Philosophy at the Crick

The Francis Crick Institute in London (informally ‘the Crick’) is a huge research enterprise, “the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe”. Its ultra-modern building accommodates 1900 scientists collaborating across multifarious specialisms. The aim is “to make discoveries about how life works” and to turn these discoveries into medical therapies (one of its incorporated institutions is Cancer Research UK). Although so visibly and self-consciously progressive, this establishment which opened in 2016 is already the leading user of laboratory animals in the UK. It also supplies GM animals to other laboratories.

Crick facade

The Chief Executive Officer of the Crick is Sir Paul Nurse, the geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his research into the chemistry of cell division. Nurse is a most distinguished scientist, whose work has helped to explain what is more or less the essence of life: its ability both to replicate and to innovate, and therefore to turn from the first viable cell into a whole world of plants and animals, still on the go after three billion or so years. He has now written a book titled What is Life? Since he has unique authority to answer such a question, and since we may imagine that the monster Crick and its envisaged future are implicated in the answer, it must surely be a book worth studying.

What life isn’t, Nurse insists, is some peculiar force or substance distinct from the rest of the material world. Versions of that assumption, commonly termed ‘vitalism’, have dominated thinking in the past (even William Harvey, the pioneer of experimental biology, thought in that way), and they still survive here and there. But the contrary notion, that lives are “astoundingly complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, chemical and physical machines” is, so Nurse says, “now the accepted way to think about life.”

The book confirms and illustrates this thinking in the case of life’s smallest viable unit, and Nurse’s own specialism, the cell. Most of the book is in fact a lively biology lesson (though deplorably without graphic aids), likely to fascinate and educate anyone who hasn’t studied biology recently or gone past Ordinary Level and its equivalents. Still, it’s a popular summary, best interpreted as part of the Crick’s express ambition to “engage and inspire the public”. The book is well-designed to do that, and the purpose may explain why, for all the excursions into particular discoveries and how they happened, there is no mention of animal research. Anyway, What is Life? does answer its own question: to be called life, the book concludes, you must be a self-maintaining physical entity with the power and purpose to pass on your own natural form – either intact or with some unpredictable variance – to a succeeding generation.

Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, and one must look elsewhere for the book’s ideological force. If this book is the Crick’s address to the nation, what is it encouraging the nation, whether intentionally or otherwise, to feel and believe? Certainly it makes the machinery of life seem astonishing, as indeed it is, and Paul Nurse enjoys and insists on this – among other ways by using many an exclamation mark. A sense of wonder, then, but not merely contemplative wonder: it’s clearly linked to the activity of discovery. Some of the notable personalities and researches which have made the wonders known are sketched in, including those in Nurse’s own laboratories. There, for instance, it had initially seemed “slightly preposterous” to mix yeast cells and human DNA on a Petri dish, in order to determine whether the mechanism of cell-division in these far-distant life-forms might be exchangeable; however “it was worth a shot. And, amazingly, it did work!”   

So this book is partly about “the thrill of scientific discovery”. And in fact in its first edition it had the sub-title (subsequently dropped) Five Great Ideas in Biology, which clearly made the life-scene a function or aspect of the human mind. Well, of course it is that in some sense but, as Nurse concedes, life did get on without human awareness, let alone understanding, for almost all of its unimaginably long history.

Perhaps there’s only just a distinction here, between wonder at the phenomena of life, and the excitement of knowing about them. But I think that the distinction is brought out by the place which humans enjoy in the life-scene as viewed by Nurse.

He does make the point again and again that “we humans are related to every other life form on the planet”, including, of course, the yeast cells which he first worked with. He also insists that this puts upon us a responsibility “to care about it” and “to care for it”. In this can be seen how much has had to be learnt since a previous celebrated attempt on this same subject, William Beck’s Modern Science and the Nature of Life, published in 1957. That’s a book which likewise persuaded its readers against vitalism, tracing the gradual revelation of the chemico-physical basis of life, and incidentally foreseeing exactly the work for which Paul Nurse earned the Nobel Prize. Having established that there is no other-worldly motive taking care of things, Beck concluded that “Man . . . is going to have to look after himself.” And he gave it this portentous last line: “Man has already done much, but it is dawn, not midnight, and, in the gathering light, he looks magnificent.” (No smirking, please; this was 60 years ago.)

That is not Nurse’s attitude at all, but still he does take for granted that humanity is a special case. A recurring feature of the book are the short runs or lists of life-types: “towering forests, swarming colonies of ants, huge networks of underground fungi, herds of mammals on the African savannah, and very much more recently, modern humans.” In these lists, humans seem always to come at the end like that. The suggestion is irresistibly that humans are indeed the culmination, or at least the point of rest. And there is no encouragement to efface our special interest: Nurse habitually speaks of “we humans”, “ourselves”, “our own”, “us humans”, even “our world”.

what is life cover

I’m sure this is deliberate, part of the “engage and inspire” policy; and after all, his readers all are humans. Still, the net effect is not so different from William Beck’s more candid heroics. And I believe that it leads to a subtle misrepresentation of the true case. In the later part of his book, where Nurse speaks (in rather general terms) about the necessity of science as a means “to make life better”, he includes among the beneficiaries of this amelioration “the ecosystems that we are an inextricable part of”. Well, are we? Certainly we can’t do without the ecosystems, but they could surely do perfectly well – much better, in fact – without us. We are extricable. It’s strangely anthropocentric not to acknowledge or even notice this.

You may have remarked in Nurse’s definition of life as reported above the rather surprising idea that life has “purpose” – surprising not just because this seems a distinctly mental property for entities which include single cells, but also because Nurse often calls organisms “living machines”. But of course the purpose in question is a matter of action or behaviour, not thought. What we observe in these machines are “purposeful behaviours that have evolved because they improve the chances of living things achieving their fundamental purpose, which is to perpetuate themselves and their progeny.” And in his chapter about evolution (one of the ‘five great ideas’), Nurse qualifies the term, speaking more accurately of “the apparent purposefulness of living things [my italics].” Meanwhile evolution itself, the great biological machine to which all these lesser machines are subordinate, operates “without any controlling intellect, defined end goal, or ultimate driving force.”

Seemingly purposeful behaviours in the toils of a purposeless will: the tragic pathos of this situation is not remarked upon by Nurse, who doesn’t pretend to give philosophical or moral commentary (though he is fairly free with generalized phraseology of the “vast and awe-inspiring universe” sort). But looking to future research, especially research into the nature of consciousness, he does believe that it will need co-operation “between the humanities and the sciences”, and he specifies the contribution of philosophers. Certainly I was impressed, reading What is Life?, by the natural fit it would make in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer – who did believe, in his turn, that philosophy should be able to account for the natural sciences.

Contemplating the world now pictured for us in What is Life?, Schopenhauer inferred a great impersonal and impartial drive activating all lives, lending them temporary purposes which they think (in the case of humans) their own, urging them into procreation and pitilessly discarding them. He called this drive the Will, and he said this about it:

It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature which is manifested.

This Will is not itself life, it is not even evolution (which is simply one expression of its ceaseless push within life), but it’s the existential condition for all the lives which Paul Nurse writes about. And what it especially adds to Nurse’s account is the unity of all life not just as to cellular structure or basic genes (which of course Schopenhauer, writing in the early nineteenth century, didn’t know about), but as to experience: all lives are helpless vehicles of the one Will, are therefore part of the one experience. We aren’t just relatives of those ants, fungi, forests, and herds of mammals; in all but the externals we are them.

Schopenhauer is sometimes said to have ‘demoted’ humans in his thinking: no, he just didn’t start with an assumption of their special status; he didn’t promote them. Notably he didn’t give them special rights over any others. Accordingly, he hated and denounced vivisection. Paul Nurse is right: we need him and his like at the Crick.

Notes and references:

Quotations about the Crick are from its web-site at https://www.crick.ac.uk/

What is Life? was first published by David Fickling Books in 2020. The quotations are from the paperback edition of 2021. It’s not a long book – 212 pp. in large well-leaded type. It’s also authoritative, informative, and pleasant to read – therefore well worth reading, though the concluding remarks about climate change, the future, etc., are unsurprising and only of interest because an influential scientist is saying them.

Modern Science and the Nature of Life, by William S. Beck, was first published in 1957. Quotations are from p.292 of the Penguin Books edition of 1961.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is quoted from the Dover Books edition of 1969, vol.1, p.110. The two-volume work was originally published in 1819 and 1844.

The Horse Misused

On Monday 19 July, the BBC documentary programme Panorama took a view of one wholly unglamorous aspect of horse-racing – the fate of the many thousands of thoroughbred horses that ‘leave’ racing each year (about 7000 in UK alone), or that never show the capacity for it. Some hundreds die on the track. Others die in training, for it’s an unnaturally demanding life, and the horses are bred for speed not strength or stamina; one such was the horse Morgan, a seven-year old whose corpse the trainer Gordon Elliot was recently photographed using as a convenient seat while making a phone call. Some horses are lucky enough to be placed by the industry’s own Retraining of Racehorses scheme, though they make problematic companion animals and nervy riding. Then there are the thousands, not publicly spoken about, that are simply destroyed.

Horses at Drurys

Much of the material for Panorama’s ‘The Dark Side of Horse Racing’ came from investigative work done by Animal Aid, including film secretly taken at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse in Swindon, which specializes in equines (destined for human or animal food). Astonishingly there were indeed race-horses finishing their lives of service there. They included three that had at one time been in Gordon Elliott’s stables in Ireland, and had raced successfully for him, now trucked over to Swindon to die. The contrast between the moneyed and showy world of racing as publicly visible, and these sordid, uncared-for and violent endings, seems especially treacherous and shameful, but the film showed all varieties of horse and pony suffering in that place. There were former pets, special breeds, and wild ponies, some being shot ‘correctly’ (muzzle of the gun against the forehead), some illegally from a distance (“as if you’re on safari”, said Panorama’s presenter). Also illegally, some horses were being shot while others stood next to them. The handling was rough and impatient, the language foul. So “Welcome to F. Drury and Sons” where “all welfare and processing are done to the highest standards”.

At the very end of Animal Aid’s newly published leaflet on the subject, Horse Slaughter in the UK, comes the moving and very proper statement, “we do not think that horses are more important than any other poor animal who enters a slaughterhouse. We campaign for all of them – including horses.” Someone who shared this point of view about the animals, but for a more or less opposite reason – in that he wished them all to share the lower standard of respect – was by chance the subject of another BBC programme a few days after ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’. Radio 4’s weekly obituary programme ‘Last Words’ reviewed the life and work of William ‘Twink’ Allen, a pioneer of research into equine reproduction. Professor Allen considered that racing was being deprived by the Home Office of the rewarding possibilities of reproductive science (for instance, it wouldn’t allow him to clone horses) for purely “political” reasons, simply “because the horse is an emotive species.”

Not that Professor Allen didn’t like horses: “I would not have become a vet if I did not like animals”, he has said. (No doubt the vet supervising the massacre at Drury and Sons would say the same.) In one of the many obituaries published in professional journals, a colleague calls Allen “a genuine horse-lover”, illustrating the sincerity by citing his enthusiasm for hunting. Indeed, Allen was co-founder of Vets for Hunting, a lobby group since re-named with less tally-ho as the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. But whatever may have been his personal feelings for horses and other animals, the moral context for his relations with them, and in particular for his research, was severely practical, not to say rudimentary: “a domestic animal”, he told a House of Lords committee in 2002, “is man’s product, essentially for man’s use. It would not be there unless man had decided to produce it. We either eat it, have entertainment with it, ride it, use it for sport, or whatever.” That committee included the distinguished ethical philosopher Baroness Warnock, but Professor Allen was not seriously challenged on this or any other aspect of his ethics or practices.

And certainly, in the case of the horse, he had “decided to produce it” in every possible way, with or without the natural co-operation of the animals. His various obituarists seem particularly to relish the story of a two-day car journey which he made from Cambridge to Krakow in 1976, transporting six Welsh pony embryos stored in the oviducts of a pair of rabbits. On arrival the embryos were extracted again and introduced into ‘recipient mares’. As far as I can understand the account published at the time in the Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, three of the Krakow mares became normally pregnant, though what became of them or the embryos after this success (or of the rabbits, for that matter) is not stated. Who cared, after all? The point is that “the ligated rabbit oviduct would seem to provide an eminently suitable means of temporarily storing and transporting horse embryos.”

