If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?

In the previous post, I began to speak about the recently published ‘non-technical summaries’ (NTS): accounts of the animal research projects proposed and granted in 2016. These texts, 530 of them in their 31 research categories amounting to a thousand or more pages of reading, are instructive, painful, and boring, an unusual combination, and I quickly steered off and spoke instead about the sorcerer Merlin as re-imagined by two twentieth-century authors, a much more rewarding subject all round. However, the NTS are such a crucial feature of the thinking and practice of EU law since the Directive of 2010 (‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’, which still, for a time, governs UK law) that I feel obliged to make a second attempt at them.

As designed (there is a standard form which sets the various questions to be answered), these NTS are intended to satisfy three fundamental aims of the 2010 Directive: to make as much information as possible available to the public about what happens to animals in laboratories, and why; to have all research projects expressly subjected to cost/benefit assessment; and to make sure that every proper effort has been made to minimize the use of animals and the pain which they suffer (the 3Rs, in fact: replacement, reduction, refinement).

So on come these great annual pageants of proposed (and accepted) research, with their retinues of animals (mostly mice and rats, but also dogs, monkeys, ferrets, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, birds, rabbits, fishes, and others), their promises (the hoped-for benefits section), and acknowledgements of harm (the expected costs to animals section), and their obeisances to the 3Rs. And on they pass into the future for their (mostly) 5-year labours. All across Europe they happen. They’re impressive as a huge bureaucratic exercise in ethics, or propitiation of ethics. They’re exhausting, boring (as I said), unhappy. They show no sign of diminution. I don’t know who else is watching, but I am anyway, and here are a few of the things which I notice about this year’s NTS for the U.K..

Each of the NTS is what rhetoricians call an apologia: a speech justifying something. Although their writers are meant to be factual about what’s proposed and expected, and no doubt are factual as to numbers, species, and procedures (in so far as these are specified), they can’t be supposed impartial. Accordingly, many of the less definite claims made in the summaries have no reliable meaning: “optimal experimental designs”, “careful monitoring”, “best possible welfare”, such phrases are only informative if used by dis-interested parties. It’s slightly suprising, in fact, to find scientists, trained in the habit of exact measurement, using them at all. I suppose that they have in mind suspicious non-technical readers and wish to reassure them, but in doing so they tend instead to cast doubt on other matters which ought to have definite meanings.

Of these, the suffering caused to animals (officially classified ‘sub-threshold’, ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, and ‘severe’) is the most important. Yet, sensing the apologist, we’re bound to wonder, for instance, about a project which proposes to test a great range of pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and other products on a positive menagerie of animals – hamsters, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys (500 of these) – but which promises “little or no adverse effects”. Perhaps it’s right; on the other hand, perhaps some at least of these animals will re-appear anonymously in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ categories of the annual statistics years later.

Testing of that sort mostly appears in the category ‘Regulatory Purposes’, which contains a high proportion of the more unpleasant proposals. Here, the cost/benefit assessment – never in fact much more than a juxtaposition of proposed good to humans and harm to animals, without further adjudication, but then what adjudication could there sincerely be? – is simplified by reference to legal requirements, some of them presumably part of Europe’s huge REACH project of chemical testing: these things have to be done, so don’t blame us.  The applicants, un-named of course, must be mainly contract testing organisations, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences (now part of the absurdly named Envigo company: “helps you secure the potential of life-enhancing research”). Such organisations necessarily have rolling programmes of work, routinely renewed.

There’s a foul history behind all this. The notorious LD50 test, classifying toxicity according to the dose required to kill 50% of a given group of animals, was introduced ninety years ago in a paper for Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences section) titled ‘The Error of Determination of Toxicity’ and written by J.W.Trevan of the Wellcome Laboratories. Trevan wanted to establish a standard method for batch-testing therapeutic drugs, and in particular to show by statistical analysis how many animals should be used to produce reliable enough results (about 60 per batch, he seems to have concluded). But his method has been used to estimate, with a numerical precision which is both unnecessary and misleading, the toxicity of almost every ingestible or injectable substance open to misuse or accident. Published tables can be found which provide LD50 measures (ratio of substance to body-weight) for anything from arsenic to water. A terrible record of suffering is implied in them.

Fortunately the ‘classic’ LD50 test by mouth has been discontinued in many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S.A. More accurate methods, not so profligate with life (but profligate all the same), are now being specified in the NTS. I don’t suppose that the writers of these summaries are finer humans than Dr Trevan was. That they accept it as an important aim to poison as few animals as possible, whereas he seems to have attached no explicit life-value at all to the animals caught up in his graphs and charts, shows what progress in enlightenment, or at least in rules, has been made. The NTS, for all their faults, are part of this progress. Even those research scientists who still think that animal lives don’t amount to much in comparison with human ones (we know there are such scientists) have to write these summaries as if they do. And if this means that they’re writing in much the same spirit as schoolchildren write out lines set as punishment – well, teachers think it works, and I expect it does.

