Researchers at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan have been investigating whether rats are helpful to one another in times of trouble, and to what extent it might be said that they possess powers of empathy. To that end, they performed a series of experiments with rats in cages separated by a door that the rats could learn to open with their paws. They demonstrated that, in ordinary circumstances, a rat would not open the door to enable entry for another rat in the separate area of the cage. However, if the other rat were in distress—specifically by virtue of struggling in a pool of water—the rat in the dry area would tend to figure out how to open the door and allow that distressed rat inside to safety.
Further, in continued experiments, it was found that rats who had already themselves experienced being soaked in the pool of water were quicker to come to the aid of another rat in that situation by opening the door.
And maybe the most surprising result of all was this: Given the choice between opening a door with chocolate behind it or opening the door to rescue a wet rat, the rodents on balance showed a decided preference for first opening the door that would allow the distressed rat to come in (and ultimately share the chocolate).
So, firstly, isn’t it funny how the thought of these rats lending a helping paw to one another makes them seem so much more sympathetic, as creatures? And it is by exactly the same measure, I think, that it makes scientists who perform water torture on rats less sympathetic. (Would you trust such a scientist to pull you out of the deep end of a pool? Or just stand there watching and taking notes?)
Now, those who need to reduce everything in the biological world to natural selection and the “survival of the fittest” will be quick to explain why being helpful to other rats in these kind of situations makes it more likely that the helpful rat will survive and bear offspring. Maybe “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the calculus that ultimately pays off in the, er, vermin community. And then there’s the old line: “Be nice to [rats] on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.” And maybe it is so, that somehow being more inclined to save a drowning rat will result in your having more (equally helpful) rat children yourself some day.
However, I just prefer to think of it as evidence, if needed (and often it’s badly needed) that there is built in to Creation an impulse towards kindness and compassion. It’s not the impulse that always wins out, in the animal kingdom or the human world, but it’s there; in fact it has been there from the beginning and it is what keeps arising and preventing nature from utterly consuming itself in an orgy of pure selfishness and greed.