Do fish feel pain? Ordinarily, people might ask back: Why does it matter? So far, these scaly, stoic, stone-faced "sea-kittens" (as PETA proposes to call fish) are not amongst the most endearing animals on the planet. But if intuition and empathy fail, science might provide the jumping board for a necessary moral leap. Victoria Braithwaite's book is such a jumping board, build by hard science, deep questioning and broad scope.
We ought not underestimate the question she is out to tackle. The fish pain debate is a hard one for three reasons. First, there are values and personal interests clouding our inquiries, e.g. anglers do not want to give up their sport, or do not want to see themselves as committing cruelty. Therefore, scientific methodology must be strenuously applied to avoid being accused of any bias. Secondly, economic issues lure in the background: if we only care for our end product to be palatable and aesthetically pleasing, then the way we treat, catch, raise and kill salmon, cod or trout does not need to burden the budget. However, if pain becomes an issue, then pain free treatments and environments become issues as well -- and probably costly ones. Lastly, the question of pain itself addresses a fundamental philosophical issue which isn't called "the hard problem" for nothing: the presence of the target phenomenon -- feeling pain -- cannot be directly deduced from any physiologically or physically measurable event, not even in humans as philosophers argue. Whether a comatose is in pain cannot be simply deduced from a brain scan. How much harder will this question be if we are concerned with an individual so far evolutionarily removed from us as a zebrafish with a brain quite different from ours? Braithwaite, a key figure in the scientific debate, addresses all these issues, and sets the stage for the title giving question by referring to its moral relevance first before she dives into the science behind the answer.
It is admirable how lightly she acquaints her readers to the scrutiny that goes into the development of experiments to inquire fish pain. She draws from discussions in pain science to argue for a distinction of pain behavior and pain experience. Retracting a limb, it is shown, happens earlier than activations in the central nervous system which gives rise to experience -- we drag our hand away from the hot stove even before we feel the burn. She also mentions philosophical distinctions of phenomenal and access consciousness as well as emotion research to elucidate what studies by herself and others actually investigate. Braithwaite thereby establishes carefully and conclusively that the probability of fish pain is so high that we have no reason to deny it. Do fish feel pain? Yes, they do.
Pushing the boundaries of her initial question into animal welfare in general, she adds a chapter on the possibility of pain in mollusks and other invertebrates. An outlook on the implications of these findings for anglers, pet owners and fisheries, together with light theorizing on why we are so reluctant to accept pain in "lower" animals makes this a far reaching and well composed book.
The fish pain debate is far from over given the huge emotional and economical agendas in the background, but Braithwaite's book is a well written and balanced overview elucidating in an admirably accessible style the most prominent scientific arguments. Yet, the philosophical parts are shockingly brief and sometimes misguided, e.g. phenomenal consciousness is arguably not tightly linked to an animal's ability to feel and experience emotion, as she claims on page 95. Given her focus on scientific inquiry however, this may easily be excused. Even if parts need a little more philosophical salt, it stays a highly recommendable book. Non-scientists can gain insight into the rigid scrutiny that makes good science, while anybody interested in animal welfare will appreciate the insightful change of focus from fluffy furry friends to soppy sensitive sea-kittens.
© 2010 Sascha Benjamin Fink
Sascha Benjamin Fink, M. A., Institute for Cognitive Science, University of Osnabrück, Germany