Of course ‘normally pregnant’ is not quite the right wording. The report of this research is crowded with drugs, and with surgical and other interventions, necessary to induce synchronized oestrus (sexual receptivity) and ovulation in the mares, and to effect the transfers: injections of synthetic prostaglandin, “daily teasing with a stallion”, blood sampling, “palpation of the ovaries per rectum, flushing out of the embryos with “Dulbecco’s phosphate-buffered saline”, ligating of the rabbits’ oviducts – all this before we’ve even left Cambridge. It’s not such a fun story after all, then.

A great deal has happened in horse-reproduction research since 1976, much of it carried through by Professor Allen. But the wastefulness, the gruesome interventions, and the grotesque impropriety of the Krakow project have lived on in what came after. Even the names given with bluff facetiousness to the ‘donor’ ponies at the Cambridge end – Choc-Ice, Dairy Cream, Iced Lolly, etc. – seem to have been part of a tradition: when Allen created the first-ever identical twins, by “bisection and reconstruction” of a horse embryo, the names given to them were Quickzee and Eezee – ‘man’s products’ indeed, being clearly branded as such. Incidentally, Allen’s own persisting nick-name ‘Twink’ had been conferred on him in childhood, as a corruption of Rip Van Winkle, although ‘Twink’ himself was wholly unlike the amiably indolent and laissez-aller character of that story. Professor Allen was not just highly industrious but, as the radio obituary said, and as his research career vividly evidenced, “endlessly curious”.

He was fascinated in particular by the possibilities of embryo transfer between different species. Ten years after the Krakow report, for instance, he was transferring embryos from two Przewalski’s horses (a Mongolian wild horse species) and two Grant’s zebras, kept at London Zoo, into various ponies and donkeys at Cambridge. That didn’t mean four embryos in all: eleven early-stage embryos were taken from the Przewalski’s horses (after 18 “collection attempts”) and fourteen from the zebras (after 25 attempts). Following the transfers, there were twelve pregnancies, of which six reached natural term, producing four live foals, three of which survived. That’s the maths summary. Behind it was a year-long story of drugs and surgery, forced waste, and suffering: still-births, abortions, and premature deaths of foals, involving for the recipient mares “abdominal discomfort . . . non-infective polyarthritis . . . pregnancy toxaemia syndrome . . . acute painful polyarthritis”, and so on.

This particular project was presented by Professor Allen and his co-authors as evidence that “extra-specific embryo transfer may be a useful aid to breeding exotic equids in captivity.” Well, that’s always been a declared aim of the big zoos, to breed for conservation, and a large part also of their official justification for mass-confining animals for show, though it deals with exactly the wrong end of the problem of species decline. Accordingly, the research was supported by the London Zoological Society.

More surprisingly, that same research was part-funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association. But in fact the interests which these two organisations stand for have provided the principal motive and most of the funds for all of Allen’s research into ARTs (assisted reproductive techniques). They were indeed the sponsors for Allen’s Equine Fertility Unit at Newmarket, set up in 1989 and the place where much of his work was done. And of course what they wanted and still want from such research is not conservation of zebras, not even (except incidentally) improved health in race-horses, but a better return on the money invested in horse-racing: winners, in short. For as Professor Allen told the House of Lords committee, “you are paying very large sums of money to have a particularly valuable mare covered by an even more valuable stallion, and you lose that money when the pregnancy is lost.” But it’s not just a case of ensuring pregnancies. Moving embryos between animals can free up valuable mares for racing or for further breeding; it can multiply progeny and improve the chances of raising a winner. Other ARTs, such as artificial insemination and cloning, offer similar scope for the thorough exploitation of winning genes.

But strangely, since the racing industry funded so much of Allen’s research, it still does not allow horses that have been force-bred in any of these ways to be registered for either breeding or competition. In fact, the Equine Reproduction Unit was closed down in 2007. Of course Professor Allen was exasperated by this conservatism. He often pointed out that traditional breeding is wasteful and inhumane. It certainly is inhumane, but not because copulation is inherently unpleasant for horses. The cruelty comes from hard-driving it for commercial purposes, in order to mass-produce winning potential. Allen’s researched alternatives simply shifted the burdens of this unnatural demand onto a different set of horses, with different sorts of imposed suffering. That the racing establishment has not after all accepted these alternatives, whose cruel rehearsals it has been funding for all these years, is just another variation on the industry’s habit of squandering life.

In fact the logo for horse-racing organizations should be, not the horse’s head so much favoured, but the whip, representative image of the force which characterizes the industry’s relation to its breadwinner from start to finish. It may be said that Professor Allen’s hubristic researches at the one end, and Drury and Sons’ bloody work at the other, don’t fairly summarize the whole enterprise. For many years I lived next to a National Hunt training stable, and there, far from the race-courses and breeding establishments, it was easy to admire the beauty of the horses, the skill and courage of the riders – especially of the stable lads, who do generally respect and understand their allotted horses – and in fact the whole picturesque ensemble. But it is indeed an industry, and the horses have to make it pay. Human selfishness, impatience, and cruelty are therefore not accidents but systemic to it. The whole unhappy truth has been brilliantly presented in Animal Aid’s various reports over the years. I urge you in particular to watch its new four-minute film about horse slaughter, linked below, and to sign its current parliamentary petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/585547.

horse corpse

Notes and references:

The title phrase comes from William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’: “A horse misused upon the road / Calls to Heaven for human blood.”

Animal Aid’s ‘Horse Slaughter in the UK’ can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/571718345. Warning: it’s a record of scarcely credible callousness, including scenes which the Panorama programme considered too distressing to show on television. Other reports on Animal Aid’s web-site include ‘Bred to Death’ (https://www.animalaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/bred.pdf) and a summary of its various race-horse campaigns here: https://www.animalaid.org.uk/the-issues/our-campaigns/horse-racing/

Panorama’s ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’ can be viewed (at time of writing, anyway) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai44cpAVI5M

The quotation promoting Drury and Sons comes from their web-site at https://www.fdruryandsons.co.uk/

The account by Allen and others of the Krakow project was published in the journal Reproduction and Fertility in August 1976, and can be read online here: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/387.pdf  The twin foals are spoken of in a brief account of his own career by Professor Allen here: https://srf-reproduction.org/professor-w-r-twink-allen-cbe-scd-frcvs/. Other quotations are taken from the evidence which he gave, on 5 February 2002, to the House of Lords select committee convened to examine the workings of the 1986 Act: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldselect/ldanimal/999/2020505.htm. The report on ‘extra-specific’ embryo transfer was published in the journal Reproduction in May 1987, and can be read online here: https://rep.bioscientifica.com/view/journals/rep/80/1/jrf_80_1_002.xml

The obituary quoted on Allen’s love of hunting was published by the British Equine Veterinary Association here: https://www.beva.org.uk/Home/News-and-Views/Latest-News/Details/Professor-William-Twink-Allen—6-June-2021

The first photograph is from Animal Aid’s film, and shows three horses arriving at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse. The second is the one referred to in the opening paragraph.

Killing Our Way towards Immortality

In a TEDx talk given in 2017, the neurosurgeon Sergio Carnavero asserts that the time for head transplantation “is now.” The special problems of such an operation have been solved, he says, notably by his own “head anastomosis venture” – deliberately thus named, no doubt, to produce the tasteful acronym HEAVEN. With a cowboy swagger in his movements and indeed in his talk, he informs the audience that this development will have “changed your lives forever . . . the world will never be the same again.”

Demikhove dogs, 1954

The idea of head transplantation has interested and exercised some few surgeons for over a hundred years, the exercise part being carried through, of course, upon animals. A celebrated instance was Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dog of 1954 – made celebrated by the Soviet Union authorities, that is, though the dogs survived wretchedly for a few days only (Demikhov went on to do more of the same). But the surgeon so far best known for this type of research is the one whom Carnavero speaks of at the beginning of his talk: Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and scientist working at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio. This man is now the subject of a biography written by the medical historian Brandy Schillace, and titled Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (page references to this book are in square brackets).

Schillace cover

Previous operations of this kind had really been upper body transplants, as the pathetic image of Demikhov’s dogs shows. Dr White, however, was aiming at a reconstituted human, and he therefore worked with severed heads and decapitated bodies. In 1965 he re-made six dogs in this way, using six donors and six recipients. The results ‘lived’ from 6 to 36 hours after the surgery. Meanwhile he had practised isolating the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys and servicing these brains from the blood supply of their detached bodies or of intact fellow-monkeys. (At this period of rehearsal, there were apparently 300 heads of monkeys, “frozen or floating in alcohol”, stored in his laboratory [104].) Then in 1970 he took the next step, completely transplanting the heads of four macaques onto the bodies of four others. One of these operations is fully described by Dr Schillace on her book. The reconstituted monkey in this case survived “for almost nine days before the body rejected the head” [126]. During that time, the monkey was completely paralyzed, because there was no way to re-connect the spinal cord.

So here is another research-scape of mutilated and short-lived animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and monkeys have all been made to serve this cause. And what really has the cause been? In 1989, Ingrid Newkirk, of the recently founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, publicly debated the matter with Robert White in his home town, Cleveland. She accused him of exploiting the animals “only to prove what you have the skill and the power to do” [185]. In reply, White very reasonably instanced the patients whom his more conventional work as a neurosurgeon had saved. Characteristically, for he enjoyed showmanship, he brought one of them along to illustrate his case: “I would like to introduce a guest. Carla, could you stand?” (Sensation!) [187]. But he couldn’t bring along anyone saved by head-transplantation, because there hadn’t yet been such a person (nor has there been now). Moreover, he could not envisage an operation which would leave the head in control of its alien body; it would be using that paralyzed body only as a life-support system, just as those macaques in their brief new lives had been. But then even the fully integrated human body was properly understood, so White asserted, as “a machine for the brain” [69]. (Is this how one would like one’s doctor, or indeed anyone else, to think?)

Dr Schillace reckons that White prevailed in that debate, but there is evidence in the book that supports Ingrid Newkirk’s accusation against him. White was fascinated by the surgical technology of the operation, and proud of what he and the teams of professionals he led could do (the Humble in the book’s title refers to a sobriquet he used for himself as a joke: ‘Humble Bob’). When the monkey whose operation is described in the book showed returning signs of intelligent life (intelligent enough to try to bite Professor White’s hand), we’re told that “the operating room erupted in cheers. Several team members danced; one of them screamed.” [125] But the book’s photograph of the monkey’s suffering face does not seem to warrant that triumphalism, and one of those present has more recently said of the experience, “It was just awful . . . I don’t think it should ever be done again.” [220]

Although Dr Schillace puts, in the course of her book, some of the ethical and even spiritual questions raised by Robert White’s research, he himself does not seem to have been greatly interested in them. That may partly have been because White was a comfortably orthodox Catholic, not inclined to re-think ethics. True, he was an advisor to the Pope on medical ethics, as chairman of the Vatican’s commission on the subject, but that meant strictly human-related ethics; above all it meant the rather pragmatic question, what counted as dying and what didn’t? White insisted that it was in the brain that the soul resided or at least made its earthly connection; as long as the brain worked, the soul had not departed, and so personal life continued. The heart, formerly viewed as the core of personhood, was part of the “machine” only. You can see why this way of looking at the human body, now well-established, would help to justify White’s research project. For otherwise, taking the functioning body of a vegetating person, and using it to service the head of a person whose own body had been failing, might be viewed as premature or even criminal.

I don’t know that Professor White ever more than hinted at the idea that head-transplantation might be a means to everlasting life (Carnavero does distinctly say so, and the absurd acronym HEAVEN must be taken to imply as much). That would surely involve an orthodox Christian in serious difficulties. But the nature of the operation does at least suggest a clinging to earthly life at all costs – and the costs would certainly be enormous, not just in professional resources but also in the engrossing, on behalf of one patient, of a complete set of donor organs which might individually save several lives. I don’t mean to trip up his theology in this matter – what would be the point? – but here was a man who believed that our “God-created immortality”, so Shillace tells us, was what “differentiated humans from all other animals.” [197] You’d suppose, then, that those dogs and monkeys had a lot more to lose by premature death than we humans, who will apparently be going on to much better things. And it would surely be the animal in us, rather than the immortal soul, which shrinks from death. Why devote such riches to that secular motive, then?

