Our Ancestors the Fishes

In his brilliant introduction to the study of animal behaviour, King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz tells how the male jewel fish (one of the numerous family of cichlid fishes) gathers his offspring together for return to their nesting hole at night: “He does not coax them along [as is the mother’s way] but simply inhales them into his roomy mouth, swims to the nest, and blows them into the hollow.” [37] To make this practice possible, the baby fishes have a reflex contraction of the swim-bladder which makes them un-buoyant at the necessary times. On one occasion, Lorenz was feeding some of these fishes in his aquarium later than usual, and the descent of a piece of worm attracted the father cichlid just as he was collecting a truant baby. Impelled equally by hunger and parenthood, the fish took them both into his mouth:

It was a thrilling moment. The fish had in its mouth two different things of which one must go into his stomach and the other into the nest. What would he do? … At that moment I would not have given twopence for the life of that tiny jewel fish. But wonderful what really happened! The fish stood stock still with full cheeks, but did not chew. If ever I have seen a fish think, it was at that moment! [37]

That last sentence is best understood with the word ‘seen’ in italics: for the whole book is about watching and admiring, and learning thereby, without making or inheriting assumptions about what is possible to other life-forms. Not the thinking so much, then, but the seeing it happen, is the excitement. And from that sort of sustained attention, as Julian Huxley says in his introduction to Lorenz’s book, it emerges that “the behaviour of fish … is certainly much more extraordinary than most people have any idea of.”

That in fact is the theme of the recent popular study of fish zoology by Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: the Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016). [I shall come back to Lorenz’s conflicted jewel fish later.] Actually Balcombe’s book is about much more than zoology. Like Lorenz, he insists upon the individual animal. “I felt for that fish” is a typical and (coming at p.5) exemplary statement. The outlook is already there in his title, fixing ‘knowledge’ within the individual rather than in the species or class. And accordingly he uses the word ‘fishes’ for the plural, not the more usual homogenizing collective ‘fish’, “in recognition of the fact that these animals are individuals with personalities and relationships”. (It’s noticeable that the many reviews of the book have conformed to this preference: ‘fishes’ does sometimes sound awkward, but that simply makes the lesson more conscious.) In fact Balcombe distinguishes his book from the “legions of books” about fish biology, ecology, even conservation, to say nothing about the possibly even greater number of books about catching fish (or, to use the miserable ellipsis, ‘fishing’), by presenting What a Fish Knows as a book on behalf of fish” [his italics]. And he dedicates it to “the anonymous trillions”.

That fishes need speaking for is obvious enough. At this early stage of his book, Balcombe merely sketches the frightful depredations to which humans subject them: over a trillion caught for commerce every year; about 47 billion more caught by way of recreation, of which perhaps one third would be killed outright, the rest returned in whatever condition. He leaves the more detailed account to his final chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, coming after the 200 or so intervening pages which have shown the astonishing variety, complexity, sensitivity and beauty of these animals. And the point, again, is not just the wastefulness, ecological havoc, and self-endangering carelessness of this predation, but rather the suffering imposed, because the fishes die as “conscious individuals” and “they do not die nicely”.

The consciousness of fishes, and in particular their ability to feel pain, is still regarded, here and there, as disputable. However, the factuality of it has been well established, at least in the case of one representative species of bony fish (i.e. belonging to the majority order teleosts, the other main order being the cartilaginous fishes or chondrichthyans). The species was the rainbow trout, the subject of a series of studies carried out in Edinburgh University during the first decade of this century, which culminated in Victoria Braithwaite’s book Do Fish Feel Pain? (2010) In fact this book has been cited as “demonstrating that fish feel pain” by the U.K.’s Animals in Science Committee, which advises the government on the welfare of animals in research.

Such studies, however they may advance the interests of fishes in general, themselves involve the killing of many individuals. The extraordinary corpus of knowledge about fish lives and physiology upon which Balcombe bases his book (still only “a tiny fraction of what they know”, he properly reminds us) has mostly been learned in the laboratory or at least in controlled waters with varying degrees of intervention (see, as another example, the study of face-recognition in archer-fish, recounted in this blog at 12 June 2016). Balcombe comments upon this from time to time, often enough unfavourably.

And of course fishes are used in laboratories for purely human interests on a very much larger scale. During the last ten years they have overtaken rats as the second most numerous lab animal in the U.K. , with over 500,000 ‘procedures’ out of the 3.9 million total at the last annual count (2016). At Oxford University, there were 3,106 such procedures in 2007, but 14,737 last year. Among other purposes, fishes are used in order to study genetic abnormalities and infectious diseases, to test drugs and industrial chemicals (infused into their water), and, at Oxford in particular, in cardiac research. The zebra-fish (Danio rerio) is especially preferred, and has been the focus of over 25,000 scientific papers to date, so Jonathan Balcombe says, adding in brackets that “many of these studies are inhumane”.

All this constitutes only a small part of the total trillions, of course, but the two users, science and the food industry, aren’t quite distinct anyway. As with land-animal farming, the research laboratory doesn’t merely serve modern fish-farming; it makes the practice possible. In the chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, Balcombe pays a visit to the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, a research establishment dedicated to that end. In the “main warehouse”, there are about a dozen tanks. The largest of them contains perhaps 5000 young salmon, each one a foot or so in length, “layers of greenish-brown fishes gliding effortlessly in an eternal circle”.

