Killing with Kindness

Those who like the idea of a more “welfare-friendly approach” to the annual slaughter of eight and a half million or so of the UK’s pigs in early childhood (approx. 24 weeks old), will be pleased to know that a project with just that aim in view is among those recently made public by the Home Office in its non-technical summaries of research projects licensed in 2018. The idea is to determine whether ‘low atmospheric pressure stunning’ (LAPS) might be a more acceptable method to the pigs than the more familiar carbon dioxide gas, as a preliminary to being slaughtered. The “behavioural and physiological responses” of the test animals to these alternatives will be compared: “meat quality” too, because of course the pigs aren’t being slaughtered just for their own comfort.

I was thinking that a really welfare-friendly approach worth considering would be not to kill them at all. But that just shows my sentimental amateurism, for as Project 322 (‘Physiological biomarkers of poultry welfare’) warns us in its preamble, “We should not assume that, just because humans might not like certain conditions, chickens would respond accordingly.” The scientists engaged in this project will “implant electrodes into the brains” of their chickens and then study the activity “in brain areas that are known to process emotions” while the birds are experiencing “stimuli” both positive and negative. Interestingly enough, the scientists seem to have a pretty good idea of which will be which, just as you or I might mistakenly suppose that we have, but then they and their fellow-professionals have been doing this sort of work for decades (a point I shall return to later). Meanwhile, Project 157 will be taking this line of research even further with its proposed “autonomous platform for data-collection in poultry sheds”, a device that will actually share the scene with the hens and provide information about it, including “bird condition”. With what may be intended for a touch of humour (I’m trying not to assume anything, even about how scientists think), the device is called ‘Robochick’.

Back with the pigs and Project 291: here too we mustn’t assume we know what they like (or not), even though LAPS, or at any rate the sort of fall in air pressure and oxygen that it uses, is apparently “reported as not unpleasant or painful to humans experiencing similar rates of decompression.” Therefore the pigs will be able to show their preference, having been trained “to indicate that they want to leave a situation”. Of course it will prove a somewhat pathetic accomplishment for them, since any wish they may indicate to leave their fatal situation won’t in practice be granted; all the pigs will be killed as a necessary part of the procedure. That’s 300 of them, admittedly a tiny number compared to those annual millions in slaughterhouses. The same is true of the chickens in their two cohorts of 100 and 1500. The 100 will be “humanely killed”; the 500, after their time with Robochick, will go to commercial slaughter at the usual 39 weeks old – a life-span nearer to that of the house-fly than to their own natural expectation.

Almost certainly these animals will have enjoyed better conditions than are the lot of the ordinary farm animals whose lives they are being used to mimic and supposedly to improve. In fact one of the cases of ‘non-compliance’ recorded by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) in its report on animal research in that same year (a report just now published) shows this to be so: under the heading ‘Failure to provide adequate facilities’, it notes some research during which “commercial standard facilities and transport were used for cattle regulated under ASPA [the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986].Accordingly a ‘letter of reprimand’ was sent, and re-training and re-inspection prescribed.

So they get a better deal in the laboratory than on the ordinary farm. That’s not saying much, certainly, but we can know little about what the farm deal commonly is (as opposed to what the official regulations for it are), since the system of inspection for farms is a sort of anarchy in comparison to the one which ASRU administers. At least five different branches or agencies of the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs are responsible for different aspects of agriculture. Responsibility for animal welfare is shared between APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency) and local authorities, both of which have many other things to worry about even on farms. It’s not even known for certain, by these authorities, how many farms there are in England. At any rate only a small fraction of the total farming activity is officially visited in a year, and when animal welfare is given special attention it’s usually in the commercial sense of that phrase (i.e. fit for food), so that the concern is with communicable diseases like TB rather than with humane treatment (another phrase whose special professional meaning differs from ordinary usage). The statistics are available for no year more recent than 2016, but in that year APHA visited only 372 of about 56,000 pig farms, and only 164 of the 27,000 broiler chicken farms.

It’s in order to boost and streamline this chaotic and inherently cruel farming ‘industry’ 45. abattoirthat research projects of the kind described above are funded. It may be better in the lab than on the farm, and certainly those submitting the projects for licence are always keen to highlight any advantages their research may have for the farmed animals in their sights. Still, the essential aim for both lab and farm is to get as many animals as possible to the point of sale in profitable condition, or as Project 44 (vol.2), ‘Nutrition of poultry’, puts it in its own vague yet steely dialect, to “reduce sub-clinical growth performance issues.”