But for White the soul privileged us just as much in this world as in the next. He called himself “an elitist”, and his outlook was indeed elitist through and through: the natural world served humans, and the human body served the brain, and the brain served the soul, and the soul served God. For all the advanced science, it’s a ruthlessly traditional supernaturalist outlook. In such a scheme, the bulk of animated life on earth is just a serviceable context; it has no status of its own.

Even in 1990, when he’d had some experience of the animal rights argument, and some practice in responding to it, White could see nothing there: “Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue”, he wrote in an essay for an academic journal of bio-ethics [171]. He also actively promoted this point of view (if one can call it that) to a more general audience too, as the debate with Ingrid Newkirk illustrates. In fact the simplicity of his thinking suited Reader’s Digest rather better than it did a highbrow publication like the one just quoted, the Hastings Center Report (he published in both). In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer describes White’s ethical arguments as “comparable to maintaining that the earth is flat”. It’s characteristic of those arguments that his knock-down point in that Cleveland debate, after which he felt entitled to rest his case (“I really don’t know what else to say” [187]), was to associate anti-vivisection with Adolf Hitler.

However, Professor White did not anyway consider that such questions were properly decided by argument, philosophical or not. In ethical matters, he said, “there are no navigation maps” or, as Dr Schillace paraphrases it, “The only lodestone is a man’s conscience.” [219]  One must surely respect a conscience which has been exercised or at least informed by the constant practice of life-saving surgery such as Professor White’s clinical work required of him. Or is that naïve and even sentimental? It’s one of the sad effects of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher that it seems to answer ‘yes’ to that question. An untroubled conscience surely ought to be a contradiction in terms, outside gangland anyway, but it’s the primary mark of White’s ethical simpletonism that he seemed to possess one. About those monkeys, for instance, Schillace says of him, “He had no qualms whatsoever.” [231] A producer for the film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, for which White was employed as medical consultant because the plot involved some gruesome transplanting of heads, found him “supremely untroubled by the implications of his work.” [231]

Well, perhaps he had fought his way to that serenity, through all the trials and agonies of medical practice, including a period as a trauma surgeon, as well as the gruesome demands of his chosen research? But no, serenity isn’t quite what we see in him; self-assurance certainly, impatience of scruple, a disconcerting flippancy. As to this last, we’re told that he was “well-known for practical jokes” [67]. The immediate illustration of this trait is an elaborate jape involving a road accident and the brain of a cow collected from a slaughterhouse – too elaborate to retell here, even supposing I wanted to. On another occasion, he provided a sandwich lunch for himself and some others, including a priest present on ethical business, at an operating table on which there also lay the ex-sanguinated and apparently dead body of a dog. After lunch, the professor revived the dog, thereby showing that since he had kept the brain alive (by cooling it, a technique pioneered by White himself), he could make the rest live again too: ‘Maybe like Christ?’ suggests White to the priest “with a mischievous wink”. [189]

I doubt the complete veracity of both these stories, but probably only because I’d much prefer that they weren’t true. They do fit his personality; otherwise Dr Schillace herself surely wouldn’t have believed them. That wink certainly is all too credible, and there are in the book many other instances of White’s taste for tricks and facetiousness. For Schillace, these boyish moments help to humanize her subject, and in fact she goes in for homely touches of all kinds for the same reason: brief glimpses of “unflappable” wife Patricia, of the kids (one “soon to be driving”, another “would soon be out of diapers”), of White’s pipes and cups of coffee. But such evidences that White was just as human as you or I are rather beside the point. This was a man who enjoyed being referred to as “the new Modern Prometheus” (The Modern Prometheus being the sub-title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein), and who told a symposium of transplant scientists that, with head transplantation, we had reached and crossed “the last frontier”. “We venture into the void” he grandly said, “and we will go on.” [158] It’s not practical jokes, ten children, and addiction to pipe and caffeine, that will convince us that such a man is entitled to lead us into the void (if someone must, which is altogether doubtful). Some very much larger-minded person is required: for a start, one who won’t assume it right to hustle weaker animals into it first.

And now a new man is forcing the pace into that void. Sergio Carnavero has a more unorthodox and perhaps more apt cosmology to go with it (he regards the brain as the “filter” for a world-consciousness). He has even more of the bumptious showman in him than Robert White had. He firmly believes that he and his colleagues have solved the problem of the severed spine – solved it in animals, of course, for behind his research too there’s a trail of ruined animals. It may be that head-transplantation is indeed possible, even imminent, though most neuro-scientists deny one or both. It may be that it’s a legitimate project, for all its gothically transgressive implications; just as likely, it’s a hugely expensive fantasy. Either way, it will never have justified the animal mayhem which has serviced it.

Notes and references:

A Tedx talk is one that uses the TED format but is organised independently of the TED organisation. Carnavero’s talk is actually “flagged” by TED as “speculative” and raising “practical and ethical concerns”. It can be viewed here:    

https://www.technologynetworks.com/neuroscience/videos/head-transplantation-the-future-is-now-tedx-talk-by-drsergio-canavero-295184

Most of the information about Robert White is of course taken from the book Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (Simon and Schuster, 2021). I should add that the author is naturally much more aware of animal-related ethics than Professor White was, and in fact shows that White’s research did much to galvanize the animal rights movement of the time. ‘Dr Butcher’ was a name given to White by animal rights activists.

Other historical and technical information comes from a 2016 article in Acta Chirurgica, online here – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116034/ – and from a 2019 article in Maedica: a Journal of Clinical Medicine, online here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6511668/

In Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, pp.75-6, White is quoted calling himself an elitist during a press interview; his point there is that decisions about animal research should be made by medical professionals and not by outsiders. In addressing lay audiences on the subject, he always urged them to deplore and resist federal or state regulation of the practice.

The familiar ‘Hitler argument’ is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/a-troubling-and-unsavoury-contradiction/

The photograph of the dogs shows the results of Demikhov’s 1954 operation.

Animal Research in the Year of Coronavirus

Statistics of live-animal research in Great Britain during 2020 have now been published by the Home Office. There was a total of 2,883,310 procedures, a fall of 15% from the previous year’s 3,401,517. So here too there was a Covid-boon for the animals; the notional 500,000 or so animals that might have been used in experiments, but weren’t, join the other groups of animals that found space, quiet, or simply survival as a consequence of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, because this relatively dramatic reduction to a level last seen in 2004 is candidly admitted by most of the practising institutions to be a freak of the moment. As Edinburgh University cautions on its web-site, “Please note . . . It is expected that these figures will increase in 2021 as more standard working patterns resume.” And anyway it may be that the 500,000 didn’t after all survive. It can’t be known, because numbers of animals killed without ever being used in procedures are only collected for one year in every five, and the next year to be counted will be 2022.

There is, at any rate, no reason for anyone to take credit for the reduction in numbers. In fact, rather ominously, there seems to have been no inclination to do so, or to celebrate it at all; rather, the pandemic has been seen by animal-research institutions as a boost to their confidence and reputation. The tone has been set by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), whose Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett says in her official statement,

Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments . . . The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed, and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.

UAR has indeed “worked with research institutions”, and it’s noticeable how prompt they’ve all been to declare their part in the 2020 numbers, and to use UAR’s publicity material to help them along. Even so self-sufficient an institution as Cambridge University (now exceeding Oxford University in animal numbers) presents its ‘Research news’ largely in UAR’s words and format, just adding a word or two from their own Establishment Licence Holder.

The Medical Research Council (third biggest user of animals in 2020, and financer of other users) has a special web-page providing “examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against Covid-19”. But the examples are being used to make a more general point, for we’re told that the expertise employed in this Covid research “is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.” Both past and future of animal research are being justified by today’s “fight against Covid-19”, then. Indeed, taking an even more expansive advantage of the present situation, the MRC’s page makes this grand assertion: “Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases.” Now we know why some people survived the Black Death. The case is complete.

Britflag

Another important point made by the MRC about this animal research is that it has “helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against Covid-19 [my italics].That’s certainly very gratifying, even if one hadn’t formerly pictured the research as an international competition. And no doubt it explains why UAR’s table summarizing the numbers is presented against an image of the Union Jack (though properly it should be the ‘British flag’, since Northern Ireland is not included in these numbers), with a strong red and blue colour-theme carried through in the layout. You see, it’s patriotic, it’s British, to experiment on animals.

In fact, for Understanding Animal Research there’s an exciting spirit of competition even within the nation. Alongside the more or less factual presentation of the 2020 statistics, we get a page headed ‘Ten organisations account for nearly half of all animal research in Great Britain in 2020’. This so-called “Top ten list” has become a traditional feature of its annual reporting, but now it’s being taken up by the individual institutions themselves. Glasgow University, for instance, re-publishes UAR’s table, proudly highlighting its own seventh position. Since all these institutions advertise (they’re required by UAR’s Concordat to advertise) their commitment to reducing the use of animals, the word ‘top’ seems incongruous, and the whole approach has always puzzled me. But then how can a list headed by the gigantic Francis Crick Institute (“Discovery without boundaries”), the University of Cambridge, and the MRC, be anything other than a variety of medal table? So it’s a PR device: these are the high achievers, and this is what they do, so it’s a good – indeed a glamorous – thing to be doing. And that advertised commitment to the 3Rs (reduction, etc.) comes across accordingly as a sort of modesty, taking the swagger out of the boastfulness: shucks, we try not to do this, but we just can’t help doing it awfully well.

Oxford University, coming fourth in this table, has not altered its animal-research pages for the occasion, except to edit the numbers themselves. However, a statement from its ‘Covid-19 vaccine team’ appears in UAR’s pages, explaining that the testing of its vaccine on rhesus macaque monkeys was done by Public Health England (at Porton Down) and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. This farming out of the tests partly explains Cambridge’s higher placing this year: that university used 41 non-human primates in 2020, compared to Oxford’s 15. Come on, Oxford!

So much for the publicity. As for the numbers themselves, it’s difficult to see any special pattern in them, aside from the temporary reduction, the Covid-dividend. As ever, the species most commonly used was the mouse, especially in procedures aimed at the production of genetically altered animals: altogether, over 2 million mice were used. These mice, with rats (notably more of these than last year), fish, and birds (mostly chickens), accounted for over 95% of all procedures. The number of horses continues to rise (to 10,790); they were mainly used for blood products. The number of cats also went up, by 11% to 146; no explanation is given, but 62 of the cats were apparently wanted for regulatory testing (i.e. tests required by national or international safety regulations).

This latter class of procedure, forming about one third of all experiments, is the worst of them for cruelty, and not by chance the one least spoken of by research apologists. Whereas about 4% of the experimental procedures are classed as causing ‘severe’ pain or distress (it’s 2% for breeding procedures), for regulatory testing in particular the rate is 9%. Six of the cats fell into that category, and 11 into the ‘moderate’. Dogs of course were there in much greater numbers: 4340 of them were used in regulatory tests, of which 9 were classed as ‘severe’, and 1013 as ‘moderate’.

Neither dogs nor cats should have been there at all, in any category or any laboratory, but then nor should any of the other animals. The whole set of statistics is a record of selfishness and cowardice; in fact the re-iterated justifications for such research – that it’s essential for human health, and the necessary condition of all medical progress – even supposing them true, are just a less embarrassing way of saying that same thing.

Notes and references:

The animal research statistics for 2020 were published on 15 July. They can be viewed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1002895/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2020.pdf   The tables of data are published separately, and the link to them can be found on this page, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2020

The two presentations from Understanding Animal Research are here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-research-numbers-2020/  and (with the ‘top ten list’) https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/ten-organisations-account-for-nearly-half-of-all-animal-research-in-great-britain-in-2020/  The animal research pages of the ten institutions are linked here, but note that both Glasgow and the MRC seem to have thought better of the ones from which I have quoted, and as far as I can see they are no longer accessible.

