Animal Research in the Year of Coronavirus

Statistics of live-animal research in Great Britain during 2020 have now been published by the Home Office. There was a total of 2,883,310 procedures, a fall of 15% from the previous year’s 3,401,517. So here too there was a Covid-boon for the animals; the notional 500,000 or so animals that might have been used in experiments, but weren’t, join the other groups of animals that found space, quiet, or simply survival as a consequence of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, because this relatively dramatic reduction to a level last seen in 2004 is candidly admitted by most of the practising institutions to be a freak of the moment. As Edinburgh University cautions on its web-site, “Please note . . . It is expected that these figures will increase in 2021 as more standard working patterns resume.” And anyway it may be that the 500,000 didn’t after all survive. It can’t be known, because numbers of animals killed without ever being used in procedures are only collected for one year in every five, and the next year to be counted will be 2022.

There is, at any rate, no reason for anyone to take credit for the reduction in numbers. In fact, rather ominously, there seems to have been no inclination to do so, or to celebrate it at all; rather, the pandemic has been seen by animal-research institutions as a boost to their confidence and reputation. The tone has been set by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), whose Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett says in her official statement,

Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments . . . The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed, and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.

UAR has indeed “worked with research institutions”, and it’s noticeable how prompt they’ve all been to declare their part in the 2020 numbers, and to use UAR’s publicity material to help them along. Even so self-sufficient an institution as Cambridge University (now exceeding Oxford University in animal numbers) presents its ‘Research news’ largely in UAR’s words and format, just adding a word or two from their own Establishment Licence Holder.

The Medical Research Council (third biggest user of animals in 2020, and financer of other users) has a special web-page providing “examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against Covid-19”. But the examples are being used to make a more general point, for we’re told that the expertise employed in this Covid research “is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.” Both past and future of animal research are being justified by today’s “fight against Covid-19”, then. Indeed, taking an even more expansive advantage of the present situation, the MRC’s page makes this grand assertion: “Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases.” Now we know why some people survived the Black Death. The case is complete.

Britflag

Another important point made by the MRC about this animal research is that it has “helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against Covid-19 [my italics].That’s certainly very gratifying, even if one hadn’t formerly pictured the research as an international competition. And no doubt it explains why UAR’s table summarizing the numbers is presented against an image of the Union Jack (though properly it should be the ‘British flag’, since Northern Ireland is not included in these numbers), with a strong red and blue colour-theme carried through in the layout. You see, it’s patriotic, it’s British, to experiment on animals.

In fact, for Understanding Animal Research there’s an exciting spirit of competition even within the nation. Alongside the more or less factual presentation of the 2020 statistics, we get a page headed ‘Ten organisations account for nearly half of all animal research in Great Britain in 2020’. This so-called “Top ten list” has become a traditional feature of its annual reporting, but now it’s being taken up by the individual institutions themselves. Glasgow University, for instance, re-publishes UAR’s table, proudly highlighting its own seventh position. Since all these institutions advertise (they’re required by UAR’s Concordat to advertise) their commitment to reducing the use of animals, the word ‘top’ seems incongruous, and the whole approach has always puzzled me. But then how can a list headed by the gigantic Francis Crick Institute (“Discovery without boundaries”), the University of Cambridge, and the MRC, be anything other than a variety of medal table? So it’s a PR device: these are the high achievers, and this is what they do, so it’s a good – indeed a glamorous – thing to be doing. And that advertised commitment to the 3Rs (reduction, etc.) comes across accordingly as a sort of modesty, taking the swagger out of the boastfulness: shucks, we try not to do this, but we just can’t help doing it brilliantly well.

Oxford University, coming fourth in this table, has not altered its animal-research pages for the occasion, except to edit the numbers themselves. However, a statement from its ‘Covid-19 vaccine team’ appears in UAR’s pages, explaining that the testing of its vaccine on rhesus macaque monkeys was done by Public Health England (at Porton Down) and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. This farming out of the tests partly explains Cambridge’s higher placing this year: that university used 41 non-human primates in 2020, compared to Oxford’s 15. Come on, Oxford!

So much for the publicity. As for the numbers themselves, it’s difficult to see any special pattern in them, aside from the temporary reduction, the Covid-dividend. As ever, the species most commonly used was the mouse, especially in procedures aimed at the production of genetically altered animals: altogether, over 2 million mice were used. These mice, with rats (notably more of these than last year), fish, and birds (mostly chickens), accounted for over 95% of all procedures. The number of horses continues to rise (to 10,790); they’re mainly used for blood products. The number of cats also went up, by 11% to 146; no explanation is given, but 62 of the cats were apparently wanted for regulatory testing (i.e. tests required by national or international safety regulations).

This latter class of procedure, forming about one third of all experiments, is the worst of them for cruelty, and not by chance the one least spoken of by research apologists. Whereas about 4% of the experimental procedures are classed as causing ‘severe’ pain or distress (it’s 2% for breeding procedures), for regulatory testing in particular the rate is 9%. Six of the cats fell into that category, and 11 into the ‘moderate’. Dogs of course were there in much greater numbers: 4340 of them were used in regulatory tests, of which 9 were classed as ‘severe’, and 1013 as ‘moderate’.

Neither dogs nor cats should have been there at all, in any category or any laboratory, but then nor should any of the other animals. The whole set of statistics is a record of selfishness and cowardice; in fact the re-iterated justifications for such research – that it’s essential for human health, and the necessary condition of all medical progress – even supposing them true, are just a less embarrassing way of saying that same thing.

Notes and references:

The animal research statistics for 2020 were published on 15 July. They can be viewed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1002895/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2020.pdf   The tables of data are published separately, and the link to them can be found on this page, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2020

The two presentations from Understanding Animal Research are here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-research-numbers-2020/  and (with the ‘top ten list’) https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/ten-organisations-account-for-nearly-half-of-all-animal-research-in-great-britain-in-2020/  The animal research pages of the ten institutions are linked here, but note that both Glasgow and the MRC seem to have thought better of the ones from which I have quoted, and as far as I can see they are no longer accessible.

There’s a good oppositional response to the annual statistics from Naturewatch, which also asks what happened to the good policy intentions published in 2014/15 (for which see this blog on 8 August 2020): https://mailchi.mp/naturewatch/breaking-news-how-many-animals-suffered-for-science-last-year-5097514?e=afb349bcaa Naturewatch also suggests actions to take, including e-mails to government ministers, with sample text offered here: https://action.naturewatch.org/call-time-animal-experiments

Harry Harlow, the Undead

Catching up with my back copies of the Journal of Neuroscience, I come across a paper with this title: ‘The Signature of Maternal Rearing in the Methylome in Rhesus Macaque Prefrontal Cortex and T Cells’. It’s a clear enough title, if hard going for amateurs, but the reference to the maternal rearing of monkeys ought to be a tautology. Is there any other sort of rearing? Yes, indeed there is, as the research protocol soon makes clear: rhesus macaque monkeys [nineteen of them] are randomly assigned at birth to differential rearing conditions by either their mother or an inanimate, cloth-covered surrogate.” Among the effects of the less natural infant upbringings, we learn, are “emotional and social disturbances . . . behavioural abnormalities . . . inadequate social skills . . . increased voluntary alcohol consumption.” The ‘signature in the methylome’ and so on are the corresponding neural evidences of these distresses. (Incidentally, that word “voluntary” has its own unhappy story to tell.)

If something seems unpleasantly familiar to you about this research, then one of its lead authors, Professor Allyson Bennett, is the very person to correct you. Writing less formally, in fact in ill-advised satirical style, she has posted a sort of mock news-story on the web-site of Speaking of Research (she’s a member of its governing committee). “Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged”, says the heading, and the text begins “The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil on Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over thirty years ago.” There follows some lumbering fun with the theme that philosophers and animal activists have relied on Harlow as a sort of bogey-man to discredit animal research. Then Professor Bennett brings in, by way of contrast, a group of “fringe” philosophers who aim at “cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues”. This sounds a bit solemn in the context, but it’s meant seriously, for their message is, again, Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought plus action.”

Professor Harlow did indeed die in 1981, and, contrary to what Bennett supposes, it would be wholly welcome news to find that he was dead also in the sense intended by her: i.e. that the research methods, values, and attitudes represented in his experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys were discredited and finished with, that his story and theirs was over. But it isn’t, and what keeps it alive is not its campaigning value, such as that might be; it’s his fellow-professionals.

Here, then, is the explanation for Harlow’s deathlessness, and that article in the Journal of Neuroscience is a good place to start. Among Professor Bennett’s co-authors (thirteen of them) is Stephen J. Suomi. Back in the 1970s, Suomi was one of Harlow’s star post-graduate students, and his assistant in some of the notorious ‘pit of despair’ research into infant isolation. He has since continued that work in various forms, creating “monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption” among many other achievements, as cross-references in the article show. Indeed, those citations go right back to a paper of 1976 titled ‘Effects of maternal and peer separation on young monkeys’, which he co-authored with Harlow. And now Professor Suomi, who must be at the senior end of that line-up of co-authors in the JN article, is evidently passing on the Harlow legacy to younger practitioners. After all, the last sentence of the article is looking forward: “Future experiments need to examine . . .” I’m sure that some of those other thirteen will be keen to oblige.

Of course, to say that more research is needed is a common enough winding-up trope; it was certainly one that Harry Harlow himself favoured. See, for instance, a paper which he wrote in 1965 about causing brain-damage to six new-born macaques by feeding them too much of the amino-acid phenylalanine in the milk of their artificial mother. At the end of it, he plants suggestions of uncertainty: “probably”, “perhaps”, “one suspects”. These unresolved things are for others to pursue. Or they might, he suggests, set about over-feeding “other amino acids” to other monkeys, on the same principle. Allyson Bennett rightly calls Harlow’s work “groundbreaking”, and Harlow meant that ground to be thoroughly developed by others as well as himself. He promoted macaques as behavioural models, manipulable in ways which he pioneered. He devised specialized cage-systems and holding-equipment for them. He lent out his ‘prepared’ infant monkeys to other institutions. He spoke of his work to public as well as professional audiences. Above all, he trained a new generation of scientists in the discipline which he had created. As an obituary in the American Journal of Primatology said in 1982, Harlow was “a legendary source of inspiration”.

clear pic with sur-mother

When Harry Harlow began his studies, he had to use monkeys at Madison’s zoo; by the time he retired, the university had about 500 in its own colony. Now Wisconsin is a national focus for primate research, accounting in its various primate research laboratories for 8,782 of the total of 68,257 non-human primates used in US laboratories in 2019. The focus of the behavioural part of that research is, of course, the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, which is indeed where Professor Bennett does much of her work. And even as she insists that the eponymous Harlow himself is dead, she asserts – what is indeed patent at Madison and far beyond – that his “discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding . . . etc.”  If I understand that sentence correctly, the verb ‘cast’ must be a present tense: the Harlow light is still brightly on.

