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Could empathy for animals have been an adaptation in the evolution of Homo sapiens?

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In humans, empathy has emotional and cognitive components, both of which are linked to caring and nurturant behaviour. Variations in each of these facets of empathy were likely to have been accessible to natural selection during the evolution of Homo, although the likely details of their respective adaptive values has so far only been considered in the context of intraspecific (human-human) behaviour. We propose that evolutionary psychology may provide a useful additional framework for examining why humans feel empathy for certain animals but not others. Phobias towards noxious animals, such as snakes and spiders, have been explained in terms of gene-culture co-evolution, but the possibility of an analogous 'biophilia' directed towards other animals has received less attention. The redirection of primarily intraspecific nurturant behaviour towards the young of non-human species may be a general human trait since it is practiced in a wide variety of cultures, including hunter-gatherers, and may arise from the merging of natural history and social intelligences that the archaeologist Steven Mithen suggests evolved ∼100,000 years before present (YBP). The visual stimuli that evoke such nurturant behaviour, Lorenz's 'Kindschenschema', or 'cuteness', have been compared with the super-stimuli whereby parasitic cuckoos induce caregiving from their hosts, but recent evidence suggests that human females of childbearing age are especially sensitised to respond most strongly to characteristics of human infants, and may correspondingly become less attracted towards 'cute' animals. It is also possible that during human prehistory, the ability to care for young animals was selected for, in adolescent females, as an honest indicator of future quality as a mother. An ability to empathise with animals may also have given certain individuals and/or groups of kin an evolutionary advantage in hunting, and subsequently herding and domesticating, animals. Concern for animal welfare may therefore stem from an evolved human trait, even though its degree and extent of expression are undoubtedly strongly influenced by culture.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 May 2010

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