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All trout are fish but not all fish deserve legal counsel



The 2024 Global Year will examine what is known about sex and gender differences in pain perception and modulation and address sex-and gender-related disparities in both the research and treatment of pain.

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In an intriguing political story, it seems that Switzerland is on the verge of voting in legal representation for all victim animals. A key consideration is whether a fish, for example, is a sentient being. Well, I think that is interesting, but I write this because it reminds me of something a mate of mine is doing on slime.

David Sumpter, Professor of Mathemathical Biology (or something like that) at Uppsala University, Sweden, was telling me just last night over some super pizza and NZ sauvignon blanc, about experiments in which he is involved that look at slime. It is seriously groovy stuff that strongly implies that slime demonstrates irrational behaviour just like humans do – slime! Unicellular mass of stuff! I probably won’t do this justice, but from what I could decipher, his colleagues applied a problem seen in humans to this slime ball.

Here is the example he gave me from humans: If you ask a group of people to decide whether they would prefer

  • a house with a small kitchen and a large garden
  • or a house with a large kitchen and a small garden

then the choices will be evenly split – 50% choose small garden large kitchen. However, if you give them three choices by adding:

  • a house with a massive kitchen and no garden

then almost noone chooses the large garden small kitchen, but about 50% choose each of the others. So, having a third choice changes your preferences for the other two.

This is, as David pointed out, irrational. The research team has used the modus operandis of a slime ball, which is to promote its contact with a food source, to demonstrate the same effect.  David just got to this and the bruschetta arrived (which was, incidentally, overly garlic-ed!). I suspect we will get better information from David, so here is what he said when I emailed him about this post:

You should start at the beginning – by having a look at a similar project on ants, where they were rational. I wrote a little bit about it for a blog I have, which you can read here and there is also a nice popular thing on this in Current Biology, here.

There is another study I mentioned to Lorimer over the antipasto, about slimey and the railroad network. (from Lorimer – this is really groovy). It has a popular writeup by me and Toshi the Japanese researcher who did the work, here.  You can also find a link to the article there.

Check out David’s webpage. If you are remotely interested in this stuff, you might like his book, Collective Animal Behavior.

What has this got to do with pain? Not sure, but isn’t it cool research?

ResearchBlogging.orgEdwards SC, & Pratt SC (2009). Rationality in collective decision-making by ant colonies. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 276 (1673), 3655-61 PMID: 19625319

Williams, N. (2009). Collective rationality Current Biology, 19 (15) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.045

Tero A, Takagi S, Saigusa T, Ito K, Bebber DP, Fricker MD, Yumiki K, Kobayashi R, & Nakagaki T (2010). Rules for biologically inspired adaptive network design. Science (New York, N.Y.), 327 (5964), 439-42 PMID: 20093467

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