The Mirror Test

An article published in August by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, in its online journal bioRXiv, is headed ‘Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test’. The story was picked up in various more popular science publications and in the general media, for this is a much-loved line of research with them – the line in question being clearly announced in the heading which the Daily Mail gave its own account: “Tiny fish is the first to pass the self-awareness test by recognizing its reflection in a mirror.” Or to sum up, in a twitter comment, the sudden claims now being made on behalf of this fish, “Cleaner fish are AWESOME! They show self-awareness.”

The research itself was somewhat less conclusive. Ten of these cleaner wrasse fishes (Labroides dimidiatus) were put into a tank which contained a mirror. At XRF-Labroides_dimidiatusfirst they treated their own reflections as intruders into their territory and acted accordingly. Then, becoming used to the mirror, they behaved in a more improvised manner, apparently testing out the mirror with “idiosyncratic postures and actions”. Finally they seemed to use the mirror more as humans might, showing “self-directed behaviour”. This behaviour most specifically included scraping off marks (hence the ‘mark test’) which had been applied to their skin under anaesthetic and were designed to be undetectable to the fishes except in their own reflections.

The conclusion which the authors reach in their report is that the fishes did indeed show responses of the sort recorded for previously ‘successful’ species, notably chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. Therefore, if those former experiments are to be regarded as having demonstrated self-awareness in the animals concerned, so must these be: cleaner wrasse, then, must be “self-conscious and have a true theory of mind” (i.e. awareness of their own mind and motives, and of those which others may have). However, faced with this ambitious imputation, the authors very reasonably prefer to argue that the test itself is unsound, or at least has been over-interpreted in the past. The test shows, they suggest, no more than an animal’s awareness of its own body (surely a necessity for survival) and the ability to learn that a mirror can enhance this awareness. And indeed other research has shown that pigeons and even ants (please accept the ‘even’ for now) can put a mirror to such use. To claim self-awareness for all these creatures would be to make it an ordinary condition of life – which perhaps it is, but nobody so far does assert this; on the other hand, to claim it for apes and dolphins who ‘pass’ the test, but not for these other less prestigious creatures, would be (I’m delighted to find these scientists saying) “taxonomically chauvinistic” – i.e. speciesist.

The authors of the article end by suggesting that “many more species may be able to pass the test when it is applied in a manner that is sympathetic to their natural biology.” This is surely true, and in fact the ethologists Mark Bekoff and Roberto Gatti have adapted the test for dogs by using the scent of the dogs’ own urine as the ‘reflection’. For of course making it a test of vision, the primary sense for humans but not for every animal, inevitably ties it to what humans do, makes it in fact a set of comparisons with ourselves.

And indeed that is just what it always has been. The hidden or (in more popular versions) expressed question has always been not just ‘How like us is this animal?’ but ‘How nearly as clever as us is this animal?’ Hence the strangely unscientific terminology which has been characteristic of this line of research, and which we’ve already seen instances of. Thus, elephants who seemed to recognize themselves in a mirror, as we were told in the leading professional journal Science a few years ago, “have joined the elite group”. The same journal more recently reported on a similar capacity in some magpies: only two out of the group of birds “passed the test”, but this is apparently “similar to the success rate in chimpanzees.” To sum up: passing the mirror test, so this article says,

is regarded as evidence of knowing who you are – a higher neural skill underlying human abilities such as self-consciousness and self-reflection. Researchers have given the test to a wide variety of species. Most fail.

Fail! It’s a wonder (I know the point has already been made elsewhere in this blog) that these second-string animals manage at all. You’d have to feel sorry for them.

This new research with cleaner wrasse, and its revision of the standard interpretation of such research, ought to help correct the absurd anthropocentrism of the mirror-test tradition, and is accordingly welcome. Even so, it’s sad to see these strange and fascinating animals (already demeaned and abused as decorative fishes for aquaria) emerge into the light of intellectual attention for this irrelevant reason, that they may ‘know who they are’ or at any rate be able to learn how to use a mirror. The beauty and complexity of their niche in coral reefs, where they eat the parasites and other unwanted material off ‘client’ fish, and indeed help to keep the whole coral system clean, makes this mirror test crude and reductive. It’s really a part of the ‘smarter than we thought’ genre of research, which itself has some relation to the amusement of dressing animals in human clothes. It all amounts to preening ourselves in the rest of nature: in short, making a mirror of it, for of course we are, as a species, mirror-addicts.

As to the ethics, the testing of the cleaner wrasse had the blessing of the Animal Care and Use Committee of Osaka City University, where the research was done, and we must suppose that the Committee meant what it said. But these mirror experiments are necessarily tainted with the cruelty of the behavioural psychology tradition, and their earlier versions, at least, show as much. The originator of the MSR test (mirror self-recognition) was Gordon Gallup, from Tulane University’s Psychology Department – always an ominous location for research animals. Gallup published his first report on the subject in 1970. His subjects were four “pre-adolescent” chimpanzees, born in the wild (a happily mirror-free environment, ensuring that they’d had no practice). Here’s what happened to them:

Each animal [the report goes] was placed by itself in a small cage situated in the corner of an otherwise empty room. [Remember that a sense of self is what’s being looked for in the animals who are being treated thus.] After two days of isolation in this situation a full-length mirror was positioned 3.5 metres in front of the cage to provide enforced self-confrontation. Observations of the animal’s behaviour were made by watching his reflection in the mirror through a small hole in an adjacent wall. After 2 days (8 hours each) of exposure to the reflected image, the mirror was moved to within 0.6 m of the cage and left in that position for 8 days … etc.