In short, Professor Bennett is a bit like Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells the crowd “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, but then shows and indeed ensures that Caesar’s name and fame are as efficacious as ever.

Perhaps recognizing some contradiction here, Bennett has a go at de-toxifying Harlow’s reputation. The really controversial research, she says, the research which has “served as a touchstone [is that the word she wants?] for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others”, was done for “a brief time at the very end of his career”, and consisted in only “a small number of studies”. The most controversial of these, “known by their colloquial name pit of despair (actually Harlow’s own name for the isolation device which he had himself designed), involved fewer than twenty monkeys, who were “placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of six weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.” In other words, it’s all been exaggerated by that “bioethics community” for political purposes.

But no. Harlow was already reporting such studies in 1965, at least ten years before he stopped work (see the 1976 article referenced above). And what he said then – in a short summary for the journal Science, titled ‘Total Social Isolation: Effects on Macaque Monkey Behaviour’ – was that sixteen macaques (plus at least two “semi-isolated” monkeys as controls) had been put into isolation chambers “at birth”, without sight of any other living being, for periods of three, six, and twelve months.

Bennett’s corrective information is wrong, then. But even if it weren’t, that isolation research was no late aberration. It was one of countless variations upon a steady theme: the producing of mental disturbance in infant monkeys. We’ve seen that this wasn’t being done with changes of circumstance only. Those monkeys overdosed with phenylalanine had likewise been taken from their mothers at birth, and their various pathetic symptoms (convulsions, hyperactivity, head-banging and self-biting, circling the cage, complete torpor) may not have been much better than those suffered by the poor isolates, who at least got unpoisoned food. Among the other material interventions tried out by Harlow were bilateral frontal lobectomy, alcohol in the diet, and radiation.

Remember that these half-ruined young animals were then being tested for mental capacity (the psychology of learning had been Harlow’s starting-point in research). Those torpid monkeys, for instance, “had to be prodded to complete a trial.” Force was indeed a common recourse in the Harlow laboratory – a curious feature in studies supposedly revealing “the fundamental building blocks of human behaviour” (as the Association for Psychological Science believes they did). When Harlow wished his mother-deprived female monkeys to try out motherhood themselves, he got round their natural refusal with what he called, colloquially, the “rape rack”, though in print he was rather more coy about it: “By methods dark, dismal, and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years.” (the “we”, in this case again, were Harlow and Suomi, in 1971.) Incidentally, we’re told that “several” of these forced mothers passed on the violence by killing their importunate off-spring.

I won’t assess here the claims made by Professor Bennett for the human relevance of all this research, since the subject has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (‘How Not to Treat Babies’: see link in notes). However, she also more surprisingly claims that the research was relevant and helpful to non-human animals. At a time when they were regarded by most people as “dumb machines” and “automatons”, so she says, Harlow showed how mentally complex animals really were. So he did animals good, you see, even as he tormented them.

Actually, were they commonly regarded as automatons? The first federal law to protect animals in general was passed in 1966, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been particular legislation in their interests (at slaughter, during transport) well before that, as well as state legislation, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded a hundred years back in 1866. The ASPCA’s chief mover, Henry Bergh, spoke with passionate indignation against vivisection. The truth is that Harlow’s work was controversial at the time; in fact two Congressmen tried (unsuccessfully) to block a federal research grant for it in 1962. Nor do I find that Harlow anywhere took from his research any implication that favoured the interests of non-human animals. What he told his public about was not monkeys as sentient beings with corresponding claims on our respect, but monkeys as live models or pioneers of any and every mental disaster that could be imagined. And heaven knows, Harry Harlow had a fertile imagination in that respect.

And here we come to something about Harlow which Professor Bennett doesn’t attempt to manage, perhaps doesn’t quite appreciate, but which has helped to ensure his conspicuousness in the modern history of vivisection. Even in his publications, he seems to gloat over the strange sufferings and perversions that he creates. We’re told in the obituary that he was “an unusually gifted writer”. Certainly he liked fanciful alliterative phrases. You’ll remember those “methods dark, dismal and devious”. The obituary recalls him speaking of the “bold and barren splendor” of his wire and cloth surrogate mothers. Observing his (male) monkeys on their release from isolation, and their pathetic attempts to relate to their new associates, he looks for “the ecstasies and elegances of masculine play” and “the full grandiose gifts of masculinity”. Fine writing possibly, but with a creepy relish about it. In fact a colouring of perversion affects all Harlow’s work and writing. He’s a man one wouldn’t leave alone with the children, and it’s an abiding tragedy that he spent his life freely practising upon their like, and made a legacy of the habit which is still creating work for his successors. Yes, he lives on all right, and therefore the contention over the kind of reputation he ought to have is, in spite of what Professor Bennett says, completely proper and indeed necessary to our continuing attempts to make medical science a humane pursuit.

NIH lab c.2009

Notes and references:

The Journal of Neuroscience article is in the issue for 31 October 2012, vol. 32 (44), pp. 15626-15642.

The ‘Harlow Dead’ post on Speaking of Research’s web-site can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/08/03/harlow-dead-bioethicists-outraged/

Suomi’s monkey models of depression and alcoholism are instanced in a statement by the American Psychological Association defending this “world renowned researcher” from “a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr Suomi’s laboratory by the organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” See https://speakingofresearch.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/apa-suomi-letter-01-22-15.pdf

The report on induced phenylketonuria in rhesus macaques was published in Science, 12 February 1965, pp.685-95.

The obituary of Harry Harlow, written by Stephen Suomi and Helen Leroy (Harlow’s assistant as editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology), can be read here: https://www.academia.edu/19008017/In_memoriam_Harry_F._Harlow_1905-1981_ It includes a bibliography of Harlow’s publications.

The 2019 animal research numbers in the USA, including the figure for each state, can be found here: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/annual-reports/2019/fy19-summary-report-column-B.pdf

Harlow’s report ‘Total Social Isolation’ was published in Science on 30 April 1965, p.666.

The quotation from the Association of Psychological Science, one of the many scientific institutions which have expressed unconditional approval of Harlow’s work, can be found here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html

“dark, dismal, and devious . . etc.” is quoted from a paper titled ‘Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, July 1971, vol.68, no.7, p.1535. Here Harlow was experimenting with ways to cure the monkeys of their induced psychoses.

The relevance or otherwise to human babyhood of Harlow’s experiments is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/

The photographs show baby macaques with surrogate ‘mothers’ then and now: that is, in Harlow’s laboratory, and in a National Institutes of Health laboratory a few years ago.

The Coming of King Unas

The formerly accepted story of Easter Island, in the southern Pacific, saw the place as a cautionary fable of human delinquency. This remote territory was first peopled by Polynesians arriving in their canoes somewhere around the end of the first millennium AD. Over subsequent centuries, so the story went, they felled its forests in order to transport on tree-trunk rollers their strange and wonderful carved heads or moai to the chosen sites. Then, finding themselves in a created waste-land, they fought each other for what was left, even resorting to cannibalism, and were finally discovered by European explorers in the eighteenth century as a miserable remnant on an island scarcely habitable.

In his book Humankind: a Hopeful History, the historian and journalist Rutger Bregman shows how this story came about, and he corrects it from twenty-first century researches. There were no civil wars, no cannibalism. The inhabitants were found fit and well by their first visitors, but then succumbed to visitor-borne diseases and even, during the nineteenth century, to enslavement. Left to themselves, Bregman says, they would have got on perfectly well – without their trees, certainly, but even that wasn’t really their fault. It was probably the rats hitching that first ride with them centuries earlier who did the damage, as well as extirpating most of the native fauna. And anyway the space released from forest was used for successful agriculture. “The real story of Easter Island,” Bregman concludes, “is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom [i.e. a model of what we’ll soon have done to the whole planet], but a well-spring of hope.” [136]

Two aspects of that story in particular illustrate Bregman’s larger argument in the book. Humans in their original or natural condition (more about what that is later) are not delinquents and cut-throats, committed to what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “war of all against all” [109]. The Lord of the Flies vision of human life on a desert island collapsing into savagery is a species-libel (which Bregman puts right in its turn). Rather, humans are by nature resourceful, mutually helpful, and adept at managing conflict before it becomes damaging. The trouble – aspect two – came with the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life (not that the Easter Island people ever quite practised that) to life lived in fixed and populous settlements, which happened progressively from about 15,000 years ago. Bregman calls it the “biggest mistake of all time” [246]. With settlement came cultivation, ownership of land, warfare to protect or enlarge property, diseases promoted by the proximity of humans and animals, and above all the pathology of rank:

The 1 per cent began oppressing the 99 per cent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. [104]

Institutionally over, that is. But the ‘hopeful’ part of Bregman’s case is that if once we stop misrepresenting ourselves as a vandal species kept in precarious order by the artifices of civilization, those values will re-arise as the ones we trust and expect in our common life, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Still, Easter Island itself isn’t any better off for the revision of its story. It remains a denuded place, with a ruined flora and fauna, whose few survivors from pre-human days (mainly insects in the case of the fauna) are under threat from the newer scourge of tourism – for the island has an airport, of course. This doesn’t seem to enter as a problem into Bregman’s thinking. He’s a humanist in the restricted sense, for whom our vis-à-vis with other animals is just a mirror, helping us to look at ourselves, rather than a test and judgement, helping us to know what we’ve been worth to the planet. Hence his remark in an interview about most people being “pretty decent”: “it’s actually the reason why we have conquered the globe; you know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can’t.”

In Bregman’s vision of things, then, we’re essentially our own audience, and likewise the winners or losers by what we think and do as a species. Still, there is a complementary history of other species caught up in what we’ve done, and it’s detectable there in the book’s shadows. After all, the coming of ownership as a concept and practice included ownership of lives. It was a radical change, as Bregman notices: “It couldn’t have been easy to convince people that land or animals – or even other human beings – could now belong to someone.” [102] He suggests at one point that the Old Testament myth of expulsion from Eden may have been telling this story of change from free nomadism to settlement and agriculture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3.19). Certainly that change marked the primal fall in our relations with other forms of life in the world. It’s a catastrophe which we have only just started to undo; conceding ‘sentience’ to some animals (see previous post) is as far as we’ve officially got to date, even in the avant-garde countries.

Not that pre-historic humans left other animals alone; they were hunter-gatherers, after all. But they were taking their chance in the predation lottery, and it’s clear also, from the early cave-paintings, that they felt some respectful fascination for their prey and for other creatures. These animals generally appear both large and vividly present, warty pig 15 Jan 21 compared to the smallness and perfunctory representations of humans, if any. (Bregman’s point about these paintings is that there is no warfare in them.) But what exactly the human attitude was towards any of these animals (humans included) is a highly speculative subject of its own, because of course little else has been left behind by them.

