15 February 2005

Ignorance may not be bliss, but perhaps it is painless

Making the rounds on the Associated Press wire service is this news article on what is arguably the question we crustacean neurobiologists get asked: does it hurt a lobster when you boil it? It's a topic I've dealt with in this journal before (see comments here and here). I am bitterly disappointed to see people saying that lobsters don't have brains. Again. "No brain, no pain," one Mike Loughlin is quoted as saying. I won't comment on the pain portion, but as to the claim that a lobster has no brain? It is wrong. It is false. It is incorrect. It is untrue. I don't know how much more flatly I can say it. Lobsters have brains. So do crabs and crayfish and other crustaceans. So do insects (insects also get slapped in the article with this quote: "...the lobster's primitive nervous system and underdeveloped brain are similar to that of an insect."). So do other arthropods. They all have brains. But because this is a wire story, probably being sent around the world, there's not much I can do to try to set the record straight. I just don't have time to fire off emails to every newspaper and media outlet that runs the story. Alas, as Darwin once noted, great is the power of steady misrepresentation.

Furthermore, there is good evidence that at least some arthropods have nociceptors (sensory neurons that respond preferentially to tissue damage): see this abstract in the prestigious journal Cell here or here. That said, nociception is not pain, though the two are obviously closely related concepts. In this specific case of crustaceans, there is no published evidence I am aware of for or against nociception in crustaceans—and I've looked more than once. But then, it was only recently that the findings on nociception in the intensely-studied fruit fly (the Cell article above) were published.

What is all the more frustrating about this matter is that it is easily solved. Lobsters can be anesthetized by placing them on ice for a while. I have never heard anyone say that this affects the taste. Thus, it would be easy enough to ease any guilt one might feel over boiling an alert animal.

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