Remembering Dolly the Sheep

The sheep called Dolly, the first viable clone to be made from an adult cell, was born at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh twenty years ago. Her birth was certainly a remarkable achievement, and the anniversary is understandably being celebrated this year at Roslin and elsewhere. Dolly herself died of Dollylung disease in 2003, and was donated to the National Museum of Scotland. There she was stuffed – it’s still done, evidently – and the result has recently been put into a new display in the Museum’s Science and Technology galleries, with associated salesmanship (“she’s a science superstar and one of our most iconic objects”). There she’ll stand, thus insulted, for the remainder of her material existence.

The research at the Roslin Institute, as at the Pirbright Institute spoken of in the previous post, is said to be “focussed on the health and welfare of animals”. In both cases this is largely a euphemism for new and better ways of putting animals to human use. Thus the Dolly research had as its main aim to breed animals which would produce human medicines in their milk. According to an anniversary article on the subject in last month’s Scientific American, “interest in that idea has declined with the rise of inexpensive synthetic chemicals” [‘Twenty Years after Dolly the Sheep Led the Way – Where is Cloning Now?’, 5 July 2016]. However, cloning apparently continues to interest people who make money from livestock. The same article quotes one cell biologist as saying “The benefits genomically for production excellence and driving up production parameters is very good”. In so far as one can see through that cloud of words, the meaning seems to be that cloning will make animals yet more useful and profitable to humans.

But whatever the immediate applications of the cloning success at Roslin, it was undoubtedly a momentous advance in science’s long-term ‘men like gods’ project (to use the phrase of H.G.Wells). And it’s in this connection that the choice of name for the sheep is somewhat ominous.

The sheep’s laboratory name, for purposes of identification, seems to have been ‘6LLS’. It was a very suitably opaque name for an animal whose identity was uncertain in a revolutionary way, and who would be making way for the exploitation of further millions of de-individualized sheep, cows, pigs, and others. It hints, too, in its suggestion of a series, at all the messy and painful failures which formed the history to that one successfully cloned animal (and which evidently continue to characterize cloning projects today).

However, for public use, the brilliant and ingenious scientific minds leading the research hit upon the more saleable name ‘Dolly’, facetiously connecting the mammary gland cell, from which the sheep was made, to the busty singer Dolly Parton. You couldn’t call this joke, if such it is (or leer perhaps), improper; it’s only puerile. While the research comes from the highest reaches of science, the joke comes straight from behind the bike sheds of human culture. An apocryphal extension to the joke, also enjoyed by these science giants, is that Dolly Parton’s agent, on being asked for permission to use the name, said that there was “no such thing as baaad publicity”. If the Roslin team’s science had been of a piece with its larger culture, as suggested by these forays into life outside the laboratory, they’d have been making stink bombs rather than clones.

Perhaps it would have been better if they had been. In such institutions as Roslin they are making new worlds which we shall all, including of course the animals, be obliged to be part of. In that sense, they are men and women like gods. It’s worth wondering how fit they are, or can be induced to be, for that elevation.

When the Liberal politician Norman Baker spoke to a VERO audience in Oxford last year [see VERO’s web-site, at http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp], he began by expressing concern about the moral or emotional immaturity of many scientists. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, for which Mr Baker once had responsibility at the Home Office, is one way in which the larger national culture, such as it is, tries to keep scientists within the pale of its own hard-won humane values. Unfortunately we can’t rely on politicians to help in this sort of way; most of them are as easily dazzled by the prestige and futuristic promises of scientists as any other people. Here, for instance, are the words of a member of the 2001 House of Lords Select Committee set up to examine the working of that 1986 Act. He is commenting on the idea that animal researchers might respond to criticism by making more effort to explain and justify their work:

I think a lot of it [i.e. the criticism] is nothing to do with science but is to do with the sentimentality of the population as a whole … about dear little animals which is coupled with the sort of nature programmes which tend to encourage that kind of approach.

This helpful prompt allows the scientist giving evidence to the Committee at that moment to speak with modern science’s characteristically absolutist voice:

If I may just add, my Lord Chairman, I think there has become an increasing gulf and disconnect between the necessary exploitation of animals by man and this fluffy image.

The noble spokesperson for the national conscience in this case was a church minister, whose priestly caste used once to enjoy, for good or ill, the cultural authority which now belongs to science. The respondent giving evidence, and succinctly putting the case for scientific pragmatism, was a representative of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and is now Director of Veterinary Services in the laboratories of Oxford University.

