The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by Sue Coe

Picture 59 in Sue Coe’s new book shows a city at night, where men with clubs beat an

56. cow escapes city

Cow escapes city © Sue Coe

escaped cow, coercing it back to be slaughtered. The incident is illuminated by a stark white light, as by a flash of lightning. The buildings jerk and sway in this electric charge, their windows momentary witnesses to the savagery which belongs to the city’s way of life but which  it prefers to keep as a secret from itself. Silhouetted, another cow (or the same cow?) seems to curvet into the white distance. Perhaps it’s the cow Freddie “who escaped from a slaughterhouse twice”, and to whom, now enjoying a sanctuary in New Jersey, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is dedicated.

This is a woodcut, like all the more than a hundred other pictures in the book. That’s the oldest form of print-making and the simplest: a piece of fruit-wood, a gouge or other sharp edge, ink and paper. (The wood in the present case is wild cherry from trees cut down to make way for the Millennium Pipeline, so the medium really is part of the message here.) The unsophisticated technology is visible in the coarse textures and stark contrasts of its results, apt for drastic events and elementary passions: for instance, war, bereavement, torment, fear, shame, and that particular composite of them all which characterises what we do to the other animals.

It helps to remember that a woodcut is a relief print, so the cutting works from black to white; the knife cuts light into the scene. These woodcuts report places and practices which are normally out of view, metaphorically in darkness. But Sue Coe has been present at them, sketching them from life. In an interview, she mentions Goya, who wrote in his sketch books of inquisition torture, “I saw this.” She has seen these modern horrors, and her woodcuts now bring them out of their darkness, and shed bright light upon them so that all may see.

The style plainly belongs to the expressionist tradition, especially as raised to its highest possibilities by the German artists of the early twentieth century (including Max Beckmann, whose terrifying Night is referenced in the previous post). Expressionism is often described as a mode of art that distorts appearances “in order to express the artist’s emotions or inner vision”: that’s how my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists describes it, for instance. So the art is about the artist, a personality-tour, which is indeed what is very commonly looked for and talked about in art. With such aesthetics Sue Coe has nothing to do: “It’s not about me and my emotional reactions. It’s about the chick being ground up or a calf being punched and kicked.” In her woodcuts, the distortions, rough finishes, and directness of appeal express not inner vision but the true and objective urgency of the subject. That flash of light, and the lives which it shows being grasped or struck or thrown: they may last a moment only. There isn’t time for fine art. In fact Sue Coe prefers to speak of “reportage” or “propaganda”. But all the same, there is woodcut art of the very highest character in this book.

The men at work or other exertion in these scenes of manifold predation – reaching for

45. abattoir

Abattoir © Sue Coe

the doomed calf in the dairy cow’s womb, injecting the piglet with Ractopamine, slaughtering, hunting, eating – are portrayed as such actions truly and tragically make them (the expressionist truth): that is, coarse, ill-formed, gross of prehensile hand and mouth. But these are only the instruments after all, half-victims  themselves. The directing power is glimpsed in the men in suits, the businessmen and financiers – the grinning one shown feeding a pig to a fat child while another child (African?) correspondingly starves, the ranting politicians of the ‘Humans Only Party’, the money-men on Capitol Hill standing on heaped dead animals and picking each others’ pockets. “The crime is economics,” Sue Coe says. And in fact the cost, to all except those to whom this wealth-at-all-costs accrues, is shown even in the faces of the thuggish agents, which grimace equivocally with ferocity and horror.

As Sue Coe has said, “Our unique contradiction as animal activists is that the most

53. glimpse of freedom

Glimpse of freedom © Sue Coe

oppressed are not leading their own resistance.” Art has to lend them the acts of resistance which in real life only the very few, such as the cow Freddie, can convert their passive suffering into (though we can know that all of them would). And gradually in this book, subversively, the animal-dreams of nature and freedom do turn into acts: a lobster, a cow, a goat, each in turn snips the barbed wire; a pig bursts its chains; four species co-operate to see over a prison wall. And now the light which the artist has been blazing upon scenes of violence and cruelty becomes a life-promising sunburst, glorifying the later images as the book moves towards the manifesto itself. That’s the story in the book, an expressionist story, for it acts out the inner urge of the animals, and it acts out also the sympathetic urge of all who remember (as Sue Coe makes us remember from the start) what razor wire, bars, poison gas, and systematized slaughter, have meant in our human history, and who now see that incomprehensible wrong perpetuated upon these other innocents.

Although The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto touches also on the plight of zoo and circus animals, it doesn’t picture the ones in laboratories. To those, Sue Coe has already devoted a whole remarkable book, Pit’s Letter (2000). It records the experiences of a dog adopted from the street, abandoned again, captured for laboratory use, and then tragically re-united with its human in that fright-filled setting. The illustrations are not woodcuts, but part-coloured images in (I think) charcoal, crayon, and wash. They are even more astonishing and hellish, as a collection, than those in the Manifesto, being unrelieved by any of the Manifesto’s positive and delightful images of free animal life. But like the woodcuts of the Manifesto, they show with brilliant insight what our part in the living world looks like when it appears as it truthfully is, inside and out.

 

Notes and references:

I apologise for oddities of layout/paragraphing in this post, which I’ve been unable to Vegan Manifestocorrect.

The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is published by OR Books, New York and London, www.orbooks.com.  The illustrations above are used by courtesy of OR Books. In the book itself, the pictures are untitled.

Images from Pit’s Letter, as well as many other art-works by Sue Coe, can be seen on the Graphic Witness web-site at http://www.graphicwitness.org/coe/enter.htm.

The quotations from Sue Coe are taken from an interview which she gave earlier this year to Animal Liberation Currents, at https://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/#more-1804. Other interviews which she has given are linked on the Graphic Witness page referenced above.

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Brothers and Cousins

Statistics of the animal research done in Britain during 2016 have now been published. They show a decrease of about 5% or 206,000 in the annual total of ‘procedures’ (down, but not very far down, to 3.94 million). The Home Office press release announcing the statistics was headed with that notable news – notable not so much because the achievement is very great (after all, the 2015 figure had been the highest number of ‘procedures’ ever recorded), but because it represents only the second time in about fifteen years that the numbers have not gone up. And the total in 2016 is still larger than it was in 1986, when the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was introduced with the aim and expectation (for a time actually realised) of pushing the numbers steadily down.

Now is a good moment to recall that aim, because the European Union’s Directive 2010/63, which has been co-ordinating the laws on animal research in all 28 member states, is about to be revised. Although the U.K. will probably not belong to the Union by the time any revisions come into effect, its own practice will certainly be influenced by them. In fact, because science is an internationally collaborative business, published in international journals, the rules and standards established in the Union are certain to have some influence in all countries where animals are used in research.

