David McPhail - The Bear's Toothache. PDF

PDF I spent Monday and much of Tuesday suffering from toothache, but luckily my dentist gave me an immediate appointment and amoxicillin is very effective. As soon as I started to feel better, it occurred to me to wonder just why toothache is so painful. Okay, it's dangerous, but there are many other conditions that are much worse, up to and including 100% fatal, and hurt much less. Why should that be? I looked around a bit on the web without finding anything useful.

So here's a theory that I'd like to run by you. From the point of view of evolutionary psychology, a natural question is what selection advantage there might be to having toothache be so painful. And in fact there is a plausible candidate! Toothache, I argue, is unusual in the following respect: a) it is fairly dangerous, and b) it is often easily treatable by simply removing the offending tooth. People have known how to remove teeth for a long time, plausibly far longer than recorded history.

Given these facts, it seems to me that there might well be a positive selection pressure towards experiencing toothache as very painful. The wusses like me will moan and complain about how horrible it is until the people around them can't take any more, and just have to do something to stop it. In contrast, some of the strong, silent types who clench their manly jaws and block out the pain will get blood poisoning and die. Even if this only happens to a modest proportion of the strong, silent types, it's pretty clear which strategy is going to win.

Is there any prediction made by the theory which would allow us to test it? Again, to my surprise, the answer is yes. Hardly any animals except humans are smart enough to be able to remove teeth (in fact, I am not sure any animals are that smart), so there should be no corresponding selection pressure. Hence other animals should not experience toothache as being equally painful.

Is this true? I'm not sure. A little googling confirms that humans are far from being the only species that suffers from toothache - for example, it's claimed to be a common problem for elderly dogs. But I have spent a reasonable amount of time in the company of elderly dogs, and I've never seen one display the symptoms that in a human would suggest a toothache. Dogs are pretty good at conveying emotion, so I would thought it'd be noticeable. On the other hand, maybe I'm just not enough of a dog person to pick up the cues. I know even less about horses.

Does anyone in the amazing Goodreads hive mind have more information?

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