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Researchers Ask—Serious Question — Do Crabs Have Emotions?

Recent research has created some unexpected ethical problems for the seafood industry

At one time, the question of whether crabs or squid had emotions would seem ridiculous. Dogs and cats have emotions but squid and crabs don’t. Right? But in recent decades, it has become evident that there is no straightforward evolutionary path to “smartness.” What about the ability to experience pain or emotion as a dog or cat would?

“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 molluscs are sentient,” says York University Professor and philosopher Kristin Andrews, the York Research Chair in Animal Minds, who is working with the LSE team.

Andrews co-wrote an article published today in the journal Science, “The question of animal emotions,” with Professor Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, which discusses the ethical and policy issues around animals being considered sentient.

York University, “Do octopuses, squid and crabs have emotions?” at ScienceDaily (March 24, 2022)

The view that exothermic (coldblooded) and invertebrate animals might have feelings raises ethical issues, says Kristin Andrews, author of How To Study Animal Minds (Cambridge, 2020):

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

York University, “Do octopuses, squid and crabs have emotions?” at ScienceDaily (March 24, 2022)

But it gets complex. Researchers have been working on this question and the results are mixed. Some invertebrates, like octopuses show evidence of emotion and intelligence, roughly the same as lab rats. Others, like the octopus’s shelly distant cousin, the nautilus, just don’t check out that way.

Some researchers think that a shell reduces the need for intelligence so the octopus became more intelligent, relative to the nautilus, as a result of losing its shell. Others disagree. The problem is, they say, the octopus would need to increase in intelligence 275 million years ago, before losing its shell. Otherwise, it would simply have been eaten to extinction. But in that case, what was the driver for intelligence? In any event, shelly crabs and lobsters also show unexpected intelligence.

The practical question is, can the seafood industry continue to ignore the possibility that their catches feel pain? They might need to change their methods of harvesting, as the British are thinking of doing.

We are also told, “Pre-verbal human babies were considered not to feel pain up until at least the 1980s.” Which raises another question. If we agree that babies feel pain, what about babies undergoing abortion? An abortion advocate admitted in a medical journal recently that unborn babies feel pain. Do the same people who care about squid and crabs care about that? Or is their concern much more selective?

Neuroscience is showing us a world that is more complex than we thought. We get answers but we get lots more questions too.

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You may also wish to read:

How could we know if an octopus or lobster felt pain? Researchers found that, when it comes to awareness, octopuses were the stars, followed by lobsters, crayfish, crabs, etc. How a life form acquires the ability to make intelligent decisions (and feel pain) is a fruitful mystery but it might blow up some assumptions about evolution.


Do babies really feel pain before they are self-aware? Michael Egnor discusses the fact that the thalamus, deep in the brain, creates pain. The cortex moderates it. Thus, juveniles may suffer more. Jonathan Wells recalls, from when he was a lab technologist, how very premature infants would scream when he took a drop of blood for tests.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Researchers Ask—Serious Question — Do Crabs Have Emotions?