Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

If you’re looking for “cutting-edge research, incisive scientific commentary, and insights on what’s important to the scientific world”, the journal Science is where you’ll find them; at least so says the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes it. The AAAS also publishes five specialist journals, but this one covers all areas of science. Because the research in Science is indeed “cutting-edge”, it must often be opaque to readers not working in the particular area of study being reported on, and some articles make almost no sense at all to a layperson, from the title downwards. But these reports of specialist research are always accompanied by separate ‘research article summaries’ which present the findings and their implications in a less technical way. And since Science also contains news articles, book reviews, editorials, and other staples of intelligent journalism, the journal provides a valuable running commentary on practices and attitudes, for scientists and for outsiders. In fact the AAAS may really be justified in calling it “the premier global science weekly”.

Sometimes an issue of Science will have a special theme connecting science coverat least some of the contents: the nature of Saturn, perhaps, or immunotherapy. Last month there was an issue which took the human brain for its theme: the cover title was ‘Illuminating the Brain’. Among the seven or so titles on the subject (by way of illustrating what I said in the first paragraph) were ‘Transcriptome and epigenome landscape of human cortical development modelled in organoids’ and ‘Neuron-specific signatures in the chromosomal connectome associated with schizophrenia risk’. Mainly this research seems to have been looking for genetic origins to mental disorders hitherto understood and treated, if at all, only in their chemical or behavioural phenomena. Such research must or at least may be very valuable. Only a select readership would be in a strong position to decide about that, but then Science, as a peer-reviewed journal, will already have consulted such readers. (Apparently only about 7% of the research submitted is accepted for publication.)

As to what are called the research ‘materials’ for these particular studies, most of the work seems to have exclusively used post-mortem human brains. One project very obviously did not, the title of its report being ‘Spatiotemporal transcriptomic divergence across human and macaque brain development’. But then, as one of the other articles pointed out, “The brain is responsible for cognition, behaviour, and much of what makes us uniquely human”, and how can we appreciate that uniqueness if not by comparing it with examples from the great mass of undistinguished non-human brains? In this case, twenty-six brains from Rhesus macaque monkeys were used for study, at stages of development ranging from 60 days to maturity. No details are provided as to how these brains became available, but the sinister phrase “collected post-mortem” clearly implies that the macaques were killed for the purpose.

Now, Science does take a serious interest from time to time in the ethics of animal research. Last November, for instance, there was a news piece under the heading ‘animal welfare’, which reported as a serious matter “an all-time high” in the number of non-human primates being used in U.S. laboratories: “The uptick – to nearly 76,000 non-human primates in 2017 – appears to reflect growing demand from scientists who believe non-human primates are more useful than other animals, such as mice or dogs, for testing drugs and studying diseases that also strike humans.” The author, a science journalist, indicates the part which the National Institutes of Health takes in funding this research, and he quotes practitioners apparently excited by the trend (“non-human primate facilities . . . are simply struggling to meet demand”) or defending it (“The public wants more cures but fewer animals . . . They can’t have it both ways.”). But he shows that a large part of the public believes that we can have it both ways: a 2018 survey has 52% of the American public opposing animal research altogether. And he also cites opposition both within science (monkey research is just “repeating the mistakes of the past”), and among politicians (“Federal agencies are still not doing enough to curb this appalling practice”.)

I would say that despite the intentional ‘balance’ of this report, the opponents of animal research get the better share of the writer’s sympathy, but the limitations of even this more or less sympathetic foray into ethics are clearly enough indicated by that heading ‘animal welfare’ (no talk of ‘rights’ here). And meanwhile the biomedical research published in Science routinely and without apology makes prodigal use of animals.

Perhaps one can’t expect, or even want, a generalist journal like Science to co-ordinate attitudes and ethics across all its contents. Still, there’s something perverse about a journal which publishes important zoological and conservation research but also accepts elsewhere a view of animals which simply subordinates that same knowledge about them to human advantage. It shows up, for instance, in another recent news report headed ‘U.S. labs clamor for marmosets’. Here we’re told that this species of monkey was apparently unfamiliar to medical researchers until recently (someone says, “They were like, ‘Is it those chipmunks that were in the Rocky Mountains?’“). But now that its zoology is better known, the wretched marmoset’s “small size, fast growth, and sophisticated social life” turn out to be of importance to others than itself: they exactly fit it to “catch the eye of neuroscientists”.

If there is something perverse about this, it’s a very orthodox perversity, one that’s summarized, I suppose, in the absurdly unscientific emphasis of that phrase quoted above: “what makes us uniquely human”. All species are, presumably by definition, in some respects unique: it ought therefore to be enough to say ‘what makes us human’. The marmosets, for instance, are just as unique, but they don’t get to be called unique. No, the word is there to reassure us of our privileged place in nature, monarch of all we survey and study – an object of study ourselves also, of course, but flattered by our own attention. It won’t have been by chance that the phrase was placed in the first sentence of the research article summary.

However, in this same ‘Illuminating the Brain’ issue of Science (and here at last comes the real point of this post) there is one strikingly unorthodox article, with the promising title ‘Reimagining the human’. The premise of it is balefully familiar: “Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event and climate change upheaval, risking a planetary shift into conditions that will be extremely challenging, if not catastrophic, for complex life.” This indeed is a theme which Science frequently and most valuably airs in its pages, in both research and news articles. But the author of ‘Reimagining the human’, Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, while accepting the usefulness of the sort of “technological and management solutions” usually proposed for these problems, puts the case for a much more ambitious response: she calls it “contracting the human enterprise”.