It’s a miserable performance, with its bleak and meaningless setting, cruel isolation of the juvenile animals, and “enforced self-confrontation”, all tending to rule out natural behaviour, and then the scientists squinting at it all through a hole, like Peeping Toms. (For more on this last particularly unpleasant dimension in animal research, see the petition set up earlier this month by Peta under the heading ‘Sex, Violence, and Vivisection; Are Some Animal Experimenters Psychopaths?’, noted below. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Gallup or his assistants were of this kind.) And although these unpleasant proceedings were offered as “the first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a sub-human form”, the experiments with cleaner wrasse, to say nothing of pigeons and ants, have since suggested that very little was really being discovered.

Reports on MSR in the more popular science press and other media (which, as I say, love all this kind of ‘smarter than we thought’ research) are frequently headed ‘Mirror, Mirror’, to give the science a brightening connection to a familiar saying, the wicked stepmother’s refrain in the folk story of Snow mirror, mirrorWhite. Evidently it’s not done with any serious thought, because that story, so far from representing as an evolutionary boon the sort of self-awareness dramatized by correct use of the mirror, shows it as a source of neurotic restlessness and self-doubt. And that indeed is the mirror’s habitual character in the fictions where it appears. Here’s a trio of the finest of these, with the dominant sentiment in each case: Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘I look into my glass’ (self-pity), Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ (helpless protest against ageing), Shakespeare’s Richard II  (the king calls for a mirror, trying unsuccessfully to authenticate himself). These instances, with their sadly alienated mirror-gazers, don’t prove anything of course, but they represent a tradition of intelligent distrust of the kind of self-awareness that the mirror represents, and the “self-directed” mind and life which go with it.

No doubt this capacity to see and think we know ourselves, as individuals, groups, nations, and even species, has been essential to the rise of humanity, for good or ill. But we should admire the talent cautiously, cease to regard it as one of nature’s top prizes, and cease to teach it (or think we’re teaching it) to other animals. It’s not, after all, what is most needed by us now, or by them at all. The animal-activist son of a professor of psychology in Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts it thus:

We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects. [my italics]

Or as Albert Schweitzer said in one of his Sermons on Reverence for Life, “Wherever you see life – that is you!”

 

Notes and references:

The full article from bioRXiv, posted 21 August 2018, is linked here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/08/21/397067.full.pdf+html  The twitter comment was posted alongside the short version of that article.

The Daily Mail online reported the research on 31 August.

An article on self-awareness in dogs, as tested with urine samples, can be seen at https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/do-dogs-have-sense-self

The Science article about elephants (‘Jumbo Reflections’) appeared in the issue for 30 October 2006, and about magpies (‘The Magpie in the Mirror’) on 19 August 2008. The report by Gordon G. Gallup Jr on his chimpanzee experiments (‘Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition’) appeared in Science on 2 January 1970.

The Peta report and petition can be found at https://headlines.peta.org/sex-violence-vivisection/?utm_source=PETA

The quotation from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is at pp.201-2 of the edition published by Profile Books, 2014. Albert Schweitzer is quoted from A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life (Macmillan, 1998), p.10, translation by David Larrimore Holland. The sermons were originally preached in 1919, in the Church of St Nicolai, Günsbach. The saying is not Schweitzer’s own, of course, but is at least as old as the Hindu Upanishad from which he borrows it.

The sketch of Labroides dimidiatus is by Xavier Romero-Frias, and the illustration of the Snow White story comes from a 1916 re-telling in Europa’s Fairy Book.

 

Advertisements

The Noise of a Great Host

On Saturday 25 August, the Official Animal Rights March, organized by the group called Surge, made its way through central London. There were related marches in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but this particular one started at Millbank, by the Houses of Parliament, and finished in Hyde Park. It was a huge clamorous assemblage – the organizers say ten thousand people. That may be an overstatement, but at any rate the march took about twenty minutes to pass any particular point.

From such a procession, which frees attention from the usual demands of road and pavement traffic, the buildings and other places on the route can be properly observed for once and seen for what they really are. To take just the beginning and end: at first, the huge and over-detailed Houses of Parliament, seat of the earliest of all representative governments and still laboriously governing the nation without any representation at all for the vast majority of its residents, and lastly Hyde Park, notionally an irruption of nature in the middle of a great city, but in reality an exhausted tract of human playground.

And one characterizing thing about the human species as imaged in the scenes passed by the march is its addiction to war. The rallying point was the famous burghers.JPGRodin sculpture in Victoria Gardens, Millbank, titled The Burghers of Calais. These are the six dignitaries who, in legend and perhaps in fact, gave themselves up as a ransom for their city when it surrendered to the English army of Edward III in 1346. A fine image of heroic suffering, then: more generally, an incident in war – the Hundred Years’ War, in fact, which my dictionary of history describes as a “series of wars, punctuated by periods of peace or truce”.

And just such a description of human history as a whole was evidenced along the route which the march took through London. Leaving the burghers of Calais, it next went past the statue of Winston Churchill as war leader in Parliament Square; then on into Whitehall, with its fine Cenotaph built to honour the dead of the Great War; then past the new memorial to the women women's memorial.JPGwho served in World War Two, and the statue of Earl Haig, Commander of the British Army in France in 1915-18; then, the Crimean War Memorial in St James’s; then, just before Marble Arch, the memorial to Bomber Command; and finally, at the southern entrance to Hyde Park, the memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars, with its colossal statue of Achilles, naked except for a sword and shield, a summary of man as mere belligerent. And as if to affirm this story of the perpetual merry-go-round of war, the statue was made from the enemy’s cannon balls.

Most of these memorials are impressive and even moving records of courage and self-sacrifice: seen, that is, from within the species and taking it as given. Seen from without, however, they’re simply a shameful record of delinquency, the evidences of a uniquely disorderly species.

Is there some connection between this war-making and the affluence which is the other most patent characteristic of these streets of central London, with their clubs, restaurants, pompous hotels, and luxury goods displayed in windows? It was a proposition put by the Quaker and zoophilist Thomas Woolman in his Plea for the Poor (1774): “May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses and the garments in which we array ourselves and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.”

Doubtless there is such a connection, but much more directly and essentially this affluence is the plunder from a war which is only not recognised as such because it’s simply a way of life. This is the war which Rachel Carson spoke about in her book Silent Spring (1962): “man’s war against nature”. In her book she habitually uses that phraseology: “our war against the insects”, “war on blackbirds”, “all-out chemical war on the gypsy moth”. She writes that “the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its crossfire,” and she summarises it all as humanity’s “relentless war on life”. Rachel Carson did not mean these expressions for images, but for fact. She showed, indeed, that much of the post-war insecticide novelties of the 1940s and 50s were taking forward research pursued during “man’s war against his own kind” – as memorialized in Whitehall: “post-war” because, thank God, there are indeed “periods of peace or truce” between human wars. There is no truce, however, in the war against nature: a few sanctuaries, perhaps, but peace never.

Rachel Carson was writing about only one branch of that war, the destruction of the lives that compete for food with or otherwise annoy human beings. But all our exploitation of animals fits into that same war and the war mentality. Edward III may have spared the lives of the six burghers, but he appropriated their city and staffed it with Englishmen. Likewise, but more ruthlessly and ambitiously, we have appropriated the lands and lives of all the other species. Humanity is everywhere an army of occupation, and its exactions are there on show along St James’s and down Piccadilly: the leather goods, the cashmere shop, the charcuterie, the cheap burgers and, by way of contrast, the pricey Ritz Hotel menu: Veal Sweetbread (£28), Native Lobster (£52), Roast Bresse Duck (£38), etc. You’ll observe in that menu how a habitat becomes a ‘provenance’ to interest the consumer, a sort of gourmet’s trophy.

Very rightly, then, the marchers were chanting Their milk . . .  not ours! Their flesh . . .  not ours! Their skins . . .  not ours! Their lives . . . not ours!”  Simple and absolute: the wrong is so elementary that it can properly be changing the world.JPGsummarized in sayings and chants. “We are trying to change the world”: yes, and not in favour of some impossible utopia. On the contrary, the change would be to turn it, as the novelist T.H White said, “right back into the real world, in which man is only one among innumerable other animals” – no longer their conqueror and scourge, an anomaly in life’s history, but their co-tenant. “With us, not for us”, one placard said. After all, it’s certain that we shall have to unlearn the habit of war or else finally destroy ourselves, and here’s the place to start: “Peace begins on the plate”, said another. (Of course if we do destroy ourselves, it might liberate the other animals in a more lastingly satisfactory way.)

 

Notes and references:

The title is a quotation from the Bible, 2 Kings 7: 6.

The Hundred Years’ War is described as quoted in A New Dictionary of British History, ed. S.H.Steinberg, Edward Arnold, 1964.

John Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or a Remembrance and Caution to the Rich can be read here: http://www.richardporowski.com/documents/books-papers/john%20woolman%20-%20a%20plea%20for%20the%20poor.pdf  The quotation is from Chapter 10.

T.H.Whyte wrote about “the real world” in a letter of December 1940, quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner in her introduction to The Book of Merlyn, Fontana, 1983, p.18 (slightly altered here to correct a mistaken preposition). The theme of Whyte’s story of Merlyn and King Arthur is how to cure humanity of the habit of war. The book is discussed in this blog on January 1st 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/two-merlins-and-their-tasks/