Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


Medical Research on Animal Models – Where Do You Stand?

Our self-aware cousins

Our self-aware cousins

This weekend I heard an incredibly interesting story on NPR's This American Life titled "Almost Human Resources" (Act 3). The story was all about the issues surrounding chimpanzees in the human world surpassing their usefulness and how we should care for them. Apparently this now includes retirement homes with TVs.

This story, along with a recent tangential debate over at Southern Fried Science and PETA's "sea kittens" campaign, sent my mind down a familiar path - one that anyone working in biology inevitably travels from time to time: the ethics of animal research for science.

There have been myriad writings, books, movies, discussions, and laws surrounding the practice of using animals for research. I'm sure most of us in the science world have come to very similar conclusions on the subject, though we may vary widely in the details.

Nonetheless, I'm very interested to hear where YOU, my readers and my fellow scientist peers, currently stand on the subject. I would like this post to be interactive.

First, I'd like to give my own thoughts.

In general, I view all living things as uber-complex organic robots (humans included). All life is amazing, precious, and beautiful - from bacteria to humans - but I still see us all as robots, running our nearly unfathomable genetic programs, developmental processes, and higher-level emergent programs of conscious and sub-conscious thought.

Mirror Test

Mirror Test

At the same time, I feel - for no rational reason really - that consciousness and self-awareness inherently grant those that harbor them the right to live relatively free from human induced suffering. This is a feeling. We all feel it, at least for humans. We feel the immorality of conducting experiments on other human beings (though this was not always the case). Why? Because it's...just...wrong.

It's for this reason that I'm completely opposed to any medical research on chimpanzees or any great apes. There is no doubt that our great ape cousins share many if not most of our own emotional and sensory perceptions, as well as similar intellectual abilities (similar in type - not necessarily degree). For all intents and purposes, I see them as people. Not human people. Not anthropomorphized animals. But sentient to semi-sentient beings.

It's hard to measure degrees of self-awareness and know whether another creature has it. But the classic mirror test is one simple way to find when the answer is a clear yes. As of right now, great apes, dolphins, elephants, and at least one bird species, the magpie, have passed the test and shown that they have some understanding of "self."

If a creature can have any understanding of what is being done to "them," I am completely against it. Recently Orac at Respectful Insolence posted on the discontinuation of using dogs for teaching surgery techniques. He caught some flak from a few commenters for showing an emotional relief that dog use was being halted - at least partially because he loves dogs. As if any decisions on the use of other beings for our own benefit could be arrived at using only reason!

No - we as humans place some inherent value on consciousness, on self-awareness. Dogs may or may not be "self-aware" as defined by behavioral scientists. They can't pass the mirror test, but anyone who has had a dog knows that they clearly experience something akin to guilt, and a whole host of emotions similar to those of our own (I'm being careful here not to anthropomorphize). They know when they have done something wrong.

As any behavioral biologist, psychologist, or cognitive neuroscientist knows, there is no clear dividing line between conscious being and automaton. What about rhesus monkeys and the other more "primitive" primates? I personally feel that much monkey research - particularly those studies on the cutting edge of such diseases as A.I.D.S. - are critical right now. However, I also know that I could never be one to perform such studies. There is a mental hypocrisy here in my own mind. I would feel wrong performing primate research. But I support it to a limited extent.

But for some animals, it seems clear when they are well beyond that gray fuzzy line. Xenopus frogs, as far as any observation or measurement can tell, are much too dumb to have any sort of self-awareness. The same can be said of mice or rats. They simply do not have the cognitive capacity - the hardware - to generate emergent properties like self-awareness as we know it. It seems more than clear to science, I believe, that these creatures are fuzzy automatons. I have performed studies (using incredibly regulated and humane methods) using these creatures, and I have no qualms about it, so long as the use of animal models are absolutely critical to the study at hand. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved or vastly improved by such studies. Few people alive today (in America at least) can imagine what the state of human health would be without mice and rat studies.

And just to go one level further "down" the evolutionary ladder, consider fish.

