Afterthoughts on IoM report on the use of chimps in scientific research

Thursday marked an important moment in the history of animal research.  The long-anticipated report of a committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IoM) to consider whether chimpanzee research is scientifically necessary released its report, quickly followed by a statement from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, the director accepting the committee’s recommendations.

The report acknowledged that chimpanzees were vital to past progress, but that at present there is limited necessity and justification for them in research.  It did not endorse a ban on chimpanzee research, nor the continuation of the moratorium on breeding, stating that these could potentially cause “unacceptable losses to the public’s health”.  It also made clear that “animal research remains a critical tool in protecting and advancing the public’s health”.   Both animal activists and biomedical researchers were simultaneously pleased and disappointed by different aspects of the report.

Speaking of Research believes there are many positive elements in the IoM report and to the surrounding discussion.  Above all, the report encouraged public dialogue, education, and serious civil conversation about the scientific and ethical (as well as practical and political) issues that surround animal research.  The IoM report provides a thoughtful, expert review of a range of issues involved in the consideration of the use of chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research.

There were, however, a couple important points to note within the IoM report and its deliberations.

First, the charge of the IoM committee to assess the “scientific necessity” of the work, while specifically avoiding ethical issues, was clearly ill-posed, and – as the committee quickly realized – nearly impossible to carry out.

We acknowledge the committee held serious discussions about the science of chimpanzee research and the availability of alternative methods, but it is notable that these were guided by principles that are ethical in nature.  Namely:

  1. The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
  2. There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
  3. The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained in either ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.

Moreover, the IoM committee explicitly recognized that “ethics was at the core of any discussion [...] on the continued used of chimpanzees in research”.

It is evident that the tension about the use of chimpanzees in research is not merely about science.  In fact, it is not even primarily about science, as arguably chimps can stand as valid scientific models in many areas of research.  It isn’t even about the cost of research.

It is largely about ethics.

Consequently, the panel appears to have felt, at points, uncomfortable in their own shoes.  On one hand it maintained that considering ethical issues was not part of its charge; on the other, it produced a list of guiding principles that reflect ethical rather than scientific considerations, finally concluding that it did not have the required expertise to evaluate the ethical dimensions of chimpanzee research.

We believe discussions on the science and ethics of animal research are inextricably linked and both should be part of any public discussion on animal research. An honest, open and civil discussion on both the science and ethics of animal research that includes animal advocates, animal welfare organizations, scientists, patients and their families, patient advocacy groups, public health officials and the medical leadership of the country.

We would like emphasize that the guiding principles “adopted” by the panel are in fact very similar to the three Rs and current NIH guidelines that already guide decision-making regarding animal research.  By quickly adopting the IoM committee’s recommendations without additional comment, NIH may be sending the unintentional message that such principles are not at play in work with other species.  We think this issue needs to be addressed and clarified by the NIH.

The IOM panel clearly demonstrated the power of a comprehensive and critical analysis that accounts for progress in research, changes in technologies, models, and questions.  However, proceeding in critical analysis on a species-by-species basis is problematic for a number of reasons. We argue that a more general appraisal of the ethics and science of animal research is warranted.

a)     As illustrated by the IOM report and surrounding discussion, the “species-wise” approach ignores the more basic and important questions that are at the heart of the issue (the ethical dimension) and that this deserves a much more thorough and broader public discussion based upon empirical data and facts.

b)     There is no reason to think that changes in the technology, questions, and need for certain projects that contributed to a reduction in the requirement for chimpanzees in research might not also apply to other types of animals.  One may productively ask, for example, whether some studies currently conducted using mice might turn to zebra fish or drosophila instead?

c)     A broad review, beyond a single species, is also requisite to addressing the value of comparative studies, which are an integral part of strong science. Repeating work in more than one species is sometimes essential. Just because a finding is demonstrated in one species doesn’t mean it is a commonality in all.  Whereas the US Guiding Principles require that the lowest possible species be used, there are legitimate scientific reasons to repeat some studies in multiple species.

We believe that conducting a broader review of animal research could significantly advance public understanding of the role that it plays in medical and scientific progress.  In many ways, such an exercise is long overdue. The report’s conclusions clearly show the value of a rigorous, thoughtful, and public review of even the most controversial type of research. But public interest in animal studies extends far beyond chimpanzee research.

Addendum: There is an interesting discussion of the implications of the IOM report in Nature News this week, which highlights the fact that the majority of biomedical research projects that currently use Chimpanzees are likely to meet the new criteria proposed by the IOM panel

Speaking of Research

This is the fifth of a series of posts aimed at encouraging thoughtful and fact-based consideration of the full range of complex issues associated with chimpanzee research and both short- and long-term responsibility for their welfare, care and housing. Previous Speaking of Research posts on chimpanzee research include:

08/12/11: Facts must inform discussion of future of chimpanzee research.

10/13/11: Joseph M. Erwin, PhD Efforts to ban chimpanzee research are misguided.

11/21/11: A closer look at the Great Ape Protection Act.

12/08/11: What cost savings?  A closer look at the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011

52 responses to “Afterthoughts on IoM report on the use of chimps in scientific research

  1. This is an excellent analysis.

  2. Interesting, though I don’t think that the decline in chimpanzee use has been mainly due to ethical concerns, the closest animal to humans is not necessarily the best to use, even from a purely scientific (or indeed practical point of view).

