Pain Is Relative, But Fishes Feel It

Armchair philosophers and ethologists are much to be feared. In Scientia Salon, Brian Key, a Professor of Developmental Neurobiology in the School of Biomedical Sciences, Head of the Brain Growth and Regeneration Lab, University of Queensland, argued “Why fish (likely) don’t feel pain”.

I will retort that Brian’s thoughts flow from fishy philosophy.

The author uses neuro-anatomy to over-rule ethology. Instead I will start from ethology, starring some actors of the wilderness:

Very Long Horns, And Very Smart Brain

Very Long Horns, And Very Smart Brain

He starts poorly, by demonstrating wolves are not (likely) smart. Says he:

“Resisting anthropomorphic tendencies:

Grey wolves hunt as a pack. They carefully select their prey, and then perform a series of highly coordinated maneuvers as a team, in order to corral their target. Initially, each wolf maintains a safe working distance from other members of the pack as well as from their prey. They are relentless and seemingly strategic with an overall goal of driving the agitated prey towards one wolf. A cohesive group mentality emerges that portrays logic, intelligence and a willingness to achieve a common goal. Eventually one wolf comes close enough to lock its jaws on a rear leg of the prey, before wrestling it to the ground. The rest of the pack converges to share in the kill. There appears a purpose to their collective behavior that ensures a successful outcome.

But is everything as it seems? A team of international scientists from Spain and the U.S.A. has simulated the behavior of a hunting pack of wolves using very simple rules

Their computer models do not rely on high-level cognitive skills or sophisticated intra-pack social communication. The complex spatial dynamics of the hunting group emerges by having the computer-generated wolves obey simple inter-wolf and wolf-prey attractive/repulsive rules.”

This is, simply said, dumb.

Assuming animals are computer programs may work for humans, but it does not resist careful examination in the wild. I have seen snakes being smart.

Once, by accident, I prevented a very large wolf to kill his prey (long story). The wolf could have jumped on me. He was three meters away. It was sunset, high above timberline in the Alps, kilometers from the first road, hours away walking (I was running, of course).

We looked at each other. I could read the yellow eyes of the wolf, he looked as intelligent as a monkey (not at all dull and agitated like a dog would have been in such circumstances). His eyes were saying: ‘What is a human being doing up here at this hour? What the hell! What is this world coming to? And now what?’

His purported dinner, a chamois, had passed at a high clip, within centimeters of me, going the other way.

It was a magnificent animal, all red, long hair all standing up, with face at least twice wider than a large dog. He was neither panicked nor upset, once the initial surprise was passed. He did not threaten me, and went his way (now the opposite of his initial way).

Anybody who has interacted with fishes know that they behave as if they experienced pain. Another objection: (some) fishes can act in a very clever way. Pain is a big help for intelligence. It’s a more economical hypothesis. Consider:

Anti-anthropomorphism sounds scientific, but it is actually a contrived hypothesis, insisting, with the Bible, that man is special. Instead of just an animal.

Once I was in an African National Park. I saw a large antelope (Hypotragus Equinuus), obviously in a panic, dash down a twenty foot embankment, on the other side of a wide river. He landed on the 200 foot wide beach, separated from the river itself by dunes… A large lioness followed down the embankment. Then the lioness took a hard left, from my perspective, instead of following her prey, she went ninety degrees! She went full speed for 400 meters or so, and then angled through the field of dunes, along the river, which was much wider there. Meanwhile the antelope, seeing the lioness was not in hot pursuit, had slowed down. But he was confronted to a new problem: a wide river, full of crocodiles.

From my vantage point, I could see at least a hundred trunks floating in the river, each one a croc. The antelope trotted upstream, knowing full well that to swim across meant certain death. Soon it saw the solution in the distance: shallow rapids. He accelerated. By then the lioness was in ambush near the top of the large last dune dominating the narrows.

The antelope arrived at a very brisk pace, scanning ahead to figure out the optimal point. He was obviously doing some fast thinking on the hoof. The lioness was crouched, observing just saw within the grass hidden by the very top of the dune, which she had craftily put between herself and the direction she knew her prey would come from.

I screamed.

The two beasts sprang into action. The antelope understood that there was an ambush, and bounded in an enormous effort, taking a dangerous short-cut. At the same time, realizing apes were foiling her plan, as apes tend to do, the lioness also charged.

She missed.

