Tag Archives: Ethics

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

harlow plaque jpeg (2)

The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over 30 years ago. Harlow’s iconic studies of mother and infant monkeys have endured for decades as the centerpiece of philosophical debate and animal rights campaigns.  With news of his death, philosophers worried that they would now need to turn their attention to new questions, learn about current research, and address persistent, urgent needs in public consideration of scientific research and medical progress. Scientists and advocates for a more serious contemporary public dialogue were relieved and immediately offered their assistance to help others get up to speed on current research.

To close the chapter, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin provided the following 40 year retrospective on Harlow’s work and its long-term impact (see below).

Internet reaction to the scientists’ offering was swift, fierce, and predictable.

“We will never allow Harlow to die,” said one leading philosopher, “The fact is that Harlow did studies that are controversial and we intend to continue making that fact known until science grinds to a halt and scientists admit that we should be in charge of all the laboratories and decisions about experiments. It is clear to us that we need far more talk and far less action. Research is complicated and unpredictable–all that messiness just needs to get cleaned up before research should be undertaken.”

Animal rights activists agreed, saying:

“For many decades Harlow and his monkeys have been our go-to graphics for protest signs, internet sites, and articles. It would simply be outrageously expensive and really hard to replace those now. Furthermore, Harlow’s name recognition and iconic monkey pictures are invaluable, irreplaceable, and stand by themselves. It would be a crime to confuse the picture with propaganda and gobbledygook from extremist eggheads who delusionally believe that science and animal research has changed anything.”

Others decried what they viewed as inappropriate humorous responses to the belated shock at Harlow’s passing.

“It is clear to us that scientists are truly diabolical bastards who think torturing animals is funny. Scientists shouldn’t be allowed to joke. What’s next? Telling people who suffer from disease that they should just exercise and quit eating cheeseburgers?” said a representative from a group fighting for legislation to outlaw food choice and ban healthcare for non-vegans and those with genetic predispositions for various diseases.

A journalist reporting on the controversial discovery of Harlow’s death was overheard grumbling, “But what will new generations of reporters write about? Anyway, the new research is pretty much the same as the old research, minus all the complicated biology, chemistry, and genetic stuff, so it may as well be Harlow himself doing it.”

A fringe group of philosophers derisively called the “Ivory Tower Outcasts” for their work aimed at cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues made a terse statement via a pseudonymous social media site.

“We told you so. Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought+action (ps- trolley software needs upgrade, man at switch quit)”

Harlow himself remained silent. For the most part, his papers, groundbreaking discoveries, and long-lasting impact on understanding people and animals remained undisturbed by the new controversy.

Statement from Psychologists:

Harlow’s career spanned 40+ years and produced breakthroughs in understanding learning, memory, cognition and behavior in monkeys1 (see Figure 1). In a time period where other animals were generally thought of as dumb machines, Harlow’s work demonstrated the opposite — that monkeys, like humans, have complex cognitive abilities and emotional attachments. Harlow and his colleagues developed now classic ways to measure cognition2,3. For example, the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA; see Figure 1), in which monkeys uncover food beneath different types of colored toys and objects, allowed scientists to understand how monkeys learn new things, remember, and discriminate between different colors, shapes, quantities, and patterns.

The discoveries of Harlow and his colleagues in the 1930s and forward provided the foundation not only for changes in how people view other animals, but also for understanding how the brain works, how it develops, and –ultimately–how to better care for people and other animals.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In the last decade of his long career, Harlow, his wife Margaret– a developmental psychologist, and their colleagues, again rocked the scientific world with a discovery that fundamentally changed our biological understanding.3 Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.

For a brief time at the very end of his career, Harlow performed a small number of studies that have served as the touchstone for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others interested in whether and how animal research should be done. The most controversial of the studies are known by their colloquial name “pit of despair” and were aimed at creating an animal model of depression. In this work, fewer than 20 monkeys were placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of 6 weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.

At the time, the late 1960s, the presence of brain chemicals had recently been identified as potentially critical players in behavior and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. New understanding and treatment of the diseases was desperately needed to address the suffering of millions of people. Available treatments were crude. They included permanent institutionalization– often in abject conditions, lobotomy (removing part of the brain), malaria, insulin, or electric shock therapies. As some scientists worked to uncover the role of brain chemicals in behavior and mood, others worked to produce drugs that could alter those chemical networks to relieve their negative effects. In both cases, animal models based on similar brain chemistry and biology were needed in order to test whether new treatments were safe and effective. It was within this context that Harlow and his colleagues in psychiatry studied, in small numbers, monkeys who exhibited depressive-like behaviors.

