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Animal Rights, Anthropomorphism & Traumatized Fish

Alistair Robinson examines whether animals can suffer.

Most of us are outraged by the violent actions of animal rights extremists, but at the same time the movement’s ideas and assumptions are gaining a foothold in the media and the public imagination. From my own experience it seems that among young thinking people animal rights is a very attractive political and ethical stance. My question is this: how can we be sure that empathy for animals, concern for their moral status, and the desire to put them on a par with humans, do not stem only from a false attribution of uniquely human emotions?

We have a predisposition to see ourselves in the world around us: we endow the universe with human characteristics such as consciousness, and call it God; we hear an expression of love in a cat’s purr; we see an ancient oak as dignified and venerable. This is anthropomorphism. We attribute human characteristics to the things of the world, and those things are independent of that attribution: the fact that we have decided that they have qualities of our own does not make a difference to the actuality of the things themselves. It is, though, natural and important to the way we perceive the world. Unfortunately this means that we often naturally perceive the world falsely. Now this is not always a problem: the dawn chorus sounds like joy, and it makes us joyful – so what? But there is an increasing acceptance of anthropomorphism in supposedly rational debates about the differences between humans and animals. And as we shall see, even in the scientific community there is a susceptibility to it.

Leaving aside the arguments about whether or not animals have, or should have, inalienable rights, one persuasive argument for better animal welfare is that the inhumane treatment of animals is uncivilized: that it dehumanizes and brutalizes us. After all, our actions are conscious and chosen, because we are uniquely self-aware and free. We can see that if cruelty repulses us and evokes imaginative emotions and empathy (anthropomorphic as we are) then it might follow that continually straining these responses will desensitize us to cruelty in general, stripping us of our compassion for all beings, including our fellow humans. And this may be true for society as well as for individuals.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that just as the mistreatment of the dead bodies of our loved ones would be unacceptable to us – despite our knowing that the person has gone – so there may be a similarly good reason to treat animals well, no matter if our empathy and compassion are anthropomorphic. We have beliefs and customs that are important to us, and not necessarily because they have obvious practical value or a basis in a true picture of the world.

I do believe that the humane treatment of animals is preferable for these reasons, but we need to distinguish between harmless and harmful anthropomorphism. Science is the part of society whose raison d’être is the establishment of a true picture of the world, and it cannot afford to relax about the encroachment of anthropomorphic fallacies. Some scientific results are now being claimed – often, it seems, by the scientists themselves – to bear out the assumptions of animal rights activists: ‘Does a hook hurt a fish? The evidence is reeling in.’1

In this article I will concentrate on the concept of suffering. There are other fundamental problems to be tackled when looking deeply into animal rights philosophy: if we decide to give an animal independent moral status, doesn’t that mean that we presuppose the capacity to make moral decisions, and ultimately the capacity of consciousness? Can a species be conscious at all if it has not developed language? Some neuroscientists, as well as some modern philosophers, have said that it cannot. And then we have the controversy over the communicative abilities of chimpanzees. I will look briefly at consciousness further on, but mostly I will leave these issues aside and concentrate on suffering.

Fish Trauma

A recent study by a team from the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh concluded that fish feel pain, implying that angling is cruel. Researchers tested the neural responses of rainbow trout and injected the fish with mild poisons. A few incontrovertible statements can be made in the light of the study’s findings: fish have specific neural receptors that respond to heat, mechanical pressure and acid; the neurons fire in a way very similar to the firing patterns of human neurons in response to adverse stimuli; fish behave abnormally when their lips are injected with bee venom and vinegar, rocking from side to side and breathing very rapidly; and the abnormal behaviours and symptoms are not seen – or at least not to the same extent – either in fish that are simply handled or those that are given an injection of a harmless substance.2

What are we to conclude from all this? The study is truly an addition to our knowledge – it is especially enlightening on the evolutionary divergence of bony fishes and cartilaginous fishes – but can we conclude from it that fish feel pain? To begin with there is the problem that such a conclusion depends upon a scientific definition of pain, of which there is none. We might define it with reference to the actions of neurons in response to adverse stimuli, but this is only the physiological cause: when we use the word we mean the experience. Even behavioural responses need not be concomitant with an experiential mental state. It seems to me that an adequate definition must take in psychology as well as physiology and behaviour. So it might be that we cannot proceed strictly by deduction from the scientific results to concluding that the fish are in pain. But why shouldn’t we make a reasonable conclusion based on some other reasonable assumptions? It may seem too obvious to be denied that if another vertebrate species behaves in the same way as we do under a corresponding stimulus, and if its physiological responses to that stimulus are the same as ours, then it feels what we feel.

We can see the assumptions being made here more clearly if we consider a definition given by another contemporary philosopher, David DeGrazia, of another kind of suffering: anxiety. DeGrazia’s definition gives four components to anxiety, all of which have been scientifically observed in animals:3

1. Autonomic hyperactivity (rapid pulse and breathing, sweating, etc.)
2. Motor tension (jumpiness)
3. Inhibition of normal behaviours
4. Hyperattentiveness (visual scanning, etc.)

These are the symptoms of anxiety that we see in humans. But it might be misleading to group these as a definition of anxiety, because we are accustomed to using the word to signify more than the physiological and behavioural symptoms. When we say anxiety and mean an experience, we presume the thing that allows us to experience in the first place: consciousness of the self existing through time, or temporal self-awareness. This is what allows us to be aware of what is happening to us. DeGrazia does in fact assume this to be the context of the four components, both in humans and in animals. So DeGrazia’s definition of anxiety, if we are to apply it across the board, asks us to assume what we are trying to prove: that animals experience things in the way that we do. In other words, the term ‘anxiety’ comes preloaded with meanings that pertain to our subjective experiences and emotions – to the essence of being human. If you then strip down the meaning of the word so that it encompasses only behavioural and physiological effects you cannot get away with suggesting that the discovery of those effects in an animal implies all the other shades of meaning that you have already decided to strip away.

Pain and Suffering

I now want to suggest what I think may be the implicit logical argument of all those who claim there is scientific proof that animals experience something akin to human suffering; that fish feel pain or that deer suffer stress. But first I must clear up my meanings. In my argument so far, pain and anxiety are more or less interchangeable. We might also add fear to the list. They are kinds of suffering that have behavioural and physiological symptoms, and that are said by some to be experienced by animals. So to make things simpler I will use the word suffering. Now, I have cast doubt on certain uses of the words pain and anxiety. Taking this further (perhaps too far), even suffering could be said to apply only to humans. So for convenience I will use it to mean simply the state of a being subjected to adverse stimuli.

For the science to be conclusive on its own, the logic needs to run like this:

1. The nature of both human and non-human suffering is in essence physiological and behavioural.
2. The physiological and behavioural characteristics of suffering are the same in humans and non-humans.
3. Therefore non-human suffering is in essence the same as human suffering.

The logic is valid but not necessarily true: statement 2 is definitely provable but statement 1 is disputable. It could also be seen as an example of petitio principii reasoning, where the conclusion is taken for granted in a premise, in this case statement 1.

This is something of a caricature, and I did say earlier that even if a deductive argument doesn’t work, we might still reasonably make conclusions. A fairer representation of the argument might be that the evidence points to the probability of pain and anxiety in animals, if we also accept that many animals are to some extent temporally self-aware, or conscious. Here we can see the same problem cropping up again: whatever the scientific results tell us, they need to be interpreted in a certain way if they are to lead to: QED fish feel pain. So the whole question turns on whether it is a reasonable assumption that animals are conscious, something that I cannot cover here in much depth. But crucially we have seen that the cited scientific evidence alone is silent on the question of whether fish feel pain, because it is silent on the question of whether fish are conscious.

