Science and Self-Doubt

Why animal researchers must remember that human beings are special.


Twenty years ago, animal research became the target of a new generation of anti-vivisectionists: the radical "animal rights" movement. That movement, which views animals as moral agents on a par with people, has promoted a profoundly confused philosophy that equates animal research with the enslavement of human beings.

Scientists responded to this movement by proposing to strengthen the standards and regulation of animal research and care. But even as the handling of research animals became ever more restricted, the animal rights campaign became ever more demanding and violent. Scientists working with animals, especially those involved in brain and behavioral research, were assaulted in their laboratories, harassed in their homes, and threatened with death.

In Europe, scientists have long been the target of actual terrorism, now identified as such by the United Kingdom. Indeed, the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore at Oxford University, who studies brain activity in cats, literally lives under siege. Police must protect his home, which has been assaulted with his frightened wife and daughters in residence. Why? He spoke out in support of the obvious necessity of using animals to advance medical science–to alleviate the suffering of human beings–and has been in danger ever since that principled act. In 1998, Blakemore and other European scientists were marked for death by animal rights terrorists, and Blakemore lived for months under round-the-clock police protection.

Although for a few years American researchers enjoyed relative peace, animal rights activists struck last spring at the University of Minnesota, causing thousands of dollars in damage. A scientist studying hearing at the University of California at San Francisco is now suffering what Blakemore has endured for years. But biomedical research is coming under another kind of siege.

There has been a campaign in New Zealand to give the great apes constitutional rights, an outgrowth of the ideas of the animal rights movement and the Great Ape Project, which seeks to award apes the same rights as those possessed by humans. Last year in Germany, the ruling Social Democratic and Green parties introduced legislation stating that animals have the right to be "respected as fellow creatures," and to be protected from "avoidable pain." Two recent developments in the United States suggest that we may be entering a dangerous era in thinking about animals.

In the first, a U.S. court recognized the legal standing of an individual to sue the federal government in order to force changes in animal-welfare regulations. In that case, the individual claimed "harm" as a result of seeing animals mistreated, in his opinion, at a roadside zoo; the plaintiff held the Department of Agriculture responsible. However, in deciding the merits of the case, an appeals court later found that USDA was not responsible for the individual's alleged harm, and declined to order any change in the current regulations.

In the second, animal rights groups are pushing USDA to include rats and mice under the Animal Welfare Act.

The campaign to end the use of animals in biomedical research is based upon a complete misunderstanding of how scientists work, what research requires, and what has made possible our era's outpouring of lifesaving advances in medicine. Unfortunately, neither their misunderstanding of science nor their misguided philosophy has prevented activists from becoming an increasingly powerful, militant force–one now threatening the discovery of new medical treatments and preventive strategies for serious illnesses.

To understand the animal rights movement, we must distinguish its objectives from those of animal welfare organizations. Typically, such organizations as local societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals will care for strays, teach good animal care, run neutering programs, and build animal shelters. Acting as the stewards of animals, especially those not in a position to care for themselves, these organizations uphold our traditional values of humane, caring treatment of sentient creatures.

Animal rights organizations, on the other hand, invest their energies in campaigning against various uses of animals, including research. They start with a completely different philosophy, summed up by Peter Singer, the acknowledged founder of the animal rights movement, in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. Singer, now De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, argues that sentient creatures–all those capable of feeling pain–must essentially be considered moral equivalents to human beings, certainly as equivalent to the severely brain-damaged and to human infants before the age of reasoning. Anyone who dismisses any sentient creature as merely an animal to be used for human benefit is guilty of "speciesism," a prejudice morally equivalent to racism and sexism. (Singer, who is Australian, does not base his opposition to animal research on the concept of rights; his American counterpart, University of North Carolina philosophy professor Tom Regan, does.)

On the political front, Ingrid Newkirk, the national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), asserted in 1983 that "animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals." She has also said, "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses." Chris DeRose, who heads an organization called In Defense of Animals, said recently that even if the death of one rat would cure all disease, that death still would not be right, because we are all equal.