It’s a startling phrase to find in a journal which is essentially devoted to enlarging the human enterprise, in both its knowledge and its reach, and which to this end publishes research into everything from viability on Mars to genetic manipulation of life on earth (such as that of the marmosets, incidentally). But Dr Crist provides a savage critique of the irrationally arrogant worldview which backs this enterprise. It’s a worldview which, consciously or not, supposes the human “a distinguished entity that is superior to all other life forms and is entitled to use them and the places they live.” It’s a “belief system of superiority and entitlement” which invests humanity “with powers of life and death over all other beings and with the prerogative to control and manage all geographical space”. The whole eco-sphere becomes simply a “container of resources”. True, humans cannot now ignore the vandalous consequences of this outlook, but there’s such a rooted trust in the “special distinction of the human” that we suppose ourselves “resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face any challenges that may come”. In short, it’s in our culture to take things on, intervene, manage, put things right, change the effects and not ourselves; anything less enterprising would be “unworthy of humanity’s stature”.

But changing ourselves, or at least our ways, is exactly what Dr Crist proposes: “The rational response to the present-day ecological emergency would be to pursue actions that will downscale the human factor and contract our presence in the realm of nature . . . withdrawing it from large portions of land and sea.” Some of what she specifies in this direction is already implicit in conservation projects, but she always has in mind the intrinsic rather than merely human-related (‘for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren’) interest of the things saved. So when she mentions the disappearing phenomenon of migration, she has in mind not just a loss to the world but also “the suffering of the animals involved”. Essentially she invites humanity to re-make itself as just one member of “an all-species commonwealth”, and this demotion is reflected in a nexus of words and phrases spread across the text: “scaling down”, “pulling back”, “reducing”, “shrink”, “less busy” (you heard), “contracting humanity’s scale and scope”. And she concludes, “Learning to inhabit earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.”

Certainly these are large generalizations, and the article is not as persuasive in its few definite proposals as it is in its ethical critique, but then the article is only a summary of a much longer account: Eileen Crist’s recent book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. And particular judgements and courses of action would anyway arise naturally from the sound premise, just as our present crisis has arisen from an unsound one. The important point is that ‘Reimagining the human’ is not as merely visionary a project as the title makes it sound; at least Dr Crist doesn’t think so. She argues that the supremacist model of the human is an accident of time and place, not an absolute:  it’s “neither culturally nor individually universal, nor is it derived in any straightforward way from human nature.” May this be true!

But whether the human is accordingly as alterable as Dr Crist claims or not, that it urgently needs altering, and in just the direction she proposes, is a certainty. And since science more than any other institution (in the rich countries at least, the ones which largely determine the forms which “the human enterprise” will take) is what now formulates the meaning of ‘human’, and therefore how humans are to behave and survive as a species, we should be very glad to hear this prophetic voice speaking to the scientific world from one of its chief pulpits.

 

Notes and references:

The issues of Science cited here are 14 December, pp.1242-44 (‘Reimagining the human’), 9 November, p.630 (non-human primate research), and 26 October, pp.383-4 (marmosets), all from 2018. The 52% figure comes from a survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2018, accessible here: http://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/08/16/most-americans-accept-genetic-engineering-of-animals-that-benefits-human-health-but-many-oppose-other-uses/

The AAAS descriptions of Science come from its web-site, www.aaas.org/journals.

Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization is published by University of Chicago Press (2018).

 

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Scenes from the Dawn of the Atomic Age

An advertisement published in 1952 by the National Society for Medical thanksBigResearch shows the towering cloud of an atomic explosion with attendant dog, who calmly turns her head back as if to deliver or at least endorse the message posted at her feet: “We must thank animals if good comes from the atomic bomb”. Yes, the dog must be a she because it surely can’t be by chance that this is a Rough Collie, the same breed as Lassie, who had by then become famous in print and film for her imagined loyalty and sagacity. So she’s thought a suitable intermediary between us humans and the animals whom we’re invited to thank for helping us to make a good thing out of the bomb. Later on, Lassie tended to advertise dog foods, but here she (or at least the breed which she made famous for its useful virtues) is being made to advertise vivisection. And the giant mushroom cloud reminds us that we’re in a hurry; we need to be in a position to thank the animals pretty soon, or there won’t be anything left to thank them for.

At the front of the picture, some palm trees bend and flap in the unnatural gale. Evidently, then, the immediate reference is to the atom bomb tests which had been carried out by the US government at the tropical Bikini Atoll in 1946 (and which would be resumed in 1954). The tests had been titled ‘Operation Crossroads’, the crossroads in question being the ones mankind had arrived at in his war-making: which direction was he to go in next? Three bombs in turn were to be exploded over or under a miscellaneous fleet of about ninety warships – either obsolete US vessels or ones captured from the recent enemy – to test, in particular, the continuing relevance of the navy in battles transformed by nuclear science. The ships were realistically loaded with equipment and stores: planes, tanks, guns, ammunition, even food. But of course there were the personnel to think about too, and that’s where the animals came in, or rather were put in.

Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, pigs, about 3,500 of them in all for the first test, were put on board selected ships, in cages or pens, or tied to individual restraint devices which were bolted to the decks, or just shut into the ships’ accommodation. Some of the animals were shaved, and sun-cream and other such ointments were tried out for their protective powers against radiation. Pigs and goats were put into naval uniforms or other clothing, to see what difference that might make. The ships with these grotesque involuntary crews were anchored at various distances from the expected epicentre of the coming first explosion, code-named ‘Able’. (A note on names: after ‘Able’, the next two tests were to be ‘Baker’ and ‘Charlie’, but the bomb itself was named and sign-painted ‘Gilda’, after a character played by Rita Hayworth in the newly released film of that title: “There never was a woman like Gilda!” said the posters. The laddish frivolity of the name is highly characteristic of such enterprises; it re-surfaces, for instance, in the ‘Dolly’ project, as commented on in this blog on 29 August 2016.)

