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Self-awareness, Empathy and Evolution

Self-awareness and empathy: Watching you watching me

Self-awareness in humans is an important developmental milestone. It is the point at which an individual, usually at about age 2, develops the ability to identify him/herself objectively. Studies have shown that certain other mammals - chimpanzees, gorillas, bottle-nosed dolphins, and elephants - also have the capacity for self-awareness.

A study recently published by Helmut Prior and his associates of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt has demonstrated that magpies also demonstrate this capacity. This has important implications for evolutionary theory, as mammalian and avian brains are completely different and have developed along different evolutionary lines; it would appear that the capacity for self-awareness has developed twice.

Prior and his colleagues placed a colored dot on the neck of magpies, which they could only see if they looked in a mirror. The premise was that, if the magpies could identify the reflection in the mirror as themselves, they would be inclined to pick at the dot, which they did consistently.

The control for the experiment was a black dot, the color of the birds feathers, placed in the same spot. The birds did not pick at this dot, suggesting that the dot itself was not disturbing to them, but rather that it was the presence of something recognizably foreign promoting the picking behavior.

Self-awareness is an essential component in the development of empathy. It lies at the core of ego-centric awareness, which is the first step in the development of social intelligence. The quality of self-awareness promotes (although it does not always guarantee) the development of ‘other' awareness, which is the "I-Thou" of ethnocentricity.

Prior's work suggests two things. First, the characteristic of self-awareness is not confined to mammals, and secondly, that this characteristic is an evolutionary imperative shared by higher functioning sentient creatures of all genus. Note that magpies, along with crows and ravens, have a considerably larger brains and are demonstrably more intelligent than other avians.

Here's an interesting caveat; if self-awareness, and empathy by association, are evolutionary imperatives shared by higher functioning species, why is it that human beings can exercise a lack of empathy? It is because we choose to do so.

Chimpanzees, gorillas, bottle-nosed dolphins and elephants all demonstrate unbidden and unconditional empathy toward their brethren whenever the situation calls for it. Yes, chimpanzees will hunt (with spears, no less), kill and eat bush babies (another type of monkey), but it is unlikely that we will ever witness the primate equivalent of Darfur, Rwanda or even apartheid.

It would appear, once again, that the very thing that makes us human - free will -- continues to be our greatest obstacle and challenge, even in the face of a force as relentless as evolution.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved