Public Labs

The last Oxford University Gazette of the Michaelmas term included the annual report from the Animal Care and Ethical Review committee: 2000 or so words about animal research at the University, for the proper conduct of which that committee is responsible. There were, voluntarily published in this way for the first time, a few statistics. Thus, 222,436 animals were used in 2014, an increase of about 19% on the previous year (comparing unfavourably to the slight decrease nationally); 1211 personal licences to use animals have been in force during the year 2015, a number which also seems to be on the increase; and, to supervise that work over the  1 Lab Mansfield Rd DSC_0984 same period, the Home Office inspectors made 30 visits to the University’s various “animal facilities”.

Mainly, however, and rather oddly for an annual publication, the report was about regulations and management, things which don’t change much from year to year. This makes dull reading (who does read it, one wonders; but then, who reads this?). All the same, there’s a victory implied in it. The more laborious the bureaucracy presented in the report , the more thoroughly it affirms that a scientist is not a fit person to judge the ethics of his or her own work. The old appeals to the exceptional tender-heartedness of physiologists (see earlier post, ‘The Real Benjulia’) or to their professional dignity (“You are proposing that physiologists … shall be licensed and regulated like publicans and prostitutes”, one of them indignantly told the Royal Commission on the subject in 1876) have no force now, persist as they may (and do). And of course this bureaucracy, though most immediately the product of various commissions, reports, statutes, etc., which have cumulatively proposed and created it, is really the work of all those adversaries of vivisection who have battered at the practice for the last 150 years and more.

What happened recently at Imperial College London is a clear reminder of that fact, as also of the fact that the victory is incomplete, that no system is sloven-proof or even delinquent-proof, and that the only way to do such research ethically is to take the animals out of it altogether. The malpractices of various sorts at that institution, which the British Union Against Vivisection (as it was then called) recorded and made public in 2012-13, had been missed or accepted by the institution’s own ethical supervision, and by the Home Office inspectors. The BUAV exposé prompted an independent report (the Brown Report, December 2013), and out of that came the much more purposeful management of animal research which is already being boasted about on the new ICL web-site.

In fact this ICL web-site won the “highly commended prize” two or three weeks ago at the Annual Openness Awards, an evening of mutual congratulation for the various corporate members of the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. Since most of the people involved in the bad old days at ICL are presumably still at work there, this suggests some very smart PR. And the Concordat itself turns out to be, as suspected when it was announced in 2013, essentially a PR project. That solemnly portentous word ‘Concordat’, with its grand sound and perfectly ordinary meaning, is itself a ripe product of the profession, and I only wish that we had access to a record of all the brain-storming that led up to its triumphant selection. Anyway, it’s difficult to trust the sort of openness which boasts of itself in this fashion. The test of its authenticity will be what happens to Section 24, the ‘secrecy clause’, of the 1986 Act, still apparently being reviewed by the government. If the members of the Concordat are willing to scrap it, that will certainly be done.

Back to the animal research web-sites. ICL’s has a noticeable resemblance to Oxford University’s. Is there one consultancy designing all such sites? As to the Oxford pages, these days they appear in the University web-site’s News and Events category – inexplicably, since they include no news or events, and in fact don’t seem to have altered significantly since 2011 (the date of the last animal numbers which they provide). There is one newish feature, however: a short film which shows some of the animals off-duty, and draws particular attention to the ‘enrichment’ of their homes – wood-shavings, plastic tubing, hiding-places, and so on. These things no doubt do represent, for the animals, a real improvement upon the wretched ‘standard’ cages with which generations of their captors had apparently been quite satisfied. But the ranks and stacks of these new custom-made dwelling-boxes shown in the film reminds one that for some people such changes are also good business, as indeed vivisection always has been. And even the scientists get a professional ride out of it, because enrichment itself has become a research topic.

