I’ve just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” from the book of the same name. Under the auspices of a trip to the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace spends most of the essay discussing whether it’s ethical to boil lobsters alive in order to eat them. On the one hand, a lobster is not much different from a bug, including many sorts of bugs that we’d gladly kill in a way much less violent and antiseptic, for no other reason than that we prefer them not to live in our homes. On the other hand, lobsters don’t do anything to harm us, living peacefully ten fathoms down as they clean up the detritus of the Maine coastline.
The day before, we had made a trip down to the Swans Island Fisherman’s Cooperative and picked up nine live lobsters, each weighing in at one and a half to two pounds (only $80! Cheap seafood is one of the few luxuries available on this beautiful, remote place). The woman who greeted us there was glad to help us select them, give us cooking tips, and even showed the kids how to tell male from female. The youngest child in our group, four-year-old Briar, was most interested in the lobsters, and the most willing to touch them. Nora wanted to help cook. My brother-in-law Nick was rather disgusted by the whole process, but wanted to put at least one live lobster in the pot, basically as a test of his own nerve.
It took a good 45 minutes to get the four gigantic pots of water to a boil on our stove (three were for lobsters, and one was for corn on the cob). The pots themselves barely fit on the stovetop, and I was a bit worried that one of the boiling pots would end up upside-down on the floor. Nora was happy to pull the live lobsters from the bag, but she was wisely unwilling to avoid any interaction with the boiling water, so she handed me the bugs and I shoved them into the pot.
Wallace points to the fact that lobsters appear to resist being placed in the pot as evidence that they somehow experience “pain” when they’re being cooked. Certainly the lobsters respond to stimulus: they wiggle about when you pick them up, and even wave their pincers menacingly. They do seem to grab at the edges of the pot when you try to put them in, and indeed, they flail rather pathetically for a good 30 seconds in the boiling water. Is a tasty bite to eat worth inflicting this type of suffering? Certainly the lobster’s natural predators cause them just as much pain as they ruthlessly rip them to bits. Certainly we consume many other animals that are more conscious and thoughtful than lobsters. A lobster can’t even solve the puzzle of how to escape through the same opening through which it entered the trap. Shouldn’t we be considering the cow or the pig before we begin to worry about the suffering of a lobster?
Wallace does consider these questions in his essay, and also deflates the notion that slicing a lobster’s head in half before cooking will put it out of its misery faster than simply boiling alive: a lobster’s nervous system is distributed across the length of its body, and even decapitated lobsters will writhe in “pain” while being boiled. I’ve also heard that you can numb the lobster to pain by putting it in the freezer for 15 minutes before cooking it (Wallace doesn’t address this issue). Was it wrong that we didn’t want to dirty the freezer, and so put nine living, fully sensitive beings to their death, making no efforts to alleviate their suffering? As Wallace points out, humans can live perfectly happy lives without killing any animals at all. It only takes a little extra effort to find foods that taste good and fill the basic nutritional needs, and I imagine after a couple generations no one would know what they were missing.
But I do imagine that many humans would be tempted. They would see the animals around them killing their food, and perhaps even a natural instinct to kill would emerge. Even if killing was completely banished, I think meat-eating subcultures would flourish in human society. Perhaps, like organized crime or prostitution, it’s still better for us to resist these impulses, but it’s doubtful that we’ll ever eradicate them. Plus, lobsters really do taste delicious, especially when dripping with fresh melted butter.
Here are some of the latest pictures:
The lobster pots precariously balanced on the stove:
Nick triumphantly displaying his beach find:
I’ve spent the entire trip trying to capture the sheer number of lobster floats dotting the waters around here. This is the best I’ve managed (click to enlarge):
Here are some shots of our climb up the South Bubble at Acadia N.P.: