When scrolling through this week’s publication, this article might seem like the most random one of all. Why does a lobster’s nervous system even matter? Well, not only are lobsters some of the most fascinating creatures on this planet, but their surprisingly complex nervous systems, comparable to those of humans, are not only the foundations of multiple research studies, but the origin of the ethical implications of killing animals for human consumption.
Lobsters, largely solitary creatures, find shelter on the ocean floor. The obvious issue with this situation stems from the limited space on the seafloor and the numerous lobsters attempting to find a patch to call home. Survival of the fittest comes into play when underwater competition arises, and dominance hierarchies are sure to arise. But when it comes to lobsters, it isn’t brain nor brawn that truly determines the pecking order, but biochemistry.
More specifically, the levels of a hormone called serotonin within a lobster regulate whether a lobster will exhibit dominant traits or more submissive ones. Male lobsters with high levels of serotonin, for example, are more likely to challenge other males to a fight over territory. Female lobsters with high levels of serotonin are more likely to compete with other females for a stronger mate. Meanwhile, lobsters with lower levels of serotonin, regardless of gender, tend to scurry away from conflict and competition.
These levels of serotonin are by no means static. When dominant lobsters lose a dispute over territory or mates, their brain quite literally dissolves. The nervous systems of these lobsters deteriorate and new, submissive brains grow back, with far lower levels of serotonin. Interestingly, the connection between confidence, mood, and serotonin has been identified in humans as well. The drug Prozac, used to treat patients with depression and panic attacks, contains high levels of serotonin, which are meant to boost both confidence and dominance in people.
So what does the similarity between lobsters’ and humans’ nervous systems imply from an ethical standpoint? Although lobsters lack a neocortex in their brain, they still retain consciousness. Considered a staple of luxury dining, lobsters are often killed by being boiled alive. Humans have excused the notion of cruelty that comes with boiling an animal alive by describing it as “the most humane way” to kill a lobster. However, as scientists are discovering the complex neurological systems within lobsters, academia has reached some sort of consensus, with mounting evidence that lobsters do feel the pain of being boiled alive. However, even if the sale of lobsters was restricted and the process of killing was regulated, the high demand for lobsters would create a thriving black market. The ethics of painfully killing an animal make us question the very significance of our values.