By the 1970s and over the next decades, scientists produced medications that effectively treat diseases like schizophrenia and depression for many people. The therapies are not perfect and do not work for everyone, which is why research continues to identify additional and new treatments. Regardless, there is no question that the suffering of millions of people has been reduced, and continues to be alleviated, as a result of new medications and new understanding of the biological basis of disease.

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery.  Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Looking back while moving forward

Nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to imagine the time before MRI and neuroimaging and before the many effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other diseases. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine a time in which people believed that genes and biology were destiny, that other animals were automatons, or that mothers were only important because they provided food to their children. Casting an eye back to the treatment of monkeys, children, and vulnerable human populations in medical and scientific research 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, is difficult as well. Standards for ethical consideration, protections for human and animal participants in research, and the perspectives of scientists, philosophers, and the public have all continued to change as knowledge grows. Yet, what has not changed is an enduring tension between the public’s desire for progress in understanding the world and in reducing disease and the very fact that the science required to make that progress involves difficult choices.

There are no guarantees that a specific scientific research project will succeed in producing the discoveries it seeks. Nor is there a way to know in advance how far-ranging the effect of those discoveries may be, or how they may serve as the necessary foundation for work far distant. In the case of Harlow’s work, the discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding of how the brain, genes, and experiences affect people’s health and well-being.

Mother and infant swing final

Mother and juvenile rhesus macaque at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 30 years since Harlow’s death, new technologies and new discoveries—including brain imaging (MRI, PET), knowledge about epigenetics (how genes are turned on and off), and pharmacotherapies—have been made, refined, and put into use in contemporary science. As a result, scientists today can answer questions that Harlow could not. They continue to do so not because the world has remained unchanged, or because they lack ethics and compassion, but because they see the urgent need posed by suffering and the possibility of addressing global health problems via scientific research.

Harlow’s legacy is a complicated one, but one worth considering beyond a simple single image because it is a legacy of knowledge that illustrates exactly how science continues to move forward from understanding built in the past. An accurate view of how science works, what it has achieved, what can and cannot be done, are all at the heart of a serious consideration of the consequences of choices about what scientific research should be done and how. Harlow and his studies may well be a touchstone to start and continue that dialogue. But it should then be one that also includes the full range of the work, its context and complexity, rather than just the easy cartoon evoked to draw the crowd and then loom with no new words.

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

The author is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The views and ideas expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

Suomi SJ & Leroy, HA (1982) In Memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905-1982). American Journal of Primatology 2:319-342. (Note: contains a complete bibliography of Harlow’s published work.)

2Harlow HF & Bromer J (1938). A test-apparatus for monkeys. Psychological Record 2:434-436.

3Harlow HF (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review 56:51-65

4Harlow HF (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.

Stop Harassing Scientists!

Harassment is the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, but in the case of animal extremists it consists of personal malice, their attempt to force scientists engaged in legal, regulated research to quit their job, and to merely gain sadistic pleasure from making others feel fearful of or anxious.  That pretty much encapsulates the legal definition of harassment.

Anyone familiar with the tactic of animal rights groups, documented in videos, pictures, their own “demo wrap up” reports, and anonymous communiqués of criminal acts, can recognize that the goal of their “home visits” has no other purpose but to intimidate and threaten others to comply with their views.  (You can learn more here, here, here, here, here and here, just to mention a handful of incidents.)  

The truth is that there is no public to be reached at a scientist’s front door, there is no public to “educate” about their views — which is what they claim to be doing.  Neighbors and their families who do not want to listen to their shrieks, screams and insults have nowhere to take refuge, but must see their peace and privacy disturbed as well.  Everyone is entitled to express their views on the use of animals in research, but they are not entitled to mount campaigns of harassment, which celebrate blatant criminal acts such as fire-bombings, against individuals they simply disagree with.

One of the reasons scientists  work with animals to advance medical research is because they were so charged by our society.  The mission of the National Institutes of Health is “[…] to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”

Those who disagree with this societal goal (for example, because they hold that disease is merely the result of personal life choices, because they believe animals ought to have the same basic rights to humans, or because they believe the same work can be achieved without the use of animals) are free and welcome to make their points to the public, to lobby their representatives, to form their own political parties, to make their voice heard at the ballot box, and to advocate for a change in the law as they see fit.  We will certainly offer our viewpoint in return, but we do not oppose animal activists airing their views in public.  In the end, it is for society as a whole to decide if we consider the work ethically permissible and worth of scientific pursuit.