Fish are NOT "sea kittens." We understand at least at a basic level what overall types of brain structures and neural pathways are required for higher cognition. Fish do not have these structures. They are insanely complex, from a genetic standpoint. They are beautiful. They are unimaginably important to the ecosystems of the earth. But they are still slimy scaly robotic automatons incapable of "suffering" in any human sense.

And invertebrates? Well, they're clearly organic machines. Would any of you really argue otherwise?

However, with all of the above being said, I often think about how barbaric people were only a generation ago (or sometimes less), and I wonder which of my beliefs will be considered equally barbaric by the next generation. As Richard Dawkins mused in "The God Delusion," perhaps animal rights is the issue upon which our generation will be judged to have sinned. Perhaps our ancestors will cringe at our actions (while praising the 500 year lifespans our research has given them - kidding).

What do you think? Take these polls and leave your comments below.

[polldaddy poll="1444538"] [polldaddy poll="1444551"] [polldaddy poll="1444559"]

Comments (34) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Animals and animal rights are important. Humans and human welfare matter more.

    I support any animal research that has the potential to help humans, but believe that steps should be taken to minimize the animal’s suffering.

    Thanks for the link to my post.

  2. I love the sea kittens campaign, simply because it is completely ridiculous. What are those PETA people thinking?

    • Did you see Colbert’s coverage of this? He doesn’t eat Sea Kittens now, but he eats “land fish”, which look an awful lot like regular kittens.

      These people AREN’T thinking. This crap makes sense to them so they assume that it will make sense to the general public.

      • No I missed that. I remember seeing the campaign the first and being completely boggled. Where does one even come up with the idea of sea kittens from fish? There is no sane link. Although, “make your own sea kitten” is kind of fun, lol.

  3. Let’s go with “I’m a human”. Shallow, perhaps, but direct and honest.

  4. I don’t think these poll questions are specific enough. For instance, I personally don’t mind most primate research even, but I do have qualms about using great apes (e.g., chimps). So there are some major qualifications I would give to any response to these polls.

    • Oops – that was an oversight – a great apes option should have been in there. Now fixed.

      And I completely agree with your point. I just put the polls up to get a general idea of where people stand. I’m most interested in the comments.

      • Biochemical soul is not the only place where the phrasing of poll questions confuses people- just ask President Rudy Giuliani what he thinks about polls.

        • You’re also missing the “testing is ok on anything, including humans” option

          • I assumed that anyone answering “human research” would be either joking or a sociopath.

            Are you saying you’re a sociopath, SFS?

            (this ignores clinical trials, obviously – it’s a different kind of research, more or less)

            • I think doing an experiment on yourself is the highest form of informed consent. Warren and Marshall wouldn’t have got their Nobel prize if they hadn’t downed a vial of H. Pylori ( I don’t remember which one actually drank the stuff).

            • There is lots of valuable non-clinical human experimentation that goes on. But usually only on volunteers.

              The issue is that animals can’t volunteer. they are either captured, or bred specifically for research.

              maybe someone should do more research on how to determine when chimpanzees have given informed consent?

  5. I waffle a lot about this: in the end, I guess, it comes down to whether the ends can ever justify the means. If we really could save a million lives by killing a few hundred chimps, is it worth it?

    Of course, when I go down that line, I tend to start thinking we should use death row inmates instead of chimps… at least they’ve done something against us, and they’d be better models anyway. Of course, this is coming from a person who thinks that cutting off the balls of a guy who rapes little kids is just punishment, so I think I can have a bit of a cold streak when it comes to people who have done terrible things.

    Then, of course, I say that is insane and we shouldn’t use any creature that can understand and desire not to have these things done to them. After all, if it were my research, I’d be hard pressed to look a healthy, happy chimp in the face and kill it, or worse, torture it to learn something. Hell, I cry when I run over a squirrel. Who am I kidding?

    So I waffle. And more waffling. I don’t think I know the answer. But I do think that if we’re willing to use apes or chimps there’s no reason not to use mentally disabled (and by that I don’t just mean the ‘has a slight problem’ – I mean those who are completely mentally detached, like human vegetables) or those that we’ve sentenced to die anyway. In my mind, the argument that ‘human is human’ and therefore no isn’t valid. Chimps are mentally like human children – if they’re fair game, so are humans.

