The Science of Handing on Misery

An article in the journal Science speaks about orphanages in Pakistan, and of the many children there whose mothers, unable to find paid work in that very conservative society, have been obliged to surrender them. Understandably, these children sometimes show symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including anxiety and depression. That’s not the only unhappy human scene touched upon in the article, although it’s the only present-day one. The author, Andrew Curry, also speaks of the 1945 famine in Holland, of the Holocaust, and of the American Civil War – a strange assortment of very good reasons to pity the human experience.

The article is titled ‘A Painful Legacy’, because what brings these disasters together in a science journal is the hypothesis that stress and emotional trauma may alter biology in ways that can be transmitted to succeeding generations: not directly, by altering genes themselves, but by modifying the epigenome, defined in the article as “a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed”. Studies of the children of parents that have suffered in such disasters have discovered “subtle biological alterations – changes so lasting that children might even pass them to their own offspring.” If that really is happening, some revision of evolutionary theory may be necessary, incorporating to some degree the inheritance of acquired characteristics – of undesired and unfavourable ones, at least.

But the word ‘pain’ is always a sort of skull and crossbones for the reader of science journals: it signals vivisection. Whether or not humans do pass their misery down the generations, modern research habitually makes sure that other animal species inherit it, forcing them to try out our pain for us. Most cruelly and haphazardly is this so when the pain in question is the sort suffered by the mind, as in the present instance. And sure enough, the first word of this article’s sub-title is “Mice …” So yes, it’s mice being made to suffer, although mention is also made of experiments on rats, crickets, worms, water fleas, more vaguely “many organisms”, and even more casually just “animals”. (The author mostly calls humans “people”, a non-scientific word which helps to keep us categorically distinct from this scene of zoological service and sacrifice.)

Heredity being the theme, the target of the so-called “mouse intervention” is motherhood. The scientist principally featured in the article, Professor Isabelle Mansuy of Zurich University – a woman, you’ll notice – “separates mouse mothers from their pups at unpredictable intervals and further disrupts parenting by confining the mothers in tubes or dropping them in water, both stressful experiences for mice [in case you wondered].” And this account, unpleasantly reminiscent of Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments with monkeys, continues thus:

When the mothers return to the cage and their pups, they’re frantic and distracted. They often ignore the pups, compounding the stress of the separation on their offspring.

Actually there is a brief pause for ethics after that unsavoury pair of sentences. Two lines of the article reassure us that this contrived misery “has a purpose”, which is “to gain understanding for better child health”.

We aren’t given much reason to expect this purpose to be achieved (and of course, as this article celebrating the work implies, the success of the science and of the scientists does not depend on practical results). For a start there’s the obvious and familiar reservation, expressed already in the second word of the sub-title: “Mice hint at how people’s emotional trauma may affect the biology of their children.” It can only be a hint, for as Professor Mansuy admits, in a break from tormenting her mouse families, “mice and people are different, showing the limits of mouse models.” Among other discontinuities, human histories are full of personal and social unknowns, producing ills whose causes can’t be conveniently traced and measured like the ones which Professor Mansuy devises. Her solution is to look for the right sort of humans, people whose life stories (says Curry) “have similarities to what the mice in Mansuy’s lab experience.” So now we’re looking about for humans to go with the mice!

But let’s suppose that these “epigenetic effects” are indeed confirmed in humans. How will the discovery be made beneficial to them? Curry does his best to make a dramatic ‘breakthrough’ story of it all, with some atmospherics (“Mansuy donned a fresh lab coat . . . and gently cracked the door of a darkened room at her lab at UZH.”) and helpful hyperbole: “really scary stuff”, says another scientist about the idea that “the things we’re doing today, that we thought were erased, are affecting our great-great-grandchildren.” Actually it’s rather a familiar idea, isn’t it? At any rate, it’s mooted in the Bible, and is plainer than ever now that the industrial revolution is afflicting its latter generations with climate change. However, “The implications are profound”, Curry insists; they constitute “a powerful argument against everything from smoking to immigration policies that split families.” So for those of us who had always suspected that smoking and splitting families, to say nothing of famine and civil war, were bad things, but couldn’t explain quite why – well, we’re now scientifically vindicated.

But what if, even now that we’re furnished with this “powerful argument”, we can’t always stop these things from happening? Can this science tell us how to prevent or cure their malign effects in later generations? Again there’s a sort of drum-roll in the article: “In a darkened room down the hall from Mansuy’s office, just outside the mouse breeding area, two cages stand side by side on a table . . .” One of the cages is the standard featureless box endured by countless generations of lab mice as their perfunctory home. The other is ‘enriched’ with play-wheels and a maze; it even has an upstairs. It seems that “traumatized mice raised in this enriched environment don’t pass the symptoms of trauma to their offspring”. And perhaps epigenetic change is not just preventable in this way, with equivalents of enriched environment, but actually “reversible”. That makes sense, after all, for as another scientist is quoted as saying, “If it’s epigenetic, it’s responsive to the environment”, which ought to mean good environments as well as bad. And indeed, Professor Mansuy’s research suggests that “life experience can be healing as well as hurtful.” Mirabile dictu!

Returning to the orphanages in Pakistan: we were told at the start of the article that the children there already get “the best possible support”. So the science of the matter as described by Andrew Curry, with all its equipment and expertise, seems to have taken us on a grand tour of predatory experiment and gratuitous suffering, and then landed us back where we were before, using our ordinary common sense and human decency. Well, not quite back there yet, because it’s all still hypothetical. As a geneticist at the finely-named Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York warns us, there have been no “definitive studies, even in mice”; we need to be “open to the idea that there may be nothing there.”  And Professor Mansuy doesn’t deny it; fortunately for all involved – for the ‘people’ involved, that is – “there’s lots more work to be done.” Of course, there always is, and lots more mice, crickets, and other innocents for it to be done on.

Meanwhile I guess that we should go on giving the orphans and other human legatees of sorrow the best possible support, until we know better.

 

Notes and references:

‘A Painful Legacy’, written by the journalist Andrew Curry, was published in Science, 19 July 2019, pp.212-15.

