Some Science Stories and their Animals

Coronavirus ———

The leading story in biomedical science at the moment (where not?) is COVID-19, the new variety of coronavirus – new to humans, that is – which has evidently been accompanying us as a fellow-passenger on our restless tours round the world. It’s a zoonotic disease; the animals gave it to us, and where more probably and more justly than at an animal market like the one in Wuhan, where human contempt for other creatures is at its most visibly disgusting? These markets crowd the living, dying, and dead together – farm animals, marine animals, snakes, civets, foxes, dogs, donkeys, destined for food or for traditional ‘medicine’ – in a hell such as Hieronymus Bosch might have painted.

We surely deserve whatever they can do us of harm in such a setting. Even a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology seemed to be thinking so when she was reported on the Sina.com web-site (and roughly translated) as calling the virus “a punishment for uncivilized living habits of human beings by [towards?] nature”. ‘Even’, I say, because of course the burst of scientific activity prompted by the epidemic has itself swept a CoeDeadlyViruscrowd of other animals into human un-mercy. This same laboratory in Wuhan has already, we are told, “completed the establishment of mouse and non-human primate models”. Meanwhile scientists in the USA are using data provided from China to synthesize live virus and then “study it in animals”. [Science, 17.1.20] We humans can’t be expected to suffer alone.

The Donkey Trade ———

The Chinese government has now put a stop to the trade in wildlife for food, and this most welcome ban seems set to be permanent, unlike the one introduced during the outbreak of the SARS virus a few years ago. (There’s a Care2 petition for a similar ban on wildlife markets in the neighbouring countries, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos: see the link in the notes below.) But the disfavour hasn’t so far been extended to animal-related traditional medicine. One particularly wretched instance of this, though not involving exotic animals, is the manufacture of ejiao from collagen in donkey hides. The growing popularity of this supposed blood tonic has been “spurring new studies of donkey biology”, according to the journal Science, the aim in particular being “to speed their reproduction . . . and expedite growth.” [13.12.19] Here’s the science of animal research, then, continuing to serve and promote the ruthless industrialization of farming – and the donkey trade really is ruthless from birth to death of its unhappy victims.

Science says that publications on the biology of donkeys now appear at about seven times the rate of twenty years ago. Not all of this burgeoning research is being done in Chinese institutions, but of course much of it is. In fact a rapidly increasing proportion of all internationally recognized science comes from China. Yet ejiao itself seems to have been subjected to no serious clinical assessment. There’s an ugly mismatch here: high-tech science and ancient habits of predation. Of course, something of that mismatch is present in every animal-food business and every animal research laboratory throughout the world. Besides, there’s a sound caution against censuring other ways of life (the Chinese themselves readily call such criticism colonialist or racist): alien traditions and values, even superstitions, should have our respect or at least polite acquiescence – so it is liberally said. Agreed! And therefore let’s extend the same amenity to the traditions of animals and their values, in particular their traditional attachment to staying alive.

Alcohol studies ———

One peculiarly human tradition habitually imposed upon animals in the laboratory is the drinking of alcohol. I had thought that this category of research, alongside studies in tobacco, was prohibited in Britain, but in fact only “developing or testing alcohol or tobacco products” is ruled out by the Home Office; where the research is aimed at “investigating disease or novel treatments”, permission may be given. And since alcoholism almost certainly is a disease or at any rate a ‘disorder’ (the common scientific name is Alcohol Use Disorder), and is besides, according to Science, “a component cause of more than 200 diseases” [22.6.2018], such research does indeed go on here. A report in the Independent online newspaper at the end of last year instanced some of it, including studies at Oxford University into the role of alcohol in birth abnormalities.