Getting the right food through these farm animals – or rather “determining efficiency of nutrient utilization” (Project 44 again) – is indeed another noticeable theme in these project summaries; also, of course, protecting the animals from disease. Here, the farming of fish seems to be an especially promising field for study. Project 165 proposes to cultivate sea-lice on its colony of fish, in order to “supply them [the lice] into a range of research projects directed at improving salmon health.”  The long-term aims here are “to reduce the suffering of farmed salmon due to sea-lice [animal welfare, you see], and increase the supply for human consumption.” The main point is that, as another project summary (no. 253) exclaims, diseases of fish represent “an enormous threat to food production through aquaculture.” That the aquaculture itself may constitute the disease threat is not a paying research proposition, or so these research summaries seem to show.

As published by the Home Office, the non-technical summaries (NTS) are no longer grouped by subject of interest, as they used to be, but appear in two online ‘volumes’, covering a total of 2400 pages. I have picked out a few of the farm-related projects, but of course there are many other recurring themes. One of them is human obesity, and the associated condition diabetes. As one such project (no.269) explains, “There is a huge clinical need for this research because of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” (“enormous threat”, “huge clinical need”: if these seem surprisingly unscientific hyperboles, remember that the writers are having to justify their use of animals). That “epidemic” is no doubt itself farm-related, like some others of the diseases featuring in these NTS, in the sense that it’s causally related to the diet being promoted in such research projects as we’ve already been viewing. Feeding mice and rats grossly unsuitable obesity-generating diets will of course produce knowledge, perhaps even publishable knowledge. If it seems unlikely to do anything actually to correct the epidemic, well, these are biomedical scientists, not epidemiologists or sociologists, still less politicians. They have their special corner in the problem, and will work it assiduously while permitted to do so.

And indeed there they always are, coasting in the slipstream of every hazardous novelty in our way of life (as well as pioneering a few of their own): late-age reproduction, nanotechnology (Project 132 welcomes nanotoxicology as “a fast-growing science discipline”), new chemicals, new medicines. Yes, even licensed medicines themselves, because these generate their own studiable problems: “self-poisoning with medicines (‘attempted suicide’) is responsible for 10% of all medical presentations to hospital in the UK. It’s a sad and shocking statistic, though its precision is somewhat illusory, depending as it does on the obscure phrase “medical presentations”. The quotation is from Project 66, which proposes to study a whole range of poisons (using anaesthetized pigs), including organophosphorus insecticides (OP). What, haven’t these already done the rounds of the laboratories? Certainly, but former research didn’t “mirror what happens in people. The OP has been given in the wrong form and by the wrong route.”

Here surely the tears come into one’s eyes. There need be no end to this fatal mass through-put of animals. Not just new ways of life, new products, new diseases, but new “forms” and new “routes” to rejuvenate research already done however many times. And as we’ve seen, animal welfare itself is a topic open to limitless research; whole departments and careers are devoted to it.

About 150 years ago, the Oxford zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester predicted that vivisection would increase geometrically, each study producing multiple new questions for yet more animals to be required to answer. The prediction proved correct for much of the intervening period. It’s no longer true, at least in the UK, largely because opposition has steadily challenged it in ways now partly incorporated in law and in such agencies as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit. But the practice isn’t shrinking, and these NTS show why.

I say that the challenge to vivisection is incorporated in ASRU and other official organisations, but abolitionism is not. The European Union directive which has provided the ideological setting as well as the regulations for animal research in member states since 2010 does indeed look on those regulations as “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals.” UK politicians have promised to carry over, after Brexit, all the standards specified in EU law, but this larger sense of purpose is something which they may not be intending to include. At any rate, when the Green MP Caroline Lucas put it as a parliamentary question to the Home Office minister a couple of years ago, whether that aim towards full replacement would be “fully reflected in domestic law”, the answer, in so far as it yielded any information on the subject at all, seemed to be ‘no’.

That answer was very probably drafted for the minister by ASRU itself. ASRU is an impressive bureaucracy in its way, active in promoting ‘compliant’ practice and (as far as this is ever possible to know) unsecretive. But it manages things as they are, with no ideological direction. As its 2018 report says, “Unlike many government regulators ASRU does not operate for the express purpose of achieving a product to be delivered.” I only wish it did.

