities make us more prone to consider them as being worthy in the eyes of our philosophical, social, and legal systems?