Yesterday I read a news story reporting on findings by a research team at Queen’s University Belfast in the prestigious journal Animal Behaviour providing evidence that hermit crabs feel pain and remember it. That is, there is a cognitive component to their reaction to various stimuli. To those who have witnessed the screams of lobsters dropped into pots of boiling water or take as an assumption that having a nervous system has something to do with feeling and perceiving… well, this is not news. But for those who demand their beliefs be based on objective scientific data… it is a revelation I suppose.
Okay, well, what do we do now? Those of us in science have spent lifetimes teaching our students that the beauty of the scientific enterprise is that it is self-correcting and adjusts conceptually to incoming data. Yet, there seems to be no response to the above findings. Of course this silence is just a microcosm of the broader stance that we take towards “inconvenient truths” – we ignore them. We have an overwhelming amount of evidence that other mammals feel pain and distress and yet we don’t take those findings into account when eating them, experimenting on them (to get even more data!), and poaching them. So why am I all bent out of shape (coming out of my shell) about hermit crabs? Two reasons.
One is that, despite the loose protections in existence for mammals and (some) vertebrates there is no protection against pain and suffering for invertebrates such as hermit crabs. There is not even an Animal Welfare Act to minimally guide how we treat them nor any substantive discussion of whether we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Up to now even the most empirically-minded scientists might have appealed to the fact that there was no clear evidence for the conscious experience of pain in invertebrates. Now their hand is forced because of these new data.
Two is the very unscientific nature of our response. The scientific study of other animals as models for human conditions is done from a cherry-picker. We use rats in depression research but refuse to acknowledge the very data that makes them valid subjects in such research. We use monkeys in studies of horrific neurological disorders that cause tremendous suffering in people yet choose to ignore the data that they are just as debilitated by these diseases as we are. And on and on. It is fair to say that our propensity to “keep the good data and throw out the bad data” is so imbedded in the scientific process that we are barely aware we are doing it at this point.
It will be interesting to see if the scientific community responds in the manner we prescribe for our students (to adjust to changing evidence) or whether we decide to, as we always have, cherry-pick those data that are consistent with our professional and personal objectives from those that represent an authentic challenge to our role as scholars and human beings. I wonder. How many of us will engage in a parlor debate over this issue at the seafood buffet?