In illustration of this last point, I shall conclude with two extracts from an article in the highly-regarded Comparative Medicine, a publication sponsored by the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. The first extract identifies some of the effects of enrichment, and in doing so provides some insights into the way of life enjoyed by these animals, with or without the upgrade:

As an example of a behavioral study, a comparison of C57BL/6 and 129S6/SvEv mice found that housing in an enriched compared with a standard environment increased exploratory activity in the plus-maze test and reduced habituation in the locomotor activity test in C57BL6 mice, whereas 129S6/SvEv mice showed increased hot-plate latencies and reduced aggression. Furthermore, EE accentuated strain differences in the plus-maze, locomotor activity, hot plate, and forced swim tests, whereas strain differences in the plus-maze and resident-intruder tests were not retained across environments.

The second extract helpfully warns us against attaching too much importance to such improvements, and ends with an absolutely model euphemism. In fact, brief as it is, this is a really choice bit of scientific prose. Next time, perhaps, I shall do a proper critical appreciation of it.

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.  [see Comp Med. 2011 Aug; 61(4): 314–321]

 

 

Corno di Bassetto Unmasked

Here are some answers to the questions arising, in the previous post, from a quoted paragraph which started with pugilism and ended with vivisection, and which was written by the music critic calling himself Corno di Bassetto.

Firstly, the person: Corno di Bassetto was the pen-name used by George Bernard Shaw when he wrote music criticism for the Star newspaper from 1888 to 1890. Although Shaw was then a relatively young man, and had not yet written any of the plays for which he is now mainly known, his personality as a writer and thinker is already recognisable even in that short extract (reproduced below) – notably in its contempt for merely conventional and unthinking social attitudes, and its unapologetic egotism. Corno di BThis last trait often appears in Shaw’s dramatic heroes and heroines as a mark of the mature and independent character – the sort of character that decides for itself what is right or wrong, rather than inheriting the decision from its surroundings.

That leads on to the second question I asked (and now wish I hadn’t, because it’s very difficult to provide a lucid and concise answer): what is the moral logic that takes him in that fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to denouncing vivisection? That there is such a logic in Shaw’s mind, the last sentence clearly implies. Here is the paragraph again (for its Christmas-related context, see the previous blog):

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.   [The Star, 27 December 1889]

At the time of writing, prize-fighting seems to have been one of those discretionary illegalities which might be prosecuted or not according to the zeal of local magistrates. The objection was mainly to the professional element (i.e. literally to prize-fighting), and to the gambling which was associated with that. Shaw reminds his readers that there are many other sorts of gambling which are quite acceptable to the law, including that which goes on daily in the Stock Exchange. Two of his earliest plays (Widowers’ Houses and Mrs Warren’s Profession, written in the next decade) expose exactly that sort of anomaly: the polite classes living ignorantly or at least negligently on the proceeds of practices which they condemn as vicious in their inferiors. Pugilism itself was certainly associated with lawlessness of various kinds. But, just as the stocks and shares, however conventionally respectable, are still a variety of gambling, so Shaw regarded vivisection as a polite variety of lawlessness: as he was later to write (in his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma), “the exemption of the pursuit of knowledge from the laws of honor is the most hideous conceivable enlargement of anarchy.” The vivisector and his apologists, then, are as proper a “subject for police surveillance” as the pugilist and his low-life entourage.

But what about the other varieties of animal abuse which he denounces in between: the hare coursing and the rest; how do they fit in?

We have to return for a moment to prize-fighting. Shaw knew quite a lot about the sport, having been friends with an enthusiast (a poet, so he says), who showed him round. He had even written a novel about a prize-fighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession, published in 1886; later on he turned it into a short play, in blank verse, titled The Admirable Bashville. So he was well aware of the new ‘Queensbury Rules’, and the changes which they had introduced, including the rule that gloves should be worn. This rule in particular was aimed at making the sport less luridly violent and therefore more acceptable to the law. But Shaw argued (I won’t explain how) that it had in fact put a premium upon the knockout blow, and thereby made fighting less scientific and more sensational – just as appealing to the taste for cruelty, therefore, as the former bare-knuckle style had been.

