More about the Mouse

The unhappy rise of the mouse as an industrialized laboratory animal has already featured in this blog (see ‘Earth-born Companions’, 7 July 2017). Now it seems that the institution described in that post as driving and servicing this development in the UK, the Medical Research Council’s Harwell Institute in Oxfordshire (“ground breaking mammalian genetics”), is likely to close. That would end scientific research there – though not the breeding and supplying of mice to other institutions, which is a separate operation on the same site. The reason for this closure hasn’t been made public. However, there is similar news from another UK centre for research using mice, the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, which is about to close down its own mouse-breeding department (though in this case not the research itself), and for this a clear public explanation has been given: “The Sanger Institute is increasingly using alternative technologies to deliver its scientific strategy and this has led to fewer mice being needed.”

We might hope and suppose that these two decisions by notable centres for mouse research indicate a waning of professional enthusiasm for such work. And certainly there has been plenty of criticism of it in recent years. A semi-humourous branch of this criticism appears regularly in the Twitter account @justsaysinmice. Announcements in the press of exciting medical ‘breakthroughs’ (“Scientists make breakthrough with potential new tinnitus cure”, “Scientists discover ‘critical breakthrough’ in cure for baldness”) are re-posted there with the deflationary heading ‘In mice’. The Twitter account is run by a scientist who expressly does not intend it as an attack on the research itself; still, it highlights the truth that most of these ‘breakthroughs’ will remain exclusively mouse-related and not be heard of again in public.

It’s hard to know how far the scientists themselves are to blame when their work is casually bounced into human relevance like this. Some of them seem all too content to be pursuing research on mice as if it’s a goal in itself – which professionally it may well be. But perhaps it’s a point of tactics not to make that too obvious. ‘Social transmission of food safety depends on synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex’ announces a recent report in a professional journal, describing research into the way mice influence each other’s choice of food with involuntary scent signals. This is not offered as a study of mouse behaviour, but as a highly technical and invasive piece of neuroscience, and you may notice the definite article – “the prefrontal cortex” – suggesting the discovery of a general truth. Even so, it soon becomes clear that we’re really just learning a bit more about mice (at their own considerable expense). At no point is any relevance to human diet proposed, and since humans are weak in scent-awareness but do have other more reliable ways of learning from each other what’s good to eat, it’s hard to see how there could be any relevance. The article illustrates the way that mice have become not so much a preliminary in medical research, as something like a surrogate for it.

No wonder, then, that one critical study of neuroscience’s preoccupation with mice has likened it to the situation in Hans Christian Anderson’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Emperor's ClothesClothes’: a kind of shared delusion or conspiracy to admire what isn’t really there. As a result of this delusion, “vast investments of both time and money” have been put into research “rarely translating into successful treatment of major disorders in humans” (aka ‘just in mice’).

We’ll come back later to that article, which is itself not quite what at first it seems. Meanwhile what needs noticing is that none of this criticism from within the profession, valuable as it may be, has any ethical dimension – at least, not one that includes the animals. There was an article in the journal Science recently (31 May issue) complaining of sexism in mouse research, and sub-headed “outdated gender stereotypes are influencing experimental design in laboratory animals.” The charge was that researchers have habitually preferred to use male animals, male mice particularly, because they believe that “circulating ovarian hormones make data from female animals messier and more variable than data from males.” In neuroscience, this preference has encouraged the view that the male brain is the standard, from which the female brain is a more or less unpredictable deviation. It’s an interesting and convincing claim, but the proposed cure for this sexism, which is naturally enough to incorporate female animals in all such studies, will evidently involve using more mice than before. Some studies would simply have to be doubled to accommodate both genders.

So although there’s a strong ethical correction being made here, the mice have no part or profit in it. That becomes especially obvious when the author, Rebecca Shansky of the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University, casually lists some of the ruthless research devices in which these mice, male or female, must participate: “tests such as the elevated plus maze [a device to measure anxiety-responses], forced swim and fear conditioning”. Many more of the like to come, then, because Dr Shansky’s mice may help her and others to break the prerogative of the man, but she won’t be helping them against the prerogative of the human. Ethically, the mice are to remain non-entities.

But then even the Sanger Institute (to return to that piece of good news for mice) doesn’t present its increased use of “alternative technologies” as an ethical advance. Although the Institute’s public statement does refer to the welfare of the mice as being put at risk by reductions in staff, and even cites the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in that connection, it most strangely leaves unmentioned the main long-term objective of that Act, which is exactly to reduce the numbers of animals used in research. Why isn’t the Institute taking any credit for its part in realizing this aim?

I can think of only two reasons. One is that there is no enthusiasm within the profession for the aim, and it would seem tactless therefore to celebrate what the staff and fellow-professionals will see as pure loss. (Conversely, you may recall that the CEO of Understanding Animal Research greeted the Home Office animal count of 3.7 million last year as a healthy sign of “the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide”: see this blog for 23 July 2018.) The other and closely-related reason is that it simply didn’t occur to the Institute to make the connection: i.e. that reducing numbers has never been a serious objective there.

Back to the emperor’s new clothes. The article in question was written by “a junior professor [Michael Yartsev] trying to learn from the lessons of the past and look into the future”. The ‘emperor’, in Yartsev’s re-telling of the tale, stands for his own chosen field of research, neuroscience; the ‘clothes’ are the research animals which are most commonly used there (what he calls “the standard model organisms”). These he lists as rats, mice, and humans.

