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Empathy Is For the Birds 201

grrlscientist writes "Common Ravens have been shown to express empathy towards a 'friend' or relative when they are distressed after an aggressive conflict — just like humans and chimpanzees do. But birds are very distant evolutionary relatives of Great Apes, so what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?"
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Empathy Is For the Birds

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  • by Darkness404 ( 1287218 ) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:41PM (#32752676)
    I wasn't saying that, I was saying that if you observe something for a long enough time, you will start seeing anything that you want to believe.
  • by morkk ( 42729 ) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:42PM (#32752682) Homepage

    Humans have consistently underestimated the intelligence of higher animals except for one species whose intelligence has been consistently overestimated.

  • Re:So? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kenoli ( 934612 ) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:44PM (#32752702)
    Perhaps labeling empathy an advanced behavior is erroneous.
  • by Psaakyrn ( 838406 ) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:38PM (#32752988)

    "For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons."

  • what elevates humankind over other animals is not grey matter, it's our vocal dexterity

    take any of us, and remove our ability to talk or write, and we're pretty much a little smarter than your average raven or dolphin: we're isolated islands of thought. so we may get glimmers of brilliance now and then, but it fades, and is trapped in our skulls, and dies with us

    or, give ravens and dolphins the ability to take the more complicated ideas in their heads, and share it with others with language, and this launches them to levels comparable with humanity in terms of what they can think. because now they build on each other's ideas, and nothing is forgotten: its passed and shared around, and babies are born in this sea of wisdom and thought, to build upon even more

    thoughts don't matter. the ability to COMMUNICATE thoughts matters. that's what puts humanity in a genuine level orders of magnitude over other creatures on this planet

    and when mankind developed writing? forget about it, game over, humanity vaults into the stratosphere (literally, around 1950, because of what writing makes possible). now, in fact, these silly biological shells hardly matter anymore. memetic evolution, the retention and sharing of ideas over generations, becomes the real story of change on this planet, and genetic evolution takes a back seat in terms of importance

    eventually, the memes will shed these silly biological shells entirely, and shape the world and other worlds completely of its own volition. but it was us silly apes that gave birth to it, whatever it will be, memetically driven idea machine. and don't forget who your father is! you damn future godlike machine thingy

  • Re:Raven... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:47PM (#32753030) Homepage Journal

    Or it's just a matter of convergent evolution. There's no reason that the "underlying mechanisms" (which, of course, we're a long way from figuring out) couldn't have evolved twice, or more. Empathy seems to me like a survival trait in social animals. Although I hold out hope for AI over the long term, I think it's a dangerous assumption that the mechanisms are so simple we'll be able to simulate them with modern hardware.

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @12:40AM (#32753320) Journal
    Not to be contrary, but what does empathy have to do with intelligence?
  • by masmullin ( 1479239 ) <> on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:06AM (#32753448)

    after careful analysis of your statement over a period of 3 hours, I understand that you are telling me next weeks lottery numbers.

  • by incubbus13 ( 1631009 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:24AM (#32753524)

    Actually, I wrote a report about this for an Anthro class once. The advantage of "modern" humans, over homo erectus was "organization". Homo Erectus had a (20%) bigger brain (for whatever that means), massed ~20kg more than the average modern human, and was generally better established in the area.

    Cro-Magnon man gathered resources and brought them to a central location, while Neanderthal went to the resources and used them there. Whether Erectus was wiped out, assimilated, or whatever, obviously organization requires communication, and it provided enough of an evolutionary advantage that Neanderthal lost.


  • implication (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Onymous Coward ( 97719 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:28AM (#32753542) Homepage

    what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?

    Empathy contributes to population fitness?

  • by Psaakyrn ( 838406 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:43AM (#32753626)

    I never implied I know the solution, only that there is a problem, which is this bias you mention here. It still remains important that we recognize that we may be wrong due to this bias, that we might not be all that we think we are..

  • Re:Raven... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jd ( 1658 ) <> on Thursday July 01, 2010 @03:15AM (#32753912) Homepage Journal

    I am extremely suspicious of "convergent evolution" in cases where there are multiple ways to perform the same general task. The probability of multiple generations converging rather than diverging should be infinitesimal. Convergent evolution does happen, but even there let's pause for thought. Dolphins and whales are descended from animals that moved back into the oceans. Their methods of controlling depth and pressure are unlike that of any fish. They have flukes, which are analogous to fins but do not operate in the same way and are not used in exactly the same way. It converged to a degree, but since then has run more parallel.

    Do we see parallel evolution in birds and humans? Possibly. It bothers me, though, that the manner of representation is very human-like - so much so that I'm having a hard time calling it a parallel method of doing the same thing. It seems much more like it's the same method of doing the same thing.

