Empathy or Communication via DNA?
Originally published in slightly different form on January 3, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.
Conscious Awareness or Hard-Wired Emotions?
A new study, published in the December issue of Science Magazine, suggests that lab rats—who, like dogs, are social animals—may have possibly exhibited evidence of both empathy and altruism.
Let me just say right off the bat that I think the value of this study is somewhat negligible. For one thing, the new science on empathy and altruism tells us that “we’re hard-wired” for such behaviors. Certainly feeling empathy may be an unconscious, hardwired response to another’s suffering. But I don’t think one can act in a truly altruistic fashion without making a conscious choice to do so. Yet if a behavior is hard-wired, then it operates from an unconscious part of the psyche. It can’t be both unconscious and altruistic.
As for this study on rats, Dr. Hal Herzog has done an excellent job of analyzing it from several different angles. Others in the field have said that the study hasn’t really proven anything, and that the conclusions drawn by the researchers aren’t warranted by the data.
In the journal Nature, Daniel Povinelli, of the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana, writes, “This is yet another example of a definitional assault that has the goal of blurring the distinction between cognitive and emotional processes in humans and animals.”
“This ... is not evidence of empathy,” Povinelli continues, “defined as the ability to mentally put oneself into another being’s emotional shoes.”
In an online discussion, neurobiologists J. David Jentsch and Dario Ringach—both from the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA—offered several alternative interpretations of the data, which don’t require that the rats exhibited empathy or behaved in an altruistic manner.
Evolutionary psychiatrist, Jaak Panksepp—writing in the same edition of Science Magazine that published the rat-empathy paper—points out, “It is unclear whether the rats sympathize with the distress of their cage-mates, or simply feel better as they alleviate the perceived distress of others.”
Panksepp goes on, “It may be that empathic coordination of social motivations is mediated by emotional resonances among nearby animals, allowing receivers to experience the emotions of transmitters. At such deep affective levels, emotional states may reverberate among animals, with no need for learned representations.”
Transmitters and Receivers, The Secret Life of Plants
I think this idea—emotional states may reverberate among animals, and that animals can be categorized as “transmitters” and “receivers”—gets close to the heart of the matter. Especially since even plants—organisms with no nervous system, and apparently lacking emotions—may have the capacity to sense and respond to the needs of other plants.
A 2009 paper published in the American Journal of Botany shows that some plants share sunlight and soil with their kin, while blocking access to unrelated species.1
Guillermo Murphy and Dr. Susan Dudley of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, measured jewelweed’s (impatiens) responses to two potential cues for competition: a) changes in light quality, and b) the presence of root neighbors. They found that the response of the impatiens plants differed depending on whether the plants grew in proximity with related or non-related plants. They seemed “willing” to share sunlight and soil with their close, genetic kin, but seemed to block non-related plants from accessing either.
Now this is really interesting. If plants can act in an “altruistic” fashion, then their “behavior” can’t possibly be a function of cognition or even emotion.
On a larger scale, where does this urge to “help” those who share our DNA come from? Is there another, simpler form of resonance influencing the behaviors of all organisms? If organisms who share the same DNA reverberate with one another’s emotional states, as Jaak Panksepp suggests, then could similar, non-cognitive, non-affective states exist in plants as well?
If so, how would they operate?
Is Empathy Encoded in DNA?
One possibility is that something must be encoded in the plants’ DNA which communicates a feeling of “relatedness” to plants of the same genus, and non-relatedness to plants that don’t share the exact same genetic code. Call it DNA resonance.
I may be way off, but I think the idea that DNA can communicate, not just with cells in the body, but between related organisms as well, is utterly fascinating. It may also help us explain the mystery of the “The Siege at Druid Creek.” If you don’t know the story, here’s the nutshell version.
Several years ago, the Slough Creek Pack, living in the Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park, grew too large, and began recklessly killing wolves from the neighboring Druid Peak Pack, as well as needlessly killing coyotes and some prey animals that they didn’t need to eat.
