In “Your inner rat” (The Best Schools, December 12, 2011), Jame Barham writes about the study that claims rats show empathy, pointing out,
In the 1960s, there was an explosion of books by zoologists, ethologists, and science popularizers like Robert Ardrey (African Genesis, 1961), Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, 1966), and Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, 1967), which purported to find the reason why we are such a violent species in our primate ancestry.
And now, in a brand-new study in Science magazine, a team of neuroscientists and experimental psychologists at the University of Chicago inform us that we’ve had rats all wrong all this time.(2) It turns out our inner rat is our good side!
The fact is, popular culture needs rats to show empathy just now, so they do. One wonders what the judgment will be on the many dumpster rats who didn’t show empathy when last noticed? Are they morally culpable?
This popular need is undisguised, in news stories proclaiming
“I would suggest that helping is what we are biologically programmed to do. You have to suppress that biological tendency to not help. If we owned up to our biological inheritance a little bit more than we do, we would be better off.”
Fact is, however it may be with rats, the universal human experience is that empathy – as a general, not occasional, practice – must be learned.
The payoff for popular culture in ignoring this fact is that we get out of having to practice virtues if they are supposedly hard wired. We praise ourselves when we give in to sentimentality and forgive ourselves when we don’t feel like it (“Just not owning up to my biology today, I guess …). But we can still judge others harshly for failing in virtues because they are rebelling against their wiring, … for example when they are refusing to indulge in a currently fashionable sentimentality.
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