Fighting for Peace

Is it reasonable to speak of ‘science’ as one project, and ‘scientists’ as if they form not just a profession but a collective in some larger moral or political sense? Well, they certainly do speak so themselves, as, for instance, a letter in last week’s issue of Science illustrates. Arguing that scientists should take better advantage of the huge and instant audiences which some celebrities have acquired through social media, the writer speaks of “we” as needing to find “inventive strategies to educate the public, particularly in critical fields such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and sustainability.”

And there’s a tradition for it. Fifty year ago in that same journal, another letter-writer speaks similarly of a “scientific community”, and gives some reasons why its collective voice ought to be heard – in this instance, on the Vietnam war. Scientists, he says, “probably comprise the most intelligent large group in our society”. They are “more devoted to knowledge and less to wealth and power”, and accordingly “their values are humane and relatively attuned to this complex age.” No doubt he would think so, but it must be true that scientists know more than others do about such important subjects as are specified in that first letter, and also they enjoy a sort of international solidarity as a natural feature of their profession, so their outlook ought to be usefully non-partisan. We might even feel that science has made its own collective contribution to creating these world problems, and therefore might have an obligation to advise us how to address them now. This is at least a reasonable enough feeling in the case of the subject on which the scientific “we” has been vocal for longest, but which has unfortunately never lost its topicality: the subject of nuclear war.

Here, the first notable declaration was the ‘Russell-Einstein Manifesto’, put forward in 1955. Bertrand Russell may be thought of as a philosopher rather than a scientist, but the manifesto was signed mainly by Einstein’s professional colleagues: Max Born, Linus Pauling, Frédéric Juliot-Curie, and others. Out of that Manifesto came the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, with their own public statements, such as the Nagasaki Declaration of 2015. In 2018, a newer organisation, Science for Peace, will be holding its own conference at the University of Toronto with the title ‘How to Save the World’. Yet another such organisation, The Global Union of Scientists for Peace, says on its web-site by way of summary, “For over sixty years, the scientific community has issued vivid warnings about the catastrophic effects of thermonuclear war and has called for the abolition of these world-destroying weapons.”

The 1966 letter-writer was therefore not a lone voice when he urged “Let the scientists speak out as loudly as possible!” In fact that same issue of Science has an article by a scientist very keen to speak out on the peace subject: Dr Roger Ulrich, the head of experimental psychology at Western Michigan University. Ulrich specialized in the subject of aggression, and was committed to making his specialism serve the cause of humanity by showing how aggression might be better understood and managed. This particular article had the title ‘Classical Conditioning of Pain-Elicited Aggression’. We shall return to it, but first let’s meet Ulrich in his role of prophet.

In a short film issued in 1971, entitled Understanding Aggression, Dr Ulrich presented to the general public the nature and implications of his research. The film begins with a sequence of stills from the long history of violence, beginning in the primeval swamp Beckmann, Nightand working through to all the varieties of specifically human ferocity, from pre-historical savagery to modern battles, torture, executions, mob frenzies, and all-out war. Portentously eerie music backs these unpleasant scenes.

Then Ulrich himself appears on-screen. He is an engaging personality, with his sixties-style long hair, white polo-neck with smart-casual jacket, and ideology to match (“you can’t fight for peace.”). Tipping back in his office chair, or leaning informally upon laboratory equipment, he warns his audience about the dangers of aggression in the nuclear age:

We have to stop reinforcing aggression. We have to stop glorifying violence … We have to start teaching and living non-violence, at every level … We can’t say violence is bad and that it has no place in America, and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.

Even the credits at the end of the film urge this message. We are told, of the staff at the Michigan Behavior Research and Development Center, that their “highest achievement is that they practise what they preach; they love one another.” As we knew then, all you need is love.

But of course these are not simply earnest generalisations, impossible to dispute and indeed obvious as they may seem. They are conclusions drawn by Ulrich from the work done in his laboratory. There, aggressive behaviour was being studied mainly by inducing and manipulating it in various species of animal – cats, rats, guinea pigs, monkeys – and under ingeniously varied conditions. The basic stimulus seems always to have been electric shock, but one of Ulrich’s published articles says, by way of introduction to this field of research, that “some of the variables which have been studied in connection with shock-induced aggression are frequency and intensity of shock stimulation, consistency of shock presentation, enclosed floor area, fatigue and shock duration. The effects of age, social isolation, and castration upon reflexive aggression have also been studied.” The complicating effects of heat, cold, and loud noise were also investigated, as was the effect of “combined permanent vision and vibrissa impairment” (i.e. of blinding and removal of whiskers). As one witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection, already quoted elsewhere in this blog, remarked at about this same time, “You’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up.”

All this explains that equipment which Ulrich leans against in the 1971 film, and which indeed the film very frankly shows in use. We see young squirrel monkeys inside the perspex-fronted apparatus, receiving electric shocks and retaliating upon each other. Or we see one monkey on its own, trapped by the waist, with its tail connected to an electrical apparatus, furiously mauling a rubber bar as the shocks are administered. From these scenes we learn that pain, or by extension any aversive stimulus, will produce aggression (therefore, for instance, physical punishment doesn’t work). Or elsewhere in the lab, a large and clearly peaceable cat is confined in a small chamber with a rat. The rat, presumably itself peaceable enough by nature, is taught by rewards directed into its “pleasure centre” (a lead of some sort is attached to its head) to attack the cat, until the exasperated cat finally kills it. This tends to show that if aggression is rewarded (“glorifying violence”), it will persist, even against the true interests of everyone concerned.