Operation Crossroads was not a secretive affair, except in technical matters. Part of its purpose was to show that the United States was uniquely there at the world’s crossroads, determining the new direction. It was a staged event, and a very large audience, estimated at 42,000, was assembled to experience it: service personnel of course, but also members of Congress, UN representatives, observers from other nations, including the USSR, and many journalists, who had their own dedicated press ship, with “specially prepared media packets, lectures, and tours”. More than 150 ships were needed to accommodate these people. In fact it was said at the time that Operation Crossroads was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted”.

In particular, great quantities of moving film were used to record the event – mainly the explosions themselves, of course, but also the preparations and the aftermaths. Some of the film was edited for official use, and a commentary was added. One such sequence shows pre-test tours of the fleet, the hurried making-ready (the whole project seems to have been conducted in haste), then the moment for the humans to make themselves scarce: “Preparations are now complete, and crews abandon their ships . . . Military and scientific personnel leave the target area.” The target ships recede from our view. That representative collection of the world’s Able testhumans re-assembles at a safe distance of 15 or so miles away, while the animals remain behind to endure the bomb. It’s a summary of vivisection: the humans taking cover and watching (in this case through protective goggles) to see what happens to their more expendable fellow-creatures.

In the event, the ‘Able’ test was rather less destructive than expected, perhaps partly because the bomb missed its aim by about half a mile. In the official film, the camera cruises again around the now blasted fleet noting the damage. It spots some of the animals just visible in a huddle within the ruined superstructure of one of the ships: “These animals,” explains the voice-over, “survived the blast but died later from the effect of radioactivity.” In fact one or two did survive more lastingly. A pig (no. 311) which had been shut into the officers’ ‘heads’ or lavatories on the Japanese cruiser Sarawak, anchored about 500 yards from the centre of the explosion, was discovered some hours later “swimming gamely in the radiation-polluted waters of the Bikini Lagoon”. “gamely”! One would think it was a sporting event, but then the title of the Time magazine article from which that quotation is taken was ‘This Little Pig Came Home’: once you conspire in the misuse of animals, it’s impossible to speak in a straight and honourable way about them. Pig 311 died in 1950 at the Smithsonian Institution Zoo.

The second test, ‘Baker’, was detonated underwater and proved much more sensational. The giant column of sea-water, hurled 6000 feet into the air, came back down in a spray of radioactivity which clung to the surviving ships so tenaciously that they could not safely be re-occupied. (For that reason, the third test, ‘Charlie’, was abandoned.) An official report described the ships as “radioactive stoves”. There seems to be less information available about the animals used in this second test, but one history of Operation Crossroads says that “All of the pigs and most of the rats used during the Baker test were either killed by the initial blast or died shortly thereafter from radiological exposure.”

That was of course neither the beginning nor the end of the part which animals have been made to play in atomic weapons research (some more details are provided in this blog at 9 November 2018). In 1964, a cow patronizingly called ‘Granny’ – and if I was naming farm animals, I’d avoid the theme of family life – appeared in the news as a survival story, rather as pig no.311 had done. The cow had just died twenty or so years after the very first atomic bomb test (New Mexico, July 1945) by which she and her fellows had been sprinkled with radioactive dust. The herd had at once been collected and taken away for tests. ‘Granny’ herself was, when she died, under observation at an agricultural research laboratory, for as a 1960s booklet on the subject noted, “Not only does man benefit from radiation research on animals, but animals do also”: for instance, we can “improve the quality of farm animals by determining, with the help of radioisotopes, the most efficient methods of feeding, breeding, and maintaining good nutrition.” So Granny didn’t survive in vain.

Still, deciding how to fight and win wars in the new atomic age was the primary motivation of the early animal research, and it remains, after all this time, a continuing laboratory theme. Thus a study from 2003 titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors’ argues that “accurate predictions of age-specific radiation-induced mortality in beagles and the atomic bomb survivors can be obtained from a dose-response model for comparably exposed mice.” Or, from 2010, the report of a ‘workshop’ on the subject, titled ‘Animal Models for Medical Countermeasures to Radiation Exposure’, speaks of its mission “to identify and develop mitigating agents that can be used to treat the civilian population after a radiological event”.

A “radiological event”: it’s a horrible prospect even when part-disguised by euphemism, and no doubt we’d all be glad to learn that there did indeed exist “mitigating agents” against it. That, of course, is the thinking behind the Lassie advert. The National Society for Medical Research had been founded in 1945 to promote animal research in general, and how better to promote it than by shaking the mushroom cloud at us?

Many unappealing human sentiments and qualities have been involved in the practice and the reporting of atomic weapons research – in that part of it, at least, for which we “must thank animals”: callousness, bumptious levity, hubris, amoral curiosity. But cowardice is perhaps the most shameful of them. That workshop report claims that “Radiation research has a glorious history of sound animal models.” I’ve only offered a sketch or two of that history here, but I’ve perused a very great deal more, and I can’t find anything glorious there. It has been inherently a cowardly enterprise. A suitable New Year’s resolution for the human species would be to face up to our future with honourable self-reliance, instead of trying to make the other animals solve our troubles for us.