On the contrary, however, ASRU seems to regard abolition as an aim likely to compromise sound judgement on questions of lawfulness and cruelty in animal research. We can notice this in the occasional special reports which it issues on particular serious cases. Of the five so far published, three arose out of exposés and complaints made by animal protection organisations. None of these complaints was subsequently endorsed by ASRU investigators (though various sorts of ignorance and negligence were in fact found and dealt with), and in two of the reports the reader is told, by way of caveat, that the complainant group “is committed to ending animal experiments.” But that commitment is surely the native logic of the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), the promoting of which is part of ASRU’s brief: if saving some animals from experimentation is an agreed good, then saving all of them must be even more so. Why not admit it? They don’t have to fix a date, though after my tour of the 2018 non-technical summaries I would suggest tomorrow.

 

Notes and references:

A more general account of the non-technical summaries was given in this blog in a post titled ‘If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?’, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/  The summaries submitted in 2018 and discussed above can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2018

Likewise, a more general account of ASRU was posted in this blog under the title ‘Policing the Lab’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/  ASRU’s report for 2018 was published this month, and can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/887289/Animals_in_Science_Regulation_Unit_annual_report_2018.pdf  Quotations are from pp.37, 24, and 10.

The special ASRU reports are posted online here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/compliance-investigations-by-the-animals-in-science-regulation-unit The quotations are from reports A7(1) and A8(1), published March 2015 and September 2014.

As to regulation of agriculture, a thorough and well-written report on the subject, with many very good reform proposals in it, was commissioned some while ago and published in December 2018 as Farm Inspection and Regulation Review: see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/764286/farm-inspection-regulatio-review-final-report-2018.pdf   The figures given above for pig and poultry inspections come from DEFRA’s publication On-farm welfare inspections 2016, online at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/animal-on-farm-welfare-inspections-in-great-britain.

Edwin Ray Lankester was a student at Oxford, and at later times a tutor and, in the 1890s, professor there. His main interests were in evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy. He used vivisection in his teaching and research at Exeter College in the early 1870s, and he championed it in principle, partly because it represented for him, as it did for many of his fellow-professionals, an assertion of the authority and autonomy of science. I’m afraid that I’ve lost for the moment the reference for his statement about the future of vivisection.

The “final goal” spoken of in EU Directive 2010/63 comes in the pre-amble, at para 10: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

Caroline Lucas’s written question, formally to the Secretary of State at the Home Office but answered with the signature of the minister then responsible for animals in science, Ben Wallace, was dated 18 June and the reply 26 June, 2018.

The wood-cut ‘Abattoir’ is from The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by the artist and activist Sue Coe: see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

Dr Moreau’s Island

Most of the primate-research projects going forward at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China, as featured in the post previous to this one, involve editing genes in order to produce in non-human primates such human brain disorders as autism and Parkinson’s disease. But some of the projects are rather more speculative. For instance, monkeys are to be re-programmed with the human version of gene SRGAP2, “which is thought to endow the brain with processing power”, or with MCPH1 (“a gene related to brain size”), or with FOXP2, “which is thought to give humans unique language ability”. As to this last, the researcher in charge is expecting to see changes in behaviour, but is quoted as saying, with disagreeable flippancy, “I don’t think the monkey will all of a sudden start speaking.” The aim here is evidently ambitious (“an opportunity to understand human evolution”) but not utilitarian – in the style, then, of the “biological experimenter” described by H.G.Wells in an essay on vivisection published in 1928: “He wants knowledge because he wants knowledge.”

In fact thirty or so years before that essay Wells had pictured just such a ‘pure’ scientist in his character Dr Moreau. On a remote South Pacific island, this biological experimenter is shown pursuing his researches with dis-interested zeal: “You cannot imagine”, he tells Edward Prendick, the narrator and involuntary visitor to the island, “the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires!” What to Prendick seem “aimless investigations” are, to Moreau (and to Wells in his essay) the ideal of scientific practice: “I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of true research going.” And the particular “way” in Moreau’s case is the Kunming way, for he too is dabbling in human evolution, impelling animals by short cuts across the millions of years which separate humans from their non-human ancestors.

Not that there really can be such a thing as dis-interested or pure research, even in the absence of any practical purpose. As Oxford’s first and most humane professor of physiology, George Rolleston, told the Royal Commissioners in 1875, all original research is in part “a gratification of self, and liable to develop [i.e. promote] selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness.” Moreau’s research is fiercely selfish – “as remorseless as Nature”, he himself calls it – and hubristically ambitious: “I will conquer yet . . . I will make a rational creature of my own!” It’s what enables him to rise above not just the moral scruples which might inhibit such work, but also the squalor and frustration of repeated disappointment. In fact Moreau, at work in the sanguinary mayhem of his laboratory, provides an ironic commentary upon that 1928 essay’s idealized experimenter, he of the “disposition to see things plainly and to accept the subservience of beast to man in man’s increasing effort to understand and control.” “to accept the subservience”! Wells was a much better story-teller than he was a social philosopher (a fact made savage fun of in the character of Horace Jules at the end of C.S.Lewis’s anti-vivisection novel That Hideous Strength). And The Island of Dr Moreau is indeed a very well-told story.