That 1966 article goes a step further from the obvious, looking for clues to “apparently unprovoked aggression”. Pairs of rats in their box were conditioned to fight each other upon hearing a harmless sound or “tone”, once that tone had become associated in their minds with electric shocks. This association (which constitutes the “classical conditioning” mentioned in the title of the article) had not been arrived at without difficulty. We’ve seen in the film that aggression can be induced easily enough by painful stimuli – this was a staple of Ulrich’s laboratory – but “earlier attempts to develop conditioned fighting by pairing painful stimuli, such as electric shocks, with neutral stimuli” had formerly achieved “only minimum success”. That may explain why it took “2000 pairings of the tone with the shock”, administered every ten seconds or so over a period of about five hours, to achieve a dependable association in the minds of the rats. And the shocks in all these experiments were not simply irritants. In the film, Ulrich explains why his laboratory doesn’t use humans in these trials: they would not be willing, and could not be forced, to endure, even for science’s sake, such “extremes of pain”.

Dr Ulrich briefly and sardonically notes that humans are prepared to impose such pains upon each other in the course of wars and other strife. In fact this sixties liberal (I don’t use that phrase with a sneer) has no high opinion of the human character or record to date: “the most violently aggressive of all species … the king of killers”. Yet he takes for granted our right to use this habit of violence against other species in our search to free ourselves from its effects. No doubt this contradiction is partly explained by his behaviourist model of animal life: as a disciple of B.F.Skinner, he would have discounted inner life in animals, and therefore their capacity to suffer or perhaps even to matter. But then his premise is that human behaviour too is intelligible according to that model: hence the usefulness of animal data, upon which his case depends. And the film’s preliminary pictures of violence show it arising with animal life and reaching its horrible apex in man as one evolutionary history. No, the contradiction makes no sense, and this earnest and idealistic man was simply subverting his own case as he went along. As he himself insists, “We can’t say violence is bad … and expect to be taken seriously, if we daily support its use.”

It’s certain that no scientist using animals nowadays would film his or her work with the sort of guilelessness that we see in Understanding Aggression. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the work itself has changed. And although Dr Ulrich’s self-contradiction is especially conspicuous because he was researching the very subject that he was at the same time exemplifying – the human habit of violence – still, the subjugation of other animals for any purpose nullifies non-violence as a practice or ideology.

No doubt the “science community” has important advice to offer on many important subjects, and ought to be listened to, but while animals are forced to serve human interests in laboratories all over the world, there’s no reason why we should feel any special respect for what scientists get together to say about world peace.

 

Notes and references:

The quotations from the journal Science are at 1 September 2017, p.880, and 29 April 1966, pp.591 and 668-9 (the Ulrich article).

The film Understanding Aggression can be seen at https://archive.org/details/understandingaggression. Other reports of Dr Ulrich’s research can be found in Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, Nov.1969, 12(6) and in The Psychological Record, 15, 1965, from which the quotations surveying his field of research are taken.

The Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be found at https://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto/  The web-site of the Global Union of Scientists for Peace is at https://www.gusp.org/

The quotation from evidence given to the House of Representatives in 1962 is taken from John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph) 1971, p.188.

The illustration shows Max Beckmann’s painting Night, completed just after the First World War, a conspectus of contemporary and foreseen violence.

 

 

 

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Come See Our Worlds

A new public relations venture from Understanding Animal Research (UAR) provides ‘360° digital tours’ of four animal research laboratories in the U.K. One of them is Oxford University. Two others – MRC Harwell and the Pirbright Institute – have likewise featured in this blog before. The fourth is Bristol University, where the main event shown is heart surgery being pioneered on a pig.

The tours consist of all-round views, navigable and magnifiable, of different rooms and activities (60 such views in all), with brief explanatory texts and some video clips (35 of these, up to six minutes in length). The model for this venture seems to have been an unidentified primate facility presented online in 2015 by France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, but these new tours are quite a lot more sophisticated. In fact technically it’s a remarkable show, very smoothly done, almost mesmerizingly so. Nor is it crudely assertive or defensive. Animal care staff show what they’re doing with convincing sympathy; scientists in casual clothes speak with reassuring authority about important work. Such as it is, you can’t fault it.

No doubt it’s pleasant for them to talk about how well they care for animals, and to show the animals enjoying their strange stylized and minimalist habitats, if that’s what the animals are doing (I can’t tell). Talking about the suffering and death is harder, and there’s accordingly much less of that. The suffering, in fact, is hardly touched on at all, except as something conscientiously minimised; there’s nothing to indicate, for instance, why the U.K. law should bother with a ‘severe’ category for experiments. The killing is necessarily mentioned from time to time, and it’s done with some uneasiness, not so much visible (though I think it is noticeable) as verbal – that is, in the resort to various genteelisms. The word ‘kill’ is used once only that I heard; otherwise it’s ‘euthanize’ and its strange variant ‘euthanaze’, or a selection of circumlocutions, such as ‘put to sleep as at the vet’s’ (just like our own pets, in fact), ‘culled at the end of their lives’ (the ingeniously evasive formula pioneered at Oxford University: see post for 28 October 2015), or, the most scrupulously oblique of all, “How long they stay with us depends on …etc.”

These are fairly transparent euphemisms; we know well what’s meant. Some of the strictly scientific narratives contain terms which more seriously cloud the meaning: for instance, in accounts of neurosurgery on (or, more companionably, “with”) monkeys at Oxford, there is talk about “manipulation”, of the need to “intervene in their brain and change a little part of it”, and of injecting “a very small amount [of what?] precisely into the brain”. Here, most of us don’t know what’s being meant, and are left to guess.

