A Self-Aware Fish?

A pair of Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasses. Fish like these caused a controversy among psychologists.

Have you ever heard of the mirror test? It is used by biologists to determine whether an animal is self-aware. The test goes like this: a mirror is placed in an animal’s enclosure. It is left there so that the animal becomes accustomed to it. When the animal is accustomed to the mirror, a mark is made on the animal. Something small that can be seen but not felt, like a small dot of paint. Moreover, this mark needs to be put somewhere so that it cannot be seen by the animal except by seeing the mark on its reflection. Usually, a mark is made on the face, since no animal can really see its own face except by looking in a mirror. If the animal removes, or attempts to remove, the mark, then the animal has passed the test. Since it could only see the mark by seeing it in the mirror, the animal had to recognize its reflection as itself, see the mark on itself, and then remove it. Thus, it is concluded, an animal that passes the mirror test must be self aware, since it can recognize itself more abstractly (recognizing its reflection, as opposed to simply reacting to what happens to its body).

The mirror test is interesting. After all, knowing whether an animal is able to recognize itself in a mirror or not certainly reveals something about its comprehensive capabilities. However, it is something that often has an evolutionary edge to it. For example, there are said to be nine species of animal that have passed the mirror test. Four of these are the chimpanzee, the bonobo,[1] the orangutan, and the gorilla. Three other animals that have passed the test are the Asian elephant, bottlenose dolphin, and the killer whale.[2] Notice a trend? The first four animals are all “close relatives” of humans, and the other three are mammals very often considered to be highly intelligent. In fact, for a time, it was thought that a special development of the mammalian brain was needed to allow for self-awareness. That changed when Eurasian magpies passed the mirror test.[3] Well, more properly, the magpies were interpreted as having “convergently evolved” the same capability of self-awareness, utilizing a different part of the brain. However, considering that birds are considered to be “highly developed dinosaurs,” they can be welcomed into the elite group “self-aware” animals.

Probably the part about the mirror test that bugs me the most is that we have to be reminded that humans fail the mirror test until they are about two years old.[4] Honestly, I do not know the intent of reminding us that humans “are not self-aware” until they are two years old. It is as if we need to know that before a child reaches two years old, that child is “inferior” to a chimpanzee. Now, I am honestly probably reading more into this claim than is actually being made. Most people who point out that children younger than two fail the mirror test are probably just stating the facts. The truth is, even those who are proponents of using the mirror test are aware of its limitations.[5] However, it still comes across as “convenient” that humans are not “self-aware” until a certain age, as if self-awareness is something that has to develop, rather than something built into humans.

The fact that animals that pass the mirror test are animals that “should” be self-aware and the fact that humans are not “self-aware” until the age of two makes the following research especially interesting. Back in 2018, some researchers used the mirror test on cleaner wrasses. This is a type of fish that cleans the mouths of other fish by eating parasites and food stuck in their mouths. As it turns out, the cleaner wrasses passed the mirror test. The researchers were fully aware that demonstrating that a cleaner wrasse passed the mirror test would be controversial since they are not thought to have the cognitive ability to be self-aware. They noted that it is possible that cleaner wrasses passed the test because they are truly self-aware or that they passed the test using some other cognitive capabilities that resembles self-awareness. Regardless of what interpretation is taken, their research challenges the typical interpretation that animals that pass the mirror test are somehow more cognitively special.[6] 

While the discovery that cleaner wrasses pass the mirror test caused a lot of controversy, apparently, it was also claimed as far back as 2015 that some ants can pass the mirror test. However, that research was apparently more up for interpretation,[7] meaning that this cleaner wrasse research ruffled the feathers of psychologists all over again. The conclusion right now appears to be that the mirror test is still a useful test, but interpreting its significance has become a lot more complicated.

From a creationist perspective, how important is the mirror test in determining self-awareness? Frankly, I do not know. Sure, it seems like self-awareness “should” be something special found in humans. However, it should be noted that any sort of physical or behavioral trait that we ascribe to humans as “special” that distinguishes them from animals is an assumption made by people. There are only two things that we are told about the creation of humans that makes them distinct from animals. Firstly, Adam was created directly by God (Genesis 2:7) while animals were brought forth out of the earth by the command of God (Genesis 1:24). Second, humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Based on the Biblical account, we know that humans are special and distinct from animals. However, how that special creation by God and being created in His image affects our behavior as distinct and separate from animals is not directly explained.

I believe that there are differences that we can see and observe between humans and animals. The mirror test simply is not one of them because both humans and some animals can pass the test. So what are some of these differences? Well, I plan on getting into some ideas about that in a later post.

Thoughts from Steven.

[1]In case you are not familiar with the bonobo, it a second species of chimpanzee. The more familiar chimpanzee is sometimes called the common chimpanzee and the bonobo has been called the pygmy chimpanzee. Since bonobos are not any smaller than common chimpanzees, they are usually simply called bonobos.

[2]Pachniewska, Amanda “List of Animals That Have Passed  the Mirror Test” retrieved from http://www.animalcognition.org/2015/04/15/list-of-animals-that-have-passed-the-mirror-test/ on September 25, 2021


[4]Such a reminder is given in the beginning of Mitchell-Yellin, Benjamin (2018) “The Mirror Test and the Problem of Understanding Other Minds” retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-death-and-the-self/201812/the-mirror-test-and-the-problem-understanding-other-minds on September 25, 2021

[5]Pachniewska, Amanda “List of Animals That Have Passed  the Mirror Test” retrieved from http://www.animalcognition.org/2015/04/15/list-of-animals-that-have-passed-the-mirror-test/ on September 25, 2021

[6]Kohda, Masanoir; Takashi Hotta; Tomohiro Takeyama; Satoshi Awata; Hirokazu Tanaka; Jun-ya Asai; and Alex Jordan (2019) ” If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for the consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals?” PLoS Biol 17(2): e3000021

[7]Pachniewska, Amanda “List of Animals That Have Passed  the Mirror Test” retrieved from http://www.animalcognition.org/2015/04/15/list-of-animals-that-have-passed-the-mirror-test/ on September 25, 2021

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