Thursday, 5 April 2012

Of Rats and Men

Be careful calling somebody a ‘rat bag’ or a ‘dirty rat’ as recent research shows that rats are not only kind and generous creatures, but they also have a sense of empathy often not shared by their human equivalents. In experiments done on rats, scientists discover that these rodents would display signs of distress when they see their fellow rats trapped and would go to great lengths to try and free them. Not only that, given the choice of gobbling a tasty chocolate treat over mounting a rescue, these much-maligned creatures ‘frequently chose to complete the rescue before tucking in and sharing their chocolate stash with their companion.’ How about that for courage, comradeship and selflessness?

As these behaviours are not taught, it can only mean that they are inherent and instinctive in these animals. To quote the news article on the Daily Mail, ‘The research team said that acting out of empathy is clearly not unique to humans – and suggested we might be able to learn a thing or two from the humble rat. Professor Mason said: 'When we act without empathy, we are acting against our biological inheritance. 'If humans would listen and act on their biological inheritance more often, we' d be better off.'

I find this interesting because empathising in a fellow creature that is in distress, actively going out of the way to relieve that distress and showing a willingness to share with others is not merely a simple display of empathy, of being able to put oneself in another’s shoes, but it is the very basis of collective ethical behaviour that until now we regard as unique to humans as moral and thinking creatures.

A lot of the time however, we don’t act in a kind, generous and selfless way. If anything, it’s the opposite, we don’t empathise and we are not willing to share. We act in a selfish, corrupt and insensitive manner. And when we do this, we excuse ourselves by saying, ‘I’m only human.’

And yet, if the ability to empathise and to be ethical (i.e. putting the needs of others first before one’s own selfish interests) is, as the Professor says, a biological inheritance, then our claim to being ‘only human’ in instances of lapses in our behaviour need to be looked at. Which part of our ‘humanness’ is not working or being suppressed? Here, we needn’t compare ourselves with a saint, but with a rat.

Let’s say we’re faced with a similar situation, what would we do? We see a friend in trouble. We feel sorry perhaps and really want to help. And yet we don’t know how. It seems so difficult. It’s cold and inhospitable outside. What if we get into the same trouble? Besides, we don’t really know the person that well. May be somebody else will be able to help. So we don’t do anything, although we feel sad and a bit helpless. And then somebody gives us the choice; help the friend first or have a good time eating our favourite food first? Now, we’re really in two minds. May be we have the food first and rescue the friend after. This way we won’t have to share the food with anyone.

The rats in the experiment are not taught how to rescue their trapped fellow creature, but they learn and succeed because something motivates them internally to keep trying even though there is no reward for such behaviour, such as being allowed to play with them. Moreover, the rats choose to mount a rescue first before grabbing and sharing the chocolates with the friend. Self-interest is not a factor in the rat’s behaviour, but their instinct is.

On the other hand, we humans tend to rationalise, analyse and cogitate over things, weighing over the pros and cons and whether something is worthwhile or not. The impulse often being reward rather than moral consideration. Our collective system is more or less designed to curb this selfishness, introducing a ‘civilising’ element in our behaviour. But if the system allows me to be lazy, selfish and corrupt and does not reward me for my virtue and hard work, then chances are my behaviour would display a higher degree of tolerance for corruption and laziness compared to say, a system that punishes this sort of behaviour.

How we create our collective system, however, depends on the mental model of the society we move in, the building blocks of which consist of who we are as human beings. If our rat friends’ mental model is their naturally wired altruism, what are our internal drivers? In the book I’m reading ‘Who Am I? And if so, how many’ by Richard David Precht, it explores the different layers within us that make up who we are and how we think. A human being is complicated creature with different internal drivers often working in conflict with each other; a complexity that has given rise to the world’s great philosophers all trying to understand what life is all about and why.

What ultimately separates us from our rat friends is the fact that we can create our own meaning in our action, think things over and present ourselves with a set of choices to play with. Including the choice to be selfish, greedy and corrupt. Choices that the naturally moral rat don’t have.

Indeed, as the Professor says, there’s much we can learn from our rat friends in being kind, sensitive, generous and courageous. All we have to do is to be a little less of a thinking human being and to choose to be more like a rat.

(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)

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