UAR’s news-piece about these tours says “Watch the videos to see technicians talking about how they look after their animals and to find out from scientists why animals are being used.” You notice what’s missing: the middle term in this scene, what really happens to the animals in between the being looked after in caring confinements (we see a lot of this) and the goal or “why” of it all. The “why”, as spoken of in these tours, is of course not product-testing or mere knowledge-garnering, but the feared sicknesses of affluent societies or ailments which affect children. So if we aren’t adequately reassured by the scenes of animal comfort at the one end, at least our concern about the middle part will be frightened away by mention of those natural cruelties against us which are about to be cured by these means.

But of course the whole show must itself be a sort of euphemism. Its aim is indeed to ‘speak well’ of its subject, and to miss out what can’t be spoken well of. And even if the tours were altogether impartial, mere good taste would steer them away from anything unpleasant to see, particularly because one of their declared aims is to be of use to school students as young as eleven (so there’s a preliminary warning about the pig surgery). You can navigate all those rooms, then, without stumbling upon anything disagreeable like the fridge for animal corpses pictured elsewhere in this blog (“For dead animals. Please put in plastic bags.”). But some such equipment must be on the premises somewhere, presumably in rooms shown blank on the plans provided. At MRC Harwell, for instance, I calculate from inadequate evidence that mice must be dispatched on the premises at a rate of about one per minute. That amounts to a fair proportion of the work. It ought to be shown, in good taste or not.

At about the same time that this set of laboratory tours was put online by UAR, its equivalent organisation in the U.S.A., Americans for Medical Progress, put up their version, entitled Come See Our World. As the cheery showbooth-style title suggests, this is much more blatantly a public relations push, and what it intends to accomplish is plainly stated in brand-manager’s terms: “to replace outdated, inaccurate images of animal research with current accurate views.”

With this in mind, an album of photographic “views” of contented animals, many of them with pet names, has been assembled, with brief texts explaining their role in research, and some links to further details. The animals are grouped by species. Among the felines, there’s ‘Sadie the Research Cat’, the kitten Midnight (“likes to kiss her special person”), and Sophie, who kindly “helps” researchers study heart failure. Sadie, of the sinister title, is shown sitting on a sort of metal-framed shelf behind bars. Among the dogs, Blake is enjoying a bathe in a paddling pool. ‘Beagle playing with Kong’ shows a dog in a cage with a wire grille floor. Among the monkeys, there’s ‘Mom and baby rhesus on hammock’, in a grim tiled room.

I would upload one or two of the views here, but they’re only made available to those who support the “mission of the Come See Our World project”. This mission, in so far as it goes beyond replacing one set of images with another, is evidently to persuade the public that the patent kindness and sound judgement of scientists is quite sufficient to ensure good practice, with no further intervention from the law, still less from ill-informed public indignation. As one professor of psychology recently said, “each scientist has to make his or her own moral decision”. This dubious assertion (even in the U.S.A. there are some external controls over what researchers may do) was made by Richard Davidson, with reference to the work presently being done in his own department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Ned Kalin. Dr Kalin’s “own moral decision” is that it’s quite all right to take new-born monkeys away from their mothers, in order to study anxiety by inducing it in them. For many years he has been building upon the research notoriously done in this line by Harry Harlow (see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How Not to Treat Babies’). In fact the photo of the two rhesus monkeys with their ugly modernistic hammock comes from that same university. So may God help that ‘Mom and baby’ and all the others they represent!

I don’t know whether Kalin’s work is mentioned in Come See Our World; I can’t find it anywhere. The picture of ‘Mom and baby’ has a text about the life-cycle of the species – a sad irrelevance here, I would have thought – and a list of research areas, but nothing more particular. At any rate, the site is not apologetic about the use of the various monkey species. In fact, those “outdated, inaccurate images”, which apparently need replacing in you or me, turn out to constitute, when rightly understood, something to be proud of, for we’re told that “Nonhuman primates have a rich history of contributing to significant medical advances.” “rich history”! So speaks the ad-man.

It’s hard to know what one has really learnt from these tours, since there’s no knowing about what one hasn’t been shown. (The French tour seems to have been filmed on a general holiday: I only spotted one member of staff and, more puzzlingly, one animal, a solitary monkey somewhere in a whole cage-scape of bars.) The institutions themselves, who thus ration the knowledge, must know it all, however; perhaps one merit of these exercises in publicity might therefore be to draw their attention to any differences which exist between what they’re doing and what they wish the public to suppose that they’re doing.

 

Notes and References:

The U.K. laboratory tours are online at http://www.labanimaltour.org/. Come See Our World is at https://www.comeseeourworld.org/. The French tour (which I couldn’t get to work properly) is at http://visite-animalerie.cnrs.fr/#/accueil/

MRC Harwell is featured in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/03/earth-born-companions/, and the Pirbright Institute at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/the-greenwich-goat/

An account of Dr Kalin’s proposal, and its successful progress through his university’s ethics committee, appeared in the Wisconsin journal Isthmus for 31 July 2014, and can be read here: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/health_med_fit/university-of-wisconsin-renews-controversial-maternal-deprivation-research-on-monkeys/article_993e9566-172f-11e4-9063-001a4bcf887a.html. Kalin subsequently decided, for purely scientific reasons as he insisted, not to take the new-born monkeys away from their mothers. Otherwise, the research goes ahead as intended.

