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Animal minds: But how does a fish know anything?

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males dispute territory/ Fernald, Burmeister, Creative Commons

Recently, I (O’Leary) raised the question whether epigenetically triggered dominance behaviour in fish was rightly considered a struggle for “social status”:

The concept of social status presupposes not only a society but a relationship to that society consciously recognized by most actors within it. It is not only the behaviour, but also the consciousness—evident in human affairs, as people strive for social status, even from something as apparently abstract as area codes and zip codes. Purely virtual territory.

Some may argue that the term social status “shouldn’t” mean what human beings generally understand it to mean. But the term was invented by and for human beings, to describe a situation we experience. Part of that experience is knowing one’s status in a cognitively human way. (The “knowing” part is at the root of most social conflicts on the subject.)

It’s unclear whether fish “know” their status in that sense, as opposed to simply reacting to it as their situation requires.

A bee, for example (from the accounts I’ve heard), may be fed “royal jelly,” and grow into a queen. Other female bees serve her as she lays all the eggs. But there is no reason to think that the bee society depends on her or them knowing that she has a social status. The insect mind may not even work that way. The events are just what will happen if the hive survives.

Where within this continuum of knowledge do male fish fighting over mates fit? Do they experience the conflict as “selves”? That is part of the ongoing effort to understand animal minds. So I questioned whether the term “social status,” derived from human affairs, is the best choice – even if it is conventional usage among ichthyologists, as a commenter has pointed out.

A discussion developed at the earlier post, featuring that commenter, who keeps fish and is familiar with their habits. It may come down to a distinction between “social order” (which could exist without knowledge of status) and social status (which implies knowledge, at least in the way the term is commonly used).

We generally agreed that more precise language is needed, to avoid the twin traps of unnecessarily assuming that other life forms think like humans (anthropomorphism) or unnecessarily assuming that they don’t think at all. And we still have so much to learn.

Note: Posting light until later this evening, due to O’Leary for News’ alternate day job.

Here are the current articles in the Animal Minds series:

What can we hope to learn about animal minds?

Are apes entering the Stone Age?

Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds

Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?


See also: Social status? In fish? While this is certainly a “dominance” struggle, is it correct to call it a struggle over “social status”?

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Social status is an abstract/spiritual concept that fish cannot possibly have. The fact that they act like it does not mean that they do. It only means that the ancient intelligent designers of the fish had the concept and designed the fish's brain accordingly. Similarly, a video game programmer can program various social behaviors into the characters in the game. But the characters themselves have no idea why they are behaving in social ways or even what "behavior" means. Mapou
vjtorley at 1, Yes. Social status is indeed a "highly abstract" concept, as you put it. For one thing, it is not reliably associated with most desirables. - Money? Sometimes people who are technically very poor have higher social status than those who are technically very rich (Gandhi, Mother Theresa, ... ) - Offspring? Mother Theresa had no physical children but many spiritual ones. Gandhi had some children, but no one thinks that accounts for his status. - Power? Once, when hearing that the Pope was angered by Soviet soldiers raping women, Joseph Stalin sneered, "How many divisions has the Pope?" He found out, when Poland threw off Communism, thanks in some considerable part to the efforts of John Paul II. - Precedence? The Prime Minister of my country has a lot of power but our Head of State is a 90-year-old woman in London, England who has hardly any personal power even over her own life. That's why I think biologists studying animal mind should be cautious about the use of the term "social status" when discussing how animals live and order their affairs. So much of what humans think is important is actually immaterial. News
I am still of the opinion that if Intelligent Design is true then all organisms have some degree of consciousness. They wouldn't be autobots. Virgil Cain
Hi News, I agree with you on the need for terminological clarity. A neural representation of each individual's ranking within a group does not require its possessor to have the highly abstract notion of "social status." Indeed, a representation of a ranking would not require consciousness at all. vjtorley

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