Animal Experimentation: A Few Thoughts

A version of this piece appeared on 

Billions upon billions of animals are used every year for the purposes of scientific experimentation. It’s actually hard to think of another practice that’s as commonplace as it is controversial (biotechnology, perhaps?). It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources. The NIH, for example, recently spent about $4 million exploring how the menstrual cycles of monkeys were influenced by cocaine, meth, and heroin.

Other animal-based experiments, however, appear to have genuine utilitarian value, contributing useful information to our knowledge of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. Delve into this issue and you’ll find that only one thing is certain: clear answers aren’t forthcoming.]

I generally believe that animal experimentation is a morally flawed way to accumulate scientific knowledge. That said, I plead agnosticism when it comes to rare cases of direct benefit to human life. I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research. As much as I’d like to be consistent on this issue–as I’m able to be with, say, my diet–I’m afraid I must take convenient refuge in Emerson’s saying about foolish consistency and little minds.  Nothing about the morality of animal experimentation is easy.

Perhaps one way to come to terms with this conundrum is to take a step back and consider animal experimentation in more abstract terms, rather than on a case-by-case basis (with many of those “cases” being purely hypothetical).  As I see it, one point in particular transcends specific examples of animal experimentation to suggest that we should be doing everything possible to eliminate the practice altogether–except perhaps in the most extreme cases of direct human benefit.

The point has to do with the fact that, as scientists use animals to further scientific knowledge, they do so without a full, or even half-full, or even quarter-full understanding of the animals they’re exploiting.  Animal experimentation has been happening for hundreds of years, but the field of animal ethology–the study of animal behavior and mentality–is relatively new.  Because the cart of experimentation has been put before the horse of knowledge, scientists routinely end up not only inadvertently harming animals, but unknowingly executing flawed experiments bound to yield inconsistent, and thus ultimately useless, results.

Animals, unlike objects, have emotions. Mice, rats, birds, or apes kept under one set of conditions will react differently to the same experimental stimuli than will mice, rats, birds, or apes kept under another set of conditions. Only now, however, are we coming to realize how incredibly sensitive experimental animals are to differential experimental environments, handlers, and procedures. The implications of this sensitivity have radical implications for every experiment done an animal.

A couple of real life examples, both taken from Bernard Rollin’s insightful book Animal Rights and Human Morality, highlight the problem. The first involves mice and the experience of shock. In order to gain insight into the human experience of shock, scientists have long traumatized mice and studied their “microcirculatory shock profile.”

Put aside for now the question of the experiment’s utility, and consider something even more problematic: scientists simply assumed that all mice yet to be traumatized by the scientists were starting from the same emotional/physiological baseline. In essence, that they were all passive objects awaiting human action within the framework of an experiment designed to induce trauma.

In point of fact, as Rollin himself, a philosopher no less, had to remind members of the Shock Society (yes, there’s a Shock Society), the mere act of picking up a mouse and shifting it a few feet into position initiates a shock response. Scientists who might have been rearranging animal subjects for clinical traumatization would have been unwittingly already traumatizing their subjects, thereby screwing up the results and rendering the entire experiment, not to mention the harsh treatment of the rodents, totally pointless.

Hence we come to what may very well be the inherent problem of animal experimentation: because we can never predict how an inarticulate animal capable of experiencing fear or pain or distress will react to the almost incalculable and endlessly subtle stimuli of any scientific environment, we can never fully trust the experimental results.

As this next example illustrates, the assumption of animal objectivity, and the concomitant failure to consider the extraordinary emotional responsiveness of animals, can be hideously callous. Scientists have long wanted to understand the nature of deer mule starvation. Again, let’s ignore the utility question and get to the execution of the experiment (and, I guess, the mule deer).

In an infamous experiment, the researcher simply placed a mule deer in a cage and withheld food, taking chemical readings of its rumen until it died.  Remarkably, the scientist’s control group–mule deer that were fed–were housed in a cage adjacent to the starving deer, affording the tormented creature olfactory and visual exposure to the food it was being denied.

Putting aside the obvious stupidity of the experiment, the stomach secretions emitted by the starving deer were completely driven by the control group, thus rendering the results useless. And all because the researcher failed to understand a basic principle of animal ethology.

The rationale for all animal experimentation is, if you back away from these examples and think about it abstractly, troublesome. Scientists use animals because they’re physically similar enough to humans for results to have possible meaning. At the same time, they use animals because they are–so we have long thought–cognitively and emotionally different enough from humans for our exploitation of them to be morally justified.

But the more we learn about animals, the more we are realizing, as Darwin himself explained (in Rollin’s summary): “thought and feeling in animals [is] an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity. If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily continuous, so, too, are psychological ones.”

I’ve only started to think/read seriously about animal testing. But this sobering scientific reality, at the least, demands that we take a much closer look at how and why–and to what effect– we use animals to serve the interests of science. My sense is that, the closer we look at non-human animals, and the more we learn about them, the harder it will be to understand their behavior and, in turn, justify our own.


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.

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