Article 58 of the Directive requires the European Commission (the E.U.’s executive) to “review” its contents no later than 10 November 2017. In doing so, the Commission must take into account “advancements in the development of alternative methods not entailing the use of animals, in particular of non-human primates”. Specifying OU primateprimates in this way, the Directive’s authors no doubt had in mind a ‘declaration’ which the European Parliament had adopted back in 2007, urging the Commission “to establish a timetable for replacing the use of all primates in scientific experiments with alternatives”. Anyway, by way of limbering up for the review, the Commission asked one of its advisory committees, the Science Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER), to set up a Working Group to study and report on “the need for non-human primates in biomedical research, production and testing of products and devices”. Under this same title, with its ready-made implication that such a need really does exist, SCHEER accordingly published its conclusions (formally an ‘Opinion’) a few weeks ago. These conclusions, on such an especially controversial aspect of animal research, may be taken as indicative of what animals have to hope for from the coming review.

We’re deep inside the E.U. machine here: a working group reporting to a standing committee commissioned to advise the executive on the revision of a parliamentary directive setting the parameters for (and here we at last come out into the open) actual laws in the 28 member states. And the advice itself frequently does have a machine-generated feel to it, of truth made out of words rather than real things, and all the more conveniently incontrovertible for that. “It is indeed important to consider the limitations of the NHP when choosing which species to use in a drug-safety test: the use of an appropriate species or combination of species/models is essential to obtaining the most reliable and translatable information.”[p.63] Has anything been said here that isn’t necessarily true? Is anyone arguing, for instance, that an inappropriate species would produce more reliable information? This key word ‘appropriate’, with its built-in wisdom, is much used in the authors’ proposals: “appropriate training”“appropriate standards”, and of course “appropriate use of NHPs”.

Another such passe-partout word is ‘robust’: the authors variously recommend “robust scrutiny”, “robust peer review procedures”, “robust study design”, and so on. One wonders why scientists hadn’t thought of the great merits of robustness before. Anyway, everything will surely be better in this robust and appropriate new world.

But not very much better. Distinctly this is a technical account of the subject: how to make things as they are work properly (the machine again). There are some good suggestions to that end, certainly. For instance the authors recognize, as one of the barriers to progress in animal-free research, the weight of professional habit and institutionalized practice; they advise that training courses for animal researchers should include “non-animal technologies”, so that transition is easier and more acceptable [p.64]. Also I must concede that, for all the tautologies and self-evident truths, there’s a 12-page bibliography to back up what the committee says. But the rationale for all this attention, why it matters whether there’s a ‘need’ for NHPs in science or not – in short, the morality of it – is almost untouched. Two pages (out of 66 in the main text) make a hurried tour of the topic, though it is of course alluded to from time to time elsewhere. But then all members of the Working Group were scientists. Accordingly, the page headed ‘Minority Opinion’, which looks rather promising with the whole of page 23 to itself in the table of contents, proves, when one reaches it, to be blank, apart from the word “None”.

The committee recognises, as a political fact, that “polls of the European public repeatedly show low levels of acceptance of the use of NHPs in research” [p.24]. Approval for the use of NHPs in the U.K., for instance, was about 17% when last canvassed (see, in this blog, ‘Animal Pains and Human Attitudes: the new Ipsos Mori survey’, 26 September 2016). However, there is at least “greater acceptance of animal research where animal use and suffering are minimised in line with the 3Rs principle” [i.e. Replacement, Reduction, Refinement: p.25]. This is no doubt true, although it’s a somewhat disingenuous way of putting things: where acceptance has not been ‘great’ in the first place, it shouldn’t really be said to become “greater”. And I suspect that approval would actually have been even lower if the respondents had known, as this SCHEER report records, that nearly three quarters of ‘procedures’ conducted on NHPs in the E.U. are for “regulatory use and routine production” [p.15].

What these quotations illustrate is how the “3Rs principle” is seen by scientists as a sort of ethical machine labouring away to turn expediency into good conduct, rather as the “invisible hand” of the free market was supposed by Adam Smith to convert self-interested actions into social good. In this capacity, it’s expected to satisfy or at least placate opponents of animal research. That it does not do so, and that the whole managerial attitude to “ethical considerations” understates their seriousness, is evident in the consultation document which is published alongside the SCHEER report (but which came before it in time, of course).

I must say that this 234-page consultation document is conspicuous proof at least of the diligence and fair-mindedness of the committee, which here records in the left-hand column, and replies to in the right, hundreds of queries and comments. It wasn’t in the committee’s remit to deal with ethics except as a general premise, but at least the moral passion is now allowed printed expression in raw, ungentrified form: “cruel”, “inhuman”, “abhorrent”, “nearest cousins”, “brothers”, “freedom”. True, the committee makes little attempt to address this sort of complaint (there being plenty of other more strictly scientific representations). “Stop this insane abuse!!” says one contribution (well yes, two exclamation marks, but then, as the great Aneurin Bevan used to say, “In public life, those who would change things must shout to be heard”). To such, the committee can only reply with a slightly pompous set formula: “This is a personal opinion. The comment does not provide any suggestions for improvements of the scientific basis of the SCHEER preliminary Opinion and/or any scientific evidence.” Still, such remonstrations, earnest and unscientific, are at least recorded here. Thank you to those who did speak up with this authentic human indignation.

When it issued its previous ‘opinion’ on animal research, just prior to the making of the 2010 Directive, this same science committee was called SCHER. The second ‘E’, recently added, stands for ‘emerging’, and refers to novel or reappearing infectious diseases. It’s an ominous alteration for NHPs, because this is one of the areas of research in which the committee, so far from sketching out a diminution in their use, foresees an increase. NHPs, so SCHEER claims, “provide essential models for understanding and combatting (re)emerging infectious pathogens.” Thus, for recent research into whooping cough, “a new baboon model was developed” [p.47]. That rather euphemistic phrase actually means that research was conducted, for the first time, on juvenile baboons (from two to six months old): the opposite of the 3Rs, then. SCHEER justifies such retrogressions by speaking of “realistic dangers” [p.47]. Danger, which might properly be seen as a test and validation of our ethics, is evidently expected to frighten them away. And after all, even the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos), whom the E.U. Directive in principle protects absolutely from scientific exploitation, may be used “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” [Article 55.2].

So, shall a timetable be drawn up for ending the use of NHPs in European research, as the E.U. Parliament was dreaming ten years ago? SCHEER’s 12,000 word answer resembles the one being given in a famous Saul Steinberg cartoon from 1961. A well-fed manager of some sort, comfortably leaning back at his desk, addresses a petitioner with a mass of words, illegible but obviously full of patronizing civilities and bureaucratic reassurances. The words coalesce, above the petitioner’s head, into a giant ‘NO’.

 

Notes and references:

The 2016 statistics can be viewed here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

These new statistics record about 3,600 procedures using NHPs. The SCHEER report uses the all-E.U. figure of 8898, which was the total in 2014. Note that the Home Office numbers don’t include Northern Ireland: i.e. they cover animal research in Great Britain rather than the U.K.

The 2007 Declaration of the European Parliament on primates in scientific experiments is published online at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/pdf/fische_suite.pdf

The SCHEER report is at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/scheer_o_004.pdf

The results of the public consultation are published at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/followup_cons_primates_en.pdf

Aneurin Bevan is quoted in Michael Foot, Loyalists and Loners, Collins, 1987, p.36. Among other political achievements, Bevan was the Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, therefore the man responsible for establishing the U.K.’s National Health Service.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by permission of the University’s Public Affairs Office.

