I had been a vegetarian for three years, and a pescatarian for all of 14 days, when the lobster incident happened.
On my part, the decision to grill two languid, mottled-blue and orange lobsters on a pleasant July day was motivated partially by a sense of adventure and partially by pure stubbornness. My boyfriend, Matt, had recently moved to Cape Cod: shellfish country, a place where most of his neighbors would never set off for a day at the beach without their clam rake. I was converted to their worldview with little resistance, out to dinner one night, by a bite of littlenecks swimming in white wine and butter.
It didn’t feel like a betrayal of the decision I had made three years prior. In my first months of college, an environmental science class had let me in on the fact that factory farms, antibiotic resistance, and gargantuan amounts of water and carbon dioxide were irrevocably tied to the chicken, beef, and pork that my family had eaten all my life. Not long after learning this, I decided to give meat up altogether.
Seafood seemed different. Living in Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to have fish and shellfish harvested right in my watery backyard. These animals lived free, natural lives, and then—when they reached the size and weight suggesting they’d had time to settle down and make more of themselves—they were captured in a sustainable way by local fishermen, men and women that had been supporting their families this way for generations. Or, at least, that’s how I justified it to myself.
It became the Seafood Summer. We had wild success with grilled salmon and the manna that was home-steamed clams, sweet and chewy beneath lingering hints of garlic. Buoyed by our culinary triumphs, lobster seemed like an obvious next step.
Jauntily we drove to the local fish store, picked out two smaller lobsters, laughed as their claws clicked in the trunk, joked about giving them names. When the grill was lit and warm, on they went without a fuss, legs tapping on the grate calmly. They seemed blissfully unaware of the blue flames licking up beneath them as we closed the top.
It all seemed to be going smoothly. It helped that the lobsters had been transformed into something so clearly inanimate as they clanked onto our plates, and that we were given the tactile distraction of fishing scraps of sweetness from within the shells. But at some point, I was instructed to gently pull on the tail, with a twisting motion, to remove it from the rest of the body. I pulled too hard. The lobster’s body tore entirely in half, revealing strings of green and white intestine, shivering and jellylike like an undercooked egg white.
I was done eating.
It would have been unsurprising if the sudden end to my meal was the product of normal disgust, revulsion at the sight of the lobster’s insides. Feeling distaste for certain foods is nothing new in our primate family; many species of non-human apes have been documented consistently choosing one food over another, despite equal nutritional value, for no apparent reason except that they seem to like one more. It makes sense: developing neurological associations with food—instinctively categorizing smells, tastes and textures as enjoyable or unpleasant, feeling wary towards foods we have never tried before—is a survival technique. Food preference is our brain’s way of telling us to eat the things that won’t kill us.
Yet wasn’t disgust that stopped me. The moment I decided I could no longer eat was the moment my dinner became a being again. By exposing what was obviously the inner workings of a living creature, I had reminded myself my meal had been, only minutes ago, writhing on the grill in apparent pain. Matt had been bothered by the sight, too, though far from a vegetarian; we could not help but feel a troubled compassion towards our meal, a guilt at what we had done to it. Remarkably, this is a trait that appears to be uniquely human.
There’s one important distinction to make here: compassion in general has been documented in the animal world. Take, for example, a famous 1962 experiment on rhesus monkeys. The animals in the experiment were required to pull a chain in order to get food—but if they did so, they would deliver an electric shock to another monkey. After witnessing this, the monkeys refused to pull the chain for days, essentially starving themselves in order to protect their companions.
Feeling an instinctive need to protect others of your kind makes evolutionary sense; it ensures that babies of your species are raised to adulthood, even if their parents are not able to do the job. It also encourages cooperation with other groups, reducing intra-species warfare. Yet in nature, this compassion has never been seen as extending towards organisms labeled in the animal mind as “food.” Primates in particular are opportunistic eaters, scraping by on everything from plants to insects to other mammals; chimpanzees, one of our closest ancestors, are well- known to cannibalize other tribes after winning territorial victories.