It’s a point poignantly illustrated by the anthropological collections in Oxford University’s own Ashmolean Museum. There’s hardly anything to show about the lives of the hunter-gatherers: set against panoramas of open land, a few hunting weapons in a glass case or two. So lightly did they tread on the earth! Then come the civilizations, with ominous section titles like ‘New Technologies’, ‘Building an Empire’, and ‘Sumptuous Lifestyles’. A ‘pyramid text’ (tomb inscription for a pharaoh) says

King Unas comes, a spirit indestructible.
If he wishes you to die, you will die,
If he wishes you to live, you will live.

So you can see what Bregman means. Of course, he concedes that humans have now mostly freed themselves from civilization of this predatory kind. Over the last two hundred years, we’ve found that organized societies can work for the common benefit (he instances health, prosperity, human rights, even, relatively speaking, peace): “The curse of civilization can be lifted,” he says [114]. But meanwhile, as he doesn’t say, our species continues to play King Unas to all the others. That pyramid text is implicitly pinned up at every animal facility in the world – pinned on the world, in fact.

Humankind should be compared to another ambitious survey of the human career, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011, discussed in this blog on 25 May 2018). Bregman argues that we’re a fundamentally decent Humankind species (notice the way the title is divided on the front cover), corrupted by the pathologies of civilization; Pinker tells the story of civilization as a progressive putting right or at least mitigation of our natural savagery. But in fact these two very different interpretations produce the same net message. One reviewer of Pinker’s work called it the “glad tidings” that humans are much better than we thought and feared: it will now be “much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future.” Or as another reviewer says of Humankind, it “will give you good reason to feel better about the human race.”

It’s pleasant to feel better, of course, but whether it’s an honest state of mind in this case, I doubt. Whatever we’ve been able to make of ourselves, we’ve certainly made a latter-day Easter Island of much of the planet, driving other lives out of it, or making of them dependents to our King Unas. Bregman approvingly quotes Jan Boersema, the professor who de-bunked the old Easter Island myth, saying “not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially.” [136] We can fix it, in short. It’s what Pinker says too. But it may be that the self-distrust which these books have supposedly cured was a truer reflection both of our real merits in the world and of the type of solution that will work. Giving ground, morally and literally, is likely to be the only remedy that helps other species as well as our own, and it demands some measure of diffidence.

The great twentieth-century poet W.H.Auden grappled in his later writings with this question of what it is that spoils our species,

who, from the moment
we first are worlded,
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to.

As these lines imply, he believed that humanity was inherently flawed, in fact the heir to original sin in the Old Testament sense. But I mention this not just because Auden was expressing a moral and spiritual diffidence on our behalf; he was also directing this confession to its proper audience, for the title of this poem written in the last year of his life was ‘Address to the Animals’. It’s true that they can’t know or profit from what we say to them (“very few of you / find us worth looking at”, is how Auden puts it), but we shall never understand ourselves, or hit upon our proper business in the world, unless we find a right relationship with the animals who were enjoying it so long before “we upstarts”, as Auden calls us, arrived figuratively in our canoes.

Notes and references:

Humankind was first published in the Netherlands in 2019; quotations are from the English edition of 2021, published by Bloomsbury. The Better Angels of our Nature was published by Penguin Books in 2011. The quoted reviews are from extracts given in the books’ own prelims. Although the two books are dealing with the same question, and cover some of the same material (in fact Bregman expressly rejects some of Pinker’s evidence and conclusions), they differ very much in form: Better Angels is a formidable and scholarly book, two or three times a long as the other; Humankind is well but selectively evidenced, chatty and engaging in style, distinctly the work of a journalist (though an excellent one, who frequently warns his readers against daily news as “a mental health hazard”).

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/30/866059164/in-humankind-rutger-bregman-aims-to-convince-that-most-people-are-good

W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Address to the Animals’ was first published in the New Yorker, 8 October 1973. Another poem, ‘The Sabbath’, is a briefer treatment of the same subject, where the animals agree in deploring the mistakes made on the sixth day of creation.

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-55657257.

 

 

No Duty More Imperative upon the House

Finally a bill has come before the UK Parliament which expressly recognizes animals as “sentient beings”. The concept – or rather, fact – had been established in European Union law by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and therefore was a part of what was lost with Brexit. Now it’s been re-introduced in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, published earlier this month and due to be debated first in the House of Lords on 16 June.

Of course the acknowledgement of sentience in other animals has been implicit in animal welfare law from the beginning and yet apparently thought compatible with such glaring maltreatment over the years as vivisection and factory farming. Nor did putting the idea into the open in the Lisbon Treaty seem to do animals themselves much good. Still, the new proposal does (or may) take the matter a good deal further. Its long title is ‘A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. This committee is to be a permanent institution, watching for, and publishing reports on, any government policy, planned or being put into effect, which the Committee considers “might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” To any such report, the government is required to respond within three months, and then to pay “all due regard” to its recommendations “in any further formulation or implementation of the policy”.

Section 5 of the Bill, titled ‘Interpretation’, defines the word animal (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens, though invertebrate species may subsequently be added) and also vertebrate itself, but not the word due (so we won’t know how much regard is required), nor the key word sentience. But this last word is anyway being continually enriched with meaning, and the Bill will presumably have to grow with it. For instance, since 2016 there’s been an excellent peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject and titled Animal Sentience, and the London School of Economics recently announced a five-year project of research on ‘the Foundations of Animal Sentience’. Even the trendy habit of using the short form ‘ASent’ is probably a promising sign of growth. As the LSE says, “In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers . . . has begun to emerge.”

Although there’s something dismal about the phrase “interdisciplinary community”, the thing itself must be good in this case; I’ve yet to come across research which shows any species of animal less sentient than previously thought. And the really significant advance represented by the Bill is that the interests of these sentient animals will have to be taken into account across all government activity, whether existing law covers them or not. In conservation matters, for instance, not just net gains and losses of various animals will have to be considered, but the felt harms or benefits involved for them. There’s a genuine moral advance here, supposing it’s properly applied.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is part of the UK government’s larger Action Plan for Animal Welfare (note the cute initials: can it have been intentional?). The Plan includes various other promises, including an end to exporting of live farm animals, better labelling of animal-derived products, better protection for “sporting animals” (a curious expression), an end to the keeping of primates as pets, and many other improvements. Some of these are already in hand: higher sentences for cruelty to animals will come into effect on 29 June. Other promises are noticeably tentative. As to a ban on the importation of all and any animal furs, for instance: “we will explore potential action in this area” (I count three put-offs in that sentence). Animals in research get a bit of both, the promise essentially being to stand still, or “continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection”.

The Secretary of State responsible for the Action Plan is George Eustice, who made the Plan public on 12 May during a visit to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He began his speech there with the inevitable words “We are a nation of animal lovers.” The familiar boast (critiqued elsewhere in this blog) is not well-evidenced by that chosen setting, a poignant asylum in South London for abandoned pets, but at least there’s more to it than patriotism on this occasion. The Action Plan expresses several times the intention to “take the rest of the world with us” in setting higher standards of animal welfare, and to make that intention felt in trade and other international dealings. I’d say that the phrase “animal lovers”, especially without a hyphen, is more likely to raise a foreign smirk than do much persuading. In a parliamentary speech which George Eustice made in 2018 during a debate on the testing of cosmetics, he spoke in similarly sentimental terms: “Animal welfare is dear to my heart, and dear to all our hearts.” Let’s hope that the UK’s “international advocacy on animal welfare” will be put across with more ethical force.

In George Eustice’s introduction to the Action Plan, the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ claim is supported with a reference to the world’s first law for the protection of animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822. That law was certainly a momentous achievement: as one MP said at the time, it “consecrated the principle, that animals ought to be protected by legislative interference.” But it can’t be seen as a typical product of the national character. It followed a series of thwarted attempts to persuade Parliament to do something for animals, and was itself followed by similarly defeated bills aimed at extending its protections to other domesticated animals. The Act’s sponsor, Richard Martin (incidentally an Irishman, MP for Galway), was a stubborn and pugnacious personality; he really did have ethical force. His face shows as much (see below) – the stubbornness and force at least. Without them he surely wouldn’t have been able to bring his 1822 Bill through to success.

Martin's Act trial

The primary means of opposition in the House of Commons was that most destructive of its weapons, ridicule. Reports of the debates on the Bill, and on the various amendments to widen and enforce its measures which Martin tried to introduce in the following years, are punctuated with “laughter”, “loud laughter”, “noise and laughter”. MPs would ask him why he didn’t include other species, whose mere mention they thought would tend to bring his project into contempt and ridicule: asses, hares, cats, rats, lobsters. Something of the attitude is suggested in a contemporary painting which imagines a donkey giving evidence in court of offences against the 1822 Act committed by his master (the young man to his left, cocking a snook). The title was The Trial of Bill Burn, under Martin’s Act, and it illustrated a comic song of the period on that theme: “If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go / D’ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no!” I read those repeated no’s as sarcastic, but at any rate the picture (shown here reproduced in a print) has everyone except the principals enjoying a good laugh.

Sometimes Martin spoke angrily about this hilarity and the “invidious sarcasms” thrown at his proposals: “The learned gentleman may laugh,” a parliamentary report has him saying to the Attorney General, “and no doubt he considered him and his case as a fit subject for ridicule, but he could tell him it was not a matter of ridicule elsewhere.” But he was never punctured. He was witty himself, and could turn the jokes his own way. When Martin was trying to have bull-baiting and cock-fighting prohibited, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, argued that upper class field sports were just as ‘cruel’ (implying that nobody would think of putting them down); good, replied Martin, then they too should be banned, and “he did, therefore, call on the Home Secretary to do so, and to begin the salutary reformation by recommending to the King, whose adviser he was, to put down the royal hunt, and dismiss the royal stag-hounds.”

At other times, Martin would check the frivolity of MPs by giving them instances of the cruelty and barbarity which he had seen or been told of. One of these concerned the physiological lectures then being given in London by the French professor Francois Magendie, involving “most horrid and most wanton” experiments on dogs. This attack on a distinguished visitor caused some indignation, and Martin was told anyway that he’d got the facts wrong. His answer was reported thus: “he knew that what was spoken in that House was privileged from the action of libel; but he desired, in order to decide the real merits of the question, that such an action might be brought, and with the view of enabling professor Magendie to commence the action, and to obtain evidence to support it, he had gone down that day to St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had there repeated the statement, as nearly as possible in the terms in which he had before made it in that House.”

It was a characteristic performance. In 1824, Martin wanted to amend the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act so as to authorize members of the public actively to apprehend a person seen ill-treating an animal, rather than just reporting them. It was Martin’s own habit to do so, and that same Attorney-General spoke in the House against the proposal thus: “He knew from the zeal which the hon. Member had heretofore displayed in the cause of humanity, that not a week would elapse before he would be forced into some desperate conflict in attempting to enforce the law.”

Martin was nick-named ‘Humanity Dick’, and it needs adding that his ‘humanity’ was not solely directed towards the welfare of non-human animals. Human distresses, including slavery and the sufferings of debtors, engaged his energies too. It seems that he sometimes paid the fines of those whom he had brought into the courts under his Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. After all, the punishment of individuals was incidental; what he aimed at was a change of attitude and practice. And in fact that change, so a fellow-MP could say already in 1825, “might be seen in every market in London.”

