A deformity too far?

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We've all got different tastes, but can we argue for an objective standard that none of us should cross? I think we can, says Nathan Hill, but we all need to sit down and discuss it if it's ever going to mean anything.


Ask yourself what outrages you when it comes to genetic tinkering. I’ll wager that if you give it a minute, you’ll find something that is ‘too far’ for your sensibilities.

If you’re a conservative purist, you probably thought of something quite close to what you keep in your tanks. Maybe you’re a catfish keeper with Synodontis, and your idea of an extremity was an unfortunate coupling of mother/son or father/daughter fish in your tank. Perhaps even the idea of siblings spawning you is enough to make you reach for the clove oil and disinfect your gene pool.

If you’re ultra-liberal about it, you might have little ethical quandry with even quite extreme examples. You might have a tankful of hybrids yourself, and think nothing of a cupboard full of GM foods.

But the latter camp will still have a cut off point. What if I found a way to crossbreed two animals to give me a fish with two heads? Is that beyond what you’d deem acceptable? Or perhaps I might breed an incredibly colourful snake that suffers digestive issues. How about a line-bred hamster that grows so much fur, and so quickly, that it rapidly overheats and suffers, all because of its aesthetically pleasing mutation? All of these ideas are pertinent to what we need to ask ourselves about cut-off points.

Some folks might bite the bullet at this stage and say that there’s no such thing as an excessive mutation, but they’d have all their work ahead of them. The moment my tinkering produces, say, a mutated human that howls in pain for all of its short life, then I think it would be hard to argue that a line has been crossed and that something objectively ‘wrong’ has occurred.

At that point, at least, we have secured the principle. It is, I think, possible to show that there is a universal, agreed value that we might describe as ‘wrong’ in the manipulation of species.

I think we can establish a case that involves suffering as our basis, and work from there. I’ve yet to hear a sound argument that says that pain is good aside from some equivocal cases (a person might argue that the pain of practice, say for competitive sports or music, is outweighed by the gain it gives afterwards, but this is not relevant to the aspect of pain that we are discussing here). In a nutshell, if I plainly state here that pain, and causing pain is bad, and that increasing happiness and reducing pain is good, it would take all manner of logical backflips to try to refute it.

From there, I think our objective value can be based around pain reducing/pain creating situations. If our manipulation of an animal causes it to suffer, then we can deem it as objectively wrong. If it reduces pain (and this could be applied at another time to euthanasia cases) then it may be deemed good.

With that established – and I’m more than open to argue that such a standard can exist – what remains to be argued is exactly where the boundaries of taste sit.

The reason this blog has arisen is in response to yet another balloon/squat variety of fish that has appeared in the trade. This time, the unfortunate fish should be a no-brainer, as it positively sits in two camps – manipulated and tankbuster at the same time. This fish is the short-tailed Red tailed catfish. And it’s out there.

But it’s still debatable, and from the angle of rational discourse, I’m actually a bit disarmed by it.

For those newer to the subject, Red tailed catfish are the ocean liners of aquarium fish. They are huge, consume lots of fuel, and when they go down they’re liable to take the captain of the ship with them. At about 120cm fully grown (unverified records hint at a 175cm whopper once caught), they have become one of six key species for the Big Fish Campaign – an honest attempt by public aquaria and the trade at large to stop the selling of gigantic species.

So the biggest problem of the Red tailed cat is that it gets large, to the point where it can no longer be housed in aquaria, and is unable to exhibit typical traits of natural behaviour (like being able to turn around, for example). There’s good reason that I have always held a position that these fish are untankable and should not appear in retailers, aside for those cases where the customer is a stable millionaire who has the facilities to open up an amply sized tropical pond.

Furthermore, I’ve often quipped – only half jokingly – that the day I can breed a Great white shark that gets to only 15cm long, I will be an overnight millionaire (ironically qualifying me to keep giant fish...)

You might be able to see where I’m heading here, but if it might be argued that the squat body of the Red tail catfish variant causes it no suffering or pain, and allows it to exhibit a healthy and enjoyable life, then what is the problem? Pragmatically, there’s of course an issue that it’ll still get big – perhaps 60 or 80cm long instead of 120cm. But then 60cm is a lot better than 120cm (or 175cm!) when it comes to housing.

The problem I face, if I might call it such, is that despite my own disinclinations to the fish, even falling back on my purist sensibilities, I cannot find a strong enough reason to condemn the fish aside it being beyond my personal taste. If it can be shown to be as happy as a standard Red tail, or happier, and if its quality of life is no worse than its non-tinkered counterpart, then who am I to complain? In fact, I’m almost disturbed that I have to say that perhaps – just perhaps – these could be a (probably inappropriate) solution for some of those folks who are adamant that they want a Red tail of some sort, yet can only extend to a big enough tank for something slightly sub-sized.