 

 

 

 

Thinking Ourselves Kings

In Frans de Waal’s most recent book about animal cognition – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) – he introduces to a general public many animal talents and capacities hitherto supposed unique to humans. His own specialism being primatology, he talks particularly about the social and political acumen of chimpanzees, forward planning among bonobos, reciprocal favours between capuchin monkeys, gorillas using tools, and so on. But he discusses also the skills of birds, cetaceans, octopuses, and many others.

The research which has revealed these accomplishments has often been picked up in media stories of the ‘smarter than we thought!’ genre. It’s a pity that the word ‘smart’, which in American English means simply ‘bright’ or ‘intelligent’, has in British English a suggestion of showiness or sophistication about it. For de Waal’s essential argument is that these various species have exactly the sort of intelligence which their situation in nature demands – intelligence developed for and within that situation, in fact. That’s what is implied in the term which he prefers for his branch of biology: evolutionary cognition. De Waal’s account of the ‘Kluger Hans’ story makes the point very well. Hans was famous in the early 20th century as a horse that could do sums, until a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst studied the performance and found that Hans was getting his cues for the answers from his unwitting trainer. The showy maths meant nothing to Hans, but understanding the body language of his trainer was a vital skill in which he had surpassed both his trainer and all their audiences.

The study which Pfungst then published did much to improve the techniques of experimental psychology. However, the Hans story was commonly understood as a caution against anthropomorphism, and therefore had the effect also, so de Waal says, of sanctioning a more sceptical and reductivist account of animal intelligence. At any rate there did follow what he calls the “this bleak period” for most of the 20th century, when (with the notable exception of Konrad Lorenz and his school of ethologists) the idea of intelligence or emotion in animals was dismissed as unscientific romance. In its place came the animal as mechanism: “the two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.” [4]

But in the case of behaviourism – the stimulus-response school led by B.F.Skinner – at least the reductivism went right to the top: the pigeons learning their behaviour from the rewards and punishments administered in the ‘Skinner box’ were the models, however inadequate, for all animal mind, including the human. Hence Skinner’s foray into human politics in his books Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He did not believe that humans were a special case, but applied to them the lessons he believed that he’d learnt from his animals. Here, at least, was impartial science.

But as de Waal shows again and again, studies in animal cognition have habitually been quite unscientifically partisan. Humans have been taken as the standard, and the intelligence of other animals has been judged according as they clumsily approximate to it. (One of de Waal’s chapters is titled ‘The Measure of All Things’.) The whole Nim project, for instance (as recounted in this blog for 8 May 2017), was essentially anthropocentric in this way: it asked how like a human a chimpanzee could be induced to behave.

De Waal shows that the very methodology of many studies has been carelessly biased.de Wall 2 Apes in sterile environments, behind bars or wire, take tests devised and presented by a different species (humans), and the results are compared to those achieved by human children in supportive human settings: the miserable contrast is well pictured in one of de Waal’s own illustrations. Earlier in the book he has aptly quoted the physicist Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” [7]

“What a bizarre animal we are,” de Waal exclaims, “that the only question we can ask in relation to our place in nature is Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?[157] It’s a well-chosen image, because the mirror test for self-awareness is an especially plain instance of the exam-bound mentality behind much comparative psychology. At this point we need to recall that nearly every research scientist is the triumphant product of almost two decades of successful test-taking. How could a mind be unaffected by this habituation? (Jane Goodall said in a recent BBC interview that she thought herself fortunate to have delayed formal scientific study until her late twenties. She never did study for an undergraduate degree.) Accordingly a conference report in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, “Dolphins, it turns out, are pretty darn smart. Panelist Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean neuroanatomy at Emory University in Atlanta [incidentally, the same university in which de Waal is a professor of psychology] said they may be Earth’s second smartest creature, after humans, of course.” For instance, “They can recognise themselves in a mirror (a feat most animals fail at).” Fail! One wonders how such animals get on in later life. Nature, it seems, is seated at a giant exam, where the top mark is reserved for the examiners’ own relations (for of course that question we put to the mirror on the wall is a confidently rhetorical one: we know who).

De Waal is keenly alert to all the manifestations of this attitude. He speaks, for instance, of a research project in which sheep were shown to recognise and remember the pictured faces of other sheep (touchingly, “they actually called out to these pictures as if the individuals were present”). But he balks at the sub-title given to the published report, ‘sheep are not so stupid after all’: it’s “a title to which I object, since I don’t believe in stupid animals.” [72] Later he writes of the “patience and restraint” shown by apes and others, as much in the wild as in domestication: “self-control is an age-old feature of animal societies.” [221] And yet it’s often said of humans who fail to show these qualities that they’re behaving ‘like animals’. De Waal illustrates our senseless prejudice in this respect with a story told by the zoologist Desmond Morris. In the days when London Zoo (where Morris then worked) held chimpanzee tea parties, these apes, being quite capable of using tools, became too orderly and polished in their manners to please the public: in order to conform to expectations, they had to be trained to misbehave. The point is that science, supposedly the home of positivism, has been prejudiced in the same way. Summarising this whole comparative or rather competitive tradition in cognitive science, de Waal says with characteristic decisiveness, “I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.” [12]

Happily, evolutionary cognition is now a well-established and rapidly growing discipline in science, with a large body of authoritative research already to its credit. Much of the success has no doubt been due to de Waal himself. Nowadays, who would think of saying, as a popular introduction did in the 1960s, that “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour, and that is to learn more about man himself”? However, the subject still does face resistance; in particular its egalitarian premise does. I don’t mean the sort of particular challenges which all science needs in order to remain healthy, but something more like an ideological antagonism.

A recent book title (cited by de Waal) makes the point: The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (2013). But at least here we are pictured in the same kingdom as our evolutionary fellow-products, the ‘other animals’. The more absolute case has been summarised in the ugly coinage ‘humaniqueness’, a word aimed at fixing into being this strange intellectual hybrid of science and ideology. The case was put in the 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University, titled ‘The Seeds of Humanity’ and delivered by the man who coined that absurd term. The two lectures by Marc Hauser, then a professor of pscyhology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, are densely argued texts, but their ideological theme is clearly established in the introductory paragraphs. Here is a taste of it, starting with the first sentence of all:

Humans create plays, operas, sculptures, computers, equations, laws, religions, guns, and soufflés. This is only a partial list of our achievements. In the history of life on earth, we are the only species to have created such creations … These observations suggest the first radical proposition I will make: we are not animals … If the fact that we share some 98 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees is meaningful, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones, or working on quantum computing, or adjudicating over a legal case, or making me a soufflé? … Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee – a cultural non-starter.

This is the prospectus, familiarly bumptious in its formulation, for the extreme form of what de Waal calls “an us-versus-them world”. That’s indeed the world which has been made for us in the West over the centuries, and which has been costing “them” ever more and more in pains and lives. And there’s surely still a persuasible audience for such thinking as this, even or perhaps especially among scientists, for it leaves us with nothing to apologise for or, more crucially, to change our ways for, and of course it makes us proud to be human.