The cruelty and futility of Harry Harlow’s research into maternal deprivation are discussed in the post ‘How Not to Treat Babies’ here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/

 

March of a Nation

The starting place for this year’s Official Animal Rights March in London was the huge Achilles statue in Hyde Park – that triumphalist image of man the combatant, protecting his own interests with his left arm, while savaging the interests of others Achilles 2.JPGwith the his right. Against this obsolete rhetoric of Richard Westmacott’s 33 metric tons of cannon-bronze (the type of rhetoric which may yet inspire humanity to bring the whole house of life down into ruin), came together on 17 August a counter-eloquence of non-violence, asserting the right of other species not to be minced by the human sword.

And certainly the rally and the march were powerfully and variously eloquent: banners and placards (“The only thing we need from the animals is forgiveness”, go vegan sign.JPG“I’ve come from Lisbon looking for protein”, “You kill them and their flesh kills you”, “Suck your own tits!”); chants and other noise; and that symbolic mass movement through the streets towards Parliament Square – the organizers said 12,000 people, an over-estimate possibly, but certainly many thousands. Speeches too, of course, and these were sign-languaged: translated into a repertoire of gestures and looks not only beautifully expressive in themselves, but demonstrating that words, so often preened upon as our special human property, are not the sum of language but one variety of language only. In fact signing is a reminder of our heritage of animal communication, more generally of what ought to be our animal solidarity. And some of the signs are especially moving and beautiful: most notably on that Saturday the sign for ‘freedom’, the fists opening out forwards into spreading hands, as one might liberate a bird or preferably all birds.

Well, eloquence then. But as Prime Minister Lloyd George said exactly one hundred years ago at the time when he and others were trying to make an end of war at the Paris Peace Conference (Lloyd George was one of the pedestaled figures that overlooked the march when it reached its destination in Parliament Square), “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” So what does an event like this get done?

Of course it’s a massive mobile advertisement for veganism, touring the centre of a crowded metropolis: veganism the diet, but more importantly, as both the placards vegan options.JPGand the antiphonal chant (“Go vegan: for the animals”) insisted, veganism as a political movement. So, some persuasion gets done at least.

Also this time round there was a more definite project: a rehearsal for the ‘Animal Rebellion’ event in October, when animal rights will join the Extinction Rebellion movement (in which, of course, it’s a crucial element, whether acknowledged or not) in a large-scale disruptive demonstration. The assembly at the Achilles statue was therefore given advice on the philosophy, practice, and efficacy of peaceful direct action. (Gandhi, its great exponent and therefore the precise opposite of Westmacott’s Achilles, was another of the figures overlooking the crowd in Parliament Square.) The rehearsal itself was to consist in a blockade of traffic in and out of Trafalgar Square.

However, when the march arrived at the Square, all the traffic had already been closed off for the march, and there was nothing to blockade. In such ways a liberal society absorbs the blows of criticism and simply springs back into shape. And a march like this one does demonstrate, rather disconcertingly, how liberal British society is, so far as it goes. All those main roads through London closed off to let its critics pass clamorously through at their own pace! But then, as a glance round the world makes painfully obvious, this liberalism is not natural to human government; it has had to be laboured for and won here, in past centuries, by just such shows of dissent and demand as this one. In fact it illustrates their necessity and efficacy: they do get things done.

One of those political forerunners is just now enjoying bicentenary attention: the great gathering in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819 to demand political reform, a gathering which was violently dispersed in the ‘Peterloo massacre’. (The name ‘Peterloo’ was an ironic allusion to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo four years earlier, an achievement which the Achilles statue commemorates.) Though a disaster at the time, this event was part of the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. And that legislation began a sequence of electoral reform which reached its natural conclusion nearly 100 years later with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, giving the vote to all women and men over the age of twenty one (over eighteens were enfranchised in 1969).

And there we came to a stop, leaving the great uncountable majority of UK residents completely unrepresented. In fact it seemed miserably apt, when the march was cenotaph.JPGclamouring its way past all the government offices in Whitehall, that those great rooms were empty and the windows blank, and, in Parliament Square itself, that large parts of the buildings were sightless behind scaffolding shrouds. At present, politics needn’t take notice of animal interests, and usually don’t.

Even so, it must be there, in Parliament Square, that a start is made, and animals begin their own far harder journey towards liberty through political representation: not, as at present, indirect representation by means of the good will of the humans who do have their own delegates there, but direct representation of some kind. As Robert Garner has argued recently in the journal Contemporary Political Theory, “a democratic polity should take account of animal interests, not because a substantial number of humans wish to see greater protection afforded to animals, but rather because animals themselves have a democratic right to have their interests represented in the political process.”

By way of illustrating that distinction, here is the government’s response last month to a parliamentary petition asking for theft of pet animals to be made a specific criminal offence. “We acknowledge the emotional trauma which the theft of a much-loved pet can cause”, it caringly states, but no reform is needed because existing guidance on sentencing already takes into account this “emotional distress that the theft of personal items such as a much-loved pet can have on victims.” There is no mention of the interests of the animal; it is simply assumed that the humans are speaking for themselves, animals happening to be the focus of their interests in this case.

In short, it’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But Abraham Lincoln’s fine and famous phrase is no longer adequate, if it ever was. That chant “for the animals needs bringing into it. Lincoln spoke of a “new birth of freedom” in “this nation”. But the animals are as much a part of whatever nation they live in as the humans are, more so by seniority; they are at least as much affected by its government; and therefore they are equally entitled to their own voice – that is, a voice dedicated to their interests alone – in that government’s decisions.

How to manage that is, of course, a difficult question, but let’s at least insist on the principle now. As the quoted article by Robert Garner shows, it’s making some headway in academic political thinking: indeed there is a peer-reviewed online journal titled Politics and Animals. But by a more popular audience the idea is likely to be thought absurd or threatening. Going back to the Peterloo anniversary, one of the aims of the Memorial Campaign set up to mark this anniversary year is “to crowd-source ideas for radical improvements to how democracy is conducted”. For this purpose it has set up a web-site called ‘Six Acts to reboot democracy’. People are invited to sign up and vote for or against the proposals shown there, or to make their own proposals for democratic reform. When I first looked, there were 33 such proposals; none of them mentioned animals. I have therefore posted a proposal titled ‘Representation of Animals Act’. Please go there and vote for it, if you have time: when I last looked (it’s near the bottom of the page), it had received a total of one negative vote.