Eh? Humans? Are even humans themselves of merely illusory usefulness as test subjects for neuroscience? No, because the Hans Anderson analogy is all wrong. Yartsev is not like the boy who uniquely spots that the emperor has nearly nothing on; quite the contrary, he shares the general confidence in those “standard model organisms” and the “great benefits” they bring. His correction, much like Rebecca Shansky’s, is only that they’re not enough. This is more or less intelligible from his title, once you know: ‘The emperor’s new wardrobe: rebalancing diversity of animal models in neuroscience research’. Not real clothes, then, but more clothes, more species, are what’s needed for progress in that looked-into future, or as he says in his junior-professorial prose, “This necessitates expanding the portfolio of utilized animal models”.

Yartsev’s keen and fresh-minded vision of the future is made all the more dismal to read by its essential conformity. The young scientist scans the whole natural world, noting its rich variety (and making clear whose it is): “Over 8 million species reside on our planet.” And he sees it all as laboratory fodder. Why, he asks, are we leaving so many of these species alone? In the case of “vocal learning”, for instance: true, we’ve branched out into the songbirds here (and how sad and ominous that word is, in this research context!), but what about bats, cetaceans, elephants, non-human primates? We’ve scarcely troubled these mammals on the subject. Nor, for this or any other purpose, do we have to take them merely as they are. It was genetic manipulation which made the mouse so variously useful, but now there are “revolutionary DNA-editing methods that can be applied to any animals”.

This vision of the future was published in the USA, where the legal and moral hindrances to animal research are very much weaker than they are in Europe; mice, after all, do not count as animals at all in the relevant legislation there (nor do “songbirds”). Still, it’s a vision that Europe’s scientists evidently share, as a report from one of their EMBO conferences – which incidentally provides a link to the Yartsev article – makes very plain. One EMBO member is quoted as saying, “For a long time, the good excuse to ignore about 99.9999% of species was that it was technically almost impossible to study them. But this is now changing.” That number is facetiously extended to four decimal points presumably to show how enormous is the variety of life that awaits our exploitation. (By the way, to find out – or to fail to find out – what the initials stand for, go to the EMBO home page; it’s the first and the last information you’re given on the point: “EMBO stands for excellence in the life sciences.” Yes, the true PR touch!)

Remember that the European Directive of 2010 which governs all such studies has, as its “final goal”, the “full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes”. Why do the people who actually carry out the procedures seem so little aware of this objective that they only qualify their devotion to experimenting on mice to the extent that they can find newer species to try? The explanation is at least partly that the “full replacement” is only to be effected, so the Directive unfortunately stipulates, when “it is scientifically possible to do so”. The date is thus made the scientists’ own property, and they therefore can and do push it steadily into the further distance ahead of them as they move towards Yartsev’s and EMBO’s exciting future. Meanwhile, the rise of such organisations as Understanding Animal Research and its European equivalents, and of in-house PR teams to manage web-sites and other publicity, enables the scientists simply to farm out the ethics and concentrate on their own professional aims.

How strictly professional those aims are becomes disconcertingly clear at the end of the Yartsev article. All that talk of new techniques and new laboratory species, which you might expect to culminate in a vision of world-wide neuroscience-led mental health, turns out, in the last sentence, to be “for the overall benefit of the neuroscience research community”. But then whether the emperor’s clothes were real or not didn’t make any essential difference to his attendant subjects either.

So much for the mouse as viewed, used, and existentially depreciated by practitioners of the life sciences. For the mouse in its true and proper relation to ourselves, I refer you to the Robert Burns poem ‘To a mouse’, which is discussed at the end of the post cited in my first sentence above.

 

Notes and references:

The post ‘Earth born Companions’ can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/earth-born-companions/

The Harwell Institute news is reported in the Guardian newspaper here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/20/uk-mouse-genetics-centre-faces-closure-threatening-research , and the closure of the Sanger Institute breeding programme is announced here: https://www.sanger.ac.uk/news/view/sanger-institute-animal-research-facility-close

The article ‘Social transmission of food safety’ appeared in Science, 7 June 2019.

The ‘emperor’s new wardrobe’ article was published in the issue of Science dated 27 October 2017, and can be read here: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6362/466

EMBO actually stands for European Molecular Biology Organisation. The report cited, with its snappy Americanized title ‘Model organisms: new kids on the block’, can be read here: https://www.embo.org/news/articles/2017/model-organisms-new-kids-on-the-block.

The “final goal” is stated very early in Directive 2010/63/EU, at paragraph 10 of the preamble: see https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063.

The illustration showing the emperor in his ‘new clothes’, with admiring public, is by Hans Anderson’s contemporary illustrator Vilhelm Pederson.

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Oxford’s Annual Numbers, with Added Mistakes

The statistics for Oxford University’s animal research in 2018 have now been made public on the University’s web-site. Here is VERO’s summary, showing the numbers for each species (with 2017 for comparison), and then the severity of the ‘procedures’ involved. A few comments follow the two tables.

Total number of experimental procedures, by species:

 Species  Number in 2017  Number in 2018
 Mice      229,640        208,057
 Fishes          3,852            8002
 Rats          2,599           2,913
 Junglefowl               21              291
 Frogs            155                89
 Guinea Pigs              80                81
 Badgers              39                64
 Pigs                5                20
 Ferrets              29                24
 Non-Human Primates                7                10
 Rabbits                2                  0
 Total:     236,429       219,551

 

Severity of procedures (for those species where moderate or above was recorded):

Species  Severe  Moderate  Mild  Sub-threshold  Non-recovery
 Mice   1,889    35,903   49,730       117,743       2,792
 Fishes      298      1,236    5,127           1,211          130
 Rats        37         622       427           1,150          677
 Ferrets          0             9         0                  0            15
Non-Human Primates          0             9         1                  0              0

 

The total number: 219,551 represents a fall of just over 7% on last year’s total. This is welcome, of course, but unfortunately it can’t be taken as part of a trend. Last year’s number had shown a rise of 8.5% on 2016. Like the value of investments (and one might pursue other similarities), these numbers may go down as well as up, but the clear trend since the completion of the new laboratory has been upward. The number for 2007, which was the last complete year before the laboratory opened for business, was 155,901.