Harassment, threats, coercion  and emotional blackmail, on the other hand, will no longer be tolerated.

Stop it!

Now!

Please join us in a counter-demonstration.

When: February 15, 10:15am sharp!
Where: Franz Hall Lobby @ UCLA (near Hilgard and Westholme)  http://maps.ucla.edu/campus/

Other relevant articles:

http://speakingofresearch.com/2014/02/03/join-pro-test-for-science-to-end-the-age-of-terror/

http://speakingofresearch.com/2014/01/31/reflections-of-an-animal-rights-arsonist/

http://unlikelyactivist.com/2014/02/04/why-give-your-time-to-stand-up-for-science/

http://unlikelyactivist.com/2014/02/04/insecure-bullies-never-like-resistance/

What if animals could tweet?

Georgianne Nienaber, a political and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, posted an article entitled “What if Lab Animals Could Tweet?”
The  article was prompted by a recent Gallup poll showing an increase disparity in the moral acceptability of “medical testing on animals”.  Younger people, in the 18-34 years bracket, showed a decline of about 19% from 2001 to 2013.  For those 55 and older, support went from 63% to 61%.  A two percent decline that may not be statistically significant.

The data for the younger population should be of some concern to those that support the regulated and responsible use of animals in medical research. A number of animal rights organizations spend enormous effort and time targeting K-12 children and college students with their message.  Perhaps, the Gallup poll reflects the fruits of their work.

It seems evident that as these young adults grow up and confront illnesses they begin to appreciate modern medicine and see the moral dilemma of medical research in a different light.  Otherwise, the data should have shown a parallel decline for all age groups, as seen on the same Gallup poll on the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations.   This is not what the data show in the case of animal research.

Nevertheless, scientists and the medical research leadership should take note of these trends and realize that we all need to spend more time counteracting the message of animal rights groups directed at K-12 and college level students.

What is truly irritating about this article is that a legitimate journalist appears to engage in  the same kind of misinformation campaign as animal rights organizations.

She writes:

Non-human primates are about to venture into the realm inhabited by philosophers, and SAEN’s presser made me queasy just thinking about animals’ abilities to literally read minds when they are housed in deplorable conditions in the nation’s laboratories.

This sentence is immediately followed by the image below, attributed to Michael Budkie of SAEN.

Image

In the context in which it appears, Ms. Nienaber implies in her article that such deplorable conditions are the ones to be found in US Labs today.  This is most curious, as it takes only a few minutes to find out that the image does not belong to SAEN nor was it taken in a laboratory in the U.S.  Instead, it seems the image first appeared in a DailyMail article back in 2006 describing experiments in Zhongshan University, China. The original article does not stipulate when the image was taken.

When challenged in the comments section of her article regarding the origin of the image Ms. Nienaber deflects the conversation and points instead to a similar study carried out in the US.  The study, however,  offers in its Fig 1 the image of a juvenile monkey wearing goggles — one is relaxed and playing with a toy.  Obviously, not good enough for the purpose of her article.

Ms Nienaber goes on to write:

I am hoping trolls in favor of scientific research do not jump on this post as an opportunity to vent their positions on animal research. Instead, let’s engage in some critical thinking.

Really?  So much for an invitation to public debate from a critical thinker and investigative journalist!

Perhaps Ms Nienaber could exercise her critical thinking by finding out where the medicines in her cabinet came from.  Perhaps, she should ask her pediatrician how the vaccines she gives her children were developed. Perhaps she could have taken the time to understand what the studies of amblyopia are trying to find out (Hint: here)?  Or perhaps she could have taken some time to find out how Mr. Budkie operates and check more carefully the sources of the materials she receives from animal rights organizations.

Sadly, Ms Nienaber critical thinking took her instead to ponder on a different question.

What if Lab animals could tweet?  — she asks.

Yes, what if?

If they could reason as and talk humans, if they could follow our moral principles, perhaps, as in Kafka’s “A report for an Academy,” they would no longer consider themselves non-human animals…  they would be part of the human community and tweet: “Ms. Nienaber — please, next time do your research.”

PeTA tries to save face… and fails.

During the past month the University of Wisconsin responded to an aggressive media campaign by PeTA suggesting photos of animal studies they obtained are “proof” of violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

PeTA filed complaints with the USDA and the National Institutes of Health demanding an investigation.  The university responded point-by-point to PeTA complaint stating that none of them were substantiated.