 

 

 

Earth-born Companions

When Oxford University was first required to estimate its annual usage of animals in research and teaching – this was in 1875 – the tally was about 30 frogs and smaller unspecified numbers of fish, dogs, rabbits, insects. No mice were mentioned. In 2016, the University used 226 frogs but more than 200,000 mice.

I don’t know when mice overtook frogs as the leading victims of animal research. Now, in the U.K. at least and probably everywhere, they account for well over 60% of all experiments and a much higher proportion of the GM breeding programmes. A huge industry and international trade has come into being, devoted to the creation and exchange of genetically altered mice. Two of its primary sites are the Medical Research Council’s establishment at Harwell in the U.K., and the Jackson Laboratory in the U.S.A.

As well as its own research, MRC Harwell supplies mice to other laboratories round the world, either live or as frozen sperm or embryos (see web-site for prices). In more detail, its services include (just to give an idea of the sort of thing) “Production of blastocysts and pseudo-pregnant females [a blastocyst is a cluster of cells in the very early stage of embryo development]… Uterine transfer of injected blastocysts to pseudo-pregnant foster-mothers [the foster-mother is the female into whom the foetuses extracted from the first mother are inserted. Neither mother survives the process] … Oviduct transfer of injected embryos to pseudo-pregnant foster mothers … Harvest and preparation of F0 transgenic embryos …”, and so on. The gruesome gynaecology of all this, I won’t attempt to describe: a sample guide to one of the procedures, with illustrations, is referenced below. MRC Harwell bred over 213,000 mice in 2016, but this number would not include the mice archived or traded in unborn condition, or the wastage in mothers and unviable offspring.

The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, does things on an even larger scale. Like Harwell, it does its own research work. In addition, more than 3 million ‘Jax’ mice, from a selection of over 7000 genetically defined varieties, are sent out to other institutions.

A brief digression now on the likely experiences of these Jax mice at their destinations. Since the Jackson Laboratory receives state funding, it has to conform to national guidance as to the care of its own animals. The same does not apply to the privately funded or commercial laboratories in the U.S.A., well over 800 of them, to which Jax mice may be sent (still less, of course, to laboratories in other countries). These establishments are regulated only by the Animal Welfare Act, whose definition of ‘animal’ does not include mice (or rats or birds). This glaring anomaly is genially described as a “quirk” by the National Academy of Sciences, but actually it was a very deliberate omission, and one which was later emphatically fixed into law by the so-called ‘Helms Amendment’ of 2002. Senator Jesse Helms pointed out to his fellow-senators during the debate that a mouse was much better off in a laboratory than being eaten by a python in the wild, and evidently they accepted this as a useful bench-mark for mouse-welfare. Certainly the research industry did; indeed it had sponsored Helms’s intervention. This is just one instance of a consistent historical record. In spite of all the claims in their publicity to be making animal welfare their special concern, research institutions and their agencies have always resisted statutory controls. If they’d had their way, laboratory animals would even now be relying for their welfare wholly on the haphazard kindness of their vivisectors.

Back to the Jackson Laboratory, and the man who founded it in the 1920s, Clarence Little. In later years he declared that his institution “has done for the mouse in science what Disney has done for it in amusement.” In fact he hoped that Walt Disney’s version of the mouse might be employed to publicize medical research of the Jackson sort – rather Mickey_-_House_of_Mouseas comic pigs advertise bacon. And certainly Micky Mouse would very expressively have represented what has happened to the mouse since it got caught up in medical research. The Disney studio ruthlessly stylized Mickey Mouse, both to make repeat drawing easier, and to make him highly visible and recognisable (the strange white gloves and bulbous shoes, for instance): this is the mouse subdued to human idea and human use. So exactly is the Jax mouse, standardized as it is, and infinitely repeatable in its 7000 varieties. And just as Mickey Mouse became the iconic cartoon animal, so the Jax mouse established its species as the essential laboratory animal.

Both of these institutions, MRC Harwell and the Jackson Laboratory, belong to the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium, an international collaboration whose aim is “to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share”. Last year the IMPC “released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” (mice in whom one gene has been deleted), with much more to come in the months ahead.” The National Institutes of Health, reporting this achievement, was especially interested in the genes which seem to have proven crucial to live birth in the mice. The heading to its announcement optimistically generalized the findings thus: ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life’.

Can mouse genetics really translate so usefully into knowledge about humans? In one of this month’s issues of the journal Science, there’s a report of research into “the nature of genetic predisposition to pain”, which is said to promise “new treatments of conditions affecting tens of millions of people worldwide”. Naturally the research used mice, designed and generated for the study (though using at least some Jax mice as starters). But other research in that same area of biology – incidentally an especially malignant one for laboratory animals, with its array of ingenious pain-supplying devices – has questioned the value of mice as models for humans, even where the same genes seem to be involved. An article about it in Yale Scientific said that “there was almost no correlation between human and murine reactions to any of the experimental conditions. For example, if humans were likely to activate a certain gene following trauma, mice were almost equally as likely to activate it or suppress it.” Acknowledging that “mice models are a cornerstone of biomedical research”, the Yale article suggests that this reported research “raises the question of how similar humans and mice really are. With such different genetic responses, perhaps the biology of mice is not an accurate representation of that of humans.”

Bad news in Bar Harbor and Harwell, then, but wait! A professor interviewed for the same article points out that the study only used the one mouse variety, C57BL/6, commonly called ‘Black 6’: “until other mouse strains are studied, the authors need to be cautious in their interpretations that use of mice is irrelevant to human responses.” Get out those order books, then, and let business resume.