But it remains a horrible scene. Here’s a prognosis of needs for a project which will test drugs, food and drink additives, and “other substances administered to Man” (the phrase makes humanity sound like one great baby, which in many respects we still are): “Over a five year period, it is expected that the following number of animals will be used on this project: 30,000 rats, 30,000 mice, 3500 hamsters, 2500 rabbits, 1500 dogs, 1500 pigs.” The proposed severity level here is ‘mild’ rising to ‘moderate’ (for an indication of what this implies, see the post for 27 March 2017, linked in the notes below); all the animals will be killed as the ‘end-point’. Another project, aiming “to identify hazardous properties of chemical preparations with respect to acute toxicity (including primary irritancy and skin sensitization)”, shows that some version of the Draize test, allied in notoriety to LD50, does persist: as well as 38,000 rodents for various purposes, 2,350 rabbits are to be used in this research for “skin, eye-irritation and dermal toxicity studies”.

Of course there is very great talent wrapped up in these NTS, especially in the more pioneering medical projects. But putting aside for a moment the tragedy of its entanglement in the misuse and suffering of animals, we may also ask how well directed it is. Some of the human problems which recur in the NTS are largely the consequence of wholly voluntary habits of life and their natural penalties. I’m not just thinking of the many references to obesity and diabetes, for which strenuous preventative measures would surely be, if not a complete alternative to this ruthless search for cures, then at least an honourable preliminary to it. There are also (pathetically listed under the heading ‘Animal Welfare’) studies in animal disease which are essentially aimed at making the brutal practice of factory-farming, with all its associated ills, sustainable by medical force.

These farmed-animal studies aren’t notably harsh in themselves: in many, the animals will be treated quite a lot better than they would be on ordinary farms, to which they’re often in fact returned unharmed. And as the category title implies, the ostensible aim is commonly to improve welfare: to enhance nutrition, prevent disease, make detection of injury or other harm easier, kill animals with less hit and miss. This last is quite a research type in itself. There are projects to develop “new stunners/electrode types for turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens”, for instance, or “to evaluate the electrical field strength required for an effective electrical stun in fish”. One project is titled ‘Validating humane killing of small ungulates’. Apparently, newly-born animals that have to be killed as sick or surplus are generally dispatched by “swinging the young animal against the floor or a wall” (ah, the pastoral life!). The research aims to perfect a “non-penetrating percussive device” which will do the killing more “humanely”. Well, that would indeed be more humane than the old swinging method, a desirable improvement therefore. At the same time, such research supports and streamlines a savage and wasteful farming economy. And that’s what most or all of these farm-animal projects do, whether they’re welfare-minded or frankly directed at increasing “performance” (a vile but much-used word for the profitability of an animal).

This is just to evidence yet again what the biologist Lewis Wolpert says in the introduction to his book The Unnatural Nature of Science: “Science … doesn’t tell us how to live”. It only, as translated into technology, eases and reinforces however we do choose to live. In time, if there is time, it will no doubt willingly devise for us the means to leave our responsibilities behind and set about ruining some other planet. But the particular efforts of science which are illuminated a year at a time in these non-technical summaries have gone a bit further in amorality, not simply sharing but also pioneering our wretchedly corrupted relations with other forms and ways of life.

 

Notes and references:

The Non-technical summaries of projects granted in 2016 can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2016

The particular research projects quoted in this post are projects 21, 14, and 15 in the category ‘Projects with a primary purpose of: Regulatory Purposes’ (vol.14), and projects 4, 10, and 2 in the category ‘Translational and Applied Research – Animal Welfare’ (vol.29).

A clear account of the LD50 test and why it needed to be jettisoned, ‘The LD50 – the Beginning of the End’, was written by Andrew Rowan in 1983: it’s still worth reading, and is accessible here: http://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=acwp_arte

J.W.Trevan’s original paper can be read here: http://www.dcscience.net/Trevan-PRSB-1927.pdf

Some definitions of the meanings of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are provided in the post titled ‘For We Are Many’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/for-we-are-many/

The quotation from The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert (one-time Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London), published by Faber and Faber, 1993, is at p.xiv. Incidentally, he also says, at the other end of the book (p.178), “It is to science and technology that we shall have to look for help to get us out of some of the mess in which we now all find ourselves.”

The title of this post comes from The Merchant of Venice, part of Shylock’s claim for the equal humanity of his race with that of the Christians around him. But of course there is an even larger collective than he has in mind of all those affected by pain and death, and accordingly a much larger than human claim upon our moral consideration. We come back to Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question, featured on the banner at the top of this page, “Can they suffer?”

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