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

10Mar/09Off

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.

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