Alcoholism is undoubtedly a tragic condition. ‘Compelled to drink: why some cannot stop’ is the heading to a Science news story introducing some recent research; it well suggests the helplessness of people in the grip of addiction [22.11.2019]. But the words are ambiguous and misleading, perhaps knowingly so in order to make a bigger splash. The heading should be ‘Why some mice cannot stop’; it’s mice that are being “compelled to drink” in the research itself (which is fully reported later in the same issue). So the human relevance is purely speculative, but readers are encouraged by such wording to elide for themselves the species gap, and so to give this research a value it cannot expressly claim. Even the researchers themselves (Dr Cody A. Siciliano, of Vanderbilt University, and others) speak of “a binge-drinking experience in male mice”, as if the conditioned addiction suffered by the mice is identical to the human behaviour evoked by the word ‘binge’, and can therefore be an adequate surrogate for it in the laboratory. Science’s own introductory gloss on the research shows the sleight of hand concisely: “People drink to excess for a variety of reasons, but as the animal model of Siciliano et al demonstrates, not all heavy drinkers become compulsive.” Demonstrates! Human and mice minds, it seems, are simply interchangeable.

To test the strength of their compulsion, the mice in this study were given disincentives or “punishment” (a curious word to use), consisting in “increasing shock amplitudes”. The “compulsive animals”, we’re told, “showed a robust insensitivity to punishment”. There’s an unpleasantly sadistic suggestion in that euphemistic “robust”. And of course all these animals, “compulsive” and otherwise, making their choice of soft drink or alcohol from “lickometers” in the miserable ‘Skinner boxes’, were in fact drinking themselves to death, since that was the necessary end-point of their part in the research.

Defective research ———

A similar study using rats was featured in Science a few months earlier, with much the same optimism, but there was at least this concession: “The value of animal models for understanding human psychiatric disorders is increasingly criticized because preclinical studies often produce false-positive results that do not translate to the clinical situation.” [22.6.2019] Often enough in other areas of biomedical research too: this must partly explain why so much clinical research not only goes unpublished but, in the USA, is not even posted as required by law on the federal database ClinicalTrials.gov. Nor is it only translation from animals to humans that causes problems. An article in Science last month looked at the unpleasant scene of ecotoxicology, the study of new chemicals in the environment. Here, apparently, it’s “now widely accepted that a high proportion of published research is not reproducible”, so much so that there’s talk of a “reproducibility crisis” [24.1.2020]. One of the reasons given is especially wretched: the researchers have chosen unconventional animals for their test subjects, and the results don’t successfully cross to the more standard species.

Other reasons are of a kind which may affect any type of research. There’s bad experimental design, for instance: some of the research which actually is posted on ClinicalTrials.gov has to be removed because it fails to satisfy “basic quality-control standards” [17.1.2020]. Then there’s wishful thinking in interpretation: that is, bias in favour of the chosen hypothesis.  There’s even falsification of data. A recent paper on ‘threat learning’ in mice (another experiment based on pain aversion: i.e. electric shocks) has had to be retracted because the lead author made up some of the data [31.5. and 20.12.2019].

These varieties of flawed experimentation may, as I’ve said, affect any research, wasting work and resources and other people’s attention; but in the case of animal research lives too are being – I won’t say ‘wasted’, since it implies that good research is a proper use of them, but negligently squandered. And unfortunately even diligent and authoritative research may be negligent in the sense of being unnecessary. The ecotoxicology survey comments on this abuse with justifiable severity:

Did we need 250 papers to tell us that ethinylstradiol [a common oestrogen medication] poses a risk to fish? Everything we need to know to protect the environment was communicated in the first half a dozen papers.

Perusing the issues of even such an authoritative journal as Science, I conclude that this must be the most common animal-research flaw of all: needlessness.