Of course it’s too large a question to encompass in a blog-post, but by way of contrary illustration, here is a reminder of the sort of dis-interested attention to the living (including human) world on which Western culture at its best has always been founded. It’s the sculptor Henry Moore, explaining how he came to make his own studies of sheep:

These sheep often wandered up close to the window of the little studio I was working Sheep 1in. I began to be fascinated by them, and to draw them. At first I saw them as rather shapeless balls of wool with a head and four legs. Then I began to realize that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had its own character.

The art critic Kenneth Clark shows how art of this kind acts as a moral education:

We expect Henry Moore to give a certain nobility to everything he draws; but more surprising is the way in which these drawings express a feeling of real affection for their subject. It is no exaggeration to say that many of his sheep are drawn with love … We do not think of the brilliant technique. We think only of the sheep, and we grow to have an affection for them almost equal to that of Moore himself.

Of course I don’t offer drawings of sheep, or comments on them, or any of the art, literature and philosophy which constitute the ‘humanities’, as an alternative to the science of genetics. What they are, or ought to be, is the setting or condition for that and every other science. This is how the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch puts the case:

It is totally misleading to speak … of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if they were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part … We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words.

Scientists have no special privileges in that discussion, or oughtn’t to have, and its quality and progress will be far more important to us in the long run than any of the wonders with which they meanwhile astonish the world.

 

References:

The official description of the Roslin Institute is from http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/institutes/.

The Scientific American article can be found at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/20-years-after-dolly-the-sheep-led-the-way-where-is-cloning-now/.

For the cloning and naming of Dolly, as recounted by the people involved, see http://www.nature.com/news/dolly-at-20-the-inside-story-on-the-world-s-most-famous-sheep-1.20187.

The exchange from the House of Lords enquiry is from evidence taken on 10 July, question and answers 334 and 335, accessible at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldanimal.htm.

Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook is published by Thames and Hudson (1980).

The Iris Murdoch quotation comes from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34. Other quotations are from the relevant web-sites.

The photograph of Dolly is used by courtesy of the Roslin Institute, the University of Edinburgh, U.K.

 

Advertisements

The Greenwich Goat

In a small private garden by the River Thames at Greenwich, visible from the right of way, there’s a fine sculpture of a goat, and beside it a text on a metal shield: IN MEMORY OF THE UNCOUNTED MILLIONS OF ANIMALS WHO DIED NOT OF FOOT AND MOUTH BUT OF THE CURE FOR FOOT AND MOUTH. So this goat represents all the cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, and other animals which were slaughtered in the year 2001, as a way of curing Britain’s worst outbreak so far of foot and mouth disease. He’s shown on his hind legs, generally a sign that a goat is Goat 3 getting at something intended to be out of reach, the goat being the least herdable, least biddable of all farmed animals. That’s no doubt why the god Pan, half-man half-goat, is commonly imagined not just free in himself, but also as an image and model for the unruled life. I say this not by way of art criticism, but so that this sculpture can be seen for what it is: a tragic reminder that even farmed animals are only human property in so far as centuries of force and habituation have deceived both parties into behaving as if they are.

At any rate, that’s certainly how the humans behaved in 2001, a year of crisis for that unhappy relationship. Let us indeed remember, then, those “uncounted millions” which were killed in that epidemic period of eleven months, February to December 2001.

Not that the number itself (estimated at about 10.5 million) is so large by farm animal standards. In fact it’s rather less than half the number of those same species which would be passing, unseen and unremembered, through the slaughterhouses of Britain in the ordinary way of business during such a period. But for savagery and panic-selfishness, and as a hideously public show of the contempt in which animal life is really held by the British establishment (including the National Farmers’ Union), the episode is unique in British farming. Only a small proportion of the slaughtered animals were even known to have foot and mouth. DEFRA’s own records put it at 2,030 confirmed cases. All the other casualties were ‘culled’ in order to prevent the spread of the disease from the affected farms. It was a giant and half-crazed exercise in preventative medicine, with a gun for the medicine.

To improvise a massacre and disposal on that scale made blunders, cruelties, and squalor inevitable. Slaughtermen, ministry inspectors, policemen and soldiers descended upon the targeted farms and peremptorily killed and cremated the animals. Some of the scenes are recorded in diaries and interviews of the time or shortly after:

They were totally disorganised. They went in and they killed the animals just where they stood … some still had their heads through the feeding areas.

The dead and dying lay heaped on each other, with calves stood among them.

