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The Risks and Rewards of Empathy

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Sometimes being a good scientist requires putting aside your emotions. But what happens when objectivity isn't enough to make sense of a seemingly senseless act of violence? Lulu Miller introduces us to Jeff Lockwood, a professor at the University of Wyoming, who spent a part of his career studying a particularly ferocious set of insects: Gryllacrididae. Or, as Jeff describes them, "crickets on steroids." They have crushingly strong, serrated jaws, and launch all-out attacks on anyone who gets in their way -- whether it's another cricket, or the guy trying to take them out of their cages. Jeff started wondering what their fierceness could tell him about the nature of violence... and that's when the alarm bells went off. Jeff would picture his mentor, Dr. LaFage, lecturing him back in college -- warning him not to slip into a muddled, empathic mood, not to let his emotions sideswipe his objectivity. But then one night, something happened that gave Dr. LaFage's advice a terrible new kind of significance. Tamra Carboni tells us this part of the story, and challenges Jeff's belief that there's a way to understand it.


Produced by:

Lulu Miller

Comments [6]

Lou LaFollette

I do not know if this species is social. I do know that social species, that are placed in a small space together, will become aggressive with one another. A cage is not a normal place to observe an animal's behavior. I suspect the crickets were unhappy being caged and were trying to escape. (This is true of many more animals besides humans so one cannot be accused of being anthropomorphic.) If the entomologists want to observe and study animal behavior they should read the work of the ethologists first. I agree with the comment that the cricket could have been reflexively "licking a wound." It is also possible that the fat smell would attract predators possibly including other crickets and the attempt was defensive in that eliminating the smell was important to avoid predators. I agree that to be empathic with other creatures, when studying them, (and when not studying them) is important to the ability to observe natural behavior. This may have been totally unnatural behavior based upon the stress of the situation.

Apr. 24 2017 02:39 PM

Came in late to this on Sun 23 April 2017, especially as it was a rerun. The story of the slit insect tending her wound surmised that she detected her own leaking fat's scent and had herself some lunch, but this view isn't necessarily correct, nor objective, nor respectful of the animal. Instead, the insect may not have been eating, but in shock and reflexively licking a wound -- oddly akin to a soldier in battle reaching for and staggering ahead with his own blown-off arm. The response might be futile but it's still heartbreaking, and could be understandable in a way that engenders an honest sympathy. Is it really an epic science-fail to feel for a creature undergoing actual, not to mention inadvertent, evisceration? Or could it be mirror-neuronal?

To those who would assert (like the scientist's own late professor-mentor) that seeing it this way is anthropomorphizing -- putting the insect in your own box -- one could counter that a cross-species empathy may still hold sway here. Attending to self injury might be something that evolution gifted humanity, a thing insects too share and have earned, bequeathed to both them and us through the fits and starts of mutation and baked into instinct. It might be more objective to risk empathy with them, seeing them as not separate nor alien (nor even, as the host reacted, with disgust), but as fellow branches of the tree of life, enacting evolution's many simultaneous test-runs, seeing what works and won't, and sending stuff onward.

Being objective here might include removal of the conscious border we tend to place between humans and animals, since we're really not the crowning glory of the tree, but only another leaf on a branch; we're root-deep in the ongoing grand experiment ourselves. Consider putting all of humanity in the insect's box -- rejecting what might be called Sapiens supremacy and rejoining the kingdom of all things living, dying, trying, failing, flailing, flying, making do, and moving on.

We don't yet have a preponderance of evidence for animal consciousness, but there are promising glimmers, and I'd maintain that such evidence just isn't here yet. Science doesn't truck in facts not in evidence, and thank the stars for that, but the folks doing that work are still open to intuition, to accident, to speculation and vision amidst the cloud of unknowing. Einstein saw speeding trains in the black of space, and his resultant work served up relativity, time dilation, and the chirp of black-hole crash blasting waves from way way back onto the grav-sensate violin strings of the lasers of Ligo, plucked by his pluck.

The least we could do is follow his lead. Let's open ourselves back up onto the lineage of the phyla: we and the bug are one, the gut she licks is ours, and it's okay that the pull we feel is true. Show her a lil respect. I'm with her.

Apr. 23 2017 04:26 PM
John from USA

Lulu Miller is really irritating.

Apr. 20 2017 01:44 PM
Honor from Denver

As someone with dermatillomania and dermatophagia, I actually feel quite a bit of kinship with the cricket who consumes his own viscera. Consumption is instinctive and compulsive. I have a distinct sense of self (probably unlike the crickets) and I know it's my own body, but that only increases the impulse. I know other humans don't share this, but it is reassuring to know that my desires are not as aberrant among other creatures.

Aug. 12 2015 06:25 PM
Diana Wheeler

This is a very interesting, thought provoking piece. How do you mentally process something that is too horrible to fit into any mental framework you have? Do you completely ignore intuition and the common bonds between humans and others - both human and animals - in trying to understand? Nice work.

Sep. 03 2013 10:45 AM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from Brooklyn

Ms. Miller produces a segment where Professor Lockwood states that he wants crickets to be crickets, then imprisons and murders them. Neither NPR or Radio Lab's science reporting has ever shown the least bit of empathy for nonhuman animals, this segment regretfully is no different.

Aug. 31 2013 03:50 PM

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