The USDA took PeTA’s complaint seriously, conducted a focused inspection of the study in question, and found the claims by PeTA to be groundless.  As reported by the Capitol Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Badger Herald, the USDA found no wrongdoing, no violations of the law.  Not one.

How did PeTA respond to the outcome?

Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, Laboratory Investigations, went to Jane Velez-Mitchell (a PeTA supporter) and told her that “we report them [the alleged violations] to the federal authorities, to the USDA and the National Institutes of Health.” But, she added, “We [PeTA] don’t expect much about those agencies.”

What does Guillermo mean that they do not “expect much” when they file their claims with the authorities?

The USDA did take the claims seriously and took action as they requested.  They investigated the UW and found PeTA’s allegations to be untrue.  What Kathy Guillermo probably means is that when they file a claim PeTA does not expect that the findings will support their allegations. This would make perfect sense, as they probably know beforehand the allegations to be groundless. What PeTA truly expects from their claims is that their propaganda be picked up by the media before they are caught in their game and, unfortunately, they are rather successful in doing just that.

Sadly, it happened again.  In response to the USDA inspection PeTA found a former UW veterinarian that supposedly wrote a letter in support of PeTA’s claims which is being covered by the media.  But what did this veterinarian say exactly?

[...] Brown said the clear inspection report, which cited “no noncompliant items,” is not the fault of the USDA, or the veterinarian staff, but rather the fault of the administration.

According to Brown, who said he is familiar with the specific inspector who evaluated UW’s research facilities and is confident in her work, it is not in the nature of a USDA inspection to point out what is ethically “wrong,” but rather to cite noncompliance.

Hold on.  What is Brown saying?!  He is saying the inspector is known to him, that he has confidence in her work and, by inference, in the result of her inspections.  What is the problem then?  The problem is that in Brown’s eyes the work is unethical.  In other words, he acknowledges the work is legal, regulated, and that no violations of the law took place but, nevertheless, the work is unethical and he wanted the UW administration to take action.

His statement is hardly in support of PeTA’s claims.  To the contrary, it validates the position of the UW and puts confidence in the work by the USDA inspector.  You see, PeTA’s claimed a violation of the Animal Welfare Act — not that the work is unethical.

If PeTA believes the responsible and regulated use of animals to advance medical knowledge and human health is unethical, then they should try to convince the public and our legislators of such view. Instead, their preference to mislead the public and misrepresent the work of scientists are signs they simply cannot make a compelling case to the public.

Consciousness and Moral Status

A group of scientists recently gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference and issued the following declaration which as been widely covered in the media:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Their good intentions duly noted, this is not a declaration of a scientific fact.

The truth is that we have no idea what a “conscious state” is.  We do not know what neural substrates “generate consciousness”.  We do not know how to recognize what is “intentional behavior” and what is not.  We do not know if consciousness if a property that arises only in biological systems. Nor do we know if consciousness is a binary or graded property. These are all open questions. Any assertion that non-human animals are capable of exhibiting “conscious states” as those experienced by humans is at best a working hypothesis based on vague concepts that need to be clarified.

Note that if we truly had the scientific knowledge and understanding to back up the declaration we should be able to answer the following simple questions.  Is a fly’s escape behavior to a swat intentional or a mere reflex?  What about single-cell organisms that follow up gradients of nutrients?  Are they conscious?  Is their movement towards the food intentional?  The authors must surely have a way to answer these questions to have decided to include the octopus in their list of conscious animals, while leaving the salmon out.  But they do not really have an answer.  If we had one we could also offer a resolution to one of the biggest problems in philosophy — the problem of other minds.  PZ Myers already offered a similar criticism of the declaration and I hope other scientists will jump into this debate as well.

Of course, there are animal activists that had already reached the conclusion that animals are conscious simply by staring into their eyes, they mockingly applaud the new recognition by this group of scientists, and move on to suggest the following:

Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals [...] Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.

Is this so?  Can the declaration, assuming it is scientifically valid, be used to argue in such a way?  This may be possible if and only if one accepts the following assumptions.  First, that the declaration means that consciousness is a binary property — either you have it or not.  Thus if animals are conscious they are conscious to the same degree as a normal human (thereby denying the possibility graded levels of consciousness). Second, that consciousness is the only morally relevant property that determines the moral status of a living being.  If one accepts these two assumptions the moral status of human and non-human animals ought to be the same. But both assumptions are wrong.  Not even the scientists involved in the declaration would agree with the first assumption.  People do not think we owe the same moral consideration to the serial killer and to the Dalai Lama, although both are equally conscious. Similarly, we reject the notion that the moral status of a patient in a minimally conscious state is the same as that of a worm. Thus, consciousness alone is insufficient to establish the moral status of living beings.

