Oh, the many and varied animal stereotypes shared by the Western world. We’ve gone so far as to assign them motives and even symbolic emotional states I’m fairly certain the creatures in question have no idea they’re being judged by.
Noble as a lion. Busy as a bee. Treacherous as a snake. Similes like these are so pervasive, so overused, that just putting them in a poem is a great way to get it tossed in the trash by your English professor. But beyond that… the snake is just lying there in the grass, minding its own business, and when it bites you because you step on it, suddenly it’s a malicious plotter? Suddenly it’s offering you apples to get your ass kicked out of Eden? Is it possible we’re projecting a wee bit?
Well, for better or worse, we do have automatic associations in our heads between virtues (or vices) and various denizens of the animal kingdom. And if I asked you to pick the animal that comes to mind when I speak of selfless altruism, of sharing and community, you would of course pick the humble rat.
Okay, neither would I. Calling someone a rat is not a compliment, and usually denotes some form of antisocial character defect on their part. They’re sneaky and cowardly. They’ll run out on you at the first sign of trouble. They’ll betray your most sacred trust to save their own skins. We remember the example of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web, do we not?
“The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunction, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything”
At best, E. B. White wrote Templeton as a creature that assisted others based on a policy of mutual self-interest. A practitioner of farmland realpolitik.
Well, there’s already the evidence that lions aren’t as universally noble as we were reared to believe when we were children. Now, NPR has reported on a study that re-casts rats as a species of much more social merit than their reputations would lead us to believe.
First, we have a condensed version of the experiment’s results, which consisted of confining one rat in a small plexiglass tube (I would say they were trapped like a rat, but there’s that glowering English professor again…) and letting its cagemate react to that situation.
Not only will rats frantically work to free their trapped cage mate; they will do so even when there’s a tempting little pile of chocolate chips nearby, the study reveals. Instead of leaving their pal in the trap and selfishly gobbling the candy all by themselves, rats will free their cage mate and share the chocolate.
That’s definitely a far cry from the expected actions of gluttonous Templetons. But as I read the article, I then came across this paragraph describing the researchers’ reasons for pursuing this line of inquiry:
Mason and her colleagues designed a series of experiments, described in the journal Science, to explore the evolutionary roots of empathy.
They wanted to look at rats because they already knew, from previous work, that rodents can be emotionally affected by the emotions of their cage mates. For example, during lab procedures, mice seem to experience more pain when they see another mouse in pain.
Wait a minute. I’m no member of PETA, but… what “lab procedures” are we talking about here? How did they come by these results? I’m probably interpreting this in the worst way, I realize, but I’m imagining journal entries like “Sept. 7th. Putting unlubricated steel rod up Subject A’s rectum elicits pain response. When subject B’s head was cranked into a vise, its pain response spiked higher so long as it was also allowed to witness subject A
being tortu experiencing lab procedures.”
The height of fucking irony in all this is that this was an experiment designed to try to discover the roots of empathy. Research such as this could, in one researcher’s words:
“…be used to explore the neurobiology of helping behavior and allow scientists to find genes that are involved in empathy.”
I really hope they never find them. Because given this track record, it seems like they’re more interested in getting rid of the pesky things.
So anyhow, rats are nobler, or at least more individualistic, than our historical smear campaign painted them. People, on the other hand, are still apparently hooking animals up to measure important scientific data such as as “it feels pain when I hurt it”, and “it gets more upset when it also sees its mate being tortured”.
I’m glad that, in the face of all that, these rats still find it in their hearts to share the chocolate chips.