Despite PETA's view that broiler chickens are the moral equivalent of murdered Jews, animal rights activists decided early on to target scientific researchers, not farmers, although more than 99 percent of the animals used by people are for food (or clothing, or killed either in pounds or by hunters) and just a fraction of 1 percent for research. Singer has said that the strategic decision to level protests against science was made because farmers are organized and politically powerful (and live in rural areas, which makes them hard to get at). In contrast, scientists are not politically organized, live in urban areas, and can be hard put to explain their work in lay language.

Neuroscientists have been a frequent target. Two key fields of neuroscience, behavioral and addiction research, were highlighted in Singer's book. High-profile laboratory invasions have targeted scientists engaged in brain research. For example, PETA, which adheres to Singer's philosophy, established itself by infiltrating the laboratory of neuroscientist Edward Taub in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1981, and "exposing" deficient laboratory conditions with photographs that purported to show animal mistreatment. Taub, however, has noted that no one else in the lab observed the conditions in the PETA photographs, and he is supported by the sworn statements of seven people, including a USDA inspector, who testified at Taub's subsequent trial. At the time, Taub was investigating how monkeys perform complex tasks with certain nerve pathways in their arms severed, work that was the basis for the subsequent development of improved methods for stroke rehabilitation.

In 1984, PETA exploited the Animal Liberation Front's invasion of the University of Pennsylvania Head Injury Research Laboratory by cleverly editing videotapes taken in the raid and using the resulting composite as a fund raising tool. In subsequent literature, PETA made it clear that alleged mistreatment of animals was not the real issue. In PETA's view, animals cannot be used to alleviate health problems of people, period. Even after more stringent government controls over animal research were in place (by 1985) Texas Tech sleep researcher John Orem suffered a raid in 1989 that resulted in $40,000 worth of damage to his laboratory. In this and other cases, however, the critical damage is to the scientist's will to continue research.

Many factors have contributed to the climate of moral confusion surrounding the use of animals in research and to the apparent willingness of many people to credit the bizarre ideas of the animal rights activists.

For one thing, we are victims of our own health care successes. We have enjoyed such a victory over infectious diseases that baby boomers and subsequent generations do not even remember polio and other dreaded infectious diseases, and have little sense of how amazing it was when antibiotics were first developed. With the eradication of so many deadly infectious diseases, antibiotics have become something that you take for incidental minor infection. The healthiest generation in history is a ripe target for the anti-science nonsense pushed by the animal rights movement.

Second, America has sustained a steady, devastating decline in scientific literacy. Our high school students consistently rank below those of other developed countries. As a result, most people, especially young people, do not understand what the scientific method is really about.

Additionally, Americans today spend little time around animals other than house pets. It is worth remembering that just before World War II one in four of us lived on a farm; now it is one in 50. What do most urban and suburban kids know about animals, other than what they see in cartoons?

Such factors have helped propel the ever-tightening regulation of research, stifling the creativity that is its essence and posing a threat to the human well-being that is its goal. Many major discoveries in the history of medicine have come about by serendipity, when a scientist has had his sights trained on an entirely different topic of research. The story behind the initial discovery that lithium, an elemental substance on the periodic table, might have therapeutic benefits illustrates this serendipity and demonstrates how basic research with animals can lead to major medical advances.

In that case, Australian psychiatrist John Cade asked what might be wrong in the brains of patients with manic-depressive illness and wondered whether a substance called urea would have therapeutic value. Testing his hypothesis on guinea pigs, Cade gave them a salt form of urea, which happened to contain lithium. The guinea pigs became unexpectedly calm. Further experimentation revealed that the urea had nothing to do with this result; it was caused by the lithium–a complete surprise to Cade. Having laid his foundation with animal research, Cade extended his findings by giving lithium to manic patients, who experienced an alleviation of their manic excitement without being sedated. This single discovery has revolutionized treatment of manic-depressive illness, easing the lives of millions and saving billions of dollars along the way. At the same time, it has opened whole new productive areas for brain research.

No one could have predicted the outcome of Cade's initial experiment with urea. There was no way to list in advance what the health benefits of using guinea pigs would be. That would have required knowing the answer to a question that had not yet been asked. If one already knows the answer, research is unnecessary.