Opponents of animal research continue to insinuate that the only reason for scientists to experiment on animals is because it supports our livelihood.  No, this is not the real reason. The reason for this work is that humans have ability to reduce and eliminate suffering from the world by means of their scientific work.  Due to current limitations in technology, in some cases, medical research cannot move forward without access to living organisms at the level of single cells and even molecules. Scientists acknowledge that we owe moral consideration to other living beings, but not to the same degree as human life.  We do confront this moral dilemma by carrying out the work while minimizing the number, pain and suffering of animals subjects.  Opponents of animal research, on the other hand, readily ask us to stop the work, but fail to provide a moral justification.

Pop Quiz!

Take out a piece of paper and a sharpened #2 pencil.

Please read carefully the following story and answer all the questions.

You have 15 min.

One Saturday morning Dr. X was walking her dog thinking about some recent results in her field when it dawned on her that she might actually have the key to explaining all those findings.  If she was correct, she could go on to develop a new therapy for a terrible disease.

Being a scientist, Dr. X rapidly turned that idea into a specific hypothesis with testable predictions.  She ran back to her laboratory, gathered her students, told them the idea, and got to work.  They were excited when their first test (T1) yielded a positive result.  This simply meant that the implications of her hypothesis were corroborated by the experiment.  Good job everyone!

The next day her students were up all night running the second test (T2).  Dr. X arrived at the laboratory after dropping her kids in school to find very tired students, but with big smiles on their faces.  The second test, she correctly guessed, gave them another positive result.  Hurrah!

That night, at the dinner table, she shared the excitement with her family. Even the dog appeared to notice something important was going on. Next morning, one of her postdoctoral students came up with, what appeared to be, a direct test of the central idea.  It was agreed at the Lab meeting that this would be the next experiment (T3).

It was a difficult experiment.  Dr. X’s husband agreed to pick up the kids instead and let her finish her work.  Close to midnight the results came in.  Everyone in the lab ran to see the results.   They stared at each other in disappointment.  The result was clearly negative — what this meant is that the outcome contradicted a key prediction of the hypothesis.

Dr. X’s Lab had a difficult month.  They went over the data over and over again — nothing was obviously wrong; but they decided not to give up.  Instead, they brainstormed about how they could come up with a new hypothesis that may explain the data they had collected so far.  And yes, Dr. X explained, this must include a reason for the outcome of the negative experiment as well.

One night, Dr. X was awoken by the sound of the phone. She was startled, it was unusual that anyone would call at 3 am to her home. Understandably, Dr. X answered the phone with some apprehension.  She was relieved to hear one of her students, which after calming himself down and apologizing for the time, described to her a new idea that, he said, came to him out of nowhere in the middle of his sleep.  She grumbles, but listened…  her sleepy eyes slowly widening as the student went on.  When he was done Dr. X immediately knew that there was no doubt her student could explain the diverse findings.

Everyone gathered in the laboratory next morning and started to test again based on the new concept over the week.  T4… positive!  T5….positive!  T6… negative…  Negative?!  Oh no…  Again?!

Yes, again.  But Dr. X gathered her students and explain to them that this is how science works.  New ideas emerge from old ones in an effort to account for all the data their community gathered so far.  And that negative findings were important for science too. They all felt a bit better as they went home… just a little bit.  But more than Dr. X’s words, it was a group feeling that they were getting closer to the truth.

It took her Lab a few more iterations of this difficult game called science, but one day they knew they had nailed it.  They had a new idea that not only explained all past results but stood many additional tests, including replications by her colleagues.  Their work delivered a medical breakthrough that allowed them to develop a new medical treatment that saved uncountable human lives.

Questions:

Assume that in this story, from beginning to end, including her experiments those of her colleagues, scientists performed 20 experimental tests that yielded positive results, 15 experimental tests that yielded negative results, and that each test required the use of exactly one mouse.

Q1. How many mice were scientifically necessary to develop this medical breakthrough?

Q2. Which experimental tests were more important in developing this breakthrough?  The tests yielding positive results or the ones yielding negative results?  Explain.