    For example, while I agree with the IOM panel members who are of the opinion that potential prophylactic Hep C vaccines need to be evaluated in a preclinical model for efficacy prior to human trials, as human efficacy trials need a lot – hundreds – of subjects, and it is not likely that shuch trials could proceed witout good evidence of preclinical efficacy. But…the steady improvement in GM mouse models for Hep C research have made them a preferable model for most aspects of Hep C research, and it seems likely given the rapid progress in this area (see for a recently published model) GM mice in which prophylactic HepC virus vaccines can be evaluated will be available by the end of this decade, possibly a lot sooner. When that happens I expect them to become the model of choice for pre-clinical evaluation of the efficacy of hepatitis C vaccines, regardless of whether chimpanzees are still available for these studies by then.

  3. I agree that this is an excellent and thoughtful analysis. I also agree that the IOM committee clearly made a valiant effort to address the relevant issues within the rather narrow–probably much too narrow–scope of their charge. Would a finding that chimpanzees were absolutely essential to some area of research have been taken to mean that capture from the wild for that purpose would be justified? I don’t think so. There has long been agreement that the scientific community has no intention of bringing any more chimpanzees into captivity.

    But we have a lot of chimpanzees in captivity. If they are defined as “surplus to research needs” or if many areas of research are not considered “necessary,” what does that mean for the support of chimpanzees already in captivity, and clearly in need of high quality and sustainable care. If they are going to be supported–and they absolutely must be–why should they not be available for humane and noninvasive scientific studies? It makes no sense to use research dollars to care for animals from which we have much to learn and forbid research on them that could mutually benefit them and humans–even if that research is not critical to human health?

    How can we fail to consider that chimpanzees deserve considerate care, including health care, and that much of what we can learn from chimpanzees amplifies what we can learn from humans. It is as if comparative biology, comparative genomics, comparative psychology, comparative medicine, etc., do not even exist. Is science only about humans? I get the impression that a pervasive view in biomedical science is that “animal models” research is ONLY about humans and that there is little distinction made between artificial models and natural models and little distinction made between analogous, homologous and orthologous models. Where will the phenotypic characterizations come from to make the chimpanzee and human genome projects meaningful? Why do we get limitations on research involving chimpanzees to only what cannot be studied in humans? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, if anything? That one could only do with chimpanzees what can ethically be done with humans? Direct comparisons between humans and chimpanzees for mutual benefit seems to me to a direction we should be going.

    Look, chimpanzees are not rats or flies or worms. The scientific methods used for studying those other species are often inappropriate for human subjects research–or ape subjects research. We should focus on what methods are appropriate for scientific studies, not whether scientific studies of humans or chimpanzees should be banned.

    • Good points joeerwin,certainly where much basic biomedical research is concerned – particularly that involving research on organisms from yest to worms, and flies to mice – it isn’t simply a case of finding the lowest (not a phrase In like but it will suffice for now) species where the process being studied will serve as a stand in for humans, which to be fair point C in the post above acknowledges. Often it is because of the differences between species that they are better subjects for particular research purposes, for example because their genes can be modified more easily or that their development stages can be studied more precisely.Comparative research is very interesting in it’s own right as pure science what adds to our overall knowledge about living systems (very important for tomorrows medical advances), but can also yield insights into human biology that would be difficult – if not impossible – to obtain from studying only humans or those mammals most closely related to us. And of course such research can have important implications for medicine, particularly to fields such as regenerative medicine.

      On another point, I note that the GAPA would also ban research on vaccines that protect great apes from disease, such as this recently launched study to determine whether a vaccine against the Ebola virus can stimulate an immune response against the virus that is sweeping through gorilla (and some chimpanzee) populations in the wild

      • Thanks, Mark. There is really so much to learn from every kind of animal, in nature, and sometimes in captivity. More than 40 years ago I was conducting sensory and learning studies with Drosophila. One summer I ran 50 complete studies involving thousands of individual flies. I was impressed with the extent and complexity of variation and individual differences among flies. When I finished running a fly through a maze, I simply released it. Of course, it would have also been appropriate to just put them in a kill jar, but it seemed unnecessary, since these were wild type that were already abundant in the environment. My other studies during that phase of my training/career involved fish and birds and reptiles and amphibians and rodents–lots of interesting studies. In most cases, a part of the process was learning more about the animals as they exist and function in nature. Usually, care and husbandry and environmental design were required, as well as training and observation. This was a very different approach than one I encountered along the way, which is summed up in a statement I actually heard: “I study learning, and I use pigeons to do so.” This was from a Skinnerian behaviorist who kept his pigeons working in dark chambers and did not even observe what they were doing. He just looked at the data records. I didn’t care for that approach at the time; but to be fair, that investigator changed his interests and methods across time in ways that were much more considerate of the animals he studied. As far as my work with nonhuman primates, I cannot think of any cases where the animals I studied were acquired for the studies I did–they were in breeding colonies or labs or zoos where I had access to study them–often to do studies with implications for their care, housing, or enrichment. So, I do not in any sense advocate going to get more apes from the wild. I do advocate opportunistically and humanely studying the ones already in captivity–especially as a way of helping to support them. Sadly, some of the sanctuaries are practically forced into using the chimpanzees they hold as advertisements against science and scientists to raise the support they need to care for the animals. The stories of abuses that no longer occur are heart wrenching, and (even if false or exaggerated) are effective in raising funds. Too bad we were unable to get any funding many years ago for the Comparative Gerontology Facility retirement program we proposed to solve the chimpanzee problem.

  4. As an animal advocate, I don’t think “rats or flies or worms” should be subject to painful procedures without appropriate analgesia and/or anesthesia anymore than chimpanzees should be caused to suffer. The sentience of an animal is what used to be the primary concern in animal rights and welfare and not how genetically close a species is to Homo sapiens. The welfare of the animals or, conversely, the toll taken on the welfare of the animals, should be the focus of the ethical considerations involved in designing and approving scientific research using animals. If chimps already in captivity are provided with species-appropriate habitats, diets, etc. that allow them to exercise natural behaviors, I also ask “why should they not be available for humane and noninvasive scientific studies?”–especially if not using chimpanzees for “humane and noninvasive scientific studies” leads to increased use of other equally sentient species, and even more especially if “one could only do with chimpanzees what can ethically be done with humans.”