The antelope climbed on our side of the river, still pursued by the lioness, who took the time to throw us a very dirty look.

This was not my only encounter with very clever wild animals.

I have encountered lions many times. Lions in good standing resist hunting instinct and pangs of hunger, and don’t attack human beings.

Once I was diving as a child in Africa, spear in hand. I caught a lobster. However the critter screamed in such a heart breaking fashion, I did not renew the experience. Another time, I had caught an octopus, and, although mostly dead and hopeless, it made a point to bite me in protest. Yes, it was clearly a protest, because the creature looked dead, and I was inflicting pain at it, at that particular point. (Meanwhile experiences with octopuses have shown that they are extremely clever, and perfectly capable of the sort of reasoning I imputed them; as a species they are limited with very short lifespans and no possibility to transmit culture.)

So animals have feelings and emotions. If we directly interact with them, it’s blatant.

Brian Key uses poor ethology: he claims fishes fight when hooked in a way that show they don’t feel pain. Whereas trapped bears do (because they stop fighting after a while, when trapped). Actually fishes stop fighting after a while.

Then Brian proceeds to say that sometimes human beings don’t feel pain. Once again, anybody who has lived in the wild knows this is true.

Once a famous solo sailor got his foot torn off. He kept doing what he needed to do to stabilize the situation on his boat that had caused him to lose his foot. He stopped the blood loss. He called for rescue. He secured his boat. Once rescue arrived, he felt the pain.

Anybody who has been outside, broke ribs, arms, lost lots of skin, got injected a lot of painful venom, got burned third degree (all of those personal experiences) knows well that pain is felt only when it is advantageous, or safe, to do so. Bleeding experienced rock climbers will calmly exert maximal pressure on the rock, even when they have no more skin, just where they have no more skin… And barely feel it.

Pain is a relative thing, and evolution has gifted us with strong overrides (for example endorphins).

A fortiori so it is, with fishes.

Patrice Ayme’


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15 Responses to “Pain Is Relative, But Fishes Feel It”

  1. Robin Herbert Says:

    Robin Herbert

    February 5, 2015 • 6:37 pm

    Patrice I agree with some of what you say, but I doubt that you could really say that the octopus bite was in protest. How does an octopus know that the situation is hopeless?

    But with your story of the lion and the antelope, yes, how could that not be described as reasoning, tactics, panic, frustration etc?

    I have seen behaviour which seem to be reasoning and emotion. We have a large basin outside our back window sitting in a wooden stand and the birds come to drink and bathe. When it was becoming empty and the birds could no longer scoop up water I saw a cockatoo lift up the edge of the basin so that it sat at an angle in the stand and it could drink again. I cannot see this as anything other than geometric reasoning and a basic understanding of how water behaves.

    I recall in my youth that our friends had a dog and she used to have the most heartbreaking expression when she thought that the family were going out of the house without her. When she was told to come she bounded in with a happy expression. I cannot see that this can be seen as anything other than that she was sad to be left out and happy to be included. At least that appears to be the most parsimonious explanation.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Robin: I added a significant detail on the octopus. It was clearly a last act. It required a special effort whose emotional motivation was of a moral character, as it had no survival value whatsoever.

      I agree with all your remarks. I have seen birds indulge in very smart behavior. Including the hummingbirds I feed.

  2. SocraticGadfly Says:

    February 5, 2015 • 7:16 pm

    Patrice: “As if” behavior is no guarantor of something. And, per Patrice in general, I turn a very skeptical eye at projecting intellectual as well as emotional attributes on creatures without warrant. I doubt that antelopes “understand” anything when being pursued by prey animals, or “knew” in a non-instinctual, consciously calculated way, that it was “certain death” to cross. I also, on the emotional side, question that the lion had a “dirty look.”

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      SG: I have had dogs, horses, cats, parrots, and various birds. And even an African squirrel. I have had as much indications of intelligence, and sometimes more, than in human beings I came across. I did not say that I had as much indication of as much intelligence, but sometimes, I had indications of extreme intelligence, and plotting capability, on the part of parrots.
      Parrots don’t have cortexes.

      I know a very dirty look when I see one. I actually operated a prompt retreat from my perch, as I got seriously worried that the lioness come around to get even.

