Crawfish Have Anxiety (And That’s No Joking Matter)

» June 14th, 2014

Here’s a nugget of advice for writers covering stories about the largely hidden emotional lives of animals: as you document nonhuman sentience don’t mention how delectable the animals are to eat. That’s bad form. It’s like writing about war and cracking jokes, or covering a house fire and joshing about all those zany! pyromaniacs.

In a way, it’s remarkable that one has to even note such an obvious point of writerly etiquette. But when it comes to journalism and animals, there are no codified rules, no standards that journalists need follow. So, when tasked with writing about a serious discovery bearing on animal cognition, journalists too often resort to inane attempts at cute humor in an effort to make the piece “entertaining.”  This is especially the case when the topic is technical in nature.

But for anyone who knows anything about animal ethics, it’s not entertaining. It’s offensive. A recent article at Smithsonian.com reiterates why. The writer, a freelancer and Smithsonian contributor named Rachel Numer, opened with the news that crawfish—invertebrates—turn out to experience anxiety. That’s cool, and important. The author rightly notes that the conventional wisdom was once that only vertebrates worried. She suggests that the kind of anxiety under discussion is the kind that humans experience. In any other realm, this kind of connection would warrant a tone of gravitas, especially given the seriousness with which the scientists undertook their work (described quite well by Nuwer).

But animals don’t get the gravitas treatment. Nuwer, after reporting the critical kernel of news, somehow feels compelled to pepper her report with fluffy and whimsical asides, as if she were writing for fifth graders. She refers to “those delectable freshwater crustaceans,” which is a ridiculous thing to say about an animal upon whom you’re reporting news about its sophisticated intelligence. (Plus, it’s subjective. When I ate animals I found crawfish disgusting to eat.) Dumbing down the matter to an unprecedented degree, the author next includes a recipe for cooking crawfish, noting that “those [crawfish] that come with a boiling cauldron of Cajun spices, corn and potatoes (mmmm delicious)” will have undergone especially high levels of anxiety. Well, yeah.

Articles in which the writer clearly knows nothing about animal ethics typically include an unintentional contradiction—done by way of evasion—regarding the moral implications of the scientific discovery being described. Numar scores big in this front. She ignores several hundred years of ethical thinking about animals when she blithely assumes that human emotions are “more sophisticated.” She writes, “Crawfish, the team thinks, could serve as excellent study subjects for future anxiety research, as well as for exploring the evolutionary origins of more sophisticated (read: more distressing) forms of anxiety that occur in humans.” More sophisticated? How? What do we mean by sophistication? Has this writer heard the word “speciesist”? Comments such as these are understandable, given the peripheral nature of so much work being on animal ethics and behavior. But they scream for a corrective.

Proof that the author has no idea of her own complicity in fostering attitudes inimical to the findings she writes about, Nuwar concludes, “Unfortunately for the crustaceans, crawfish’s status as invertebrates means that many of the ethical protections their rodent counterparts enjoy are not extended to them.” With articles like this one, it’s not hard to see why.

Update: Please do not post comments personally lambasting the writer mentioned in this post. The Pitchfork is better than that! The point of this piece is to educate, not to insult. Calling the writer names will hardly initiate a change in her perspective. Thank you.  -jm

32 Responses to Crawfish Have Anxiety (And That’s No Joking Matter)

  1. John Maher says:

    Humans misunderstand what cognitive ethology hopes to determine and why that is biased and limited in terms of anthropocentric understanding. It is very sad. This is an extension of the discussion of Wittgenstein’s Lion. In China crawfish are hunted with insecticide poured upstream and scooped off the surface and I am sure the sense of change in chemical composition produces anxiety although that is a poor term. Yum indeed.

  2. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    And the news is abuzz ( when it isn’t discussing how many of us shot each other today or which tribe is barbarically slaughtering its neighbor) that RATS, yes RATS, experience ANXIETY and REGRET!!!! Oh how very far we have to go – - -