De Waal’s book is a detailed critique of the ‘humaniqueness’ outlook. It is part of his own case that apes do indeed have cultures and other “creative” accomplishments, but that these are themselves pointers toward farther (not lower, but less immediately accessible) reaches of intelligence among animals more distant from humans in the evolutionary complex:

After the apes break down the dam between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species. Cognitive ripples spread from apes to monkeys to dolphins, elephants, and dogs, followed by birds, reptiles, fish, and sometimes invertebrates … an ever-expanding pool of possibilities in which the cognition of, say, the octopus may be no less astonishing than that of any given mammal or bird. [69-70]

So what are we: a lonely self-congratulating elite, scorning and battening upon the rest of nature, or fellow-swimmers in the waters of cognition? It’s a choice not just for cognitive science, but also for the moral and spiritual faculties which Hauser thinks so well of humans for having. I shall end with one tragi-comic utterance on the question Rouaultfrom those latter regions of the human mind, by the great French artist Georges Rouault: the print titled Nous nous croyons rois (‘We think ourselves kings’). It was made during the First World War. Its eloquence makes further comment superfluous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes and references:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) is published in the UK by Granta Books, and in the USA by Norton and Co. The Desmond Morris story appears on p.223, and is referenced to R. and D. Morris, Men and Apes, McGraw-Hill, 1966. Page numbers for quotations are given in the brackets.

Jane Goodall was being interviewed on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 14 May for the programme Private Passions.

The popular introduction from the 1960s is P. L. Broadhurst’s The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963: quotation from p.12. There is more about this book and its times in the post for 10 October 2016.

The conference report in Science (an excellent journal) appears in the issue for 26 February 2010.

The 2008 Tanner Lectures can be read at http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/h/Hauser_08.pdf

Georges Rouault’s Nous nous croyons rois is number 7 in his print series entitled Miserere, first published in part in 1927, and published complete as Miserere et Guerre in 1948. Unfortunately I can’t recall where I have the image from, but I hope the source will forgive its use here.

 

Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

Among the various attempts to persuade chimpanzees or other great apes to use a human language, the most famous or notorious, certainly the most written-about, has been ‘Project Nim’ – the attempt, from 1973 to 1977, by Herbert Terrace at the University of Columbia, to teach the animal whom he originally named Neam Chimpsky to use American Sign Language (ASL).

That name itself was ominous. True, it wasn’t a senseless joke. Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, wished to test Noam Chomsky’s claim that language, as humans used it, was a unique and innate capacity of the human brain. If a chimpanzee, brought up in human society, could learn to converse in some way with humans, that much language at least would be shown to be the product of culture, a learned behaviour. So Terrace named the chimpanzee to show that the project was a challenge to Noam Chomsky. But unfortunately the name also expresses an estimate of value. Like the name ‘Dolly’ for the cloned sheep (see the VERO blog on 29 August, 2016), it makes a joke of the animal’s participation in human affairs. In fact it belongs with the mock-dignity of a chimpanzees’ tea-party. An animal not to be much respected in itself, then, but made over to a human purpose: that was the implication of the name.

Accordingly, it was Neam Chimpsky’s fate to be snatched with unceremonious violence from his captive mother (a ‘breeding’ chimpanzee at Dr William Lemmon’s Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma), pitched into a more or less unprepared human family in New York, and wholly subject for the next four years to the chaotic professional and private interests of whatever people Terrace could find to run the Nim_Chimpskychimpanzee’s education and home life. Most of those people proved devoted and loyal to Nim (as he came to be called) while they stayed with him. It was not so much the difficulties of looking after Nim, though these were great enough, as the instability of the human relationships that caused what Terrace himself calls “the necessity of introducing more and more teachers into his life … The revolving-door manner in which caretakers cycled through Project Nim”. Nim’s so-called “socialization” in fact consisted in a succession of broken homes: a training in delinquency.

Yet during this time Nim rose above his slighting name and its moral implications, and re-characterized it in his own true image, as vital things do (poor Dolly was too unassertive to discredit the joky etymology of her name, as it deserved). The ‘Chimpsky’ disappeared from ordinary use, and the ‘Noam’ reference was forgotten. In fact, discovering Nim as a real and enduring being is the most interesting lesson that Herbert Terrace can be seen to learn during his own account of the project, the 1979 book Nim. Accustomed to pigeons and rats as subjects, creatures which he could with impunity put away in cages and forget when not in use, he found that Nim was a 24-hour phenomenon: “Even more than a human infant [of which Terrace had no experience either], Nim needed constant contact and attention.” More urgently, chimpanzees mature quickly, so that any “unseized opportunity to teach Nim to sign seemed to be an opportunity lost forever.” In practice, Terrace mostly delegated these demands, but even delegating them required time and understanding.

A theme for a comedy, perhaps: harassed scientist taught to live and love by warm-hearted monkey. But in fact the story of Nim was a tragedy. There came a time, unprepared-for like most of what happened during the project, when Nim’s growing strength started to make his vagarious moods a physical danger to his carers (there were several trips to hospital). Both man-hours and funds for the research were becoming scarce, and anyway Terrace now had plentiful results in notes and film of Nim’s communications during nearly four years on which to base his research conclusions. So Nim was indeed put back in his cage: that is, he was sedated, as his mother had been when he was stolen from her, and taken to the place which one writer about Nim (Elizabeth Hess) describes as “a dreary, crowded, woefully inadequate cement prison” – the Institute for Primate Studies from which he had come. Having been taught to regard himself as a human (when asked to sort photographs of chimpanzees and humans, he had put his own picture among the humans), he was thrown back among his own kind and left to start again.

Terrace himself, a more sympathetic man than Dr Lemmon, devoted a chapter of his book to this miserable event. The chapter is somewhat disingenuously titled ‘Nim Leaves’, but it doesn’t shirk the pain and violence involved. After all, such ASL as Nim had learned did not encompass explanations or persuasions. The parting had to be done with a trick:

Nim didn’t realize what had happened until I got up and padlocked the door. He then began to scream and tried to force the door open … Without further ceremony we all walked out of the building. I will never forget Nim’s incessant ear-piercing screams and his look of fear and anger when I abandoned him in his cage.

In the recent documentary film Project Nim (2011) one of Nim’s household who had been present on that occasion still seems tearful when she remembers it: “a nasty thing to do … We coaxed him down there because he trusted us … We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.”

But Terrace had in preparation what many of his co-adjutors regarded as a further betrayal, this one strictly as a scientist. In his report on the research published in the journal Science in 1979, he argued that Nim had not been using ASL as a proper language at all. Nim had learnt to use many individual word-signs (125 of them by the end), and could use them in combinations of up to four, but there was no good evidence that he was using a syntax to make variable sense of them, still less that he was generating altogether new meanings in such a way. Not just Nim, either. Terrace rejected also the more positive conclusions of previous studies (for instance, the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner with the chimpanzee Washoe). The title of the article was ‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ The answer which Terrace gave was this: “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other non-human species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.” In short, no.