Now, Shaw was always convinced that the practice of vivisection could only be explained at source by that same human taste for cruelty. Once established, of course, the practice would be followed merely as professional orthodoxy by the unthinking “routineers”, as he called them. It would be accepted likewise by the biddable lay public who would wish to know as little as possible about what was implied in it. But cruelty was its primary inducement. So when The Admirable Bashville was published in 1901, and Shaw appended to it a ‘Note on Modern Prizefighting’, he made a rather sensational comparison between the two professions, much as Corno di Bassetto had put stocks and shares provocatively alongside gambling on prize-fights:

The legalization of cruelty to domestic animals under cover of the anaesthetic is only the extreme instance of the same social phenomenon as the legalization of prizefighting under cover of the boxing glove. The same passion explains the fascination of both practices; and in both, the professors – pugilists and physiologists alike – have to persuade the Home Office that their pursuits are painless and beneficial.

However, the boxer wants his profession to seem “thrillingly dangerous and destructive”, but to be in fact as harmless as possible, whereas the physiologist wants the opposite: a free hand to cause injury, but the appearance or reputation of harmlessness. “Consequently,” says Shaw, “the vivisector is not only crueller than the prizefighter, but, through the pressure of public opinion, a much more resolute and uncompromising liar.”

When Cashel Byron, in this stage version of the story, is chided by the romantic Lydia Carew for practising a cruel profession, he defends himself by saying he has at least “slain no creature for my sport”. And if fighting is ungentlemanly (Lydia is distinctly a ‘lady’), it at least compares favourably with “Groping for cures in the tormented entrails of friendly dogs”. In short, the moral logic that carries Corno di Bassetto from prize-fighting to vivisection, via hunting, coursing, meat-eating, etc., is this: cruelty and violence may be easier to notice and dislike in the forms which we ourselves don’t get anything out of, but they’re sordid and shameful wherever they occur, and whoever it is that’s practising them. Or as Shaw says in that preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma, where he attacks vivisection over many pages, “We are, as a matter of fact, a cruel nation; and our habit of disguising our vices by giving polite names to the offences we are determined to commit does not, unfortunately for my own comfort, impose on me.”

 

 

Who was Corno di Bassetto?

Still in the 1880s (see previous post), here is an extract from the pseudonymous Corno di Bassetto’s column in the Star, a London evening paper for which he was then the music critic. Maddened by London’s Christmas music, C. di B. had gone to Holborn Viaduct to take a train out and away. At the station he got caught up in a great crowd of boxing fans, who were there to welcome back Frank Slavin and Jem Smith after their British Heavyweight contest (note the topical connection): the fight had been held in Bruges a few days earlier and had ended in controversy and disorder. Probably readers of the Star would mostly have had no great respect for the art and culture of boxing; at any rate, that is what C. di B. seems to assume as his starting point. The questions for you are these: who was Corno di Bassetto (you’ll certainly know him under his real name), and what is the moral logic (his final sentence shows that he believes there is such) that takes him in this fine impassioned paragraph from half-defending pugilism to execrating vivisection?

I have no illusions about pugilism or its professors. I advocate the placing of the laborer in such a position that a position in the ring will not be worth his acceptance, instead of, as it now is, a glorious and lucrative alternative (for a while) to drudgery and contempt. I have not the smallest respect for the people who call the prizefighter a brute, without daring to treat him like one, but who will treat him much worse than one (than their hunter, for instance) if he remains a laborer for wages. I object to gamblers of all sorts, whether they gamble with horses, fighters, greyhounds, stocks and shares, or anything else. I hate foxhunting, shooting, fishing, coursing (a most dastardly pursuit); and I would, if I had the power, make horse traction in the streets, with all its horrors, as illegal as dog traction is. Furthermore, I do not eat slaughtered animals; and I regard a man who is imposed on by the vulgar utilitarian arguments in favor of vivisection as a subject for police surveillance. No doubt, all the other journalists who disapprove of prizefighting are equally consistent.    [The Star, 27 December 1889]

I shall provide answers next time, though I dare say that the internet would answer at least the first question, if you don’t recognise the man and want to know now. Answering the second question is rather more demanding.