Fish Brains

Suffering depends upon our sense of ourselves, our sense of the passage of time and of the changing fortunes in our lives. When we are subjected to adverse stimuli we feel pain, anxiety and fear for the very reason that we are conscious of what is happening to us – we experience the stimuli, not only respond automatically to them. But because we share so much of our evolutionary history with animals, the outward signs of these responses are similar. We recognize distress in another human being and can be forgiven for attributing the same set of emotions to an animal if we see it behave in the same way.

Even if we are looking only at the science we find disagreement. There is evidence that fish literally do not have the brains to experience pain. One expert in the field, James D. Rose, in his rebuttal to the claims of the Scottish researchers, seems understandably frustrated that they ignored his earlier work. Essentially his argument is that their research deals not with the conscious experience of pain, but only with unconscious responses to adverse stimuli, or nociception. Fish do not have an area of the brain corresponding to our own neural pain-processor – the neocortex – so that although the same signals are sent to the brain, there is no recognizable pain-experience-producing region to go to when they arrive. Fish do not have regions of the brain that produce the unpleasantness of pain. In humans these regions lie in the cerebral hemispheres, but fish have little more than a brainstem. This at the very least tells us that we cannot describe what it is like to be a ‘suffering’ fish, because its brain processes the signals in an alien way. How, then, can we make any sort of moral conclusion on this, unless we simply assume – guided by taste, inclination and sentiment – that fish do experience something like human suffering?4

Before I conclude, I will touch upon the problem of consciousness, which is probably the crux of the matter. I suggested earlier that a being cannot be conscious without language. Neuroscientists Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi have written that the concepts of the self and the past and future emerged only when language appeared in the course of evolution, in communities of speakers. There must have been an intimate connection between social development and the evolution of consciousness, and language must be the likeliest contender for that connection.

It has been argued that although we (a) use language and (b) are conscious, (b) need not depend on (a). If it did, the argument goes, babies would not be able to feel pain or experience fear before they developed their language ability. There are two points to be made here. First, it is probably true that new-born babies are not quite conscious. We nurture and protect them while knowing that from the outset they are developing, becoming more and more human. Second, modern cognitive psychology and linguistics tells us that a baby is learning language right from the start. Newborn babies have linguistic skills, because language is partly built-in: it is not just a matter of filling an empty brain with vocabulary and syntax. It seems problematic, then, to back up the claim that language is not necessary for consciousness by comparing animals to babies, which are just humans in development.


Few of us want to see animals being treated inhumanely, but we would do well to consider how our natural and perhaps inaccurate assumptions about the inner lives of animals can affect our understanding of the true differences between ourselves and other species. The notion of animal rights has more adherents than ever before, and many who profess no passionate beliefs on the subject seem to accept its validity. The media is currently highly responsive to claims about pain and stress in animals, and science at times is taking anthropomorphism at face-value, and allowing it to bias its conclusions. This could be to do with the mood of the age, one that happily brings man down a peg or two on the scale of importance at every opportunity. While it is to be welcomed that thanks to science we no longer see ourselves at the centre of the universe as destiny’s chosen creatures, we also need to keep ourselves from allowing the spirit of the times to colour our unique, rational understanding of the world.


Alistair Robinson is a software developer and civil engineering graduate with an interest in philosophy and science.


1. J. Randerson, New Scientist, May 15, 2003
2. Sneddon, Braithwaite and Gentle, ‘Do fish have nociceptors: Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system’, Proceedings of the Royal Society 2003
3. David DeGrazia, Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2002)
4. See two papers by James D. Rose available online: ‘Do Fish Feel Pain?’ (http://www.cotrout.org/do_fish_feel_pain.htm) and a rebuttal to Sneddon, Braithwaite and Gentle’s paper at the website of the European Anglers Alliance, http://www.eaa-europe.org/2003/PFCasework/FishPain-Rebuttal-JamesRose-EN.htm.

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