    (Yes, I think that guys should be de-balled for raping kids and cry when I run over small furry things. I am complex! Get used to it.)

    • Holy crap, Christie, remind me to never make you mad at me.

      The problem I have with testing on prisoners (from a scientific perspective) is that you can’t control that many aspects of their environment. From a moral perspective, there’s always the chance that they’re innocent- and even if they aren’t, I still belief that human life is worth more than the life of a chimpanzee.

      To paraphrase from Penn and Teller’s Bullshit (a spectacular show)- I would personally choke to death every chimpanzee on earth if it would save the life of one homeless drug addict. People matter more to me.

      • I’d argue you can control more of their environment than other people’s – after all, you can choose what to feed them, when, what chemicals are in their air, how much time the spend in the sun…

        Just saying.

        I understand believing human life is more important – it’s evolutionarily the right idea, if nothing else – self preservation and all. Personally, I don’t really – or, if I do, I just barely do. Not by much, though, and what little special account I might hold is instantly demolished by those who seem to think 5 year old girls are sexy or that other people should be cut up and eaten.

      • So you really think that a single human is worth more than every great ape on earth? I can’t tell if this is tongue in cheek or not.

        Hypothetically, say one human is dying from a disease. The disease can be cured if we extract a certain compound from every chimp on the planet and concentrate it into a single dose.

        You would support that?

        • I was quoting Penn and Teller (technically just Penn, since Teller doesn’t talk), but I agree with them to some degree. I do believe that biodiversity is important and that animals shouldn’t be abused for no good reason- but I believe that saving a human life is a pretty good reason.

  6. Interesting question, Irradiatus! I suppose I agree with the status quo in a lot of ways – research on anything is fine if: 1) There is a very strong research justification, particularly for using “higher” animals like monkeys 2) There is no good alternative method 2) Suffering is minimized. I agree with WhySharksMatter about human life being paramount.

    Fish and invertebrates might be scaly/slimy machines, but they certainly feel discomfort and pain. There are currently no regulations for the scientific use of invertebrates, but I still try to minimize suffering for them, usually by freezing/relaxing them before dissection. I even euthanize my tunicates, which are pretty much just bags of slime with a minimal nervous system.

    • But how do you know fish feel pain? Because they react to negative stimuli? This could be due to very simple neural pathways. Fish certainly don’t have the capability of processing sensation and perception the way humans do. Is it correct to call fish perception of a negative stimulus as “pain” considering our very human conception of the word? To actually feel “pain” there is an inherent awareness of the stimulus that makes us perceive it as “painful.”

      Consider an earthworm that certainly looks like it’s in massive pain when you cut one or put it on a hook. But they don’t even have brains – only simple paired ganglia. How can an earthworm feel pain if it has no conscious awareness of the stimuli it’s receiving, much less its own existence?

      Why do you think people are anesthetized for surgery? You’re still alive and receiving stimuli that are shouting to your brain that bad things are happening to your body. But you don’t experience pain because you are not consciously aware of it.

      So in the case of earthworms and similar inverts, at minimum, I think it’s completely incorrect to use the term “suffering.” Suffering connotes far more than simply the sensation of negative stimuli followed by aversive action.

      But this is sort of the point of this whole post – there is no clean line delineating the ends of psychological phenomenon spectra. At what point do we admit that a creature has the capability of “suffering?”

  7. “In general, I view all living things as uber-complex organic robots (humans included). All life is amazing, precious, and beautiful – from bacteria to humans – but I still see us all as robots, running our nearly unfathomable genetic programs, developmental processes, and higher-level emergent programs of conscious and sub-conscious thought.”

    You’ve just asked and answered your own question. If all living things are merely carbon-based meat puppets of greater or lesser complexity, your “feeling” that research should not be conducted on the higher primates is just that: a feeling, in much the same way that I get a “feeling” in my GI tract when I eat bad Mexican food.

    “As any behavioral biologist, psychologist, or cognitive neuroscientist knows, there is no clear dividing line between conscious being and automaton.”