 

Notes and references:

The title-phrase comes from a speech of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Parnell, given in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

The Official Animal Rights March (TOARM) facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/achilles-way-london-w1k-1ab-united-kingdom/the-official-animal-rights-march-2019-london/615721232212726/  There have been/will be related marches at about this time in many other cities round the world. TOARM was founded by the organisation called Surge in 2016. Last year’s London march was described in this blog on 3 September 2018.

Prime Minister Lloyd George’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference was reported in the Times of 20 January 2019.

The publicized intention of Animal Rebellion in October is to blockade the meat market at Smithfield in London. Please visit its web-site at http://www.animalrebellion.org/

Robert Garner’s essay ‘Animals and Democratic Theory: beyond an Anthropocentric Account’ was published in Contemporary Political Theory, vol.16.4, 2016, pp.459-77. It can be read online here: https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1057%2Fs41296-016-0072-0?author_access_token=xNdtWwORBPuYWYx0bHmbalxOt48VBPO10Uv7D6sAgHtNg344y2R29w6T1gh33kZDmAvHpritVE1zaVYYkHK2S22mn9e-UqOTAw2XrOTRE95RWBW9DCw6tbESCaRw05SaTD67RwZg3G8UgFwzYJmjrg==

The animal-theft petition and answer can be found here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/244530?reveal_response=yes

Abraham Lincoln is quoted from his speech given at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, on 19 November 1863.

The Peterloo Memorial Campaign’s ‘Six Acts Project’ is online at https://www.sixacts.org/

He that has Humanity

One of the reasons for the great increase in experiments on animals after the Second World War (five times as many in 1971 as in 1946) was the thorough-going institutionalization of the LD50 toxicity test. That disgusting method of finding what dose of a drug, or other substance of use to humans, will kill half of the test animals – a technique which merely by itself should have been enough to discredit the whole animal-research project – is not, you’ll be relieved to know, the subject of this post. But it seems that one of the assistants to Dr J.W. Trevan, the scientist who devised the method in the 1920s, subsequently celebrated the achievement by acquiring for his car the number-plate LD50. Here’s a showy instance, then, of science failing to rise to the ethical occasion, or even to notice it, and this at least fifty years after the Royal Commission of 1876 had spoken feelingly (for a government publication, anyway) of “the claim of the lower animals to be treated with humane consideration, and . . . the right of the community to be assured that this claim shall not be forgotten amid the triumphs of advancing science.”

That number-plate is mentioned in a recent history of the vivisection controversy, Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain by A.W.H. Bates. A part of the book’s theme is exactly that failure of science to rise to the ethical problem set to it by bates covervivisection – the failure of science or the science establishment rather than scientists in general, because Bates shows (what is evident also in the evidence put before the 1876 Royal Commission) that many of the opponents of vivisection in its earlier days were individual doctors. Bates himself is a medical doctor and professor of pathology, and can therefore feel, from within medical practice, the perplexity or even indignation of the healer who has to give with one hand what he’s stolen with the other.

Or if not stolen, at least been accessory to the theft of: not many doctors have themselves been vivisectors, because laboratory research was an occupation distinct from healing well before animals had become a common part of the equipment for it. But since the 1870s, vivisection has been the premise of orthodox medical science and training. Every British doctor has therefore been implicated in it. Writing of the period up to 1970 (but the situation has not noticeably changed since then), Bates says

all were taught in medical schools that it was indispensable for knowledge, and that those who opposed it were enemies of science. To speak out was disloyalty, and medical students and young researchers (as I know from experience) went along with the culture of animal experimentation because to dissent was heresy. [200]

As to those early days of vivisection in the UK, Bates does not picture a doctor’s dilemma, a painful choice between two hard positions, for he believes that the medical profession had an established ethic which ought to have made its way clear. The clue is in that word used by the Commissioners, ‘humane’. For Bates (and for the Commissioners too, I hope), it’s not a vague term of moral approval. He gets out the Oxford Dictionary and insists on the word’s proper definition: “such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man” (the medical scene at that time was indeed populated almost exclusively by men). What behaviour or disposition, then, particularly befits a doctor? If compassion and the will to heal, or at least – translating from the original Hippocratic Oath – to ‘abstain from all intentional wrong or harm’, are to be part of it, then, so it seemed to many doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, “vivisection was not something that a doctor ought to do”. More largely it was “incompatible with the humane ethos of their profession.” (These two quotations come from the first and the second-to-last pages of the book, and the whole story in between is told with reference to this conviction.)

That sort of moral thinking, based on the idea of what “befits” a human, would now be called ‘virtue ethics’. Dr Bates rightly traces it to the philosophy of Aristotle, but whether academically codified or used by a sort of informal instinct, it has always been the standard moral reference in life and in literature. “I dare do all that may become a man,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, defending himself from his wife’s accusation of cowardice; “Who dares do more is none.” And as the story of Macbeth shows, human character has this dynamic quality to it, that it is revised by its own choices, so that virtue becomes steadily less or more natural, less or more possible, to it. And likewise this was always the principal reference in the case against vivisection, until well into the twentieth century: as Samuel Johnson had said, its “horrid operations” would “tend to harden the heart and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or the stone.” [21]

And not just the medical profession would be affected; opponents argued that society as a whole would be corrupted by the practice. It was this latter conviction which, so the courts decided in 1895, entitled the anti-vivisection Victoria Street Society to its charitable status: the Society’s aim was, or at least included, the good of humanity. And the Society did indeed state that its primary inspiration was “a conviction that the spread of mercy was the great cause of civilization.” [46]

Dr Bates shows how well-established the ‘virtue’ tradition of thought was when vivisection first came to the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. He quotes the British Medical Journal itself endorsing it: “Let there be no mistake about it: the man who habituates himself to the shedding of blood, and who is insensible to the sufferings of animals, is led on into the path of baseness.” [21] And of course the proponents of vivisection attempted often enough to defend their case on that same ground. They insisted on the fine character of the practitioner in general (“the best people in the country”, said Sir William Gull) and of each other’s in particular (“I do not anywhere know a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, one of his colleagues told the Royal Commissioners, speaking of the editor of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory of 1873). Conversely, they disparaged the characters of their opponents, notably for their want of manliness (“old ladies of both sexes” [21]). For of course what constitutes virtue is always a contestable matter, even though the consensus seems to have changed surprisingly little since Aristotle’s days.