 

Notes and references:

The Lassie advert is in the archive of the US National Library of Medicine, and can be seen here: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/animals/atomic.html

There is any amount of material documenting the Crossroads tests, including notably the web-site of de-classified documents from the US National Security Archive, at  https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/environmental-diplomacy-nuclear-vault/2016-07-22/bikini-bomb-tests-july-1946. The quotation about publicity, and the phrase “radioactive stoves”, come from that page, as well as the photograph of test Able and the report on the animals used in the Baker test. The quotation about amenities for journalists comes from James P.Delgado, Nuclear Dawn: the Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War, Osprey, 2009, p.147. See also The Effects of Atomic Weapons, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, McGraw-Hill, 1950.

As for film, links to official documentary films can be found on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation: https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/operation-crossroads. Some of that footage appears also in the compelling 1988 film by Robert Stone, Radio Bikini.

The quoted article in Time magazine was published in the issue for 11 April 1949. The 1960s booklet is Animals in Atomic Research, published in 1969 by the US Atomic Energy Commission, quoted at p.37.

Both of the recent research articles quoted were published in Radiation Research: the first is dated August 2003, vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67, the quotation being from the preliminary abstract; the second is  from April 2010, vol.173, no.4, pp.557-78, the quotations being from pp.557 and 573.

Your Christmas Reading Done for You

By way of confirmation that Christmas approaches, the facebook page of Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is counting down the days with a festive sequence based on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: “On the nth day of Christmas researchers sent to me …” It’s true that the well-worn carol really refers to the days after the 25th, but this is light-hearted entertainment after all, and it helps to show that animal research can be fun – or promoting it can be, anyway! So with much jingling and stardust, a rat in a lab coat stands by a Christmas tree and gratefully receives such amusingly pertinent things as “approval by ethics committee” (the “partridge in a pear tree” equivalent) or “six knockout mice”.

Tearing oneself away from this merriment, there are more straight-faced things happening in the profession at this time of year. There’s the annual awards ceremony associated with UAR’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, and although that’s a sort of school prize-day that interests only the school itself, the Concordat’s annual report is published to coincide with it, and this document genuinely is a sign of the times worth attending to. Then, in the wider world of animal research, there’s the annual report from the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU), the organisation responsible for licensing, inspecting, and policing such work. This report too has just been published, though it actually reviews 2017. And more portentous still, a parliamentary ‘statutory instrument’ has now been issued which will disjoin the UK’s law – the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 – from that of the EU, with which it has been harmonized since 2012.

VERO has perused all these and some other newly published texts, and here is a view of what they amount to. Do your best to attend: this jungle of words is where millions of animals have to live, however briefly.

First, a stray and very specific publication from the Home Office, short-titled Additional Statistics. Here, we are finally told how many animals die in labs without ever appearing in the statistics of ‘procedures’. These are the animals (mostly mice, but also rats and fish, plus an undeclared 2% “other”) who have been bred but found unnecessary or unsuitable and therefore killed, or been used for tissue collection only, or been kept as ‘sentinels’ to test for infections circulating in the neighbourhood. Or they have simply died by mistake (i.e. human mistake: see the ASRU report below). The total of these animals in 2017 was 1,810,091. Therefore the total of all animals used in Great Britain’s laboratories last year, as the Home Office now declares, was about 5.53 million.

This is surely a very important addition to the statistics hitherto provided. The law, and accordingly perhaps the scientists themselves, don’t rate death very highly as a harm, compared to suffering. Death is therefore not classified as a ‘procedure’ even when (as is usually the case) it’s deliberately inflicted, nor does it require a licensed person to effect it, and it hasn’t until now been made part of any official count. But a public survey carried out by Ipsos MORI in 2013 showed very clearly that non-professionals think differently: “they saw death as the most serious harm which could be done to an animal . . . participants felt the public should know more about how many animals are killed.” That now they do know more is the result of the European Directive 2010/63 which governs animal research in all member states, and which requires this information to be issued once very five years. (The Directive was transposed into UK law in 2012, so 2017 is the first result of this provision). Why every five years, I don’t know. Nor does anyone seem to know (a more important uncertainty) whether the requirement will lapse in the UK after Brexit, assuming that Brexit occurs.

That brings us to another recent publication, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which specifies the alterations to UK law which will become necessary “on exit day”. Despite the resoundingly bureaucratic title, these alterations are surprisingly few; they take up hardly half a page of detailed adjustments. And indeed the much longer Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies them states emphatically that the changes “are the minimum necessary”. A convincing illustration: under the heading ‘Matters of special interest to the Committees on the UK’s exit from the European Union’ (a warning of difficulty or controversy) is the statement “None”.

Of course, nothing is said in the Memorandum, or can be said yet, about the pressures which may come when UK bioscience has to make a more solitary effort to “retain competitiveness in global markets” (as the Head of ASRU dismally expresses it). But in the course of emphasizing that all existing standards of welfare and supervision will be maintained, the Explanatory Memorandum does provide one very specific and most important reassurance: “Implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) will contribute to the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.”

Admittedly the ambition thus re-stated commits nobody to anything, and it leaves to scientists the decision as to when full replacement has become possible, but as far as I have seen it’s the first time that this goal has been formally re-stated, perhaps even been mentioned anywhere in animal research circles, since its original declaration in the Directive. Yet it’s what really makes sense of the 3Rs. They’re not there just to discourage waste of life and pain, important as that purpose is. Still less are they a sort of passport or alibi for research which might otherwise be suspected of moral frivolity or negligence. The 3Rs should act as a constant and uncomfortable reminder that this sort of work is due to end.