The Yale article was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: The Mouse as a Model for Human Disease’. The upbeat NIH piece, you’ll recall, was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes … etc.’ But it’s not much of a coincidence: that phrase, with its neat alliteration and reassuring link with a vaguely remembered literary classic, has also caught the imagination of many other science writers on this subject, or has at least appealed to them as likely to catch the imagination of their readers. After all, in a poll recently organised by an educational publisher, John Steinbeck’s fine novel Of Mice and Men has been ranked fourth in the “top 100 titles for the American literature classroom … chosen by American literature teachers across the country.” (But then The Great Gatsby came top!) And perhaps, although mice are only incidentally present in it, this story of two displaced and status-less labourers in forlorn search of a home is no bad fable for the modern animal.

But in fact the novel’s title is not the origin of the phrase. Steinbeck himself was borrowing it in his turn from the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns, first published in 1786. And this certainly is an encounter of mouse and man to set beside and re-appraise the modern Disneyfied mass-mouse and the people who convert it into science.

The poem’s sub-title is ‘on turning her up in her nest with the plough’, for Burns was a farmer when he wrote the poem; he knew the situation. He was, besides, as the poem 220px-PG_1063Burns_Naysmithmakes poignantly clear, unhappy in his own ways, remorseful about the past and fearful as to the future. Accordingly there’s absolutely nothing suggestive of species-superiority in the way he speaks to the mouse, as he contemplates the ruin of her nest. He sees in detail and feels the catastrophe which the mouse has suffered, and he understands suffering as a universal burden, indifferent to species and size. Hence that phrase:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,       

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!

The poem recognizes the encounter as an aspect of the power-relation whose characteristic modern manifestation we’ve been viewing in earlier paragraphs:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

So the spoiling of the mouse’s nest is an incident in a much larger wreckage of that commonalty which Burns beautifully dignifies as “nature’s social union”. But in his poem he reasserts the union, at least between these two now present, pledging a true existential comradeship in those phrases “thy poor, earth-born companion / An’ fellow-mortal”.

And of course exactly this is “how similar humans and mice really are” (the phrase from the Yale article). They really are earth-born fellow-mortals, each in their own sphere liable to “grief an’ pain”. Unfortunately we’ve repudiated that fellowship for which Burns’s poem is a permanent model and recommendation, and have chosen instead to privilege human grief and pain, and to make of the mouse a multitudinous enslaved resource in our ruthless struggles to escape them.

 

 

Notes and references:

The numbers from 1875 were published by the Cardwell Commission in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, Appendix III.

Information and quotation about the work at Harwell appears on its web-site at https://www.har.mrc.ac.uk/

A clear, though highly technical, illustrated account of how a standard procedure works can be found in the article ‘Pronuclear Injection for the Production of Transgenic Mice’ at http://www.nature.com/nprot/journal/v2/n5/full/nprot.2007.145.html

About the welfare provisions in the U.S.A.: the “quirk” reference is from https://www.nap.edu/read/10733/chapter/11; the account of Helms’s amendment is from a contemporary news report in U.S.A. Today, readable at http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/05/07/animal-welfare.htm

What Clarence Little said about Mickey Mouse is quoted by Karen Rayder in Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955, Princeton University Press, 2004, p.5

The announcement about the work of the IMPC is on a blog run by the National Institutes of Health at https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2016/09/20/of-mice-and-men-study-pinpoints-genes-essential-for-life/

The article in Science is from 16 June 2017, pp.1124-5 and 1168-71, quotations from pp.1124-5. The Yale Scientific article is from 5 April 2013, and can be read at http://www.yalescientific.org/2013/04/of-mice-and-men-the-mouse-as-a-model-for-human-disease/

The poll of American novels was organised by Perfection Learning, and is reported on their web-site at https://www.perfectionlearning.com/top-100-american-literature-titles.

The picture of Mickey Mouse is from the TV series Disney’s House of Mouse (2001-3). The portrait of Robert Burns in 1787 is by Alexander Naysmith, and is held in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In the U.K., Animal Aid has recently started a campaign to raise awareness of the mouse, its qualities in nature, and its sufferings in laboratories: see https://www.animalaid.org.uk/animal-aid-new-campaign-mice-matter/

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Meditation on a Stick

At St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, in June of 1877, a physiologist called W. Bruce Clark was planning to carry out “some experiments as to the nature of shock”. Since he wanted to use animals for the purpose, he now, under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, had to apply for a licence to do so.

“Injuries”, Bruce Clark accordingly proposed, would be “inflicted by means of blows on the abdomen, and on other parts of the body with a view to determine as far as possible which portion of the body is most susceptible to shock.” He must have been asked for further particulars, because he wrote again to say, with a vagueness which can’t have done much for his cause, “I have thought of using a stick for the purpose”. But he added, reassuringly, “I do not imagine that the animal would suffer much if any pain in most cases.” The records of his application are not complete, and it’s not clear what species of animal Bruce Clark had chosen for his project. However, his supervisor in the Barts laboratory was Thomas Lauder Brunton, designer of the ‘Brunton Holder’ for restraining rabbits and dogs, and I think it likely that Bruce Clark meant to use dogs.

