Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-06-07-fish-can-recognise-human-faces-new-research-shows ; for the article in Scientific Reports, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep27523 ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/monkey-experiments-max-planck-institute-germany .]

How to be Human

The UK edition of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesDSC04754 [Serpent’s Tail, 2014] starts with two or three pages of quotations from the quite properly rhapsodic press reviews. One of them is from Reader’s Digest, and describes the book as “a full-on exploration of what makes human beings human.” The description (only a fragment, after all) is favourably meant, and it must contain some truth because it’s somewhat true of just about every really ambitious novel, and this novel certainly is not only ambitious but also brilliantly successful. All the same, in this case it’s almost the opposite of true.

The point is that Karen Joy Fowler’s story of a cross-species relationship deliberately subverts that sort of human special-pleading. We get the religious version of it when the narrator of the story, Rosemary, is a little girl and mourning a lost fellow-primate: her grandmother well-meaningly tells her, “You just remember you were the one made in God’s image”. The girl’s distress, physiologically felt and evidenced as it is, simply refutes that claim to a difference in kind. In fact it’s a distress that endures far into adulthood and is still there in nearly the last words of the book: “You’d need to have been in my body to understand that” [my italics here and elsewhere]. This is Darwinism as experienced fact.

But then there’s the more up-to-date scientific way of trying to keep the non-human others in their place. For instance, new research tends to show that, quite contrary to earlier assumptions, “humans are much more imitative than the other apes” – but of course, adds Rosemary, there’s “some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior … I forget exactly what that reason is. You’ll have to read the papers.” She summarises the point later on: “It seems to me that every time we humans announce that here is the thing that makes us unique – our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language – some other species comes along to snatch it away.” This would be comical – and the book is at times a hilarious comedy – if only science hadn’t been relying on this slippery idea of human difference to justify its pitiless exploitation of even our closest surviving relatives. As it is, the book is also a tragedy, as any book which looks honestly at our modern relations with other animals has to be.

Some animals recognise themselves in a mirror; it’s one of those species-differentiating tests which help to keep life in its proper ranks. What we really need, says Rosemary’s ALF brother, is a sort of “reverse mirror test”, one that will “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.” Nothing in this book is carelessly written. When Rosemary is discharged from police custody later on (she has quite a lot to do with the police, her brother even more so), she brings an insect out from the interrogation room with her, and lays it in the grass outside. That room, she feels, should be “nobody’s home”. She thinks of her brother when she does this, wishing to please his presiding spirit (he is mostly absent, address unknown). But of course the action has a supra-personal meaning. As the great philosopher Albert Schweitzer said, “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself is ended.” The book is about one instance of that tragic division, and the attempt to undo it, or at least to come to terms with it.

As for the title: “we’re completely beside ourselves” is the lovely expression that Rosemary’s mother likes to use when family high jinks reach a certain pitch of excitement. Gradually, with the help of that interpolated word “all”, we come to see its larger and more profoundly beautiful Darwinian meaning. This, then, is what being human means: not preening ourselves on our supposed peerlessness, but knowingly and unreservedly joining the animal collective. And we humans ought to bring good with us, for we can, and there are tonic instances of such good in this book. But until we really do make that word “ourselves” mean in practice what the title means by it, it’s certain that we’ll mainly go on bringing what the brother rightly calls “fathomless misery” to the others.

This may all sound very unhappy. Certainly it is that, but the book is also a fascinating story, witty and jaunty in the telling, shrewd and compassionate about humans (and interested in them). It’s also purposeful. Near the end, the author tells a fairy story of two daughters, the elder cast under a spell by a wicked king. The king dies, but the spell persists:

The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up.

So rise up already.

But to understand this fairy story, you need to read the whole book. It’s well worth doing.