Some Science Stories and their Animals

Coronavirus ———

The leading story in biomedical science at the moment (where not?) is COVID-19, the new variety of coronavirus – new to humans, that is – which has evidently been accompanying us as a fellow-passenger on our restless tours round the world. It’s a zoonotic disease; the animals gave it to us, and where more probably and more justly than at an animal market like the one in Wuhan, where human contempt for other creatures is at its most visibly disgusting? These markets crowd the living, dying, and dead together – farm animals, marine animals, snakes, civets, foxes, dogs, donkeys, destined for food or for traditional ‘medicine’ – in a hell such as Hieronymus Bosch might have painted.

We surely deserve whatever they can do us of harm in such a setting. Even a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology seemed to be thinking so when she was reported on the web-site (and roughly translated) as calling the virus “a punishment for uncivilized living habits of human beings by [towards?] nature”. ‘Even’, I say, because of course the burst of scientific activity prompted by the epidemic has itself swept a CoeDeadlyViruscrowd of other animals into human un-mercy. This same laboratory in Wuhan has already, we are told, “completed the establishment of mouse and non-human primate models”. Meanwhile scientists in the USA are using data provided from China to synthesize live virus and then “study it in animals”. [Science, 17.1.20] We humans can’t be expected to suffer alone.

The Donkey Trade ———

The Chinese government has now put a stop to the trade in wildlife for food, and this most welcome ban seems set to be permanent, unlike the one introduced during the outbreak of the SARS virus a few years ago. (There’s a Care2 petition for a similar ban on wildlife markets in the neighbouring countries, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos: see the link in the notes below.) But the disfavour hasn’t so far been extended to animal-related traditional medicine. One particularly wretched instance of this, though not involving exotic animals, is the manufacture of ejiao from collagen in donkey hides. The growing popularity of this supposed blood tonic has been “spurring new studies of donkey biology”, according to the journal Science, the aim in particular being “to speed their reproduction . . . and expedite growth.” [13.12.19] Here’s the science of animal research, then, continuing to serve and promote the ruthless industrialization of farming – and the donkey trade really is ruthless from birth to death of its unhappy victims.

Science says that publications on the biology of donkeys now appear at about seven times the rate of twenty years ago. Not all of this burgeoning research is being done in Chinese institutions, but of course much of it is. In fact a rapidly increasing proportion of all internationally recognized science comes from China. Yet ejiao itself seems to have been subjected to no serious clinical assessment. There’s an ugly mismatch here: high-tech science and ancient habits of predation. Of course, something of that mismatch is present in every animal-food business and every animal research laboratory throughout the world. Besides, there’s a sound caution against censuring other ways of life (the Chinese themselves readily call such criticism colonialist or racist): alien traditions and values, even superstitions, should have our respect or at least polite acquiescence – so it is liberally said. Agreed! And therefore let’s extend the same amenity to the traditions of animals and their values, in particular their traditional attachment to staying alive.

Alcohol studies ———

One peculiarly human tradition habitually imposed upon animals in the laboratory is the drinking of alcohol. I had thought that this category of research, alongside studies in tobacco, was prohibited in Britain, but in fact only “developing or testing alcohol or tobacco products” is ruled out by the Home Office; where the research is aimed at “investigating disease or novel treatments”, permission may be given. And since alcoholism almost certainly is a disease or at any rate a ‘disorder’ (the common scientific name is Alcohol Use Disorder), and is besides, according to Science, “a component cause of more than 200 diseases” [22.6.2018], such research does indeed go on here. A report in the Independent online newspaper at the end of last year instanced some of it, including studies at Oxford University into the role of alcohol in birth abnormalities.

Alcoholism is undoubtedly a tragic condition. ‘Compelled to drink: why some cannot stop’ is the heading to a Science news story introducing some recent research; it well suggests the helplessness of people in the grip of addiction [22.11.2019]. But the words are ambiguous and misleading, perhaps knowingly so in order to make a bigger splash. The heading should be ‘Why some mice cannot stop’; it’s mice that are being “compelled to drink” in the research itself (which is fully reported later in the same issue). So the human relevance is purely speculative, but readers are encouraged by such wording to elide for themselves the species gap, and so to give this research a value it cannot expressly claim. Even the researchers themselves (Dr Cody A. Siciliano, of Vanderbilt University, and others) speak of “a binge-drinking experience in male mice”, as if the conditioned addiction suffered by the mice is identical to the human behaviour evoked by the word ‘binge’, and can therefore be an adequate surrogate for it in the laboratory. Science’s own introductory gloss on the research shows the sleight of hand concisely: “People drink to excess for a variety of reasons, but as the animal model of Siciliano et al demonstrates, not all heavy drinkers become compulsive.” Demonstrates! Human and mice minds, it seems, are simply interchangeable.

To test the strength of their compulsion, the mice in this study were given disincentives or “punishment” (a curious word to use), consisting in “increasing shock amplitudes”. The “compulsive animals”, we’re told, “showed a robust insensitivity to punishment”. There’s an unpleasantly sadistic suggestion in that euphemistic “robust”. And of course all these animals, “compulsive” and otherwise, making their choice of soft drink or alcohol from “lickometers” in the miserable ‘Skinner boxes’, were in fact drinking themselves to death, since that was the necessary end-point of their part in the research.

