Do Mollusks and Crustaceans Have Emotions?

by johnsmith

If the United Kingdom joins a handful of other nations to recognize the sentience of invertebrates, such as octopuses, crabs, lobsters and crayfish, by, for example, prohibiting the boiling of live lobsters, this will be based on evidence that emotions and felt experiences (i.e., sentience) are not limited to animals close to humans, such as the mammals. This topic has been heavily debated in both affective neuroscience and philosophy, but a consensus on the criteria for and implications of recognizing animal sentience seems to be emerging.

Octopuses can solve complex puzzles and show a preference for different individuals. Image credit: Edmond Lafoto.

Octopuses can solve complex puzzles and show a preference for different individuals. Image credit: Edmond Lafoto.

Pre-verbal human babies were considered not to feel pain up until at least the 1980s.

It is still thought by many that animals, including invertebrates, don’t feel pain and only have unconscious reactions to negative stimuli.

However, research on mammals, fish, octopuses, and to a lesser extent crabs, has shown they avoid pain and dangerous locations, and there are signs of empathy in some animals, such as cows — they become distressed when they see their calf is in pain.

“It has long been thought in Western culture that other animals don’t feel pain or have emotions,” said York University’s Professor Kristin Andrews, a co-author of a paper published in the journal Science.

“It’s been a real struggle even to get fish and mammals recognized under welfare law as sentient.”

“A London School of Economics (LSE) report commissioned by the U.K. government found there is strong enough evidence to conclude that decapod crustaceans and cephalopod mollusks are sentient.”

Recognizing the sentience of invertebrates opens a moral and ethical dilemma.

Humans can say what they feel, but animals don’t have the same tools for describing their emotions.

“However, the research so far strongly suggests their existence,” said Professor Andrews, who co-authored the paper with Emory University’s Professor Frans de Waal.

“When we’re going about our normal lives, we try not to do harm to other beings.”

“So, it’s really about retraining the way we see the world. How exactly to treat other animals remains an open research question.”

“We don’t have sufficient science right now to know exactly what the proper treatment of certain species should be.”

“To determine that, we need greater co-operation between scientists and ethicists.”

There may be a point when humans can no longer assume that crayfish, shrimp, and other invertebrates don’t feel pain and other emotions.

“If they can no longer be considered immune to felt pain, invertebrate experiences will need to become part of our species’ moral landscape,” Professor Andrews said.

“But pain is just one morally relevant emotion. Invertebrates such as octopuses may experience other emotions such as curiosity in exploration, affection for individuals, or excitement in anticipation of a future reward. It may be time to look at our world differently.”


Frans B. M. de Waal & Kristin Andrews. 2022. The question of animal emotions. Science 375 (6587): 1351-1352; doi: 10.1126/science.abo2378

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