    Even that dividing line has to, I think, be recognized as arbitrary: We draw an ethical line under those species that we recognize as having something akin to our mental experiences. But if we view (correctly) our mental expereinces, our consiousness, as simply an emergent eveolutionary property, in much the same way that a cheetah’s speed or a bear’s acute sense of smell is an emergent eveolutionary property, we are merely prioritizing similar features of other species because they are “more like us” In reality this is no different from not wanting to harm higher primates because they pick their noses and play jokes on each other “just like us”.

    A better followup question to your polls above: on what grounds do we privelege one evolutionary adaptation (complex mental events) over other evolutionary adaptations (acute sense of smell, sight, speed, etc.)?

    P.S., since you’ve started that beard, I will begin to refer to you as a “fuzzy automaton” :-)

    • It’s good to see that age has not dimmed your wits in the intervening decade since we last spoke, Adam.

      “your “feeling” that research should not be conducted on the higher primates is just that: a feeling”

      Agreed. That’s basically what I was trying to say. We currently use complex cognition (consciousness, etc) as the factor in determining the appropriateness of using animals. But we must admit that at its heart, this decision is not based on pure logic and reason. It’s based on our own feelings and the ‘intelligence’-bias this leads to.

      Why indeed do we give higher value to cognitive adaptations rather than others (such as the amazing color-changing communication of cephalopods, or the finger of an Aye-Aye). Because we’re biased to adaptations/emotions/intelligences that resemble our own.

      You also bring up another point that I had hoped all the marine biologists (which many of my regulars are) would rail against me for. With tongue firmly in cheek I said

      “And invertebrates? Well, they’re clearly organic machines. Would any of you really argue otherwise?”

      The fact is, some cephalopods seem incredibly intelligent – just not always in ways that can be directly compared to human intelligence. Considering the fact that their own nervous systems more or less evolved completely independently from our own, their minds can be considered to be completely alien to us. Can we really be sure of anything at all with regards to their potential cognitive abilities and self-awareness? Should we grant them rights, if for no other reason that their consciousnesses are currently beyond our understanding? Or should we not worry since they live a short while and die in tentacular orgies It all reminds me of the quote from the late great Douglas Adams:

      “Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason.”

      PS – “fuzzy automaton” will do fine. I still waver on the whole determinism/free will issue. I lean toward determinism. So automaton it is…

  8. What if a superior race of aliens came to visit earth?

    What if they determined they are so superior to mere humans that they could eat us, torture and kill us with experiments, force us to do tricks in their equivalent of circuses and zoos… imprison us in their equivalent of cages, bowls or aquariums as their “beloved” pets… Kill us at random because they consider us ugly, as we feel about spiders…

    Would they have every right to do so because that’s what humans do to every non-human creature they can get their hands on here on earth?

    Does and ant have a right to live if a human casually decides to step on it?

    Does a human have a right to live if an alien casually decides to destroy it?

    Maybe we’re on this planet to see if we ever can pass the test of compassion to all creatures. Maybe if we pass we get all the good stuff we’re expecting in “heaven”.

    • Plenty of people have just such an opinion. However, this brings up a question…

      Can one show compassion to a rock? Does the word compassion even have meaning when referring to us having it toward an inanimate object? What about to a computer?

      I personally think that no, the term is meaningless in this context. Compassion for a computer is simply meaningless.

      But what about for an animate but not conscious hunk of matter? Or a computer with self-awareness? For the latter, I would argue that one can have compassion for it – but I’m not so sure about the former.

      Science is slowly painting the picture that at basal levels, creatures such as ants are astoundingly complex machines – but machines nonetheless – animate matter without a “self”.

      I’m not sure it’s correct to use the word compassion for ants. I’m not saying that it’s incorrect – I’m saying I’m not sure.

      What I am sure about is that ants do not experience suffering that is in any way whatsoever translatable to what you or I would consider suffering. And I think this is an important point.

      By you’re reasoning, would you argue that ants are immoral for killing other creatures? My bet is no.

      • So you’re sure that “ants do not experience suffering that is in any way whatsoever translatable to what you or I would consider suffering.” And you think this is an important point.