Terrace did not altogether abjure the romantic possibilities of inter-species communication which his own research seemed thus to have closed off. At the very end of his book, he writes that such communication would be “as exhilarating as receiving a message from outer space”, while to introduce language into the culture of a group of chimpanzees “might provide a priceless glimpse of what life was like at the dawn of human civilization.” But this may have been the licensed rhetoric of a book’s last lines. The question with which he starts the book, whether “humans could take comfort in the assurance that our language made us unique”, had been emphatically answered. Terrace told the New York Times, “Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.”

So it turns out that Nim was not teaching humans to understand a different animal; he was just helping us to take another admiring look at ourselves in the mirror: as Terrace more recently said of Nim, with familiar speciesist condescension, “he should be greatly respected for sharing himself and his abilities in the pursuit of what it means to be human.” No surprise that this last quotation comes from a piece published on a pro-vivisection web-site.

Terrace’s much-publicized conclusions from his research certainly had a baleful effect on other such projects and their chances of getting funds. We may not regret that in itself, but more importantly his conclusions have also helped to keep chimpanzees and the other great apes, and in a queue behind them all the other animals, for that much longer outside the circle of our moral fellowship. And thus a quarter of a century later Oxford’s Professor Colin Blakemore could still be defending the use of great apes in experiments on the grounds that “there is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.” Nim’s return to prison was, in this sense, wholly emblematic.

As I said, there have been many tellings of the Nim story. The most thorough, apart Nim books copyfrom Terrace’s own account, would be Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp who would be Human (2008), the book on which James Marsh’s film Project Nim was based. One of the briefest and most poignant versions was published in the New Yorker in 1976, while Nim was still in ‘education’ at Columbia. The author, Mark Helprin, doesn’t in fact mention Nim by name; it’s possible he had no knowledge of him (though Terrace was good at generating publicity for his research in the media). Rather, Helprin tells the larger story of which poor Nim’s career is an illustration. The title is ‘Letters from the Samantha’.

The captain of “an iron-hulled sailing ship” is reporting to his superiors a typhoon and its troublesome consequences. From that sudden violence in nature, the ship has come into possession of “a large monkey”. The presence of an animal on board is a serious breach of regulations, but unlike lesser creatures, which the captain has from time to time found on the ship and promptly dispatched, this one makes special claims, being “like a man”. Indeed, it was the captain himself who had him rescued. And once he has been fed, the monkey becomes biddable, even friendly. A special “throne” is made for him. But his presence produces disciplinary problems among the crew, and the captain feels that he’s losing his own authority on the ship. Still, he cannot bring himself to order the monkey to be thrown back into the sea: “I brought him on board in the first place.” More than that: the monkey’s personality has had a powerful effect upon the captain: so far from his dominating the animal, “it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know.” But finally, disregarding the various opinions of his crew (just as Terrace suddenly announced to his staff the end of ‘Project Nim’), and more significantly violating what he himself has learnt, the captain grasps the monkey, subdues his struggles, and throws him overboard to drown. And now he must restore a proper attitude on board the ship. Accordingly, he addresses the crew on the subject of the ape thus:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going … He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone.

 

 

Notes and references:

The book written by Terrace himself is Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Knopf 1979). Quotations are from the U.K. edition (Eyre Methuen, 1980) pp.97, 108, 5, 127, 202, 226-7, 4.

Quotations from Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess (Bantam, 2008), are from the 2009 paperback edition, pp.46 and 242 (which quotes Terrace speaking to the New York Times).

‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ appeared in Science, 23 November 1979, vol.206, no.4421, pp.891-902. The full authorship was H.S.Terrace, L.A.Petitto, R.J.Sanders, and T.G.Bever. The recent comment from Terrace (“… what it means to be human”) appeared on the website Speaking of Research, in a ‘guest’ post, 15 August 2011.

Colin Blakemore was quoted in the Independent, 2 June 2006, introducing a Medical Research Council publication which promoted the benefits of experimentation on non-human primates – including, when “necessary”, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos).

Among other discussions of the Nim story, these two are especially interesting: (1) Peter Singer’s review of the film Project Nim, and the unfriendly exchange between Singer and Terrace which followed it, in the New York Review of Books for 13 October and 24 November 2011; (2) another review of the film, this one a really fine and impassioned piece of writing (it starts with an attack on the name Nim Chimpsky) in the journal Dissent, 17 August 2011, by Benjamin Hale. The Dissent article can be read here:  https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-sad-story-of-nim-chimpsky.

The short story ‘Letters from the Samantha’, by Mark Helprin, was first published in the New Yorker, 5 January 1976. It has been re-published in Helprin’s Ellis Island and Other Stories (Dell, 1981), and also in the excellent American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Dell, 1987), pp.271-82.

The illustrations show Nim washing up, and two book covers: the front of Hess’s book, and the back cover of Terrace’s book Nim, picturing the author and the chimpanzee.

As to Nim’s later life: he stayed at the IPS until 1982, when it began to fail as a paying concern. He was then sold on to somewhere very much worse, New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, with its grotesquely inappropriate acronym LEMSIP. After a very public controversy, in which Terrace took a part arguing for special treatment in Nim’s case (other chimpanzees were sold to LEMSIP at the same time and stayed), Nim was taken back to the IPS. In 1983, Nim was sold again, this time to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, property of the animal activist Cleveland Amory. This was a wholly benevolent animal sanctuary, but it was primarily for equines, and for a year or so Nim lived a wretched life alone in a cage, a period vividly recorded in the film Project Nim. Then other chimpanzees were brought to Black Beauty, and we can hope that Nim lived a reasonably contented life until his premature death at 26 years of age in 2000.

 

 

 

Remembering the Founding Text of the Animal Rights Movement (not by Peter Singer)

It’s now forty five years since the book of essays Animals, Men and Morals was published. Its editors were three post-graduate philosophers at Oxford, and several of their fellow-writers for the book were likewise University people. Accordingly some of its chapters are academic studies of one kind or another, though written with unacademic fervour and impatience. Others lay out the facts of factory farming, fur and cosmetics, and experiments on animals. Although it made no great splash at the time, this book proved to be the pioneering text for the modern animal rights movement, in both its philosophical and animals-men-morals-coverits political forms. The chapter on vivisection was written by Richard Ryder, then a psychologist in an Oxford hospital, and since that’s the unhappy subject of this blog I shall say a little more about his part in the book.

Ryder himself had done research work with animals (I politely use that richly euphemistic “with”). Therefore he knew the things of which he came to write. What he first wrote was a pamphlet titled Speciesism, which he published and distributed round Oxford in 1970. He had coined its title-word on the analogy of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, in order to show at a lexical glance that the moral revolution of the 1960s, unfinished as it obviously was, had still another ancient orthodoxy to start to undo. By placing the subject of animal welfare in a political context in this way, he also freed it from its conventional associations with the minor good works of well-off old ladies (i.e. courageous women who meant to get something right done, as fortunately many still do). When another Oxford post-graduate, Peter Singer, reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books, and when he went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), he used ‘speciesism’ as his key word for just those reasons and despite its awkwardness (“the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term”[i]). Defining as it does the essential wrong, Ryder’s word remains a complete work of animal ethics and a rule-book in ten letters.

