An Extremely Useful But Not Quite Necessary Evil: Thoughts on Animal Experimentation

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who believe in binaries and those who do not. And then there’s everyone in-between. Polarized issues of yes/no or good/bad are oversimplified, typically beyond the issue’s utility. Today’s example of this concept comes from the  science section of the Daily Mail [warning:  link directs you to the science section of the Daily Mail]. It is an article entitled “Food giants caught in animal testing scandal” with it’s bullet point summaries namedropping the evil-doers and stating that someone else stated that they tested animals to make health claims about their products.

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What? Those villains! Testing animals in order to make “health claims” about food they stand to profit from! That’s terrible! That’s outrageous! That’s…not actually that bad. That’s perfectly normal, really. That’s how health claims work. You have to prove your claim before you can claim it.

But then the article goes on to describe the terrible experiences the animals were subjected to, including death by diarrhea, abdominal acid injection, and in one experiment, pregnant rabbits were killed soon before giving birth.

The focus on these details, the graphic and the gruesome, strongly evoke pathos. It’s not until after our emotional brains are wound up does the article mention why these experiments were performed. Animals suffered diarrhea in order to study the effects of black tea extract on E. coli. The acid injections were to recreate bowel disease and investigate if goji berries might have an effect on it. And the pregnant rabbits were used to examine the safety of an herbal appetite suppressant on pregnant females.

The article does not provide links to the studies that were published, so I cannot critique the studies themselves. All that is mentioned is that they were published in a “scientific journal.” And most journals will only take submissions that adhere to a code of ethics, implying that these studies have passed some sort of Animal Ethics Review Board.

The sole purpose of these review boards is to ensure the humane treatment of animals during experimentation:  to reduce the number of animals used, or their suffering, or to find an alternative.  These are stringent restrictions that attempt to balance the value of the information to be learned against the suffering they inflict on a living creature.

I take both of those issues very seriously. I share this sentiment with Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Image“I am driven by two main philosophies:  know more about the world than I did yesterday and lessen the suffering of others.”

Sometimes these ideals are difficult to achieve when paired together. Much biomedical knowledge that has lessened the suffering of of other humans is derived from the suffering of nonhuman animals. We, as a society, have agreed that not all suffering is equal and that a certain level of nonhuman animal suffering justifies a reduction in human suffering. The sacrifice of millions of animals has extended the average human lifespan by more than 20 years.

But is it worth it?

In a perfect world, no. However, in our jagged and real world, there is no definite answer to the question because it is a matter of belief and values. It is one I think every person should consider (though considering the widespread acceptance of factory farming, I tend to think that most people do not give such ideas as weighty a consideration as I believe it deserves).

The issue reduces to whether or not it is right for humans to put ourselves first. Are we allowed to hold species-centric values despite the overwhelming evidence of nonhuman mammals’ analogous suffering? Is it right for us to injure our phylogenetic cousins, who share our experiences of pain, fear, and anxiety, in order to improve our own lot?

What I dislike so strongly about the Daily Mail article is that it belittles the very thing it sets out to expose.  The abuse of animals in testing should be taken seriously and this article does nothing but trivialize the issue while demonizing legitimate research, squandering a chance for deep and meaningful insight for fleeting sensationalist fancy.

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