Animals killed without experiments: No number has yet been published for these animals in 2018. Perhaps it won’t ever be given, since a number was provided for 2017 last year, and for some reason the law only requires such animals to be counted in every fifth year. But it’s a very important number, and ought always to be included in the returns. That’s partly because the number is to some extent an index to the efficiency of a laboratory, unpleasant as that word ‘efficiency’ is in this context. But also, the need to do and publish this count is a helpful corrective to the assumption, which the 1986 Act otherwise makes and therefore encourages, that killing an animal is not in itself a significant wrong. That assumption has been frequently noticed in other parts of this blog. It’s not one we humans make for ourselves; I can’t think of any sound reason for making it in the case of other animals.

Science or PR: Last year’s commentary in this blog on the annual Oxford numbers included a critical appreciation of the University’s animal-research web-pages, or at least of the main page, which is titled ‘Research Using Animals: an Overview’. Very little on that page has changed since then, except the just-published numbers. However, the sentence which introduces numbers is new, and here it is:

Figures for 2018 show numbers of animals ‘on procedure’, as declared to the Home Office using their five categories for the severity of the procedure.

This short and functional statement manages to fit in two plain errors. The first error is to speak of numbers of animals rather than numbers of ‘procedures’. The statistics submitted to the Home Office, or separately published as here, are always a count-up of procedures and not of animals. True, this makes very little difference in practice (although the two numbers can differ if, for instance, an animal is re-used in a new research project); it may therefore seem a pedantic distinction, especially since neither way of counting really tells us very much, as this blog has often enough shown. But the point is that nobody who has had anything to do with conducting or reporting the research would make such a mistake. When Cruelty Free International rather carelessly made a similar mistake a few years back, Speaking of Research (a scientists’ pressure-group promoting animal research) called it “a rookie mistake for an organisation which claims to be an authority on the issue”. Oxford University surely is an authority on its own research. How then does it let through a mistake like this?

The second error shows a similar confusion. The animals in the count are said to be “on procedure”, a professional-sounding term perhaps borrowed from lower down on the ‘Overview’ page where it refers to non-human primates undergoing brain research. But the term means ‘research unfinished’, whereas the annual count is precisely of completed research. It used once to be a count of proposed and accepted procedures (the change, a sensible one, came in 2014), but it was never a count of procedures under way at time of counting.

Again, it may not seem to matter much, though in this case it would be a very awkward way of doing things. But the confusion in both cases makes clear that these annual numbers are being introduced by someone who knows only the jargon of the subject, and also that nobody with better knowledge is being asked to check what’s written, or cares to do so on their own initiative. In short, it’s simply a PR job, and not a very good one.

Last year’s commentary showed that the whole ‘Overview’ text evidences the same sort of amateur authorship. Presumably we can treat the annual numbers themselves as reliable, but there’s no reason to accept as true or authoritative anything else said on the animal research web-pages. This isn’t university science speaking (or even bothering to have read). We needn’t spend any more time on it ourselves, then.

 

Notes and references:

Oxford University’s main animal-research web-page, including the annual numbers, is this one: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

Last year’s Oxford numbers were reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/a-record-breaking-years-work-in-the-lab/   See also https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

The comment made by Speaking of Research appeared as part of a rather bumptious but not inaccurate critique of Cruelty Free International’s own publicity. It was posted in April 2017, and can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2017/04/11/disappointing-lack-of-context-by-cruelty-free-international-as-worst-press-release-on-animal-testing-numbers-is-revealed/

In the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

If you’re looking for “cutting-edge research, incisive scientific commentary, and insights on what’s important to the scientific world”, the journal Science is where you’ll find them; at least so says the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes it. The AAAS also publishes five specialist journals, but this one covers all areas of science. Because the research in Science is indeed “cutting-edge”, it must often be opaque to readers not working in the particular area of study being reported on, and some articles make almost no sense at all to a layperson, from the title downwards. But these reports of specialist research are always accompanied by separate ‘research article summaries’ which present the findings and their implications in a less technical way. And since Science also contains news articles, book reviews, editorials, and other staples of intelligent journalism, the journal provides a valuable running commentary on practices and attitudes, for scientists and for outsiders. In fact the AAAS may really be justified in calling it “the premier global science weekly”.

Sometimes an issue of Science will have a special theme connecting science coverat least some of the contents: the nature of Saturn, perhaps, or immunotherapy. Last month there was an issue which took the human brain for its theme: the cover title was ‘Illuminating the Brain’. Among the seven or so titles on the subject (by way of illustrating what I said in the first paragraph) were ‘Transcriptome and epigenome landscape of human cortical development modelled in organoids’ and ‘Neuron-specific signatures in the chromosomal connectome associated with schizophrenia risk’. Mainly this research seems to have been looking for genetic origins to mental disorders hitherto understood and treated, if at all, only in their chemical or behavioural phenomena. Such research must or at least may be very valuable. Only a select readership would be in a strong position to decide about that, but then Science, as a peer-reviewed journal, will already have consulted such readers. (Apparently only about 7% of the research submitted is accepted for publication.)