    • “The sentience of an animal is what used to be the primary concern in animal rights and welfare… ” Is this your position? Are you saying there is no difference in the suffering inflicted on a file, a worm and an chimp? This is essentially what Francione says.

      I also ask “why should they not be available for humane and noninvasive scientific studies?”– Because I think most of the public agrees on the notion of graded moral status.

      • Graded moral status is one thing and sentience is another. To the extent that sentient beings suffer equally, they are equal in terms of the obligation of the moral human being to avoid making them suffer. That doesn’t mean the life of a member of one species is of equal value to the life of a member of another species. If I had to choose the life of a whale over the life of a shrimp, I would choose the whale, but in the grand scheme of things, one life may be equal to another. To some extent, my decision to save a whale over a shrimp would be subjective. I would save a human child over a puppy, but then I would save the life of MY child over the life of YOUR child. It would be better to try to save them both.

  5. I hate every ape I see

    from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z

    No, you’ll never make a monkey out of me….

  6. In my opinion, humans and all other animals deserve evidence-based due consideration and treatment accordingly, so I do not approve of infliction of pain on non-chimpanzees either. While we are well-advised to avoid “anthropomorphism” to nonhumans, the more similar a nonhuman species is to humans, the more likely they are to have similar needs and concerns and feelings–so, our standards regarding what is appropriate and what is not, should be more alike for humans and chimpanzees than for humans and rats or chimpanzees and worms. The point is that we should be learning what we can humanely learn from chimpanzees for the mutual benefit of chimpanzees and humans, and this should help to support and provide good facilities and care for them. If scientific protocols and procedures are humane and not harmful, what is the problem? What we have currently is a situation where those seeking to get all chimpanzees out of research settings are successfully misleading the public–and maybe even the IOM committee–into believing that research is torture and that facilities and care for chimpanzees has not been improved across the past three or four or five decades. What is occurring is apparently ethically justified as “lying in the service of a good cause” or is simply based on ignorance of the quality of environments and care that is currently typical in research settings.

  7. Here’s an afterthought: the implication of this report is that of the 35 or so currently funded project about half are likely to be unethical. And a considerable number of researchers who have worked in this area have been engaged in unethical research.

    Well, I suppose at least they won’t get federal funds anymore, but I wonder whether you’ll be writing to the President of their Universities and asking them to censure them for engaging in unethical research. I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t protect academic freedom, you know, but when researchers are engaged in unethical research surely something ought to be done.

  8. C, the panel voiced the opinion that about half the current chimpanzee research projects might be considered unethical according to their new criteria for future Chimpanzee research, which are more restrictive than the criteria applied before. As their new criteria cannot be applied retrospectively I don’t think we would have any grounds to write to any Universities asking them to censure them for carrying out unethical research.

    There’s a good discussion in Nature on some of the implications of the new criteria, which suggest that the claim that about 50% of current projects could be affected may well be an overestimate.

    • Well, that’s a nice dodge by the commission to white wash the fact that the justification of the use of animals in medical research is that they are necessary for the human health benefits. This is a consequentialist justification of the practice. However, consequentialist justifications depend upon the actual benefits that result from the research. When the results don’t occur, the justification of the research collapses. So, if this research was unnecessary but justified consequentially on the basis of supposed “necessity” as a means to benefits, then the falsification of that claim results in the research losing its justification. Unless it is the case that it **was** necessary but now no longer is necessary the moral justification of the previous research changes.
      Thus, the organizations that supported this research supported immoral research by their own lights. The researchers who did this work engaged in immoral research, even if their ignorance and incompetence exculpates them from moral blame–at worst most of them are blameworthy of moral recklessness, obtuseness, or negligence. Nonetheless, they ought not to be given further funds to work with animals, and obviously we need to look into the total failure of the IACUC systems and the other relevant organizations that dropped the ball and allowed this immoral research to be conducted.

      • Individual experiments cannot be merely justified on consequentialist views. Nobody knows the outcome of an experiment before doing it nor all the implications of the findings can be anticipated ahead of time. Trying to apply consequentialists theories to individual scientific experiments is meaningless… but it could make sense if you consider the practice as a whole.

      • Well, that’s a problem with consequentialist justifications in general and not simply one that applies to individual instances of a practice. If it is the case that consequentialist justifications of individual instances of research is “meaningless” (and it’s obviously not “meaningless” since we understand what we are talking about, right? Perhaps, you mean something less obviously false?), then it is likely that all act-consequentialist justifications are “meaningless.” You can’t pick and choose and use the argument to defend the morality of a practice and not have it apply (mutatis mutandi) to the instances of the practice. This is part of the nature of the ethical theory that you are appealing to, in order to justify this practice. You may not like the consequences of this, but it’s a case of living by the consequentialist justificaiton, dying by the consequentialist justification.

        Now of course you might invoke some sort of “rule-utilitarian” justification for the practice–that the rule that we can harm animals when we think it might be in the interest of public health maximizes benefit for those affected and therefore is justifed–but this would seem to entail that all experimentation that is well-intentioned is justified.There would be little reason to adopt the 3R’s or the conclusions of the iom report (except perhaps on the grounds of cost and use of resources). Such a defense will leave the door open too wide, even for you guys. There are some really deep problems with rule-utilitarianism that will quickly appear if you choose this alternative.

        So, it seems to me that if we think that unnecessarily causing animals harm is wrong, then unfortunately for the folks who have been doing this work, and the organizations that have approved and funded it, and you guys in the biomedical research industry, have all been engaged in immoral practices. Once again, you and they may only be guilty of moral recklessness, obtuseness, or negligence, but that’s little comfort for the profession.

