Can Animals Feel Empathy?

Can animals feel empathy? Dr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feelweighs in on this week's Ask Science.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #204

I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Carl Safina, an author who has won many awards including an Orion Award and a MacArthur genius Prize. He is also an endowed professor at Stony Brook University where he serves as the co-chair for the steering committee of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, something we’re pretty big on at Ask Science.

Carl has generously agreed to join me to discuss his most recent book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. This fascinating book follows a family of elephants in a national park in Kenya, a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, and a society of killer whales off the coast of Washington state. The book explores how these animals interact with each other and the emotions they experience including joy, grief, love, and even empathy.

EE: Throughout the book you draw parallels between the emotional experiences of animals and our own human emotions and interactions. Personally, I think a lot these days about how we learn to be empathetic since I’m parenting a toddler and toddlers often behave like little tiny sociopaths. So can animals really feel empathy?

Carl Safina: So I see empathy, sympathy, and compassion all on a sliding scale, and certain animals have all of those things, and many other animals do not, but a lot do—more than you think.

EE: What is the simplest animal that feels something on the scale of empathy or sympathy or compassion?

CS: Not entirely easy to know what the answer to that question is, but it is deeper than birds. It's certainly deeper than mammals, because birds show it; some birds show it well. And maybe even in some reptiles and some fish, although you could say, "Well, that's questionable." Usually it's the ones that are highly social, the ones that always live in groups, and especially the ones where there's a structured group, where there are leaders and follows and individuals who know who other individuals are. That's where you're most likely to see it.

The only emotions I can think of that seem unique to human beings are self-loathing and sadism.                      - Carl Safina

EE: Now we’ve talked a lot about the similarities between our consciousness and that of other animal species, but what makes us different? What stands out about humans?

CS: I think the biggest difference is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. And, in fact, the only emotions I can think of that seem unique to human beings are self-loathing and sadism, where actually knowing in an empathic way that you are causing tremendous pain is a source of pleasure. I don't see those two things—self-loathing and sadism—in any other creatures. I think the biggest difference for us is that we seem vastly more capable of complex language than perhaps any other creature, possibly with the exception of dolphins. But we also have hands. So even if dolphins are capable of conveying extremely complex thoughts to one another, they are not capable of fiddling around with technology the way we can with our primate hands. That's how I see the difference between humans and other animals.

Be sure to check out the full audio interview with Dr. Carl Safina in the top right hand player, or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify (search the mobile app), for a broader discussion of what further sets humans apart from other animals: our ability to act irrationally.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel is available now in paperback from AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBoundPowell's, and Books-a-Million

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.




Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.