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Animal testing, without the screaming November 27, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Ethics, Medical Issues.

Fans of angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin philosophical internet discussions (you know, the ones that usually end up with a virgin being thrown into a volcano, and admitting that cannibalism isn’t so bad after all) could do worse than checking out a documentary on BBC2 tonight, entitled “Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing”.

As I won’t be watching it myself (the video recorder doesn’t work, and I want to watch the programme about British science fiction on BBC4), it might be worth quoting from the Observer blurb at length:

If there is a defining moment in this outstanding documentary, it is the sight of young Sean Gardner – crippled since childhood with the neurological disorder distonia – taking his first hesitant steps from his wheelchair. Only the heartless would not be moved by the delight on his face. The means by which Sean’s mobility was restored is clear from the programme’s title, of course: he was the beneficiary of an operation perfected through animal experiments. Thus we meet the men and women who experiment on animals to help the crippled and sick. Take Oxford’s Tipu Aziz. He drives electrodes through monkey’s brains to develop techniques like the one that saved Sean. Thousands have benefited, he says, while only about 100 monkeys were sacrificed.

These scenes – presented in unflinching detail – are then counterpointed with footage of the ragged army of fanatics who have pledged to end animal experiments in Britain. Their activities are focused on new Oxford 18m animal laboratory, now the country’s key anti-vivisection battleground. Every week dozens gather to howl obscenities at construction workers. ‘Why don’t you do something worthwhile, scum?’ screams a protestor who clearly thinks hanging around a building site intimidating people defines ‘worthwhile’.

Certainly, it is hard to find much sympathy for those people, though director Adam Wisehart tries. He makes no secret of his unease about monkey experiment, but in the end accepts their justification. Thus he provides answers to two key questions: does the alleviation of human pain justify harming laboratory animals, and does these creatures’ suffering justify the tactics of campaigners? It is ‘yes’ to the first and a definite ‘no’ to the latter, says Wisehart, and I suspect most viewers will agree.

Sounds fun, no? I might even choose to watch it, instead of something about robots. If so, however, I hope the programme is better than its description, which doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the debate on scientific experimentation on non-human animals.

In an argument which is often presented in terms of heartless clinicians teaching Beagles to smoke, or violent crusties digging up corpses because they hate humanity (no prizes for guessing which stereotype the Observer’s reviewer tends towards) perhaps I might try to sketch out briefly some of the key points which are often overlooked in a struggle which generates a lot of heat, but very little light.

I don’t want to prejudge the programme itself, but it seems fair to say that it’s hardly going for the hard cases with the example of a child taking its first steps to illustrate the benefits of animal testing. Surely only a monster would want to deny Sean Gardner the ability to walk simply because a few monkeys get hurt in the process. Perhaps, but one should look at how broad the field of animal testing is, not just in Europe (which has some of the strictest codes of conduct in the world) but also globally. It’s quite straightforward to make the argument that experiment A leads to outcome B, and that outcome B (child walking, or cancer patient surviving) justifies the suffering caused to non-human animals in the process.

What this ignores, however, is the extent to which practical benefits of experimentation can rely as much on basic research, with no specific objective as on more focused research. If animal suffering is justified by positive outcomes for human individuals, then experiments with no clear beneficiaries are, surely, much harder to defend, if one is to avoid simply defending all experimentation, no matter how seemingly outlandish, on the principle that it might, one day, be useful for something (Harry Harlow, anyone?).

This approach to the argument also tends, from the pro-testing position, to a kind of a-la-carte utilitarianism. The example used in the review is a typical one. About 100 monkeys dying are worth thousands of people walking. Let’s assume that’s a fair trade. What happens, however, if we start playing around with the numbers? Are 100 monkeys dying worth 100 people walking? What about 100,000 monkeys against 20 walkers? What basis does one use to make such a calculation in the first place? If I’m in a wheelchair, how much suffering am I entitled to cause to benefit myself?