Richard Martin

In 1826, Martin’s own debts obliged him to take refuge in France, where he remained for the last years of his life. He wasn’t a saint-like man. I can find no talk from him about loving animals or any other such touching rhetoric. But there was blatant abuse of animals in the streets and the cattle markets of Britain, and he persuaded the state that it should take notice and action. He wasn’t able to build on that success himself, but the principle was established. He encountered all those improvised objections, in their earliest vigour, that we still hear in their antiquity (being now employed, for instance, against legislating for sentience): it’s impossible to administer such laws; there are other more important laws to deal with first; they’ll hurt the poor; where will it stop (with cats, oysters, insects?); a different set of animals is more deserving (i.e. put it off); and of course ridicule. Martin faced all these down, and after those few years of harassing Parliament on this subject, his achievement is reflected in this momentous statement reported in the speech of another MP, John Maxwell: “There was no duty, he [Maxwell] conceived, more imperative upon the House than that of affording protection to animals.”

Astonishing to see that being said nearly 200 years ago! And correspondingly puzzling and dismaying that there is still so much to do. At any rate, now is a good moment (George Eustice was right in this) to recall and feel gratitude towards the man who forced a reluctant nation to make a start – not on loving animals, fine and proper as that may well be, but on treating their feelings and interests with the respect due to those of all sentient beings.

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill (it’s very short) can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2867  The Action Plan for Animal Welfare is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/action-plan-for-animal-welfare/action-plan-for-animal-welfare

The LSE’s sentience research project is announced here: https://www.lse.ac.uk/cpnss/research/ASENT

The 2018 cosmetics debate is reported in Hansard’s parliamentary records here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-05-01/debates/7F5EB22D-EA66-4F29-8A8E-339DDF7093BE/CosmeticsTestingOnAnimals The quotations from speeches made in debates in which Richard Martin was involved between 1821 and 1826 are reported in Hansard and linked here: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/mr-richard-martin-1/index.html

The post in this blog which discusses the phrase and notion ‘animal-lover’ is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Apart from online material, there are good accounts of the life and character of Richard Martin in E.S.Turner’s excellent All Heaven in a Rage (Michael Joseph, 1964) and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, also online), whose entry on Martin is written by Richard Ryder.

The portrait of Richard Martin is a print from a painting in the collection of the RSPCA, of which (as the SPCA) Martin himself was one of the founding members in 1824. The aquatint from a painting, Trial of Bill Burn, was apparently made in the late 1830s. More details about it, including a version of the song from which the quotation above is taken, can be found online here: https://www.georgeglazer.com/wpmain/product/history-law-animal-rights-trial-antique-print-london-mid-19th-century/

Counting, Culling, and Refraining from Bad Language

Oxford University has now published its animal research statistics for 2020. The total of experimental procedures was 169,511, a drop of 25% from 2019, and the lowest total since 2011. The only other institution to have published its 2020 numbers, King’s College London, records a similar reduction. Neither university has commented publicly on the matter, though you’d think it was dramatic enough to merit explanation. However, one may guess that this fall in animal numbers has been, not success in devising other ways of doing research, but the Covid effect, causing research projects to be postponed or cancelled. Whether the animals marked down for those projects are still waiting or have been destroyed for want of the staff to care for them is something the university has not volunteered, and indeed seems reluctant to divulge (I’ve asked).

The culling of lab animals in the USA, as a consequence of the pandemic, was commented on in the VERO blog for 8 April last year. There’s a bill now before the U.S. Congress which aims to protect animals in research laboratories and in other institutions (zoos, breeding farms, etc.) from “natural and man-made disasters”. Its short name is the PREPARED Act (Providing Responsible Emergency Plans for Animals at Risk of Emerging Disasters), and it would require all such establishments to make detailed contingency plans for the protection and re-homing of their animals. The drafting of this bill preceded the pandemic, but would very adequately have accommodated it, for Covid is of course both kinds of disaster, natural and man-made. However, the Act will have come too late for lab animals this time (itself having been delayed by the pandemic), and the traditional response to all mistakes and mishaps in laboratories – that is, killing the animals involved – has been used instead.

The PREPARED Act is one of a number of measures presently before Congress which are aimed at improving the lives of animals in the USA. One of the most impressive is the Farm System Reform Act, which would shift agriculture away from the huge factory farms (above a certain size would actually be prohibited by 2040), and towards smaller farms with pasture-based livestock or exclusively plant-food production. It’s a change which would, according to its sponsor, Senator Cory Booker, mend America’s “savagely broken food system” to the benefit of all the people and animals presently caught up in it.

If there’s a utopian hopefulness about the Farm System Reform Act (the more admirable for that), the Humane Research and Testing Act seems to have a more realistic chance of success. It proposes to establish a national centre for devising and promoting alternatives to animals in research, and this is a formalization of something that is supposed to be already happening under the finely named National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act 1993 (Section 404C). It also proposes a more inclusive count of the animals being used: all vertebrates – rather than, as at present, all except the vast majority of them (that is, the rodents, birds and fish). Every research institution receiving federal funds would be required to publish its count annually, together with a plan showing how it proposes to reduce the numbers in future.

Much of this would align the USA with practice in the UK, where such demands don’t seem to have lamed science in the way predicted by practitioners beforehand. But of course the Humane Research Act is being vigorously resisted, notably by the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), the organisation which many years ago successfully pushed for that exemption of rodents, birds and fish from the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. In fact the NABR has been lobbying also against various animal-related measures in this year’s federal budget (the Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill). These include the restoring to public view of records of inspections made by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which were removed from its web-site in 2017; the mandatory recording by USDA of every instance of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act; and, with reference to the Food and Drug Administration, a direction to prefer non-animal testing wherever possible. Viewing these modestly animal-friendly measures, the NABR complains that “The House has filled their bills with bad language”. It’s an arresting phraseology to a British ear, but its meaning is clarified in the heading to their campaign in this case: “Remove Animals Rights Language from FY21 Approps Bills”.

The NABR’s own language is, of course, not “bad” in this sense at all. Like most such professional voices, it prefers inexplicit terminology: devitalized phrases like “animal models”; scarcely visible misrepresentations like “research with animals” (it’s a partnership, you see; in fact we’re told that medical discovery has been one of the most important results of “our partnership with dogs”); or just a helpful verbal fog, as in “the application of newly found knowledge is often proved feasible in non-human primate models”. The message is, ‘Move on; there’s nothing to see here.’

The NABR knows well that language is a hidden persuader. It would no doubt approve of the fashionable euphemism “depopulation” for another of Covid’s consequences, the mass culling of farm flocks and herds which have become untradeable or otherwise uneconomic as a result of the pandemic. Or there’s the term “focussed”, used by USDA for the inspections it makes of what it believes to be the more dependable research establishments: the word is suggestive of close and attentive scrutiny, a patently excellent thing, but it also means, without saying so, that something will be left out. In fact USDA is using the word exactly to mean exclusive. As an animal-law academic at Harvard has said, “An inspector could just look at a sampling of paperwork – and not a single animal.”

“paperwork – and not a single animal”: it could be the motto of the whole euphemism front in animal research. That phrase animal research is indeed the foundational instance, substituting a vague abstraction for the original and highly descriptive term vivisection. Practitioners have commonly argued that vivisection is inaccurate, since it includes the idea of cutting – i.e. some form of surgery – whereas much research using animals is non-invasive. It’s true that the word was coined in the eighteenth century, when nearly all such experimental work did indeed involve surgery, the exposure and study of organic functions by cutting. But just as atomic physics outran the etymology of its root word (a-tom meaning ‘not to be cut’), yet has remained untroubled by the contradiction, so might vivisection have done. Physiologists, however, understood the pictorial force of the word, and abandoned it early on for the opposition to use. It was no small part of the courage of Professor George Rolleston, giving his evidence to the Royal Commission in 1875 (as described in the post previous to this one), to declare that he would use the word inclusively and “not in its etymological sense” (neither the Commission nor the Act which followed it had the word in its title). He was effectively legitimizing the opposition case and advising his colleagues that they had a professional duty to answer it.

They didn’t, of course, follow his example, and the word is now used almost exclusively by outsiders to the profession, as a pejorative. Unused by scientists for so long, it has an antiquarian flavour much to the advantage of practitioners: a great weight of historical scandal and criticism was off-loaded and disclaimed when animal research became the accepted term. But vivisection survived and needs encouraging. It appears in the title of the valuable 1987 essay collection Vivisection in Historical Perspective (a reviewer from the Wellcome Institute called the title “unfortunate” and feared the word might deter his fellow-scientists from reading the book). I note its more recent use also throughout the text of a similarly impartial account of the subject provided at politics.co.uk. But if the word seems out-dated, then at least we can preserve its key element and speak wherever possible of live-animal research and of living animals.

But so much of the public material and even administrative machinery of this business has a euphemizing effect, whether or not by conscious purpose, that escaping the fog seems nearly impossible. We have seen, in the Vivotecnia scandal (discussed in this blog for 15 April), how the fine-sounding agencies supposed to supervise standards at that laboratory were in practice a covert for misconduct. Even the numbers such as this post started with, the annual parades of figures, with their hyper-accuracy asserting a candour which may or may not be really there, seem to daze more than inform. Perhaps they even habituate us to think of animals in the mass, and to forget the “single animal”.

rhesus at OU

I don’t know the solution to this, except in that authenticating phrase which Goya incised into one of his series of fearsome etchings called The Disasters of War: “Yo lo vi” (I saw this). What comes out of laboratories as having been witnessed and recorded in secret, as in the Vivotecnia case, is the only authentic information. Failing that, a strenuously critical reading of what’s officially provided is always and at least required.

Notes and references:

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (reproduced by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4).

Oxford University’s 2020 statistics, including species of animal used and severity categories, are posted here (the surrounding text is unaltered from previous years): https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview.

The text of the proposed PREPARED Act can be read here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1442/text. Senator Booker was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper about his farm reforms: see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/a-savagely-broken-food-system-cory-booker-wants-radical-reform-now

 The NABR is quoted from these two web-pages: https://www.nabr.org/take-action/fy21-approps-activism  and https://www.nabr.org/biomedical-research/importance-biomedical-research. The species excepted from the terms of the Animal Welfare Act do get some legal protections, as described here by another pro-research organisation: https://speakingofresearch.com/2016/05/23/when-are-rats-mice-birds-and-fish-protected-by-us-federal-laws/

USDA’s “focussed” inspections are reported (including the quotation) in Science, ‘USDA now only partially inspects some animal labs’, 7 May 2021, p.558.