Huge pyres were created; whole landscapes smelled of these mass-cremations:

… they are tonight burning the animals which were slaughtered yesterday. The fire is at least 200 yards in length and lighting up the sky for miles around.

For everyone there was the effort needed to blank out the awful sights sounds and smells of the slaughter, the pyres and the empty fields.

Nick Brown [Minister of Agriculture] stood up and said he was going to slaughter everything in Cumbria that was within three kilometres. He meant it. He meant it. Everything, cattle, sheep, pigs, everything within three kilometres. And there were dead bodies everywhere.

“everything within three kilometres”: so not just the farmed and traded animals had to go. That Greenwich goat recalls especially the 2,500 or so of his own kind which were killed, and many or perhaps most of these were individual pets or small groups of show-animals, or animals on smallholdings. For instance, the statistics for the cull show that just one goat was killed in Roxburghshire, one in Kent, two in Cornwall, five in Wiltshire. A local newspaper reported one such scene:

Mrs Elizabeth Walls, proud owner of Misty, a 1 year old goat, was last night distracted by police, while a vet and MAFF official broke into her stable and killed the frightened animal – without any written or verbal permission whatsoever from Mrs Walls. [MAFF was the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It was remodelled and re-named as the Department of Food and Rural Affairs during 2001, the year when its rotten reputation finally imploded.]

All this fury and haste suggests a frightening plague of some sort, perhaps with the hazard of cross-infection to humans. But there was no such excuse. Only one human in Britain has ever shown symptoms of foot and mouth not surprisingly, since it’s a disease of cloven-footed animals. But even for them it’s hardly a plague. With its high fever and blisters, it’s certainly unpleasant, but it’s rarely fatal: at least 95% of infected animals would recover, if allowed to do so. The fear was simply commercial. Animals which have had the disease are less productive of meat and milk. More drastically, the status of the nation as a global dealer in farm animals and their products would have been affected. The most favourable status is the one which this whole policy of massacre was designed to reclaim: that of a country free of foot and mouth disease without the aid of vaccination. Here indeed is the explanatory and shameful feature of the whole episode. There was a vaccine, but we chose not to use it.

Of course there was a vaccine. After all, Britain has had a research institution specializing in foot and mouth disease for about a hundred years. These days it’s called the Pirbright Institute, but from 1924 until 1963 it had ‘foot and mouth’ in its title, and it is still a world centre for study of the disease. The man who did more than anyone else to develop the vaccine there was its one-time deputy-director Professor Fred Brown, who in 2001 was working at the U.S.A’s equivalent of Pirbright, the Plum Island Disease Center. When the disease was first diagnosed in the U.K., he naturally enough urged the authorities to use the vaccine. He said, “it would be crazy not to operate a programme of mass vaccination immediately.” Subsequently, Professor Brown called the culling policy “barbaric … a disgrace to humanity”.

Those years of research must themselves have cost the lives of many thousands of animals, because the Pirbright Institute is a vivisecting establishment. It’s where much of the animal research classified in the Home Office records as devoted to ‘Animal Disease and Welfare’ happens. The 2001 epidemic therefore illustrates the ambiguity, or more plainly the humbug, in that phrase ‘animal welfare’, on which the familiar claim is based that vivisection serves the health of animals as well as of humans. ‘Health’, in humans, means being well and likely to live long. ‘Health’ in animals only means fit for purpose: in excellent health if a pet, in merely productive health if a farm animal, in consumable health if about to be slaughtered. On a modern farm, very few animals are ever healthy in the sense “likely to live long”. The phrase ‘animal welfare’ is therefore a blind. By way of confirmation, the Pirbright Institute claims on its web-site that it played a “vital role” in the management of the 2001 epidemic, when perfectly fit animals were killed in their millions because they made a better commercial prospect as ashes. At that time, its official name was the Institute of Animal Health.

Back at the Greenwich sculpture, commenting as it does on all this shameful history. You may notice that the goat is made at least partly of found or used materials: plumbing stuff, electric flex, fragments of iron-work. His eye is made from the bayonet end of a light-bulb, his ear from a fossil shell. The maker, Kevin Herlihy, says that to work thus in re-cycled stuff is to feel “life clawing its way back from the rubble of dereliction”. This creative admiration for the goat’s life-will, and the corresponding respect for the animal-dead shown in the adjacent text, make of the little garden scene an eloquent opposite to modern farming attitudes as they were exposed in the panic and savagery of 2001, and as they persist in all their inhumanity today.