    But even if it is parallel, does that matter? OS/X and Linux are parallel lines of evolution in OS', but they both rely on a CPU to provide primitives. Since my argument is that the primitives, the mid-level instruction set necessary to form intelligence, is common, it is immaterial if the implementations were from the same source or evolved wholly independently. They'd still be using the same mid-level instruction set. (In fact, I'm also going to suggest that this is a requirement for "convergent evolution" - that you can't even have parallel implementations if the underlying engines are fundamentally different.)

    Our most advanced imaging tool for the human brain is the 9.4T MRI. Our most advanced imaging tool for animal brains is the 12T MRI. These resolve down to single cells and can be used for both static images and fMRI. There are dozens of ways to perform an MRI to get a static image, too. I counted how many other ways there were to monitor brain activity - I came up with a list of about 30. (I was bored.) It is almost unimaginable that the full range of methods and techniques could not be deployed to produce a complete analysis of just the reptilian portion of the human brain. If I'm correct and intelligence is of common descent, then the most primitive constructs on which all later forms of intelligence rest (convergent or otherwise) MUST be in that part of the brain and nowhere else.

    Again, if I an correct, then only a tiny subset of that brain will be (a) in common across all animals exhibiting high-level intelligence and/or empathy, AND (b) most active when such intelligence/empathy is in use, AND (c) necessary for high-level intelligence to function, AND (d) not be dedicated to autonomous functions required by the rest of the body. This is not the same as a "seat of intelligence/empathy" or a "seat of consciousness", any more than a node in a masterless computer cluster is the seat of all operations, or an ALU is the seat of all computation. It's merely a device that provides the key primitives. The actual "program" lies elsewhere. (And, according to recent studies, probably "everywhere" in the brain.)

    The information from 57 different brain scans (24 MRI + 33 other types of scan) should be plenty of information to seed a Strong AI system, and because we're talking a very tiny number of brain cells (maybe a few thousand to tens of thousands tops) it should be doable on big iron.

    Now we're not going to get HAL 9000 out of this, even if I am right. All we're going to get, at best, is a system that is capable of performing a set of very basic operations that can be called Intelligence-complete (in the same way as a Turing Machine performs a few basic operations that equate to anything any digital computer could ever do, no matter how advanced or how programmed). There should be no mental task performable by humans (or any other animal) that cannot be broken down into an algorithm using solely the Intelligence-complete set of operations.

    If no such set of instructions can be derived, then one or more of the assumptions is incorrect.

  • by White Flame ( 1074973 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @04:34AM (#32754140)

    The best example of this that I've heard is in the story of Helen Keller. Since she didn't learn to communicate until age 7 or so, she could remember what life was like beforehand, describing her early mind as a chaotic mess of strange sensations. It was only after she learned language that she was able to have actual organized thoughts and think conceptually.

  • by CarpetShark ( 865376 ) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @04:51AM (#32754202)

    Not to be contrary, but what does empathy have to do with intelligence?

    Can you seriously not answer this by using a little introspection to examine your own thought processes? Most adults are fully capable of it, if they stop and give it some thought. Empathy is not some magical blackbox in your head that makes you feel what others feel; it's a mental model; a recognition that others are like you; a mapping of their emotions to your reaction to those emotions; an ability to recognise or even assess another's situation and apply that mapping. This all requires some intelligence, although perhaps not as much as we'd like to believe.

  • Re:So? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Will.Woodhull ( 1038600 ) <> on Thursday July 01, 2010 @11:18AM (#32757756) Homepage Journal

    Ah-ha! Mod parent up; that was insightful.

    The biggest breakthroughs in the history of science were not discoveries of new facts but new interpretations of what everybody already knew (but they had it wrong). Like Galileo and the Sun circling the Earth. Newton and centrifugal force.

    Perhaps today's "popular science" has got it wrong, and many of our highly prized traits of human interaction are very basic things we might find across the board in all animals. That would explain a whole bunch of cross-species bonding activities, like people with pets, horses with non-horse travelling companions, bitches nursing kittens, cats nursing puppies. A gorilla who has learned sign language wanting a cat for a pet.

    Of course it would also decrease the perceived difference between Man and all other life forms, and thus make it harder to preserve concepts like Man having the God-given right of dominion over all the beasts, or Man having some intrinsic right to change ecosystems, etc. There is a lot of economics invested in Man being uniquely able to experience compassion, or the suffering that is the flip side of that. Imagine a world where no one could stomach pate de fois gras, or veal cutlets....

The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity -- the rest is overhead for the operating system.