      • C, you write “Unless it is the case that it **was** necessary but now no longer is necessary the moral justification of the previous research changes.”

        But the panel did state that the chimp research was necessary. They made that point very clear, just as they made their view that research using other animal species – including of course several that have replaced chimps in some areas of research – is crucial to medical progress very clear.

      • So the research that was being done last year was “necessary” but now it’s now! Wow! What changed on December 15th? Did we cure Hep C last month? Cancer? No. Thought not. So obviously not all of the research prior to the release of this report was “necessary.” Further, on what grounds do they assert this?

        There are of course two grounds for the justification of research–that the use of animals is “necessary” and that the benefits of doing the research justify it. So, in order to retroactively justify this research would require that the panel address the actual benefits of causing harm to chimpanzees over the last fifty+ years. Now someone might make the argument that the several tens of thousands of rhesus and macaques that were killed in order to produce the polio vaccine was justified by the significant benefit to human beings (assuming that the death of these animals was necessary)–one might argue this (as one might argue was testing it on “retarded” children). But, where’s the argument for chimpanzee research? In fact some interesting argument has been published that very little of real benefit has come from the use of chimpanzees.

        But, this is a broader point. My point is just that some of that research was by the IoM’s own lights unnecessary–that research was immoral and those who endorsed it and performed it should be held morally accountable since they apparently lack the competence to perform this sort of research.

      • Well, in the case of wars we might appeal to just war theory. I think the work of Andrew Fiala provides an important explication of why a rigorous application of jwt is virtually a form of “practical pacifism.” Since the moral stakes are so high in taking a nation to war, jwt should be interpreted stringently and we should need to meet a very high evidentiary bar in order to be confident that any waging of war is in fact just.

        I think that an analogous position for the use of animal research would be a good place to start. We might start by adopting a European model of protocol review rather than the risible bureaucracy of the IACUC which is likely to be profoundly inefffective (even if it has, at least, introduced a generation of scientists to the idea that what they do to animals might matter–and at least it has helped decrease the moral obtuseness of the profession). That’s pretty unlikely to happen given the biomedical-research-industrial complexes power and resistance to all reform (even IACUCs–as ineffectual as they are–back in the day). The burden should be on the scientist to justify their use of animals and when they fail to make good on their promises their research should be subjected to peer review of the sort we find among doctors when egregious failures occur.

        There’s plenty more that could and should be done–even assuming that ultimately the use of animals in biomedical research is morally defensible in general.

      • C,

        You are not offering an explanation of how you would justify Sabin’s experiments but not others. All you are saying is that you want more stringent regulations. I am not opposed to such ideas… but let’s be frank — doing so will not change the ratio between those experiments that lead to advances and those that do not. So the outcome, in your eyes, will remain the same — those experiments that did not lead to advances would be unethical. Of course, you are missing the fact that those that lead to positive results were also based on previous negative findings. That’s how science works.

      • You asked a different question–you asked how we would go about deciding what to do, which is a question about a decision procedure–then you complain that haven’t answered the justification question. It’s a commonplace of consequentialist moral theory that these two things are distinguishable (along with, as I pointed out earlier, the question of the blameworthiness of the agent).

        As far as I understand the ‘argument’ that justifies some harming of animals for the sake of health benefits, it appeals to consequences to justify the practice.of harming animals for putative health benefits for human beings.

        The question of the decision procedure is a different one than justification. Of course, we have to make these sorts of decisions all the time in our everyday lives–decisions where we are uncertain which action will maximize welfare for all concerned, and where if we judge incorrectly our action will have been immoral. For most of us the stakes are fairly low as we don’t take it upon ourselves to kill or harm other beings as a way of life and so we are freed from the moral complexiities of choosing when to go to war, or when to shoot at another human being, or when to kill an animal to learn something interesting.

        My sense is that if we assume that harming animals is sometimes justifiable for the sake of health benefits for other animals, then this would need to be a very rare occurrence and done with a great deal of “fear and trembling” about the dangers of harming animals unnecessarily. We have cultivated this sentiment among doctors and their human patients and created decision procedures that do a fairly effective job of limiting immoral behavior, along with suitable methods for holding doctors accountable for their failures. And yet we enable, cultivate, and foster moral recklessness in research scientists.

        But, to get to your question–you seem to be asking, how would we know in advance which protocols will result in human benefits and which will not? To which of course the answer is we likely won’t. You then want to suggest that science won’t work unless we allow immoral (even by the best justification of harming animals in research), because science depends upon failures as well as successes.

        Obviously we do research because we know that we don’t know something and since ‘ought implies can’ it might seem that we cannot be obligated to know in advance what protocols and programs will lead to human health benefits and which ones won’t. But, if we were to generalize this argument it would seem to make essentially all legal behavior moral since we rarely know all of the outcomes of our actions, or consequentialism impossible.

        So how do we distinguish between protocols? We do what scientists are reputedly good at, we gather relevant evidence without harming animals until we get to a point where the evidence makes considering harming animals a reasonable risk. We find alternatives and make harming animals a rarity done only under true “necessity” not the trumped up and intellectually slovenly claims of “necessity” that are used to conceal the lack of justification until it’s too late.

    • And let’s not forget that the panel was not considering the ethical aspects and–I think–didn’t contain a trained ethicist. So, let’s not put too much weight in their opinions outside their (or SR’s) areas of expertise.

      • The chair of the committee is a bioethicist.

      • Ah, so he is–I stand corrected.

      • C,

        You are right, I think that unless you have certainty of what the consequence of an action is going to be that consequentialism is not very useful as a way to guide your behavior.

