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STUDY: Why Do We Feel Compassion and Empathy For Specific Animals?

To connect emotionally with other organisms would mostly depend on the quantity of external features that can intuitively be perceived as homologous to those of humans.

MARC BEKOFF: A recent paper published in Scientific Reports by Aurélien Miralles, Michel Raymond & Guillaume Lecointre called “Empathy and compassion toward other species decrease with evolutionary divergence time”… provides a detailed evolutionary (ultimate) explanation… why we view different animals differently and make inconsistent choices about how we interact with them and use them. For example, why do some people “unmind” cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other animals who they choose to eat, while they fully recognize that dogs and other companion animals are sentient, feeling beings, who care what happens to themselves?

In fact, they’re all mammals who share the same basic neurophysiology and neural anatomical structures that are important in how they experience the same emotions in similar ways. It’s essential to remember that cows, pigs, and sheep who are unrelentingly tortured on factory farms are no less sentient than companion dogs or cats…

To introduce their essay, Aurélien Miralles and his colleagues begin, “Currently the planet is inhabited by several millions of extremely diversified species. Not all of them arouse emotions of the same nature or intensity in humans. Little is known about the extent of our affective responses toward them and the factors that may explain these differences.”

To learn more about why differences in compassion and empathy exist, the researchers conducted an online survey involving 3509 respondents who had to answer questions about their “empathic perceptions or their compassionate reactions toward an extended photographic sampling of organisms.” Participants viewed 47 animal species including humans, four plants, and one fungi. Of the 3509 raters, 2347 were used in the final sample (1134 for the empathy test and 1213 for the compassion test)…

The results of this novel analysis are pretty straightforward (see Figure 2). Concerning empathy, the correlation between empathy scores and the divergence time separating the animals from humans was strongly negative. Likewise, compassion scores were highly correlated with empathy scores and divergence time (See figure 4). However, the correlation with divergence time was lower for compassion scores when compared with empathy scores, with the compassion scores being more related to a person’s ethical position on nonhuman animals. They stress, however, that the close relationship between the two scores is important…

To conclude, the researchers title their discussion “Empathy, resemblance, and relatedness: The anthropomorphic stimuli hypothesis.” They write: “Based on our results, we here hypothesize that our ability, real or supposed, to connect emotionally with other organisms would mostly depend on the quantity of external features that can intuitively be perceived as homologous to those of humans. The closer a species is to us phylogenetically, the more we would perceive such signals (and treat them as anthropomorphic stimuli), and the more inclined we would be to adopt a human to human-like empathic attitude toward it.”  SOURCE…

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