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Metro Science: Fish oil, super-strong babies, and the ethics of lobster boils

The top science stories of the week, including whether invertebrates like lobsters and octopi can feel pain— and more importantly, should we care?

Whether it’s wrong to boil lobsters alive, or lop off octopus legs, is ultimately not something science can answer. But neuroscience can help us understand the debate.

ISTOCK

Whether it’s wrong to boil lobsters alive, or lop off octopus legs, is ultimately not something science can answer. But neuroscience can help us understand the debate.

The Swiss government has banned boiling conscious lobsters (you have to stun them first!). Meanwhile in Canada, an animal rights group is protesting the dish that sees octopuses’ legs hacked off and served still wriggling. But can these invertebrates feel pain? More importantly, should we care?

THE CASE FOR PAIN

Whether it’s wrong to boil lobsters alive or lop off octopus legs is ultimately not something science can answer. But neuroscience can help us understand the situation. At the heart of this debate is a squishy and subjective idea: pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as, “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” Researchers can study animals’ nervous systems. But they can only guess their emotional experience (or non-experience) of pain.

The argument that lobsters, octopuses and the like feel pain is based on observing their behaviour. When a stinging, acidic solution is poured on a lobster's antenna, it rubs it with its claws. This response is reduced if a local anaesthetic is applied. Octopuses swim a wide path around stinging anemones and will hold an injured limb close to their body, seemingly protecting it.

Octopuses also show other clever and social behaviour, leading some experts to believe they are capable of complex thought — and feelings.

THE CASE AGAINST

The argument that lobsters, octopuses and other invertebrates do not feel pain is “hardware” based, because unlike more complex animals, they don’t have a true brain. The insect-like lobster only has a small concentration of nerve cells called ganglia.

Octopuses do have a central brain-like structure (without the complex parts of a human's) but most of its neurons, or brain cells, are in its tentacles, operating independently of the central brain. Invertebrates lack a cortex, the part of the human brain involved in the perception of pain. That doesn’t automatically mean they don’t experience it (they could have a different structure that works the same) but it leads some to conclude that their responses to things like acid or injury are pure instinct.

Experts in the no-pain camp also point out that psychological research shows humans, including scientists doing their best to be objective, have a strong tendency to project our emotions onto our animal friends.

Science story: Fishy results

Want the cancer-preventing powers of omega-3s? Then algae and fish-derived supplements are where it's at, according to University of Guelph researchers.

CHUYN

Want the cancer-preventing powers of omega-3s? Then algae and fish-derived supplements are where it's at, according to University of Guelph researchers.

A new study out of the University of Guelph shows that if you want the cancer-preventing powers of omega-3s, stick to the sea. It's the first head-to-head study comparing supplements derived from algae and fish with those from plants on land (i.e. flax seed).

The fishy stuff was eight times more effective at inhibiting an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Science story: Superstrong babies

A new study found fetuses in the womb at 20 to 30 weeks of pregnancy pack an astonishing four kilograms of force behind their kicks — far more than their body weight. The power goes down when there's less room to move around.

SOUND SMART: Your science vocabulary for the week

Andres Plana

DEFINITION: In psychology, the illusory truth effect is the tendency to believe that something familiar, though suspect, is true, because we've heard it over and over.

USE IT IN A SENTENCE

Deborah talks about her healing crystals so much that the illusory truth effect is getting to me. See you at the new age store!

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