Beastly concerns

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One argument against animal experimentation is that it doesn’t work. The other argument is that it is cruel. Both are wrong.

The first argument is contradicted by a vast body of evidence. Animal experiments have been very successful in driving forward science, particularly medical science. Monkeys, for example, have been used to develop vaccines against rubella and to enable the surgical transplantation of corneas to restore vision. The design of the heart-lung transplant was developed in rhesus macaques, and the technique of kidney transplantation was developed using dogs.

Potent anti-rejection drugs, such as Cyclosporin, which are vital to the success of transplantation, were first used in nonhuman primates. Open-heart surgery was developed in dogs – as was the critical diabetes work that led to the development of insulin. Research that allowed the control of diphtheria was done on guinea pigs and horses. From sheep came control of anthrax, and from cows the eradication of smallpox.

There is ongoing medical research using a wide variety of animals, including investigations into AIDS, cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. The development of artificial arteries, understanding the ageing process and reversing spinal-cord injury are all being investigated using animal models. The best hopes to cure malaria, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, epilepsy, obesity, infertility and a variety of birth defects all rely on current animal experiments.

Certainly, many animal experiments will fail to lead to any useful therapy – such is the nature of all science. But the suggestion that scientists are pointlessly pursuing experiments and models that do not work is just wrong-headed. If there were good alternatives to animals that worked better or as well, for less money and hassle, scientists would use them.

The second argument, that animal experiments are cruel, seems to have more potential. There is no escaping the fact that animal experiments are not in the interest of the animals. Giving animals AIDS and other diseases, carrying out experimental surgeries and infusing them with untested drugs are certainly not procedures aimed at protecting the animals’ welfare. Medical research is not concerned with the welfare of animals and so, if animals are like us in any important way, then animal research is inherently immoral.

Philosopher Tom Regan and writer Richard Ryder both argue that animals are like us – that they share with us the capacities for seeing, hearing, believing, remembering and anticipating, and for experiencing pleasure and pain. They suggest that animals are ‘subjects of a being’ – meaning that what happens to them matters to them.

There is a trivial sense in which Regan and Ryder are correct; animals certainly do possess the biological properties necessary for processing information. But in every important sense they wrong: animals and humans do not think alike, feel alike, or experience alike. Humans and animals are not on the same scale of being.

Human beings have an ability that is unique – the ability to reflect, that allows us to break out of our internal, personal and unknowable world. Human beings live in a community of thinking, feeling and talking beings – the privacy of individual experience is broken down and externalised. Since we are able to externalise our inner world, we are able to reflect upon that world and become self-aware or self-conscious. Consciousness is self-consciousness – one cannot reflect upon the world without knowing that it is I who is doing the reflecting.

This kind of awareness does not exist for animals, which is why a chimpanzee today behaves in much the same way as all chimpanzees ever have done. When chimps forage for food they do not ask themselves why, or consider better alternatives any more than does a beaver consider better ways of building dams. When swallows fly south in the winter they do not ask why it is hotter in Africa, what would happen if they flew further south, or whether they could save themselves the bother by creating warmth in the north.

Humans do ask these kinds of questions – and we do engage in behaviour that transforms our circumstances. In contrast to humans, animal behaviour is mechanical, driven by the dictates of nature and immune to the processes of reflective cognition that we take for granted. It is a black, silent existence, that is not conscious of its own processes. All animals’ mental experience, if they have any at all, is diminished relative to ours – and this includes all sensations, including vision, hearing and pain.

The lack of subjectivity in animals also means they cannot be holders of rights. Rights make no sense in the animal world, because animals lack the capacity to exercise those rights in any meaningful way. The right to free speech for a cow, for example, is not just silly because cows cannot talk – it is demeaning to our right to free speech because cows cannot communicate anything meaningful. The same goes for the right to work, the right to free passage, the right to education, and so on. There is no sense in applying these rights to animals, because cows lack the capacity to make them meaningful.

The diminished content of animal thinking and feeling denies them access to rights, but it does not necessarily deny them access to welfare. We can and do protect the welfare of humans who have a diminished capacity, such as mentally disabled people, so why not animals?

The diminished human gains a moral value from the outside interests of society in general, and the family in particular. When a human being is lost the loss is felt by society. The potential of the human being to be productive, insightful and to provide a contribution passes with death and we mourn that loss. The loss is, of course, particularly acute for family and close friends who would have had first-hand experience of the person’s existence and hopes and aspirations for their potential. If we treat a human instrumentally, even in death, we do violence to the value they represented or could have represented.

In contrast, animals never have the potential to do anything different from or greater than their ancestors and direct contemporaries. An animal is not an individual, because while it might have distinct characteristics, it lacks the capacity to develop itself and transform its existence.

Nor are animals social – while they may live within groups, they lack the capacity to transform that group’s behaviour, and they cannot take collective decisions within the group. The value of an animal is fixed, such that it is always comparable to any other animal currently living, dead or projected into the future. When an animal dies, unless we have some particular association with the animal such as a pet, we do not mourn its passing because there is nothing to mourn. Animals never have value unless we provide some value through a human relation.

So it is that pets have a different value to zoo animals, which have a different relation and value to experimental animals. Animals have no ‘inherent value’ – the value they have is that which is provided through a human relation.

The bottom line is that humans are special. But this is not a popular outlook – and for good reason. The twentieth century saw a series of calamities and disasters that battered our self-belief. The first and second world wars; the Great Depression; the Holocaust; the dropping of nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities; the appropriation of science for the Cold War; and the general collapse of almost all social experiments aimed at changing the world for the better, has left humanity feeling sorry for itself.

We look in the mirror and see something a lot more brutish than it truly is. The other side of the coin, is that we look at animals and see something that is more human than they truly are. The campaign for animal rights has gained greater purchase as pessimism about the human condition has increased.

Scientists share in this pessimism as much as any other group in society – and their defensiveness on the question of animal experimentation has sadly contributed to the increasing anti-human sentiment. The biggest problem here is the policy of the ‘three R’s’ – reduction, replacement and refinement. The three R’s are meant to remind researchers to reduce the number of animals they use, to replace animals with other techniques wherever possible and to refine their techniques to involve the minimum of distress to the animal – thereby providing an element of protection for the welfare of the animals involved in research.

But the three R’s are, of course, a disaster for science, because it is not possible to advocate animal welfare and at the same time give animals untested drugs, diseases or slice them open. It is not hard to detect the profound dishonesty of such a stance.

Animal welfare is not the aim of animal experiments; human welfare is. To defend animal experimentation it is necessary to champion the value of humanity.

I wonder how it ever got so difficult to sacrifice animals for the cause of humanity. If animal experimentation were stopped, the slowdown in medical research would be real and the cost would be high. Right now, for example, there are at least four potential vaccines against malaria undergoing animal testing. Malaria kills 2.7million people every year, over five people every minute, and most of them are children under the age of five. A one-month delay in developing a vaccine would kill 225,000 people.

Are we really so fed up with humanity that we would sacrifice ourselves and our children to save monkeys?

Stuart Derbyshire is an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Anaethesiology. He is a contributor to Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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