There’s a good oppositional response to the annual statistics from Naturewatch, which also asks what happened to the good policy intentions published in 2014/15 (for which see this blog on 8 August 2020): https://mailchi.mp/naturewatch/breaking-news-how-many-animals-suffered-for-science-last-year-5097514?e=afb349bcaa Naturewatch also suggests actions to take, including e-mails to government ministers, with sample text offered here: https://action.naturewatch.org/call-time-animal-experiments

Harry Harlow, the Undead

Catching up with my back copies of the Journal of Neuroscience, I come across a paper with this title: ‘The Signature of Maternal Rearing in the Methylome in Rhesus Macaque Prefrontal Cortex and T Cells’. It’s a clear enough title, if hard going for amateurs, but the reference to the maternal rearing of monkeys ought to be a tautology. Is there any other sort of rearing? Yes, indeed there is, as the research protocol soon makes clear: rhesus macaque monkeys [nineteen of them] are randomly assigned at birth to differential rearing conditions by either their mother or an inanimate, cloth-covered surrogate.” Among the effects of the less natural infant upbringings, we learn, are “emotional and social disturbances . . . behavioural abnormalities . . . inadequate social skills . . . increased voluntary alcohol consumption.” The ‘signature in the methylome’ and so on are the corresponding neural evidences of these distresses. (Incidentally, that word “voluntary” has its own unhappy story to tell.)

If something seems unpleasantly familiar to you about this research, then one of its lead authors, Professor Allyson Bennett, is the very person to correct you. Writing less formally, in fact in ill-advised satirical style, she has posted a sort of mock news-story on the web-site of Speaking of Research (she’s a member of its governing committee). “Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged”, says the heading, and the text begins “The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil on Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over thirty years ago.” There follows some lumbering fun with the theme that philosophers and animal activists have relied on Harlow as a sort of bogey-man to discredit animal research. Then Professor Bennett brings in, by way of contrast, a group of “fringe” philosophers who aim at “cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues”. This sounds a bit solemn in the context, but it’s meant seriously, for their message is, again, Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought plus action.”

Professor Harlow did indeed die in 1981, and, contrary to what Bennett supposes, it would be wholly welcome news to find that he was dead also in the sense intended by her: i.e. that the research methods, values, and attitudes represented in his experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys were discredited and finished with, that his story and theirs was over. But it isn’t, and what keeps it alive is not its campaigning value, such as that might be; it’s his fellow-professionals.

Here, then, is the explanation for Harlow’s deathlessness, and that article in the Journal of Neuroscience is a good place to start. Among Professor Bennett’s co-authors (thirteen of them) is Stephen J. Suomi. Back in the 1970s, Suomi was one of Harlow’s star post-graduate students and his assistant in some of the notorious ‘pit of despair’ research into infant isolation. He has since continued that work in various forms, creating “monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption” among many other achievements, as cross-references in the article show. Indeed, those citations go right back to a paper of 1976 titled ‘Effects of maternal and peer separation on young monkeys’, which he co-authored with Harlow. And now Professor Suomi, who must be at the senior end of that line-up of co-authors in the JN article, is evidently passing on the Harlow legacy to younger practitioners. After all, the last sentence of the article is looking forward: “Future experiments need to examine . . .” I’m sure that some of those other thirteen will be keen to oblige.

Of course, to say that more research is needed is a common enough winding-up trope; it was certainly one that Harry Harlow himself favoured. See, for instance, a paper which he wrote in 1965 about causing brain-damage to six new-born macaques by feeding them too much of the amino-acid phenylalanine in the milk of their artificial mother. At the end of it, he plants suggestions of uncertainty: “probably”, “perhaps”, “one suspects”. These unresolved things are for others to pursue. Or they might, he suggests, set about over-feeding “other amino acids” to other monkeys, on the same principle. Allyson Bennett rightly calls Harlow’s work “groundbreaking”, and Harlow meant that ground to be thoroughly developed by others as well as himself. He promoted macaques as behavioural models, manipulable in ways which he pioneered. He devised specialized cage-systems and holding-equipment for them. He lent out his ‘prepared’ infant monkeys to other institutions. He spoke of his work to public as well as professional audiences. Above all, he trained a new generation of scientists in the discipline which he had created. As an obituary in the American Journal of Primatology said in 1982, Harlow was “a legendary source of inspiration”.

clear pic with sur-mother

When Harry Harlow began his studies, he had to use monkeys at Madison’s zoo; by the time he retired, the university had about 500 in its own colony. Now Wisconsin is a national focus for primate research, accounting in its various primate research laboratories for 8,782 of the total of 68,257 non-human primates used in US laboratories in 2019. The focus of the behavioural part of that research is, of course, the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, which is indeed where Professor Bennett does much of her work. And even as she insists that the eponymous Harlow himself is dead, she asserts – what is indeed patent at Madison and far beyond – that his “discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding . . . etc.”  If I understand that sentence correctly, the verb ‘cast’ must be a present tense: the Harlow light is still brightly on.

In short, Professor Bennett is a bit like Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells the crowd “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, but then shows and indeed ensures that Caesar’s name and fame are as efficacious as ever.

Perhaps recognizing some contradiction here, Bennett has a go at de-toxifying Harlow’s reputation. The really controversial research, she says, the research which has “served as a touchstone [is that the word she wants?] for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others”, was done for “a brief time at the very end of his career”, and consisted in only “a small number of studies”. The most controversial of these, “known by their colloquial name pit of despair (actually Harlow’s own name for the isolation device which he had himself designed), involved fewer than twenty monkeys, who were “placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of six weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.” In other words, it’s all been exaggerated by that “bioethics community” for political purposes.

But no. Harlow was already reporting such studies in 1965, at least ten years before he stopped work (see the 1976 article referenced above). And what he said then – in a short summary for the journal Science, titled ‘Total Social Isolation: Effects on Macaque Monkey Behaviour’ – was that sixteen macaques (plus at least two “semi-isolated” monkeys as controls) had been put into isolation chambers “at birth”, without sight of any other living being, for periods of three, six, and twelve months.

Bennett’s corrective information is wrong, then. But even if it weren’t, that isolation research was no late aberration. It was one of countless variations upon a steady theme: the producing of mental disturbance in infant monkeys. We’ve seen that this wasn’t being done with changes of circumstance only. Those monkeys overdosed with phenylalanine had likewise been taken from their mothers at birth, and their various pathetic symptoms (convulsions, hyperactivity, head-banging and self-biting, circling the cage, complete torpor) may not have been much better than those suffered by the poor isolates, who at least got unpoisoned food. Among the other material interventions tried out by Harlow were bilateral frontal lobectomy, alcohol in the diet, and radiation.

Remember that these half-ruined young animals were then being tested for mental capacity (the psychology of learning had been Harlow’s starting-point in research). Those torpid monkeys, for instance, “had to be prodded to complete a trial.” Force was indeed a common recourse in the Harlow laboratory – a curious feature in studies supposedly revealing “the fundamental building blocks of human behaviour” (as the Association for Psychological Science believes they did). When Harlow wished his mother-deprived female monkeys to try out motherhood themselves, he got round their natural refusal with what he called, colloquially, the “rape rack”, though in print he was rather more coy about it: “By methods dark, dismal, and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years” (the “we”, in this case again, were Harlow and Suomi, in 1971). Incidentally, we’re told that “several” of these forced mothers passed on the violence by killing their importunate off-spring.

I won’t assess here the claims made by Professor Bennett for the human relevance of all this research, since the subject has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (‘How Not to Treat Babies’: see link in notes). However, she also more surprisingly claims that the research was relevant and helpful to non-human animals. At a time when they were regarded by most people as “dumb machines” and “automatons”, so she says, Harlow showed how mentally complex animals really were. So he did animals good, you see, even as he tormented them.

Actually, were they commonly regarded as automatons? The first federal law to protect animals in general was passed in 1966, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been particular legislation in their interests (at slaughter, during transport) well before that, as well as state legislation, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded a hundred years back in 1866. The ASPCA’s chief mover, Henry Bergh, spoke with passionate indignation against vivisection. The truth is that Harlow’s work was controversial at the time; in fact two Congressmen tried (unsuccessfully) to block a federal research grant for it in 1962. Nor do I find that Harlow anywhere took from his research any implication that favoured the interests of non-human animals. What he told his public about was not monkeys as sentient beings with corresponding claims on our respect, but monkeys as live models or pioneers of any and every mental disaster that could be imagined. And heaven knows, Harry Harlow had a fertile imagination in that respect.

And here we come to something about Harlow which Professor Bennett doesn’t attempt to manage, perhaps doesn’t quite appreciate, but which has helped to ensure his conspicuousness in the modern history of vivisection. Even in his publications, he seems to gloat over the strange sufferings and perversions that he creates. We’re told in the obituary that he was “an unusually gifted writer”. Certainly he liked fanciful alliterative phrases. You’ll remember those “methods dark, dismal and devious”. The obituary recalls him speaking of the “bold and barren splendor” of his wire and cloth surrogate mothers. Observing his (male) monkeys on their release from isolation, and their pathetic attempts to relate to their new associates, he looks for “the ecstasies and elegances of masculine play” and “the full grandiose gifts of masculinity”. Fine writing possibly, but with a creepy relish about it. In fact a colouring of perversion affects all Harlow’s work and writing. He’s a man one wouldn’t leave alone with the children, and it’s an abiding tragedy that he spent his life freely practising upon their like, and made a legacy of the habit which is still creating work for his successors. Yes, he lives on all right, and therefore the contention over the kind of reputation he ought to have is, in spite of what Professor Bennett says, completely proper and indeed necessary to our continuing attempts to make medical science a humane pursuit.

NIH lab c.2009

Notes and references:

The Journal of Neuroscience article is in the issue for 31 October 2012, vol. 32 (44), pp. 15626-15642.

The ‘Harlow Dead’ post on Speaking of Research’s web-site can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/08/03/harlow-dead-bioethicists-outraged/

Suomi’s monkey models of depression and alcoholism are instanced in a statement by the American Psychological Association defending this “world renowned researcher” from “a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr Suomi’s laboratory by the organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” See https://speakingofresearch.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/apa-suomi-letter-01-22-15.pdf

The report on induced phenylketonuria in rhesus macaques was published in Science, 12 February 1965, pp.685-95.

The obituary of Harry Harlow, written by Stephen Suomi and Helen Leroy (Harlow’s assistant as editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology), can be read here: https://www.academia.edu/19008017/In_memoriam_Harry_F._Harlow_1905-1981_ It includes a bibliography of Harlow’s publications.

The 2019 animal research numbers in the USA, including the figure for each state, can be found here: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/annual-reports/2019/fy19-summary-report-column-B.pdf

Harlow’s report ‘Total Social Isolation’ was published in Science on 30 April 1965, p.666.

The quotation from the Association of Psychological Science, one of the many scientific institutions which have expressed unconditional approval of Harlow’s work, can be found here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html

“dark, dismal, and devious . . etc.” is quoted from a paper titled ‘Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, July 1971, vol.68, no.7, p.1535. Here Harlow was experimenting with ways to cure the monkeys of their induced psychoses.

The relevance or otherwise to human babyhood of Harlow’s experiments is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/

The photographs show baby macaques with surrogate ‘mothers’ then and now: that is, in Harlow’s laboratory, and in a National Institutes of Health laboratory a few years ago.

A Scholar and a Good Man

In January of 1884, just in the middle of the vivisection controversy which was then agitating Oxford University, a portrait bust of George Rolleston, late Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy, was installed in the University Museum. It was made by the sculptor Henry Hope-Pinker – not from the life, because the subject had died in 1881 (aged only 51), but still it was a strong and appealing image, suggestive of an energetic and idealistic personality. And this Rolleston certainly had been. He was appointed a science lecturer in 1857 and then the first Linacre professor in 1860. That was the year the university’s Natural History Museum was opened, and Rolleston had been a vital force in the work of reviving science studies in the university, with the Museum collections as their focus.   

Hope-Pinker, Henry Richard, 1850-1927; George Rolleston (1829-1881)

Although the Museum was not yet completed (and still isn’t quite, as the façade itself shows clearly enough), the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held there in that year – a sort of benediction for the new Oxford science. Rolleston was present, of course; indeed he was one of its organizers, and was serving as president of the Physiology Section. His friend Thomas Huxley, already known as a combative champion of the scientific outlook in general and of Darwin’s just-published Origin of Species in particular, was one of his vice-presidents. It was in Rolleston’s section that a debate began over the question how much difference in form there was between the human brain and the brains of other primates. So animated and significant was the argument, that a more gladiatorial version of it was appointed for the end of the week, when Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (among others) famously disputed the matter before a packed assembly. Rolleston was already persuaded by the evolution thesis, and in fact craniometry, an aspect of comparative anatomy which formed an important part of Darwin’s argument, became a special interest of his, and a focus of the Museum’s study collection. The photograph reproduced here was taken by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), and shows Rolleston at this work.