Nor is the book simply the melodramatic fantasy which images remembered from a succession of film versions may suggest. Moreau himself is carefully placed in the recent history of vivisection in England, having been driven out of his professional position by the public exposure of his ruthless researches in the mid-1870s, a time when national indignation was forcing both parliament and the profession to take ethical notice of the practice. His name is a reminder that on the European continent there was no such official interference in animal research, and in fact Moreau more or less quotes, in places, what the celebrated Claude Bernard and other continental practitioners had written or said about vivisection as a technique. He accordingly intends, when he has achieved what he aims at, to return to London and “wake up English physiology”.

Placed in history, then, but also in a conceivable future, conceivable to Wells himself anyway. He justified it in a note to the first edition of the story: “the manufacture of monsters – and perhaps even of quasi-human monsters – is within the possibilities of vivisection.” Moreau of course is improvising a technology more primitive than the one in use at Kunming; he uses surgical force to hustle his animals towards the fully human condition. (The variety of these animals – including wolf, leopard, ape, horse, puma, ocelot – is one of the less plausible features of Moreau’s science, though it very much increases the pathos of their collective plight.) This surgery includes organ transplantations of one sort or another. An Oxford zoologist, Peter Chalmers Mitchell, reviewed the book when it first appeared, and wouldn’t accept the scientific premise: “attempts to combine living material from different creatures fail.” Wells, he said, “is scaring the public unduly.” Prematurely at most, we should now say; not just the work at Kunming, but the even more obviously gruesome and wasteful recent history of xenotransplantation, have shown that neither the motivation nor the cruelty of Moreau’s researches were mere fantasy.

When Prendick arrives on the island and first encounters the living results of Dr Moreau’s surgery, his shock and indignation arise from a misunderstanding: he supposes that these are former humans subjected to a “hideous degradation”, that “such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here.” Naturally enough he fears for his own safety, but his relief when he discovers his mistake is not simply self-interested; he feels relief also that the peculiar status of humanity in nature remains unchallenged. From this assured position, he can feel pity for the “mock-human existence” which is all that Moreau’s humanized animals have so far risen to.

But the story does not at all endorse this sense of species segregation. Moreau’s chimeras may fall short of his human aim, but in doing so they do indeed “mock” the model. More and more, the evolutionary heritage of the human declares itself. A partly absurd instance of this is the intellectual pretentiousness of the ‘Monkey-man’, who “had developed in the most wonderful way the distinctive silliness of man without losing one jot of the folly of a monkey.” But the larger effect is much more sombre. The human reach in evolution increasingly seems to have meant a shrewder version of what came before, rather than the acquisition of new wisdom or responsibility. And what is noted as specially human is hardly a cause for pride: for instance, mendacity (the ‘beast folk’ may be cunning, but “it takes a real man to tell a lie”) and drink (“Moreau forgot this; this is the last touch”, says Moreau’s assistant as he introduces alcohol to them). Prendick’s late phrase “the human taint” seems tragically apt.

The island itself, when its last human inhabitant departs, makes the same point: disfigured by fire, a cemetery of human and animal remains, ecologically ruined. Ecce homo, one might say: behold the human! No wonder that when Prendick returns to civilization, he shuns the company of his kind and devotes himself to astronomy: it’s there, he concludes, “in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

Dr Moreau himself has a similarly unfavourable view of human nature, though what he feels is contempt rather than Prendick’s fear and aversion. More ominously, this contempt conditions his research aims. When he talks about “man-making”, he means man as an ideal, without the “cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity”. In particular he deplores the human surrender to the rule of pleasure and pain, calling it “the mark of the beast”. The dreadful suffering which occurs in Moreau’s laboratory – known by those who’ve passed through it as “the House of Pain” – is not therefore just gratuitous horror, as Peter Mitchell complained in his review. The way towards the “rational creature” of Moreau’s imagination is through that “bath of burning pain” by means of which he hopes to “burn out all the animal”. Evolution of itself will eventually do that, he believes, since pain is a redundant instructor to those who can “look after their own welfare”. But Moreau wants the means and the results in a hurry. As the Russian biologist presently working on the gene-editing of human babies, Denis Rebrikov, replied when asked if he should not be more circumspect: “When did you see the researcher willing to slow down?”