Singer’s review spoke of Animal, Men and Morals as “a manifesto for an Animal Liberation movement”[ii]. In the event, it was his own book which became that manifesto, and it has been so ever since. But it was the earlier book which had established the proper way to look at the subject: not just as a miscellany of improvised cruelties, calling on the services of kindly people to press for remedies, but as an enormous and systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind. As the book’s ‘Postscript’ says – so much in the spirit of that time, as well as of that project – “we want to change the world.”[iii]

Richard Ryder’s chapter of the book, surveying the law and practice of animal research, was a good deal longer than any of the others. It gives many examples of contemporary experiments, illustrative of what animals might be asked to endure: rats in their ‘Wright Auto-Smoker’, dogs having their legs crushed in the notorious ‘Blalock Press’ (ah, those evocative trade-names!), pregnant baboons in car-crash simulations, and so on. A few of the examples are from Oxford’s laboratories. It’s a disgusting read, and it all sits in the baleful shade of the chapter’s epigraph, taken from the works of one of experimental psychology’s leading practitioners, Harry Harlow: “most experiments are not worth doing and the data obtained are not worth publishing.”[iv]

It is often asked of those who oppose vivisection why they don’t bother about the far greater numbers of animals killed for food. The simple answer of course is that they do. As Animals, Men and Morals insisted, it’s all one subject, though some may specialize within it. But there’s a more unpleasant answer too. Factory farming is itself a product of scientific research. Ruth Harrison showed as much in her chapter of the book, and she had already written, in Animal Machines (1964), that “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The laboratory may exemplify speciesism in an especially stark and modern way, but it also promotes and facilitates it elsewhere.

A popular account of animal research published in 1963 makes this last point very clearly, and also helpfully illustrates the orthodox thinking of the time. The Science of Animal Behaviour was written for the Pelican imprint by P.L.Broadhurst, a professor at Birmingham. He was presumably aiming the book at the lay-person and the aspiring young scientist, and it is clearly and reasonably intended as an advertisement for his profession. There is not much in it about animals as they can be observed in nature. The laboratory is Broadhurst’s preferred setting, partly because that was his own place of work (rats and the misleadingly fun-sounding “shuttle box” were his customary tools), but mainly because animals in themselves do not quite constitute a subject: “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.”[v] 

Accordingly, a high point of Broadhurst’s presentation is the contemporary research of that same Professor Harlow into maternal deprivation as it affected baby rhesus monkeys, and therefore might be supposed to concern humans. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed”, muses our author, himself a family man. “But just how important …?” Harlow’s work with his artificial mothers, carefully graded as to their lovelessness and delinquency, seemed to provide some exciting answers. For instance, as Broadhurst reports, these forlorn babies “preferred a soft cloth model even when it did not provide milk to a hard one which did!” Not just that bumptious exclamation mark, but the cover of the book itself, picturing a monkey in the throes of this pathetic decision, show that the experiment, which ought to bring tears to the eyes of any person of ordinary sensibility, is thought to instance the discipline of animal research at its most thrilling.

I’m sure that Professor Broadhurst was a kind enough man, though of Harlow one can be rather less certain. Both had wives who helped them in their research, if that’s relevant. As Richard Ryder says in Victims of Science, “My intention is in no way to defame scientists, but to question their conventions.”[vi] And the convention in which Broadhurst was working is very clear: it is the old master/slave convention. And not just at work, where what he calls “the lowly rodent and his laboratory master” live out that relationship. Those two are the template for a much larger project, because, so he proposes, the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In the editorial foreword to The Science of Animal Behaviour, this “service of man” is frankly and enthusiastically called “slave labour”.

It seemed natural at that time, at least to Broadhurst and his editor, to cast the scientist as the designer of our future relations with animals. So at the same moment that Ruth Harrison, in Animal Machines, was warning of the horrors of industrialized farming, Broadhurst was telling his Pelican audience that the present role of animals in food production would soon “seem pitifully small” (a most interesting choice of adverb). It’s true that to some extent science has begun to provide its own corrective in the new academic discipline of Animal Welfare (where Oxford University has been taking a leading part). But I believe that Broadhurst and his colleagues in the profession would have welcomed this, as keeping the story within the laboratory and its variants, and in the hands of scientists. Besides, science has not been brought to a pause in this matter. New ways of exploiting animals for food, indeed new animals, are being thought up and made real now for new forms of slavery.

No, it’s not by inventing techniques for the study and measurement of animal welfare that speciesism, as exposed in Animals, Men and Morals and still going strong now, can be understood and undone, and new varieties of it prevented. What’s needed of mankind is a “re-appraisal of his position in relation to the creatures with which he shares the environment” That quotation is from Ruth Harrison’s chapter in the book. It’s the chapter about factory farming, but it’s also the first chapter, and it acted as an introduction to what followed. Her first sentence accordingly takes a fully re-proportioning view of our standing in the natural world: “It is a sobering thought that animals could do without man yet man would find it impossible to do without animals.” This is a radical fact: if you read “could” as a past tense (‘were perfectly able to’), you have the whole tragic history of human/animal relations before you. Animals, Men and Morals was the first full statement of that tragedy as it looked in the twentieth century, and the first authoritative call to put it right.

 

[i] Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, p.6

[ii] New York Review of Books, vol.20, no.5, April 5, 1973

[iii] Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, Gollancz, 1971, p.232. Later quotations are from p.11.

[iv] Referenced in the text to Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1962

[v] The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963, p.12. Later quotations are from pp.74, 73, 100, 135, and 132.

[vi] Davis-Poynter, 1975, preface

This post is a revised version of an article first published in the Oxford Magazine (the University’s house journal) in 2013.

Animal Pains and Human Attitudes: the new Ipsos MORI survey

Another spectacular show of numbers has just been put out on the subject of vivisection, this time by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The new numbers aren’t about the supposed facts of the matter, which is Home Office business (see post for 1st August). They’re aimed instead at charting ideas and opinions sri-public-attitudes-to-animal-research-2016.jpgabout the facts. This may explain why the pictorial motifs on the cover of Ipsos MORI’s report, Public Attitudes to Animal Research in 2016, include no animals – otherwise a rather curious absence. The stylized ‘isotype’ images of test-tubes, helices, etc. may be there to make the point: it’s all in the mind – at least, in the minds of the 987 individuals interviewed for this survey.

And some of the ideas and opinions are certainly quite a way from the real thing. For instance, many of the respondents believed that vivisection was wholly or mainly illegal: in fact the percentage of those who knew that any one of the particular varieties of vivisection (medical research, testing drugs, testing chemicals, etc.) was lawful never exceeded 50% [p.11]. This is a bewildering figure. The authors make no comment on it, though you’d think that it affected all the rest of the survey, perhaps even subverted it. Commendably, 24 % of respondents did realize that they were “not at all informed” about animal research. 1% didn’t like to go even that far; they preferred to say that they didn’t know whether they were at all informed or not [p.25].

