Should scientists be allowed to experiment on animals?

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2006 - 10:12

Should we support the right for scientists to do experiments on animals? The socialist scientist Steven Rose, who experiments on chicks in basic research into human brain function and memory, writes about this in his book The Making of Memory...

For anyone who holds an absolutist animal-rights position there can be no doubt that in killing the chicks I have done evil; demonstrated a hegemonic concern to dominate nature; caused pain; behaved, unequivocally, as a speciesist. Sure, everything I have done has been under authorization by quite stringent British Home Office laws, which regulate the conditions under which I keep the chicks, the numbers I may use and the types of operation I may perform on them rather more rigorously than do the laws to protect children (it is an old joke that in Britain we have a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but only a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). And of course, if I hadn't ordered the eggs from the hatcheries, they would have gone to a chicken farm and ended up, twelve weeks or so of free-range or battery life later, on a supermarket shelf, plus or minus giblets and salmonella. In between, someone else - or a machine - would have killed them.

Irrelevant, if you accept the animal-rights arguments. Two offences against animals don't cancel out. If I am to go on with these experiments, if I am to go on with this book, I need to address the arguments squarely. My research is aimed at understanding the basic brain mechanisms involved in learning and memory. If I - we -society - use any pronoun you choose - want this sort of knowledge, there is no other way at present of obtaining it than to work on animals. Whether we (and here I do mean we as society, for what I do is not the private act of an isolated individual but is part of socially produced work) want it is of course a social decision, because science is a social activity, funded by government and industry.

In a properly democratic society all our institutions - including science - should be open to public scrutiny. And there is no doubt that our society both uses and abuses animals. I strongly oppose many things that are done to animals in farming, in hunting, in rearing animals as pets, and indeed in some forms of animal experimentation - nor would I ever accept the Cartesian view that non-human animals can be regarded as pain-free machines, so that one can do what one likes with them without it mattering. If they were, my research would probably be meaningless.

But those who argue for animal rights seem to want it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that animals are sentient and therefore, like humans, have certain rights. On the other they maintain that there are such great discontinuities between animals and humans that animal experiments can tell us nothing relevant to the human condition. This is frankly nonsense. The biological world is a continuum. The basic biochemical mechanisms by which we tick are very similar in most other organisms. If they weren't, even the food we eat would poison us. Many human diseases and disorders are found in other mammals - which is why we can learn how to treat them by research on animals. So too are the brain mechanisms I am studying; bacteria or tissue cultures (pieces of tissue or isolated cells growing in a test-tube, sometimes proposed as an alternative to animals in experiments) don't learn or remember. If this sort of knowledge is wanted - by scientists, by society, leave aside by just who at present, for that after all is a separate political question - then there is no alternative to using animals.

Unless, of course, we experiment on humans. Some such experiments are of course possible - and, in the case of clinical trials of new drugs or medical treatments, are even essential - after the initial animal safety tests have been done. There have been heroic physiologists - the great J.B.S. Haldane, in the 1920s and 1930s, was one - who have relished testing certain hypotheses on their own bodies. The new imaging systems, the body scanners and biomagnetic detectors, make possible certain sorts of measure–ment of internal brain processes that were inconceivable a few years ago. But for the overwhelming number of biochemical and physiological processes that need to be studied to make sense of our own human biology, there is no present way round the paradox that the study of life seems to demand the destruction of life.

And this is the nub of the question. Just because we are human, any discussion of rights must begin with human rights. How far are those rights to be extended - does it even make sense to talk of extending them - to 'animals'? But cats and dogs, mice and monkeys, slugs and lice, wasps and mosquitoes, are all animals. And where should my chicks fit into the picture? How far should one extend the concept of rights? To not swatting a mosquito sucking your blood? To preventing your cat from hunting and killing a rat? Does an ant have as many rights as a gorilla?

Most people would say no - though I did speak to one activist picketing our lab who argued that even viruses had souls. I think most animal-righters are really arguing that the closer animals are to humans, biologically speaking - that is, evolutionary speaking -the more rights they should have. So where does the cut-off come? Primates? Mammals? Vertebrates? The moment one concedes that question, it is clear that the decision is arbitrary - that it is we, as humans, who are conferring rights on animals - not the animals themselves. Of course, to be arbitrary is not necessarily to be wrong; ethicists and animal legislators alike try to divide between species which appear to be able to feel pain and those which, so far as one knows, do not, or species which have large nervous systems as opposed to those which have small or relatively simple brains. I have always avoided working with primates, or cats or dogs - although I can see that for some purposes it might be unavoidable. The key test for those who argue the moral absolute of not using experimental animals comes with AIDS research, as the only available species in which to test both the virus and possible treatments, other than our own, is the chimpanzee.

Put like this it is plain that the debate about animal rights is not like that about women's rights or black people's rights or civil rights, in which the oppressed sub|ects of history are demanding lustice and equality. It is an argument about how we as humans should behave. It is here that the biological discontinuity between humans and other animals becomes important. Our concern for how we treat other species springs out of our very humanness, as biologically and socially constructed creatures. We do not expect cats to debate the rights of mice. So the issue is not - or ought not to be - about animal rights at all, but about the duties that we have )ust because we are human.

And I am sure that we do have such duties, to behave kindly and with respect to other animals, with the minimum of violence and cruelty, not to damage or take their lives insofar as it can be avoided, just as we have duties to the planet's ecology in general.