Voice of the Lobster

There was one lobster left in the tank when I left the restaurant. I felt sorry for the lonesome crustacean, but sadder for its late companions whose carapaces lay empty on customers’ plates. I had no reason to feel guilty because there was steak on my plate, and I never had to look a cow in the eye at the exit. But somewhere in the depths of memory the tortured voice of a lobster was calling in Wonderland. 

Alice in Wonderland: Voice of the Lobster

Lobster on Death Row

In Alice, the Lobster was a spineless coward, but lobsters are monarchs on restaurant menus, and lobster thermidor is a stately dish that takes a lot of preparation and is reserved for customers with deep pockets for special occasions. In the upside-down world of the Monty Python troupe, however, it was served in a seedy café and crowned with spam:

Mr. Bun: What have you got, then?

Waitress: Well there’s egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes, with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle paté, brandy and a fried egg on top and spam.

Spam meat
What a lot of Spam

Until I drafted this post I was under the impression that ‘thermidor’ was a word that described a method for cooking lobsters, or had a connection with a well-known manufacturer of kitchen appliances (Thermador). Wrong on both counts! The name can be traced back to a day in 1894 when a Parisian restaurant served a special lobster dish to celebrate the opening of Thermidor, a new play by Victorien Sardou at the Comédie Française. Thermidor was named after a summer month in the French Republican calendar when the Thermidorian Reaction took place, Robespierre was overthrown, and the Reign of Terror ended.

But thermidor will always remind me of peering through a cloud of steam over a cooking pot to watch a live lobster dance in the bubbling water.

Alice in Wonderland" Lobster Quadrille

I have often wondered (and always will) whether it is cruel to cook crustaceans alive? It’s a question that has been hovering around boiling point for a very long time, and the answer depends on whether animals can feel pain.

Alice in Wonderfland
The Lobster in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Illustrated by Sir John Tenniel

The Lobster could tell Alice what it felt like to be boiled, but she would still be left wondering because pain is a subjective experience that can’t be shared like other senses. Two people watching the same sunset or listening to the same rock band can expect to have the same experience, but pain is a private experience. When a nurse asks patients to estimate the degree of surgical pain on a scale up to 10 everyone understands what zero means, but we never know in any objective sense if their intolerable pain (10) is the same in ourselves. And, besides, the measure of pain medication needed is often different.

Pain may be pain but is not all the same. It can be acute or chronic, physical or psychogenic, nociceptive or neuropathic, somatic or visceral, localized or referred. And nuances are gated by mechanisms in the spinal cord that affect ascending pain signals to the brain. Have you, for instance, ever wondered why rubbing a bruised knee makes it feel better?

Saying we have empathy with someone who is suffering is kindly meant, but strictly nonsense because we cannot truly share the pain. And if we find this a slippery subject between members of our own species how much harder it is to understand in another species.

Pain is physiological as well as psychological, but it verges on the philosophical. René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy, had a view of animal pain that we no longer regard as enlightened, and has been used to justify animal cruelty. In saying, “…there is no prejudice to which we are all more accustomed from our earliest years than the belief that dumb animals think,” he was avowing that animals are mere mindless automata, and ipso facto cannot experience pain.  But not everyone agreed, even in those days. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote about our responsibility towards ‘brutes.’ “There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.”

Compassion grows as knowledge deepens, but controversy continues. As arguments about the consciousness of apes continue, can we ever know what a lobster feels? We should avoid putting too much faith in science because although it is very successful in revealing biological mechanisms and reactions it is rather ineffective at interrogating how animals feel. Lobsters have a primitive ‘brain’, nerves coursing the length of the body from peripheral sense organs, and endogenous opiates and some other chemical mediators of pain that we possess. More significantly they avoid hot water and nasty chemicals, but does this behavior mean they are in pain or just hacked off? It’s a serious question for lobsters, and something we try to avoid.

The late Julia Child was a celebrity chef and a kindly-looking woman. She merrily taught millions of TV viewers how to boil lobsters alive, and I have no doubt that she would have been horrified if it was found to be torture. Doubtless she would then have advised killing the animals humanely by jabbing them with a knife behind their eyes to the brain before cooking. But while uncertainty remains her recipe stands.

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, challenges our complacency: “So even if there is some room for doubt about the capacity of these animals (crustaceans) to feel pain…they should receive the benefit of the doubt.“ I don’t agree with all the declarations made by the Australian philosopher, but I admit his ethical consistency is impeccable. On the only occasion we were at dinner together I remember there were only plants on his plate, and no lobster tank at the restaurant door.

Next Post: A Grain of Satisfaction

Here Be Dragons

Butterfly numbers are down this year in Tidewater Virginia. Since 1999 when local naturalists began annual surveys there have been large fluctuations from year-to-year, but the numbers recorded this year on a hot July day were almost half the reckoning of last year, although most of the same species were seen (29 in all).