As to what are called the research ‘materials’ for these particular studies, most of the work seems to have exclusively used post-mortem human brains. One project very obviously did not, the title of its report being ‘Spatiotemporal transcriptomic divergence across human and macaque brain development’. But then, as one of the other articles pointed out, “The brain is responsible for cognition, behaviour, and much of what makes us uniquely human”, and how can we appreciate that uniqueness if not by comparing it with examples from the great mass of undistinguished non-human brains? In this case, twenty-six brains from Rhesus macaque monkeys were used for study, at stages of development ranging from 60 days to maturity. No details are provided as to how these brains became available, but the sinister phrase “collected post-mortem” clearly implies that the macaques were killed for the purpose.

Now, Science does take a serious interest from time to time in the ethics of animal research. Last November, for instance, there was a news piece under the heading ‘animal welfare’, which reported as a serious matter “an all-time high” in the number of non-human primates being used in U.S. laboratories: “The uptick – to nearly 76,000 non-human primates in 2017 – appears to reflect growing demand from scientists who believe non-human primates are more useful than other animals, such as mice or dogs, for testing drugs and studying diseases that also strike humans.” The author, a science journalist, indicates the part which the National Institutes of Health takes in funding this research, and he quotes practitioners apparently excited by the trend (“non-human primate facilities . . . are simply struggling to meet demand”) or defending it (“The public wants more cures but fewer animals . . . They can’t have it both ways.”). But he shows that a large part of the public believes that we can have it both ways: a 2018 survey has 52% of the American public opposing animal research altogether. And he also cites opposition both within science (monkey research is just “repeating the mistakes of the past”), and among politicians (“Federal agencies are still not doing enough to curb this appalling practice”.)

I would say that despite the intentional ‘balance’ of this report, the opponents of animal research get the better share of the writer’s sympathy, but the limitations of even this more or less sympathetic foray into ethics are clearly enough indicated by that heading ‘animal welfare’ (no talk of ‘rights’ here). And meanwhile the biomedical research published in Science routinely and without apology makes prodigal use of animals.

Perhaps one can’t expect, or even want, a generalist journal like Science to co-ordinate attitudes and ethics across all its contents. Still, there’s something perverse about a journal which publishes important zoological and conservation research but also accepts elsewhere a view of animals which simply subordinates that same knowledge about them to human advantage. It shows up, for instance, in another recent news report headed ‘U.S. labs clamor for marmosets’. Here we’re told that this species of monkey was apparently unfamiliar to medical researchers until recently (someone says, “They were like, ‘Is it those chipmunks that were in the Rocky Mountains?’“). But now that its zoology is better known, the wretched marmoset’s “small size, fast growth, and sophisticated social life” turn out to be of importance to others than itself: they exactly fit it to “catch the eye of neuroscientists”.

If there is something perverse about this, it’s a very orthodox perversity, one that’s summarized, I suppose, in the absurdly unscientific emphasis of that phrase quoted above: “what makes us uniquely human”. All species are, presumably by definition, in some respects unique: it ought therefore to be enough to say ‘what makes us human’. The marmosets, for instance, are just as unique, but they don’t get to be called unique. No, the word is there to reassure us of our privileged place in nature, monarch of all we survey and study – an object of study ourselves also, of course, but flattered by our own attention. It won’t have been by chance that the phrase was placed in the first sentence of the research article summary.

However, in this same ‘Illuminating the Brain’ issue of Science (and here at last comes the real point of this post) there is one strikingly unorthodox article, with the promising title ‘Reimagining the human’. The premise of it is balefully familiar: “Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event and climate change upheaval, risking a planetary shift into conditions that will be extremely challenging, if not catastrophic, for complex life.” This indeed is a theme which Science frequently and most valuably airs in its pages, in both research and news articles. But the author of ‘Reimagining the human’, Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, while accepting the usefulness of the sort of “technological and management solutions” usually proposed for these problems, puts the case for a much more ambitious response: she calls it “contracting the human enterprise”.

It’s a startling phrase to find in a journal which is essentially devoted to enlarging the human enterprise, in both its knowledge and its reach, and which to this end publishes research into everything from viability on Mars to genetic manipulation of life on earth (such as that of the marmosets, incidentally). But Dr Crist provides a savage critique of the irrationally arrogant worldview which backs this enterprise. It’s a worldview which, consciously or not, supposes the human “a distinguished entity that is superior to all other life forms and is entitled to use them and the places they live.” It’s a “belief system of superiority and entitlement” which invests humanity “with powers of life and death over all other beings and with the prerogative to control and manage all geographical space”. The whole eco-sphere becomes simply a “container of resources”. True, humans cannot now ignore the vandalous consequences of this outlook, but there’s such a rooted trust in the “special distinction of the human” that we suppose ourselves “resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face any challenges that may come”. In short, it’s in our culture to take things on, intervene, manage, put things right, change the effects and not ourselves; anything less enterprising would be “unworthy of humanity’s stature”.

But changing ourselves, or at least our ways, is exactly what Dr Crist proposes: “The rational response to the present-day ecological emergency would be to pursue actions that will downscale the human factor and contract our presence in the realm of nature . . . withdrawing it from large portions of land and sea.” Some of what she specifies in this direction is already implicit in conservation projects, but she always has in mind the intrinsic rather than merely human-related (‘for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren’) interest of the things saved. So when she mentions the disappearing phenomenon of migration, she has in mind not just a loss to the world but also “the suffering of the animals involved”. Essentially she invites humanity to re-make itself as just one member of “an all-species commonwealth”, and this demotion is reflected in a nexus of words and phrases spread across the text: “scaling down”, “pulling back”, “reducing”, “shrink”, “less busy” (you heard), “contracting humanity’s scale and scope”. And she concludes, “Learning to inhabit earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.”