Taken a step further, it would be interesting to see how far those who justify the suffering of animals on the basis that the gains it produces are so great are willing to pursue that line of thought. How many of those who argue that they only support or participate in animal testing because there’s no alternative, and that the suffering of animals is regrettable but necessary are vegetarians or vegans? Surely if one is going to endorse the utilitarian position, and reluctantly allow suffering so children might walk, one must realise that the amount of suffering caused by factory farming in no way justifies the pleasure one takes in eating meat (or, to be specific, the additional pleasure one takes in eating meat over eating something else). This is particularly true when one considers that the production of meat is a massively inefficient use of natural resources, as well as being extremely damaging to the environment.

A more fundamental basis for supporting testing on animals is the simple belief that humans are intrinsically more valuable than other species. It is this principle that underlines all animal testing, indeed, all uses of animals (very few, I’d guess, would support the experiments above if it was 100 humans sacrificed to allow hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands, to walk). However, it’s not a principle that, I think, can survive real scrutiny.

One can easily point to certain characteristics that, on the whole, humans possess and non-human animals don’t: a wide range of emotions and desires, capacity to empathise with the emotions of others, ability to think in terms of abstract concepts, an understanding of oneself as an entity existing in time. These are all, I would argue, valuable characteristics and tend to make the existence of one who possess them ‘superior’ (for want of a better expression) than that of one who doesn’t. If one wants to avoid irrational, quasi-religious justifications for our superiority, these are the kind of attributes one might evoke.

Two main problems arise with this line of reasoning, though. Firstly, we now know that many species of non-human animals do possess these characteristics, to greater or lesser degrees. The Great Ape Project, which argues that basic rights, akin to ‘human’ rights, should be granted to particular groups of primates, is founded on this very premise. If the kind of qualities listed above are what make us human, and therefore entitled to specific protections (including protection against being experimented on) then how can experiments on non-human animals who share the same characteristics possibly be justified?

The second point is a linked one: the kind of qualities cited to distinguish humans from non-human animals could equally be used to distinguish between different humans. Humans who have suffered severe brain damage, or who were born with serious neurological abnormalities may very well lack some or all of the abilities listed above. Although we may consider their quality of life to be poor, or inferior to the norm, there’d be very few who would seriously argue that they’re fair game for experimentation. And if we’re appalled by the suggestion that someone with a lower mental capacity than, say, a pig could be used for organ donation while still alive, why does the idea that genetically modified pigs could be used for the same purpose in humans not fill us with the same revulsion?

That is not to say, however, that I’m unequivocally opposed to animal testing. In fact, intuitively I’d tend support it in many circumstances (including the sacrifice of the 100 unfortunate monkeys). This is the same moral intuition that doesn’t allow me to support the use of the profoundly mentally-impaired in the same kinds experiments. Luckily, though, I don’t think moral intuitions are always necessarily correct, and I’d be of the view that if one is going to support scientific testing on ‘higher’ animals, one should also be prepared to support testing on human animals of the same capacity.

That’s, of course, only dipping my toe in the greatly complex debate on the subject, the nuances of which tend to get suppressed in favour of a good old punch-up, which each ‘side’ screaming at the other. The public face of the anti-testing position, if it isn’t violent or quasi-violent organisations like the ALF, unfortunately tend to frame the debate in terms of the reliability of animal testing. This seems a bit absurd, if not dishonest. While there is a case to be made for the alternatives to animal testing, certain activists would have you believe that animal testing is completely worthless and done pretty much just for kicks and giggles on the part of sadistic scientists who care less about achieving results than about inflicting pain and suffering. This kind of disingenuous scaremongering does nothing to progress the anti-testing argument, and serves only to cloud the fundamental ethical issues at stake.

On the pro-testing side (or one of the ‘sides’) we seem to be seeing the emergence of an odd coalition, led by the Little Atoms/Revolutionary Communist Party view of the world, which defends animal testing in the name of defending ‘science’ and ‘inquiry’ as if this were some kind of freedom of speech issue (although, of course, for the nutters at Spiked, everything is a freedom of speech issue). While they might acknowledge that there is a reasonably plausible argument against animal testing, they tend not to engage with it, preferring to spout vague platitudes about ‘the Enlightenment’, forgetting that the overthrow of the theistic view of the world led not just to a revolution of scientific understanding, but also of ethical reasoning.

