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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:

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. 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.

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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