Patior, Ergo Sum – I Hurt, Therefore I Am

I’m taking a break from my usual focus on DNA, epigentics, and autism to address a scientific and ethical dilemma which for years has dogged researchers and philosophers alike. Do animals feel pain? If so, do all creatures with some semblance of a central nervous system feel pain? And if they do, is it ethical for us to eat or mistreat them?

Now, first off, I’m no expert. The only expertise I share in the field of pain perception are the pains emanating from my own body. (That damn left knee always pops as I walk up stairs and I’m certainly prone to soar throats.) This said, I should also add that I’m most assuredly an “animal person”. Growing up, I remember spending more time with the family pets than neighborhood friends and the first movie I cried at was Benji. Even though I’m no vegetarian or vegan, I am 100% for the respectful and empathic treatment of our domesticated and wild earthly companions– keeping in mind I don’t have a huge problem in eating them considering they have a tendency to eat each other as well. And if I tasted better, they’d probably have a go at me too.

Recently I read a media article in National Geographic entitled, “Debate Continues: Did Your Seafood Feel Pain?” Not being an expert in this area, I initially found it surprising that such a notion was hotly debated. (I’m guessing between seafood versus beef fanatics?) As an animal lover who has shared her life with a range of mammalian, reptilian, and avian friends, the idea that researchers still had doubts that not all multicellular motile organisms have the capacity to perceive pain seemed, well, kind of asinine. But that’s just my perception. 😉

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand where the debate stems from. The lack of consensus amongst scientists lies in that fact that nociception, the rapid detection of a noxious stimulus, and the actual experience of pain seem to be two distinct occurrences. The former generally induces a reflexive reaction while the latter is suspected to underlie learning in order to facilitate future avoidance. The inspiration for NatGeo’s piece was a new study by Magee and Elwood (2013), studying crabs and the effects of electric shock on future avoidance. In short, the study suggests that some, though not all, crabs learn their lesson, with learning used as an inference of pain sensation. Although apparently not all scientists agree that such experiments prove that crustaceans truly experience pain. Once again leading to the question: Is it okay for me to just chuck this lobster into the pot or not?

There do seem to be ties between pain sensation and learning. Other studies have shown that crabs learn from certain stimuli and that using NMDA receptor antagonists blocks this learning under certain conditions. For anyone new to the NMDA-R game, NMDA, long-term potentiation, and neural plasticity have been related hot topics for many years [1]. So if it’s simply a question of whether an organism is able to learn in order to infer it can sense pain, I’d imagine the majority of our seafood is not pleased about being caught, baked, broiled, or boiled. But once again, we’re depending on inferences. And perhaps that’s the whole problem when trying to measure perception.

In a philosophical and ethical sense, this debate smacks of Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum — I think therefore I am”, in which he demonstrated that the only thing about which one can be certain is one’s own perception. And when it comes to perception, how do scientists ever hope to measure the immeasurable? Delineating differences in the mechanisms of nociception is one thing, but actually proving whether an organism does or does not feel pain… It sounds to me as thought Descartes answered this conundrum several hundred years ago and scientists are currently trying to reinvent the uninventable wheel.

Studying the ways in which a given organism may or may not perceive and how it reacts to pain is fine. Perception undoubtedly varies by central nervous system and to each his own. But for the fact that such research is subsequently used to either support or deny the ethical treatment of non-human organisms has effects far beyond knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Ethically, the debate sounds more like justification of mistreatment rather than a search for truth.

I mean, come on, folks: Debating over whether boiling a lobster alive is painful or not? Science is all about inductive reasoning but a little common sense can go a long, long way.

2 responses to “Patior, Ergo Sum – I Hurt, Therefore I Am

  1. Emily, have you already “met” (in a manner of speaking) Dr. Zen Faulkes, a colleague of yours in invertebrate neuroethology?

    I’ve already posted a comment in his blog recommending yours. And so, in case you haven’t met, it’s only right to recommend his interesting thread on the theme here–

    “What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain”
    see link:

    You both cite the work of Magee and Elwood.

    “Interesting minds intersect.” or something like that.

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