Amidst Boiling Debate, Scientists Question If Lobsters Feel Pain

What started out as a philosophical question about consciousness is being put to the scientific test. 

Unsplash / Francis MacDonald

This week, the Swiss Federal Council banned cooks from placing live lobsters in boiling water, and as of March 1, all lobsters must first be knocked unconscious by electric shock or “mechanical destruction” of the brain.

This would put Switzerland in the company of New Zealand and the small Italian city of Reggio Emilia, where leaders have also banned what they consider to be an inhumane way of killing the crustaceans.

The Swiss Federal Council also stipulates that lobsters must be transported in seawater, as opposed to ice or ice water, for their comfort.

Many researchers agree that lobsters cannot feel pain, though this convention was challenged by a 2013 study that showed that crabs avoided electric shocks, which suggests some level of ability to feel pain.

Speaking to the BBC at the time that the 2013 study was released, Bob Elwood from Queen’s University Belfast, said, “I don’t know what goes on in a crab’s mind…. but what I can say is the whole behavior goes beyond a straightforward reflex response and it fits all the criteria of pain.”

Traditionally, there have been two criteria that help determine if a being can experience pain: whether or not that being responds to the pain stimulus by moving either the whole body or affected body part away from the stimulus (called “nociception”), and whether or not that being experiences suffering.

Nociception is what the 2013 researchers observed in the crabs that moved away from electric shocks, but suffering is much harder to measure — whether in humans or in animals, since everyone expresses their experiences differently. However, scientists have typically considered that a central nervous system is required for pain, something that crustaceans do not have.

American author David Foster Wallace's influential request that we consider the lobster. 

“The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of a grasshopper,” says the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, as reported by David Foster Wallace in his essay, *Consider the Lobster. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.

A fact sheet produced by the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute continues that the twitching of the lobster is a reflex, rather than indicative of pain. “Known as the “escape response,” it is a reflex action to any sudden stimulus – a reaction that was first identified by George Johnson in 1924. The lobster is reacting to an external factor, such as an elevated water temperature.”

But the presence of a brain for the experience of pain is also debated. Temple Grandin, an animal behavioralist, argues in her 2005 book that “different species can use different brain structures and systems to handle the same functions.”

Joseph Ayers, a professor of marine and environmental services at Northeastern University, meanwhile, tells the New York Times “I think the idea of producing such a law is just a bunch of people anthropomorphizing lobsters. I find it really quite remarkable that people attribute to these animals humanlike responses when they simply don’t have the hardware for it.”

This is not the first time that lobsters have caused a stir in Europe recently, though the last lobster scandal was more heavily based in hard evidence. In 2016, Sweden banned live American lobsters from their shores out of concern for local species.

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