I’m certainly not meaning to make fun of their doubts or ignorance. How can we tell what we really know of this secluded activity, unless we’re actually practitioners? As a later question shows [p.34], there’s a wise distrust of the available sources of information. Laboratory vets get the highest rate of trust at 41%, then universities, then ‘animal protection organisations’ with 33%, fading on down at the far end to ‘organisations that support the use of animals in research’ (e.g. Understanding Animal Research) with their 8%, and politicians on 6%. Businesses selling the products of animal research come bottom with 4%. And the most commonly chosen characterization of the institutions which practise animal research was “They are secretive” [p.17]. The wonder is, then, that so much was elicited in the way of laboriously calibrated opinion on a subject which, after all, most people would be happier not thinking about at all.

As I’ve said, the survey is based on interviews with only 987 adults, the results being weighted to match the social make-up of the U.K. population as a whole. This may not seem a persuasive number (it certainly doesn’t to me), but presumably the statisticians at Ipsos MORI know what they’re doing. And anyway this survey is only the latest in a series conducted over several years, and although the surveys have not all been identically designed and worded, some of their results are cumulatively consistent in a very convincing way.

Most important of them is the acceptability or otherwise of animal research, the fundamental question with which this 2016 survey very reasonably starts its own summary:

A majority (65%) say they can accept the use of animals in research as long as it is for medical purposes and there is no alternative – down (but not statistically significantly) from 68 per cent in 2014. [p.1]

The equivalent number for 2012 was 66%. That in turn represented a fall from 76% in 2010. It was this fall which prompted a sudden PR effort on the part of the vivisection industry, specifically the portentous ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ of that year. These subsequent numbers, 66, 68, 65 – none of them showing what Ipsos MORI regards as a statistically significant change – suggest that nothing much has come of that PR push. And we’ve already seen how far the “openness” has been trusted by the public, or by 987 representatives of it. But note that these percentages comprise support for the use of animals in medical research only. There is no majority at all for the real present situation, where medical research forms just one part of the great U.K. vivisection scene. Only 39% of respondents are said to be happy with that scene as a whole [p.5], assuming they know what it is. Even this number is precarious, as we’ll see later.

Meanwhile, the numbers opposing animal research for ethical reasons has grown from 30% in 2010 to 32% in both 2012 and 2014, and 35% this year. Those wishing the government to ban it outright have grown in that same period from 17% to 26%. The survey chops up these numbers by age, gender, class, ethnicity, even newspaper readership. For instance, this last category of outright abolitionists rises to 37% among women aged 15-34. That’s a finding which anyone involved in the animal rights movement would easily recognise – and be both moved and encouraged by. In fact the survey is at its most readable and illuminating in these social details, mystifying and almost nonsensical as some of them are.

But the most striking results of all in this 2016 survey arise from the questions about particular animal species [pp.8-10]. Here the respondents are invited to think about vivisection not in the abstract terms illustrated on the report cover, but in terms of imageable animals. This is the form of the question:

which, if any, types of animals do you think it is acceptable to use for .. medical research to benefit people / research into animal health / environmental research?

And now there is no majority in favour of any variety of animal research. The nearest to it is for medical research using rats (48% approval) or mice (47%). Approval for the use of fish (a growing category in vivisection, notably at Oxford University) scores only 23%, rising to 27% if the research is said to be for “animal health” (for which fraudulent term, see the post on 14 August). In the case of pigs, it’s 25% and 27%; for frogs and other amphibians it’s 22% and 26%. For none of the other species is there an approval rating of even 25%. Where the purpose is ‘environmental’ (testing the effects of chemicals in the food chain, etc., a very busy department of vivisection), the approval rate for all the species is consistently lower. Finally, those who think “any/all animals” may properly be used in any of the varieties of research comprise just 1% (one per cent) of the 987 respondents.

What? I’ve stared carefully at this chart, which has a pleasant sky-blue colouring scheme, and as far as I can understand it this 1% does indeed finally represent the number of people who, when obliged to think it through, still approve unconditionally of vivisection as regulated by the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Can that be right? I’d be glad of further advice.

Anyway, here is the Ipsos MORI comment on these particular numbers:  “Public views broadly align with statistics on the actual use of animal species in research”. That’s a curiously upbeat, even disingenuous, interpretation. It would be more exact to say that public views are remarkably dis-aligned from actual use in the case of every animal species, never rising to a majority in favour, but that they’re especially opposed to the use of the ones that U.K. scientists exploit only in their hundreds or thousands, rather than in their millions.

So you see what happens to that first figure of 65% when real animals, or at least real species, are brought into the picture, as they conspicuously aren’t on the report’s cover. In fact that cover design is a helpful reminder of how much the public discussion of animal research is done in generalisations and abstractions which actually keep our minds off the real thing. Effectively they’re euphemisms. Even numbers, for all their factual appearance, have this effect; once they exceed picturable quantities, they simply cloud the view. Charts and tables beguile the attention even more efficiently (the Ipsos MORI ones are multi-coloured, and very nice to look at). Even the division by species is largely a mental imputation, managing animals into great uniformed cohorts which obscure their individual beings. And yet these individual beings are the only forms in which any pain and privation can be felt. They are therefore the sole reason for all the statistics and surveys which so diligently conceal them.

But that’s not, I guess, how politicians, scientists, and civil servants see it. For them, the statistics, etc., are there to address the human question: what animal suffering is “acceptable” to humans?  Their subject is the human politics of vivisection. After all, being animals ourselves, we already know what the animals think about their suffering. It’s what we think about it that matters. It would simply confuse the issue, then, to have them cluttering up that cover.

 

The Ipsos MORI survey can be read at https://www.ipsos mori.com/Assets/Docs/Publications/sri-public-attitudes-to-animal-research-2016.pdf .

 

Remembering Thalidomide

What do these names have in common: Distaval, Contergan, Kevadon, Tensival, Softenil, Asmaval, Valgraine? Something meretriciously soothing about them suggests the medical ad-man, and in fact they’re some of the 35 or so trade names once used round the world for the drug thalidomide. Looking at that drug’s tragic history from the sales end like this (and it did start out as a freely purchasable medicine) is a helpful reminder that the delinquency behind it was much more commercial than scientific. Thalidomide was aggressively and mendaciously marketed at every stage, in defiance of the gathering evidence against its safety. Really its trade name should have been Moneymaker (like the commercial tomato variety, but with a good deal more justice). One small but characteristic instance of this: when Distillers Company (Biochemicals) Limited, which had bought the British rights to thalidomide from Chemie Grünenthal, was told by its own pharmacologist, George Somers, that a new liquid formulation of the drug had proved thalidomide babydangerously toxic, the Managing Director muffled the information in a notable euphemism – “I understand that it has not yet been possible to develop a formulation which compares favourably in terms of toxicity with our tablets” – and the liquid version was put on sale just the same (in July 1961).