GR by Dodgson, Museum Collection

Here then was a man right in the swim of contemporary science, at Oxford and nationally, at an exciting time of revival and progress. But he wasn’t quite the stream-lined lab-man that was characterizing the new physiology in Britain (as pictured, for instance, in Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Physiologist’s Wife’, reviewed elsewhere in this blog). He had read Classics at Pembroke College before studying for a medical qualification in London. Then he worked at the British Hospital in Smyrna just at the end of the Crimean War, and after that at the Children’s Hospital in London. During his first Oxford appointment, as Lee’s Reader in Anatomy, he continued to work as a doctor. The Linacre chair disallowed him from continued medical practice, but he was active on the city’s health board, for instance in dealing with Oxford’s share of the national smallpox epidemic of 1871. Then again, his academic interests were very broad, including ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as physiology and anatomy. Perhaps the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, had in mind this variety of attention when he wrote that Rolleston did not quite possess “the spirit of a Scientific man” [Desmond, p.134].

At any rate, ‘my profession, right or wrong’ was never Rolleston’s habit of thought. His period as professor of physiology coincided with a national campaign against vivisection, culminating in a Royal Commission and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Unlike most of his fellow-physiologists, Rolleston did not see the rights and wrongs of vivisection as a matter for professionals only. He believed, on the contrary, that people developed “the moral sense” through “knowledge of the world at large”, and that the narrow focus of research tended to take them in the opposite direction, “every kind of original research being a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness.” Such unscrupulousness had special scope in the practice of vivisection, which was therefore likely to be “more demoralizing than other kinds of devotion to research”. The practice was, in fact, “very liable to abuse”.

Those quotations come from the evidence which Rolleston gave to the Royal Commission in 1875. He was not – again, unlike his fellow-professionals – improvising a morality for the occasion, for he had not been taken by surprise, as they had, when vivisection became a national concern in that way. He had been putting the matter to his colleagues as a moral problem over many years.

It was something he first did formally during the British Association meeting at Newcastle in 1863, when he was serving, again, as president of the Physiology Section. The presidential addresses which prefaced the reading of papers were normally in the collective-congratulatory style, commending the year’s work in the subject. But Rolleston used a portion of his time for what the editor of the published proceedings, perhaps with slight distaste, called “some remarks upon vivisection”. The president put the anti-vivisection case to his fellow-physiologists, and then, more or less impartially, the answers to it which they might be inclined to make. By way of conclusion, he made an appeal to their pride of nation. “In a country like this,” he began, not meaning that imaginary ‘nation of animal-lovers’ still cited today, but rather, and more accurately, a country “where human life is highly prized”: in such a country, he said, all lives would naturally profit from that developed respect, and therefore “brute misery will never be wantonly produced.” It was a clever appeal, that word “will” implying as much a commitment made on his audience’s behalf as a logical deduction. And he finished, rather as a headmaster might finish cautioning his school, “in a British Association I need allude no further to the matter.”

But he did allude to it again, in 1870, when he was president of the whole Biology Section of the BA for its meeting in Liverpool. He seems now to have pressed the BA’s General Committee to take an interest. Among the special committees which it was appointing to examine such matters as luminous meteors, the Gaussian Constants, the fossil elephants of Malta, and ‘lunar objects suspected of change’, there was one deputed to formulate a statement for the British Association on “Physiological Experiments in their various bearings”. This committee was, besides, asked to consider “from time to time” (as a semi-permanent committee, then) what the BA itself might do to minimize animal suffering in “legitimate physiological inquiries” and to discourage the illegitimate kind. Professor Rolleston was to be the secretary. His committee of ten included two of the leading vivisectors of the day, Professors Foster and Burdon Sanderson.

Rolleston’s committee duly reported in 1871 (at Edinburgh now). Its members had come to a majority agreement on four modest principles: no painful experiment, where anaesthetic was possible, should be done without it; no painful experiment to be done for teaching or demonstration purposes; no painful experiment of any kind except at fully equipped laboratories “under proper regulations” (not specified); no operations to be done on animals merely in order to improve the surgical dexterity of vets. Seven members had signed these proposed principles. Ominously, Professor Foster had not. Nor was anything noted about the British Association’s endorsement of them, or about further intentions of any kind.

For most of the committee, and of the larger BA membership, this was probably understood as a convenient finish rather than a start to the theme. At any rate, the committee members showed no further interest in it, until obliged to do so as witnesses before the 1875 Royal Commission. When Burdon Sanderson and Foster, with two other physiologists, composed their Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, a compilation of methods and experiments published just three years after that Edinburgh meeting, there was no mention in it of any duty of care towards the animals. In particular, there was no advice on the use of anaesthetics. Rolleston must have felt, in 1875, that he was having to start again, and in fact he began his evidence to the Commission by referring back to that presidential address of 1863.

But now, of course, he was addressing an audience far beyond fellow-scientists. Professional solidarity in face of this public attention is a notable feature of the evidence given to that Commission by the scientists – loyalty to each other (“I do not know anywhere a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, etc.) and to their professional discipline. Moreover, Rolleston’s friend Thomas Huxley, by now the acknowledged voice of British science, was one of the Commissioners. It must have been both painful and hazardous for Rolleston to break ranks in such a situation. He said so: “I know that I am likely to be exceedingly abused.” Still he did it. He said that there were far more animal experiments than necessary (this at a time when they numbered about 500 a year in Britain). He said that they tended to habituate practitioners to animal suffering, so that, for instance, a lecturer might easily disregard the suffering in favour of “showing what he is worth”. He agreed with the suggestion put to him that the Handbook compiled by Professor Foster et al was “a dangerous book to society”. He even suggested that the sight of animal suffering, “of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism”, was likely to awaken the “sleeping devil” of positive cruelty in those present (for the truth of which, supposing there were any doubt about it, see the previous post in this blog). It was an astonishing performance.

When the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, Rolleston welcomed it as “a great step in the history of mankind”. Animals would now have “friends to remonstrate for them”. I think also that he saw the Act as a proper recognition of what he called “the secret bond” between all animals, which Darwinism implied. No doubt he over-estimated the Act’s value, even as it stood. And after his death the law was anyway emasculated. The physiologists formed an Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, to which the Home Secretary very willingly delegated the day-to-day management of the Act’s various modest regulations. For the next thirty or more years, the profession effectively or ineffectively policed itself.

Nor did Rolleston live to witness the controversy as it re-erupted in Oxford (and there too failed of its possibilities). In fact it was his death that precipitated it, for there was then a division of the Linacre chair subjects, and Burdon Sanderson, whom the local press called “the high priest of vivisection”, was elected to the first Waynflete chair of Physiology. But Rolleston’s brave evidence was there to read, and it was read by the historian Edward Freeman (who that year was himself elected an Oxford professor) when he was debating in his own mind whether to make the journey up to Oxford from his home in Somerset in order to speak against the proposed physiological laboratory. He was feeling the same difficulty Rolleston had faced, of publicly “going against so many friends”. Then he looked again at the “the old Vivisection Blue Book” – that is, the report of the Royal Commission – and exclaimed “how different the evidence of Rolleston, a scholar and a good man, from most of the scientific cock-a-hoops”. And he concluded, “I have settled to be at Oxford tomorrow . . . ‘tis a matter of right and wrong.”

GR by Miller

George Rolleston didn’t think that vivisection ought to be prohibited; he believed that it did have value in selected medical research, and he himself practised it to some small extent for demonstration purposes: about six frogs a year, so he reported, always with anaesthetics (he is credited with ensuring that frogs were included in the Act’s protections). Rolleston belonged, after all, to the profession. But in such a context, his efforts to caution against vivisection as a morally portentous activity, “dangerous . . . to society”, are the more to be admired. When the Museum opens again, next month, I shall go there, as I often have in the past, and pay respect to that fine sculpture and its high-principled subject.

Notes and references:

Some of the material about Rolleston’s life comes from his Scientific Papers and Addresses, 2 vols, ed. William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Edward Tylor, Keeper of the University Museum, Clarendon Press, 1884.

His evidence in 1875 appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, pp.61-8. The reference to Dr Sanderson’s kindness comes in the evidence given by the surgeon and government health official John Simon, p.75.

The 1863 meeting of the British Association, in which Rolleston’s address appears at p.109 (second part), is published online here: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/93055#page/7/mode/1up. The later meetings can be accessed from that page by changing the year in the headline. The committee’s terms as appointed in 1870 are quoted from p.62 (first section), and its report in 1871 from p.144 (first section). The “secret bond” is a phrase used by Rolleston in his Harveian Oration, as published by Macmillan, 1873, p.29.

The phrase “high priest . . .” for Burdon Sanderson was used in the Oxford University Herald in its issue of 27 October 1883.

Edward Freeman is quoted from a letter written in February 1884, as published in The Life and Letters of Edward Augustus Freeman, ed. W.R.W.Stephens, 2 vols, Macmillan, 1895, vol.2 pp.275-6.

Illustrations: the bust of George Rolleston in the University Museum; Rolleston demonstrating craniometry (from a photograph by Charles Dodgson in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum); pencil and chalk sketch of Rolleston in 1877 by William Edwards Miller, from the collection of Merton College.

Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business

The first of the animal-research proposals granted permission by the Home Office in 2020, and now published in its non-technical summaries for that year, is a standard ADME project: that is, testing various products for their absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion by, in, and from the bodies of live animals. In this case the products are mainly agro-chemicals, and the purpose is to assess “the composition of the terminal residue in the animal products (meat, milk and eggs) that will be consumed by humans”. Administration of the chemicals will be “by injection, dermal application, or gavage [direct into the stomach by tube]. The ‘dermal application’ is to provide information for “operator exposure assessments”: after all, when you’re out enjoying the fresh air and tending the fields, you want to be well-informed of “your crop-care product’s toxicological profile”. That last phrase is from among the offers of the company Vivotecnia, one of those which provide these ADME services (more about Vivotecnia later).

Most of this type of animal research is done in order to satisfy regulations in the countries where the products are to be used. Such ‘regulatory testing’ accounts for about one quarter of the experimental procedures conducted each year in UK laboratories, and a much higher proportion of the nastiest of them, the so-called ‘severe’ procedures. The practitioners of it are usually the CRO’s (Contract Research Organisations), which gather their work into great 5-year testing projects for Home Office approval, as in the case above. Some of these CRO’s have been founded by vets, putting their expertise to good use. In fact the UK’s Royal Veterinary College (“The world’s leading vet school”) advertises its own CRO facility, providing “large as well as small animal models” for use in “All stages of pre-clinical and clinical product development . . . within the regulatory and non-regulatory environment.” The illustration to go with this offer of ‘Biotechnical Research and Development’ shows men in suits at a reception; this is business, after all, but, reassuringly, it’s “underpinned by the RVC’s reputation for animal welfare” – a fine thing for a veterinary school to have.

CoeEdenBiotechnologies

But yes, these CRO’s are businesses, and speed and efficiency are what they characteristically promise their clients, rather than the uncertainties and scepticisms of research-science proper or indeed such personal commitment as might go with that. This character of a mass-produced technical service is what the artist Sue Coe suggests with her image of ‘Eden Technologies’ (motto: “Getting it Right from the Start”) in the fiction Pit’s Letter. Eden Technologies! It’s a very well-judged name, being one that’s ever-popular with real biotech businesses or at least their PR agents. In fact only a few weeks ago JHL Biotech (“a global front-runner in biological drug development”) declared itself “excited to announce” a change of name to ‘Eden Biologics’. Sue Coe’s Eden is where Pit, the dog-narrator of the story, has ended up, literally so, along with countless other unfortunate animals. So far from being a Paradise, it’s a hellish place of squalor and cruelty, and indeed Pit says at one point “if we believed in their God, the Devil would look like a human being.” That’s been said before, of course, but some of the more horrifyingly visionary scenes in Pit’s Letter remind us of the many reasons which the twentieth century has provided for saying it yet again (the book was published in 2000). “I walked through past and future, rotten with killing,” says Pit, the ghost who can review it all.