Anyway, those attempts at virtue ethics were improvisations only. After all, animal research had come about for purely technical reasons, as a means of research; it had not been ethically argued into being, nor much questioned within the profession thereafter. In fact, as the controversy over Professor Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook showed, the professionals were wholly unprepared for the moral indignation aroused by their work: he himself admitted, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft.”

But an ethic of sorts, or a substitute for it, was at hand, and was soon fixed into law by the Cruelty to Animals Act, passed immediately after the Royal Commission had reported. What looked like cruelty would be all right provided it produced or might produce some commensurate benefit: the more “horrid” the operation (vivisection of dogs, for instance, or absence of anaesthesia), the more attention had to be paid to this notional benefit (that is, special certificates would be required). So the problem of what people ought to do, as doctors, as Christians, as humans, which was how the anti-vivisectionists put the matter, was countered with a sort of calculus: indeed, utilitarianism has sometimes been called ‘the felicific calculus’ (counting happiness). Of course, only the scientist can say what the benefit will or may be: he or she owns the crucial half of the computation. So when the Oxford professor and champion of vivisection Ray Lankester promised in a public lecture of 1905 that eventually, through bioscience, “man can get rid of pain and unhappiness”, such an enormous and alluring benefit made almost any cost acceptable, and nobody could say that it wasn’t possible.

Utilitarianism remains the core ethical principle in modern medicine: “Bioethics as currently taught in British medical schools is unlikely to stress the importance of the physician’s humane character; as anyone who works in a teaching hospital will know, medical students and junior doctors are trained to seek the greatest benefit for the largest number; and to their utilitarian hammer, everything looks like a nail.” [2] By that last image, I think Dr Bates means that there is nothing that has to be regarded as falling outside the calculus, no absolute yes or no in conduct. The implications of this had been noticed by C.S. Lewis when he was writing on the subject in 1947: “the victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as the animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements.” 1947 was the year, incidentally, in which the courts, conforming to the spirit of the age, revised their 1895 decision, and took charitable status away from the anti-vivisection organisations.

Dr Bates shows how thoroughly this “materialistic utilitarianism” did indeed represent “an ethical break with the past” [199]. In fact he argues that the term ‘anti-vivisection’ is an unfortunate misnomer. It implies “protest, negativity and perhaps even rejection of progress”, whereas the movement was really a defence of positive human values against a sudden and novel assault. And it wasn’t the voice of a non-conformist minority: There was never a time in Britain when there were more people active in support of vivisection than against it, and in the nineteenth century the antis raised petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures, more than for any other cause of the time.” [14]

Nor were they simply appealing to an old moral orthodoxy. Against the obduracy, even bumptiousness, of the utilitarian, with his LD50 number-plate, they brought a flourishing moral idealism. They not only made sure of a continual argument (repetitive certainly, but philosophically fertile too); they also showed, as many of their successors have since discovered for themselves, that thinking or being made to think about our proper relations to other animals is the best, perhaps the only, way to make sense of our own place in the world. Dr Bates shows it happening: for instance in the thought of Josiah Oldfield, founder of anti-vivisection hospitals and other like-minded projects, who wrote rhapsodically in 1898, “The higher the man, . . . the more reverence he has for his fellow traveller – a true brother in the eyes of science – on the same spiral pathway of vitality, towards a perfection of evolution.” [86] All of us animals “on the same spiral pathway of vitality”! It’s a dream, perhaps, but an inspiring guide also, and there’s certainly nothing ‘anti’ about it.

Bates’s history shows, in fact, that anti-vivisection continually won the argument, but that the science establishment, working in particular through the British Medical Association and the Research Defence Society, had the influence and therefore won the politics. But he ends his account in 1970, just before the argument re-blossomed in the most astonishing way, with the publication of Animals, Men and Morals, and all that came after it. The subsequent ascendancy of the ‘rights’ idea, supported by the new science of animal sentience, has given anti-vivisection very great additional authority, if not much additional success.

However, Bates believes that the ‘virtue’ argument shouldn’t be let go. He points out that the five decisive objections to vivisection put forward by the Animals’ Friends Society (set up in 1833 by the saintly Lewis Gompertz) “did not mention animals at all.” [197] It was enough, even for that pioneering vegan who refused to travel in horse-drawn vehicles, to insist that the practice was bad for humans. And Dr Bates concludes that “For ethicists, the most important lesson from history is that it is possible to construct a coherent and effective case against vivisection in which neither utilitarianism nor animal rights needs feature prominently!” [200]

It’s an unconventional, perhaps perverse, conclusion but, as I’ve mentioned, this is a practising doctor speaking, with an ideal of the healer in mind. And we might all agree with him to this extent, that a line of moral thinking which has kept human savagery intermittently in check for millennia should indeed be held on to for the animals’ sake as well as our own. “I would not enter on my list of friends,” says William Cowper in his long meditative poem The Task (1785, Book VI, l.560),

                                                . . . the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush a snail,
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarn’d,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.

We don’t need, then, to argue whether worms or snails (‘reptiles’ for Cowper, from the Latin repere, meaning ‘to creep’) can feel pain, nor to set up experiments to find out for sure. All those researches into the intelligence or sentience of our fellow-animals are beside the point. An ideal of ‘humanity’ will by itself teach us how to treat them – better still (a point on which utilitarianism is silent) why to want to treat them well, supposing we need a reason for that.

 

Notes and references:

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the magnificent Animal Ethics series edited by Andrew Linzey. There are 37 titles in the series to date, but this volume is only the second of them to deal just with vivisection. Note also that the book is free to read online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2F978-1-137-55697-4.pdf.

Quotations from the book here, including instances where the author is quoting others, are given page numbers in square brackets. Other quotations are referenced below.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO, 1876) is quoted at pp. xxi, 266 (Gull), 75 (character of Dr Sanderson), 118 (lay criticism of the Handbook).

Ray Lankester is quoted in E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern Biology, Joe Lester, British Society for the History of Science, 1995, p.175.

