For Cod’s sake

Are fish 'steeped' in social intelligence and cultural traditions?

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Codswallop

There is something saddening about our persistent efforts today to abolish the distinction between man and animal.

At the one end, we are reminded what a ghastly thing is Homo sapiens: despoiler of the environment, parasite of the planet, who lords over the animal kingdom with arrogance and cruelty. At the other end, we are told how ‘non-human animals’ are actually rather clever, that chimpanzees possess culture and have feelings, that a crow can make and use tools, or that a gibbon has just finished translating Finnegans Wake into Japanese.

Now we hear that fish, far from being the paradigm of cold-eyed stupidity in the animal world, are actually rather brainy. Scientists from the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds say that they possess such high sentience that we must now rank them alongside non-human primates.

Writing in the journal Fish and Fisheries, they assert: ‘Gone (or at least obsolete) is the image of fish as drudging and dimwitted pea-brains.… Now, fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and cooperating to inspect predators and catch food.’

If this is typical fish culture, then they can keep it. Judging by the scientists’ summing-up, it would seem that fish are nothing less than bloodythirsty gangsters. If we adopt the corollary position of the animal rights brigade – that because all animals have rights, they should have responsibilities – isn’t it time we punished the piscine murderers? We should set up a kind of Hague tribunal for fish who brutally kill and eat other fish. Frankly, this kind of behaviour is unacceptable in the twenty-first century.

Believing animals to be mute humans in disguise is an affliction normally reserved for children and madmen. Think of the appeal of Disney for children, or those awful cases of disturbed individuals climbing into lions’ cages to talk to them, only to be savaged by them. And then there are crypto-anthropologists who ‘teach’ animals sign language or devote their lives trying to get them to talk to us.

One of the weirdest examples of this was John Lilly, who died two years ago. Although this American was a brilliant neurophysicist, remembered for inventing the total immersion tank, he also had a bizarre infatuation with dolphins. He called them the ‘humans of the sea’, who possessed an ‘underwater civilisation that has managed the oceans with superb poise and conservation for millions of years before upstart man began to ravage Earth and sea’.

Convinced of their genius, he placed them in isolation tanks and tried to get them to converse with him. He could not understand what they were saying, so he took LSD while conducting the experiments. This was only a partial success: ‘It drove me crazy, there was too much information, they communicated so fast.’ In 1968, he thus gave them a dose of the drug too, killing several of them as a consequence. He claimed their actions to be ‘suicide’.

All this he elaborated in the decidedly Forsythean-sounding trilogy: Man and Dolphin (1961), The Mind of the Dolphin (1967) and The Day of the Dolphin (1973). When Lilly finally lost patience with the seaborne mammals in the 1980s, he went on to campaign to raise awareness about an imminent alien invasion.

I see no difference between cranks who believe dolphins are our cultural superiors and scientists who talk about fish using the language of anthropology rather than biology. Such anthropomorphic drivel is codswallop, no matter who says it.

  • We’re doomed

Equally as common these days are scare stories about asteroids hitting the Earth and smashing us all to smithereens. In July 2002, we were warned that there was a one-in-75,000 chance that Asteroid 2002 NT7 was going to impact on our planet by 2019. But now it transpires that there is a one-in-909,000 chance that Asteroid 203 QQ 47 will hit us in 2014. ‘If it hits Earth, bang will be eight million times bigger than Hiroshima’ warns the Sun, while Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat Spokesman for Apocalyptic and End of Time Affairs, exhorts us thus: ‘It is time for us to wake up and smell the coffee.’

One almost gets the impression that we are so credulous of such wild predictions because we secretly want them to come true. We live in such anti-humanist times that some would be happy to see our species wiped out. It would be our just deserts for being so ‘arrogant’. It’s the same sentiment one gets from extreme environmentalists who hope we do actually ruin the planet, just so we’ll see who was right. It is a mood that resembles that of a self-hating, sulky teenager, who likes to cut himself because he thinks he is scum and deserves it.

  • Battle for the Pacific

Meanwhile, in the gloomy watery chasms, deep in the bowels of the Pacific Ocean, the Fish Parliament convened yesterday to discuss an inflammatory human report that has reached their attention. Its main speaker, Alec Salmon, stood up to accuse Man of ‘merely substituting one anti-piscine stereotype for another’, denouncing ‘these degrading and unhelpful comments as a slur on our rich heritage’.

George Marlinboat, author of the best-selling Man Must Know His Plaice, echoed these sentiments, gurgling that the report ‘mirrored a wider hubris in the soul of Homo sapiens, who applies his own values such as “rights” on to us – we of a higher culture which finds such concepts laughably anachronistic’. Delegates wagged their tails in appreciation, as Coley MacKerel, the Chief of the Fish, looked on, puffing away confidently on his pipe.

Alas, their voices were soon to be silenced. Heading due west from Japan was a 10,000-stong armada of dolphins. Their aim: to vanquish the fish, smite and scatter them, to restore dolphins to their rightful position – as masters of the seven seas. In this Clash of Civilisations there could only be one winner.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Near Earth, but far out, by Joe Kaplinsky

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