Monkey Business: The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

Relatively recent reports confirm that the National Institute of Health (NIH) spent almost four million dollars over the last ten years funding research into how monkeys react to methamphetamine, heroin, PCP, and cocaine. This particular study placed special emphasis on how addiction to these narcotics influenced primate menstruation. When CNSNews  caught wind of this choice federal expenditure they awarded it a “What Were They Smoking?” award. What rationale, it wondered, could justify “sponsoring an outrageous government spending program that sends taxpayer dollars up in smoke”?

[http://cnsnews.com/news/article/feds-spent-36-million-research-studies-d]

No doubt, the study was a colossal waste of money. But the fact that taxpayer dollars went up in smoke strikes me as insignificant compared to the fact that monkeys were transformed by scientists into toxic dump sites. Not only are monkeys sentient, self-referential beings capable of feeling empathy and experiencing autonomy, but they also, as has been recently confirmed, exhibit a clear sense of altruism, morality, and fairness. As Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory and author of the recent study documenting these primate qualities, explained, “There is enough evidence  . . .  to agree that some of the stepping stones towards human morality can be found in other animals.”

Regrettably, most people aren’t ready go there. Indeed, a common defense of animal-based research–and animal objectification in general–instinctively falls back on a rigid conception of the species barrier to justify denigrating sentient non-humans. We are human, they are not, end of story. This line of defense is not only simplistic, but it’s deeply rooted in, among other traditions, a fundamentalist Christian belief that morality is granted by God exclusively to humans in order to distinguish us from non-human animals, to whom we’re evidently superior and, as a result, in a position to own, control, and exploit.

But there’s a more scientific way to critique the common practice of ending compassion and morality at the species barrier. Instead of issuing a fundamental distinction between the human and non-human animal world, basic evolutionary biology conceptualizes all animals on a finely-grained continuum of anatomical and cognitive differentiation. Forgive the following block quotations, but in explicating this continuum, the following scientists cast the federally funded drug monkeys in a new light, one that makes it much harder to justify their exploitation on the basis of their non-human status.

Donald Griffin, the father of cognitive ethology–the science of animal thought–writes:

 The central nervous system of multi-cellular animals all operate by means of the same basic processes regardless of the species or even the phylum in which they are found. Because we know that at least one species does indulge in conscious thinking, and take it for granted that conscious and unconscious thinking result from activities of the central nervous system, we have no solid basis for excluding a priori the possibility that conscious thinking takes place in any animal with a reasonably well-organized central nervous system.  

Bernard E. Rollin, a leading authority on veterinary ethics, echoes this theme of continuity in his book Animal Rights and Human Morality:

 For Darwin himself, and for the nineteenth-century biologists (at least in England and America) who carried forth his ideas, thought and feeling in animals was an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.” Rollin deems this idea central to “the foundational theory of modern biology.

No less a thinker than the late Stephen Jay Gould has similarly complicated the human/non-human barrier by highlighting the problem of excluding humans from the family Pondigae (the family which includes the great apes). He writes in The Dinosaur in the Haystack:

Humans arise within the Pondigae, and cannot represent a separate family, lest we commit the genealogical absurdity of uniting two more distant forms (chimps and gorillas) in the same family and excluding a third creature (humans) more closely related to one of those two united species. I surely cannot claim to be more closely related to my uncle than to my brother, but we make exactly such a statement when we argue that chimps are closer to gorillas than to humans.

If Griffin, Rollin, and Gould are right–that is, if the deepest principles of evolutionary biology prevent us from limiting the scope of moral concern to humans–then the act of pumping heroin into an ape, even for the noble purposes of research, becomes profoundly troubling. It must be acknowledged that the act of using non-humans as research subjects is based on an unspoken paradox: scientists use non-human because they are not like us and, at the same time, they use them because they are like us.

About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

5 Responses to Monkey Business: The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

  1. deveryminou says:

    Re: “Phylogenetic continuity”: Had you seen this blog entry from PaleoVegan equating speciesism w/ creationism (i.e., neither ideology has any basis in scientific fact)? I think it’s a relevant companion piece to this blog post.

    http://paleovegan.blogspot.com/2012/01/speciesism-creationism-treat-it-that.html

    I’m really loving your blog lately, especially the backyard slaughter posts. Thank you so much.

  2. Thank you for raising awareness about using primates for research! For a supposedly progressive and civilized species, we are so unbelievably backward and anthropocentric. It’s infuriating.

  3. CQ says:

    Your topic fits well with Dr. Steve Best’s brand-new video, “The Superior Human?”, which my favorite Florida friend sent me last night: http://drstevebest.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/now-online-debut-of-new-anti-speciesist-film-the-superior-animal

    There are lots of anti-vivisection quotes in http://www.CreatureQuotes.com that confirm your thoughts, James.

    Those interested in the subject can click on that link and read quotes by:

    ~ Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), founder of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Chapter 9, pp 35-38)

    ~ Italian-Swiss race car driver/author/screenwriter Hans Ruesch (1913-2007), who founded the Scientific Center for Information on Vivisection (Chapter 13, pp 31-33)

    ~ U.S. Air Force animal-researcher-turned-anti-vivisectionist Donald Barnes (Chapter 15, pp 13-14)

    ~ British general-practitioner-turned-author Vernon Coleman (Chapter 17, pp 26-30)

  4. Pingback: Negotiation Is Over! – The Dubious Role of Animal Experiments

  5. Provoked says:

    If it weren’t for the horrors NIH does to living beings it would almost be comical. Such expensive/pointlessness reminds me of Gulliver’s time observing the absurd “research” at the Academy of Lagado. Without any of the humor… All that’s left is evil.

    Even in the Christian perspective one could (if they had the courage) choose to see the “gifts” of human morality as an ever greater responsibility to act compassionately. Without the advantage of a soul, these poor creatures only have the here and now… At the hands of tormentors they cannot find comfort in the belief of a heaven or “salvation”. They only have what we humans are generous enough to extend to them. We are their “god” so to speak… So why make their earthly-and-only life a hell? Obviously the well of religious-based excuses doesn’t satisfy either.

    So it’s not funny. There’s no science. It’s not moral. How such ridiculous, wasteful and cruel practices continue to exist is beyond explanation. It absolutely needs to end.

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