Defective research ———

A similar study using rats was featured in Science a few months earlier, with much the same optimism, but there was at least this concession: “The value of animal models for understanding human psychiatric disorders is increasingly criticized because preclinical studies often produce false-positive results that do not translate to the clinical situation.” [22.6.2019] Often enough in other areas of biomedical research too: this must partly explain why so much clinical research not only goes unpublished but, in the USA, is not even posted as required by law on the federal database Nor is it only translation from animals to humans that causes problems. An article in Science last month looked at the unpleasant scene of ecotoxicology, the study of new chemicals in the environment. Here, apparently, it’s “now widely accepted that a high proportion of published research is not reproducible”, so much so that there’s talk of a “reproducibility crisis” [24.1.2020]. One of the reasons given is especially wretched: the researchers have chosen unconventional animals for their test subjects, and the results don’t successfully cross to the more standard species.

Other reasons are of a kind which may affect any type of research. There’s bad experimental design, for instance: some of the research which actually is posted on has to be removed because it fails to satisfy “basic quality-control standards” [17.1.2020]. Then there’s wishful thinking in interpretation: that is, bias in favour of the chosen hypothesis.  There’s even falsification of data. A recent paper on ‘threat learning’ in mice (another experiment based on pain aversion: i.e. electric shocks) has had to be retracted because the lead author made up some of the data [31.5. and 20.12.2019].

These varieties of flawed experimentation may, as I’ve said, affect any research, wasting work and resources and other people’s attention; but in the case of animal research lives too are being – I won’t say ‘wasted’, since it implies that good research is a proper use of them, but negligently squandered. And unfortunately even diligent and authoritative research may be negligent in the sense of being unnecessary. The ecotoxicology survey comments on this abuse with justifiable severity:

Did we need 250 papers to tell us that ethinylstradiol [a common oestrogen medication] poses a risk to fish? Everything we need to know to protect the environment was communicated in the first half a dozen papers.

Perusing the issues of even such an authoritative journal as Science, I conclude that this must be the most common animal-research flaw of all: needlessness.

Privileging the species ———

As the ecotoxicology article suggests, Science is quite willing to publish material critical of animal research as practised, though in general the methodology is taken for granted, and huge numbers of animals (most of them mice) are accounted for every week in its biomedical papers. On environmental subjects, including wild animals under threat, the journal is committed and informative. But of course it’s species-minded. Thus an editorial review of ‘What’s coming up in 2020’ speaks favourably of “efforts to rein in loss of species”, but notes with equal approval the way new gene-editing techniques are “reinvigorating the beleaguered field of xenotransplantation, which aims to surgically replace human organs or tissues with ones harvested from animals such as pigs.” [3.1.2020] I needn’t comment on the slap-dash callousness of those last six words. Even in Science’s sympathetic coverage of the wretched plight of the donkeys in China, the headline concern is with an “existential threat” and “crashing populations”, rather than with the essential wrong.

To think in this way conveniently cheapens the lives of animals that belong to durable species populations, notably the ones whose numbers we ourselves keep artificially high. But humans themselves are just such a species. We make an exception of them which is merely self-interested and has no foundation in science or even in philosophical ethics. A declaration by UNESCO in 1997 stated that it was the human genome that secured “the fundamental unity of all members of the human family as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity.” But in fact that genome overlaps extensively with other species and varies in ways that make the declaration sentimental nonsense. So much is acknowledged in a Science paper headed ‘Biotechnologies nibbling at the legal “human”’: “there is no defined ‘human genome’ that can be used as an easy way to determine humanity.” And as the title suggests, there are other developments that call our sense of separateness into question: “new research techniques, such as xenotransplantation and human/non-human chimeras, challenge the animal-human species divide.” [20.12.2019]

Here, then, is a prompt to revise our relations with other animals. Yes, distinctions of species are real and intelligible, a necessary academic ordering, but they are none of them absolute, and they should have no bearing on entitlement to life and liberty. As for the human/other-animals distinction, it’s a fiction. Once we admit as much, our ethics can start to go right. Unfortunately the authors of the ‘nibbling biotechnologies’ paper shy away from the truth they’ve uncovered. I can’t quite make sense of their final sentence, but its mixture of sentimental appeal and determination to preserve our ancient rights is patent enough: “the concept of membership in the hazily bordered human family can serve as a useful source for the delimitation of the ‘human’”. Science and other business as usual, then.


Notes and references:

Most of the references are to Science, an international peer-reviewed research journal which also publishes news and editorial features; dates for the issues cited are given in brackets.

The report is published here:

The Care2 petition is available here:

The Home Office rules governing research into alcohol use are published in Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO 2014, p.50.

The piece about UK alcohol research published by the Independent online in December 2019 can be accessed here:

UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be read here:

The picture, Monkey Business: Deadly Virus, is by the artist Sue Coe, who is featured in this blog on 25 September 2017:


Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

The issues of Science cited here are 14 December, pp.1242-44 (‘Reimagining the human’), 9 November, p.630 (non-human primate research), and 26 October, pp.383-4 (marmosets), all from 2018. The 52% figure comes from a survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2018, accessible here:

The AAAS descriptions of Science come from its web-site,

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