Let’s hope that tonight’s programme tackles the thornier aspects of the argument, rather than being an excuse for a bunfight. A little more honesty, a little more reflection and a little more debate from all involved would be nice.


1. WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2006

Is this the programme in which, according to a breathless article in yesterday’s Observer, Peter Singer says that animal testing might be justified in some circumstances.

Perhaps I’ve read him wrong, but I didn’t think that was an entirely new departure for him.


2. Pidge - November 27, 2006

If the Observer ever do an article on the WP/DL split, you guys’ll be in heaven.

I’ve always been curious as to how we (we being humans) justify superiority to animals. Do we bother, or is it just a sort of species-based version of “might is right”?


3. tosser - November 27, 2006

Umm… it’s 9.30 now and there’s some “Coast” thing about seals on BBC2.

Thankfully, New Dog Borstal is on BBC3, which raises similar ethical questions.


4. smiffy - November 27, 2006

Yeah, just looking at the Observer article (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1957373,00.html), which I hadn’t seen, it’s clear that (a) it’s the same programme, and (b) they’re not really au fait with Singer’s position. It claims that Singer ‘is renowned for insisting animals should have equal rights with humans’, which certainly isn’t the case. He doesn’t actually believe in ‘rights’ at all, which puts him into direct opposition from others among the animal liberation community including Tom Regan, who’s probably the most notable proponent of the actual ‘animal rights’ position. If Regan had endorsed the experiments in the way attributed to Singer (which is hardly unequivocal, to be fair), it might be news. This, however … not so much,

Also, it appears that good old BBC Northern Ireland strikes again, and it wasn’t on on the ‘provincial’ channel anyway. Still, at least it wasn’t replaced by motorbikes. They love the old motorbikes on BBC Northern Ireland.


5. WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2006

As well they should…in the post-GFA environment I’m certain they’re a significant tourist attraction.


6. arthur ransome - November 30, 2006

Have you seen this portion of the animal experiment on Youtube. It is realllly disturrbing. Perhaps its justified.


7. M.Toorkey - November 30, 2006

Re: ”Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing”.
I watched Adam Wishart’s documentary, monkeys, rats and me on BBC2 with interest. Dr Tipu Aziz is obviously a brilliant scientist and surgeon who has made breakthroughs in treating sufferers from movement disorders. I am not a person who brands all scientists as evil, nor are the majority of all the people that I have met on any of the anti Oxford laboratory demonstrations. BUT, whilst the programme showed the child suffering from his tragic disease, and we have every sympathy for him and millions of others like him, it barely scratched the surface of how much the primates go through to help a few people.
We were shown one monkey in a cage supposedly sitting in a chair and having to paw a screen, something that any animal trainer could have achieved with kindness & rewards in 30 minutes, without the use of bars. Nor were we shown what happens subsequently- the electrodes being inserted, the tight cage round the head, the inducing of a dreadful disease to a healthy animal, or the inevitable death, dissection & incineration.This was all nicely glossed over as it would have been too painful for TV viewing and might have persuaded the general public about the true horror of primate research.Then we were shown another scientist supposedly treating a white lab mouse with compassion, because we saw her stroking it and naming it and being grateful to it before, let us not forget it, killing it – again not shown, undoubtedly unsuitable peak time viewing.
Dr.Tipu Aziz documented that none of the primates under his care undergo unnecessary suffering, and that all his research is justifiable judging by the final outcome of the huge benefits to mankind. Just two questions:Are primates meant to live in traps or in trees? Are they social animals who live in large groups or are they supposed to be confined to death sentences in solitary confinement? No suffering? Is there any recognition of the terror, the misery, the mental suffering these animals go through, or is it all morally acceptable because a few of us benefit? The usual arguments are… if you have ever had a child or a friend or a mother or a brother who suffered from these diseases, you would realize that animal experimentation is a necessary evil.To all these arguments, I personally can say-I had a brother who suffered from extreme mental and physical retardation and movement disorder. I have a mother who has Alzheimer’s. I had a grandfather who died of parkinsonism. But I would not harm a hair of any animal to save their lives.Torturing another species is not ethical so that our lives can improve. If we want to understand disease, find humans who are willing to be tested.
This would be a good time to question Dr Aziz’s next complaint..of being sick to the stomach of the animal liberation front not allowing the scientists any freedom of speech, and how dearly he would like to keep this fine nation thriving as a democracy. Glorious sentiments, and I could not agree with them more. But I would respectfully like to point out that Aziz has the backing of £18 billion, builders who come under armed police escort and masked so as to be unrecognizable. And now he also has the backing of a team of sycophants led by Laurie Pycroft, a 16 year old geek who proudly displays his pickled lamb’s heart & distributes doughnuts to the masked builders who are constructing this hell hole in Oxford. Whereas the so called ‘terrorists’ armed with mere banners and thermals are not allowed legitimate protest except on certain days and only at a distance from the lab under construction, and are met with a huge intimidating police presence which is almost an army when attempting to exercise a legitimate democratic right to voice their opinions. Democracy, freedom of speech, Dr Aziz?


8. WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2006

I’m not sure it’s fair to brand those who take an opposing view to your own ‘sychophants’. This is one of these areas where genuine and sincere views are held by people on both sides. Taking the example of your personal experience, well, that in and of itself doesn’t really hold sway one way or another, any more than people bringing out the opposite viewpoint of which there are many many more than yourself. Are their views of lesser or greater importance than your own, or do we need to measure these situations with a different yardstick?


9. M.Toorkey - December 1, 2006

I do not know whether to be flattered or amused at how the opposing faction smarts because they are labelled as “sycophants,” Yet we have been labelled as “terrorists” and why is that?-because
we would like to lawfully protest against heinous cruelty and because we would like to make this planet a better place for ALL forms of life, both human and animal.
Of course there are more people who hold the opposing view. IT is far easier to be selfish, greedy, self-seeking or just plain apathetic when faced with cruelty: much easier to watch the exploitation of those with no voice or legal rights-the animals!
Until such time as human beings no longer hold the view that they are the supreme creation and that all other forms of life are subservient to them, we, the so called terrorists, or sometimes called the cranks, will always be a minority.
Think about it, Pro-testers. If a human baby were subjected to the same tests as the monkeys, the people who perform these tests would be serving life sentences and would be called sadistic sick perverts. It is all acceptable because experiments take place under shrouds of great secrecy and has the support of big vested interests, huge money, and governments.


10. smiffy - December 2, 2006

How do you know Worldbystorm is a member of what you term ‘the opposing faction’? Certainly nothing in his response to the post would necessarily mean that was the case.

From reading your comments, it suggests that you didn’t even bother to read the initial post, let alone the responses to it, and that you’re cutting and pasting ideas that have already been covered (and, to some extent, supported, above).

The point of what I initially wrote was to try and tease out some of the ethical issues get lost in the ‘Pro-science’ vs. ‘Science is evil’ screaming bunfights. I don’t have much respect for an argument that simply takes something that benefits humans as positive, and disregards the suffering it might cause to non-human animals. Similarly, however, I can’t really take seriously the argument that ignores the ethical issues involved, and simply trots out rather inane platitudes about ‘vested interests’.

If you want to argue a sensible case, feel free. I’d probably support most of what you say. But if you just want to get into a mix of logical fallacies (‘Well, I’ve got someone who would benefit, but I don’t think it’s right’) and conspiracies theories about ‘governments’, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.


11. WorldbyStorm - December 2, 2006

The problem is M. Toorkey, I actually have considerable sympathy for your viewpoint. However, I don’t dismiss the basic truth that people of good will take opposing sides.All I suggest is that you come up with better arguments than the inverse of the sentimentality purveyed by the tabloid press. Is that too much to ask?


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