Lobster is one of the most prized meats in American cuisine, a delicacy that has retained its status as a luxury good in spite of its recent overabundance in wholesale markets. Nevertheless, controversy over lobster welfare along the sea-to-dinnerplate pipeline has simmered for decades. While chicken breasts and beef cuts are prepared out of the immediate view of the public eye, any average Joe can walk into a seafood market, pick out a live lobster, and prep the animal at home using a practice that can make even the most hardened meat-eaters squirm—by boiling the lobster alive. In Consider the Lobster, arguably the most popular account of this dilemma, essayist David Foster Wallace fails to reach any conclusion regarding the morality of this practice, ending his argument with a warning to both lobster naysayers and enthusiasts to keep the peace in a debate riddled by slippery-slopes along both scientific and moral lines of reasoning.
Given these uncertainties, I felt a mixture of bemusement and skepticism when I stumbled upon the headline, “Experiments reveal that crabs and lobsters feel pain,” on the Nature News Blog earlier this month. At face value, experiments on lobster pain might seem unnecessary, because lobsters tend to thrash around when dropped into boiling water, an easily recognizable sign of distress. The real debate then rests on the distinction between the sensation of a noxious stimulus, formally called nociception, and the “aversive sensation and feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” In other words, we need to articulate the difference between pain and suffering. While this distinction may appear semantic, studies in humans have shown that the reflex to withdraw a hand from a painful stimulus actually precedes the experience of that pain, illustrating that nociception and pain are likely distinct. This is complicated by the fact that the words ‘nociception’ and ‘pain’ are often used interchangeably, even in the scientific literature. The headline tackles this controversy head-on—either something groundbreaking has been achieved in our ability to assess the emotional components of pain in crustaceans, or the Nature blog was overstating its claims.
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