      The question here is what does it mean to “understand”, and to “know”. Once again, those familiar with clever animals know very well that they are capable of “knowing”, and “understanding”. Border Collies have been scientifically documented to be able to learn hundreds of words, in several languages. A wild eagle can be taught to land on a hang glider, or to kill a wolf for its human companion…

      • Paul Handover Says:

        The intelligence of dogs, both emotional and rational, is certain. It varies, of course. Just as with the species homo sapiens. But the ways that our dogs, granted not all them, respond to the feelings and emotions of Jean and me never fails to amaze me.

        For instance, about a week ago we were watching a very sad programme that caused me to openly weep. Our dog Hazel was asleep next to me, her head across my left thigh. On sensing me crying Hazel sat up on her haunches and gently licked the tears from my left cheek.

  3. John Rogers Says:

    Thank you. Very nice.

    It seems to me that the anthropomorphic superiority crowd (cough, cough, Bible) always seem to overlook or ignore the eerie similarities between us and the dumb (non-speaking) animals. To mention only one – they shit, we shit. I dunno, common evolutionary origin you think?

    Anyway there’s always my favorite story from parrot fancier Sally Blanchard:

    “Several years ago, Bongo Marie’s cage was right next to the dining room table and Paco’s cage was right near the door. I was fixing dinner and had just taken a Cornish game hen out of the oven and was poised to carve a piece of the breast meat. Bongo Marie slid down the side of her cage and eyed my dinner quizzically. I often gave her tidbits of what I was cooking, so this was not unusual behavior. What came next is what was so funny! Suddenly, she threw her head up and in a frantic questioning voice exclaimed, “OH NO, PACO!?!?!” After I stopped laughing, I explained to her that the bird on the platter was not Paco, “Look Bongo Marie – that’s not Paco. Paco is right over there.” She looked towards Paco and in a very indignant voice said, “oh no,” as if she was disappointed. Then she laughed hysterically with her very maniacal laugh as if to let me know she had been joking all of the time! ”

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks John! Totally hilarious story. As I told it to a lady, she started to cry when she heard the first part. Parrots can, and do make plenty of jokes, they are very playful.
      BTW, they have no cortex…

  4. dominique deux Says:

    Denying fish pain is daft. Any animal endowed with mobility also has (and needs) alarm signals to tell it that its environment (external or internal, such as being sick) is nefarious and it has to do something about it – quick. Pain goes along with mobility as a package, including in less complex animals such as worms (even non-mobile animals such as oysters exhibit it, a possible relic from a mobile ancestry or their recent experience as mobile larvae). That pain is not always expressed by screaming or cussing does not mean it is not there.

    I cannot understand that guy’s need to deny fish pain, unless he’s a soft-hearted fisher, or a closet creationist.

    On the other hand, too much anthropomophizing is misleading. Many attacked animals will bite, sting or slash out in their last throes. Granted, it is of no use to them individually, but the survival benefit to their species – keeping the predator cautious – may be enough to justify this behavior on evolutionary grounds. There is no need to see a “protest”.

    (in addition, even in mammals I don’t see much “protest”, even though animal intra- and inter-species communication includes warning, threat, submission and bonding. Protest is founded on a sense of unfairness, which needs an advanced, ethical mindset, such as found in some primates.)

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Dominique: Well the lab head down-under, Brian Key, full of titles and functions, makes a distinction between “pain” and “noxious stimulus” (link to Scientia Salon was provided)… I did not read his essay in great detail, because I was outraged by his axiomatics (wolves don’t think, fishes fight the hook, so don’t feel pain, and other daft axioms).
      He implicitly said one needed a cortex (birds don’t have them)…

      One thing I know about lions in the wild is that psychology is everything. They don’t like to be humiliated. At the same time, if they perceive weakness…

      SOCIOLOGICAL Fairness is ethologically established in primates. But experiments have not been made in other species. Horses have a sense of fairness on an individual level. Any cavalier knows this.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I will come back on the protest thing in today’s essay. Are not humans protesting for similar reasons? Dying standing up, fighting to death for ethics?

  5. gmax Says:

    Some folks love to torture animals, so they attribute no feelings to them, naturally.

  6. randomuser2349 Says:

    I don’t get where you got the idea that Brian Key said that wolves aren’t smart. All he said was that the pack behaviour between grey wolves in question did not require high cognitive capacity. You are jumping to conclusions.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Agreed. A method much used in rhetoric nowadays is to say two things, one horrible, the other complimentary. This way, one has plausible deniability. That’s what Brian Key did. I see this method all over, from Putin to the Multiverse. I am not cooperating.

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