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

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

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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