Certainly these are large generalizations, and the article is not as persuasive in its few definite proposals as it is in its ethical critique, but then the article is only a summary of a much longer account: Eileen Crist’s recent book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. And particular judgements and courses of action would anyway arise naturally from the sound premise, just as our present crisis has arisen from an unsound one. The important point is that ‘Reimagining the human’ is not as merely visionary a project as the title makes it sound; at least Dr Crist doesn’t think so. She argues that the supremacist model of the human is an accident of time and place, not an absolute:  it’s “neither culturally nor individually universal, nor is it derived in any straightforward way from human nature.” May this be true!

But whether the human is accordingly as alterable as Dr Crist claims or not, that it urgently needs altering, and in just the direction she proposes, is a certainty. And since science more than any other institution (in the rich countries at least, the ones which largely determine the forms which “the human enterprise” will take) is what now formulates the meaning of ‘human’, and therefore how humans are to behave and survive as a species, we should be very glad to hear this prophetic voice speaking to the scientific world from one of its chief pulpits.

 

Notes and references:

The issues of Science cited here are 14 December, pp.1242-44 (‘Reimagining the human’), 9 November, p.630 (non-human primate research), and 26 October, pp.383-4 (marmosets), all from 2018. The 52% figure comes from a survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2018, accessible here: http://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/08/16/most-americans-accept-genetic-engineering-of-animals-that-benefits-human-health-but-many-oppose-other-uses/

The AAAS descriptions of Science come from its web-site, www.aaas.org/journals.

Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization is published by University of Chicago Press (2018).

 

Your Christmas Reading Done for You

By way of confirmation that Christmas approaches, the facebook page of Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is counting down the days with a festive sequence based on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: “On the nth day of Christmas researchers sent to me …” It’s true that the well-worn carol really refers to the days after the 25th, but this is light-hearted entertainment after all, and it helps to show that animal research can be fun – or promoting it can be, anyway! So with much jingling and stardust, a rat in a lab coat stands by a Christmas tree and gratefully receives such amusingly pertinent things as “approval by ethics committee” (the “partridge in a pear tree” equivalent) or “six knockout mice”.

Tearing oneself away from this merriment, there are more straight-faced things happening in the profession at this time of year. There’s the annual awards ceremony associated with UAR’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, and although that’s a sort of school prize-day that interests only the school itself, the Concordat’s annual report is published to coincide with it, and this document genuinely is a sign of the times worth attending to. Then, in the wider world of animal research, there’s the annual report from the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU), the organisation responsible for licensing, inspecting, and policing such work. This report too has just been published, though it actually reviews 2017. And more portentous still, a parliamentary ‘statutory instrument’ has now been issued which will disjoin the UK’s law – the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 – from that of the EU, with which it has been harmonized since 2012.

VERO has perused all these and some other newly published texts, and here is a view of what they amount to. Do your best to attend: this jungle of words is where millions of animals have to live, however briefly.

First, a stray and very specific publication from the Home Office, short-titled Additional Statistics. Here, we are finally told how many animals die in labs without ever appearing in the statistics of ‘procedures’. These are the animals (mostly mice, but also rats and fish, plus an undeclared 2% “other”) who have been bred but found unnecessary or unsuitable and therefore killed, or been used for tissue collection only, or been kept as ‘sentinels’ to test for infections circulating in the neighbourhood. Or they have simply died by mistake (i.e. human mistake: see the ASRU report below). The total of these animals in 2017 was 1,810,091. Therefore the total of all animals used in Great Britain’s laboratories last year, as the Home Office now declares, was about 5.53 million.

This is surely a very important addition to the statistics hitherto provided. The law, and accordingly perhaps the scientists themselves, don’t rate death very highly as a harm, compared to suffering. Death is therefore not classified as a ‘procedure’ even when (as is usually the case) it’s deliberately inflicted, nor does it require a licensed person to effect it, and it hasn’t until now been made part of any official count. But a public survey carried out by Ipsos MORI in 2013 showed very clearly that non-professionals think differently: “they saw death as the most serious harm which could be done to an animal . . . participants felt the public should know more about how many animals are killed.” That now they do know more is the result of the European Directive 2010/63 which governs animal research in all member states, and which requires this information to be issued once very five years. (The Directive was transposed into UK law in 2012, so 2017 is the first result of this provision). Why every five years, I don’t know. Nor does anyone seem to know (a more important uncertainty) whether the requirement will lapse in the UK after Brexit, assuming that Brexit occurs.

That brings us to another recent publication, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which specifies the alterations to UK law which will become necessary “on exit day”. Despite the resoundingly bureaucratic title, these alterations are surprisingly few; they take up hardly half a page of detailed adjustments. And indeed the much longer Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies them states emphatically that the changes “are the minimum necessary”. A convincing illustration: under the heading ‘Matters of special interest to the Committees on the UK’s exit from the European Union’ (a warning of difficulty or controversy) is the statement “None”.

Of course, nothing is said in the Memorandum, or can be said yet, about the pressures which may come when UK bioscience has to make a more solitary effort to “retain competitiveness in global markets” (as the Head of ASRU dismally expresses it). But in the course of emphasizing that all existing standards of welfare and supervision will be maintained, the Explanatory Memorandum does provide one very specific and most important reassurance: “Implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) will contribute to the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.”

