Scientist Has Pained Reaction To Column on Smart Fish

I knew I was stepping into deep doo doo in my last column when I quoted a biologists saying that some animals can probably feel pain. The question of whether animals experience pain is one of those issues – like global warming – that’s bound to bring on hate mail and accusations of science illiteracy no matter what you say about it.

Bill Saidel, a fish neurobiologist from Rutgers, attacked me via email for statements made in this week’s column on the topic of animal intelligence. The offending paragraph was one that explained the background of a researcher, Victoria Braithwaite. She’d done experiments set up to determine whether fish feel pain or simply react reflexively – what scientists call nociception. She concluded that they feel pain:  

Braithwaite has also done experiments on pain, injecting bee venom or other irritants into the lips of fish. That changed the fish behavior by preventing them from paying attention to new objects. They acted pained, and their behavior returned to normal when given morphine.

That prompted Dr. Saidel to write me a long note which began by saying I was either gullible or “don’t understand the nuances involved in understanding science.”

Fish are phylogenetically so different from humans that one cannot and should not extrapolate from human sensation (which is called anthropomorphizing). Any extrapolation is not biologically logical or rational for many reasons. do respond when damaged. The damaged part of the body generates a sensation called nociception, not pain.  Responses to nociception are often reflexive, not perceptive. One cannot in principle know whether a fish feels pain because that is asking if one knows a fish's perception and we cannot know that, but we can know about reflexes.

Dr. Braithwaite says she disagrees. Separating pain from nociception was the whole point of her experiments, she said. That's why she titled her book “Do Fish Feel Pain”. It’s worth dwelling on this because the issue has enormous implications for the way we treat the animals we eat and those used in research. It also touches on whether animal pain is really “unknowable,” and if so, whether we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Dr. Saidel’s prohibition against anthropomorphism feels kind of religious to me. If there’s evidence for some commonality between humans and other animals, shouldn’t we accept it? I had a long talk about this very topic with Dr. Braithwaite as well as with another biologist, Jennifer Mather. They agreed that if animals act exactly like sentient beings – then perhaps they are.  

Mr. Higgs (above) looks for all the world like sentient being. It seems far-fetched to think of him as a reflexive automaton. Is it a show of science illiteracy to take our sick animals to the vet, rather than tossing them in the garbage?

Evolution places us in a web of life along with other animals. It’s interesting that the people who take the hardest-line anti-anthropomorphism view seem to be neuroscientists, while many evolutionary biologists allow that sensation might not be uniquely bestowed upon our own species. I’ll look into this in more depth in an upcoming column.