Friday, November 12, 2010

The lobster, considered

Boing Boing considers the lobster, or the most humane way to kill one:

According to Jennifer Basil, associate professor of Biology at City University of New York, Brooklyn College, it’s boiling. That’s because lobsters, like most invertebrates, don’t have the same kind of brain we do. Instead of having one, big central mass of neurons — i.e., the brain — lobsters spread their thinking around their bodies in several smaller masses, called ganglia.

“Every segment has its own little brain doing its own thing,” says Basil. Which is why, she says, it’s better to boil the lobster and kill all those mini-brains at once. “Cutting it up just creates two uncomfortable lobsters.”
But consider David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster”, which begins its examination of these matters (in the pages of Gourmet) by quoting a statement of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council: “‘The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.’” Says Wallace,
Though it sounds more sophisticated, a lot of the neurology in this latter claim is still either false or fuzzy. The human cerebral cortex is the brain-part that deals with higher faculties like reason, metaphysical self-awareness, language, etc. Pain reception is known to be part of a much older and more primitive system of nociceptors and prostaglandins that are managed by the brain stem and thalamus.[12] On the other hand, it is true that the cerebral cortex is involved in what’s variously called suffering, distress, or the emotional experience of pain — i.e., experiencing painful stimuli as unpleasant, very unpleasant, unbearable, and so on.
Endnote [12] adds:
To elaborate by way of example: The common experience of accidentally touching a hot stove and yanking your hand back before you’re even aware that anything’s going on is explained by the fact that many of the processes by which we detect and avoid painful stimuli do not involve the cortex. In the case of the hand and stove, the brain is bypassed altogether; all the important neurochemical action takes place in the spine.
I’m in no position to decide who’s right here. I only invite you to consider what Jennifer Basil has to say, what David Foster Wallace has to say, and what the lobster might have to say.

comments: 5

other Elaine said...

The part of 'Julie and Julia' that I disliked had to do with Julie's squeamish attitude about the lobster dish. Cooking (like Life) demands a bit of toughness.

That said, I imagine that being plunged into boiling water, until it proves fatal, excites whatever nerves and ganglia said lobster let's go with the quickest method. Humanity for les homards!

Pete said...

Anyone who's overly concerned with the most humane way to kill a lobster probably shouldn't be eating lobster at all.

Unknown said...

For the record, I (Jennifer Basil), do not eat lobster. I am not sure where you got this quotation, but beforehand I mentioned two other things 1) the main issue folks have with lobster is they have to do the killing themselves (a chicken is no less 'alive' when it is decapitated, than a lobster is when it is boiled) and 2) that the lobster should be cooled (anesthetized) first. Within a few seconds of hitting the hot water, they are dead without being stressed beforehand. Animals know.

All these notions of chopping them in half, chopping off the head, to 'ease suffering' --- make no sense with their nervous system. That was my point. However if one is concerned, the best solution is not to eat them at all.


Michael Leddy said...

Jennifer, thanks for commenting. The quotation comes from a post on Boing Boing — the link is in the first sentence of my post.

Unknown said...

Sure, thanks! I saw the Boing Boing -- no idea where they got it either! :) But I had prefaced it by saying I don't eat them (I study their behavior and like them walking around!).