Admittedly the ambition thus re-stated commits nobody to anything, and it leaves to scientists the decision as to when full replacement has become possible, but as far as I have seen it’s the first time that this goal has been formally re-stated, perhaps even been mentioned anywhere in animal research circles, since its original declaration in the Directive. Yet it’s what really makes sense of the 3Rs. They’re not there just to discourage waste of life and pain, important as that purpose is. Still less are they a sort of passport or alibi for research which might otherwise be suspected of moral frivolity or negligence. The 3Rs should act as a constant and uncomfortable reminder that this sort of work is due to end.

That is not at all the impression of them which one gets from the Concordat’s literature or activities. There they seem to be regarded more as a sort of correct dress for scientists when appearing before the public – for instance, on web-sites. Nowhere there or in any UAR material (but of course I haven’t seen it all) can I find any endorsement of that statement from the Directive. Rather the contrary, because the purpose of UAR, and in particular of its Concordat project, is to make a secure and welcoming place in the modern UK for vivisection: to entrench it, in short. The primary aim of the Concordat, as twice stated in the Annual Report just published, is to “support confidence and trust in the life-sciences sector.” The progress which is aimed at, then, is not a change in scientific practice or in momentum towards animal-free research, but a change in public attitudes to the thing as it is.

The Concordat’s awards event and its annual report have both been fully featured in this blog on earlier occasions (see notes below). I don’t find any substantial differences this year, except in the scale of the public ‘engagement’ organised by its signatories: open days, virtual tours of laboratories, science fairs, links with schools, and so on. Always there has been one essential PR principle driving these things: to gain control of the public’s awareness. The principle is implied in the 2018 Report thus: “There is now more information about the use of animals in research in the public domain than ever and, crucially, it is owned and presented by more and more of the organisations who are responsible for funding, staffing and carrying out the research.”

Owned and presented” most immediately by professionals in PR, of course, rather than by scientists themselves, who have other things to do. One signed-up university is quoted in the Report praising its own progress in this direction, and showing how it works: “Members of the marketing and communications team have been invited to tour facilities and to take pictures and prepare videos for dissemination to the public.” We saw one symptom of this way of managing things on Oxford University’s web-site earlier in the year, where a gross mis-statement can only have been allowed to get in and endure because the scientists themselves were not even reading it. Incidentally, that web-site is the first of the four examples of web-sites chosen in the Report “to illustrate good practice”. We’re told that “UAR periodically checks statements [the ones made by signatories on their web-sites] throughout the year to make sure they are active” (i.e. up to date), but it’s evidently looking for show rather than substance.

As habitually, this year’s Concordat Report acknowledges that being honest about “harms done to animals in research” is “an area of challenge” for most signatories, and they continue to shy away from it, in their texts and even more obviously in their pictures and videos. The Report itself makes a first very modest attempt to set an example in its own illustrations (a brain scan on rats, a pig lying on an operating table), though since there are no explanatory captions, these images are hardly more illuminating than the ubiquitous ‘library pictures’ which the report deprecates. And even the Concordat does not expect anyone to go public about the sort of lab-blunders which account for some of those Additional Statistics discussed above. For these we must turn to the Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2017 (i.e. covering 2017).

ASRU’s report is an inclusive account of all its work during that year, including its licensing and inspection regime. The cases of ‘non-compliance’ which it had to discipline during the year are reviewed near the end, forty of them (compared to 45 last year, 55 in 2015: a promising sequence?). It’s a familiar record of failed communications, forgetfulness, under-staffing, lapsed attention, and occasionally real incompetence. The equivalent record for last year was treated in this blog at some length, and again there does not seem to have been any notable change. Mostly, of course, the victims of these errors were rodents: forgotten about at the week-end, overproduced in their thousands, cack-handedly half-killed. However, at least one possible contributor to that “other” category in the Additional Statistics (the 2% group) gets individual notice here:

A non-human primate . . . died when it became trapped between a restraint mechanism and a cage wall. Attempts by the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer and other staff to resuscitate the animal were unsuccessful.

Here would indeed be an eloquent illustration to the relevant institution’s web-site. Even the brief text vividly evokes the unhappy scene.

But although one can learn a lot about laboratory life from the ASRU report – about the ordinary routines as well as the accidents – it shares with the Concordat’s more obviously  partisan survey the premise that animal research should be made to work acceptably in its given (= its best possible) form. No “final goal” is mentioned or even hinted at in the introductory blessing to ASRU’s account given by the relevant Home Office minister, Baroness Williams. (Her official title, just so we know how near the front of her mind animal welfare must be, is Minister of State for Countering Extremism.) Baroness Williams places animal research firmly in its commercial context: “The UK’s life science strategy is based on a vision of how the UK may exploit its current strengths to support strong economic growth in this sector.” However, strict regulation is important as well, and the minister’s prose takes a sort of zig-zag course between these two purposes: “As a regulator, the Home Office has an important role in balancing the need to enable innovation and research in the life sciences whilst maintaining public trust [the Concordat’s aim, remember] through a strong framework that has the necessary checks and balances.” And so on.

