Aug 282007
While reading Jane Stemwedel’s musings on the missing gray zone in animal-research discussions, it occurred to me that when taken as a philosophical position, rather than an emotional appeal, the animal-rights people are really demanding that all bioscience be ended. I don’t mean to make the old slippery-slope argument here; rather, I mean to say that when viewed in the light of cold reason, rather than sloppy anthropomorphism, the demand to eliminate animal suffering boils down to a demand to end bioscience research. Although we biochemists investigate life, our tool is death, and we use it constantly.

My objection to the animal-rights crowd hinges on their attribution of equivalent values to human and animal life, or human and animal pain and suffering. If you are willing to accept degrees, to say that a certain amount of animal suffering is tolerable in order to alleviate human suffering, then I am not arguing directly against you. I run into trouble when the crowd says that no outcome justifies animal research, because this argument implies that no research should be performed at all.

Consider the case of the laboratory mouse. On the one hand, there is an intuitive appeal to the animal-rights argument in their case. “How would you feel,” they might well ask, “if you were locked up in a cage all day and subjected to experiments?” And of course, most of us would not like it at all, but that isn’t relevant because our likes and dislikes are psychological constructs for which it is not clear mice have any equivalent. We’re relatively closely related to mice, and they have behavioral characteristics similar to our own, which leads us to empathize with them, or so it seems. But this is a false empathy; we empathize with the mouse as if it is a human being with human traits and psychology, but this is manifestly not the case. The human mother, even a fecund one, mourns over her dead infant; the mouse mother eats hers. A human behaving as the mouse does would be called depraved, but we do not call the mouse depraved because we recognize that it does not think or feel as a human does. The similarity of responses to stressful stimuli owes more to a coincidence of behavioral evolution than matched psyches. Arguments against research on the basis of perceived empathy are therefore largely empty.

Given that anthropomorphic empathy is a dead end, the next line on animals is that they have intrinsic rights, especially that no animal individual should be used in research that does not help that individual. This implies something else, namely that an animal must consent to be researched upon. As it is impossible for the animal to give consent, we must imagine conditions under which it might give consent and stipulate those as a precondition to research. But on what basis to we attribute these rights? What virtue of a living creature endows it with the right to self-determination?

The most natural response to this question is that a creature gains the right for self-determination by having the ability to weigh the consequences of its actions and choose wisely. Indeed, this is the attribution by which we typically operate, and why we allow children and the mentally infirm only limited degrees of self-determination. However, this is clearly not the attribution the animal-rights activists are using — a mouse does not even have the ability to conceive of the possible consequences of research, much less weigh them. For the animal-rights activist, the simple fact of being alive gives rise to the right to self-determination.

But why then should we stop with mice? Untold millions of drosophila have been bred and destroyed in the name of genetic research, not to mention everything that’s been done with nematodes. Sure, it’s more difficult to relate their behavior to ours, but these creatures live and die in captivity, and exhibit stress responses during certain experiments. What property of a mouse means that it has self-determination and the flies and worms don’t?

And we’re still being biased even if we let them in. After all, what’s so special about multicellular organisms? Why should they be the only ones with a right to self-determination? If all it takes to require consent is being alive, then E. coli, of which I have personally raised and destroyed billions in the pursuit of NMR dynamics data, qualify too. In fact, their tale is really gruesome when you think about it. They’re subjected to extreme temperatures and such rapid changes in them that they ingest large chunks of foreign DNA (themselves the product of enormous bacterial slaughter). I feed them a starvation diet loaded with strange chemicals, get them so high on IPTG they start to produce one protein almost exclusively, and then once they’re done I murder them by repeatedly freezing and thawing them before I shatter their bodies with sound waves or crush them to death.

So there we are — bacteria have rights, too, at least if you accept the reasoning of the most extreme (philosophically) animal rights supporters. I could go on to make a case for cultured cell lines as an independent life form, but really I’ve already gutted molecular biology, any cell biology involving DNA manipulation or foreign proteins (think how many bacteria died to bring you that Pfu turbo), and all of biochemistry and structural biology. If we grant that animals have the right to self-determination, none of the biosciences can possibly survive the scrutiny. That’s what animal-rights activists are demanding, whether they know it or not.