  3. Benny Malone says:

    Here is another recent example of a journalist covering a topic about animals and the ethics surrounding their consumption. http://time.com/97479/carnivore-vegetarian-animals-meat/ (For the comments in reply click the number next to the speech bubble in the ‘Share This Article’ box at the bottom of the article.) The author is Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large for TIME magazine and TIME.com who oversees coverage of science and human behavior. He is the author of nine books, including Apollo 13. His first sentence is factually incorrect. He then contradicts his first sentence with his second. He writes about a study (http://psp.sagepub.com/content/38/2/247.abstract) which showed how people rationalise consumption of animals by denying mind to the animals. He makes the leap however from merely observing the rationalisation to then saying because we rationalise to not think about it further and make a moral choice. This is descriptive not prescriptive – the moral question still stands and needs answering. The article reveals the authors double-standards when it comes to granting moral consideration. Consider this article by the same author – http://time.com/101919/torture-brain-justify/ The conclusion? ”But our brain—the seat of all that is otherwise brilliant and noble about us—nonetheless tries to give us a pass. It’s up to us to say no thanks.” This reveals that when the subject is humans he thinks we can overcome this hardwiring but reveals a lack of moral consideration when it comes to animals – when they are the subject we shouldn’t overcome the ‘hard-wiring’ or attempts at justification? He writes also about climate change and how we should act to mitigate it but then writes an article abrogating responsibility from being involved in a sector that globally causes more GHG emissions than all forms of transport combined. In 2001, the Overseas Press Club of America awarded Kluger and Michael Lemonick the Whitman Bassow Award for “best reporting in any medium on international environmental issues” for their work on global warming. This article entitled ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Eating Animals’ and with the caption ”Yum. Want it? Then eat it’ under the photo of a field of cows in bucolic conditions appears under the topic headings ‘science’ and ‘animal rights’.

  4. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    This seems to occur frequently on NPR’s Radio Lab, in which the hosts are often reporting on scientific studies in a light and engaging style. But yesterday’s show on breeding friendlier foxes for the fur industry was absolutely sickening. http://www.radiolab.org/story/91696-new-nice/

    • Ellen K says:

      Yeah, you’re right about this pattern with them.
      How might we crafts an effective appeal to them, and what resources might we send to help expand their consciousness?

  5. Louisa Dell'Amico says:

    James – I hit FB”Share” for this piece, but all that comes up for the link is james-mcwilliams.com. Your FB links used to come up with the title of the piece and the photo. You may want to fix this, as people aren’t going to click on a link that offers no info on what the piece about.

  6. Great piece. There is the old saw about how “the person who first ate a lobster must have been starving.” I witnessed this first hand with my foster kids from Africa. They stared unbelievably at the lobster tank in our local supermarket, and couldn’t believe that such creatures were considered delicacies. For them, it was like eating bugs or scorpions.

  7. Ellen K says:

    Your update is essential, and therein lies the challenge and the art: how to educate media effectively, given their almost universal embrace of human exceptionalism? Call me a pessimist, but polls consistently show upwards of 45% of US population believes in creationism. Probably that same percentage believes in some form of scientific humanism. Very few are secure enough to view themselves as different from, but not better than, other species. It’s difficult to imagine this changing much or anytime soon, if ever.

    The result is the same: a mixture of insecurity and arrogance which puts humans are at the top of creation, period. Combine this with human patterns of wanting to be right, wanting to avoid domination, and wanting to preserve their ego and superiority, and you’re got your work cut out for you trying to get them to see other species as having rich, complex, sophisticated lives worthy of respect and moral consideration – a profoundly threatening idea to almost everyone (hence evasions and “fluffy and whimsical asides”, plus recipes, all evidence of maintaining the hierarchy).

    Efforts to educate reporters need to be done so as to preserve their ego but still expand their consciousness. It’s similar to the challenge with changing food choice behaviour: how do you get people to reject symbols of power and status (animal foods), and embrace plant foods (weakness and poverty) as the desirable and empowering choice?

    • John Maher says:

      I seem to agree with what EK writes above. It displays some remarkable human understanding.

      I point out that James’ comment makes him technically not a vegan. I am not interested in playing “gotcha” but more interested in considering what species centric lines are drawn and where. Personally I am hopeful of synthetic bacteria products in fun shapes and colours and would spare the crickets and scorpions, even hypothetically although as discussed in earlier posts all life involves killing and we are all complicit.

      On the same topic, I spotted this bit of ethical nonsense the other day: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/greatamericanbites/2014/06/12/monterey-bay-aquarium-seafood-restaurant-cindys/10326629/

      • Mountain says:

        “I point out that James’ comment makes him technically not a vegan.”

        I point out that “I’d” is short for “I would,” as in he would give them a try– in the future. At which point he may be, technically, not a vegan– but he is now, technically, a vegan. I enjoy light-heartedly gotcha-ing the gotcha-ers, particularly those who proclaim a disinterest in gotcha-ism.

        More seriously, does veganism apply to all animals or just sentient ones? Is there disagreement on this matter? A schism in veganism? Also, if it only applies to sentient beings, what’s the latest thinking on the sentience of insects?

        • John Maher says:

          Though the first 2 paras of your comment remind me of Andrew Marvel’s poem, you get to the heart of the matter in the last para. I do use the nominative ‘would’ [I'd] in a noumenal world. See Jussi Parikka’s work and Hugh Raffles’ marvelous [pun] Insectopedia and also go into a meadow and see some real insects!

