BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 32: November 1996

Sounds Fishy

Brian J Ford

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Two years ago there was an apparent suicide in Mensa. Terry was driven take his life. He did all he could to save his partner, as he slowly succumbed to an insidious disease. Terry provided support, care, and self-sacrifice. In the end, when his partner passed away, Terry was inconsolable. In the anguish of grief, he fled the world and was found, dead on the carpet, stiff and cold, at the end of the working day.

It’s a story with many parallels. Grief is a fundamental biological imperative. It drives us to desperate measures. In science we know little about the process, yet we all recognise its power. Grief is not confined to the human species, either. Terry, for instance, was a goldfish.

Terry’s partner developed a swim bladder problem, and couldn’t maintain altitude in the tank. Terry developed a way of swimming alongside, and a little beneath, supporting his partner. Josephine (Terry’s owner) said the two were inseparable, and Terry was always close to his partner.

After the death of the other fish, Terry started to swim around in the tank in unusual, darting movements and stopped taking food. A few days later, when she returned from work, Josephine found Terry dead on the carpet. He’d jumped from the tank. Yes, yes, goldfish do that kind of thing. But Josephine believes there may have been real grief expressed here, and I am inclined to concur.

We all fall for the trap of anthropomorphism, by applying human motivations to the actions of animals. The belief that we alone have feelings reveals the other side of the coin, the snare of what I call anthropocentrism. Nobody will argue about the special quality of intellect which we alone possess, though some might quarrel with the use to which we put it. But humans are certainly not the only species to feel. And it certainly applies to fish.

They say that fish have an attention span of a few seconds. Oh, excuse me? Elsewhere in Mensa there’s a garden pool whose denizens would disagree. It was full of fish. Early one morning, as shafts of sun sloped down past the lilies and water-weed, a heron stopped by for breakfast. His take-off was so noisy, flapping in the still dawn air, that the humans slumbering within were awakened by it all, and found the pond utterly bereft of any sign of fish.

A week later one of the children came in from school, delighted that the parents had bought a fish to replace those taken by the heron. They hadn’t. Over the following week other fish emerged, until in the end it was clear that the population was apparently the same as it had been. The fish had simply been lying low. They had remembered the heron’s visit (and taken appropriate avoiding action) with memories of a fortnight, not a few seconds.

All living things respond to their environment, sensing it, taking appropriate action, even communicating with each other. We imagine we are unique organisms of unparalleled intellect, uniquely able to sense our surroundings, and with the inimitable ability to communicate with our fellows and to pass on what we know. Tell that to the goldfish. Or the heron.

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