The hard arguments about vivisection

Some scientists advocate experiments on animals while simultaneously apologising for them. Bad move.

Stuart Derbyshire

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Animal research is vital to the development of new medicines and therapies. Ongoing animal experimentation is being used to investigate 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.

At a time when animal experiments are widely criticised, it is no surprise that their defenders emphasise these experiments’ clinical benefit. However, this argument fails to defend basic scientific research and to address concerns about animal welfare.

Basic research is the attempt to understand for the sake of understanding. Thus the purpose of basic animal research is to understand the animal world, and can include investigations of animal behaviour as well as animal physiology – for example, the study of migratory behaviour in birds or the study of barrel structures in the rat cerebral cortex. Although science can often throw up unexpected results, these studies are not likely to result in clinical breakthroughs. There is a difference between examining the structure of a rat brain simply to understand that structure, and giving a drug to a rat to understand pharmacological action. The former may have implications for brain malfunction in humans but the aim is to understand the structure of rat brains.

Unfortunately, scientists find it difficult today to state that the sole aim of a study is to develop knowledge. In the public sphere, and increasingly in the academic sphere, there is a demand that the outcome of any research project involving animals be self-consciously directed towards a clinical therapy, rather than a process of scientific enquiry. This puts basic scientists into an awkward position. Either they can conduct their experiments in a state of semi-secrecy, or they can reach for increasingly convoluted arguments to link their research to medical science. Neither position is a long-term strategy. Secrecy encourages infiltration and exposure by animal rights groups, while stretching the medical claim opens up a gap between the reality and rhetoric of science.

Moreover, this approach fails to address moral arguments for animal welfare. If animals suffer and experience life in a similar way to us, then animal research is simply wrong, no matter what the outcome, just as non-consensual or detrimental human research would be wrong. We cannot justify the instrumental use of animals because we like the outcome any more than we might use a beneficial outcome to justify the instrumental use of human beings. Everyone might agree that animal research provides great benefit but disagree vehemently as to whether it is a morally sound activity. The instrumental use of animals is only justified if human beings are special.

There is very good reason for believing that human beings are special. The sheer staggering scale and richness of human culture are unlike anything in any other species. The development of medicine, industry, transportation, communication, clean water, a stable food supply, and so on, are the discernible signs of culture and progress that are evidently absent from the non-human world. The absence of such cultural development in the animal world means that their experiences are also likely to be wholly dissimilar from ours, both as a cause and consequence of their limited progress.

Arguments in favour of animal research must include an acknowledgement that human beings are special, but science seems quite ambivalent on this point. Although few would draw a direct parallel between the lives of rodents and humans, significant effort has been made to reject the view of humans as exceptional beings. Revelations about how animals are more like us than we might imagine are common. It has been suggested that dogs, for example, suffer stress at Christmas time, penguins to fall in love, and parrots to perform psychic acts. The Animal Procedures Committee, made up of some of the key members of British science, have written that primates have ‘advanced cognitive faculties [and] complex behavioural and social needs’, thus conceding that primates are so like us that they might have to be treated like us.

Accommodation to an anthropomorphic view of animals occurs via animal researchers’ commitment to the principle of the ‘three Rs’. The three Rs are ‘refinement’, ‘reduction’ and ‘replacement’. Scientists pledge to refine their techniques so as to induce the minimum amount of suffering; reduce the number of animals used; and replace animals with other techniques wherever possible. At first blush these principles might seem reasonable, if a little patronising. All animal experimenters know to eliminate unnecessary noxious intervention (refinement) so as to not hinder discovery. Equally, all researchers will naturally tend to use fewer or less-costly animals or techniques (reduction and replacement) so as to get quicker results for fewer resources.

What makes the three Rs disastrous, however, is that they were not developed from the perspective of good science but from the perspective of animal welfare. Adopting this perspective inevitably encourages introspection as to what it might be like to be the experimental animal, and, once the ‘perspective’ of the animal is adopted, it is inevitable that all experimentation will be seen negatively since few animal experiments are in the interests of the animal.

The result is that animal scientists often appear hypocritical – pursuing research, while hiding behind the principle of the three Rs. Indeed, arguably the only major difference between scientists and opponents of animal research is one of practice: animal activists demand that we stop vivisection now, while scientists try to put that terminus off until the yield of medical benefits can be obtained by other means. Either animal research is right, in which case we should encourage expansion, or it is wrong, in which case we should stop.

I would argue against stopping animal research, because I believe we are wholly different from animals and investigating and understanding the natural world is an important part of what it means to be human. The investigations that scientists perform with animals increase our knowledge of nature and therefore increase the possibilities for human action.

To avoid being defensive or hypocritical, animal research needs to be promoted as part of a moral campaign that celebrates this growth in human understanding. This does not mean that we are free to abuse the natural world in ways that are wantonly destructive or malicious, but it does mean that any debate about animal research should be recognised as a debate about human purpose. It is self-conscious moral agents that are able to weigh and judge the life of humans or animals. This places human beings into a central position, not via some act of special pleading, but as a function of our exceptional abilities.

We wield this authority whenever we engage in activities that are invasive or lethal to animals or when we control their reproduction, living space and habits. These controlling acts express a de facto belief that animals are sufficiently different from humans to make such activities justifiable. Scientists who defend themselves against accusations of cruelty by promoting their allegiance to the three Rs forget that the real reason for animal experimentation is the exceptional nature of human beings. Advocating animal research while trying to apologise is a poor strategy that fails to take control of the argument, and is always in danger of losing public support.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. His research examines the brain responses to pain with an aim to understanding functional pain disorder. At the moment, his research only involves human beings.

Read on:

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