 

References:

The quotations from diaries, interviews, and contemporary reports are taken from The Health and Social Consequences of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Epidemic in North Cumbria, Dr Maggie Mort et al, Lancaster University 2004, online at http://www.footandmouthstudy.org.uk/, and from Fields of Fire, ed. Quita Allender, Favel Press Sussex, 2002, online at  www.warmwell.com/jan1fof.html.

Professor Fred Brown is quoted from the Daily Telegraph obituary, 10 March 2004.

DEFRA’s account and archive of the 2001 outbreak can be found at http://footandmouth.fera.defra.gov.uk/.

Kevin Herlihy’s work can be seen at http://www.wimbledonartstudios.co.uk/kevin-herlihy/%5D

Home Office statistics: numbers, words, and euphemisms

The Home Office has now published its statistical report on the animal research done in Great Britain (i.e. omitting Northern Ireland) during 2015. It shows that 4.14 million ‘procedures’ were completed last year. This is the largest number ever recorded under the 1986 Act, and tends to confirm that the promising drop in the numbers during 2014 (3.87 million) was the result of under-reporting in that year, rather than a sudden change of direction. The new system had just been introduced, whereby the research projects are counted when they finish rather than when they begin, and not everyone seems to have understood it. So the Home Office advises that the new figures should be compared with 2013 rather than 2014 (for VERO’s comment on the 2014 figures, see http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp.). In that case, there has been a slight increase of 1% or 21 thousand in these ‘procedures’. This in turn means that the real numbers have been rising in every year since 2001, except 2009, which came after a notable jump the year before. During this whole period, the numbers have increased by about 58%.

This new Home Office report makes an exhaustive summary of every countable aspect of the nation’s work as vivisector in 2015. Its own two-page précis can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538556/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015snr.pdf. There are other useful and more critical summaries to be found on the web-sites of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments and Cruelty Free International. These notice, for instance, the rise in numbers of primates used in research (from 3,220 to 3,600), and the continuing use of dogs in toxicology studies, one of the most unpleasant areas of research. There’s also a review on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research, which is the promotional arm of the animal research industry. At the end of it the Chief Executive, Dr Wendy Jarrett, is quoted as saying “today’s statistics will help people to find out more about the reality of animal research in the 21st century.”

Yes, on the face of it the statistics ought to help in that way, but I doubt that they will help much. Quite apart from the varying interpretations which statistics notoriously allow, they address a part of the mind (the numerate) which is completely unrelated to the part where ethics or empathy live. What can one feel about this great torrent of numbers? It’s a crowd scene with no foreground. Every now and then, a detail will catch the dazzled attention. For instance, under the category ‘regulatory testing’ (p.49), the astonishing fact emerges that the LD50 and LC50 tests (= the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills 50% of the test animals) are still in use. These true products of the mind as computer, giving a specious accuracy to toxicology tests at the cost of human decency, accounted for 8898 animals in 2015 (mice, rats, and fish).

Nearby, now that one’s eye is adjusted to such detail, it seems that something very like the Draize test (listed as “eye irritation/corrosion”) also survives: 173 rabbits went that way. But what: only 173? In most of the categories, that number would simply have disappeared in the ‘rounding down’ of untidy decimals (see User Guide to Annual Statistics, pp.9-10). On the other hand, you’d certainly hate to see the test done to a rabbit you knew, and you’d be quite properly liable to prosecution for cruelty if you did it yourself. And by the way, that’s a useful reminder that the Home Office is wrong to define the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in its preamble as “an animal protection measure” (p.5): the Act is also, and much more successfully, an animal-user’s protection measure.

Anyway, such details as the ones mentioned are generally invisible in the glare of the huge numbers. The whole dazzling parade of facts, so competently put together by the Home Office’s statisticians, is therefore a kind of euphemism, tending as much to hide as to show the “reality of animal research in the 21st century”.

A rather more informative source, and a necessary complement to the Annual Statistics, are the ‘non-technical summaries’ of proposed research which the Home Office also publishes (at https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/animal-research-and-testing). There you can see the research in detail, admittedly as presented by its partisans, but in the format required by the Home Office, with answers to questions about purpose, method, the 3Rs, and so on. The animals appear in more comprehensible numbers (150 pigs, 200 chickens), and their kind is more accurately identified (crows, rainbow trout, opossums, voles). What happens to them is more or less picturable, and the scene can be bloody and squalid, even where no suffering is involved: “In parallel to in vivo experiments, we will also carry out in vitro experiments using sheep uteri and ovaries collected from an abattoir” [God, what have we become?]. You get some idea of how scientists may have judged the pain levels which are later to be recorded in the statistics: “The expected adverse effects are the development of skin wounds, inflammation and cancer. In most cases the severity will be mild. However, in some situations, such as tumour development, the severity will be moderate.” [Excellent! Cancer is evidently not as bad as we feared.]