        The notion would make sense if you make it probabilistic in some sense… but then again you would have to pick thresholds that many would find arbitrary.

        And although it is impossible to predict the consequence of any one individual experiment, but we know for a fact that animal research as a collective enterprise has saved billions of human lives… a fact you have to face by asking yourself — would it be morally Ok to let them die instead?

      • But, you are confusing three things here. The first is the question of whether the action in general is permissible, the second whether an instance is permissible, the third, whether the agent undertaking the action is blameworthy. The argument might be made for the first (and I think that is most of what the pro-harming-animals-for-putative-health-benefits focus on), in some cases it might be made for the second (though our shamefully porous and likely risible IACUC bureuacratization fails miserably in engaging this question), and in the third, well there are a lot of not-decent scientists out there who harm animals without (adequate) justification (like others who do things for good reasons that are morally abominable it’s hard to know whether we should pity them or blame them).

        Oh, and then you are confusing two (other) things on the level of moral theory–one is whether one can gain good action-guiding beliefs from consequentialism, and the second whether one can give justification for a practice by appealing to its consequences. Sure making sound judgments about the future in situations of evidential under-determination is epistemically perilous–but that’s just the situation of being a human moral agent. Most of us–when we are not being morally obtuse–struggle with that everyday. But that fact that doesn’t give us reason to avoid the fact that if we appeal to consequences to justify our harming of another morally significant being, if our judgments about the consequences turns out to have been wrong, then our seemingly justified action now requires apology, or regret, or redress.

        On the last point of your last comment (sorry but the comment system seems not to give the option of commenting on comments below 3 levels) you confuse the two levels of justification–of the practice as such and the instances. Lots of atrocities can be justified if we follow you down your road here. There is never a shortage of people who argue your sort of greater good excuses all of the abuses and unnecessary suffering. In this context it’s an unnecessarily simplistic engagement with a difficult issue.

      • Yes, the work is morally justified as whole by the benefits it produced.

        It does not make sense to consider the work of Salk and Sabin justified because they rid the world of Polio, and to call others who engage in similar work but did not come to the same outcome “morally abominable”. Neither Salk nor Sabin knew for a fact they would be successful in developing a vaccine.

        In individual cases the best we can do is ask ourselves if the experiments are likely to advance the science in a substantial way and addresses an important question in human disease or basic biology, and if the same information couldn’t be obtained by other means that do not involve animals. That’s the best we can do.

        And despite my alleged confusion about morality, it continues to be a fact that animal research has saved billions of human lives. Do you think these lives were saved by immoral means? Were Salk and Sabin monsters as well?

      • Let’s take an analogy. Only a few would argue that war against another nation is morally unjustifiable (pacifists). Most people likely hold the view that war is morally justifiable. But, it is justifiable when certain conditions are met. Let’s assume that invading Iraq was justified if doing so prevented Iraq from developing WMD (a good consequentialist justification). Now if it turns out that the war did not prevent WMD from being developed then the war was unnecessary and the war is no longer justifiable.

        Thus, animal research. Even assuming it is justifiable (note the modal), it is not justified until its claims to benefit come to pass. if it fails to accomplish what it sets out to do it is unjustified and if the harm is of the right sort then it is immoral. (On the defenders own view).

        So, yes, there is an important sense in which, even if Salk and Sabin’s research was morally justified, their peers was not. These are the moral stakes of killing and harming sentient creatures. if you shoot an unarmed civilian who turns out to be a terrorist you are innocent of murder, if you shoot an innocent you are guilty of a war crime. We might have great sympathy for the difficulties (epistemic, psychological, and moral) that our soldiers are in when they are combating insurgent movements as in Vietnam and Baghdad, but the action of killing an innocent is wrong. There are some who want to whitewash this in the case of war crimes. There are others who want to do the same with killing non-human animals. (Of course, this is only an analogy).

        It is so much easier to argue against pacifists than to justify the invasion of Iraq. And it is easier to argue against NIO than to justify the unnecessary and immoral research that has been supported by your community on chimpanzees.

      • “So, yes, there is an important sense in which, even if Salk and Sabin’s research was morally justified, their peers was not.”

        So please enlighten me as to how you propose we decide when to wage a war or allow an animal experiment to happen.

      • See reply to above comment thread.

      • Why the 15th December? Because that was when the report was published. Perhaps they would have come to the same conclusion if they had conducted the same review a year earlier, perhaps they would have come to a different conclusion if they had undertaken it 5 years ago (10 years ago they would most certainly have come to a different conclusion). The important thing is not how their criteria/recommendations might be applied to past research, but how they are applied to current and future research.

        Is a sugeon who doesn’t use a new surgical technique that is later proven to be superior the technique he uses to be held morally responsible for any harm his/her patients suffer because he used the older technique? Of course not, until the two approaches are reviewed and compared you can’t say which was superior. Just because you can look back and say that the new technique was better all the time doesn’t mean that the surgeon was immoral not to use it.

        Even now I expect that their will be a lot of debate over whether existing projects meet the criteria…the panel’s recommendations did not cover all areas of chimp use in biomedical research in detail (and of course they were divided on prophylactic vaccine evaluation). Also there is no obligation for organizations outside the NIH to accept the panel’s recommendations, it may be the case that some pharma/biotech companies who are developing anti-HCV drugs decide that they still need to evaluate them preclinically in chimpanzees (the current in vitro and GM rodent models don’t cover all targets yet). This is a report with recommendations, not the final word on what is moral and what isn’t!