Proponents of animal research like to talk about a ‘middle ground’ between the two extremes, which is where moderate and realistic persons can discuss and manage the practice. This is indeed where most of the texts discussed above would be supposed by their writers to be located. But there is no such ground: at least, not as they imagine it. For although abolition exists as a real possibility at one end, the other ‘extreme’, a free for all, cannot exist in the UK (or the EU) except as criminality. The real far limit in that direction is simply present practice, which should, as the “final goal” of the Directive makes clear, always be closing up towards abolition. All the texts reviewed here are concerned in one way or another to present animal research to the public. In so far as they fail to acknowledge and promote its character as a practice in required motion towards oblivion, they misrepresent its true legal status and help to protract its wrongs. Perhaps that’s their purpose. At any rate, I’ve saved you from the ordeal of reading them.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s Additional Statistics, published 8 November, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754408/breeding-genotyping-animals-scientific-procedures-2017-hosb2718.pdf

The Ipsos MORI survey of 2013, Openness in Animal Research, was commissioned as part of the Concordat preliminaries, and can be found on their web-site at http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/openness-in-animal-r.pdf. The quotation is from pp.34-5.

The Brexit regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum which goes with them, were first published on 1 October and are on the government’s web-site here: https://www.gov.uk/eu-withdrawal-act-2018-statutory-instruments/the-animals-scientific-procedures-act-1986-eu-exit-regulations-2018#sifting-committee-recommendation. The “final goal” is spoken of in paragraph 7.4.

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Annual Report 2018, ed. A.J.Williams and H.Hobson, is online here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Concordat-report-2018.pdf. Quotations are from pp. 48, 3, 22, 32-3, and 9. Last year’s Concordat report was featured in this blog on 18 December 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/ See also, from 18 December 2016, https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/prize-day-with-the-concordat-folk/

The mis-statement on Oxford University’s web-site is discussed in this blog on 8 June 2018 here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

ASRU’s Annual Report 2017, published on 3 December, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761083/Animals_in_Science_annual_report.pdf .  Quotations are taken from the Ministerial Foreword and the Foreword by the Head of ASRU, William Reynolds. The quotation about the non-human primate is from non-compliance case 2, on p.30. ASRU’s previous report is featured in this blog on 30 March 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/

On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.

 

Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.

The Mirror Test

An article published in August by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, in its online journal bioRXiv, is headed ‘Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test’. The story was picked up in various more popular science publications and in the general media, for this is a much-loved line of research with them – the line in question being clearly announced in the heading which the Daily Mail gave its own account: “Tiny fish is the first to pass the self-awareness test by recognizing its reflection in a mirror.” Or to sum up, in a twitter comment, the sudden claims now being made on behalf of this fish, “Cleaner fish are AWESOME! They show self-awareness.”

The research itself was somewhat less conclusive. Ten of these cleaner wrasse fishes (Labroides dimidiatus) were put into a tank which contained a mirror. At XRF-Labroides_dimidiatusfirst they treated their own reflections as intruders into their territory and acted accordingly. Then, becoming used to the mirror, they behaved in a more improvised manner, apparently testing out the mirror with “idiosyncratic postures and actions”. Finally they seemed to use the mirror more as humans might, showing “self-directed behaviour”. This behaviour most specifically included scraping off marks (hence the ‘mark test’) which had been applied to their skin under anaesthetic and were designed to be undetectable to the fishes except in their own reflections.

The conclusion which the authors reach in their report is that the fishes did indeed show responses of the sort recorded for previously ‘successful’ species, notably chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. Therefore, if those former experiments are to be regarded as having demonstrated self-awareness in the animals concerned, so must these be: cleaner wrasse, then, must be “self-conscious and have a true theory of mind” (i.e. awareness of their own mind and motives, and of those which others may have). However, faced with this ambitious imputation, the authors very reasonably prefer to argue that the test itself is unsound, or at least has been over-interpreted in the past. The test shows, they suggest, no more than an animal’s awareness of its own body (surely a necessity for survival) and the ability to learn that a mirror can enhance this awareness. And indeed other research has shown that pigeons and even ants (please accept the ‘even’ for now) can put a mirror to such use. To claim self-awareness for all these creatures would be to make it an ordinary condition of life – which perhaps it is, but nobody so far does assert this; on the other hand, to claim it for apes and dolphins who ‘pass’ the test, but not for these other less prestigious creatures, would be (I’m delighted to find these scientists saying) “taxonomically chauvinistic” – i.e. speciesist.

The authors of the article end by suggesting that “many more species may be able to pass the test when it is applied in a manner that is sympathetic to their natural biology.” This is surely true, and in fact the ethologists Mark Bekoff and Roberto Gatti have adapted the test for dogs by using the scent of the dogs’ own urine as the ‘reflection’. For of course making it a test of vision, the primary sense for humans but not for every animal, inevitably ties it to what humans do, makes it in fact a set of comparisons with ourselves.

And indeed that is just what it always has been. The hidden or (in more popular versions) expressed question has always been not just ‘How like us is this animal?’ but ‘How nearly as clever as us is this animal?’ Hence the strangely unscientific terminology which has been characteristic of this line of research, and which we’ve already seen instances of. Thus, elephants who seemed to recognize themselves in a mirror, as we were told in the leading professional journal Science a few years ago, “have joined the elite group”. The same journal more recently reported on a similar capacity in some magpies: only two out of the group of birds “passed the test”, but this is apparently “similar to the success rate in chimpanzees.” To sum up: passing the mirror test, so this article says,

is regarded as evidence of knowing who you are – a higher neural skill underlying human abilities such as self-consciousness and self-reflection. Researchers have given the test to a wide variety of species. Most fail.

Fail! It’s a wonder (I know the point has already been made elsewhere in this blog) that these second-string animals manage at all. You’d have to feel sorry for them.