This application was forwarded to Henry Acland who, as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, was a ‘certifier’ under the 1876 Act. It won’t have been a welcome duty for Acland. Although the revival of science studies at Oxford during the 1850s and 60s had been very largely his own personal achievement, he felt unhappy about the direction they were now taking. He saw the university’s medical students becoming “a professional class or clique by themselves”, separated from the arts studies which might be doing something to humanize or proportion their knowledge. Medicine itself was separating, as a laboratory science, from the practice of healing, so that Acland himself now seemed old-fashioned because, though a university academic, he still worked as a doctor in Oxford. And vivisection was especially portentous: Acland uneasily called it “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”. He himself had never practised vivisection, but he had been required to watch, in his own student days, “experiments of a revolting and grave nature”. Yet he believed that its part in medical progress had been established, and he therefore accepted it, however reluctantly. So here he was, inspecting Bruce Clark’s application, no doubt with some aversion.

There was now a correspondence about the case between Acland and Sir Prescott Hewett, who as President of the Royal College of Surgeons was a fellow certifier. Sir Prescott pointed out that cases of shock were common in such hospitals as St Bartholomew’s, where, therefore, “better and truer results are to be got out of careful clinical researches.” He also argued that “in experiments upon animals, the most interesting cases nowadays, of shock, and the most perplexing, taking them in all their phases railway accidents would be altogether left out.” So he was taking seriously the requirement of the 1876 Act that animal research should be permitted only if its purpose was to provide “knowledge useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering”. It’s true that you could apply for a special certificate to escape that condition, as you could for most of the Act’s other requirements. That was the Act’s essential absurdity and betrayal. But these particular papers do suggest that the 1876 Act, for all its weaknesses, did some good. A year before, Bruce Clark might have experimented away with that stick, or with whatever else he “thought of”, without superior restraint of any sort, perhaps indeed had been doing so.

As I’ve said, the papers are incomplete, and I don’t know if he got his licence. But of course those were merely the early and improvising days of such studies. And just as Lauder Brunton’s ‘holder’ and all the other devices for restraining reluctant animals are evidence of the rise and systematization of animal research in general, so the study of shock, as it progressed, sophisticated upon Bruce Clark’s stick.

One later student of shock was the Canadian physiologist James Collip, working at McGill University. Collip, so far from being policed at Oxford University, received an honorary degree there (mainly for his earlier work on diabetes and insulin). In the laboratories of his Institute of Endocrinology during the 1930s and 40s – so reported his colleague R.L.Noble – the “bizarre combination of topics” under review included “traumatic shock, motion sickness, exercise, blood preservation” and “chemical lung irritants”, and for these various purposes there were “many odd pieces of apparatus”. I think that by “odd” Noble meant ‘curious, ingenious’ rather than stray or jumbled. Certainly the apparatus for studying motion sickness had that merit if absolutely no other.

Among the rest was one product of a collaboration between James Collip and Noble himself: the Noble-Collip Drum. This was something like a washing machine, the drum part being 16’’ in diameter and 7’’ deep, with shelves having much the same function as those in a washing machine, and revolving at up to 50 revolutions per minute. According to data published by Noble and Collip, 300 revolutions produced 8% mortality in rats of approximately 150 grams weight, working upward by degrees to the 800 revolutions which killed them all. But apparently it’s all right: a more thorough follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ reported, as an aside, that (much as Bruce Clark had airily predicted for his own animals) “the rats gave no sign of pain.”

At about this same time, a device for producing shock specifically in dogs was devised by the pioneer cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock. The story of this man’s collaboration with his assistant Vivien Thomas was made famous in an article by Katie McCabe published in the Washingtonian (August 1989), and subsequently by a film based on that article and titled Something the Lord Made (2004). Thomas, for all his brilliance and originality as a surgeon, was for a long time classified and paid as a hospital janitor, since no other recognition was available to him as a black man in the U.S.A. of the time. Blalock himself had a rather mixed part in this injustice, but in time the skill and indispensability of Thomas produced a more or less happy end to the story. Meanwhile both men pursued their research in their so-called “dog lab”, no doubt putting the ‘Blalock Press’ to good use (I’ll refrain from describing this savage device). Thomas also ran an informal veterinary surgery for the Johns Hopkins faculty staff’s pets, especially their dogs, which is where his research expertise lay. Katie McCabe saw nothing gruesome in this situation, nor did she comment on the way the human caste system was thus passed on into the animal kingdom.

Both the Noble-Collip Drum and the Blalock Press were devised in the early 1940s. It was a time when the study of trauma had special urgency, throughout the world. Desperate measures might well be countenanced. That, of course, was a defence offered at the Nuremberg Medical Trials a few years later, and certainly if you wish to fast-track medical research, human subjects provide by far the most efficient scientific evidence. Some of those who were acquitted at Nuremberg, or who escaped trial altogether, subsequently brought exactly that sort of scientific evidence with them into American universities and other research institutions. And that rather spoils the ‘war-time exigencies’ justification. For the truth is that ever since 1945 the alternative to war has in practice been not peace but fear of war and preparations for war. The contribution which the ex-Nazi scientists were uniquely qualified to make to those preparations is very largely what they were valued for in post-war U.S.A.

A British instance of this same outlook has been cited elsewhere in this blog. When, in 2002, a House of Lords Committee was examining the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, some account was given of the work being done by the weapons research facility at Porton Down. Contemplating the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, a minister for Defence said, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”

I guess that it’s partly in order to take advantage of this attitude that medical research itself has so often been represented in military imagery. President Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’ of 1971 is one instance. The old Research Defence Society’s name may hint at the same thinking; certainly its journal did more than hint, with the name Conquest. But then the French pioneer and evangelist of vivisection Claude Bernard had established the warlike self-image of the practice nearly from the first: “Le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est éminemment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

So we don’t need war or even fear of war to justify desperate measures. If we choose to see and practise it so, research itself is already a war – and we’ve just now been taking a glance at an item or two in its armoury. I don’t know about the Blalock Press, but certainly the Noble-Collip Drum is still in use, alongside countless other such contrivances. For this barbarous tradition of attitude and practice in the science of healing, Bruce Clark, armed with his stick, makes a very proper icon.