A 2011 report on the subject of fish welfare in laboratories concluded that “There has traditionally been more tolerance of stress, disease, and mortality as an endpoint [a euphemism, I think, for leaving the fish to die of its own accord] in fish research, compared to research using mammals.” It attributes this disparity partly to the influence of “general attitudes to fish in society.” It may well be true that the low existential status allowed to the fish in western culture (perhaps in all cultures) has permitted a corresponding carelessness in the laboratory, and of course it’s this low status that Balcombe hopes to correct with What a Fish Knows. But although he mixes his science with personal anecdotes, most of his evidence does come, as I’ve mentioned, from scientific research. Evidently, then, the knowledge that would justify a higher esteem has been there (supposing that we should require knowledge of any sort in order to justify respect for fellow-lives); notably it’s been there in the universities. But the moral lesson has not been learned from it.

In an article on fish intelligence, the biologist Culum Brown blames this moral obduracy on a false and partisan concept of evolution, persistent even among scientists: “the deep-rooted notion that the evolution of fossil fishvertebrates follows a linear progression from inferior to superior forms, culminating in humans at the apex.” Since the fish is the most ancient of the animals, some 500 million years old, and since all the other vertebrates evolved from “some common fish-like ancestor around 360 million years ago”, therefore fishes are regarded as belonging to a primitive stage of mental and behavioural development, long grown out of by such as ourselves. However, Professor Brown points out that the fishes themselves have not been stationary during that time; they’ve evolved and diversified to meet or create new circumstances. In fact they “reached peak diversity around 15 million years ago”, which is just the time when the Hominidae family were evolving. “Thus most fish species are no more ‘primitive’ than we are.” That’s no doubt why Jonathan Balcombe calls fishes our “cousins”: we share ancestors with them, as contemporaries.

Still, those ancient fish of the Cambrian period are ancestors to us, and as Professor Brown says, “despite apparent differences between fish and humans [and these apparent differences, so conspicuous and yet irrelevant, no doubt account for much of ArcimboldoFourElementsour careless disesteem of them], evolution tends to be highly conservative; thus, many human traits are identical to or derived from our fishlike ancestors.” If we’re not precisely made of fish, as imagined by the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, we were certainly made possible by fishes. This alone, even without all of what Jonathan Balcombe reports of their subtle perceptions, strange and complex life-ways, and beauty of form and colour, should persuade us to honour them, with all the revolution in our behaviour towards them which that would imply.

And in this respect, Lorenz’s story sets a sort of example, even though his fishes were indeed captive ones. We left the jewel fish in a state of indecision, with both food and offspring inside his mouth:

For many seconds the father jewel fish stood riveted and one could almost see how his feelings were working. Then he solved the conflict in a way for which one was bound to feel admiration: he spat out the whole contents of his mouth: the worm fell to the bottom, and the little jewel fish, becoming heavy in the way described above, did the same. Then the father turned resolutely to the worm and ate it up, without haste but all the time with one eye on the child which ‘obediently’ lay on the bottom beneath him. When he had finished, he inhaled the baby and carried it home to its mother.

Some students, who had witnessed the whole scene, started as one man to applaud.

That would have been the highest honour available in the circumstances. Best of all would be to learn about fishes by visiting their own explanatory environments (as indeed Lorenz much preferred to do), and otherwise as far as possible to honour them by leaving them and their waters alone.


Notes and references:

Konrad Lorenz recounts the incident of the jewel fish in King Solomon’s Ring, Methuen and Co., 1952, pp.37-8 (transl. Marjorie Kerr Wilson). Incidentally, Lorenz gives good advice about creating a ‘natural’ aquarium, without for instance the need for artificial aeration, but he’s speaking about locally collected flora and fauna. I doubt that such an environment could be created for the tropical fish, whose use for interior decoration is another wretched instance of the mistreatment of these animals on a very large scale.

What a Fish Knows was first published in 2016 by Scientific American Books. Quotations here are from the 2017 edition, published in the U.K. by Oneworld Publications, pp. 6, 7. 232, and 233.

The Animals in Science Committee references this research at p.51 of its new report Review of Harm Benefit Analysis in the Use of Animals in Research (2017). The quotation is actually from the ‘impact study’ which the Review cites as evidence of beneficial laboratory research: see http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/CaseStudy.aspx?Id=23896

The post about archer-fish, ‘Spitting in their Faces’, is at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/spitting-in-their-faces/

The 2011 report quoted is Guidance on the severity classification of scientific procedures involving fish: report of a Working Group appointed by the Norwegian Consensus-Platform for the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal experiments, published in the Royal Society of Medicine Press journal Laboratory Animals, Oct. 45 (4). This report does advise that the low estimation of fish relative to other animals “should be challenged within a research setting”. It’s accessible online at   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3175571/

The article by Professor Culum Brown is Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics, published in the journal Animal Cognition 18 (2015), pp.1-17, and published online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10071-014-0761-0.pdf  The quotations are from p.3.

The fossilized fishes pictured are Holoptychius flemingii from the Devonian period (i.e. 419 – 358 million years ago, and sometimes called ‘The Age of the Fishes’), as displayed in Oxford University’s Natural History Museum. The painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is ‘Water’, from his Four Elements, dated 1566, from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.







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