But the grotesque compounding, in Coe’s laboratory scenes, of high technology with filth and slovenly violence, that’s artist’s hyperbole, isn’t it, or at any rate distant history? Apart from anything else, the science would be nearly worthless. Nevertheless, we have to know that it’s both true-to-life and up-to-date. Undercover film, taken between 2018 and 2020 in the Madrid laboratories of Vivotecnia (they of “your crop’s toxicology profile”), has now been published, showing just that same mixture of expensive equipment and physical and moral squalor.

Vivotecnia is a CRO (“researching for you”) that boasts online of its commitment to the “highest standards of animal welfare”. The film shows how little truth there is in that. It’s a sickening thing to watch, rightly classified online as suitable for over-eighteens only. The animals are seen roughly handled, struck, thrown back into their wholly barren cages (“we foster environmental enrichment”, says the Vivotecnia web-site). Individuals are crudely identified with marker pen on forehead or body. Invasive procedures like gavage are conducted with clumsy impatience. Rats are shaken and swung through the air to make them quiescent. There’s blood on the floors. The staff habitually swear at the animals. A background of barking and squealing vocalizes the distress of unseen animals. Worse, there’s deliberate and enjoyed cruelty. Someone draws with marker pen on the genitals of a young monkey being held down for some procedure: “a moustache!” he laughs (the comments of staff are translated in sub-titles). Animals are mocked and taunted, held up for ridicule: “Ha ha ha!” say the sub-titles. It’s scarcely believable, a demonic anarchy.

Vivotecnia is not some rogue company pulled out from the shadows. It was founded in 2000, and is signed up to a whole array of acronymic lab standards and supervisory bodies, both Spanish and international: COSCE, Felasa, OECD, GLP (Good Laboratory Practice!), and of course EU 2010/63. It’s right in the middle of the contract research scene. Therefore Vivotecnia’s disgrace – for even in the few days since the film was released, the public and official response is certain to ruin it – also discredits all those worthy institutional controllers and protectors of this sort of vivisection. It discredits too all those familiar PR phrases about “state of the art facilities”, “paramount” concern for animal well-being, and “highly qualified” management teams (to use more of Vivotecnia’s examples). The whole collective has had a fall and deserved it. For the truth is that forcing animals to take our risks for us like this, in whatever scientific manner, cannot be done ‘humanely’. It necessarily calls out the worst in human beings. It’s incompatible with human decency to do it or to profit from it in any way.

The film has been published online, with an English commentary, by Cruelty Free International, which also sponsors a petition for the closure of Vivotecnia (at present the company’s licence to trade has been suspended). Please sign it! Both film and petition can be seen here: https://crueltyfreeinternational.org/what-we-do/investigations/toxicity-testing-animals-vivotecnia-spain. Please also note that there are other petitions against animal research on the facebook page of World Day for Animals in Laboratories, as well as information about this year’s events, such of them as are possible, on Saturday 24 April.

Notes and references:

Volume 1 of the Home Office’s Non-technical summaries granted in 2020, published in December, has 235 entries, the first being the one described above. The collection can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2020

The Royal Veterinary College (not to be confused with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, an organisation which really does promote and pioneer animal interests) is quoted from its web-site, in particular the pages about contract work: https://www.rvc.ac.uk/business/services-and-facilities/contract-research-services

Pit’s Letter, by the artist Sue Coe, was published in 2000 by Four Walls Eight Windows.

The Vivotecnia web-site (https://www.vivotecnia.com/about-us/), from which the quotations were taken, is now unavailable, owing to “maintenance”.

The Guardian has featured the exposure in two articles, this month, both available to read online: on 8 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/08/undercover-footage-shows-gratuitous-cruelty-at-spanish-animal-testing-facility-madrid-vivotecnia, and 12 April at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/12/animal-testing-suspended-at-spanish-lab-after-gratuitous-cruelty-footage

Cynics, Hucksters and Frauds: Welcome to Medical Research!

In the course of Otto Preminger’s film Bunny Lake is Missing, released in 1965, a mother seeking her lost child tries to escape from confinement in a big London hospital. Looking for an exit in the brick-walled basements of the building, she strays into a half-dark room which she then discovers to be full of caged monkeys. It’s a research hospital, therefore, a grotesque touch in the film but a common enough institution, then as now. Another British fiction of that period provides a more thorough, though hardly more amiable, account of such places: the novel by Colin Douglas, with the illuminating title The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime. The novel’s hero – or rather anti-hero, since his leading interests are drinking and having sex with nurses – is a young doctor (as the author had been), recently qualified and now putting in some years of research (“It’s expected behaviour.”). His topic has been selected for him by his supervisor, the keenly ambitious Dr Rosamund Fyvie; it’s ‘faecal vitamins’. Having done a few hours of half-hearted preparatory reading, Campbell provides a colleague with this sarcastic prognosis of his research career:

After a preliminary survey of the literature, I am now in a position from which I may eventually advance to prove conclusively that faecal vitamins have nothing to do with anything. I could start by proving they had nothing to do with a few important things . . . Then get some PhD students to tidy up the odd little corners, like ‘Bantu diet as reflected in faecal vitamins’ and ‘Faecal vitamins in albino coypus’. My epidemiological group would do prospective cohort studies on how faecal vitamin assay is of no use in predicting who’s going to get appendicitis. And my clinical staff would devote themselves to proving that vitamins had nothing to do with any known form of cancer. You’ve got to be in cancer. That’s where the big money is.

But the research is being paid for by a drug company, and Campbell recalls the old aphorism that “Drug companies don’t give money to pessimists” (i.e. they prefer the sort of attitude suggested in the novel’s title: more of this later). He concludes that Dr Fyvie, who secured the funds, has been able to see possibilities in faecal vitamins: “possibilities, that is, of results and hence publications, by Fyvie and somebody and somebody else and Campbell, leading to greater fame for her, and the nearer prospect of the professorial chair she coveted so much.”

Campbell’s absurd research is at least human-centred (he collects his samples from the hospital’s patients), but his reluctant labours are paralleled by the more dedicated work of an animal-research colleague, “a girl who produced endless publications on mouse prostaglandins as though by a strange compulsion”. Such diligent fixations are still a noticeable feature in the bio-science journals.

Bunny Lake is a crime thriller, The Greatest Breakthrough a comedy or farce, and both of them predate the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Distorted pictures of the unregenerate old days, then? Unfortunately not: the animals are almost certainly better looked after now, but an up-to-date survey of medical research and hospital life suggests that the human system to which their lives have been made subject is further than ever from justifying that subjection. It comes in a book by a former NHS doctor, Seamus O’Mahony, with the ominous title Can Medicine Be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession.

Much of Can Medicine be Cured? is about medical research and its pathologies. The book doesn’t ever focus on the part force-played by animals in that research, but their involvement is well established early on, when O’Mahony is recalling his own early research stint. The theme of that research – “whole gut lavage” – and its likely value accord well with the fictitious Dr Campbell’s work. As practised on mice, it had been his supervisor’s speciality, and O’Mahony was required to develop the technique for clinical use. His paid helpers at the Edinburgh hospital had been Dougie and Ewan, two “foul-mouthed technicians from the animal unit”, and he knew that unit and its denizens. There were the mice, of course; O’Mahony recalls the laboratory definition of ‘mouse’: “an animal which if killed in sufficient numbers produces a PhD”. There were also monkeys and, by hearsay, goats. “I managed,” says O’Mahony, “to avoid killing any of these innocent animals”, though he does witness one of the mice being “expertly dispatched” against the edge of the lab bench.

medic

In any case, the gut lavage research and its associated publications “produced little of lasting consequence”. O’Mahony attributes his unfitness for academic medical research to the fact that “although cynical, I was not quite cynical enough.” We are on page 19 here, and the author explores the implications of that dismal explanation in the remaining 250 pages of the book.

The most conspicuous thing about the medical scene as O’Mahony presents it is that it suffers from runaway hypertrophy: drug-based medicine in general, and medical research in particular, have grossly outgrown their useful proportions. And just as what used to be called the ‘military-industrial complex’ has engaged the talents, labours, and commercial interests of countless parties, without (fortunately) requiring a war to justify it, so this “medical-industrial complex” (O’Mahony’s habitual term) is a self-sufficient monster, having no necessity to account for itself in healing:

A medical research laboratory is a factory, which produces the raw material of data. From these data, many things may be fashioned: presentations to conferences, publications in journals, doctoral degrees, successful grant applications, even air miles. What went on in the nearby wards seemed of little consequence.

Yes, publications! These are the stairway to success, and their own proliferation (output of scientific papers apparently doubles every nine years) is part of a pathological symbiosis. With a sure market in medical institutions of all kinds, and unpaid contributors (some journals even demand payment from their contributors), they can be highly profitable enterprises. They were in fact the basis of Robert Maxwell’s one-time great wealth. For their part, researchers need to appear in them as often as possible, for frequency is much easier to notice and to record than quality. Not only individual careers but also grants for further research demand this published evidence.

O’Mahony describes some of the techniques for stretching and glamorizing any given amount of work, but of course the most obvious one is fraud. The unhappy case of Dr William Summerlin shows that the temptations (‘incentives’ might be the better word) were already there in the 1970s. He was researching organ transplantation at a New York laboratory, and was found to have fabricated his evidence for the successful grafting of skin and corneas in mice and rabbits. Part of his explanation was this:

Time after time, I was called upon to publicize experimental data and to prepare applications for grants from public and private sources. There came a time in the fall of 1973 when I had no new startling discovery . . .  

O’Mahony doesn’t in fact mention the Summerlin affair, but he doesn’t have to, because fraud of one kind or another has now “become commonplace in medical research.”

Where animals are used, as in Summerlin’s case, fraud is a special kind of abuse, fatally and uselessly involving them in a lie. But there are less actionable kinds of misrepresentation, and one of the natural consequences of over-population in the research scene is what O’Mahony calls “boosterism”. “Real scientists,” he says, “tend to be reticent, self-effacing, publicity-shy and full of doubt and uncertainty, unlike the gurning hucksters [a memorable phrase] who seem to infest medical research.” He reports a calculation that there had been a 25 times increase, between 1974 and 2014, in use of the terms ‘innovative’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘novel’ in PubMed abstracts (these abstracts are really as much adverts for the articles as summaries of them). Perhaps even more damaging to good medicine is the sort of collective boosterism which constitutes medical fashion. Here all sorts of interests coincide in pursuit of funds and their own versions of success, including drug companies, “Gadarene researchers” (because “medical research is a conformist activity”), popular paperback writers, patients’ groups lobbying for particular diseases, and professional lobbyists themselves. It’s a matter of chance whether these appropriators of resources will really be of any help in what O’Mahony calls “the mundane business of treating the sick”.

That 25 times increase in boastful phrases (‘ground-breaking’, etc.) is quoted from an article titled ‘The natural selection of bad science’, and the badness of medical science constitutes a sort of refrain in O’Mahony’s book: “the great majority of medical research is a waste of time and money [p.13]. . . Big Science has a Big, Bad Secret: it doesn’t work [53] . . . nearly all papers in medical journals are dross. [92]

But since much of the funding for medical research (about three quarters of it in the case of drug-testing, says O’Mahony) is provided by pharmaceutical companies, wouldn’t they be making sure that most of it was sound and productive? Well yes, productive of medications at any rate. O’Mahony recalls that his own period of research included evaluating a drug to treat coeliac disease, even though there was by then a known effective cure for the condition: a gluten-free diet (which has since developed a profitable hypertrophy of its own). He found no efficacy in the drug, but when he wished to publish his results, the drug company which had financed the trials was unhelpful (remember Dr Campbell’s aphorism about pessimists), and the journal to which he nevertheless submitted his report did not even put it out for peer review.

Nobody wants to be associated with negative results. It’s part of that “natural selection of bad science” that research is sieved in this way, regardless of its quality. When, by contrast, the research behind the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx (research involving African Green monkeys and five other species of animal) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Merck Pharmaceuticals bought one million reprints of the report for distribution to doctors. That was good for Merck (80 million prescriptions were subsequently written out for Vioxx, before it was withdrawn as unsafe in 2004), and good for the NEJM too, but not good for science or for health. How many drugs, of the very few which do translate successfully from animal-testing to clinical trials, really are good for health? Even such lasting commercial successes as statins – the ideal drug for business purposes, since it doesn’t simply put something right and then depart, like an antibiotic, but indefinitely ‘prevents’ – are of doubtful value unless funds are limitless. In fact preventative medicine, where it means medical interventions rather than sensible diet and life-habits, is helping to push forward what O’Mahony calls “healthism”: the trend towards re-classifying the whole healthy population as at-risk.