The book Vivisection in Historical Perspective, ed. Nicholaas A.Rupke, is published by Croom Helm, 1987. The quoted review of it can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139874/pdf/medhist00063-0114.pdf. The politics.co.uk page on vivisection, a fair and readable account, is here: https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/vivisection/

The quoted evidence of George Rolleston, professor of physiology and anatomy at Oxford University, is recorded in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, p.62.

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4). 

A Scholar and a Good Man

In January of 1884, just in the middle of the vivisection controversy which was then agitating Oxford University, a portrait bust of George Rolleston, late Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy, was installed in the University Museum. It was made by the sculptor Henry Hope-Pinker – not from the life, because the subject had died in 1881 (aged only 51), but still it was a strong and appealing image, suggestive of an energetic and idealistic personality. And this Rolleston certainly had been. He was appointed a science lecturer in 1857 and then the first Linacre professor in 1860. That was the year the university’s Natural History Museum was opened, and Rolleston had been a vital force in the work of reviving science studies in the university, with the Museum collections as their focus.   

Hope-Pinker, Henry Richard, 1850-1927; George Rolleston (1829-1881)

Although the Museum was not yet completed (and still isn’t quite, as the façade itself shows clearly enough), the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held there in that year – a sort of benediction for the new Oxford science. Rolleston was present, of course; indeed he was one of its organizers, and was serving as president of the Physiology Section. His friend Thomas Huxley, already known as a combative champion of the scientific outlook in general and of Darwin’s just-published Origin of Species in particular, was one of his vice-presidents. It was in Rolleston’s section that a debate began over the question how much difference in form there was between the human brain and the brains of other primates. So animated and significant was the argument, that a more gladiatorial version of it was appointed for the end of the week, when Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (among others) famously disputed the matter before a packed assembly. Rolleston was already persuaded by the evolution thesis, and in fact craniometry, an aspect of comparative anatomy which formed an important part of Darwin’s argument, became a special interest of his, and a focus of the Museum’s study collection. The photograph reproduced here was taken by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), and shows Rolleston at this work.

GR by Dodgson, Museum Collection

Here then was a man right in the swim of contemporary science, at Oxford and nationally, at an exciting time of revival and progress. But he wasn’t quite the stream-lined lab-man that was characterizing the new physiology in Britain (as pictured, for instance, in Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Physiologist’s Wife’, reviewed elsewhere in this blog). He had read Classics at Pembroke College before studying for a medical qualification in London. Then he worked at the British Hospital in Smyrna just at the end of the Crimean War, and after that at the Children’s Hospital in London. During his first Oxford appointment, as Lee’s Reader in Anatomy, he continued to work as a doctor. The Linacre chair disallowed him from continued medical practice, but he was active on the city’s health board, for instance in dealing with Oxford’s share of the national smallpox epidemic of 1871. Then again, his academic interests were very broad, including ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as physiology and anatomy. Perhaps the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, had in mind this variety of attention when he wrote that Rolleston did not quite possess “the spirit of a Scientific man” [Desmond, p.134].

At any rate, ‘my profession, right or wrong’ was never Rolleston’s habit of thought. His period as professor of physiology coincided with a national campaign against vivisection, culminating in a Royal Commission and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Unlike most of his fellow-physiologists, Rolleston did not see the rights and wrongs of vivisection as a matter for professionals only. He believed, on the contrary, that people developed “the moral sense” through “knowledge of the world at large”, and that the narrow focus of research tended to take them in the opposite direction, “every kind of original research being a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness.” Such unscrupulousness had special scope in the practice of vivisection, which was therefore likely to be “more demoralizing than other kinds of devotion to research”. The practice was, in fact, “very liable to abuse”.

Those quotations come from the evidence which Rolleston gave to the Royal Commission in 1875. He was not – again, unlike his fellow-professionals – improvising a morality for the occasion, for he had not been taken by surprise, as they had, when vivisection became a national concern in that way. He had been putting the matter to his colleagues as a moral problem over many years.

It was something he first did formally during the British Association meeting at Newcastle in 1863, when he was serving, again, as president of the Physiology Section. The presidential addresses which prefaced the reading of papers were normally in the collective-congratulatory style, commending the year’s work in the subject. But Rolleston used a portion of his time for what the editor of the published proceedings, perhaps with slight distaste, called “some remarks upon vivisection”. The president put the anti-vivisection case to his fellow-physiologists, and then, more or less impartially, the answers to it which they might be inclined to make. By way of conclusion, he made an appeal to their pride of nation. “In a country like this,” he began, not meaning that imaginary ‘nation of animal-lovers’ still cited today, but rather, and more accurately, a country “where human life is highly prized”: in such a country, he said, all lives would naturally profit from that developed respect, and therefore “brute misery will never be wantonly produced.” It was a clever appeal, that word “will” implying as much a commitment made on his audience’s behalf as a logical deduction. And he finished, rather as a headmaster might finish cautioning his school, “in a British Association I need allude no further to the matter.”

But he did allude to it again, in 1870, when he was president of the whole Biology Section of the BA for its meeting in Liverpool. He seems now to have pressed the BA’s General Committee to take an interest. Among the special committees which it was appointing to examine such matters as luminous meteors, the Gaussian Constants, the fossil elephants of Malta, and ‘lunar objects suspected of change’, there was one deputed to formulate a statement for the British Association on “Physiological Experiments in their various bearings”. This committee was, besides, asked to consider “from time to time” (as a semi-permanent committee, then) what the BA itself might do to minimize animal suffering in “legitimate physiological inquiries” and to discourage the illegitimate kind. Professor Rolleston was to be the secretary. His committee of ten included two of the leading vivisectors of the day, Professors Foster and Burdon Sanderson.

Rolleston’s committee duly reported in 1871 (at Edinburgh now). Its members had come to a majority agreement on four modest principles: no painful experiment, where anaesthetic was possible, should be done without it; no painful experiment to be done for teaching or demonstration purposes; no painful experiment of any kind except at fully equipped laboratories “under proper regulations” (not specified); no operations to be done on animals merely in order to improve the surgical dexterity of vets. Seven members had signed these proposed principles. Ominously, Professor Foster had not. Nor was anything noted about the British Association’s endorsement of them, or about further intentions of any kind.

For most of the committee, and of the larger BA membership, this was probably understood as a convenient finish rather than a start to the theme. At any rate, the committee members showed no further interest in it, until obliged to do so as witnesses before the 1875 Royal Commission. When Burdon Sanderson and Foster, with two other physiologists, composed their Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, a compilation of methods and experiments published just three years after that Edinburgh meeting, there was no mention in it of any duty of care towards the animals. In particular, there was no advice on the use of anaesthetics. Rolleston must have felt, in 1875, that he was having to start again, and in fact he began his evidence to the Commission by referring back to that presidential address of 1863.

But now, of course, he was addressing an audience far beyond fellow-scientists. Professional solidarity in face of this public attention is a notable feature of the evidence given to that Commission by the scientists – loyalty to each other (“I do not know anywhere a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, etc.) and to their professional discipline. Moreover, Rolleston’s friend Thomas Huxley, by now the acknowledged voice of British science, was one of the Commissioners. It must have been both painful and hazardous for Rolleston to break ranks in such a situation. He said so: “I know that I am likely to be exceedingly abused.” Still he did it. He said that there were far more animal experiments than necessary (this at a time when they numbered about 500 a year in Britain). He said that they tended to habituate practitioners to animal suffering, so that, for instance, a lecturer might easily disregard the suffering in favour of “showing what he is worth”. He agreed with the suggestion put to him that the Handbook compiled by Professor Foster et al was “a dangerous book to society”. He even suggested that the sight of animal suffering, “of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism”, was likely to awaken the “sleeping devil” of positive cruelty in those present (for the truth of which, supposing there were any doubt about it, see the previous post in this blog). It was an astonishing performance.

When the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, Rolleston welcomed it as “a great step in the history of mankind”. Animals would now have “friends to remonstrate for them”. I think also that he saw the Act as a proper recognition of what he called “the secret bond” between all animals, which Darwinism implied. No doubt he over-estimated the Act’s value, even as it stood. And after his death the law was anyway emasculated. The physiologists formed an Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, to which the Home Secretary very willingly delegated the day-to-day management of the Act’s various modest regulations. For the next thirty or more years, the profession effectively or ineffectively policed itself.

Nor did Rolleston live to witness the controversy as it re-erupted in Oxford (and there too failed of its possibilities). In fact it was his death that precipitated it, for there was then a division of the Linacre chair subjects, and Burdon Sanderson, whom the local press called “the high priest of vivisection”, was elected to the first Waynflete chair of Physiology. But Rolleston’s brave evidence was there to read, and it was read by the historian Edward Freeman (who that year was himself elected an Oxford professor) when he was debating in his own mind whether to make the journey up to Oxford from his home in Somerset in order to speak against the proposed physiological laboratory. He was feeling the same difficulty Rolleston had faced, of publicly “going against so many friends”. Then he looked again at the “the old Vivisection Blue Book” – that is, the report of the Royal Commission – and exclaimed “how different the evidence of Rolleston, a scholar and a good man, from most of the scientific cock-a-hoops”. And he concluded, “I have settled to be at Oxford tomorrow . . . ‘tis a matter of right and wrong.”

GR by Miller

George Rolleston didn’t think that vivisection ought to be prohibited; he believed that it did have value in selected medical research, and he himself practised it to some small extent for demonstration purposes: about six frogs a year, so he reported, always with anaesthetics (he is credited with ensuring that frogs were included in the Act’s protections). Rolleston belonged, after all, to the profession. But in such a context, his efforts to caution against vivisection as a morally portentous activity, “dangerous . . . to society”, are the more to be admired. When the Museum opens again, next month, I shall go there, as I often have in the past, and pay respect to that fine sculpture and its high-principled subject.

Notes and references:

Some of the material about Rolleston’s life comes from his Scientific Papers and Addresses, 2 vols, ed. William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Edward Tylor, Keeper of the University Museum, Clarendon Press, 1884.

His evidence in 1875 appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, pp.61-8. The reference to Dr Sanderson’s kindness comes in the evidence given by the surgeon and government health official John Simon, p.75.

The 1863 meeting of the British Association, in which Rolleston’s address appears at p.109 (second part), is published online here: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/93055#page/7/mode/1up. The later meetings can be accessed from that page by changing the year in the headline. The committee’s terms as appointed in 1870 are quoted from p.62 (first section), and its report in 1871 from p.144 (first section). The “secret bond” is a phrase used by Rolleston in his Harveian Oration, as published by Macmillan, 1873, p.29.

The phrase “high priest . . .” for Burdon Sanderson was used in the Oxford University Herald in its issue of 27 October 1883.

Edward Freeman is quoted from a letter written in February 1884, as published in The Life and Letters of Edward Augustus Freeman, ed. W.R.W.Stephens, 2 vols, Macmillan, 1895, vol.2 pp.275-6.

Illustrations: the bust of George Rolleston in the University Museum; Rolleston demonstrating craniometry (from a photograph by Charles Dodgson in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum); pencil and chalk sketch of Rolleston in 1877 by William Edwards Miller, from the collection of Merton College.

Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business

The first of the animal-research proposals granted permission by the Home Office in 2020, and now published in its non-technical summaries for that year, is a standard ADME project: that is, testing various products for their absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion by, in, and from the bodies of live animals. In this case the products are mainly agro-chemicals, and the purpose is to assess “the composition of the terminal residue in the animal products (meat, milk and eggs) that will be consumed by humans”. Administration of the chemicals will be “by injection, dermal application, or gavage [direct into the stomach by tube]. The ‘dermal application’ is to provide information for “operator exposure assessments”: after all, when you’re out enjoying the fresh air and tending the fields, you want to be well-informed of “your crop-care product’s toxicological profile”. That last phrase is from among the offers of the company Vivotecnia, one of those which provide these ADME services (more about Vivotecnia later).

Most of this type of animal research is done in order to satisfy regulations in the countries where the products are to be used. Such ‘regulatory testing’ accounts for about one quarter of the experimental procedures conducted each year in UK laboratories, and a much higher proportion of the nastiest of them, the so-called ‘severe’ procedures. The practitioners of it are usually the CRO’s (Contract Research Organisations), which gather their work into great 5-year testing projects for Home Office approval, as in the case above. Some of these CRO’s have been founded by vets, putting their expertise to good use. In fact the UK’s Royal Veterinary College (“The world’s leading vet school”) advertises its own CRO facility, providing “large as well as small animal models” for use in “All stages of pre-clinical and clinical product development . . . within the regulatory and non-regulatory environment.” The illustration to go with this offer of ‘Biotechnical Research and Development’ shows men in suits at a reception; this is business, after all, but, reassuringly, it’s “underpinned by the RVC’s reputation for animal welfare” – a fine thing for a veterinary school to have.

CoeEdenBiotechnologies

But yes, these CRO’s are businesses, and speed and efficiency are what they characteristically promise their clients, rather than the uncertainties and scepticisms of research-science proper or indeed such personal commitment as might go with that. This character of a mass-produced technical service is what the artist Sue Coe suggests with her image of ‘Eden Technologies’ (motto: “Getting it Right from the Start”) in the fiction Pit’s Letter. Eden Technologies! It’s a very well-judged name, being one that’s ever-popular with real biotech businesses or at least their PR agents. In fact only a few weeks ago JHL Biotech (“a global front-runner in biological drug development”) declared itself “excited to announce” a change of name to ‘Eden Biologics’. Sue Coe’s Eden is where Pit, the dog-narrator of the story, has ended up, literally so, along with countless other unfortunate animals. So far from being a Paradise, it’s a hellish place of squalor and cruelty, and indeed Pit says at one point “if we believed in their God, the Devil would look like a human being.” That’s been said before, of course, but some of the more horrifyingly visionary scenes in Pit’s Letter remind us of the many reasons which the twentieth century has provided for saying it yet again (the book was published in 2000). “I walked through past and future, rotten with killing,” says Pit, the ghost who can review it all.

But the grotesque compounding, in Coe’s laboratory scenes, of high technology with filth and slovenly violence, that’s artist’s hyperbole, isn’t it, or at any rate distant history? Apart from anything else, the science would be nearly worthless. Nevertheless, we have to know that it’s both true-to-life and up-to-date. Undercover film, taken between 2018 and 2020 in the Madrid laboratories of Vivotecnia (they of “your crop’s toxicology profile”), has now been published, showing just that same mixture of expensive equipment and physical and moral squalor.

Vivotecnia is a CRO (“researching for you”) that boasts online of its commitment to the “highest standards of animal welfare”. The film shows how little truth there is in that. It’s a sickening thing to watch, rightly classified online as suitable for over-eighteens only. The animals are seen roughly handled, struck, thrown back into their wholly barren cages (“we foster environmental enrichment”, says the Vivotecnia web-site). Individuals are crudely identified with marker pen on forehead or body. Invasive procedures like gavage are conducted with clumsy impatience. Rats are shaken and swung through the air to make them quiescent. There’s blood on the floors. The staff habitually swear at the animals. A background of barking and squealing vocalizes the distress of unseen animals. Worse, there’s deliberate and enjoyed cruelty. Someone draws with marker pen on the genitals of a young monkey being held down for some procedure: “a moustache!” he laughs (the comments of staff are translated in sub-titles). Animals are mocked and taunted, held up for ridicule: “Ha ha ha!” say the sub-titles. It’s scarcely believable, a demonic anarchy.

Vivotecnia is not some rogue company pulled out from the shadows. It was founded in 2000, and is signed up to a whole array of acronymic lab standards and supervisory bodies, both Spanish and international: COSCE, Felasa, OECD, GLP (Good Laboratory Practice!), and of course EU 2010/63. It’s right in the middle of the contract research scene. Therefore Vivotecnia’s disgrace – for even in the few days since the film was released, the public and official response is certain to ruin it – also discredits all those worthy institutional controllers and protectors of this sort of vivisection. It discredits too all those familiar PR phrases about “state of the art facilities”, “paramount” concern for animal well-being, and “highly qualified” management teams (to use more of Vivotecnia’s examples). The whole collective has had a fall and deserved it. For the truth is that forcing animals to take our risks for us like this, in whatever scientific manner, cannot be done ‘humanely’. It necessarily calls out the worst in human beings. It’s incompatible with human decency to do it or to profit from it in any way.

The film has been published online, with an English commentary, by Cruelty Free International, which also sponsors a petition for the closure of Vivotecnia (at present the company’s licence to trade has been suspended). Please sign it! Both film and petition can be seen here: https://crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/toxicity-testing-animals-vivotecnia-spain. Please also note that there are other petitions against animal research on the facebook page of World Day for Animals in Laboratories, as well as information about this year’s events, such of them as are possible, on Saturday 24 April.

Notes and references:

Volume 1 of the Home Office’s Non-technical summaries granted in 2020, published in December, has 235 entries, the first being the one described above. The collection can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2020

The Royal Veterinary College (not to be confused with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, an organisation which really does promote and pioneer animal interests) is quoted from its web-site, in particular the pages about contract work: https://www.rvc.ac.uk/business/services-and-facilities/contract-research-services

Pit’s Letter, by the artist Sue Coe, was published in 2000 by Four Walls Eight Windows.

The Vivotecnia web-site (https://www.vivotecnia.com/about-us/), from which the quotations were taken, is now unavailable, owing to “maintenance”.

The Guardian has featured the exposure in two articles, this month, both available to read online: on 8 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/undercover-footage-shows-gratuitous-cruelty-at-spanish-animal-testing-facility-madrid-vivotecnia, and 12 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/12/animal-testing-suspended-at-spanish-lab-after-gratuitous-cruelty-footage

Cynics, Hucksters and Frauds: Welcome to Medical Research!

In the course of Otto Preminger’s film Bunny Lake is Missing, released in 1965, a mother seeking her lost child tries to escape from confinement in a big London hospital. Looking for an exit in the brick-walled basements of the building, she strays into a half-dark room which she then discovers to be full of caged monkeys. It’s a research hospital, therefore, a grotesque touch in the film but a common enough institution, then as now. Another British fiction of that period provides a more thorough, though hardly more amiable, account of such places: the novel by Colin Douglas, with the illuminating title The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime. The novel’s hero – or rather anti-hero, since his leading interests are drinking and having sex with nurses – is a young doctor (as the author had been), recently qualified and now putting in some years of research (“It’s expected behaviour.”). His topic has been selected for him by his supervisor, the keenly ambitious Dr Rosamund Fyvie; it’s ‘faecal vitamins’. Having done a few hours of half-hearted preparatory reading, Campbell provides a colleague with this sarcastic prognosis of his research career:

After a preliminary survey of the literature, I am now in a position from which I may eventually advance to prove conclusively that faecal vitamins have nothing to do with anything. I could start by proving they had nothing to do with a few important things . . . Then get some PhD students to tidy up the odd little corners, like ‘Bantu diet as reflected in faecal vitamins’ and ‘Faecal vitamins in albino coypus’. My epidemiological group would do prospective cohort studies on how faecal vitamin assay is of no use in predicting who’s going to get appendicitis. And my clinical staff would devote themselves to proving that vitamins had nothing to do with any known form of cancer. You’ve got to be in cancer. That’s where the big money is.

But the research is being paid for by a drug company, and Campbell recalls the old aphorism that “Drug companies don’t give money to pessimists” (i.e. they prefer the sort of attitude suggested in the novel’s title: more of this later). He concludes that Dr Fyvie, who secured the funds, has been able to see possibilities in faecal vitamins: “possibilities, that is, of results and hence publications, by Fyvie and somebody and somebody else and Campbell, leading to greater fame for her, and the nearer prospect of the professorial chair she coveted so much.”

Campbell’s absurd research is at least human-centred (he collects his samples from the hospital’s patients), but his reluctant labours are paralleled by the more dedicated work of an animal-research colleague, “a girl who produced endless publications on mouse prostaglandins as though by a strange compulsion”. Such diligent fixations are still a noticeable feature in the bio-science journals.

Bunny Lake is a crime thriller, The Greatest Breakthrough a comedy or farce, and both of them predate the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Distorted pictures of the unregenerate old days, then? Unfortunately not: the animals are almost certainly better looked after now, but an up-to-date survey of medical research and hospital life suggests that the human system to which their lives have been made subject is further than ever from justifying that subjection. It comes in a book by a former NHS doctor, Seamus O’Mahony, with the ominous title Can Medicine Be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession.

Much of Can Medicine be Cured? is about medical research and its pathologies. The book doesn’t ever focus on the part force-played by animals in that research, but their involvement is well established early on, when O’Mahony is recalling his own early research stint. The theme of that research – “whole gut lavage” – and its likely value accord well with the fictitious Dr Campbell’s work. As practised on mice, it had been his supervisor’s speciality, and O’Mahony was required to develop the technique for clinical use. His paid helpers at the Edinburgh hospital had been Dougie and Ewan, two “foul-mouthed technicians from the animal unit”, and he knew that unit and its denizens. There were the mice, of course; O’Mahony recalls the laboratory definition of ‘mouse’: “an animal which if killed in sufficient numbers produces a PhD”. There were also monkeys and, by hearsay, goats. “I managed,” says O’Mahony, “to avoid killing any of these innocent animals”, though he does witness one of the mice being “expertly dispatched” against the edge of the lab bench.

medic

In any case, the gut lavage research and its associated publications “produced little of lasting consequence”. O’Mahony attributes his unfitness for academic medical research to the fact that “although cynical, I was not quite cynical enough.” We are on page 19 here, and the author explores the implications of that dismal explanation in the remaining 250 pages of the book.