That the testing on animals had been unhelpful is true enough, but only in so far as such tests are inherently unhelpful. True, the Chemie Grünenthal laboratory had tested the drug only for efficacy and toxicity in mature animals, and not for effects on their offspring. But almost certainly that omission made no difference. Notoriously, it proved difficult both during and after the scandal to confirm thalidomide’s teratogenic effect in animals. Thus the physician who first suspected and made known the harm being done by the drug, William McBride, tested it for that specific harm on mice and guinea pigs, and got no results. It made him doubt for a time the soundness of his own suspicions. The actor Mat Fraser, survivor and brilliant scourge of thalidomide, is surely right in saying that animal tests actually delayed the withdrawal of the drug. The human evidence, by contrast, was prompt and conclusive, but it was not acted upon.

Anyway, the animal kingdom was indeed scoured for results, often with enormous doses of the drug (“we just stuffed it into them”, McBride said), before the ‘right’ species were eventually found: New Zealand rabbits and certain non-human primates. By 1966, a hundred or more papers had been published on such hit and miss animal tests. A review of this unsavoury literature concluded that, since the different species varied so much in their responses to the same drug, “it is rather difficult now, as ever, to apply in humans the experimental findings.” The writer in this case was a scientist on the staff of Chemie Grünenthal, so he was not exactly impartial; still, his article appeared in the very respectable peer-reviewed journal Arzneimittelforschung, and its conclusion seems very well justified. The Sunday Times book about thalidomide, Suffer the Children (1979), quotes it with ironic reservation, but admits readily enough the complementary fact about animal tests, that negative results provide no reliable guidance either:

the biochemical variations between human and animal species are so great that even if a drug shows no ill effect in animals, it may still do so once human use begins… When we describe a drug as “safe”, therefore, what we should really say is that it is a drug that has not yet been found unsafe.

The animals, in short, can tell us nothing that we really need to know.

These unhappy recollections of thalidomide are prompted by yet more medical ‘disasters’ in the news. In January, one participant died during tests in France for the company Bial of a painkiller/tranquilliser; a few weeks later, the drug Pacritinib, developed for the treatment of blood cancer, similarly proved to have, as the FDA put it, “a detrimental effect on survival” (I collect these weird euphemisms). This last misfortune was felt to be especially shocking because it happened in a ‘phase 3’ trial: i.e. after two earlier stages of clinical tests in humans. Evidently it is agreed that human tests at least can be expected to provide reliable guidance – and correspondingly that nobody should be much surprised at being misled by the results from animals. This is no doubt right, although unfortunately, as Suffer the Children says, and as records of adverse reactions in patients continually show, no drug can ever be called absolutely safe.

Bial’s representatives have insisted, truthfully I’m sure, that they followed all the right procedures. They have even cited the Declaration of Helsinki, that honourable legacy of the Nuremberg Medical Trials which laboriously, revision after revision, protects the interests of research ‘subjects’ from abuse, provided they’re human. And it’s worth saying a bit more about that remarkable document. Here are some of its principles: that subjects should not be asked to take risks for research they don’t stand to benefit from, that the interests of research should “never take precedence over the rights and interests of individual research subjects”, that the subject’s consent or dissent should be respected even where it cannot be classified as “informed”, that “vulnerable” (= easily exploited) groups need particular protection. Note how all these principles exactly fit the situation of non-human animals. In fact the Declaration is a great monument to speciesism, haunted by the animals that it doesn’t (dare?) mention, except the perfunctory once: “The welfare of animals used for research must be respected.” Since the drug which Bial had been testing on its animals was a pain-killer, with all that implies as to the nature of the tests, even that one crumb of compassion from Helsinki’s table probably didn’t do them any appreciable good.

There’s an ugly sense in the Sunday Times book (and more generally) that the painful glare of human suffering properly puts the suffering of other animals into complete darkness, and even that willingness to plough through laboratory animals is to be taken as an index of proper medical humanitarianism – though that’s never made explicit, of course. (It fits George Bernard Shaw’s shrewd suggestion that vivisection shows the ancient superstition of propitiatory sacrifice living on into modern times.) Thus, speaking about another of Grünenthal’s products, an antibiotic called Supracillin, the Sunday Times says,

Somers of DCBL spent a great deal of time trying to verify Grunenthal’s claim that Supracillin would not destroy the hearing of cats. To Mueckter’s displeasure [Muekter was head of Grunenthal’s research laboratory], he managed at last to show that the claim was entirely baseless. [italics in the original]

All the emphases here are designed to contrast the scientific diligence of Somers with Muekter’s hustle (“great deal of time”, “managed at last” “entirely baseless”); what all this thoroughness meant for the cats is unmentioned, probably unthought of. That word “entirely” is especially chilling.

A more recent account of the thalidomide affair (Stephens and Brynner, Dark Remedy, Cambridge, Mass., 2009) is able to take a longer view, and does indeed attempt a general “moral”, as follows: “Wherever there is an absence of compassion, individual or collective, a lesser human attribute will fill the vacuum.” There’s a slightly bogus suggestion here that a real law (in psychopathology? cybernetics?) has been uncovered, matching the one in physics, but there’s also some useful if obvious truth. Better to say, probably, that the more immediate and urgent motives – notably the commercial motive and careerism – will always tend to drive out more removed ones like compassion and even ordinary caution. (And that seems to be the lesson the U.K. government was taking when it passed the 1968 Medicines Act, with its new array of regulations.) But like their predecessors (and like the Medicines Act itself) these authors don’t include animals in the scope of their “compassion”. Unhappily illustrating their own ‘law’, they allow horror, fear, indignation, to drive out disinterested pity.

If it had been impossible for some reason (decency, perhaps) to use animals in medical research, we would certainly by now have made far greater progress in human models of one sort or another than we actually have, and accordingly in medical safety. William McBride himself subsequently wrote, “we will have more thalidomide-type tragedies in the future, perhaps not on such a large scale, but as man is different from other animal species it is likely that, no matter how thoroughly new drugs are tested on animals, species differences or synergistic actions [i.e. unpredicted whole-body responses] will occasionally betray us.” Thalidomide remains uniquely dreadful among medical disasters, but we have not changed the situation or the attitudes which made it possible.

 

Notes and references:

The picture at the top, Thalidomide Baby (oil on acetate), is used by kind permission of the artist, Josephine Storer of Oxford Brookes University’s School of Art and Design: this strong and most poignant image has saved me having to attempt in words the sorrow and sympathy which ought to preface any discussion of this subject.

Suffer the Children: the Story of Thalidomide, was written by Phillip Knightley, Harold Evans, Elaine Potter, and Marjorie Wallace, and published by Andre Deutsch. Quotations are from pp. 22, 23, 61, 88, 274. The Sunday Times newspaper, I should recall here, played a crucial and even heroic part in exposing the scandal and getting justice for the people affected by the drug. The quotation from Dark Remedy: the Impact of Thalidomide and its Revival as a Vital Medicine is from p.201. Both these books are well worth reading, and the second (as its title shows) talks about thalidomide’s controversial reappearance as a treatment for leprosy and some cancers.

The final quotation is from a letter which McBride wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 1973, as re-printed in Richard Ryder’s Victims of Science, NAVS, 1983, pp.174-5.