Q3. Given the end result was that uncountable human lives are being saved.  Which test was morally justifiable and which was not?  Were positive tests in any way more justifiable than negative ones?  Were experiments used in replicating Dr. X’s findings necessary and justified?  Or is it only the final experiment directly preceding the development of the new therapy that was justified?

Q4. Five years after her discovery, and with the new knowledge acquired, one of Dr. X’s colleagues comments that it was obvious some of the ideas she had tried could not have worked.  With 20/20 vision, Dr. X agrees.  Does her admission mean the experiments testing those ideas were scientifically unnecessary or ethically indefensible?

Submit your answers in the comments section below!

Gorgons Visit Earth

There is a classical argument against animal research that surfaced in a recent conversation with Robert C. Jones. It is a thought experiment that can be traced back to science fiction work in the 50s, although its exact origin is unknown.

The story involves the landing of an aliens on Earth.  Robert calls them “The Gorgons.”

The Gorgons are an extremely advanced civilization only a few light years away from Earth. It is nearly impossible for humans to grasp the vast cognitive gap that separates our species.  Suffice it to say, our most magnificent cities are to them as ant mounds are to us.  Our artistic masterpieces are to their sophisticated senses as dull and mundane as a blank wall is to our eyes. They consider our greatest achievements in mathematics and physics nothing more than child’s play.

The Gorgons also have a deep scientific interest in learning about the nature of the Universe.  It is not surprising that, upon landing on Earth, they debate the use of humans in harmful invasive experiments as a means to learn more about aspects of galactic biology.

Would such experiments be ethically permissible?

What would a Gorgon think?

In order to answer the question we need more information than a statement about the Gorgons’ intellectual superiority.

Namely —  Do the Gorgons have a moral society?

Perhaps not.

Perhaps the Gorgons are like the Borg in the Star Trek series — a race of cybernetic organisms designed to adapt and efficiently assimilate any other civilization they encounter, but considerate enough to warn their victims that “resistance is futile”.

animal research

An amoral, technologically advanced civilization (the Borg) attempts to assimilate humans.

The Borg is capable of acquiring the technological knowledge of other civilizations, but incapable of absorbing any of their moral principles.  There is no doubt the Borg is highly intelligent and technologically advanced.  There is also no doubt that the Borg is amoral.

The Borg sees the assimilation of a civilization as neither right nor wrong — assimilation is simply what the Borg does.  It is its nature.  The same is true for a lion killing a gazelle.  The lion has no concept of his killing being right or wrong — that’s just what lions do.

If the Gorgons are an intellectually advanced but amoral civilization (like the Borg), then the question “What would a Gorgon think about harmful human experimentation?” is meaningless.  Gorgons are simply unable to pose themselves such question and we cannot answer for them.  What is certain is that if we were to run into amoral Gorgons the result would be the same as if we were to run into the Borg… or a hungry lion for that matter.

Of course there is another possibility.  The Gorgons may happen to be a race with moral principles.  In this case, one may argue the inferior intellectual capacities of our species would not be as important to them as the fact that we are share basic moral principles, such as the golden rule.

Basic rules of reciprocity among moral agents are expected to be shared among intelligent, rational life in the universe.  If the Gorgons are a moral society, we would expect they will recognize us as one too and treat accordingly under the self-evident (and now expanded) principle that:

 “All moral agents in our universe are created equal…”

This is a natural outcome in many fictional encounters with other worlds we read about in the science fiction literature, where different versions of a “prime directive” are at work — a binding principle of non-interference by humans with other less developed cultures and civilizations.

If mere humans can concoct such a prime directive, it is difficult to see how the more advanced, intelligent, rational and moral Gorgons would fail to reach the same conclusion.  No; a moral Gorgon civilization would not experiment on a moral human species.

But lets consider for completeness the remote possibility that the Gorgons will actually be a malevolent species and attack Earth in what develops to be an Independence Day scenario.

Here, Bernard Williams, wrote there is only one question left to ask.

Which side are you on?

He continued:

[...] hopes for self-improvement can lie dangerously close to the risk of self-hatred.  When the hope is to improve humanity to the point at which every aspect of its hold on the world can be justified before a higher court, the result is likely to be either self-deception, if you think you have succeed, or self-hatred and self-contempt when you recognize that you will always fail.  The self-hatred, in this case, is a hatred of humanity.  Personally I think that there are many things to loathe about human beings, but their sense of their ethical identity as a species is not one of them.”

*I thank Robert C. Jones for pointing out the science fiction story “To Serve Man” and the work of Bernard Williams and Hugh LaFollette on this topic.