Meanwhile, the ordinary doctor in clinic or hospital (as opposed to the medical academics and managers) is caught between this vast and pushy production system on one side, and the information-maddened consumerist patient on the other, as a sort of trading agent: “the medical profession”, says O’Mahony, “has become the front-of-house sales team for the industry.” For the point of healthism is to make a sort of self-run hospital out of each one of us, sick or well: hence the rather sinister title of one of the many books that promote this patient ‘awareness’, The Patient Will See You Now. This decline in the authority of the doctor, the devaluation of his experience and expertise, is the saddest part of the whole bad story for Seamus O’Mahony. But he shows, of course, that the decline is equally a loss for the authentic patient in need of that “mundane business of treating the sick”.

And in the shadows of the book, like the monkeys in Bunny Lake is Missing, are the animals which service this medical colossus with their own health and lives. In the European Union and in Britain, the 1986 legislation has kept their numbers more or less steady, so that they form a shrinking proportion of the giant whole. But elsewhere in the world this is not so. It’s very obvious in the journals, for instance, how much of the animal research is now being done in China, which has indeed overtaken the USA as the world’s most rapacious user of animals for scientific purposes. And for the world as a whole, a meticulous estimate of animals killed for science in 2005 was published some while ago in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals: 115.2 million. When the theme was re-visited more recently, the total for 2015 was put at 192.1 million, an increase of about 65% in ten years.

We now have some idea of how worthwhile that enormous and continuing sacrifice has been.

Notes and references:

The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime was published by Canongate Publishing in 1977. Can Medicine be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession was published by Head of Zeus in 2019.

Much of O’Mahony’s case was anticipated in Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health, published in 1974 and reissued in 1976 as Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis. In fact Seamus O’Mahony has written an excellent essay about the book, its origins and relevance, in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh in 2016 (it can be read online here: https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/jrcpe_46_2_omahony_0.pdf.). But Illich was almost absolute in his opposition to modern medicine and its ideology, whereas O’Mahony argues that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of medical discovery between the 1930s and 80s. He believes, however, that the challenges and possibilities of medicine are very different now, and that failure to recognize this is what has allowed Big Science and Big Pharma to become the predators on the public health and purse that he shows them to be. 

Robert Maxwell set up the Pergamon Press as a science publisher at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford, in 1951. When it closed in 1991, it owned about 400 different journals.

The Dr Summerlin affair is discussed in Alexander Kohn’s False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp.76-83.

‘The natural selection of bad science’, an article by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, appeared in Royal Society Open Science 3(9), 2016, online at http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/9/160384.

The calculation of global animal numbers is published in ATLA, 24 February 2020: the authors are Katy Taylor and Laura Rego Alvarez, and it’s accessible online here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192919899853. Some of the increase in numbers is attributed by the authors to shortage of information in 2005: i.e. that number was an under-estimate. Many of the countries that practise animal research do not publish numbers, so that calculations cannot be authoritative.

Fun We Had in 2020

Last year was a difficult one for many animal research laboratories (as reported in this blog: see notes below), difficult also for science conferences and other such networking. However, the Concordat on Openness, to which many bio-science institutions subscribe, held its end-of-year awards ceremony and issued its annual report as usual. The ceremony, held online, lacked the familiar prize-day atmosphere, of course, but the report seems as keen and boyish as ever. In fact Covid-19 has had some benefit for the Concordat project of “public engagement”, much of which is an online matter anyway, for as the report says, “One impact of the pandemic has been to increase the perceived relevance of biomedical and health research for the public.”

It’s easily understood. Conversations between grateful patients and the specialists researching their disease have been a common feature of animal research publicity. But now the specialist can address a whole grateful population feeling immediately vulnerable to the disease in question. In fact Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the promotional organisation which runs the Concordat, took early advantage of this “time of national emergency when people are focussed on their health” and commissioned a survey of attitudes to animal research during the first lock-down of 2020. This survey found that 73% of respondents would accept the use even of dogs and monkeys in research towards a Covid vaccine. (The percentage of those accepting their use for medical research in a similar survey two years ago was around 15.) However, since 29% of the same surveyed group (of 1,027 randomized individuals) opposed the use of any species in any research, it’s reasonable to conclude, as UAR admits, that “many people feel conflicted and remain uncomfortable with the idea of animal research.” In fact that percentage of people who object absolutely has changed little over the period of systematic surveys since 2014.

Anyway, the pandemic has meant that something stronger than the ordinary PR term ‘engagement’ was involved during 2020. Accordingly, the key word in the Concordat’s annual report is ‘share’: signatory institutions “share examples of their commonly used species”; they are congratulated for “sharing issues around animal research” or for “sharing stories on this subject”; they have “wonderful web-sites that share their use of animals with the public”. It’s not just a word, either. Three of the four ‘Openness Awards’ for 2020 went to projects which promoted public participation in some version or analogue of animal research.

Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute (the place which gave us Dolly the cloned sheep) had produced a ‘toolkit’ which enables children in school or even at home to carry out experiments using garden worms. The kit is punningly titled ‘Opening a Can of Worms’, because after all this is PR and, besides, animals are fun. But respectful fun, of course, and the judges considered that “this toolkit encouraged sensitivity in working with living animals to study behaviour.” Here, for instance, is the Roslin toolkit’s sensitive account of why it’s important to understand animal behaviour: “Animals give us companionship, help us do work, provide us with food and clothes, and they help us to study diseases and to make new medicines.” It makes you wonder what animals can have found to fill the time with before humans came and put purpose into their lives.

Southampton University likewise won its award for a ‘toolkit’. This one involved creating a mouse from craft materials and devising instructions for its proper care, a rather more appealing scheme, but equally aimed at familiarizing the young to the premise of such care: i.e. the keeping of animals for research. Both of these projects were clearly aimed at children (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs, 22). The Mary Lyon Centre’s scheme of participation seems at first to be similarly directed. It’s fronted with a trio of cartoon mice (for the Centre’s business is the generating, archiving and trading of GM mice): they stand on their hind legs, one combing its hair (grooming, you see), the others eating and drinking in human style. We’re invited to “Burrow into the secret lives of mice”. But the purpose is actually a practical one: to get citizen-observers to watch and record the behaviour of mice on film. From their data, an algorithm will be created enabling mice to be supervised and assessed automatically while in their home cages. This is in fact a project for mass participation. The cartoons, puns, etc., are just, I suppose, the ordinary dermatitis of PR.

The fourth award went to Reading University for its publicity about using llamas to research therapies against Covid-19. As recorded in this blog, Reading won an award last year for its llama publicity. At that time, the highlight was an invitation to name a baby llama either ‘Boris’ or ‘Jeremy’. It’s wholly characteristic of the essential disposability of PR that there has been no further mention (or none that I can find) of that animal. The centre of attention this year is called – in much the same facetious spirit – Fifi.

Along with 2020’s emphasis on ‘sharing’, there has been the usual battery of more ex cathedra animal research publicity. The examples provided by signatories include presentations at science fairs, community festivals, schools, clinics, and other public events. Within the institutions, and aimed at staff, students, and any other associates, there have been articles in newsletters, express mentions in interviews and recruitment fairs, citations in reports and policy papers, even “public-facing TV screens across campuses”.

This saturation of publicity is aimed at taking the unpleasant surprise out of the subject, and surely it’s an astute policy and must be to some extent successful. Still, certain aspects of animal research continue to seem, even to practitioners, too unpleasant to advertise, and the Concordat report notes once again (for it candidly does note this every year) that many signatories are showing reluctance to provide “information that might show their research or institution in a negative light.” The report advises them that this is bad policy, and reminds them of “the risks of secrecy”.

The difficulty has very recently been illustrated in the case of Bath University, one of the fourteen ‘Leaders in Openness’ chosen as offering examples of openness to the others (there were 122 Concordat signatories in 2020). For some years scientists in Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology have been researching new chemical compounds for use in the treatment of depression. A news story issued by the university itself in 2017, and up-dated in 2019, spoke of “potential new anti-depressant and anti-anxiety treatment with a unique mechanism of action”, whose “promise” was being excitingly confirmed by its “anti-depressant like effects in mice”. The story ends with a reference to the Concordat and Bath’s own commitment to openness on the subject of animals in its research. So yes, it has been open about the involvement of mice, but much less explicit about how they’re being used – that is, in the so-called ‘forced-swim test’.

Forced-swimming_test

This ‘model’ of depression involves putting mice (or, less commonly, rats) into cylinders half-full of water from which they can’t escape, and leaving them to swim or float as they will for a test period of six minutes. The idea is that they swim when they’re feeling optimistic about finding a way out, but they merely float when they aren’t (they don’t sink). A ‘promising’ medication is something that induces the mice to spend a larger portion of the six minutes swimming hopefully. The protocol for this experimental device, first put forward in the journal Nature in 1977, has been fully described and filmed by researchers at the University of Maryland for the Journal of Visualized Experiments. It’s all posted online, so there’s no secrecy about it. Still, it makes unpleasant viewing (despite the curious good humour of the young presenters: “Good luck with your future experiments!” they cheerfully wish us at the end.)

For that reason, no doubt, Bath University seems to have been disconcerted by a complaint about the test from PETA, which included a request to provide material from its own video recordings. The university’s first official ‘Response to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ justified “the research highlighted” without even specifying what it was. After further complaint, it seems that the university must have discussed the matter with UAR and been persuaded to provide a more complete reply, including the requested film clip. There are now, therefore, two ‘fact-sheets’ on the matter offered to public attention: Bath’s own account and, linked from that, a more extended general account, also with illustrative film, provided by UAR.

This is just the sort of defensive flurry that the Concordat report urges its signatories to avoid by arranging for their own material to be “proactively placed in the public domain”. And of course the advantage of being ahead in that way is that the material has a favourable colouring when it first appears; in particular there’s no suggestion of secrecy or embarrassment about it. It’s what the Concordat calls ‘owning the story’. By contrast, the successive responses of Bath University to PETA’s challenge have necessarily seemed defensive and palliative. We’re told, in a video featuring one of the university’s researchers, that those six minutes of struggle or helplessness are “mildly stressful” for the mice (though in fact the procedure is classed by the Home Office’s as having ‘moderate’ not ‘mild’ severity). The pathetic efforts of the mice to escape up the sides of the cylinder are described as “climbing activities”. The intervals of helplessness are called “periods of immobility”, as if a welcome rest is being taken. The inventor of the forced-swim test, R.D. Porsolt, more frankly referred to the immobile phase in 1977 as “a state of despair”.

That’s not a phrase the Concordat managers would recommend these days, I’m sure, but animal research scientists had fewer inhibitions in the 1970s. To publicize the UAR survey in March last year, the organisation’s director, Wendy Jarrett, gave an interview to an online science news service in the course of which she referred to that period as “the bad old days”. She spoke in general with un-strident reasonableness, and claimed that UAR’s aim was (as its name suggests) only to promote understanding of animal research, looking forward to “a time when everyone understands”, not to insist or expect that everyone should “like” it. But by ‘understanding’ she also meant acceptance, and in line with that she quoted the survey in which “some people said ‘just because I accept something doesn’t mean I like it’.” The main thing, then, is to dislike it permissively, or at least quietly. Accordingly, what Wendy Jarrett meant by “the bad old days” of the 1970s was not the uninhibited cruelty and profligacy of the animal research at that time, but the “animal rights extremism”.

That indeed fitted her account of the succeeding decades, which presented the science as a more or less autonomously progressive enterprise: relinquishing the more contentious uses for animals (cosmetics testing, or alcohol research, for instance), commitment to the 3Rs, showing and telling as much as possible to the public. It may be true as a mere narrative, but the plot is missing. What she didn’t make clear was that the explanatory force behind it all has been the dissent. If there hadn’t been active and adversarial ‘dislike’, who can say how little ethical progress would have been made, or what fraction of the UK’s supervising bureaucracy, or of the systematic apparatus of ingratiation such as UAR and its Concordat, would have come into existence? Despite all the tonic publicity now coming out of animal research, it must be remembered that the practitioners do not in fact ‘own’ the subject: it’s in public ownership, and what happens to it will go on depending on how much dislike of it the public feels, and what the public does with that dislike.