        Finally I find your references to just war theory odd. The morality of a war isn’t decided by solely it’s outcome relative to it’s original objectives, but by the situation that existed at it’s outset and the decisions made based on that decidion. Was British participation in WW2 immoral because one of it’s outcomes was the Soviet conquest of Poland in 1945? After all, it was to defend Poland’s independence that the UK declared war on Germany in 1939. Similarly the moral responsibility for killing a suspected terrorist isn’t dependent on whether or not they were actually a terrorist, but on whether or not the soldier who shot them had good reason to believe that they were a terrorist…the terrorists may themselves be as much – or more – to blame as the soldier who mistook a civilian for a terrorist.

  9. @Kim,

    “To the extent that sentient beings suffer equally, they are equal in terms of the obligation of the moral human being to avoid making them suffer.”

    This sounds exactly like Francione’s theory.

    I’d ask for the evidence of the first part of this statement… but let us assume for a moment that it is true — i.e., a worm suffers the same as a great ape.

    “If I had to choose the life of a whale over the life of a shrimp, I would choose the whale, but in the grand scheme of things, one life may be equal to another.”

    But the theory seem to hold directs you to flip a coin in choosing between the life of a whale or that of a shrimp, or that of a human and that of a mouse. You refuse to do it. If you have a consistent preference for one over the other then your theory fails miserably to account for your choice. You have two options here — either you declare yourself a hypocrite (which seems to be the easy way out) or declare the theory at fault and think more carefully about how to amend it to account for your moral intuitions.

    Declaring your choice subjective is a really poor answer. Certainly, you would not accept an animal researcher telling you it is their subjective choice to pick the human over the mouse. You expect more than that… and so do we.

  10. Dario, I do not think a worm is capable of the same sort of suffering as a great ape, nor the shrimp the same as the whale. The ways in which the different life forms experience pain, fear, frustration, etc. is quite different, as you well know. The great ape and the whale have more more capacity to suffer than the worm and the shrimp, because of their greater neurological, cognitive, and psychological complexity. But that is not to deny that the worm and the shrimp are capable of feeling pain, and possibly fear or some other primitive emotions. Some invertebrates might even have heightened sensitivities to certain stimuli. We should try to avoid causing suffering in whatever way a being suffers.

    I don’t think I am being hypocritical or stupid in positing that all life forms might be equal in some totally objective sense. But since we are not capable of absolute objectivity, we make decisions about moral worth of an organism based on how well we relate to a species or how much like us they are. That isn’t scientific, it’s subjective.

    Rather than regarding life on earth as if we were perpetually in a lifeboat scenario, why don’t we try to do as little harm as possible? Moral dilemmas arise constantly and we cannot live without negatively impacting other forms of life, but we can try to minimize the harm we do.

    • “Rather than regarding life on earth as if we were perpetually in a lifeboat scenario, why don’t we try to do as little harm as possible?”

      I largely agree… but one problem is the failure of some to see that the specific use of animals in scientific research is as close to a lifeboat scenario as it gets.

      In our view, stopping animal research will not help minimize harm but increase it. It is allowing the work to proceed with care and respect for the animals that will minimize suffering. Stopping it would be unethical unless you subscribe to the notion of animal rights.

      • Rarely does any use of animals involve direct survival for a human being. There are certainly some, but the vast majority of the use of animals in biomedical research is speculative at best. Carl Cohen has an example in his book with Tom Regan about snake bites and anti-venom, and it used to be the case, I believe, that insulin was involved killing animals for the direct survival of diabetics. These might, and I would emphasize might in the former case be “lifeboat scenarios.” But, I would guess that the vast majority of the use of animals in biomedical research has almost no features of the lifeboat scenario, when carefully considered. Certainly, not a single one of the uses of chimpanzees currently are analogous to standard lifeboat scenarios or even trolley problems.
        Even in the aggregate there seems to be little analogy with a lifeboat scenario, since the survival of an individual is not directly dependent on the death of another. What would the analogy with the aggregated harms be? So we have several million animals each year that are harmed and perhaps there are some benefits to some people somewhere. So it’s sort of like a lifeboat filled with a million animals and we cruise around throwing them overboard in the hope that some of them will wash up on islands where thousands of Robinson Crusoes are able to eat them and survive? That seems closer than a lifeboat scenario.

  11. I mostly agree with you, Kim. I think we need to be considerate of any thing with which we interact. Giving due consideration implies having sufficient knowledge to understand something about sensation, perception, cognition, memory, awareness, self-awareness, etc. We are not only ethically obligated to consider the consequences of our actions, but also of inaction. I think the ethic of “due consideration” urges toward obtaining and evaluating knowledge upon which to base consideration.

    The more we study animals, humanely of course, the better we can understand them, and the more considerate we can be of them.

    So, yes, let’s understand other forms of life as best we can, and use compassionate science as a means of maximizing the help we can give and minimizing the harm we do.

  12. Thank you for understanding, Joeerwin.

    But, Dario, there is no one theory of animal rights. It’s like there is no single accepted theory of women’s rights The mainstream women’s movement in the U.S. became dominated by a faction whose guiding ideology was that a woman’s right to abort an unwanted fetus was absolute and no concessions could be made in regulating abortion, even including partial birth abortion. Most women have nuanced views on abortion rights, just as most animal advocates have nuanced views on issues labeled “animal rights.” I think it should be a priority for the women’s movement to help women in Islamic and sub-Saharan African nations gain control of their own reproduction–not necessarily for the purpose of abortion, but to empower them to resist forced marriages and forced childbearing. My priority for animals is not engaging in rhetoric about abolition or liberation but to effect meaningful change in people’s attitudes about animals and the resultant change that might ensue in more considerate treatment of animals. We are too far away from abolition or liberation to bog ourselves down in debates about it. It’s like using the fine-tune dial of an old-fashioned radio to locate a radio signal; first you were supposed to use the big dial (whatever it was called) to find the signal, and then you would fine tune to hone in on the signal––not the other way around.

