In the Media

A BBC Radio 5 visit to the Francis Crick Institute in London last November was one of the very few recent shows of interest, on the part of the broadcasting and print media, in the ethics of animal research. ‘What actually happens in an animal lab’ was the hard-headed title. However, there were no surprises in it. The research being shown to the journalist was aimed at improving treatments for lung cancer, rather than, for instance, at safety-testing herbicides, and the thesis was that this might be achieved by raising the general mental and physical health of the patient (does that really need evidencing?). Accordingly, the mice on whom the idea was being tried were enjoying even more than the usual ‘enrichment’ in their boxes. They were “extra-happy” mice, suggested the amiable journalist; “luxury mice”, the researcher agreed. True, these mice were also “doomed”, but then, as the researcher shrewdly observed, “we’re all doomed”.

So, a serious disease in question, mice provided with every amenity, and a young woman scientist who claims to “enjoy taking care of the mice”:  no need for the journalist to wonder “why you’ve asked us in” (yes, Radio 5 had been invited to make the visit). This radio piece did not just exemplify the research industry’s new ‘Concordat’ way of pro-actively making the case for vivisection; it indicated also why such journalism is becoming less frequent. The institutions themselves are managing it in advance, and taking out the sting. The Radio 5 series has the exciting title ‘Live Wires’, but there was not much electricity in this edition of it.

Last week a less complacent BBC documentary, in Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ series, looked at the larger picture of our corrupted relationship with the rest of animal life. In particular it recorded the fatal effect of our human presence in the natural world: the drastic decline across all species except our own, from insect life (estimated biomass down 75% since 1989) to our fellow-mammals (“human activity is wiping them out”). An exception was noticed in the case of rats, whom apparently we’re therefore entitled to make deliberate efforts to purge as part of our schemes to help the others. The question arising from this unhappy conspectus was “Are we heading for a mass extinction?”

Although the evidence supplied a conclusive yes to that question, there was some talk of things being done to prevent the disaster. A very brief reference was made to the idea of setting aside a part of the planet for the exclusive use of non-human animals, but mainly the programme was interested in management schemes of various sorts aimed at allowing other species (and the talk throughout was of species rather than actual beings) to survive our proximity. Knowledgeable and worthwhile schemes they clearly were, but they were very modest in comparison with the problem being addressed. Nor did they put to question our human dominion in the world, won as it has been by arrogance and force, or suggest how we might reform ourselves. The nearest we came to such diffidence was this strangely hedged-about statement of the obvious from an ecologist at the University of York: “perhaps, arguably, wild-life would be very happy to get on without us; I think we probably need it more than they need us, to be quite honest.”

Of course the prospect of mass extinction is not a sudden BBC revelation: scientific reports and news stories charting the process of destruction appear more or less every week. One such, an article by Simon Barnes which appeared in the New Statesman in 2017, was titled ‘We are heading towards a world without animals’, and told very much the same story as the radio programme – told it rather better, in fact. This was partly because it began with an individual animal (a slender-billed curlew), reminding readers that it’s a story of individual struggle and suffering, not just of species and percentages. Partly it treated human sentiment about animals with less of the semi-facetious complicity which radio journalists go in for. As to rats, for instance: the Analysis presenter jocosely conceded that it’s natural to privilege the “cuddlier creatures” in conservation decisions; Simon Barnes more bleakly observes “We have always despised species that make successful adaptations to human life.”

Barnes also made a more serious attempt than did the Analysis programme to picture the world after mass extinction. It would not in fact be a world “without animals”, of course. Travelling into this wretched future alongside humanity would be our cohorts of service-animals – including, presumably, the ones used for research. Indeed, since human distresses both mental and physical would probably (so Barnes argues) increase in this denuded world, supposing that we can survive in it at all, our medical researches would no doubt bear down upon these animals more than ever.