In 1976, before the animal rights controversy arose, the National Institutes of Health sponsored a study by Julius H. Comroe Jr. and R.D. Dripps to ascertain if government funding of basic biomedical research had been a good investment. The authors asked practicing cardiologists what they regarded as the 10 leading medical advances of their lifetimes; the scientists named such advances as cardiac surgery, drug treatment of hypertension, and medical treatment of cardiac insufficiency. Comroe and Dripps then traced the scientific ancestry of each of these discoveries and found that 40 percent of the studies leading to the advances originated from work in a different, seemingly unrelated field of research. Animal research was fundamental to many of these studies. Regulations that require justification of animal research in terms of its specific outcomes, rather than the clarity of the hypotheses and strength of the research design, may end much of the creative research now under way.

Less than a quarter of the studies in biomedicine involve animals (and more than 90 percent of those are rats and mice), but anyone working in the field will tell you that such animal studies are indispensable. One cannot develop an understanding of a chemical or a gene, then try to ascertain its role in a complex human organism with billions of cells and dozens of organs, without first knowing how it works in the biological systems of animals. The animal model enables a scientist to understand what is happening at a level of detail that could not be reached in humans.

The great kidney transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas E. Starzl was once asked why he used dogs in his work. He explained that, in his first series of operations, he had transplanted kidneys into a number of subjects, and that the majority of them died. After figuring out what had enabled a few to survive, he revised his techniques and operated on a similar group of subjects; a majority of them survived. In his third group of subjects, only one or two died, and in his fourth group all survived. The important point, said Starzl, was that the first three groups of subjects were dogs; the fourth group consisted of human babies. Had Starzl begun his series of experimental operations on people, he would have killed at least 15 people. Yet there are activists who believe, in the name of animal rights, that that is what Starzl should have done.

At the outset of their encounter with the animal rights movement, scientists made a disastrous tactical error. Accustomed to dealing with others by reason, and eager to meet the activists halfway, the research community adopted "The Three Rs," described as long ago as 1959 by W. Russell and R. Birch in their book, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Scientists pledged to reduce the number of animals used, to refine their techniques, and to replace animals whenever possible. In truth, scientists are always looking for ways to reduce, refine, and replace animal use. It makes sense from the point of view of humane treatment, the economics of research and, often, science.

But this response came across as a confession of guilt. Although scientists accept high standards for the use and care of research animals, they are not engaged in some kind of "necessary evil." Appeasement is a losing game. To make concessions on a matter of principle is to concede the principle itself. Then defeat is only a matter of time, as opponents demand complete consistency with their own principle.

"Rights," the idea that the activists are working so hard to enlist in their cause, are a moral concept. Rights stem from the uniquely human capacity to choose values and principles, then act on choices and judgment. Within that context, rights are moral principles stating that, as human beings with the ability to develop and act on moral judgments, we must leave each other free to do so. That is the basis of our claim to political and personal freedom. Rattlesnakes and rats, tigers and sheep, and even our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, exhibit no ability to comprehend, respect, or act upon rights. The "law of the jungle" is no law at all. Indeed, the concept of rights is profoundly incoherent when applied to animals. It is worse than mistaken; it dangerously subverts the concept of rights itself at a time when human rights worldwide are in need of clear articulation and defense.

Focusing on the Three Rs without exposing and refuting the underlying philosophy of animal rights proved a public relations catastrophe. The research community's basic position should have been that human beings have a right to use animals for human purposes, but also have a responsibility to use animals humanely. The more we emphasized the Three Rs, the stronger the animal rights movement became, and the more money the radical activists raised. This was occurring at the very same time that science was demonstrating noticeable improvements in the handling of laboratory animals.

It is not sufficient for the medical-scientific community to expose the fundamental flaws in the philosophy of animal rights. It must be able to respond to the movement's other, more utilitarian, arguments against the use of animals in research.

Activists assert that animal research is cruel. But their argument misses the point that experimenters usually want to disturb the animal as little as possible, since their goal is to study its natural response to whatever is being tested. An estimated 7 percent of research does employ procedures causing pain in order to understand pain mechanisms in the central nervous system. This kind of experimentation has enabled us to develop effective painkillers.

Activists claim that animal experiments are duplicative. The reality is that today only one out of four grant requests is funded, a highly competitive situation that makes duplicative research scarce. But research does have to be replicated before the results are accepted; and progress usually arises from a series of small discoveries, all elaborating on or overlapping one another. When activists talk about duplication, they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how science progresses. Nor do they understand scientists. What highly trained, creative individual wants to do exactly what someone has already done?

