The motto below the cat picture, "He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat." seems no longer apt. We have been seriously maligning rats, who apparently show empathetic behavior and even a degree of altruism that was hitherto unsuspected. Or maybe just unnoticed and unstudied.
"The first evidence of empathy-driven helping behavior in rodents has been observed in laboratory rats that repeatedly free companions from a restraint, according to a new study by University of Chicago neuroscientists."
Empathy has been observed and studied in higher primates and large mammals, but while we use lab rats to test out a variety of medical, biological, even cognitive theories, it hadn't been definitively proved that rats would show any further degree of willingness to assist the helpless. At best, a concept called 'emotional contagion', in which individuals mirror the emotional state of others in the vicinity, had been explored.
This NPR interview, with Peggy Mason, one of the lead authors on the new paper, discusses in layman's terms the design of the experiment and what exactly the results imply. One of the most interesting implications is that this sense of empathy not only extended to the rats freeing trapped companions, but also sharing a special food (chocolate chips) with them.
The interviewer, hoping perhaps to end the segment on a light note threw this out.
"PALCA: Well, all I can say is I wouldn't try that experiment on humans because I'm sure they'd leave me trapped. Most of my colleagues would leave me trapped and go for the chocolate and then let me out...."
So rats, have been getting a bad rap, just because of cultural perceptions that see them as 'fleeing a sinking ship' (where else could they flee when the water enters the area that they are in) and hence cowardly. It has just evolved into a popular meme and mindless pejorative, just as we categorize pigs as dirty (they love baths much like other mammals and avians and wouldn't wallow in the mud if they had access to clean water baths.).
But that might be too much to hope for, that just like the word 'gay' is finally losing its pejorative connotations, the terms ' ___ is a rat' or 'a pig' will make their way into history as quaint archaisms. We could be losing the shorthand associations of those usages in an entire body of literature that would no longer invoke a visceral reaction. Imagine x years in the future, when somebody reading 20th century literature stumbles across "He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat." and now has to puzzle out a meaning that would have jumped out at him in earlier times.
However that may turn out, in the context of the horrific fire that trapped and killed over 80 people in Kolkata, India, yesterday, with staff running away from the scene instead of assisting, it seems to me that the worst label humans could attach to such behavior is merely 'human'.