This scarcity was obvious from the moment surveyors set off for butterfly-favored habitats across the counties of Surry and James City. We had a hunch that a cold winter had killed the adults and pupae during their hibernation, but why then had so many other insects and arachnids fared okay? The only other reported paucity—and a welcome one—was the impression that there were fewer mosquitoes around. But the dragonfly population had soared. The abundance of golden-winged skimmers was astonishing. You could see hundreds (countless) at a time and in many locations throughout the study area buzzing hither and thither in frenzy. They were probably searching with their large, bulbous eyes to catch a fly or a date. But there was an Aha! moment when we saw another species on a branch munching an orange sulphur butterfly.

dragonfly & butterfly
Dragonfly eating an orange sulphur. Courtesy of Teta Kain

There is not much in common between a dragonfly and the serpentine, fire-breathing dragon of fables, but they are both voracious carnivores. Dragonflies have complete mastery of the air—they can fly forwards, backwards, sideways, even upside down, at over 30 mph after prey, and can eat as much as their own body weight in a day. With such aerobatic skills and all-round vision they should be the inspiration of drone modelers at the Pentagon. We wondered if dragonflies were responsible for the dearth of butterflies. Maybe.

As I write this post in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia butterflies are as common as they were a year ago. In a fifteen minute walk across a meadow I spotted two species of swallowtails, two of fritillaries, American coppers, wood satyrs, sulphurs, whites, a bevy of skipper species, and others too fast-flying to identify. All were plentiful, but there were no dragonflies. I saw none throughout the district because there is no standing water for them to breed.

Golden-winged skimmer (Libellula auripennis)

These observations seemed to clinch a simple explanation—one of cause and effect. When prey species were abundant in Tidewater last year the dragonflies produced a bumper brood that emerged as adults in 2014 to consume all the insects they could catch. They are highly efficient predators, even more so than lions and tigers, capturing prey 95 times out of 100 attempts.  The butterfly population may take a few years to recover and, unless they are a minor fraction of the diet, dragonflies will go hungry next year and not peak again until after a good butterfly year.

It’s a neat story and a familiar one of population cycles that Charles Elton (1900-1991) pioneered. He was an Oxford biologist who, as much as anyone, transformed the craft of the naturalist to the science of ecology. He was fascinated by the 3-5 year cycles of Arctic lemmings; he found their numbers rose year after year until they ate out their food supply and died in a Malthusian catastrophe of starvation (not by jumping off cliffs). Bringing the lemming story up to date, there was an irruption of snowy owls as far south as the Carolinas in the 2013-14 winter, which may be explained by a crash in the lemming population after the 2012 summer of plenty.

Neat explanations are sometimes true, but history records that after the first simple hypothesis is planted a thicket of other explanations grow up as scientists probe deeper, and not only in ecology.

When I was a newly-minted faculty member in Edinburgh, Professor L. Mary Pickford (1902-2002) casually made a remark in the common room one day that I have never forgotten. She had a retired as an eminent neurophysiologist who would have known Elton as a contemporary Fellow of the Royal Society (Britain’s national academy of sciences). You can imagine her like a twin of the old movie star, the very English Margaret Rutherford. Mary said that of all the changes she had witnessed in a long career in medical science one of the most dramatic was the replacement of single causes and effects by multiples. She probably had in mind her favorite research subject, the pituitary gland, for which textbooks in her youth listed a function, mostly only one, for each of its hormones. But nothing is so simple today. Prolactin, to take one example, is now claimed to have over a hundred different actions in various animals. And for another example, oxytocin has been found since that conversation with Mary to be involved in maternal behavior, anxiety, and sexual orgasm, and can no longer be considered as just a ‘birth and milking hormone.’

Likewise, Elton’s theory that lemmings periodically eat out their food supply has been extended to include complex prey-predator relationships. And, moreover, ecologists predict that their population cycles will lengthen in future as Arctic warming affects snow pack and vegetation.  Nature appears more complicated and expansive the closer we examine it and on every scale—from the menagerie of sub-atomic particles through the structure and biochemistry of cells to galaxies at the known edge of the universe.

As a student cramming for exams I remember craving for simple stories in physiology, and found the deepening and broadening of knowledge to be frustrating, if not annoying, jolts to work harder! But I now think that complexity is something to celebrate, and if it seems bottomless perhaps we ought to approach it with reverent awe.  And so I am musing whether our hunch about dragonflies is too simplistic, although I suspect we will never be sure. I hope we are becoming a little more humble in claiming knowledge and cast off the certainties that old cartographers had when they printed on the far side of oceans, Here Be Dragons.

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)

Next Post: Doc Bamboo


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