Activists urge prevention rather than treatment. They say we should urge people to adopt measures such as an altered diet or increased exercise to prevent major illness, so that we would not need so many new treatments. But much of what we have discovered about preventive measures has itself resulted from animal research. You cannot get most cancers to grow in a test tube; you need whole animal studies.

Activists argue that we should use alternatives to animal research. A favorite example is computer simulations. But where do they think the data that are entered into computers come from? To get real answers, one has to feed computers real physiological data. There is an argument that researchers should use PET scans, which can provide an image of how a living human organ is functioning, as a way of avoiding the use of animals. It took Lou Sokoloff at the National Institute of Mental Health eight years of animal research to develop the PET scan methodology.

There are many other arguments. Activists say animal research diverts funds from medical treatment. But the United States spends only 37 cents on animal studies for every $100 it spends on treatment. We could divert all our research funds into treatment, and it would have no impact on sick people.

Activists say that pets are at risk, but more than 90 percent of the animals used in research are rodents. At the same time, about five million unwanted cats and dogs are killed in shelters every year, which comes to about 50 animals killed in shelters for every one that must be sacrificed in research. One reason so many animals are killed in shelters is that animal rights organizations have diverted much of the funding from animal welfare organizations, so they cannot run adoption or neutering programs as well as they could with more funds.

Despite the weakness of their arguments, the animal rights activists have taken their toll on research. Nothing impairs creativity like fear. Today, scientists who work with animals are often segregated in high-security, bunker-like buildings, separated from their colleagues. In effect, biomedical research budgets are reduced by the costs of increased security and compliance with new regulations.

But the situation could get even worse. If the individual who sued the USDA had succeeded in gaining standing to sue on behalf of animals, a precedent would have been established that could have lead to mischief by those who would impede research. Should a future case succeed, an activist "plant" in a laboratory need only claim distress at the way animals are being treated to bring a nuisance lawsuit against the laboratory. Even now, an accusation of wrongdoing, no matter how trumped-up, will lead to weeks or months of work stoppage while the laboratory is being investigated by government agencies.

Including rats and mice (as well as birds) under the Animal Welfare Act, as the USDA has been urged to do, is more complicated. Viewed superficially, the proposal is not unreasonable. Rats and mice are animals, after all, and deserving of appropriate care. Their exclusion from oversight by the Department of Agriculture reflects the department's decision to focus available funds on monitoring the well-being of such animals as primates, dogs, and cats. But one need not be overly cynical to suspect that the real motive behind the push for inclusion is not a desire to protect the rodents' welfare so much as a wish to impede research by all means possible. Bureaucracy is expensive and enervating. The fact that the person leading this effort, John McArdle, once suggested in an interview that brain-dead humans are reasonable substitutes for animals as research subjects speaks volumes about the real agenda here.

Is there a proven problem concerning the welfare of these animals? The Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), the extra-governmental organization that intensively examines animal care programs at institutions striving to receive AAALAC's highly desirable seal of approval, has estimated that 90 percent of the rats and mice used in research are already overseen by either AAALAC inspections or those required by the U.S. Public Health Service. Many nonacademic institutions, such as pharmaceutical companies and commercial breeders, are covered by AAALAC inspections. Thus, the USDA would needlessly duplicate oversight programs already in place.

We live in an age of moral self-doubt. Some scientists and other individuals associated with biomedical research in supportive roles have begun to feel guilt over their use of animals. That has spawned a group calling itself the "troubled middle" (a rather presumptuous phrase, suggesting that only they care about the issues raised by animal research). Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around this sense of guilt, with constant, somewhat repetitive conferences focusing on how to oversee research, how to be the perfect member of an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and how to find alternatives to using animals. These topics are not unworthy, but the conferences give short shrift to the perspectives of working scientists, who rarely appear as major speakers.

Progress toward increased human well-being cannot flourish amid such self-doubt. Scientists and members of the public who support their work must recognize that they are engaged in a struggle for minds. Their own minds therefore must be clear about what justifies animal research when necessary: that human beings are special. Researchers and others must appreciate the value of such work, and must be ready to state unequivocally and publicly that human life comes first. We who work with animals, and those who support the benefits of that work, have made a moral choice, and we must be willing to stand by it.