And now, with these and other Home Office publications about animal research to hand, you begin to realize that the word ‘procedure’, the key word in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) and the one on which you have to rely if the statistics are to make any sense, is itself a euphemism. Having myself been misled by this word, I shall try to show what’s wrong with it.

For the purposes of the Act, a “regulated procedure” is defined (see the User Guide, p.10) as “any procedure applied to a protected animal for an experimental or other scientific purpose, or for any educational purpose, that may have the effect of causing an animal pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice.” The breeding of a genetically altered (GA) animal is quite properly counted as one such procedure under the Act, and we’re told in the 2-page summary that about half of those 4.14 million procedures “related to the creation/breeding of genetically altered animals that were not used in further procedures.” That seems to make good sense. The breeding would be one procedure. Those GA animals for whom that turned out not to be a sufficient contribution to science would become part of other (“further”) procedures, counted as such.

But in fact we know that this isn’t what’s being done. It would mean that there’d be many more procedures than animals in the total count, whereas we’re specifically told that the two numbers are always more or less the same, and that in the rare cases where the number of procedures is higher than the number of animals used “this is due to a re-use of animals” (User Guide, p.9). ‘Re-use’ is a term always meaning ‘used in a different project of research’, which is actually by no means a common practice. And for this purpose, GA breeding apparently doesn’t count as a different project. So the real situation is this: animals which have undergone the GA procedure, and are then used in “further procedures”, still count for only one procedure each.

All right, but even apart from the GA question, ‘procedure’ has a very elastic meaning, which seems to include its own plural. It may just mean an injection, such as the one which is the model for what minimally constitutes a regulated procedure as defined in the Act. On the other hand, it can mean a whole “series of regulated procedures”: that’s the phrase which the Home Office Use, Keeping Alive, and Re-use Advice Note (p.9) uses when reviewing the experience of an animal during one research project, and advising on its suitability for ‘re-use’. The User Guide explains (also p.9): “Each procedure (which may consist of several stages) for a given purpose on an animal is counted as one returnable procedure.” ‘Procedure’, it emerges, is a collective noun, but what exactly it may have collected in any particular instance there’s no way at all of discovering from the statistics.

I don’t know whether I’ve been able to make things clear; probably not, because this key-word in ASPA is not used clearly and consistently even in the official documentation. To summarise, then. A ‘procedure’ is an animal’s whole career of procedures within one research project. If it’s a GA animal, that career will include the procedure which brought it into being, and may or may not include others. In short ‘procedure’ is a term so elastic as to be almost meaningless. The number 4.14 million, therefore, really means 4.14 million multiplied by an unknowable n.

This ambiguity must affect every aspect of the published statistics. For instance, the rule for deciding the painfulness or severity of a ‘procedure’ is that it should be put in the severest of the four classes (sub-threshold, mild, moderate, or severe) which it reaches at any point during the research. But you will see that the meaning of a severity class is itself obscured by the vagueness of the term ‘procedure’. A procedure classed as ‘severe’ may have been a brief torment constituting the whole of an animal’s part in modern science, or it may have entailed that ‘severe’ pain together with a succession of other ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘mild’ interventions covering the full period of a research project. It makes a great difference to our understanding and (lest we forget) to the animal concerned, but the difference cannot be indicated in the Home Office statistics.

It’s no wonder, now I come to think of it, that Understanding Animal Research has been content to present the Home Office statistics on its web-site as the “reality” of animal research. In truth, they’re a mixture of understatement, euphemism, and unintelligibility. Despite all the varieties of show and tell that the animal research industry now agrees to, the essential secrecy remains. And I should say that outsiders will never really know what’s going on until we get the number of ‘procedures’ down to nought.

 

References:

For Oxford University’s part in the 2015 numbers, see ‘Multitudes, multitudes’ in this blog (posted 24 April).

The Home Office’s Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2015 can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537708/scientific-procedures-living-animals-2015.pdf 

Its User Guide to Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals  is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/538549/guide-animal-procedures.pdf

Use, Keeping Alive and Re-use (dated October 2015) is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/470008/Use__Keeping_Alive_and_Re-use_Advice_Note.pdf .

Other references are to be found on the relevant web-sites.