The starting point for our project is the social brain hypothesis: that humans and other primates have big brains because they have complex social lives. It takes a lot of brain power to keep track of all our friends and enemies. Just think about how much of your thoughts during today were dedicated to sorting out interpersonal relationships. You soon realize that you may well possess a social brain. And that brain costs you, not only through the time spent worrying about what other people think about you, but also because of the large amount of energy it consumes.
Our research will look at fish and their brains. Of course, fish do not have as complex brains as we do, but there is good reason to believe that the structure and capacity of the brain will effect social behavior, and visa-versa. Are fish bred for big brains more social than those with small brains? Are fish that are bred on the basis of their social interactions more likely to have smaller or larger brains? These are some of the things we aim to find out.
|Turning response of a guppy as a function |
of the position of its nearest neighbor
(image by Andrea Perna)
Recent debate about the interpretation of Niclas and his co-workers results make my distinction between simple and complicated sociality all the more important. Sue Healy and Candy Rowe argued that differences in the ability of big and small brained fish to learn in a numerical task could be explained by changes in the motivation and stimulation of fish, instead of genuine intelligence differences. The suggestion is that simple behavioral rules can explain apparently complex outcomes. Naturally, Niclas is not convinced by their argument and their team gave a robust response. Our approach should allow us to get to the bottom of exactly these types of details. It will hopefully reveal some of the subtleties of the social brain.
This is a big project, and guppy breeding experiments are just part of it. We will develop better data analysis methods, make more accurate models of fish interactions, and look at in-silico evolution of fish shoaling (hence my recent revived interest in artificial life). The project starts properly in July 2014, once Niclas has totally renovated his lab. We will be recruiting both theoretical and experimental Postdocs in the spring and there should be a possible PhD project too. Watch this space for more details.