Privileging the species ———

As the ecotoxicology article suggests, Science is quite willing to publish material critical of animal research as practised, though in general the methodology is taken for granted, and huge numbers of animals (most of them mice) are accounted for every week in its biomedical papers. On environmental subjects, including wild animals under threat, the journal is committed and informative. But of course it’s species-minded. Thus an editorial review of ‘What’s coming up in 2020’ speaks favourably of “efforts to rein in loss of species”, but notes with equal approval the way new gene-editing techniques are “reinvigorating the beleaguered field of xenotransplantation, which aims to surgically replace human organs or tissues with ones harvested from animals such as pigs.” [3.1.2020] I needn’t comment on the slap-dash callousness of those last six words. Even in Science’s sympathetic coverage of the wretched plight of the donkeys in China, the headline concern is with an “existential threat” and “crashing populations”, rather than with the essential wrong.

To think in this way conveniently cheapens the lives of animals that belong to durable species populations, notably the ones whose numbers we ourselves keep artificially high. But humans themselves are just such a species. We make an exception of them which is merely self-interested and has no foundation in science or even in philosophical ethics. A declaration by UNESCO in 1997 stated that it was the human genome that secured “the fundamental unity of all members of the human family as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity.” But in fact that genome overlaps extensively with other species and varies in ways that make the declaration sentimental nonsense. So much is acknowledged in a Science paper headed ‘Biotechnologies nibbling at the legal “human”’: “there is no defined ‘human genome’ that can be used as an easy way to determine humanity.” And as the title suggests, there are other developments that call our sense of separateness into question: “new research techniques, such as xenotransplantation and human/non-human chimeras, challenge the animal-human species divide.” [20.12.2019]

Here, then, is a prompt to revise our relations with other animals. Yes, distinctions of species are real and intelligible, a necessary academic ordering, but they are none of them absolute, and they should have no bearing on entitlement to life and liberty. As for the human/other-animals distinction, it’s a fiction. Once we admit as much, our ethics can start to go right. Unfortunately the authors of the ‘nibbling biotechnologies’ paper shy away from the truth they’ve uncovered. I can’t quite make sense of their final sentence, but its mixture of sentimental appeal and determination to preserve our ancient rights is patent enough: “the concept of membership in the hazily bordered human family can serve as a useful source for the delimitation of the ‘human’”. Science and other business as usual, then.

 

Notes and references:

Most of the references are to Science, an international peer-reviewed research journal which also publishes news and editorial features; dates for the issues cited are given in brackets.

The Sina.com report is published here: https://news.sina.com.cn/c/2020-02-03/doc-iimxxste8358663.shtml

The Care2 petition is available here: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/906/819/294/?z00m=32286462&redirectID=2984541248

The Home Office rules governing research into alcohol use are published in Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO 2014, p.50.

The piece about UK alcohol research published by the Independent online in December 2019 can be accessed here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/animal-experiments-test-us-uk-mice-fish-alcohol-nicotine-a9259776.html

UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be read here: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13177&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

The picture, Monkey Business: Deadly Virus, is by the artist Sue Coe, who is featured in this blog on 25 September 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

 

What is this Folk that here thus Loudly Singeth?

Some years ago there was an evening vigil for laboratory animals outside the Home Office, the UK government department responsible (among many other things) for ‘animals in science’, which at that time occupied a suitably grim concrete edifice at Queen Anne’s Gate. For the handful of demonstrators, inconspicuous in the cold semi-dark of that building’s portals, it was a dreary enough experience. But there was one tonic episode when three or four people sang a verse of the familiar ‘Red Flag’ anthem, with lyrics re-composed for the purpose and including some ribald advice to the “white coats”. I’ve not heard the song again since then, though there was a series of such vigils, and the song must surely have been written down somewhere.

From time to time songs are more formally composed and recorded as ‘animal rights anthems’, or at least are received as such. A recording by the rapper Gaia’s Eye is actually titled ‘Anthem for Animals’ (“eat from the garden / And not from the graveyard!”), or there’s Prince’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ (“Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea!”). In fact a whole “play-list for the animal rights revolution” is made available by the organisation PETA on its Spotify channel, with about twenty-five tracks of varying age and relevance. PETA invites supporters to submit their own “favourite animal rights anthems” to swell the number.