But vivisection has already been playing its part in this tragic story of world-usurpation. It has supported in countless research programmes, for instance, the sort of industrialized farming which the Analysis episode considered one of the leading causes of mass extinction. The leading cause is one to which this sort of farming is closely related, or which at any rate its proponents use for a justification: that is, the bloating human population. Here is a subject both crucial and morally hazardous to talk about; as Simon Barnes says, “it all comes back to population, the problem that dare not speak its name.” One of medical science’s notable achievements over the last sixty years has been to make conception possible to otherwise childless couples. How can one call such a project misguided? Even so, a sort of insanity is bound up in it. In the current edition of the journal Science, two researchers working in this field speak about ‘ICSI’ (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), a treatment for male infertility pioneered in the 1990s: “the technique has developed into a globally accepted therapy and has meanwhile led to the birth of hundreds of thousands of children.” What their parents very understandably want, then; what the globe itself emphatically does not want. It’s a horrible conundrum, and a particularly tragic instance of the way science steadily outdistances our moral and political capacities to control or even make sense of it.

The article in Science is mainly about a very recent development of ICSI, aimed at protecting fertility in pre-pubertal boys who receive chemotherapy against cancer. The research itself is reported at length elsewhere in the journal: a brilliantly skilled technique, a serious therapeutic aim, a most repulsive history of practice on rhesus macaque monkeys (and of course fertility research as a whole has this sort of history writ large), and meanwhile no comment at all on the giant problem which is the larger context of such work. The problem had in fact been considered in the previous week’s Analysis episode, as part of an investigation into the question ‘Will humans survive the century?’ One contributor to that programme said that our survival would necessitate “changing the mentality that we’re all entitled to have children.” Such a radical change of mind may simply not be possible; at any rate, it’s certain that medical science is not helping us to make it.

In the climactic scene of C.S.Lewis’s science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength, the caged animals of the Belbury scientific research institute break out and invade the institute’s annual dinner. It’s a slightly puzzling point that these are not the frogs, rats, domestic animals, or other species most commonly exploited in the contemporary research which Lewis knew about (and angrily deplored). Instead and rather improbably, into the hall burst a tiger, gorilla, wolf, snake, and finally an elephant. Of course this makes the wrecking of the institute dinner a more thrillingly frightful event, but I think that there’s also a thematic point to it. The suggestion in the novel in general, and here in particular, is that modernism, as science has made CoeTheSacrifice.jpgit, embraces all the non-human animals in a fundamental disrespect: as one of the institute’s directors says, “There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.”

That’s a caricature, no doubt, but the stripped-down humanism of the Belbury outlook really is there in the practical results of our scientific and technical mastery of the world, even if it has never been anyone’s formulated policy. It makes sense, then, that not just the commonly lab-bound animals but also their wilder and more exotic fellows take that final revenge against the Belbury institute. It makes sense too that these more exotic animals are, if only in some honorary or collegiate sense, victims of vivisection, for in the science schools of universities, animal research has been teaching by example, to generations of science students, the subjugation of other species in pursuit of our own knowledge and advantage. In fact vivisection has been a paradigm of the bad relationship which has brought us to this crisis in life’s history. And the steady continuation of it suggests that we simply aren’t morally or philosophically equal to saving anyone but ourselves – and therefore, the world’s life-forms being as interdependent as they are, probably not even ourselves either.


Notes and references:

‘What actually happens in an animal lab’ was broadcast on 26 November 2018. The journalist was Stephen Chittenden. ‘Are we heading for a mass extinction?’ (Radio 4, Analysis) was broadcast on Monday 23 March. The presenter was Neal Razzell.

The article by Simon Barnes appeared in the New Statesman on 5 September 2017. The quotation about ICSL is from Science, 22 March 2019, p.1283. The full report on the new research appears on pp.1314-19.

That Hideous Strength is quoted in the 1955 edition, published by Pan, at p.56.

The picture shown is one of the illustrations to Pit’s Letter by Sue Coe (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998); its title is ‘The Sacrifice’. Like the scene from That Hideous Strength, it makes vivisection the essential form or paradigm for man’s misused dominion, so that even the bear, elephant, and turtle seem to be sharing in it. The writing underneath says “They all must be sacrificed . . . God gave man dominion over all living things . . . the fear of you, the dread of you, shall be upon every beast of the earth. Genesis.”


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