    I do “subscribe to the notion of animal rights” but it’s not Peter Singer’s version or Gary Francione’s––although they have both contributed significantly to the philosophy of animal rights, as has Tom Regan, who seems to have been largely forgotten though he was more involved in building the U.S. animal rights movement than Peter Singer. Peter Singer did not start or even inspire the animal rights movement. What Singer did with his book ANIMAL LIBERATION was to provide animal advocates with an intellectual framework that helped them rationalize their feelings and/or intuitions that violence and cruelty to animals was unjust and immoral. People didn’t become activists because they read ANIMAL LIBERATION. One doesn’t become a social activist just by being persuaded by a philosophical argument; there is some passion for changing the world that turns people into activists. Tom Regan’s book, THE CASE FOR ANIMAL RIGHTS, was abstruse and the only person I knew of who ever made it through the book was the late Henry Spira, but Tom was on the scene in the U.S., helping to inspire activists, while Peter was in Australia, involved in the founding of an organization that became Animals’ Australia. Peter Singer only became publicly prominent in America when he went to Princeton. Gary Francione was also very active in inspiring the early animal rights movement in America. Gary can be brilliant, but he tends to take things to an extreme––a danger for all theorists.

    • In all versions of animal rights I am aware of some basic characteristic, such as being a subject-of-a-life (Tom Regan) or sentience (Francione), is deemed sufficient to endow a living being with basic rights.

      What version of animal rights do you subscribe to?

  13. As I’ve said before, animal “rights” are really irrelevant. Animals have no legal rights at this time. Moral rights and natural rights are theoretical, but if humans have them, then surely animals have them also. It would be just and appropriate to raise the legal status of animals from “property” to something reflecting their status as sentient beings and not inanimate objects. Such an effort would probably take generations, but it should be undertaken nonetheless. The many issues and philosophical positions labeled “animal rights” or “animal welfare” are all about what human beings do to animals: what right humans have to treat other animals as they do. If animals could speak for themselves collectively, I think they would say to people: “Either treat us with consideration and respect or leave us entirely alone.”

  14. “As I’ve said before, animal “rights” are really irrelevant.”

    I strongly disagree. If animals have basic rights to life and liberty then they ought to be respected. If animals indeed have rights then we should not use them for food, or transportation, or companionship, or scientific research. So the question if animals have rights or not is germane and central to our discussion.

    You said you subscribe to the notion of “animal rights” but I am not sure after all our exchanges what your ethical position is. You keep saying there are different versions of “animal rights” but are somewhat reluctant to offer your own.

    You state above “if humans have them [rights], then surely animals have them also.” That’s indeed a very strong statement… based on what exactly do you conclude “surely”?

  15. Unless you are a creationist, you accept that Homo sapiens evolved from other animals and all would share in the natural rights derived by existence in nature. Even if you were a creationist, you would believe that God created animals as well as humans, and then we could address the meaning of “dominion” and the moral implications of the Genesis creation story. But both moral rights and natural rights are theoretical. Animals should have some form of legal rights (not anything like human rights but something that would confer a status above inanimate objects), but at present animals have no legal rights. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for animals? Yes, why not? But then humans would have to leave them alone. I have several times offered my version of “animal rights,” but it’s about humans being HUMANE.

    • Obligations are not rights. It is a mistake to confuse the two.

      Rights are not based on our “existence in nature” as you suggest, but rather in our ability to participate as moral agents in a community of equals. Nonhuman animals cannot do that. Based on your criteria even bacteria would have rights. To me such such a conclusion is absurd.

      Thus, I would agree agree that we have a self-imposed obligation to treat other animals with respect, care and inflicting the minimum amount of harm possible on them.

      But I disagree our obligations towards a worm ought to be the same as that of an ape or a human. I further disagree that all animals are equally competent in planning a future life with the goal of pursuing happiness, as you seem to imply.

      Oh yes, I think I mentioned this before — I am an atheist.

  16. All humans and other animals deserve our respect, due consideration, and humane treatment. This is very close to a statement of “rights.” Animals that are raised for food or other products, still deserve respect and care and humane treatment. Animals do have legal protection from abuse, to varying degrees under various circumstances. For example, animals in zoos and research and breeding facilities are protected under the federal Animal Welfare Act. Strangely, this protection does not extend to sanctuaries–even though some sanctuaries provide excellent facilities and care. So, animals have some legal status. While all people are animals, not all animals are people. Some legal protections against abuse exist, implying that we claim some basic “rights” that include both humans and nonhuman animals. Recognizing the importance of humane treatment does not in any sense imply that humans must not have companion animals or farm animals or zoo animals or lab animals. Our obligation, legally, morally, and ethically, is to treat other people and other animals humanely. This obligation is widely recognized within the scientific community. Need I say that no scientist should oppose treating animals humanely and with appropriate respect and dignity.

    • “All humans and other animals deserve our respect, due consideration, and humane treatment. This is very close to a statement of “rights.” ”

      No, it is very close to a statement about obligations to other living beings. Rights entail obligations but the reverse is not true. I agree with the above, but one must not confuse rights with obligations — they are two different things.

  17. No, Dario, LEGAL human rights are based on humans’ “ability to participate as moral agents in a community of equals.” Moral rights and natural rights are theoretical and may well include bacteria, fungi, and plants. One could make a case that land animals evolved for the purpose of assisting plant reproduction and respiration.

    I never said “that all animals are equally competent in planning a future life with the goal of pursuing happiness,” but they can pursue what they perceive as a positive state of being on whatever time scale they operate in. I never said that “our obligations toward a worm ought to be the same as that of an ape or a human.” But it would follow from our so-called moral agency that we would not inflict harm on a worm if we could possibly help it, would it not?

