I was reading a book of essays by the late David Foster Wallace this week, and aside from marveling over his prose style, what mainly stuck in my mind was that this was a guy with a substantial set of balls for writing what he did in Gourmet magazine a number of years ago.
Assigned to cover a story of the annual Maine Lobster Festival (theme for that year of 2003 ‘Lighthouses, Laughter and Lobster’), Wallace starts off portraying himself as an accidental tourist, jollying the reader through the standard fly-on-the-wall description of the event, the carnival atmosphere of the Sea Goddess competition and the lobster hats with giant wobbling lobster claws, and, in pride of place, the World’s Largest Lobster cooker (a giant boiling vat which processes 100 lobsters at a time).
And then, about midpoint in the article, he begins a slow ambush of Gourmet’s readers by remarking, almost as an aside: “A detail so obvious that most recipes don’t even bother to mention it is that each lobster is supposed to be alive when you put it in the kettle.”
That leads onto the arguments, put forward by the festival, that creatures like lobsters with a very primitive ‘animal consciousness’ don’t feel pain as we do, an argument Wallace demolishes – noting in particular that when dumped into a pot of boiling water, most lobsters begin ‘frantically clanging’ at the lid and ‘pathetic clinging’ to the side of the pot.
‘It is hard to deny in any meaningful way,’ he writes, ‘that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to escape the painful experience.’
Then he finally gets to the point: “So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?’
Not surprisingly, Gourmet magazine was inundated with letters from its readers, but Wallace wasn’t making a case for vegetarianism (he ate meat, he said).
He was pointing out the complex dilemma we humans have between our own pleasure and its moral implications when it comes to animals, that if an animal like a lobster can feel pain and try to resist when dumped into a pot of boiling water, then the Maine Lobster Festival can begin ‘to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.’
Aside from the animal rights issue here, his inquiry was even more fundamental: how much does an animal feel? Do their minds work more like ours than we care to admit?
The answer, it turns out, is yes and yes.
Modern science is demonstrating that animals have more and more sophisticated intelligence. According to David Robson, writing in New Scientist, ‘pigs have been taught to play video games, rats can learn the rules of hide-and-seek, and let’s not forget the golfing bees.’
Chimps routinely use stones as hammers and macaques in Bali have a sense of economics: they’ll exchange property they’ve stolen from tourists but only if offered a monkey’s idea of a high value lunch.
Ravens given tests designed for primates – everything from testing reasoning to communication and social skills – can do everything a chimp can do and do it younger.
So science is growing convinced that animals have human-like intelligence in many regards, but the majority of conventional scientists continues to maintain that animals do not feel the kind of pain we do and certainly don’t feel emotions.
However, these attitudes are now being challenged with the advent of sophisticated brain-imaging technology that can reveal brain function in specific areas of the brain in people with emotional disorders.
Scientists using these to study the brains of animals are discovering remarkable similarities in the emotional biology between species.
With those discoveries they have concluded that animals have sentience – the ability to have a conscious experience, to compare and understand experience, to have an internal representation of what is going on in their lives – in effect, to know that they know.
And even more, to have a feeling about it – good or bad.
The late Jaak Panksepp, professor emeritus of the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, was one of the first to show that many of the secondary ‘social’ emotions present in humans were also there in animals: separation distress; sexual attraction and lust; social attachment and bonding; and joy in play.
He and other scientists demonstrated, for instance, that rats can chirp with joy when tickled, bonding with their human playmates, that dogs, chimps and many other species have their own particular laugh when they find something funny or when anticipating roughhousing or play.
These secondary emotions are the more complicated variety as they require reflection and choice – a weighing up of the effects of different actions.
Without human speech, animals cannot prove to us that they think the same way we do about a certain situation.
But the evidence all points to some uncomfortable truths. And that brings us back to lobsters.
Jeffrey M. Masson, co-author (with Susan McCarthy) of When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals spelled out some of those discomfiting questions, one by one: ‘What are the implications of finding that animals lead emotional lives? Must we change our relationships with them? Have we obligations to them? Is testing products for humans on animals defensible? Is experimentation on animals ethical? Can we confine them for our edification? Kill them to cover, sustain and adorn ourselves? Should we cease eating animals who have complex social lives, are capable of passionate relations with one another and desperately love their children?’
The point, as David Wallace got to, is that if a lobster feels pain, and knows it, we are in even deeper ethical waters, as he noted to Gourmet’s readers, ‘about what the adjective in a phrase like ‘The Magazine of Good Living’ is really supposed to mean.’
In fact, if animals know and think and feel as we do, when it comes to our lives, this just about changes everything.
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