 

Notes and references:

The correspondence about Bruce Clark’s application is in the Bodleian Library, MS Acland d.98. Acland’s observations on professionalism come from his 1890 book Oxford and Modern Medicine, and on vivisection from the evidence which he gave to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876).

R.L.Noble’s account of Collip’s laboratory comes from the Canadian Medical Association Journal vol.93 (26), December 1965, pp.1356-64. The follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ was reported in the American Journal of Physiology vol.139, May 1943, pp.123-28.

The article about Blalock and Thomas in the Washingtonian is made available online at http://reprints.longform.org/something-the-lord-made-mccabe

For the Nuremberg Trials, see P.J.Weindling, Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The story of former Nazi scientists in the U.S.A. is told by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Co., 2014).

Evidence to the House of Lords Committee as quoted was given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, on Tuesday 30 April, 2002. Something more is said about his evidence in this blog at 6 November, 2016: see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/11/

Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale was published in 1865. His laboratory in Paris was the European model for experimental physiology at the time. Many British students spent study-time there, including John Scott Burdon Sanderson, subsequently Oxford’s first professor of Physiology. The particular quotation appears as epigraph to John Vyvyan’s account of vivisection in the twentieth century, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971).  

 

Experimenting with Mother

I have a constantly growing collection of ‘They’re smarter than you think’ news stories. Here, for instance, is one from the Washington Post a few months ago. It’s headlined “Make Way for Ducklings; they’re smarter … [etc.]” Make Way for Ducklings is a classic children’s book, published in the U.S.A. in 1941 and often re-printed since then. It would therefore be familiar to most Washington Post readers, and the reference is a sub-editor’s way of sweetening the science. But the main theme of that book is the trouble which Mrs Mallard takes to be a good mother to her brood, whereas in the research reported in the news story, which was done in Oxford University’s Zoology Department (of hideous aspect: see post for 12 June 2016), there was no mother duck: the experiment involved creating substitute mothers out of assorted coloured shapes. I shall make a 2-paragraph summary of it, which can be skipped (a more complete non-technical report, illustrated with a video, can be found at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ducklings-make-way-abstract-thought-oxford-study-finds/).

Newly hatched ducklings (in common with chicks and other baby fowl that quit their nest straight away) have to learn very promptly to identify, and to go on recognizing, their mother. The phenomenon is termed ‘imprinting’. It might seem a very basic act of perception, to know one’s own mother and recognise her anew on each sighting, but imprinting is by no means infallible. These young birds will very readily imprint on anything which stands in for the mother at the crucial time. It’s possible, therefore, to take advantage of this pathetic gullibility in order to discover exactly what faculties of perception and cognition the baby birds are using. Certainly they must rely on such indications as colour and shape, but can they detect and use the more abstract properties in what they see? After all, the apparent colour and shape of the mother must vary with changing light and movement.

The abstract properties or relations which the Oxford research tested were sameness and difference. The newly-hatched mallard ducklings (154 of them) were each given time to imprint on a linked pair of coloured shapes – to call them ‘mother’, in short. They were then presented with two variations of these pairs, one of which preserved an essential relation from the first – sameness or difference of shape or of colour – and one of which did not. The ducklings did indeed seem to use these relations in order to fix upon the right or original ‘mother’. Very much needing a mother, they apparently searched for and found one even in such abstract qualities; or in case that sounds anthropomorphic, here’s how the research summarizes it: “For a duckling critically dependent on proximity to its mother and siblings, defining the attachment stimulus configuration as a library of sensory inputs and logical rules increases the likelihood that the mother and sibling group will be identified with high fidelity in spite of considerable variations in how they are perceived.” You see? Yet such a capacity for conceptualization has hitherto “only been demonstrated … in species with advanced intelligence”. In short, they’re smarter than you think, or used to think.

This phenomenon of imprinting has been a subject of study for many years. One of its pioneers was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in the 1930s famously induced greylag goslings to fix upon him as their mother. In his popular and excellent book King Solomon’s Ring (first English publication 1952), he describes the same accomplishment with mallard ducklings, the species used in the Oxford research, although Lorenz’s ducklings seemed to demand vocal identification as well:

If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Quahg, gegegegeg, Quahg, gegegegeg”, the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to ‘long faces’ in human children – and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew. As soon as I was silent, they seemed to think that I had died, or perhaps that I loved them no more: cause enough for crying! [42]

This scene – Lorenz quacking and waddling along in a squatting posture (for the ducklings ‘lost’ him when he stood up) – is worlds and minds away from the blank cubicle with suspended geometrical shapes in which, each one alone, the Oxford ducklings made their decisions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as science, no doubt.

The original German title of King Solomon’s Ring was Er Redete mit dem Vieh, dem Vogeln und den Fischen (he spoke with animals, birds and fish), for it was a legend about King Solomon king-solomons-ringthat he had a magic ring which gave him this communicative power. And much of Lorenz’s research, as well as his home life, was indeed conducted in that style: “It is only by living with animals”, he said, “that one can attain a real understanding of their ways” [147]. Of course he was often charged with imputing, to the animals, strictly human thoughts and emotions. He defended himself in this way:

You think I humanize the animal? … Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous amount of animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.” [152]

I mention this because the question  of “assigning human properties” is a controversial one in all research into animal minds. One academic psychologist, Jennifer Vonk, by way of comment on a study of reasoning power in crows, has summarized the two parties to the controversy thus: on the one side are those who too readily grant “abilities to animals that are interesting largely because they potentially break down the human-erected divide between humans and other animals”; on the other are those who insist on “Morgan’s canon” – that is, the rule pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century by the experimental psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, that animal behaviour ought never to be interpreted as showing a ‘higher’ human-like faculty, if it can be adequately explained by a faculty “which stands lower in the psychological scale”.