Notes and references:

Some of the effects of the pandemic on animal research laboratories were discussed in this blog last April: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/which-crisis/

A fuller account of the Concordat and its influence was given in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/12/13/here-come-the-concordat-folk/.  The 2020 report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research is online here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/files/8516/0733/9083/Concordat_on_Openness_Annual_Report_2020.pdf,   and the four awards are reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/2020-openness-awards/

PETA’s account of the Bath University affair, dated 1 December, is reported (with a link to a letter of protest) here: https://www.peta.org.uk/blog/bath-university-swim-test/?utm_source=PETA%20UK::E-Mail&utm_medium=E-News&utm_campaign=1220::viv::PETA%20UK::E-Mail::Bath%20Forced%20Swim%20Test%20Blog::::peta%20e-news

An abstract of Porsolt et al’s original paper in Nature putting forward the forced-swim test, and using the phrase “state of despair”, can be seen here: https://www.nature.com/articles/266730a0

Bath University’s initial response to the PETA complaint is posted here: https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/open-response-to-peta-enquiry/attachments/response-to-peta-19-july.pdf

UAR’s post about the forced-swim test is here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/factsheet-on-the-forced-swim-test/.  The University of Maryland account and presentation can be viewed here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3353513/

Minks, Fishes, Macaques: New Wrongs and Re-newed Remedies

The sudden ‘culling’ of millions of minks in Denmark and other European countries has variously been called, by practitioners in this branch of animal exploitation, “dramatic”, “incredibly sad and shocking”, and “devastating”. It surely is all of these things (except that a scientist shouldn’t be using the nonsense word ‘incredibly’), especially for the minks themselves, but hardly more so this year than any other. Most of the minks will have been losing their lives just a very short time before the allotted span, since only the breeding females are allowed to live for more than a season. The real difference this year is a commercial one. The animals are being destroyed not for profit, but because their crowded indoors life provides ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus. With so many back-up hosts immediately available, the virus isn’t even penalized for killing its present billet: hence the fear that it may be mutating into something even more virulent.

In fact the word ‘cull’, suggesting a judicious selection, perhaps taken out for the sake of the remaining population, is quite disingenuous here. This is a wholesale slaughter, whose start-to-end wrongfulness is only redeemed minkby the declared intention of some of the countries – Netherlands, Ireland, perhaps others – to prohibit this variety of animal-farming in future. (A current petition on the subject is linked in the notes below.)

To the slaughter on the farms themselves is added a sort of collateral population of minks: the ones being used to trial new and more effective ways of farming and breeding. It’s safe to say that every commercial exploitation of animals has this back-room population serving it. The ‘sad and shocked’ speaker quoted above was in fact thinking of his own team of 6000 or so ‘research’ minks at Aarhus University in Denmark. His work there has been, on the face of it, beneficial to the animals. He studies “the behaviour and welfare of farmed mink, with the aim of giving them a better life as they are raised for fur.” Even so, it’s difficult to think very well of this research. I can’t see that it does more than provide statistical backing for what ought to be the very platitudes of practical husbandry: for instance, that ‘enriched’ cages and gentle handling tend to give the animals confidence, whereas unpleasant events (such as brief confinement in a “small trap”) have the reverse effect, making them nervous and fearful. The conclusions of one Aarhus paper earlier this year were that “we would recommend farmers to (1) avoid negative handling, and (2) if [it’s] necessary to handle mink, to adopt the best possible handling methods.”

Perhaps there’s a bit more to the research than that – more promise of a “better life” for the minks, that is – but there’s also a good deal less. Such research is necessarily good PR for mink-farming, since it allows farmers to use these minimum decencies and claim, as the research itself does, that by doing so they “enhance mink welfare”. ‘Enhance’! So the minks are already doing well; giving them a tube to hide in, and not handling them roughly, constitute a bonus (I can find no mention of the water which these semi-aquatic animals have to do without). It’s not a surprise, then, that the funds for this research at Aarhus University come from sources that include the Danish Pelt Levy Foundation and the trade collective called Kopenhagen Fur (“ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare”).

Then there’s this emphasis on relieving the animals of the sense of fear. It’s a laudable aim, in so far as there’s general agreement that fear is the worst of the common distresses of captive animals. The cattle-slaughter specialist Temple Grandin says, “Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” But of course there’s a swindle involved here, for these animals have good reason to be afraid. Their docility, which makes them much easier to handle (and easier also to show in promotional films), is really a trick being played upon them, the wolf dressing up as grandma. The only honourable way to relieve them of fear in this case is to stop being the cause of it.

But of course the history of animal welfarism has largely consisted in managing the symptoms and leaving the essential wrong intact. This is partly what has prompted Dr Gill Langley, a dedicated specialist in non-animal research technologies, to propose in the latest issue of the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals that the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), a classic welfare initiative, have “had their day”.

These three “principles of humane experimental technique” were first put forward in a book of that title written by William Russell and Rex Burch and published in 1959. They have been part of British and EU law since 1986. Their consequences in reduced animal suffering can’t well be measured, but must surely have been very great. The book was re-issued in 2009, slightly revised in order to make it easier for non-English readers rather than because it needed up-dating. In fact the European Union’s “final goal of full replacement”, a commitment of 2010, is already implicit in the book, whose authors say with clear emphasis that “absolute replacement may be regarded as the absolute ideal”. They also, incidentally, devote six pages to research into fear and anxiety – still one of the most ingeniously nasty branches of animal research, and continually renewed in the search for effective, or at least different, tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Russell and Burch showed how such research might be conducted “without at any stage of the process inflicting any fear on the animal.”

But yes, the aim of the 3Rs has always been to minimize the harms of animal research, rather than to put what practitioners would regard as a premature end to the practice. Accordingly the 3Rs address only the welfare of animals, not their rights. And Dr Langley argues that many scientists have little interest even in animal welfare, except as a bureaucratic complication of their work. Outside Europe, in countries where the 3Rs have less or no authority, there’s not even much of a bureaucratic complication for them to bother about. (I notice that a Chinese scientist who studies bats and other animals as disease-carriers is quoted as saying “I don’t like animals”.) To engage the interest and commitment of such people, she proposes that the case should be put in its more positive form: “not replacement methods, but advanced techniques: no longer alternative or humane research . . . but human-relevant and human-specific: not 20th century, but 21st century toxicology.” In short, the 3Rs have “had their day” because animal research itself has: it’s out of date.

If only this were so! But, taking the human relevance first, there’s a whole corpus of research which can’t be human-specific, because, as we’ve just seen, it’s mink-specific or otherwise bat-specific or specific to any of the other species which may catch the scientific or commercial eye.

There’s fish-specific research, for instance, a mushrooming category already reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Unlike the research at Aarhus, very little of this has to do with welfare, and it supports a class of farming, ‘aquaculture’, that is briskly growing rather than, like mink-farming, in decline. Thus a report in last week’s issue of the journal Science, titled ‘Tomorrow’s Catch’, speaks of “dramatic gains for aquaculture” coming from new research. The writer seems dazzled by the numbers and superlatives: whether of fishes, farm sizes, dollars, prospects, they’re all cause for astonishment and congratulation. “Everybody in the field is excited”, says a scientist from Rutgers University. Someone from Hendrix Genetics (“Better breeding today for a brighter life tomorrow”), admiring the newly accelerated growth-rates of farmed salmon, says “My colleagues in poultry can only dream of these kinds of percentages.” And you can be certain they are dreaming of them, and fully intending to make the dreams real at the earliest opportunity.

The point is that there’s nothing in the least ‘20th century’ about the animal research which is hustling fish-farming into its future. An account of the industry recently published in the journal Trends in Genetics makes this clear: already you can throw away your notes on such last-year technologies as ‘transcription activator-like nucleases (TALENS) or ‘zinc finger nucleases’ (ZFN), because they’ve been “largely superseded by the advent of the re-purposed CRISPR /Cas9 system”. The development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR (a.k.a. clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) was the theme of 2020’s Nobel Prize for chemistry. It’s this year’s science. Some of the things about fishes which it will enable silver-pacific-salmonaquaculturists to control are growth rate, colouring, resistance to disease and infestation (crucial, as we’ve seen, in grossly overcrowded populations), sterility (more cost-effective and eases control of the patent), boniness (the aim being to eliminate the little bones that inconvenience consumers), and, to summarize, cash-value. And that last objective, of course, never dates.

But the animal research aimed at illuminating and correcting human physiology is keenly go-ahead in just the same way – using CRISPR itself of course, but many other new technologies too. Optogenetics, for instance: this technology was voted ‘Method of the Year’ by the journal Nature Methods as long ago as 2010, but has been briskly developing ever since. It involves injecting into the brains of mammals (usually mice or monkeys) a virus carrying light-sensitive proteins, so that scientists can then use an implanted light-source to activate particular nerve-cells, and thereby modify animal capacity or behaviour. The final aim is correction of human brain disorders, and there are now more than 66 neurological laboratories in the world that are using monkeys in this sort of experimentation. There will surely be many more soon: one participant in Canada is quoted in Science exclaiming that she “can’t wait to test” some of the newer techniques in optogenetics, and looks forward to “a boom in studies to influence and understand the brain circuits of some of our closest animal relatives.” You’ll notice that the word ‘closest’ is used there for its strictly scientific relevance, free of ethical content: the closer, the more useful.

macaqueThe Science article in question, titled ‘Efforts to control monkey brains get a boost’, is headed with a photograph of a macaque monkey in the wild. I’ve pondered that for a while. Why advertise the contrast? Can some sub-editor be making an ethical point (for the ethics of animal research do sometimes get a mention in this journal)? No, I conclude that the picture simply represents generic ‘macaque’, much as the term ‘mink’ is used as a sort of collective noun, all minks really being fur, whether temporarily on foot or ready-to-wear. Likewise, whether kitted with the optogenetic prosthetics or innocently looking about them in nature, macaques are uniformly brain-carriers, and we’ve set ourselves to get at it: a human-centred predatory project for the 21st century.

In such a setting, the 3Rs can’t be said to have had their day. Outside Europe their day has scarcely arrived. When it does arrive – that is, if ever they form part of the law governing research in all countries – even then there’ll be more for them to do. For there is nothing peculiarly science-specific about the 3Rs; they would apply equally well to any other scene of animal exploitation. Remember in particular that any adequate alternative to animal-use becomes a mandatory ‘replacement’ under 3Rs regulations. The 3Rs would therefore put an end to meat and dairy farming (replacement technology: veganism), to zoos (replaced by nature documentaries), and of course to animal-fur, for which replacements have been available since well before Russell and Burch first published their principles of humane research. When the 3Rs really have done all they usefully can, we shall indeed have a truly human-relevant science, and more largely a fully animal-relevant ethics: in short a humane way of life at last.

Notes and references:

The petition, mentioned above and addressed to the Prime Minister of Denmark, may have come too late now, but it’s here: https://animalpetitions.org/933352/death-is-not-disease-prevention-no-more-culling-of-innocent-animals/

Articles in Science about mink-farming, aquaculture, and optogenetics are in the issues for 13 and 20 November, and 30 October of 2020 respectively. The research paper on mink-welfare, titled ‘Barren housing and negative handling decrease the exploratory approach in farmed mink’, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, January 2020, and online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159119301637?via%3Dihub

An example of a promotional film about mink-farming can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPsStvktks

The quotation from Temple Grandin comes in her book Animals in Translation, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.189. There is more about Dr Grandin’s work in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/fitting-them-for-slaughter-the-work-of-temple-grandin-and-others/

Dr Langley’s article appears in the journal ATLA, vol.48 issue 1 supplement, November 2020. It’s a version of an address originally given at the Lush Prize Conference of 2018, and titled ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. The quotation is from p.145. The article can be viewed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192920911340

The 2009 edition of Russell and Burch’s book is edited by Michael Balls and re-titled The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion (publisher, Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Quotations are from pp.36 and 98.

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

“I don’t like animals” is quoted from an article titled ‘The bat-man tackles Covid-19’ in Science, 2 October 2020.

The article in Trends in Genetics appeared in September 2019, and was titled ‘Potential of Genome Editing to Improve Aquaculture Breeding and Production’. It’s accessible online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251930126X

Fish and fish-farming are the subject of a post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/our-ancestors-the-fishes/