Can animals show empathy? A biologist dives into cooperation in the animal kingdom

Social cooperation rules — for the most part — in the animal kingdom.

Biologist Ashley Ward has spent his career fascinated by how animals socialize. Now, in a new book, he’s sharing what he learned about mingling in the animal kingdom with the rest of the world. This knowledge could help us all better understand ourselves and the animals we share the world with.

Ward is a professor and director of the Animal Behavior Lab at the University of Sydney. His new book, The Social Lives of Animals, went on sale on March 1. Inverse spoke with Ward about the recently published work, including the fascinating examples of social cooperation and empathy he found in animal societies and what humans can learn from them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Social cooperation is the backbone of many animal societies, as Ashley Ward reveals in his new book The Social Lives of Animals.Basic Books / Ashley Ward

INVERSE: Scientists like yourself have long studied the social similarities and differences between humans and other primates. What is something that you found interesting about social behavior in non-primate societies?

ASHLEY WARD: One is from an animal that is, arguably, at least as intelligent as primates: humpback whales. We've often characterized humpbacks as being relatively asocial animals, and yet, we now know they learn their songs from one another. Ultimately, all the whales in a particular ocean-based environment are singing the same song, which will evolve and mutate over time. Some observations show the humpbacks will hear the sound of orcas attacking another mammal and will drop what they're doing and charge to the rescue of that animal, which is an incredible thing to do.

Other than complex mammals, there are birds. Larger and medium-sized birds fly in V formations. What we haven't realized is those birds at the apex of the V — ones that are really paying the cost — change positions quite frequently and they give each other a rest so that other birds can take it easy towards the back of the V. And so the leadership changes quite frequently.

Sometimes prey fish will break away from their shoal and approach a predator for a closer look and report back their findings about that predator — whether it represents an immediate danger to the rest of the group. So there are all sorts of examples of cooperation which we've been guilty of underplaying.

Were you surprised by the level of cooperation that you found in animal societies compared to humans?

What I didn't perhaps realize was the breadth of cooperation among animals. So I knew some of the most famous examples, like orcas or apes, but what I think really struck me was how these kinds of social instincts extend to animals that we have traditionally thought of as being relatively uncomplicated.

There’s a long-standing debate about the idea of nature versus nurture — whether genetics or social environment contributes more toward behavior. Did your research on animal societies help clarify the nature versus nurture debate?

We know that there’s a great deal of nurture in the behavior of even animals like cockroaches. If a cockroach is raised in isolation, it lacks the ability to socialize properly. So there's clearly a strong element of nurture there. We know the same is true in fish. We know that fish raised in the absence of other fish become subsequently less able to interact in a meaningful way. So we can't put precise values on nature or nurture, but we know that both are important and we shouldn't underestimate nurture.

Bees can choose to be social or aloof, depending on the situation they are in — a finding discussed in Ward’s new book. Getty

Are certain animal societies more likely to be social than others?

Baboon society really depends on whether you're a male baboon or a female. The males tend to be highly aggressive. And the females tend to be strongly cooperative.

In one particular society I observed, there was a troop of baboons where the more aggressive males went out to forage on a human garbage dump. They caught a disease and regrettably died. That left the more peaceable and cooperative males behind — the ones who weren't the alpha males. The whole culture of that troop changed. This lasted for several generations thereafter. So, these are behaviors that are culturally shaped and transmitted between generations.

I also saw in your book that there was more violence among certain communities of East African chimpanzees compared to West African chimpanzees.

We do get a slightly unusual difference between chimpanzee communities in different parts of Africa. There are all sorts of potential reasons for that to do with resource availability as well as poaching, potentially. Poachers tend to focus on females sometimes because they want to capture young chimpanzees for the illicit live animal trade, which is tragic, but in some parts of Africa, there comes to be a sex ratio imbalance. And that is very often a shortcut to violence.

When do animals benefit from being social and when is this not helpful?

Animals exhibit a particular behavior when that behavior is beneficial for them over time. They’re not simply being social for the benefit of the group, but really for themselves, ultimately.

One of the most fascinating examples is in certain bee species. When there are opportunities to raise multiple broods in a particular year, they tend to be more social. But when conditions are a little harder and there's no chance to raise more than one brood, they tend to go it alone. So they make these relatively flexible decisions about whether to be social or not based on the conditions in which they find themselves.

Culture shapes certain baboon societies in striking ways, leading to reduced violence. Getty

In one chapter, you discuss how a moderate amount of stress can make animals more social. Can you explain this concept in greater detail?

So, this comes from studies of [animal behavioral researcher] John Calhoun on rats, which showed that if animals are hyper-stressed, they tend to be less sociable and less capable of interacting in a positive and constructive way with their peers. But if they're completely relaxed, they’re less likely to be seeking out the social support which is provided by living in groups. So, at the two extremes, we have animals, which, for different reasons, are simply not socially integrated.