This new research with cleaner wrasse, and its revision of the standard interpretation of such research, ought to help correct the absurd anthropocentrism of the mirror-test tradition, and is accordingly welcome. Even so, it’s sad to see these strange and fascinating animals (already demeaned and abused as decorative fishes for aquaria) emerge into the light of intellectual attention for this irrelevant reason, that they may ‘know who they are’ or at any rate be able to learn how to use a mirror. The beauty and complexity of their niche in coral reefs, where they eat the parasites and other unwanted material off ‘client’ fish, and indeed help to keep the whole coral system clean, make this mirror test crude and reductive. It’s really a part of the ‘smarter than we thought’ genre of research, which itself has some relation to the amusement of dressing animals in human clothes. It all amounts to preening ourselves in the rest of nature: in short, making a mirror of it, for of course we are, as a species, mirror-addicts.

As to the ethics, the testing of the cleaner wrasse had the blessing of the Animal Care and Use Committee of Osaka City University, where the research was done, and we must suppose that the Committee meant what it said. But these mirror experiments are necessarily tainted with the cruelty of the behavioural psychology tradition, and their earlier versions, at least, show as much. The originator of the MSR test (mirror self-recognition) was Gordon Gallup, from Tulane University’s Psychology Department – always an ominous location for research animals. Gallup published his first report on the subject in 1970. His subjects were four “pre-adolescent” chimpanzees, born in the wild (a happily mirror-free environment, ensuring that they’d had no practice). Here’s what happened to them:

Each animal [the report goes] was placed by itself in a small cage situated in the corner of an otherwise empty room. [Remember that a sense of self is what’s being looked for in the animals who are being treated thus.] After two days of isolation in this situation a full-length mirror was positioned 3.5 metres in front of the cage to provide enforced self-confrontation. Observations of the animal’s behaviour were made by watching his reflection in the mirror through a small hole in an adjacent wall. After 2 days (8 hours each) of exposure to the reflected image, the mirror was moved to within 0.6 m of the cage and left in that position for 8 days … etc.

It’s a miserable performance, with its bleak and meaningless setting, cruel isolation of the juvenile animals, and “enforced self-confrontation”, all tending to rule out natural behaviour, and then the scientists squinting at it all through a hole, like Peeping Toms. (For more on this last particularly unpleasant dimension in animal research, see the petition set up earlier this month by Peta under the heading ‘Sex, Violence, and Vivisection; Are Some Animal Experimenters Psychopaths?’, noted below. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Gallup or his assistants were of this kind.) And although these unpleasant proceedings were offered as “the first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a sub-human form”, the experiments with cleaner wrasse, to say nothing of pigeons and ants, have since suggested that very little was really being discovered.

Reports on MSR in the more popular science press and other media (which, as I say, love all this kind of ‘smarter than we thought’ research) are frequently headed ‘Mirror, Mirror’, to give the science a brightening connection to a familiar saying, the wicked stepmother’s refrain in the folk story of Snow mirror, mirrorWhite. Evidently it’s not done with any serious thought, because that story, so far from representing as an evolutionary boon the sort of self-awareness dramatized by correct use of the mirror, shows it as a source of neurotic restlessness and self-doubt. And that indeed is the mirror’s habitual character in the fictions where it appears. Here’s a trio of the finest of these, with the dominant sentiment in each case: Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘I look into my glass’ (self-pity), Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ (helpless protest against ageing), Shakespeare’s Richard II  (the king calls for a mirror, trying unsuccessfully to authenticate himself). These instances, with their sadly alienated mirror-gazers, don’t prove anything of course, but they represent a tradition of intelligent distrust of the kind of self-awareness that the mirror represents, and the “self-directed” mind and life which go with it.

No doubt this capacity to see and think we know ourselves, as individuals, groups, nations, and even species, has been essential to the rise of humanity, for good or ill. But we should admire the talent cautiously, cease to regard it as one of nature’s top prizes, and cease to teach it (or think we’re teaching it) to other animals. It’s not, after all, what is most needed by us now, or by them at all. The animal-activist son of a professor of psychology in Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts it thus:

We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects. [my italics]

Or as Albert Schweitzer said in one of his Sermons on Reverence for Life, “Wherever you see life – that is you!”

 

Notes and references:

The full article from bioRXiv, posted 21 August 2018, is linked here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/08/21/397067.full.pdf+html  The twitter comment was posted alongside the short version of that article.

The Daily Mail online reported the research on 31 August.

An article on self-awareness in dogs, as tested with urine samples, can be seen at https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/do-dogs-have-sense-self

The Science article about elephants (‘Jumbo Reflections’) appeared in the issue for 30 October 2006, and about magpies (‘The Magpie in the Mirror’) on 19 August 2008. The report by Gordon G. Gallup Jr on his chimpanzee experiments (‘Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition’) appeared in Science on 2 January 1970.

The Peta report and petition can be found at https://headlines.peta.org/sex-violence-vivisection/?utm_source=PETA

The quotation from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is at pp.201-2 of the edition published by Profile Books, 2014. Albert Schweitzer is quoted from A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life (Macmillan, 1998), p.10, translation by David Larrimore Holland. The sermons were originally preached in 1919, in the Church of St Nicolai, Günsbach. The saying is not Schweitzer’s own, of course, but is at least as old as the Hindu Upanishad from which he borrows it.

The sketch of Labroides dimidiatus is by Xavier Romero-Frias, and the illustration of the Snow White story comes from a 1916 re-telling in Europa’s Fairy Book.