No doubt it’s a matter of emphasis rather than incompatibility: one side looking for Darwinian continuities, the other preferring strictly behaviourist interpretations. We could happily leave them to work out their differences in the specialist journals, except that there are ethical consequences involved. I notice, for instance, that one of Jennifer Vonk’s references for the Lloyd Morgan side is an article from the journal Behavioural Brain Research declaratively titled ‘Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and non-human minds’. Included among its authors is Daniel J. Povinelli. This is the psychologist whose work with chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana) is indignantly dispraised by Steven Wise in his book Rattling the Cage (1999). The point which Wise makes against Povinelli is that he treated the chimpanzee mentality with such Lloyd Morganish scepticism (for instance, in the providing of a carelessly bleak physical and social environment for the animals to grow up in), that he had pre-stunted the minds which he then studied and found wanting.

Not that the more Darwinian perspective guarantees a raised status for animals. It’s noticeable that when research of this ‘smarter than you think’ kind gets into the more popular media, it at once becomes affected by the sort of quips and puns which count for merry sparkle in that world. In the case of birds, there’s many a play on ‘bird-brained’, ‘free-range thinkers’, and so on. (Even Dr Vonk gets caught up in it: her comment piece in Current Biology [vol.25.2, 19 Jan 2015] is facetiously titled ‘Corvid Cognition: something to crow about?’) Such jokes are harmless fun, no doubt, if they are fun, but they tag these animal stories as light relief. Essentially the jokes invite a speciesist smirk at our inferiors and their primitive efforts to be more like us. That scene with the ducklings in King Solomon’s Ring comes in a chapter headed ‘Laughing at Animals’. The book itself is very entertaining, but Lorenz won’t countenance laughter at animals: he calls it “deriding things which, to me, are holy” [39]. He tells the story of the ducklings, for instance, as a joke against his own undignified antics as a searcher for the truth, and not because it’s a good laugh to put babies through their paces: in that scene, after all, they know, and he’s only the tyro trying to know, what it is they want.

I needn’t say that the Oxford research is presented wholly seriously, and was indeed an ingenious piece of work, if hardly conclusive. It seems not to have required a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), though as Lorenz’s experiment shows, imprinting on the wrong thing surely may involve “distress” of the sort which ASPA is meant to supervise. Anyway, the research did have the approval of its departmental ethics committee, and the ducklings were returned to the Oxford University Farm afterwards (with what mothering prospects there, we don’t know).

All the same, these imprinting experiments make one uneasy for good reason. It’s not just that experimental psychology, essentially the taking apart of behaviour, has often enough entailed taking apart the brain itself (just follow the subject of imprinting into the neuroscience journals). More largely, the theme itself is disquieting. Even Nature (if I may personify it for a moment) with all its frivolous indifference to individual welfare and its short way with weakness, seems to have made an exception in the case of the maternal bond. The mildest of animals is lent anomalous courage during motherhood so that she’ll protect her offspring with selfless bravado. Here, if nowhere else, Nature itself seems to call something in its bloody free-for-all “holy” (to use Lorenz’s word). Or at least we can say factually that it’s in this one bond that the strongest and most absolute passions in animal life – of attachment and of bereavement – are to be found.

And now see how this unique complex of love, fear, and defiance has fared in the laboratory. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed … but just how important?” – so asked Professor P. L. Broadhurst, introducing animal studies to a new generation in his popular  work The Science of Animal Behaviour (1963). It’s an ominous question coming from an experimental psychologist. In this case, it was preliminary to commending the work of Professor Harry Harlow, the man who had recently set about answering the question, in his Wisconsin laboratory, by depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their real mothers, and tempting them with various inorganic and savagely inadequate alternatives. Harlow’s experiments, metaphorically taking a blunt surgical knife to the principle of motherhood, cast a shadow of real iniquity over the whole of animal research – so much so, that a formal repudiation of them ought to be a condition of getting a licence under ASPA. But especially they have tainted and dishonoured the experimental study of imprinting and all its allotropes. The steady and unapologetic continuation of such study is a reminder, if one needed it, that in bio-science some things may at different times be illegal, but nothing is sacred.

Incidentally, it seems that there was a habit of jocularity in Harlow’s lab. I just mention it.

 

Notes and references:

The Oxford University research is reported in Science, 15 July 2016, vol.353, pp.286-88. The abstract is available online at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6296/286.

The illustration on the title-page of King Solomon’s Ring is by Konrad Lorenz, and shows a greylag goose with neck “outstretched in that gesture which, in geese, means the same as tail-wagging in a dog”.

The comment piece by Jennifer Vonk appeared in Current Biology, 19 Jan 2015, vol.25, pp.69-71, the research itself being reported in the same issue.

Steven Wise discusses Povinelli’s work with chimpanzees in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, U.K. edition by Profile Books, 2000, pp.230-34.

For more about Professor Harlow, see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How not to Treat Babies’.

 

 

 

How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him. Pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived.

Scepticism about our assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.

 

References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.