The more of these the better, and some are written with obviously earnest commitment. But they can only be called ‘anthems’ in the restricted sense that they set to popular music the values of a cause or party, not in the sense that they can be put to popular use – or, as the Oxford Dictionary uninvitingly expresses it, “adopted by a nation, school, or other body, and performed at ceremonies and other official occasions”. The conventions of ordinary pop music – syncopated rhythms, strongly personal vocal sound, electrically mediated instrumentals – make it hopelessly unsuited to informal collective singing. It has even to some degree made that sort of singing seem awkward and antiquated.

A “new vegan anthem” is offered on the web-site Jane Unchained which does at least have a catchy chorus – “Go vegan, go vegan, go!” – to which we’re invited to “sing along”, and perhaps we really could. The video shows plenty of people doing that (including the former Meghan Markle), and the phrase was used as a chant during last year’s Official Animal Rights March in London. But it’s a hard-driving song, well-packed with words, and just for that reason would surely come to pieces if a large crowd attempted to sing it.

Well, does animal rights need an anthem in that dictionary sense? In order to suit an unrehearsed collective voice, such pieces have to be musically and lyrically unadventurous. They’re generally either hearty or dirge-like. The typical instances mentioned in the dictionary – national anthems and school songs – are mostly stuffy and embarrassing, and tend to discredit the whole idea. But perhaps that’s mainly because those collectives aren’t the ones that really need asserting or even ought to be asserted.

And there have been anthems that evidently worked as anthems should. The suffragette ‘March of the Women’ was one such. It was used with strong effect not only at those Songsheet of 'The March of the Women', 1911. Artist: Margaret Morris“ceremonies and other official occasions”, but whenever the collective spirit needed a boost. The conductor Thomas Beecham claimed to have seen Ethel Smyth, composer of the music, using a toothbrush to conduct “in almost Bacchic frenzy” a performance of the song by fellow-suffragettes in the quadrangle of Holloway Prison. The lyrics to it, by the suffragette Cicely Hamilton, aren’t very impressive. In fact they have a good deal of the school song about them (“Life, strife – these two are one, / Naught can ye win but by faith and daring./ On, on . . . etc.), and oddly enough they don’t mention women at all after the title itself. The point is that the singers meant them, or at least meant the collective event which they were part of. That’s where the frenzy came from.

The same is true but in a converse sense of ‘The Red Flag’. This socialist anthem borrowed its stirring tune – with less uplift but more heart than Ethel Smyth’s – from an old German song, ‘O Tannenbaum’. It was traditionally sung at the end of Labour Party conferences, as well as other party occasions. The lyrics no doubt seem more melodramatic now than they did at the time of writing (1889): “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer . . . Come dungeons dark or gallows grim, / This song shall be our parting hymn.” Partly for this reason perhaps, but mainly because it was impossible for New Labour assemblies to mean the song, the tradition became an embarrassment to be avoided, until revived with some conviction more recently. Again, the success of the anthem depends on the health of the cause rather than the quality of the composition. That surely makes things relatively easy for an animal rights anthem.

Still, there do have to be words and music. The music, we’ve seen, can be borrowed: better so, since it won’t need learning. What about, for instance, one of the great hymns to liberation, Giussepe Verdi’s ‘Va, pensiero’, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in his opera Nabucco (1841)? The words are a somewhat weak and sentimentalized version of the tragic and ferocious Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon . . .”). However, the power of Verdi’s music, scored for unison voices, and its theme, the longing for freedom, fixed the chorus at once as an anthem for the Italian liberation movement of the time, the Risorgimento. Given the very modest standard of lyric required for a successful anthem, it shouldn’t be hard to provide a text which enlarged the liberationist appeal of ‘Va, pensiero’ to include all sentient beings. It shouldn’t be, but I admit that I have tried without success. Something that is neither real poetry (choral singing would trample on its art) nor obvious doggerel (uninspiring and even a bit discreditable) is required, but I couldn’t hit it.