The essay Vivisection by C.S. Lewis was first published as a pamphlet by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in 1947, but can be found re-printed in various selections of his essays and lectures.

The interesting cover illustration is credited to “Peter Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo”. Evidently it wasn’t commissioned for this book, and it has its own take on vivisection in the early twentieth century, noticeably different from the author’s.

 

Counting the Animals again

The Home Office has now published its Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain for 2018. Here is VERO’s selective summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2017 (which seem to have been slightly revised since they were published last year), with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2018  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,568,197    2,781,685
 Fish   454,340    514,059
 Rats   177,904    241,544
 Domestic fowl   141,069    125,280
 Sheep    53,672    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    6,445    22,560
 Horses    10,424    10,600
 Rabbits    11,159    10,362
 Dogs    4,481     3,847
 Non-human primates    3,127     2,962
 Other species    89,099     28,975
 Total:   3,519,917   3,789,373

Direction of travel: You may notice that there has been a fall of about 7% in the numbers since last year. You certainly will notice it if you read the Home Office report itself, since the point is made twice in the first four pages, as is also the fact that this is the lowest number since 2007 (a fact highlighted in attractive purple each time). There has been a fall in each of the last three years, so perhaps it is now possible to detect a real and very welcome downwards trend after years of more or less steady increase. Still, there is a long way to go (to go back), for even this 2018 number is about 34% greater than the number recorded in 2001.

Particular species: There has been a fall in numbers for most species, but you’ll see that two of those which have special protection under the 1986 Act have not enjoyed a share in it: dogs and non-human primates. The sad thing is that these animals are mainly used in so-called ‘regulatory testing’, the most patently unpleasant category of research, and one which has always had the worst severity ratings: this year, 12.5% of the procedures were classified as ‘severe’ (i.e. the top pain rating), compared to about 2% of the procedures for ‘basic’ research. Dogs (which mercifully don’t appear in the ‘severe’ category this year) and primates are used primarily for the testing of human and veterinary ‘medical products’, by the method called ‘repeated dose toxicity’. Other animals in this category of research may be required to test industrial chemicals, biocides, animal feeds (this, we’re told, is “for the safety of target animals, workers and environment”, so God knows what these feeds contain), and an unspecified ‘other’, in which again both dogs and primates feature.

The testing methods used on the less-protected animals still include the notorious LD50 and LC50 tests, as well as unspecified ‘other lethal methods’. That word ‘other’ acquires a sinister character in these records, but “other lethal” is an illogical category anyway, since all or nearly all this laboriously counted work is lethal in the not-so-long run for the animals, even when they are not killed by the product itself.

The 10,000 or so procedures on horses recorded in this Home Office report (up 19% since 2009) appear likewise mainly in this ‘regulatory’ category, although in fact the horses are being used not for testing but for the routine production of blood derivatives. You can see some of the uses to which this blood is put being advertised on the web-site of TCS Biosciences (“your partner: For Life”). In the USA, these uses include the keeping of farmed sows regularly in heat, by means of ‘Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotropin’. I mention this as one stray and disgusting instance of the way that animal research serves and therefore promotes high-tech animal farming. Scientists often compare the animal costs of their work favourably with the suffering and death-rate in agriculture; it’s a defence they have been using ever since they discovered that vivisection required defending. But the distinction is altogether disingenuous: farming as now practised would not have been possible, let alone profitable, without the steady support of laboratory science.

Democracy at work, or not: The 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act requires the Home Office to “publish and lay before Parliament” these annual statistics in order that the people, acting through their representatives, can knowingly assent to them. In practice this assent is assumed rather than annually petitioned for. Some challenges there are, of course. ‘Early Day Motions’ may be tabled, in which MPs express their dissent: at present there is one such (EDM 66), signed by 63 MPs and calling for “a thorough, properly moderated public scientific debate on the misleading and costly practice of trying to apply results from animal experiments to human patients.” Or questions may be put to ministers; for instance, on 3 September 2018, the excellent (and vegan) MP Kerry McCarthy asked about the increased use of horses for blood collection, as mentioned above. Much more rarely there are dedicated debates, the most recent of them on 5 February 2013, held in Westminster Hall and simply titled ‘Animal Experiments’.

But the lack of a proper departmental home and a dedicated minister for all animal subjects means that no great momentum is ever created out of these haphazard initiatives. Animal research alone is dealt with in fragments by at least three major departments: the Home Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department of Health and Social Care. It’s a situation tragi-comically reflected in the name of the Home Office agency responsible for putting out these annual statistics: the Fire, Licensing and Public Order Analysis Unit.

In the absence of sustained parliamentary fuss, these statistics and the exploitation of animals which they dimly shadow have come to seem like a sort of natural or at least sociological phenomenon, rather than a deliberate moral choice. The Home Office report itself sets the style for that way of viewing them. Surveying the variations in numbers over the years since 1987, it provides this helpful explanation: “The number of procedures carried out on living animals is determined by several factors, including the focus of scientific and medical endeavours, the economic climate and global trends in new technologies or fields of research.” No one’s really in charge, then; we’re all just bystanders. And it then becomes reasonable to take the view noted in this blog when last year’s statistics were published: that is, that big numbers are actually an indication that all’s well in UK life-science research – or, as one promotional organisation has said this time round, “Year-to-year numbers are thus best seen as a reflection of the current health of UK bioscience investment and will fluctuate year-on-year.”

Fluctuate! We’re a very long way here not just from the pains of the animals whom these statistics are nominally about, but also from the moral purpose clearly though imperfectly put into political effect in the 1986 Act and the 2010 European Directive. For them, downward was the desired and proper direction, not an accident of economics.

Well, it’s true that counting animals is not the essence of animal rights, but falling numbers are emphatically better than rising numbers, and if the present trend in that direction is to be kept going we need to remind our political representatives (even at this least propitious of political times) to keep the subject controversial. Many MPs really do mind about animals, and even more of them know that their constituents do. To illustrate as much, here is an MP speaking about animal research back in 1971, at the high point of vivisection numbers in the UK, just preceding the long fall towards 2001: “I know that the object is to preserve human life; but it does make me wonder whether a human race that can take such morally degrading practices in its stride is really worth preserving.”  OU primate

Yes, that’s the proper context in which to view and debate these annual statistics.