They took over the Druid Peak Pack’s territory, and settled in for the winter, with several Slough Creek females whelping litters of wolf pups.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, a mysterious pack of black wolves came into the valley from the north, while the males of the Slough Creek Pack were out hunting. These mystery wolves brazenly entered the dens of the Slough Creek females, where they were nursing their young, and ruthlessly and systematically killed every single Slough Creek pup. Then they camped out, and waited for the Slough Creek males to return.
The mysterious wolves staged a siege, preventing the males from making contact with the females until they were all dead as well.
Once they were done, the black wolves disappeared, just as mysteriously as they had arrived.
Can DNA Communicate on a Macro Level?
So far, scientists haven’t been able to explain why this happened. Something must have motivated those mysterious wolves to do what they did. How did they know that the Slough Creek Pack was disturbing the natural harmony of the valley? Why did killing the pups and letting the mothers die of starvation seem necessary?
I know this may sound far-fetched, but if we look at natural systems as self-contained, bottom-up, self-emergent wholes, not just as a random collection of independent agents—then a different picture might emerge, a picture where DNA might have the capacity to communicate with and influence the behaviors of not just the cells in each individual wolf’s body, but the behaviors of the pack as a whole.
Seen this way, the mysterious black wolves’ behavior was not about altruism toward the Druid Peak Pack, or punishing the wrongdoers in the Slough Creek Pack. It was about maintaining balance within the system. And it may even have been about removing the “defective DNA” of the offending pack from the system as a whole. Why else would they have killed all the Slough Creek pups and forced their mothers to die of starvation?
The question now becomes, how farfetched is the idea that a wolf’s DNA (or a flower’s or a rat’s) can influence behavior that, seen from the outside, is interpreted as empathy and altruism when in fact, the animal’s (or plant’s) DNA is acting in a purely “selfish” manner? 
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
Join Me on Facebook!
Follow Me on Twitter!
Link Up With Linked In!
1) Among close relatives, plants did not increase resource allocation to roots or leaves. Rather, they altered their above ground morphology by increasing stem elongation and branching. This may be an example of the plants cooperating with kin by attempting to acquire needed resources without shading nearby relatives. Yellow jewelweed is found in the understory of forests, where light may be scarce but the soil is usually nutrient-rich. Because light is the limiting factor for plant growth in this environment, a plant competing with its neighbors would be most likely to allocate resources to leaves.
For impatiens plants grown with strangers, the plants increased their resource allocation to their leaves relative to allocation to stems and roots, an indication of a competitive response. By moving their resources into leaves, these plants not only positively affected their own growth by enhancing their ability to acquire a limited resource but also negatively affected their competitors’ growth by shading nearby plants and decreasing the competitor’s light acquisition abilities.
However, these differences in response based on the presence of kin or strangers were only observed in those plants grown with root neighbors, indicating that communication among roots may be necessary for plants to recognize kin. Also, changes in allocation of resources toward roots in response to light quality only occurred in plants grown with root neighbors. This is the first instance where researchers demonstrated that a plant’s response to an above-ground cue is dependent upon the presence of a below-ground cue. This study demonstrates that plants are social organisms. It shows that altruism is possible among plants and that response to both kin and strangers depend on the ecology of the plant species.
Guillermo P. Murphy and Susan A. Dudley, “Kin recognition: Competition and cooperation in Impatiens (Balsaminaceae),” American Journal of Botany 96: 1990-1996 (2009)
2) Going back to the study on empathy in rats, I have another set of questions. If laboratory rats have been bred to be amenable to handling by humans (which I assume is the case), is it possible that, over time, their DNA has changed to the point that their behavior in the laboratory (which should now be designated as their natural habitat) will be markedly different from rats found in sewers, cellars, etc? This seems quite logical to me. Secondly, could the behavior of these “amenable-to-human-handling” rats be influenced by what Panksepp calls emotional resonance (and by extension, genetic resonance), not just with their fellow rats, but with the humans conducting these studies?