That is not at all the impression of them which one gets from the Concordat’s literature or activities. There they seem to be regarded more as a sort of correct dress for scientists when appearing before the public – for instance, on web-sites. Nowhere there or in any UAR material (but of course I haven’t seen it all) can I find any endorsement of that statement from the Directive. Rather the contrary, because the purpose of UAR, and in particular of its Concordat project, is to make a secure and welcoming place in the modern UK for vivisection: to entrench it, in short. The primary aim of the Concordat, as twice stated in the Annual Report just published, is to “support confidence and trust in the life-sciences sector.” The progress which is aimed at, then, is not a change in scientific practice or in momentum towards animal-free research, but a change in public attitudes to the thing as it is.

The Concordat’s awards event and its annual report have both been fully featured in this blog on earlier occasions (see notes below). I don’t find any substantial differences this year, except in the scale of the public ‘engagement’ organised by its signatories: open days, virtual tours of laboratories, science fairs, links with schools, and so on. Always there has been one essential PR principle driving these things: to gain control of the public’s awareness. The principle is implied in the 2018 Report thus: “There is now more information about the use of animals in research in the public domain than ever and, crucially, it is owned and presented by more and more of the organisations who are responsible for funding, staffing and carrying out the research.”

Owned and presented” most immediately by professionals in PR, of course, rather than by scientists themselves, who have other things to do. One signed-up university is quoted in the Report praising its own progress in this direction, and showing how it works: “Members of the marketing and communications team have been invited to tour facilities and to take pictures and prepare videos for dissemination to the public.” We saw one symptom of this way of managing things on Oxford University’s web-site earlier in the year, where a gross mis-statement can only have been allowed to get in and endure because the scientists themselves were not even reading it. Incidentally, that web-site is the first of the four examples of web-sites chosen in the Report “to illustrate good practice”. We’re told that “UAR periodically checks statements [the ones made by signatories on their web-sites] throughout the year to make sure they are active” (i.e. up to date), but it’s evidently looking for show rather than substance.

As habitually, this year’s Concordat Report acknowledges that being honest about “harms done to animals in research” is “an area of challenge” for most signatories, and they continue to shy away from it, in their texts and even more obviously in their pictures and videos. The Report itself makes a first very modest attempt to set an example in its own illustrations (a brain scan on rats, a pig lying on an operating table), though since there are no explanatory captions, these images are hardly more illuminating than the ubiquitous ‘library pictures’ which the report deprecates. And even the Concordat does not expect anyone to go public about the sort of lab-blunders which account for some of those Additional Statistics discussed above. For these we must turn to the Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2017 (i.e. covering 2017).

ASRU’s report is an inclusive account of all its work during that year, including its licensing and inspection regime. The cases of ‘non-compliance’ which it had to discipline during the year are reviewed near the end, forty of them (compared to 45 last year, 55 in 2015: a promising sequence?). It’s a familiar record of failed communications, forgetfulness, under-staffing, lapsed attention, and occasionally real incompetence. The equivalent record for last year was treated in this blog at some length, and again there does not seem to have been any notable change. Mostly, of course, the victims of these errors were rodents: forgotten about at the week-end, overproduced in their thousands, cack-handedly half-killed. However, at least one possible contributor to that “other” category in the Additional Statistics (the 2% group) gets individual notice here:

A non-human primate . . . died when it became trapped between a restraint mechanism and a cage wall. Attempts by the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer and other staff to resuscitate the animal were unsuccessful.

Here would indeed be an eloquent illustration to the relevant institution’s web-site. Even the brief text vividly evokes the unhappy scene.

But although one can learn a lot about laboratory life from the ASRU report – about the ordinary routines as well as the accidents – it shares with the Concordat’s more obviously  partisan survey the premise that animal research should be made to work acceptably in its given (= its best possible) form. No “final goal” is mentioned or even hinted at in the introductory blessing to ASRU’s account given by the relevant Home Office minister, Baroness Williams. (Her official title, just so we know how near the front of her mind animal welfare must be, is Minister of State for Countering Extremism.) Baroness Williams places animal research firmly in its commercial context: “The UK’s life science strategy is based on a vision of how the UK may exploit its current strengths to support strong economic growth in this sector.” However, strict regulation is important as well, and the minister’s prose takes a sort of zig-zag course between these two purposes: “As a regulator, the Home Office has an important role in balancing the need to enable innovation and research in the life sciences whilst maintaining public trust [the Concordat’s aim, remember] through a strong framework that has the necessary checks and balances.” And so on.

Proponents of animal research like to talk about a ‘middle ground’ between the two extremes, which is where moderate and realistic persons can discuss and manage the practice. This is indeed where most of the texts discussed above would be supposed by their writers to be located. But there is no such ground: at least, not as they imagine it. For although abolition exists as a real possibility at one end, the other ‘extreme’, a free for all, cannot exist in the UK (or the EU) except as criminality. The real far limit in that direction is simply present practice, which should, as the “final goal” of the Directive makes clear, always be closing up towards abolition. All the texts reviewed here are concerned in one way or another to present animal research to the public. In so far as they fail to acknowledge and promote its character as a practice in required motion towards oblivion, they misrepresent its true legal status and help to protract its wrongs. Perhaps that’s their purpose. At any rate, I’ve saved you from the ordeal of reading them.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s Additional Statistics, published 8 November, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754408/breeding-genotyping-animals-scientific-procedures-2017-hosb2718.pdf

The Ipsos MORI survey of 2013, Openness in Animal Research, was commissioned as part of the Concordat preliminaries, and can be found on their web-site at http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/openness-in-animal-r.pdf. The quotation is from pp.34-5.

