THE LATEST THINKING
The opinions of THE LATEST’s guest contributors are their own.
In January, Switzerland became one of a few regions to ban boiling lobsters alive, stating that it is inhumane. As someone who studies both neuroscience and food systems, here’s what I have found out.
If any of you have read David Foster Wallace’s short essay “Consider the Lobster,” it brings light to a situation that has long been cast aside — boiling lobsters alive — but it also could be interpreted as a metaphor for human-centric decision making. Our assumption that lobsters can’t feel pain because they have a less developed nervous system is from an anthropomorphic viewpoint — and is excusing a behavior to fit our needs without knowing if it is really true. So is it true?
First, we have to understand two things: basic lobster anatomy and what pain is. Lobsters don’t have a central nervous system in the human sense — with a brain and spinal cord. Instead, they have a series of central ganglia or bundles of nerves along their back that serve as the rebound center for electrical signals.
Does this mean that they can’t feel pain? Pain is extremely subjective. Pain in humans is dependent on the pain signal sent from receptors being received and processed by the brain. Without processing we cannot feel pain and so in a sense pain is closely tied to consciousness.
It is even more difficult when you are dealing with an animal in which it is thought that consciousness doesn’t exist. For most animal rights regulations, there are certain observations that are used for determining pain in an animal but these have not been applied to crustaceans, as many organizations don’t classify them as an “animal”.
Even if we determine that they can’t feel “pain” that does not mean that lobsters don’t suffer.
Lobsters are extremely temperature dependent as the temperature of the water they live in is crucial to their survival. Being dropped into a pot of boiling water is therefore not very enjoyable. Because of their simple nervous system, they are also unable to go into shock, an evolutionary adaption to limit suffering, and will suffer until they die (which in a pot of water can take a couple minutes to 10 minutes depending on the temperature).
How do you make death less traumatizing then? Well, lobsters are extremely difficult to kill swiftly. Because they don’t have a brain, all of the ganglia have to be destroyed simultaneously to have no suffering occur. This means that just chopping off their head doesn’t do the trick. However, there are stun guns that are capable of inhibiting all central ganglia in a matter of seconds. I think this might be the best alternative we have.
Switzerland may be one of the first to try and protect lobsters, but in reality, they don’t deal with a large percentage of the lobster industry. However, we do. The US and Canada are responsible for a large portion of the lobster catch, and therefore, changes made in these countries will be the most impactful.