 

 

 

Notes and references:

The Annual Statistics can be found here (the quotation comes from p.5): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/818578/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2018.pdf

The tables of data are now published separately, and are linked here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2018

Information about the farming of horses for blood comes from this web-site: https://www.thedodo.com/turning-horse-blood-into-profits-1382177497.html

A transcript of the Westminster Hall debate can be read here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2013-02-05/debates/13020535000001/AnimalExperiments

The parliamentary briefing document, titled Animal Experiment Statistics, was published on 25 April: a summary of it is available here, with a link to the full pdf version provided at the end: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN02720#fullreport

The quotation about “year-to-year numbers” is from the Speaking of Research web-site here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2019/07/22/great-britain-releases-2018-statistics-on-animals-used-in-research/

Unfortunately I don’t know who the last-mentioned MP was: he or she is quoted without name or reference by Desmond Morris in his book Intimate Behaviour (Jonathan Cape, 1971), p.183.

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, probably himself long since an annual statistic, is used by courtesy of the university’s Public Affairs Office.

 

More about the Mouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apes and Academics

In one of Franz Kafka’s short stories, titled ‘A Report to an Academy’, an ape nick-named Red Peter tells his story to an assembly of intellectual dignitaries: how he was shot and caged in West Africa, then shipped to Europe, and how he managed to find there, if not freedom, at least a “way out” of his captivity by becoming a performing animal, a human impersonator, on the vaudeville circuit. The description of Red Peter’s laborious and finally successful attempts to turn himself into a sort of human make an uncomfortably satiric fable. It’s usually understood as telling the story of Jewish assimilation into Western culture: reasonably enough, since Kafka was himself Jewish, and the story was first published in the journal Die Jude. It might also be read as the sacrifices which an artist may have to make to fit into a society made by Philistines, or more generally as the transformation of the Freudian child into the socialized adult.

But that’s not how Red Peter is understood when he turns up in a more recent address to an academy, the one given by the fictitious novelist Elizabeth Costello to the academics of Appleton College in J.M.Coetzee’s story The Lives of Animals (itself originally delivered as an address to an academy, in the form of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, 1997-8). Costello starts her discourse by telling her audience that as she stands in front of them she feels “a little like Red Peter myself”. But in case they should take this for self-deprecating good humour, “a light-hearted remark, meant to set you at ease”, she bleakly insists on its literalism: “It means what it says. I say what I mean.” And likewise she will not be interpreting Red Peter in good academic style as the artist obliged to please in order to live or, say, as the woman making her way in a world fashioned by men. For again she corrects the academic habit of abstraction: “I have a literal cast of mind . . . When Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape.”

What then does Red Peter mean strictly as an ape, and an ape who, so far from standing in for a human (for the Jew, for the artist), is himself now apparently being stood in for, at Appleton College, by a distinguished old lady, Elizabeth Costello?

In the same year in which Kafka’s short story appeared, 1917, the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler had published The Mentality of Apes, an account of his work with chimpanzees at a research station on the island of Tenerife. Like Red Peter, so Costello says, Köhler’s apes “underwent a period of training intended to humanize them”, which included the setting of various problems or difficulties for the chimpanzees to solve in order to get at their food. You note that word “training”. Costello speaks of “what the apes on Tenerife learned from their master”, and of the most adept of them, named Sultan, “beginning to see how the man’s mind works”. Köhler’s research was not, then, aimed at understanding the ape-mind as it naturally is; rather the aim was to see how nearly it could be induced to work like a man’s. His title might more accurately have been The Mentality of Humans.

That, at any rate, is how Elizabeth Costello reads the book – a book which she in fact suggests Kafka himself had read before writing ‘Report to an Academy’. She analyzes Köhler’s experiments thus:  “As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts [i.e. not puzzle-solving thoughts], he is starved . . . At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought . . . he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason.” And this is indeed how Red Peter has earned his own food, his means to live comfortably: by imitating the behaviour of humans (spitting, drinking, or shaking hands, according to the models available) and deliberately relinquishing his ape heritage. “I can no longer attain,” he says, “the old apish truth.”

So Elizabeth Costello sets the story of Red Peter in the context of animal research, and of the stripped-down version of the animal which is all that is useful or even intelligible to it. (Thus Oxford’s Professor Burdon Sanderson in 1876: “The study of Science is measurementthe life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.”) For all Red Peter’s rather ghastly self-satisfaction (part of being ‘human’, perhaps), he is no more than anthropological evidence for his attentive academicians, as he is no more than a ‘turn’ for his vaudeville audiences. And for this acceptance into the human circle, “what has he had to give up?” asks Costello. A painful defeat has been involved.

But there is also a much larger context of defeat to the story. That human mentality, in favour of which Red Peter has foregone his own “apish truth”, has in fact overshadowed the whole kingdom of animals. “In the olden days,” says Costello (the fairy-tale phrase suggesting that she’s not proposing to speak the language of “reason” herself),

the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations won that war definitively . . . Animals have only their silence left to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us.

Except Red Peter, that is. And in him we can see how humans have indeed made themselves and their “reason” the measure of the world: he can only be understood, only respected and allowed out of captivity, as a quasi-human, a plucky runner-up in life’s race. That’s why in fact he admits, right at the beginning of his address, that he can tell his audience nothing about the life of an ape. All that he now knows of it, they already know: he is, after all, their creation.

So it’s the tragic character of this defeat, this loss of the animal voice and share in the world, that Elizabeth Costello means to represent to her Appleton audience when she tells them that she feels like Red Peter. For all his grotesquely humanoid manners, Red Peter is, she says, “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars.” And just so is she, “an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.” Red Peter’s wound (he sometimes shows it to his audiences) is the one made by the rifle which brought him down and hustled him into the human world: it’s the record or scar of his humanization. Elizabeth Costello’s is the converse of that: it is her heritage as an animal, her share in Red Peter’s wound and in all the wounds which modern life inflicts upon non-human animals.