The most conspicuous thing about the medical scene as O’Mahony presents it is that it suffers from runaway hypertrophy: drug-based medicine in general, and medical research in particular, have grossly outgrown their useful proportions. And just as what used to be called the ‘military-industrial complex’ has engaged the talents, labours, and commercial interests of countless parties, without (fortunately) requiring a war to justify it, so this “medical-industrial complex” (O’Mahony’s habitual term) is a self-sufficient monster, having no necessity to account for itself in healing:

A medical research laboratory is a factory, which produces the raw material of data. From these data, many things may be fashioned: presentations to conferences, publications in journals, doctoral degrees, successful grant applications, even air miles. What went on in the nearby wards seemed of little consequence.

Yes, publications! These are the stairway to success, and their own proliferation (output of scientific papers apparently doubles every nine years) is part of a pathological symbiosis. With a sure market in medical institutions of all kinds, and unpaid contributors (some journals even demand payment from their contributors), they can be highly profitable enterprises. They were in fact the basis of Robert Maxwell’s one-time great wealth. For their part, researchers need to appear in them as often as possible, for frequency is much easier to notice and to record than quality. Not only individual careers but also grants for further research demand this published evidence.

O’Mahony describes some of the techniques for stretching and glamorizing any given amount of work, but of course the most obvious one is fraud. The unhappy case of Dr William Summerlin shows that the temptations (‘incentives’ might be the better word) were already there in the 1970s. He was researching organ transplantation at a New York laboratory, and was found to have fabricated his evidence for the successful grafting of skin and corneas in mice and rabbits. Part of his explanation was this:

Time after time, I was called upon to publicize experimental data and to prepare applications for grants from public and private sources. There came a time in the fall of 1973 when I had no new startling discovery . . .  

O’Mahony doesn’t in fact mention the Summerlin affair, but he doesn’t have to, because fraud of one kind or another has now “become commonplace in medical research.”

Where animals are used, as in Summerlin’s case, fraud is a special kind of abuse, fatally and uselessly involving them in a lie. But there are less actionable kinds of misrepresentation, and one of the natural consequences of over-population in the research scene is what O’Mahony calls “boosterism”. “Real scientists,” he says, “tend to be reticent, self-effacing, publicity-shy and full of doubt and uncertainty, unlike the gurning hucksters [a memorable phrase] who seem to infest medical research.” He reports a calculation that there had been a 25 times increase, between 1974 and 2014, in use of the terms ‘innovative’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘novel’ in PubMed abstracts (these abstracts are really as much adverts for the articles as summaries of them). Perhaps even more damaging to good medicine is the sort of collective boosterism which constitutes medical fashion. Here all sorts of interests coincide in pursuit of funds and their own versions of success, including drug companies, “Gadarene researchers” (because “medical research is a conformist activity”), popular paperback writers, patients’ groups lobbying for particular diseases, and professional lobbyists themselves. It’s a matter of chance whether these appropriators of resources will really be of any help in what O’Mahony calls “the mundane business of treating the sick”.

That 25 times increase in boastful phrases (‘ground-breaking’, etc.) is quoted from an article titled ‘The natural selection of bad science’, and the badness of medical science constitutes a sort of refrain in O’Mahony’s book: “the great majority of medical research is a waste of time and money [p.13]. . . Big Science has a Big, Bad Secret: it doesn’t work [53] . . . nearly all papers in medical journals are dross. [92]

But since much of the funding for medical research (about three quarters of it in the case of drug-testing, says O’Mahony) is provided by pharmaceutical companies, wouldn’t they be making sure that most of it was sound and productive? Well yes, productive of medications at any rate. O’Mahony recalls that his own period of research included evaluating a drug to treat coeliac disease, even though there was by then a known effective cure for the condition: a gluten-free diet (which has since developed a profitable hypertrophy of its own). He found no efficacy in the drug, but when he wished to publish his results, the drug company which had financed the trials was unhelpful (remember Dr Campbell’s aphorism about pessimists), and the journal to which he nevertheless submitted his report did not even put it out for peer review.

Nobody wants to be associated with negative results. It’s part of that “natural selection of bad science” that research is sieved in this way, regardless of its quality. When, by contrast, the research behind the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx (research involving African Green monkeys and five other species of animal) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Merck Pharmaceuticals bought one million reprints of the report for distribution to doctors. That was good for Merck (80 million prescriptions were subsequently written out for Vioxx, before it was withdrawn as unsafe in 2004), and good for the NEJM too, but not good for science or for health. How many drugs, of the very few which do translate successfully from animal-testing to clinical trials, really are good for health? Even such lasting commercial successes as statins – the ideal drug for business purposes, since it doesn’t simply put something right and then depart, like an antibiotic, but indefinitely ‘prevents’ – are of doubtful value unless funds are limitless. In fact preventative medicine, where it means medical interventions rather than sensible diet and life-habits, is helping to push forward what O’Mahony calls “healthism”: the trend towards re-classifying the whole healthy population as at-risk.

Meanwhile, the ordinary doctor in clinic or hospital (as opposed to the medical academics and managers) is caught between this vast and pushy production system on one side, and the information-maddened consumerist patient on the other, as a sort of trading agent: “the medical profession”, says O’Mahony, “has become the front-of-house sales team for the industry.” For the point of healthism is to make a sort of self-run hospital out of each one of us, sick or well: hence the rather sinister title of one of the many books that promote this patient ‘awareness’, The Patient Will See You Now. This decline in the authority of the doctor, the devaluation of his experience and expertise, is the saddest part of the whole bad story for Seamus O’Mahony. But he shows, of course, that the decline is equally a loss for the authentic patient in need of that “mundane business of treating the sick”.

And in the shadows of the book, like the monkeys in Bunny Lake is Missing, are the animals which service this medical colossus with their own health and lives. In the European Union and in Britain, the 1986 legislation has kept their numbers more or less steady, so that they form a shrinking proportion of the giant whole. But elsewhere in the world this is not so. It’s very obvious in the journals, for instance, how much of the animal research is now being done in China, which has indeed overtaken the USA as the world’s most rapacious user of animals for scientific purposes. And for the world as a whole, a meticulous estimate of animals killed for science in 2005 was published some while ago in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals: 115.2 million. When the theme was re-visited more recently, the total for 2015 was put at 192.1 million, an increase of about 65% in ten years.

We now have some idea of how worthwhile that enormous and continuing sacrifice has been.

Notes and references:

The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime was published by Canongate Publishing in 1977. Can Medicine be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession was published by Head of Zeus in 2019.

Much of O’Mahony’s case was anticipated in Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health, published in 1974 and reissued in 1976 as Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis. In fact Seamus O’Mahony has written an excellent essay about the book, its origins and relevance, in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh in 2016 (it can be read online here: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/jrcpe_46_2_omahony_0.pdf.). But Illich was almost absolute in his opposition to modern medicine and its ideology, whereas O’Mahony argues that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of medical discovery between the 1930s and 80s. He believes, however, that the challenges and possibilities of medicine are very different now, and that failure to recognize this is what has allowed Big Science and Big Pharma to become the predators on the public health and purse that he shows them to be. 

Robert Maxwell set up the Pergamon Press as a science publisher at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford, in 1951. When it closed in 1991, it owned about 400 different journals.

The Dr Summerlin affair is discussed in Alexander Kohn’s False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp.76-83.

‘The natural selection of bad science’, an article by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, appeared in Royal Society Open Science 3(9), 2016, online at http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/9/160384.

The calculation of global animal numbers is published in ATLA, 24 February 2020: the authors are Katy Taylor and Laura Rego Alvarez, and it’s accessible online here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192919899853. Some of the increase in numbers is attributed by the authors to shortage of information in 2005: i.e. that number was an under-estimate. Many of the countries that practise animal research do not publish numbers, so that calculations cannot be authoritative.

The Grand Old Craft of Gene-Editing: a Consultation

The technique called CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’, and standing for ‘clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats’) has made genetic interventions suddenly much cheaper, quicker, and more accurate. It’s a very recent research product, the subject of 2020’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but already it’s boosting ambitions in the world of genetic engineering. One such ambition is, of course, the re-designing of food-plants and food-animals to fit our supposed preferences as producers and consumers. The UK’s Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) wishes to enable our prompt enjoyment of these benefits by abolishing some of the restrictions and regulations to which we were formerly bound by membership of the European Community. To this end, Defra is at present inviting comments and opinions through a public consultation titled ‘The regulation of genetic technologies’. That consultation is the subject of this post, first by way of preface to it, then with some advice on how to participate, if there’s still time, or how to respond in other ways.

What Defra is most immediately wanting to de-regulate (it has some longer-term ambitions as well) is ‘gene-editing’, a term which it uses in the restricted sense of favourably altering the genetic make-up of an organism without adding any alien material (as opposed to ‘GM’, meaning genetically modified, though the terms are not officially delimited in this way, as far as I can find). It claims that this sort of alteration has been the goal of “traditional breeding” as practised by “farmers and growers” for “centuries”. You note the reassuring vocabulary. In fact when George Eustice, the Secretary of State at Defra, announced the consultation during an address to the Oxford Farming Conference in January, he used the gnarled old phrase “mother nature”.

Defra must be hoping that this sort of language will help to gain the confidence of those of us who simply shy away Egypt, 1200 bc, ploughing from any attempt to understand the scientific complexities of genetics. It’s nothing to be alarmed about, you see, just a newer way of putting the right boar to the right sows, part of the age-old pattern of man in the landscape (comforting mental picture of man with straw in mouth watching pigs copulate, while an ox-drawn plough goes by).

But if that doesn’t persuade you to let Defra go ahead unchallenged, the consultation itself may well do so. Ostensibly it’s offered to the general public. A two-page introduction to its subject matter is laid out in easy-to-manage panels, with helpful Q&A section, some reassurance about “frankenfoods”, and so on. But the questionnaire itself asks people for “not just their opinions” but also “supporting facts and reasoning”. You’ll be asked, for instance, what criteria you would propose for determining whether a gene-edited organism could indeed have been produced by traditional methods. How many members of the public, even after we’ve spelled our way through the two-page dummies’ introduction, could give a useful answer to that?

However, please don’t be put off. The questionnaire is very short, a total of six questions to deal with, and you can always leave out the “reasoning”. Then, this is a subject of enormous importance to agriculture and the animals and land roped into it. (It’s also important of course to medicine; already it has been involved in a science-scandal, because in 2018 a Chinese geneticist used CRISPR technology to gene-edit human babies. Alarming as that is, I would say that it’s the one area, our own species, where we do have some slight entitlement or at least good reason to wish to make changes.) In short, it’s something that we have to know about sooner or later. Moreover, there are great commercial interests at stake, and the consultation has brought them into sunlit view again: all the agri-business and agri-tech companies that hustle farming into its high-tech future, with their logos and their ‘visions’ (“to search and deliver practical solutions with real payback”, etc.). These will be pressing for an easier, shorter and more profitable route from lab to saleable foodstuff.