      • Ellen K says:

        re aquarium restaurant: Oy. Cod in the tacos, no less. But the chicken is free-range, and Niman’s is “all natural”! I’m surprised USA Today is on your reading list

        • John Maher says:

          Someone sent it to me but, my snobby exceptionalism aside, USA Today should be on everyone’s reading list to see by exactly what means the neoliberal state justifies its meat eating existence. In other words read the USA Today subtext for semiotic signs, no? Admired the Latin phrasing about overbearing bulls. I think Virgil has a quote somewhere about one fearsome bull licking a lady’s glove but it has been decades. . .

          Note to Bugsy: I want to agree with you but it seems to me that the purpose of science is still to (re)define an ontological divide not close one. What have scientific revolutions ultimately done except place fordism in the pasture and the pasture in the CAFO?

    • Benny Malone says:

      Scientific revolutions have consistently proven to be blows against anthropocentric thinking notably the Copernican and Darwinian. Freud said his theories were another stage in this. Edwin Hubble further removed our galaxy from being the only one known to one amongst billions (although Vesto Slipher provided the first evidence of this). The humans as top of the food chain argument appears often in anti-vegan arguments. However in another blow to the human ego a scientific study has for the first time calculated our species’ true position on the food chain according to trophic level consumption. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/where-do-humans-really-rank-on-the-food-chain-180948053/?no-ist The twin forces of removing humans from the centre they occupy for morally irrelevant reasons and extending the circle of compassion and moral consideration from where we are as Darwin, Einstein and Schweitzer described would lead to more animals being included in our sphere of moral concern.

      • John Maher says:

        I might disagree. Remember the Enlightenment, Descartes? It depends upon what society tells ‘science’ to find and articulate in and what is meant by understanding and technicity. Same thing happening today with billions spent on neural mapping and its exponents such as Taussig.

        Loved the vastly under rated Jody Foster film ‘Bugsy Malone’ while we are on the topic of insectae.

        I did appreciate the ever-reliable Mountain antsy reference somewhere in this thread.

        • Benny Malone says:

          True, the findings of science may be interpreted through a particular paradigm but it becomes harder for certain models to persist in spite of new findings. At the very least they have to take them into account and this process itself may actually become a defining feature of the descriptive or explanatory model. Even though new evidence is presented instead of abandoning the model the new information is assimilated and becomes part of the model. So the discovery of dinosaurs is a fact but could become part of a Young Earth Creationist model for example.

          • Ellen K says:

            No question the scientific revolutions you cite are decisive against positing humans as centers of the universe of apex of creation, and some leading scientists embrace this with appropriate consequent awe and humility (Einstein). Still, the findings are deeply threatening to most, and even scientists (or people who accept these findings) continue to cling to some, any, rationale to defend of our centrality and superiority despite mounting evidence in ethology, cosmology, etc to the contrary. Or our humbled status may be acknowledged intellectually, but is not acted upon in practice: “the twin forces” should “lead to more animals….” but mostly they don’t. And to your point about dinosaurs and how they’re presented in creationist theory, I wonder if these scientific revolutions have the effect of contributing to even more insecurity in a big chunk of the population, and even more ferocity in asserting godliness and dominance over other beings (“Don’t tell me I’m related to monkeys!”) Sigh.
            Nice food chain link, btw — thanks

          • Benny Malone says:

            Thanks Ellen. Yes this has been described as the ‘backfire effect’ http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/ when a person can become more entrenched in their position despite being presented with contrary evidence. As you say when the discoveries of science and the perceived implications seem to threaten human notions of uniqueness etc there may be more resistance to these ideas which we see in the case of evolution in particular. A conspiracy theorist sticking to their belief will see any contrary evidence as part of the conspiracy model and it ‘creates’ the conspiracy model by dictating the shape the conspiracy takes. I think the same thing applies to other philosophical models too.

          • Ellen K says:

            And thank you for another great link on backfire effect, which I hadn’t known of before. To return the favour, a ditty on a superior race from another planet rationalizing use of humans for food as we can’t telegress, from Australian comic and singer Vegan Smythe
            “Mr Zonk from Planet Gonk”

  8. Mountain says:

    “More sophisticated? How?”

    Crawfish may have anxiety, but we have anxiety disorders. That’s how we’re more sophisticated. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

  9. Mountain says:

    To tie together this post and the previous one: do ants feel anxiety? Or do they just get antsy?

  10. Karen Harris says:

    I have encountered this same attitude in so much mainstream liberal press over the years. It seems that very often when a mainstream journalist covers a story that might possibly label them as having anything to do with animal rights, they feel the need to add the fluff, however inappropriate. I notice this in both scientific writing, as well as food writing.
    Really a sad commentary on the need of these writers to distance themselves who actually take the ethical dimensions of our relationship to animals seriously.

  11. Taylor says:

    I can’t remember whether this piece on whether invertebrates can feel pain has been linked to previously here at The Pitchfork, but it’s worth reading.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/do-lobsters-and-other-invertebrates-feel-pain-new-research-has-some-answers/2014/03/07/f026ea9e-9e59-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html

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