I promise you that I’ll not be buying one myself any time soon, even if I do find myself owning a tropical pond. And I equally promise that my ambivalence will only remain for as long as we are unable to conclusively show suffering or pain in squat catfish types. The moment we can, the objective standard raised earlier comes back in to play, and anyone wanting to argue in favour of keeping one will have all their work ahead of them.

For what it’s worth, and based on what we know about other balloon fish, my personal sentiment is that the quality of life is more than likely impeded by the Red tail’s balloon form, and my de-facto stance is that they need to be avoided, but for impartiality I’d have to state that I lack the evidence to conclude either way.

How about the ‘horns?

The debate about cut-off points spills partway over into the Flowerhorn and Parrot cichlid camp, too. Make no mistake that Parrots are incredibly popular amongst lay fishkeepers, and if affordable, I think Flowerhorns would be too. As for Parrothorns…

Arguments about these fish have similarities to the squat catfish discussion, though the two cases aren’t strictly analogous. This was highlighted recently when I asked Facebook users on the PFK page what they thought of Flowerhorns, and then sat back with some popcorn to watch the resulting carnage.

Of interest, most critics of Flowerhorns used emotive language to cite their distaste, but like myself with the squat catfish scenario, struggled to put forward a valid support of their case. Emotions reigned, with a strong undertow of ‘do we know if the fish suffers/if so then wrong’ about it all, but there wasn’t what I would consider a decisive knockdown argument against Flowerhorn enthusiasts.

On the Flowerhorn defendant’s side, the general argument was based on a line of fallacious reasoning known as the ‘companions in guilt’ move. This goes roughly as follows.

1) Flowerhorns are man-made variants of an animal.

2) Other man-made variants like dogs are deemed acceptable

Conclusion = Flowerhorns are also acceptable.

There are a few things wrong with this argument. Firstly, a companion in guilt move can only really work if the cases in question are identical. However, in this case they are not.

Domestic dogs, the end result of long chains of line breeding and mixing of breed types from the same species, are indeed removed from their original ‘ancestor’. But they are, at least, of the same species.

Flowerhorns, by contrast, are a mixture of two very distinct species, and so the proposition is very different. Remember that for the companion in guilt move to work here, the contrast needs to be parallel – using dogs as the basis does not work. If the argument was that we equally accept other hybrid animals, clearly defined as such, then it may have legs. Unfortunately, it falls on false equivalence instead, comparing two different cases as though they are the same.

Admittedly, there are some analogous situations that live closer to home, and some of which many fishkeepers might be guilty. Do we shun albino fish, for example, which could be argued to have a lower standard of living that a Flowerhorn?

But there’s a deeper problem to ‘companion’ moves, in that they expect us to accept the premises without question. Let us, for argument’s sake, assume the premises are analogous and see if the argument still holds.

Accepting that Flowerhorns are man-made animals is not really something to debate, but the second premise – that we accept other man-made variants – is awful shaky.

Other man-made variants like dogs are in fact subject to intense and increasing scrutiny, as more folks understand that the line breeding involved can be detrimental to the animals. People are ever more inclined to look for a healthy mutt than a disadvantaged pedigree, and even the ownership of some breeds (Pugs, for example) is enough to cause altercations and remonstrations in the street.

So the second premise, that we accept other hybrids (with the implicit premise that we accept them despite their health issues) doesn’t hold, and can’t be submitted as a general argument. The whole thing crumbles down, as many arguments of this type often do.

We could also be more charitable and compare to other extreme fish. But then if the second premise compared Flowerhorns to fancy goldfish strains, it could still equally hold that a fishkeeper could be just as critical of a Ranchu or Bubble eye as they are Flowerhorns. Only a person who argues in favour of fancies, while simultaneously decrying Flowerhorns as monstrosities could be accused of any kind of hypocrisy.

Based on the objective standard that (I hope) we can agree on – pain, suffering and detriment – is there any way to condemn the Flowerhorn? The fish, as I’ve seen them, look happy and healthy enough, feed well, and go through the kinds of behaviours I expect of most big cichlids (mainly involving biting). I suspect that I need to wind my neck in a little before I think about condemning them.

There are other practical reasons that some might not like Flowerhorns in the trade. They might fear that the fish could ruin bloodlines of other species through interbreeding, or that they might be inadvertently purchased by naïve newcomers, who then become remorseful and leave the hobby when they learn of the ‘deception’ But these are only small practical issues that can be overcome easily enough (assuming retailers and hobbyists choose to behave responsibly), and not damning to the Flowerhorn’s existence, per se.

What we face is a lack of empirical evidence, and I suspect that it may remain that way for a short while yet. Until we can put the pain debate in fish to bed once and for all, and when we start to have ways of unambiguously measuring ‘happiness values’ or ‘suffering quantities’ in our livestock, then we may have to agree to disagree.

You have your tastes, and I have mine, and as long as that’s not hurting the fish, then I think we can all get along just fine. But I’m happy to engage with any arguments if anyone thinks I’m missing something fundamental here and should be picking a fight with an aquarist who genuinely loves his or her hybrids. Let me know.