Pain and Suffering — The Lobster Revisted

We had a comment by one of our readers, Amy, in regard to our post Lobsters Feel Pain Too. Amy points out that she believes the article we referenced at the beginning of our post, "Crustaceans Feel Pain" published in the Guardian (a United Kingdom newspaper) uses "bad science" to support a good cause. Amy also suggests that we didn't read the entire article before writing our post.

Actually, Jane and I did read the entire article, and many others as well. The research supporting that lobsters feel pain was done by Professor Robert Elwood, an expert in animal behavior at Queen's University, Belfast. In the article referenced above, the rebuttal (which was not mentioned in our previous post) came from Richard Chapman, of the University of Utah's Pain Research Center in Salt Lake City. He claims the lobsters are merely retreating from a noxious stimulant and that "even a single-cell organism can detect a threatening chemical gradient and retreat from it, but this is not sensing pain." This ideology is supported by Lynne Sneddon, a Liverpool University researcher who stated that "shrimps do not have a recognisable brain" and therefore cannot sense pain since their nervous systems are not advanced enough.

Elwood contradicts these arguments by saying "Using the same analogy, one could argue crabs do not have vision because they lack the visual centres of humans" and concluded that there should be further work looking at whether crustaceans have the neurological architecture to feel pain. In his interview on NPR he is quite conclusive that they do feel pain. In his study, Elwood put chemicals on two groups of prawns (prawns and lobsters presumably share the same pain sensitivity), one had been pre-treated with water and the other with an anesthetic. The group pre-treated with the anesthetic did not react to the chemical, whereas the group pre-treated with only water did react. According to Professor Elwood, this proves that crustaceans do experience pain, however, he states, "what is not conclusive is that these animals do not experience pain in the way that we do."

According to Wikipedia, the issue is unresolved, however, the most current research (Professor Elwood's) indicates that lobsters feel pain. Also lobsters produce opioids which are neurochemicals that help mitigate pain. The presence of opioids suggests lobsters can feel pain.

In an article by Jane Smith, PhD, entitled "A Question of Pain in Invertebrates" - published by ILAR (the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research), Ms. Smith states that registering of a noxious stimulus may simply be a reflex in invertebrates, but goes on to say that pain is a subjective experience and suggests that we may not be able to "understand what other individuals (of our own or other species) might experience." She concludes that "A principle of respect should lead those who use invertebrates in research (or display them in zoos, rear them for food, and so on) to try to maintain the highest possible standards of husbandry and care, so as to promote the animals' general 'well-being' and, whenever practicable, to give the animals the benefit of the doubt where questions of pain and suffering are concerned."

And finally, from the abstract of Can Invertebrates Suffer? Or, How Robust is Argument-by-Analogy?

Suffering is a negative mental state – a private experience – and, as such, it cannot be measured directly. When assessing the capacity of an animal to experience suffering, we often compare the similarity of its responses with those of 'higher' animals, conceptualized in the principle of argument-by-analogy. By closely examining the responses of invertebrates, it can be seen that they often behave in a strikingly analogous manner to vertebrates.

Some of the research I've read claims that "lower" animals cannot feel pain as pain has an emotional component to it, and they lack the physical capacity to feel pain/suffer. Pain, suffering... As a vegan, I try not to inflict these states on beings so that I may eat. (Okay, so this brings up the migrant worker issue, which I am not prepared to discuss on this blog.)

Clearly, the lobster is experiencing a negative state, both when being boiled alive, and when it is put into a crowded tank in a well lit area (lobsters are solitary creatures who dwell in a dark environment).

So Amy, while I might agree with you that bad writing on my part (for not citing these other references in my earlier post) could be criticized, I don't think this is bad science. If you look hard enough, you can find conflicting research on almost anything. I am basing my post on the conclusions I am drawing from the materials I've read. You are free to come to a different conclusion as there really doesn't seem to be any definitive evidence at this point.

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Comments

  1. Great post, thank you.

    I would like for humanity to get past the point where it desperately looks for excuses and loopholes to justify cruelty and exploitation.

    I wrote about the intersection of lobsters, science, suffering, compassion, and morals here.

  2. Hi Gary,
    Thanks.
    I read your post at the link above. It’s excellent. I fully expect reference it in a future post.
    Today’s post touches on the same topic… I’m sure you’ve seen Earthlings. We found it very powerful and worthy of recognition.

  3. I don’t think you should avoid the migrant farm worker issue in this blog – not saying you should delve into it in depth, since that’s not the topic of this blog, but when it’s relevant it should be discussed some.

    I’m a vegan due to caring about animals. I also am appalled by the treatment of farm workers, whether migrants or not, yet I eat produce which is picked by them. Does that make me a hypocrite? Does it mean that I care more about animals than humans? Not at all. Because it’s not hard to avoid buying/eating food that requires the imprisonment and torture of animals. Whereas it is extremely difficult to avoid buying/eating food that is grown/harvested by terribly exploited labor. Pretty much all food is grown/harvested by workers who are mistreated, so to avoid this I would have to buy food directly from small family farms where I knew nobody was being awfully exploited or I’d have to grow food myself. Difficult to impossible.

    This doesn’t mean I forget about the humans. I work to create a world where neither humans or animals are exploited.

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