The Brexit regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum which goes with them, were first published on 1 October and are on the government’s web-site here: https://www.gov.uk/eu-withdrawal-act-2018-statutory-instruments/the-animals-scientific-procedures-act-1986-eu-exit-regulations-2018#sifting-committee-recommendation. The “final goal” is spoken of in paragraph 7.4.

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Annual Report 2018, ed. A.J.Williams and H.Hobson, is online here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Concordat-report-2018.pdf. Quotations are from pp. 48, 3, 22, 32-3, and 9. Last year’s Concordat report was featured in this blog on 18 December 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/ See also, from 18 December 2016, https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/prize-day-with-the-concordat-folk/

The mis-statement on Oxford University’s web-site is discussed in this blog on 8 June 2018 here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

ASRU’s Annual Report 2017, published on 3 December, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761083/Animals_in_Science_annual_report.pdf .  Quotations are taken from the Ministerial Foreword and the Foreword by the Head of ASRU, William Reynolds. The quotation about the non-human primate is from non-compliance case 2, on p.30. ASRU’s previous report is featured in this blog on 30 March 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/

It’s a crisis, but nothing to do with them . . .

It’s frequently asserted that the global pharmaceutical industry is in deep trouble. Owing to the staggering cost of producing a new drug, ‘big pharma’ needs blockbusters (bestsellers that will generate vast amounts of money). These are few and far between these days, and some observers have concluded that they’ve ‘picked all the low hanging fruit’. However, the American medical culture is unique. The USA is one of only two countries (the other is New Zealand) that allow drug companies to advertise on TV. Consequently the USA is swamped with medication, and ‘big pharma’ spends billions on direct advertising to doctors, and on ensuring that regulators and politicians don’t interfere with their activities.

Since 1999, prescription pain medication has killed about 350,000 Americans, and it’s the leading cause of death among the under 50s in the USA. This is ‘the opioid epidemic’, and it’s a monumental human catastrophe. Opium-based treatments for pain were restricted until the early 1980s, when a single paper (later revealed to be based on weak data) and a short 101 word letter to a leading journal established a whopping lie: “Less than 1% of patients treated with opioids become addicted.” Drug companies now produced a range of synthetic versions of opioids, and the marketing aimed at regulators and doctors was explicit. The message was simple and very successful: “It’s irresponsible not to treat pain.”  

Several brands were involved in the crisis, but there’s a general consensus that OxyContin is a major culprit. It became available in 1996, and was issued by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin used a proprietary coating designed to offer “continuous release” (hence the “Contin”) and it was disingenuously claimed to be “less addictive”. In fact, the release mechanism made it more addictive, and anyway the coating could easily be removed. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin for “moderate to severe pain”, and Purdue launched an unprecedented marketing campaign. They employed almost 1,000 reps, and specifically targeted locations where two crucial factors were firmly established; there were high levels of opioid prescription and dependency was already an issue. A typical example is the destitute rural towns of Appalachia, and in one of these (population only 3,000) a single clinic legally prescribed more drugs than the whole of West Virginia’s University Hospital. Unsurprisingly some prescribers were making a fortune, and one enthusiastic doctor crammed some of his $7 million in cash into a safe deposit box.

By 2009 sales of OxyContin hit a staggering $3 billion a year, the same year that drug overdose deaths exceeded road accident fatalities in the USA. This grubby saga of corporate greed relied on blatant misrepresentation (via funded reports) to ensure that the FDA and legislative bodies didn’t interrupt the gravy train or the appalling death toll. Purdue insist that they always follow FDA rules, and they blame doctors for over-prescribing and patients for misuse. Earlier this year (2018) Purdue stopped marketing OxyContin, but 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids and heroin use has accelerated (with opioids identified as the gateway drug to heroin).

Obviously, all prescribed opioids in the US and the UK had to go through the legally required animal testing before they were approved. There are multiple causes of the epidemic, but all the deficiencies and immorality of vivisection are exposed by this tragedy. Negative animal results (in this case, pinpointing the highly addictive nature of opioids) can be ignored and then ‘manipulated’ or simply removed before data is supplied to the FDA (see notes below). The cosy relationship between the FDA and pharma companies – the revolving door syndrome – is another and not unconnected scandal.

In the USA Purdue are facing an avalanche of lawsuits, and they will (almost certainly) have to make huge compensation payments. However, these losses will be fairly insignificant against the billions generated by OxyContin. The final irony is that a new treatment for opioid addiction was recently patented in the USA, and the patent was granted to (wait for it) none other than Purdue Pharma.

Paul Freestone

 

Notes:

For a full account of the opioid epidemic, see Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, Little, Brown and Co., 2018; also Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

A recent article in the journal Science discusses the “incredibly alarming” practice of cherry-picking data from pre-clinical (i.e. animal) trials of drugs, and the flawed reporting of these trials to the FDA: see ‘Study questions animal efficacy data behind trials’, Science, 13 April 2018 (vol.360, p.142), accessible here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6385/142  It’s an especially shameful part of a wider problem – the failure of truly dis-interested research – which is the special theme of the journal’s issue for 21 September of this year.

Remembering and Preferring to Forget

This is a revised and updated version of a post first published on 4 November 2015. 

On Sunday, November 11th, after the remembrance services have ended in London’s Whitehall and elsewhere, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane (at 3 p.m.). The memorial itself was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making were a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its white Portland stone, the memorial declares “This monument blog memorialis dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise induced to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial. Unlike the Brown Dog memorial to vivisected animals, located a few miles away in Battersea Park, it is not a statement of dissent.