As the Soil Association (SA), which promotes organic farming and high animal welfare standards, has said, the more of us that complete this questionnaire “the more chance we have of showing the Government that UK citizens will not running otmoor pigaccept the terms of their proposal, and of preserving the integrity and trust of a farming future built on agro-ecological approaches.” In fact the Soil Association web-site is suggesting sample answers to help the amateur (as are two other organisations: see links in the notes). The SA’s answers are quite long and, rather unhelpfully, are numbered differently from the questions themselves, but of course they have authority. I shall offer some shorter, though less expert, suggestions in a moment.

Defra’s rule is that the ‘safety’ of a genetically engineered organism, plant or animal, should be judged by its resultant characteristics and not by the method of its creation: human safety, that is, which is a concern that Defra is naturally keen to deal with convincingly. So what will be the aimed-at results of gene-editing? The animals and plants, so Defra proposes, will be “stronger and healthier, and more resistant to disease”. The go-ahead farmers’ and technologists’ collective Agri-TechE (I haven’t made the name up) puts things more motivationally, asserting that their members “share a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability [that all-purpose merit] of agriculture.” Perennial aims in farming, of course, but over the last hundred or so years, the science input has enabled them to bring into being, forpigs-2 the animals, the nightmare of factory farming, and there is no indication in Defra’s texts of any intention to revise that model as part of its so-called “green Brexit”. On the contrary, it’s clear that gene-editing, by making the animals more “resistant to disease”, will better enable them to survive and be productive (be “healthier”) in the inherently unsanitary conditions of over-crowding and stress which that system imposes upon them. It will help to make ruthless high-tech livestock farming pay.

Defra gives examples of four pioneer countries that have decided to de-regulate gene-editing, and it’s hardly an inspiring list: Australia, Japan, Argentina, and Brazil – all big exporters of animal foods, with little state interest in animal welfare (Japan’s lab-animal numbers are probably second only to the USA’s). I notice that Agri-TechE makes this same unconvincing point, but wisely omits Brazil from the list – presumably judging it to be more of a scare than an encouragement. In the USA, which Defra doesn’t seem to mention, responsibility for gene-edited farm animals was taken away from the Food and Drugs Administration on the last day of President Trump’s tenure and given to the more commercially-minded Department of Agriculture. It was a change which had been, according to the news service Politico, “a long-sought priority for the livestock industry and big businesses”. It seems that things hadn’t been moving fast enough for them under the FDA’s regulations. Even so, one notable advance had already been made: the ‘GalSafe’ pig, gene-edited to remove its ‘alpha-gal sugars’ to which some people are allergic. This advance in food-production, says Forbes magazine online, “will allow the 34,000 AGS sufferers in the nation the ability to finally eat pork.” Science: making the world better!

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Here, anyway, are the questions posed in the consultation (abbreviated by me in places), with my comments and suggested answers, in case you would like to make an assisted submission. Of course you can give different or briefer answers, with minimum or no “reasoning”, and you can do the whole thing usefully in a few minutes. Or you can simply e-mail Defra at consultationreply@defra.gov.uk, putting ‘regulation of genetic technologies: consultation’ in the subject line.

Note that I’ve included in the first answer an absolute objection to genetic engineering of animals on principle, but have had to assume in subsequent answers that the best hope will be to protect them as well as possible, rather than to ban the practice. I’m afraid that the closing date is 17 March, which leaves little time (or none at all, if you’re reading this on a later date). As I mentioned, it’s a very short questionnaire, but if the time is too limited, or if it has already lapsed, an alternative is to write to your MP on this subject. That’s something worth doing anyway.

Part 1. Qu.10 [The first nine questions are about name, etc.]:  Currently, GE organisms are regulated in the same way as other GMOs, even if they could have been produced using traditional breeding methods. Do you agree? Yes. Who is to say with certainty that the particular changes could ever have been produced traditionally? Nor can it be assumed that such changes will be good ones except for those making them; in the case of farm animals, the ‘improvements’ will very likely be aimed at facilitating intensive conditions and higher productivity, at the expense of the animals’ well-being (a much more important consideration than mere ‘health’). I therefore state here that I strongly object to the genetic engineering of animals in principle.

 Qu.11 Do organisms produced by genetic technologies pose a similar or greater risk to human health or the environment than do their traditionally bred counterparts? Greater. Gene technologies are new and relatively untried; the changes they introduce are abrupt and unpredictable. A cautionary analogy is the introduction of alien species into new countries, usually done for simple ‘beneficial’ purposes but often with unexpected destructive results.

 Qu.12 Are there any other non-safety issues to consider, if GE organisms are not regulated in the same way as GMOs? [which they are under present EU law, as transcribed into the UK’s Environmental Protection Act 1990]? Yes. This technology seriously threatens the welfare of the animals affected, whose interests there will be no financial inducement to promote, provided they can be kept viable and made more productive. Given that the EU and the non-English UK nations show no signs of agreeing with Defra’s policy, trade with them may well be lost. Such trade in live animals as there may be will increasingly favour countries that have poor animal welfare rules and standards. Also, there is no mention, in the background material, of the patenting of organisms, and the effect this will presumably have of increasing the corporate grip on food-production.

 Qu.13 What criteria should be used to determine whether an organism produced by gene-editing or other genetic technology could have been produced traditionally? This is a highly technical question, and should surely have been presented as a choice of possibilities. In fact traditional breeding can never reliably produce single alterations such as GE aims at; the ‘tradition’ argument is beside the point.

 Part 2. [The last two questions now refer to “broad reform of legislation governing organisms produced using genetic technologies”. This is the longer-term aim I spoke of: i.e. to loosen regulation of genetic engineering of plants and animals in general.]

 Qu.14 Are the existing pre-GMO regulations that happen to cover gene-engineered organisms sufficient, or are the additional supervisions, specifically of GMO’s, a necessary supplement? [Tick-boxes for particular aspects are provided: I recommend ‘No’ to all of them. A panel for the “evidence” then follows.] Genetic engineering is developing very rapidly, and demands dedicated ethical and other checks which keep up with it. Moreover, innovation does not belong to the scientists or the users; it is a matter affecting all citizens, and their government should represent them vigilantly at every stage.

 Qu.15 If you’ve answered ‘no’ in any of the boxes in qu.14, what additional measures do you consider necessary? [This is an unreasonable question, since one would have to be familiar with all the regulations governing GM and non-GM organisms to answer it wisely, but here goes.] The present supervision provided under the 1990 Act makes a good basis for regulating all genetically engineered organisms. It is impossible to say how these might need adjusting in the light of what the consultation calls “novel organisms” in future. However, in the case of animals, if these are indeed to be genetically engineered at all, there should be a check-list of indicators to ensure that the well-being of the animals (not just their satisfactory ‘health’, which is quite compatible with serious suffering) is protected. Since much of the preparatory research will presumably have been done under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, that legislation might be adapted in order to assess the proposed purposes and experiences of the farm-animals subjected to this sort of genetic alteration.

Notes and references:

The consultation document is here: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/agri-food-chain-directorate/the-regulation-of-genetic-technologies/

There are two related Defra texts: the two-page introduction mentioned above, https://consult.defra.gov.uk/agri-food-chain-directorate/the-regulation-of-genetic-technologies/supporting_documents/Gene%20Editing%20Explainer.pdfand a longer ‘consultation document’ of 14 pages, which provides a preview of the questionnaire and some advice on how to complete it: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/agri-food-chain-directorate/the-regulation-of-genetic-technologies/supporting_documents/20210106%20Gene%20editing%20consultation%20document%20FINAL.pdf

The Soil Association’s advice is here: https://www.soilassociation.org/causes-campaigns/stop-genetic-modification/consultation-on-gene-editing/.  Advice is also given by two campaigning groups: Beyond GM (https://beyond-gm.org/how-to-respond-to-the-uk-consultation/) and GM Freeze (https://www.gmfreeze.org/gene-editing-consultation/).

The subject was quite helpfully discussed on BBC radio 4’s Farming Today programme for 6th March (6 minutes in), here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000sxxd

Other references: Agri-TechE’s web-site, a treasury of modern agri-speak, is here: https://www.agri-tech-e.co.uk/.  The “green Brexit” was promised in Defra’s publication titled Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit’. The article in Politico about control over gene-editing of farm animals in the USA is here: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/19/fda-hhs-genertically-modified-animals-460486. The Forbes piece is here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanstrickler/2021/01/15/fda-and-usda-spar-over-genetically-engineered-animals/.

Helping animals – and people – after we die

Leaving our bodies to medical science is something I’m sure many of us are keen to do in the interests of saving animal lives and helping to promote human-based research, but have somehow never got round to doing. For me at least, the current pandemic has been a spur to action. Not just because it has reminded me of my own mortality, but because, when my turn to get the jab arrives, my gratitude to the NHS will be tempered with guilt over the many animals who will have suffered and perished over the course of its development.

There are many ways to do this, one of which is to register as an organ donor. As of last year, we have an “opt-out” system in England, meaning that all adults agree to become potential organ donors when they die unless they have made a statement to the contrary. Either way, you can still register your decision at https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/, and it is important to do so as you can then elect to donate all your organs (not just those suitable for transplantation) and your tissues as well, all of which helps to reduce reliance on animals, whether as a source of biological material or a tool for research. Brain banks, too, need non-diseased brains for use in the study of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s which – despite the invasive experiments conducted on monkey subjects – are unique to humans. And you can even donate surplus tissue during your lifetime, such as bone tissue during hip replacement surgery or amniotic membrane during an elective caesarean section.

Finally, you can bequeath your whole body, for purposes defined under the Human Tissue Act 2004 as the “anatomical examination, education or training relating to human health and research in connection with disorders, or the functioning of the human body”. Although you can state this in your will, it is not enough on its own: written consent must be given prior to death, so you need to obtain a consent form from your local medical school and keep a copy with your will. To find out where your nearest one is, you can simply visit the Human Tissue Authority website (https://www.hta.gov.uk/donating-your-body) and type in your postcode. This site is a mine of useful information on all the above, and should answer most of the queries you are likely to have.

I should point out here that body donations are not being accepted under current Covid restrictions, but the demand will still be there – perhaps even more so – when they are lifted, so it’s a good idea to start thinking about it now. And, as with organ and tissue donation, it is vital to make sure your next of kin or close friends are aware of your wishes. Even once you have registered as a donor, the bequest office will not act unless instructed to do so by the person with responsibility for your body, so they will need to know who to contact. Talking this through can be a useful exercise in itself, helping those close to you to understand the reasons for your decision and perhaps even consider following your example. I have read several interviews with donors who have found it a comfort to be able to “give something back”, and that this has helped them come to terms with the prospect of death. For their relatives, it is still possible to have the ashes returned to them for burial after cremation, and interdenominational memorial services are held annually to thank donors and their families.

Hopefully we will see attitudes continue to change as more and more of us decide to take this step, and talk openly about a subject that has long suffered from something of a stigma, deriving partly perhaps from grisly tales of body snatchers from the dim and distant past. Covid has brought vividly before our eyes what modern medical science can do for us, and it is surely desirable to do whatever we can to help ensure that it is conducted with as much efficiency and humanity as possible.