    You have mentioned before that you are an atheist, but you are obviously greatly influenced by dominionist concepts. I am an agnostic, which seems more scientific than the atheist claim of absolute knowledge that there is no conscious force operating in the universe. Atheism is clearly an ideology, and atheists often act just like other religionists in their certainty and in their need to proselytize.

  18. “Moral rights and natural rights are theoretical and may well include bacteria, fungi, and plants.”

    You lost me there.

    ” I am an agnostic, which seems more scientific…”

    Beliefs in science have to be supported by evidence. To me the null hypothesis is that there is no supernatural being ruling the universe. I do not see a need to invoke such being to explain how nature works. Given the lack of evidence I stick to the null hypothesis.

  19. Dario, I think you are right about the “obligations” vs. “rights” issue. So, I often see a combination of opportunity and obligation as a basis for learning from and caring for animals that have already come into captivity.

    Kim, I think you and I may be on the same page regarding the “obligation” of humans to treat nonhumans humanely. Although, to some extent, it seems like a rather fine semantic discrimination.

    Dario and Kim, my wife claims that I am an atheist. I prefer to say that I am a “nonbeliever,” or something of the sort. Sometimes I say I’m an agnostic. I see no basis in evidence to reject the null hypothesis that there is no “God.” But, “failure to reject” the null hypothesis does not warrant acceptance of the null hypothesis–even though we sometimes see scientists do that (usually, if they try that, they are asked to revise and correct the manuscript). The thing is, to actually do a scientific assessment of this issue, the hypothesis has to have some possibility of being falsified. Hypotheses about the existence of God are not falsifiable, so this is an issue that cannot really be addressed scientifically. It bothers me a little to see what sometimes seems to me to be a sort of “evangelical atheistic” position–with people campaigning for there to be no God. It is not needed.

    It is clear enough that life on earth has been around for a long time. It is clear that life forms have been evolving since they began. It is clear that mammals and primates proliferated and that the radiation of primate forms includes humans–and that we are closely related to chimpanzees. As we consider chimpanzees in relation to humans, it is important to recognize that humans have had about 6 million years to evolve from the common ancestor and that chimpanzees have also had the same amount of time. So even though each is only 6 million years form the common ancestor, chimpanzees and humans are separated by about 12 million years of evolution. Evolution is relevant and evident.

    Could there have been a “God” involved in the process? I don’t think so, but I don’t know everything. People who believe in God are not my enemies. Ignorance is my enemy and evidence is my ally. I do not need to imagine a prime mover. I do take issue with beliefs (e.g., young earth creationism) that are falsified by abundant evidence.

  20. Agnosticism would makes when the likelihood of two alternative hypotheses are judged, a priori, to be equal. But, in this case, Occam’s razor suggest otherwise.

    I take issue with magical thinking in general. I don’t think it helps humanity.

    Those that campaign against religion do it because they believe the net effect of religious thinking has been negative overall (being the source of multiple wars, genocides, prosecutions, divisions, and so on…)

  21. Science cannot and should not even try to address the question of the existence of God. For those who are true believers, there is no evidence that will change their minds. Why try to use science? Science cannot deal with “spiritual” matters. Agnosticism with regard to God does not demand recognition of two hypotheses as equally probable. Hypotheses regarding the existence of God are not scientifically falsifiable. Why bother with such an unnecessary debate? Science does not and need not deal with magical thinking, aside from making sure we are not using it. We are obliged to be critical thinkers and to deal with hypotheses that are falsifiable. I don’t mind you campaigning against religion on the basis of real evidence of the harm it has done–of course, there will also be those who will cite real evidence of harm done by scientists and science. In both cases, the faults of some should not be generalized to all. Overgeneralizing and stereotyping obscures dealing with individuals and individual cases.

  22. “Science does not and need not deal with magical thinking…”

    I don’t think is that simple. The problem is that magical and scientific thinking usually collide in matters that are of great public concern.

    Suppose a religion argued that childhood vaccinations are unnecessary and that they have faith in some other “alternative” medical practice. Suppose the consequence of their behavior is the return of many diseases we have already eradicated. Would you say scientists should have nothing to say on this matter?

    Or suppose the parents of a child with cancer insist he should be treated with homeopathy despite the fact that it is known to be a type of cancer that responds very well to chemotherapy. Do you think his physician would have nothing to say about the matter? What about if instead of homeopathy is their belief in God?

  23. Of course, Dario, you are correct that when magical thinking is used as a basis for public policy or decisions regarding individuals, it is the duty of those who know better to oppose the use of magical thinking. We, as citizens or scientists, should insist on evidence-based public policy. This is true in the case of considering what can be humanely learned from chimpanzees.

  24. C,

    Your view, as I understand it, is that if a decision leads to improved welfare then it was justified and ethical. Otherwise, it is not. Justification and decision-making go hand in hand with each other. If Sabin had failed to produced a vaccine you would declare him a monster of the highest caliber who killed thousands of monkeys, but given the he rid the world of polio he turns out to be a medical hero.

    “For most of us the stakes are fairly low as we don’t take it upon ourselves to kill or harm other beings as a way of life…”

    From where I stand those activists that oppose medical research using animals are taking upon themselves to hurt other humans. Suppose that upon learning of Sabin’s experiments you successfully opposed the development of the polio vaccine. You might have argued, for example, that it was not clear the work was necessary. The consequence would have been the death of millions of human beings. Could we hold you responsible for such an immoral act?

    “And yet we enable, cultivate, and foster moral recklessness in research scientists.”


    “… gather relevant evidence without harming animals until we get to a point where the evidence makes considering harming animals a reasonable risk.”

    I agree, but in many instances the necessity is evident. For example, would you explain to me how you would study how a cell works without being able to have access to it?