However, at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown. Burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they press towards a gap in the curving stone stockade and the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by war_horse_bannera great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief but eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been ‘They have no choice’, reminding the visitor to this monument that ‘they’ are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First World War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals were most visibly used: not just the ubiquitous horses but, as the memorial shows, mules, camels, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals . . . Oh, my horses.” About 1 million of the horses used by Britain and its allies on the Western Front are said to have lost their lives. Some of these horses belonged to cavalry regiments, but most had been requisitioned from farms, haulage companies, livery stables, and private owners. They knew, therefore, even less of war than the conscripted men whom they “served and died alongside”. Across the whole war, perhaps 8 million horses lost their lives.

But despite this profligate use of horses, the First World War was the one which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles hustling past on either side (the memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war in other forms and with other sorts of casualty.

There is one aspect of that war, however, about which the memorial says nothing. It was the First World War, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research. For the UK, this began in 1916 at the government’s research station on Porton Down, with the study of poison gas.

Such research is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of war service for animals to participate and die in. It offers no scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the memorial. It won’t earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal: “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason to give it this much recognition: a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys by which to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, as described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, or their continuing service at Porton Down, testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”) Nor are any pigs shown on the memorial, to record the use of their deliberately injured bodies in the training of British military surgeons.

Likewise absent is any word or image to recall the hecatombs of animals put to use during and after the Second World War in research for the newly developed atomic weaponry. Even before the first test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the scientists preparing for it had enjoyed the use of “an animal farm” – mice, dogs, goats – for research into radiation. When two atomic bombs were tested at Bikini Atoll immediately after the war, a number of the so-called “ghost ships”, placed in the target area to evidence the effects of the bombs, had animals on board: pigs, goats, rats, mice. Some of the animals were shaved “so that the effects of heat and radiation on their skins could be observed.”  All of them died as a result, either at once or soon after. By the 1960s, about 5 million animals were being used every year just in research sponsored by the USA’s Atomic Energy Commission. And of course such research didn’t stop when the habit of testing bombs did. In the year before the Park Lane memorial was completed, an article in the journal Radiation Research had confirmed the continuing usefulness of such research; it was titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors Predicted from Laboratory Animals’.

The exigencies of battle itself may impose cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to take part. The Park Lane memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war, which is what has driven the atomic research and other research into weapons of mass destruction, is an even more pitiless taskmaster. At a House of Lords committee hearing on animal research a few years ago, one witness (backing the work being done at Porton Down) spoke of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war: “For an agent like that there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.” He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps explains why this aspect of the war-work of non-human animals was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.

 

Notes and references:

An account of the Brown Dog memorial and its significance can be found in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/the-brown-dog-statues/

For a short but excellent and well-illustrated account of the part horses were made to take in the First War, see Simon Butler, The War Horses: the Tragic Fate of a Million Horses Sacrificed in the First World War, Halsgrove, 2011. The numbers given above are from Butler’s book, pp.48 and 118.

Edward Elgar’s letter is quoted by Andrew Neill in ‘The Great War: Elgar and the Creative challenge’, The Elgar Journal, vol.11 no.1, March 1999, pp.9-41 (at p.12).

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Maria Dickin. The first recipients of it were three pigeons.

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995; first published 1975) pp.25-29; those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975), pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted. Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date information is not easily available, but examples of work being done for military purposes at Porton Down and also at British universities can be seen on the Animal Justice Project web-site at https://animaljusticeproject.com/the-secret-war/.

As to the nuclear research: The “animal farm” is recalled by a scientist who worked at the University of Chicago (where some of the preparatory research for the first atomic bomb was carried out), as quoted on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, at https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/operation-crossroads . The preparing of the animals on the ships (it’s not clear how many of the ships held animals) is briefly shown and described in a documentary film made for the US Department of Energy in 1946, and titled Project Crossroads – Operation Crossroads being the name given to these first post-war atomic tests. The number 5 million is an estimate made in the 1969 pamphlet ‘Animals in Atomic Research’, published by the US atomic Energy Commission. The article in Radiation Research was published in August 2003 in vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67.

The quotation “For an agent like that …” comes from evidence given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002.

Not mentioned in the above text is research being carried forward now, sponsored by the US Department for Veterans Affairs, in which dogs are used as models for the study of paralyzing injuries sustained in battle. These ruthless experiments are the subject of a ForceChange petition which you can sign here: https://forcechange.com/518057/stop-backing-experiments-that-mutilate-and-murder-dogs/

On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.

 

Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.

The Romance of Vivisection

The artist Emile-Edouard Mouchy painted La leçon de physiologie sur un chien in 1832. The picture now lurks somewhere in the Wellcome Collection, that huge archive and museum of medical science assembled by the pharmacist and businessman Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), and visitable at the Wellcome Trust headquarters on the Euston Road in London. There haven’t been many serious Mouchy painting.jpgartistic attempts at the subject of vivisection, for very obvious reasons. Fewer still are those that treat the subject without express distaste, but that is what Mouchy seems to be doing in his leçon. For that reason, no doubt, the picture is sometimes used for illustration in neutral or defensive accounts of animal research, though never, so far as I have seen, with any further comment. Some further comment is therefore what I shall attempt to provide now.