Meanwhile, even those humans who eat meat have tried as hard as they can to remove themselves from the discomforting idea of killing animals. Oddly enough, the first time I witnessed this flavor of compassion firsthand also involved a seafood dinner. Though I could not have been more than nine or ten, the memory lingers vividly: my dad standing over three hefty flounder flailing on the back patio, still wet with salt water that glimmered in the mosquito-plagued backyard light. I watched, wide-eyed, as his fingers clenched and unclenched on a knife handle. My dad is a meat-and-potatoes man, and he has been a fisherman for most of his life; he knew that all he had to do was hit each flopping fish firmly behind the eyes and it would stop its flopping. But it had been many years since dad had killed and scaled a fish. For some reason, he just couldn’t do it.
What advantage could come from a feeling that so works against our interests? Animal flesh is, after all, the ideal biological tool. Meat not only provides plentiful energy, but also the nutrients needed for building muscle, absorbing vitamins, making red blood cells, and ensuring oxygen gets delivered through the body. Indeed, the shift from eating mostly plants to eating animals may have been part of what created our species: the challenges of the hunt and the fats it provided are thought to have given the brain new bulk and complexity. If early man had pitied the hippo and the antelope, the crocodile and wildebeest, humans might not have become human.
Perhaps our contradictory compassion has to do with being removed from this Darwinian struggle for life. After all, if I chose not to eat my lobster dinner, I wasn’t faced with the possibility of starvation; the plethora of food options available to me gave me the luxury of thinking of my meal as more than a meal. It tracks, then, that in places where early humans developed settled societies, vegetarianism often followed. Non-violence towards all beings was institutionalized by Buddhism as early as the 6th century BC. “Abstinence from beings with a soul” was recorded as a tenet of the Orphic religious group, in Greece, around the same time. Where society, agriculture, and trade make it so that eating is no longer a struggle to simply stay alive, humans are enabled to consider to the morality of a meal.
Or perhaps this instinct links us to our own fear of death. Humans have a rather extraordinary sense of empathy, one that allows us to imagine ourselves in the place of another—even a nonhuman other. In imagining the lives and minds of our meals, we project onto them our own terrible knowledge of our mortality, which few non-humans can even likely conceive of.
However, while this trait might not be useful in the traditional evolutionary sense—it doesn’t seem to help us reproduce—that does not mean it is not useful at all. I think our food compassion has served us in one specific, vital way: starting some 12,000 years ago, a few humans discovered that if they showed compassion to some animals—fed them, protected them from predators, healed them when they were injured or fell ill—these animals would learn to trust them, to welcome a human’s approach rather than run away. In return for our apparent kindness, animals gave eggs, milk, wool, and even their lives.
In choosing to domesticate, humans decided to end the millennia spent largely in combat with other animals and choose a different biological strategy, called mutualism: a relationship in which both organisms benefit. Mutualism is actually quite common in the natural world, even between different species; see the remora fish eating parasites off whales and sharks, or the bumblebee spreading pollen as it feeds from flowers. Compassion for food animals might be seen as mutualism run rampant.
At the end of dinner that day in July, Matt apologized, suggested maybe we jumped too quickly into something that was so far outside my reformed-vegetarian palate. I don’t think that, on either end, there has been anything to apologize for. Compassion for our food is an instinct as strong as our need to eat, following nose-to-tail through the millennia; it has never kept our species from the next meal, but there is a trace of it in every hamburger that spent its life wandering a pasture and every egg whose mother lives tucked safely in her coop.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that doing so will ever become easier. Take my dad, the lifelong fisherman, putting down the hammer to gently ease the flounder into the freezer, where they could slip into unconsciousness away from our terrified gaze. Take me and Matt, as we carefully disposed of our lobster shells in the fading twilight. Though the living part of the animal was long gone, we placed them into the trash gently, wincing as their shells crunched and broke. We were animals completing our meal, and yet we were domesticators disposing of living creatures. As the sun slipped over the horizon, we could feel those two sides grapple, as they likely have for as long as we have been human.