In defence of testing on primates

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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It is entirely moral, humane and proper to place electrodes in the brains of primates, as part of the search for a cure for such terrible diseases as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. What is really sick is that so many seem to doubt it.

This week a public inquiry opens into Cambridge University’s plans to build a world-class, Pounds 24 million research centre, where neuroscientists will experiment on the brains of primates. Two previous applications for approval for the institute have been turned down on spurious non-scientific grounds, after complaints that it would infringe green belt planning regulations and endanger public order by provoking animal rights protests.

Whatever the outcome of the new hearing, it is a disgrace that the Government feels the need to hold a public inquiry into whether we should privilege people or primates. The agenda on the animal research issue seems increasingly to be set by the lobby group Friends of the Planet of the Apes.

Animal research has been indispensable to the progress of medical science. We have all benefited from it, including every animal rights protester, unless they extend their ethical objections to never having taken a painkiller or antibiotics. And experiments on primates have played an important part in developing everything from chemotherapy to organ transplants. The use of primates is now widely considered unethical, on the grounds that they are ‘just like us’ (speak for yourself). Yet it remains essential in important areas; for example, the current candidates for a vaccine against Aids were all developed using primates.

In an obscene inversion of the truth, opponents of the Cambridge institute now claim that its experiments could actually pose a threat to human health. Pushing panic buttons that invoke every scare from bio-terror to BSE, they warn us that unidentified primate viruses could somehow escape from the research centre and spread exotic diseases among the local population (even the dread word ‘Ebola’ has been whispered). No doubt we shall soon be told that Dolly the sheep was to blame for the anthrax panic.

In another brazen attempt to take a scalpel to the facts, antivivisectionists – who have long insisted that the genes we share with apes make experimenting on them unethical – now argue that the Cambridge experiments are redundant because primates’ brains are too dissimilar to ours after all. In truth it is the genetic similarity between humans and primates that makes experimenting on them expedient. And it is the qualitative difference between us and them in every other respect that makes such experiments ethical.

Opposition to animal research is an emotional spasm in search of a rational argument. Scratch the surface of much of this pseudo-science and you will find saccharine, Disney-style anthropomorphism. The website of the International Primate Protection League, a leading expert group campaigning against the Cambridge centre, prominently features little ‘Courtney Gibbon’, a victim of maternal abuse now being hand-raised by IPPL ‘caregivers’. IPPL members ‘who have made a special place for Courtney in their hearts’ are kept informed of how she plays outdoors and ‘tries to sing along with the big gibbons in her tiny voice!’

Why worry about all those old folks with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s when we’ve got Courtney the singing baby gibbon to coo over? The people who conduct animal experiments are scientists, not sadists. But even if they had the morals of Myra Hindley, their work would still be worthwhile. If anything, the science community seems not hard-hearted enough in defence of its work, often seeking to compromise with the critics rather than fighting to convince the public of a simple proposition: that animal welfare cannot be the business of animal research.

The Cambridge initiative is in serious peril because the cause of animal rights is no longer the preserve of a few extremists. It has become mainstream in a British society where the traditional fondness for animals now appears to be married to a deep self-loathing of human achievements. If many now seem prepared to put primates on a par with people, it is not because we have discovered anything that raises the status of animals, but because we have lowered our estimation of our own moral worth.

The irony is that the argument for animal rights is itself an expression of thoughts and feelings that are uniquely human. Using our insight of self-consciousness, many now ask ‘what are we?’, and don’t like the answers that they are given. Some might seek to express their discomfort with human progress by denying our right to use animals, and especially primates, in the just cause of medical science. But even our capacity for self-loathing is a sign of humanity’s superiority over all other species.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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