Everything about La leçon shows physiology as a new and as yet un-institutionalized subject. The setting seems to be a private room, perhaps an attic. The furniture is unscientific and inadequate: seats for a lucky few only (which makes for a fine artistic composition). But it’s evidently a rising subject, too: the scientist is a young man, addressing youths. The whole scene looks to the future; even that second dog implies a miserable succession of animals ahead. And those dusty-looking skeletons relegated to a shelf at the back: they hint that physiology is taking over from anatomy as the key biological discipline and new foundation for medical studies (though anatomy remained indispensable, of course). And that was indeed a fact, unhappily illustrated by the recent appointment, to the chair of medicine at the Collège de France, of the notorious pioneer of vivisection François Magendie.

As for Mouchy’s vivisector himself, there in the centre of the picture, he glows with light, patently a luminary. The picture makes a romantic hero of him, much as the artist was about to do more plausibly for his chosen subject in La Mort de Thomas Becket (1834). In fact Mouchy seems to be raising him beyond even that. Surely there’s something familiar about the scene in that upper room, with the young acolytes grouped around their teacher in various postures of earnest attention or whispered comment, six on either side? It’s a version of the last supper, as described in the Christian gospels and in many works of art subsequently – so many as to constitute a genre of its own, and one which was certainly well-known to Mouchy.

The vivisector, then, is to be imagined as investing a great and universal truth in these young students, who will take it out into the future. And something more than that must be implied in this re-casting of the last supper: this new truth, the world as revealed by the uninhibited practise of experimental science, is to supplant the old Christian one as the governing authority in human (Western, at least) minds. Certainly that’s what did happen during the nineteenth century, and vivisection was the crucial setting for the contest of values which it involved. Hence the title which the novelist Ouida (real name Maria Louise Ramé) gave to her brilliant attack of 1893 on vivisection: ‘The New Priesthood’. By then it was a familiar enough idea, and indeed had constituted a deliberate policy for science’s promoters (for Thomas Huxley, for instance, of whom more below). But it took many years of struggle and habituation before this shift of cultural authority could be accepted. To represent that triumph as Mouchy did in 1832 must have seemed a shocking and blasphemous hyperbole. At any rate, the painting was apparently refused exhibition at the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris expressly because of its subject-matter.

Let’s consider the dogs themselves now, something that the students are plainly not doing. Their eyes follow the master’s knife as it points at the wound and the exposed interior of the subject dog. Their postures and expressions of rapt attention suggest that they hardly hear the dog’s howls, certainly are unmoved by them. The barking of the second dog is the only indication of sympathetic interest anywhere in the picture. In this case, then, the necessary silence of a painting is itself expressive: you can choose to hear that noise or merely to register it. For a modern audience, in fact, the scene may be more reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experimental study of obedience to authority than of the last supper (see note below): under the direction of a master, these malleable young men, with their sensitive faces and cultured modishness, are learning indifference to animal suffering, a terrible and portentous lesson.

Does the artist have that moral dimension of the lesson in mind? I feel sure that he doesn’t, however plainly present in the picture it is. He knew his duty as an artist to the animal form, and he represents the distressed movements of the dogs with vivid accuracy. But he seems to draw no conclusion. There is one hint of dissonance just behind the vivisector, where a student puts his hand on another’s arm and points to the door. He might be saying (should be saying) ‘I’m having no part in this!’, but that’s simply imputation. He might even be intended for the one dissonant element present in all representations of the last supper – the uneasy and disloyal Judas – but that seems too literal-minded. It’s true that the making public by dissidents of supposed intra-professional scenes like this one was soon to become a vital part of the moral challenge to vivisection, but for all his foresight the artist was not in tune with that part of the future. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

Anyway, Mouchy does indeed in this picture seem to foresee that physiology would become, as Thomas Huxley called it in 1854, “the experimental science par excellence”, and in becoming so would help in what Huxley called “the destruction of things that have been holy”, and the rise of a new god, “the God of science”. It’s another vulnerable god, however. As the Christian sense of what nature meant gave ground (and one can’t pretend that it had ever served the other animals well), newer ways of understanding and valuing life were prompted into being, notably by the indignation which scenes of the sort pictured by Mouchy aroused. The absolute right of mankind to make the rest of the world its servant was put to critical and creative question.

The Wellcome Collection has no special interest in that ethical dimension, but it has some items which do illustrate it. As a corrective to Mouchy’s romantic humanism, vivisection cartoon.jpgthen, here’s a cartoon from seventy-five or so years later, as published in the Berlin satirical paper Lustige Blätter. “Now, no sentimental nonsense, please!” says this vivisector, mocking the habit of his profession: “The principle of unrestricted research demands the vivisection of this human in the interests of the health of the whole animal kingdom.”

 

 

Notes and references:

The image of Mouchy’s leçon is made publicly available on the Wellcome Collection’s web-site, with a few further details, including the Salon’s rejection of the picture, here: http://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1202391?lang=eng

The cartoon image is likewise available here, dated c. 1910, artist not named: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/xm8wtpm4?query=vivisection%20cartoon&page=1

The “upper room” is specified in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, though they also say that it’s a large room, which indeed it would have to be to accommodate twelve at table.

Ouida’s ‘New Priesthood’ article was published in The New Review, vol.VII, pp.151-164.

Stanley Milgram was a professor in social psychology. In his classic series of experiments, the human subjects believed that they were assisting in a study of how humans learn. They were required to use incremental electric shocks upon their unseen but clearly heard students as a way of enforcing memory (the ‘students’ were actors). In reality the point of interest was how far these subjects were willing to go with the supposed shocks in their acceptance of professional authority. See his book Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row, 1974).

The Huxley quotations appear in Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp.56, 104, and 106.