        What the superior aliens that encounter humans are “sure about” is that humans do not experience suffering that is in any way whatsoever translatable to what what the aliens would consider suffering. And they think this is an important point.

        You are “sure” ants do not experience suffering, and the aliens are sure that humans do not experience suffering.

        We’re not talking about the immorality of ants and all other creatures we consider lesser beings on this planet. We’re talking about the immorality of the life form that rules this planet, human beings.

        • What could humans do if such a superior lifeform came along?
          How can you eb sure they aren’t right.

          Maybe humans ‘suffer’, but not in teh same way that these other aliens measure suffering. Could they be blamed for simply following what is in their knowledge?

          What would humans do if such a situation occured (a different question to my first)?
          Or even more interestingly, what would humans do if non-human animals did what humans would do if they were in their situation?

    • “What if a superior race of aliens came to visit earth?”

      Are you serious with this question? What if all diseases were cured overnight by eating kashi and singing songs around a campfire? What if the oceans were made out of peanut butter?

      Your hypothetical completely distracts from the point of this interesting discussion. Are you saying that we shouldn’t test on animals because we’d feel bad if someone did it to us? Whatever your beliefs are on extraterrestrial life, I think we can agree that your scenario isn’t likely any time soon, I think we can agree that humans are dying from diseases right now, and I think we can agree that animal research has the potential to save human lives.

      We have enough actual data to have an interesting discussion here, why are we bringing up a hypothetical superior race of aliens?

  9. I think classing all “animal research” in teh same boat is a bit tricky.

    I support all levels of animal research – from research on humans to nematodes and cnidiria (and even non-animal research, are we not counting plants with sensory and communication systems…)

    But for similar silly emotional reasons, I don’t support quite the same level of research on humans that I’d have no (well, less) problem conducting on insects or other invertebrates.

    I think the main basis for my animal ethics is self-awareness and ability to feel pain/suffering. This certainly limits the amount of pain-based or whimsy-style experiements you should be allowed to conduct upon them. But still, there are only so many ways you can study the in-vivo affects of primate based viruses.

    I also think it is utterly ridiculous considering extending human-level rights to animals, when we are still failing miserably at covering most of the world.

    • I mean, obviously, most of the worlds humans.

    • I completely agree. I thought about expanding my original post, but I didn’t want to complicate things too much (or make people read too much).

      For instance, I definitely support all behavioral research (i.e. non-invasive, etc.) on great apes, even though it requires keeping them captive. At the same time, captivity conditions should be highly regulated. And I also agree that I don’t think chimps should be given human-level rights.
      In the original post, I was primarily talking about experiments that require euthanasia, dissection, viral injection, etc. My personal view is that chimps should not be given diseases. But again, this is only because of my own (admittedly arbitrary) self-awareness cutoff.
      I’m not a huge fan of keeping chimps or gorillas in zoos – but I also admit that this is absolutely necessary from a conservation standpoint.
      But in essence, I agree with your points – and they’re important ones.

  10. My point was not that I expect superior aliens to take over earth and imprison and kill humans for the betterment and amusement of their alien race. (Though we’ve set a ghastly example for them should any ever arrive on this planet.}

    My point was we should not be torturing, imprisoning, and killing creatures just because we consider ourselves superior to them, and just because we can.

  11. Unfortunately I was in extremely limited internet world until today, but I do take issue with the invert line. Like Miriam said there are no constraints on the use of inverts in experimentation like the are are for verts, but my feeling is that the policy is primarily a result of our vertebrate bias.

    Yes, perhaps many inverts do not identify “pain” and suffering as “more advanced” species do, but at the same time they respond to sufficiently severe negative stimulus with automatic reflex movements and many have severely modified behavior afterward that interferes with their “normal” behavior and ability to rest, feed etc. Does this significantly modified behavior response constitute suffering? Even though they do not have our cognitive abilities?

    You know my view on cephalopods, while not on par with great apes, they show more intelligence than many (most) mammals, in the limited way we understand them. Besides they taste good too, just ask the dolphins! ;)