The words, then. There is, of course, a complete text already in existence for an animal rights anthem, composed by one of the great writers in English of the last century: the song ‘Beasts of England’ in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The story being an allegory, this song, taught to the other farm animals by the boar Old Major, stands in for the socialist ‘Internationale’ of 1871. (The ‘Internationale‘ is itself a fine example of the anthem genre, showing that lyrics at their best can constitute a complete manifesto). But the book wouldn’t work as brilliantly as it does if Orwell hadn’t given the animals all he had of sympathy and imagination. And ‘Beasts of England’, which might have been done as a burlesque, is in fact composed with simplicity and conviction. The only comic touch, perhaps, is the mention of mangel-wurzels:

Riches more than mind can picture  Animal Farm
Wheat and barley, oats and hay,
Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels,
Shall be ours upon that day.

But really there oughtn’t to be anything comical about what is, after all, a staple food of some farmyard animals. And in general the words are perfectly judged for an anthem – not fine poetry, but plain, metrically regular, heart-felt, and true to their situation, just waiting for the music to give them emotional force (Orwell suggests ‘O My Darling Clementine’):

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of
England
Shall be trod by beasts alone . . .

For that day we all must labour,
Though we die before it break;
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys,
All must toil for freedom’s sake.

But it’s a fairy story of course (that’s the book’s sub-title). In the ‘Internationale’ it made sense to say “Producteurs, sauvons-nous nous-mêmes!” [Workers, let us save ourselves!]. Animals might well say so too if they could, and Orwell’s fictional beasts do, but it might feel absurd to sing, on their behalf, what we know is impossible. We need an anthem which says “sauvons-les nous-mêmes”: it’s for us to save them.

Just singing anthems won’t get that done, I know, but music stores and makes at once available the collective purpose and those emotions that give it momentum. It’s therefore a valuable campaigning property. It’s also a public benefit, so that the determination and anger which must at least partly characterize any demonstration are made attractive or at least compelling rather than alienating to the people who happen to witness it.

Perhaps whoever wrote that verse for the Home Office vigil could try something more substantial and permanent? And yes, let it include not just the already ascendant and even fashionable vegan theme, but also zoos, circuses, hunting, and vivisection. Gaia’s Eye says “Don’t get me started / On experimentation”, but that’s all he does say, and other songs don’t seem to mention it. But it’s surely not dying out. An experimenter on monkeys at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics has recently announced his intention to escape EU regulations by moving his project to Shanghai, where a new International Center for Primate Brain Research will soon be making available up to 6000 non-human primates without irksome restrictions. A fellow neuroscientist remarks upon this “incredible progress” on China’s part, calling it “the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly”. Well, there always has been something totalitarian about vivisection, even in the West; it’s a one-species state for the animals, even where there are checks on its severity. “Tyrant man” in fact, and if he can’t, as a tyrant, be “o’erthrown” simply by singing, that’s at least one conspicuous way to remind ourselves and persuade others that “soon or late . . . he shall be”.

 

Notes and references:

The title is roughly modernized from the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies, published by the Early English Texts Society, 1967.

PETA’s list can be found here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-spotify-channel/

The Jane Unchained song is performed here: https://janeunchained.com/2019/03/15/sing-along-to-the-new-vegan-anthem/

The text of ‘March of the Women’ is published at http://www.sandscapepublications.com/intouch/marchwords.html. A description of its performance in Holloway Prison is provided by Thomas Beecham in an article about Ethel Smyth for the Musical Times, no.1385, July 1958, p.364, but he is quoted here from an article in the Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2008.

The chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, as movingly performed at the New York Met in 2002, can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS6L_9xUT5E (with sub-titles in Spanish).

A report of the move from Max Planck to Shanghai’s new primate research centre appears in the journal Science, 31 January 2020, pp.496-7.

The Animal Farm illustrations are from the cartoon version commissioned by the Foreign Office in 1950 from the artist Norman Pett and writer Donald Freeman (National Archives).