But she has to remind her audience that it isn’t she alone who has this heritage: “we are all animals”. Accordingly she insists that we all do have (contrary to what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued), the capacity to understand other animals as they really are, and the duty therefore to compassionate them: “I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” It is not just a case of imaginative sympathy, although Costello does indeed urge the Appleton scholars to use and trust this faculty: “open your heart and listen to what your heart says.” (The scholars are “nonplussed” by this emotional appeal.) It’s also a matter of fact: there really is that “substrate of life” which we share with all living things. Without it, we could not have come into existence as a species. Red Peter himself impishly reminds his academicians of it, when he refers to “your own apehood, gentlemen, to the extent that there is anything like that in your past”.

And now we can appreciate better the story that Kafka’s Red Peter, understood not as a Jew or an artist but literally as an ape, is telling: it’s the story of human evolution, and of our misuse of it. Red Peter is both the first and the last man: the first as, struggling out of his former species, he becomes human; the latest, as he pulls up the ladder, forgetting his ape-life, speaking scornfully of his former species, keeping a miserable “half-trained chimpanzee” as a sort of concubine but shunning her during the day. Just so has humanity pulled up the ladder connecting it to all that “substrate of life” from which it emerged. What impoverishment has been involved is suggested in the superficial tricks and manners which constitute Red Peter’s humanity. In Coetzee’s story, it is suggested also in the discomfort of the Appleton minds, their awkward inadequacy in facing Elizabeth Costello’s unhappy passion, her “wound”.

But of course there is a worse impoverishment entailed for the animals themselves. Lives of Animals.JPGThat wound, metaphorical in her case, is horribly factual in the case of the real animals whose lives, “all around us as I speak”, are circulating in the modern world’s “enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing . . . an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them”. Their story, implicit in Kafka’s sardonic fable, is presented to the academy by Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in plain light as the human and animal tragedy it is.

 

Notes and references:

Quotations from ‘A Report to an Academy’ are as translated by Stanley Applebaum in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Dover Publications 1996, pp.81-88.

J.M.Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals later became ‘Lesson 4’ in the novel Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, which is the text from which the quotations above are taken (Vintage Books 2004, pp.91-115). There’s more about Coetzee and Lives of Animals on the VERO web-site here: http://www.vero.org.uk/matthewsimpson2.pdf

Professor Burdon Sanderson is quoted from a lecture published in the journal Nature, 1876, vol.14, pp.117. The painting Science is Measurement (1879) by Henry Stacy Marks is said (by Terrie Romano in Making Medicine Scientific Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p.127) to have been inspired, at least as to its title, by Burdon Sanderson’s lecture. It belongs in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

Most of the animals used in laboratories are of the commonly domesticated species, or at least ones that will submit to domestication. No doubt that has been partly or wholly the reason for selecting them in the first place. There’s a peculiar treachery involved here: lethal advantage is being taken of just that trust which domestication has deliberately created. It’s a treachery poignantly dramatized by Richard Adams in his novel The Plague Dogs (see this blog at 15 January 2017). The case of wild animals in research is different, but has its own special unpleasantness. Against them, mere force is used rather than guile, but reading reports of research using wild animals one has a strong sense of something worse than treachery: an insult against nature, perhaps against life itself.

A current example is the brain research conducted by Dr Sheesh Mysore, using barn owls. Mysore and his coadjutors study, among other things, “the neural mechanisms of selection”: that is, how the mind of an owl chooses what to pay attention to and what to ignore or defer. A journalist from the USA’s National Public Radio recently paid a visit to the “basement laboratory” at Johns Hopkins University where this work is being done. Uncritically impressed by what he has seen, in the familiar way of such science reporters, he describes the “team’s long-term goal” as “to figure out what goes wrong in the brains of people with attention problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”. In fact Dr Mysore, no doubt intellectually easing off in this complaisant company, tells his visitor that there’s hardly a limit to the mind-ailments likely to be served by his sort of work (“Pretty much name a psychiatric disorder . . .”). He is rather more cautious on his own web-site, where also it is very clear that a large part of what drives this research is pure curiosity about “interesting neuroscientific questions”.

Curiosity is a necessary element in this as in any line of science, but making barn owls suffer for it, or indeed suffer for any other human reason, is not. And suffer they undoubtedly do. These owls are studied by means of “in vivo electrophysiology”: that is, they are immobilized in tubes or clamps (this is the only point at which anaesthesia is briefly used, so that the animals can be easily handled), and then testing probes of some kind are inserted into their heads. Sights and sounds of a challenging kind are then projected at them (“bursts of noise . . . an object approaching quickly”), and their “neural mechanisms”, helplessly confronting these insults, are recorded. When not Bewick's owlbeing thus investigated or subsequently killed and anatomized, these beautiful birds – in nature solitary and shy, with their acute sight and hearing, and their habit of sudden vigorous flight – are lodged in the wretchedly minimalist conditions of Dr Mysore’s laboratory, up to six of them in a cage. If the cages pictured on NPR’s web-site are a fair sample, then these animals, even when off-duty, are being given a pathetic fraction of what they need for an undistressed life, short as that will evidently be.

Owls are so unsuited to captivity that it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the USA without special licence. Yet nothing is said in the NPR broadcast about their welfare, though the journalist notices that the particular owl being handled by Mysore at the time is “distraught” (it can be heard screeching). In the laboratory’s most recent publication on this research – ‘Combinatorial neural inhibition for stimulus selection across space’ (Cell Reports, 25, 1158-70, Oct.30 2018) – information on the ethics and welfare implications of the work takes up less than 100 words in an article of 23 mostly two-column pages. From it we learn that these owls were “shared across several studies” (as one might share equipment), and were treated “in accordance with NIH guidelines”, whatever that implies. The National Institutes of Health is the major provider of funds for animal research in the USA – by no means a dis-interested party.

Crude and unpleasant as is this raid on wild nature, it is at least frankly predatory. There’s no pretence that it will do owls any good. Indeed, the whole tragic point is that such birds are completely free of “attention problems” of any kind: unlike humans, they are beautifully adapted to the way of life which, over countless millennia, they have made for themselves. They don’t need human help, and certainly nobody at Johns Hopkins is pretending to give it, even to the extent of providing decent living conditions for them.

