Saturday, November 13, 2010


That should be
his middle name.

Right now, he's purring away, head resting on my laptop's touch pad, cosied up between me and my technology.  And me?  I'd rather spend an hour retyping his 'edits' than dump this warm mess of contentment off my lap...

So here we sit, smack dab in the middle of a mutual oxytocin-fest.  Is this "love hormone" - the first synthetically synthesized hormone, and the one thought to be involved in emotions as diverse as mother-child bonding and anxiety - driving my creeping affection for the cat and his apparent attachment to me?  Is my current calm, as proposed in both The Compassionate Instinct and Nova's recent episode on dogs, a largely biological process offering me stress reduction while making his basic parasitism seem less, well, parasitic? 

I feel like my feelings for him are genuine.  A sort of mildly maternal approval plus a true appreciation of this particular feline's uniquely doggish disposition and overall good manners. But what about him?  He sure seems to evince a decided predilection for my lap.  Does he like me, or just my body warmth? Possibly he's just angling to ensure that the hand that feeds him keeps on feeding.

And suppose we grant that he's enchanted with me personally.  If he's capable of affection, is he also capable of empathy or compassion or even simple sympathy? 

According to some of the writers in The Compassionate Instinct, apes are, so maybe it's not such a stretch?  Many primates engage in conciliatory behaviors after a fight, and chimps have been known to pat friends' backs seemingly soothingly in times of trouble.  And of course we've all seen Wild Kingdom shots of baboons or gorillas grooming each other fastidiously; some biologists interpret this as purposeful bonding.  But are the groomers feeling anything like affection for the groomees?  Are the back-patters truly empathizing with - or even feeling sympathy for - the pattees?  How can we know when we're seeing human-like emotions expressed and when we're merely projecting?

So the cat returns me to the book. And I'd like to simply accept all the "science" noted there, because I'd like to think that empathy is experienced by all those animals I myself admire or enjoy.  But the initially intriguing animal research referenced in many of the articles keeps getting muddied by some seriously sketchy interpretations and leaps of logic that continually favor the notion that primates, at least, have a "compassionate instinct".  I'm only half-way through the book, and - as I've noted - I'm jumping around from essay to essay, following my fancy, so maybe I've just landed on the less-persuasive articles.  So far, though, I'm not convinced.

Hope springs, and I'll let you know how it all pans out on Monday.


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