It’s not surprising that animals far less complex than we are would display a trait that’s as generous of spirit as empathy, particularly if you decide there’s no spirit involved in it at all. Behaviorists often reduce what we call empathy to a mercantile business known as reciprocal altruism. A favor done today—food offered, shelter given—brings a return favor tomorrow. If a colony of animals practices that give-and-take well, the colony thrives.
But even among animals, there’s something richer going on. One of the first and most poignant observa tions of empathy in nonhumans was made by Russian primatologist Nadia Kohts, who studied nonhuman cog nition in the first half of the 20th century and raised a young chimpanzee in her home. When the chimp would make his way to the roof of the house, ordinary strate gies for bringing him down—calling, scolding, offers of food—would rarely work. But if Kohts sat down and pretended to cry, the chimp would go to her immediately. “He runs around me as if looking for the offender,” she wrote. “He tenderly takes my chin in his palm … as if trying to understand what is happening.” More recent- less gentle—stories of chimp savagery have muddied the animal’s rep for interspecies amity, but a capacity for violence does not preclude a capacity for gentleness too.
Kohts’ reports are not the only ones of their kind. Even cynics went soft at the story of Binta Jua, the gorilla who in 1996 rescued a 3-year-old boy who had tumbled into her zoo enclosure, rocking him gently in her arms and carrying him to a door where trainers could enter and collect him. While it’s impossible to directly measure empathy in animals, in humans it’s another matter. Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Moral Minds, cites a study in which spouses or unmarried couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they were subjected to mild pain. They were always warned before the painful stimulus was administered, and their brains lit up in a characteristic way signaling mild dread. They were then told that they were not going to feel the discomfort but that their partner was. Even when they couldn’t see their partner, the subjects’ brains lit up precisely as if they were about to experience the pain themselves. “This is very much an ‘I feel your pain’ experience,” says Hauser.
The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality research ers study is the trolley dilemma. You’re standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people—all of whom are related to you but not members of your immediate family. There’s a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it ? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose your true love is on the siding. Now the mortal ity score is 5 to 1—but that one is very precious.
Pose these dilemmas to people while they’re undergo ing fM Rl, and the brain scans get messy. Using a switch to divert the train toward an empty track increases activ ity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the place where cool, utilitarian choices are made. Complicate things with the idea of diverting the train toward another per son, and the medial frontal cortex—an area associated with emotion—lights up. As these two regions do battle, we may make irrational decisions. In a recent survey, 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley sce narios said they would not kill an innocent person to save five others-even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death. In this case, morality trumps the arithmetic of mortality.