However, there’s a line of research which does claim to be doing nature good by pillaging it in these ways: that is, research which has nature conservation among its aims. One presently controversial instance of this is the work of Christine Lattin at Louisiana State University. Her subject, as reported in the journal Science, is “how stress affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and other indicators in living birds”: “living” while they’re being stressed, that is, but soon afterwards “she euthanizes the birds she works with” (note the disingenuous ‘with’). The birds are mainly “wild caught house-sparrows”, and the stress to which they’re subjected in Dr Lattin’s laboratory has included mixing small amounts of oil into their feed (specifically, ‘Gulf of Mexico Sweet Louisiana crude oil’), confinement in a cloth bag for periods of 30 minutes, injection of adrenocorticotrophic hormone, ‘biopsy punching’ of the legs (under temporary anaesthesia), shaking.

Because all animals, vertebrate animals at least, experience stress, this research is claimed (on Lattin’s web-site) to be of some use in the understanding and treatment of human ills. But the immediate gain expected from it is a better understanding of “stress in wild populations”, populations of the sort the test birds used to belong to. The kinds of stress which Lattin specifies are “habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions”. Also there are the oil spills. The better understanding of how animals respond to these assaults “may allow us to save some species that might otherwise go extinct.” For, as Science tells us, Dr Lattin is “a self-professed animal-lover”. But it would be more accurate to call her a species-lover. She sacrifices some birds in order to benefit, at some uncertain time in the future, many more of them and their like: ethics by numbers, in short. But note that those environmental stresses which she hopes to teach us to understand better, even the “species invasions”, are caused by humans (the prime invader, after all). Dr Lattin’s research work may reasonably be seen, then, not as a means to putting things right (we already know how to put those stresses right; it’s the willingness to do so that we lack), but simply as one more way in which humans in pursuit of their own interests make other animals suffer and prematurely die.

I’ve said that Dr Lattin’s research is controversial, but within her profession there seems to be no unease about it. The promotional organisation Speaking of Research claims that the publications arising from it have been “cited hundreds of times by other scientists”. This, intended as a thorough justification, is in fact a sad reminder that whenever you encounter what looks like a peculiarly nasty piece of research, it will almost certainly turn out to have a whole dynasty behind it, and very probably ahead of it as well. The research that Dr Mysore is doing on owls, for instance, can be traced at least as far back as 1978, when just the same clamping and brain-rummaging of barn owls was going on at CalTech (he cites that work, and any amount of the like in between). In that same Speaking of Research text, incidentally, the notorious work of Harry Harlow on maternal deprivation in monkeys is held to be likewise vindicated by the fact that it provided “an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work”. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Man hands on misery to man”: not just his own misery, either.

The house-sparrow research reflects a more general failure of ethics in conservation work and thought. The conservation movement has habitually been simple-mindedly anthropocentric. (The title of one of the UK’s most active countryside lobbying organisations, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, provides a cartoon version of the outlook.) And although Dr Lattin’s work goes forward primarily in the lab, similarly invasive research of various kinds does take place also in the field. Here there’s even less ethical oversight, but the same general principle of ends justifying means routinely sacrifices the individual to the species, the real life to the notional category. Not just any species, though: some of them, being more rare or more appealingly ‘native’, are preferred over others. (In fact Dr Lattin’s sparrows themselves are regarded as invasive, and are accordingly being used with an easier conscience.) Those who have read in this blog about the fine ethologist Niko Tinbergen (see ‘Eve of Destruction’, 8 March 2019), will recollect his suggestion that scientists should observe themselves as well as the animals, and should do it “as critically and as detachedly as possible”. The confused goodwill and actual arrogance of much conservation work needs just that sort of critical attention.

However, it seems that some progress is being made. Editors who publish laboratory research in life-science journals already have the so-called  ‘ARRIVE’ guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting on In Vivo Experiments) to show them what information they should require of their authors as to the treatment of the animals involved and the quality of the experiment to which those animals have been subjected. Now a similar set of rules has been proposed for the publication of research done in the field. The authors of ‘Publication reform to safeguard wildlife from researcher harm’ (PLOS Biology, 11 April 2019) argue that “employing invasive and lethal research methods in the name of conservation [the old ‘shooting and conservation’ attitude] has raised important considerations about the welfare of individuals.” Yet they find that conservation journals show little or no interest in animal welfare. Some scientists in that line of work even consider that “animal welfare and conservation are incompatible”. No doubt what they really mean is that they’d rather not have to bother about the welfare, but editors may increasingly require their authors to show that they have bothered. The proposed guidelines are titled Animals in Research: Reporting on Wildlife (or ARROW, to match ARRIVE). We can hope that they will at least force academic conservationists to recognize, as laboratory scientists have been gradually forced to do, that high-minded objectives are not a licence to kill.

It’s not much, perhaps, but then the ARROW authors see their proposal as only one part of a wider movement to moralize conservation. That there really is such a movement is well-evidenced in their bibliography, where one can find such expressive titles as ‘Why we need an ecological ethics’ (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol.3, August 2005) and ‘What are 60 warblers worth? Killing in the name of conservation’ (Oikos, vol.116, August 2007). In fact the movement has a name, ‘Compassionate Conservation’. Of course that phrase ought to be simply a tautology, and the fact that it’s not, that it needs arguing, shows the crazed condition of the human mind. No wonder the owl has a reputation for wisdom, if we’re the competition.

 

Notes and references:

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) provide e-mail templates to use for objecting to both the owl and the sparrow research projects:

https://support.peta.org/page/7677/action/1?locale=en-US

https://support.peta.org/page/1068/action/1?locale=en-US

Quotations about Dr Mysore’s research are from his own pages on the Johns Hopkins web-site at https://mysorelab.johnshopkins.edu/research.html and from the NPR transcript of the relevant broadcast here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/09/11/644992109/can-a-barn-owl-s-brain-explain-why-kids-with-adhd-can-t-stay-focused?t=1557825875601 (notice the word “kids” for children, to suggest how down-to-earth and relevant the research is).

The article in Science about the Lattin controversy appeared in the issue for 15 September 2017, at p.1087. Other quotations about Dr Lattin’s research come from her own web-site: https://www.christinelattin.com/. The defence of her research put up by Speaking of Research is here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2017/09/19/the-fact-check-peta-vs-christine-lattin/

The article proposing the ARROW guidelines can be read here: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000193

The portrait of a barn owl is from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds (1847 edition).