Although Wells himself doesn’t, of course, champion Moreau, there is much in Moreau’s thinking that he evidently sympathized with. In fact the philosophical substance of the chapter entitled ‘Doctor Moreau Explains’ had been published as a straight journal article only a few months before. And in Wells’s last public reflections, appearing in 1945 as the short essay Mind at the End of its Tether, he is again urging the Moreau case. Humanity in its present form was “played out . . . There is no way out for Man but steeply up or steeply down . . . Ordinary man is at the end of his tether.” It could be Dr Moreau speaking: “steeply up” is exactly his chosen direction, with all its implications of strife and hardship horribly dramatized on that island.

Wells himself did indeed “accept the subservience of beast to man” in science as elsewhere. The 1928 essay is one of a number of express defences of the practice which he wrote. These now seem dated and uninteresting, aimed at long-since vanished targets. But The Island of Dr Moreau endures as a powerful fable, the more effective for Wells’ obvious fascination for a personality whom he nevertheless fates to disaster. I select just two of the story’s lessons by way of conclusion.

In the laboratory of Dr Moreau there’s no euthanasia, of the sort that normally cleans up behind vivisection as it moves from animal to animal. The products of Moreau’s surgery are simply set loose – “I turn them out” – and they form their own grotesque and Korchev's Mutantswretched community elsewhere on the island. He takes no interest in it (“They only sicken me with a sense of failure.”), but there they are, the eleven-year history of his pitiless researches made known not as ideas or publications or even numbers but as the live and visible costs. It’s a brilliant and highly instructive conception, the realization as fact of a conscience that Dr Moreau doesn’t acknowledge (“I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter”), but which finally discredits and destroys him.

Might not Prendick himself and the third man on the island, Moreau’s assistant called Montgomery, have forced a conscience or at least a few ethical scruples upon him? Both of these characters are inadequate to such a task – Prendick an impressionable prig, Montgomery an ineffectual fatalist – plain examples of the ‘ordinary man’ for whom Wells, in Mind at the End of its Tether, saw no useful part in making the future. Dr Moreau’s clarity of thought and purpose, and his scientific authority, simply bear them down. Only the story itself judges and tames him. It’s the second lesson, a reminder of the truth already argued in this blog in connection with Dolly the cloned sheep (see notes below): science is not an island, complete in itself; it’s a dependency of human culture in general, or should be. One of the functions of that culture is to keep science civilized.

 

Notes and references:

Information and quotations about the gene-editing research at the Kunming Institute of Zoology come from this article in the journal Nature: https://www.nature.com/news/monkey-kingdom-1.19762

The quoted essay on vivisection by H.G.Wells, ‘Popular Feeling and the Advancement of Science: Anti-Vivisection’ was published in a collection titled The Way the World is Going: Guesses and Forecasts of the Years Ahead (1928). Although I refer to it as ‘the 1928 essay’, it may well have been written and even published in some form before that year. The text has been made available on the web-site Animal People Forum by Wolf Gordon Clifton, who has published on the same web-site his own interesting account of the subject: ‘H.G.Wells and Animals, a Troubling Legacy’. See https://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/02/07/popular-feeling-and-the-advancement-of-science-anti-vivisection-by-h-g-wells-1928/  and https://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/01/24/h-g-wells-and-animals-a-troubling-legacy/

Quotations from The Island of Dr Moreau are taken from the Garden City Publishing Company edition of 1896 (the year also of the first UK edition by Heinemann), as kindly made available online for Project Gutenberg. Since this version has no pagination, I’ve been unable to give page references. The essay Mind at the End of its Tether is quoted similarly from a Project Gutenberg source.

George Rolleston was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes on 15 July 1876 (see p.63 in the Report published by HMSO in 1876).

The review of Dr Moreau by Peter Mitchell appeared in the Saturday Review, 11 April 1896, the two relevant pages being accessible on the British Library’s web-site here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-h-g-wellss-the-island-of-dr-moreau-from-the-saturday-review

Dr Rebrikov is quoted from an article in Nature, 18 October 2019, available online here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03018-0

The post about Dolly the sheep is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

The painting ‘Mutants’ is by the very fine Russian artist Geliy Mikhailovich Korzhev (1925-2012).