Stress is a term we associate with negative connotations. But when I'm about to deliver a lecture, a little bit of stress makes me perform better. Most animals, of course, including ourselves, will experience some degree of stress. When we experience that kind of moderate level of stress, then we're more likely to interact with our peers, with our social group, and with our family for support. If we've had a bad day, we might want to talk to someone about it. So that moderate, day-to-day level of stress tends to promote social interaction simply because of the phenomenon of social buffering, which means that we get support from being in the social group.

Whether non-human animals display empathy is a controversial idea. Did your research shed any light on this?

The problem is that we can't know what's going on in the mind of an animal. So we can't know for certain whether animals display empathy. Nonetheless, there are all kinds of examples that strongly point to the idea that they do display empathy. Take mourning elephants. When one of their [members] dies, you can see that they are visibly distressed about this.

One of the more compelling papers I’ve seen was about rats who were caged in adjoining cages. One of them had a really nice deluxe cage. Its next-door neighbor had a cage that had water in it and that’s it. The rat was wet — not at all happy. Because these two cages are joined, they have a door that links them, which can be opened by the rat on the nice side. When researchers looked at this, they found that the rats in the nice cage would pretty much always open the door to let another in. One thing that lends to the idea that this may be empathy is the fact that rats on the nice side of the cage were more likely to open that door — or at least open it quicker — if they themselves have been suffering. The debate rages on about that, and there's been some fairly serious work on both sides, but it does have the hallmarks of a kind of empathy which we’ve been reluctant to allow to rats.

Can this research teach us anything about empathy in humans?

If you go all the way back to the simplest of animals — things like Antarctic krill or cockroaches — they have this fundamental social drive, which promotes the idea of sticking together in a group. Antarctic krill form into these swarms where they might number in the trillions. We don't necessarily aggregate like that, but those basic fundamental drives are present in some of our most ancient ancestors. I think there we can see all kinds of forms of social behavior which would speak to the evolution of sociality in our species for sure.

John Calhoun’s controversial studies on caged rats may offer a valuable lesson in empathy. Getty

I was struck by the example of the female cuckoo bee, who exploits cooperation to trick other bee species into caring for her offspring. It seems cooperation can benefit some animals and hurt others.

In humans, just as in animals, a pleasant strategy can be invaded by more aggressive, more exploitative patterns of behavior, such as the case of the cuckoo bee. This friendly, altruistic, and supportive strategy can be exploited by more hard-nosed strategies that we might associate with films like The Wolf of Wall Street, where people maximize their own benefits.

But the thing is, those strategies don't tend to win out in the long term — they provide short-term success. There’s a fascinating example of this in chimpanzees where they are given a task where, if they perform a particular action, they get a reward. Chimpanzees could either cooperate or they could try and cheat the system. The chimpanzees were free to pick their own strategy. They swung back and forth between cheating and cooperation. But, gradually, over time, the chimpanzees ultimately opted to cooperate. Although a cheating or malevolent aggressive strategy may be successful in the short term, it's not likely to win out in the long term, certainly in chimpanzees and also in humans. It might work for particular individuals, but not for societies.

In our modern world, we often prioritize individual achievements, but the book highlights how social cooperation can lead to animal societies that are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Do you think this means humans have strayed from our evolution as social beings?

Earlier in my career, I won an award. And the thing that most touched me about that award — the fact that it was provided to me by my peers — was, by far, the most important thing to me. We could be talking about athletes or artists who get there because of the support of the people around them throughout their lives. And so, when they achieve these things, they achieve these things not on their own, but as a pinnacle of a collective effort.

Ward discusses lessons we can take from animal societies about how humans conform to social behavior — such as mask-wearing — during a pandemic.Getty

Can we translate any of the book’s findings on social cooperation with the current pandemic, where it's been challenging to get people to cooperate on behalf of others?

I think there's a tendency to look at people who refuse to wear masks and view them as antisocial and as stepping outside the boundaries of social norms. I don't think it's as simple as that. Even among anti-mask wearers, anti-vaxxers — there's a strong element of social support within their own silo of opinion. One thing that worries me about the burgeoning influence of the internet is that we tend to find the social groups that match our own views. So we enter an echo chamber, and find social support in those systems, potentially to the detriment of the rest of society.

There's an example I gave in the book about some coral reef fish. These fish live in small groups of between six and 20 individuals on little coral heads, and they live in those groups for the whole of their lives. But one of the interesting things one of my Ph.D. students observed was, within those little groups of fish, the fish tended to behave very like one another. There's a lot of social conformity. So each individual that joined the group sort of adopted that same pattern of behavior and started to behave like them. That was an example of what I'm calling this siloing of behavior, where we emulate the behavior of people around us.

The pandemic has shown fractures in society. And it's shown us that we can align ourselves with certain opinions — certain interest groups — in a way that isn't necessarily always good for the cohesion of society. But I do think sometimes we emphasize the points of difference rather than the points which unite us.