Tag Archives: morality

Animal Testing. Is it really a polarised debate?

I was recently contacted by a student who had an assignment to report both sides of a contentious issue, and she’d chosen animal research.

To her, there were two sides to the debate – a simple yes or no to research. Yet, as I explained to her, it is not a genuinely two-sided argument.

To understand why, we need to look at the basis of the hardline anti-vivisection viewpoint that no animal should be used in an experiment. This is the position taken by most animal rights groups around the world, from PETA and the National Antivivisection Society, to Cruelty Free International and Animal Aid. The polar opposite of this viewpoint is that animals should always be used in experiments, yet this is never what has been argued by those in favour of experiments in the UK.

Are debates like this really between polar opposites?

Are debates like this really between polar opposites?

To understand the history of the issue, animal research really kicked off in the mid to late 1800s. In 1875, there was a Royal Commission which examined the necessity of using animals, at which scientists including one Charles Darwin gave evidence.

In 1876, on the basis of the Royal Commission, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876, which demanded that all researchers using animals, as well as each experiment, must be licensed.. There were relatively few experiments even proposed at the time, so the President of the Royal Society was asked to justify the scientific validity of each one. Special protections were afforded to dogs, cats, primates and horses which ensured that they could not be used if another species would suffice.

As time has gone on, the law around animal research has been tightened and finessed. In 1986, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act made it explicit that animals could not be used if there was an alternative method and in 1998 it became illegal to test cosmetics or their ingredients.

Still, however, the principal of only allowing research conditionally remained at the heart of UK animal research. In order to conduct an animal experiment, researchers need a series of licenses from the Home Office. The experiment has to pass two tiers of ethical review and prove why there is no alternative to using an animal.

If we were to transpose this ethical review system for experimentsto using animals for food we would say ‘it can be ethical for a person to eat a chicken if, for instance, they are malnourished’. Each person who was hungry would have to apply to eat the chicken, explaining also why they couldn’t eat anything else, and their application would be considered by an ethics committee before being rubber-stamped by the Home Secretary.

The key thing here is that this system is different from saying ‘it is always acceptable to use an animal’, which is the polar opposite viewpoint of ‘it is never acceptable to use an animal’.

The ethical difficulty of saying that it is never acceptable to use an animal is that it underplays the value of human and animal medicines which have derived from animal experiments. Indeed, some campaigners wilfully attempt to rewrite medical history to remove the role of animals from key discoveries, but how could you remove dogs from the discovery of insulin? How do you make a drug based on a mouse hormone without a mouse?

Individuals can be against all animal experiments if they want, but they have to acknowledge the harms associated with their worldview. It is similar to anti-vaxxers: it’s your lookout if you don’t want to vaccinate your child, but let’s be clear that you are placing them and others at risk.

Researchers are motivated to act because the victims of disease are not hypothetical. They are the children on the wards of Great Ormond Street hospital, they are people dying in sub-Saharan Africa, they are wild animals, they are your pets, they are your family. The suffering is already happening. Standing idly by and watching them suffer is not a kindness, it’s a negligence.

There are other important subtleties which are lost with a simplistic yes/no approach to animal research. For instance, what do we mean when we say ‘research’? Are we talking about brain surgery, or a blood sample? We know, for example, that some 27% of experiments are below the threshold for suffering; so have suffered less than if they’d received an injection. The degree of suffering is essential to judging the value of an experiment as the costs relative to the benefits are essential to determining value. If I’m offered a ‘procedure’ by a doctor, I’m going to need to know if we’re talking about a blood test or an amputation before deciding whether to go ahead with it.

I think it was worth using animals to develop the badger TB vaccine and the vaccines I give my cat. I think it is worth using a mouse to make a breast cancer drug, because I think the tens of thousands of women who are diagnosed with the condition every year are capable of suffering in ways the mouse cannot. For example, they may be consumed by worry for their children, whereas mice are liable to consume their children. The woman and the mouse are not morally equal except by the most superficial of measures.

However, I want to know that each experiment has gone through rigorous ethical review. I want to know that it is worthwhile. If it is not, I, somebody who is notionally ‘for’ animal research, would agree with those opposed to it. This can only means one thing – the definition of ‘against’ animal research is correct, but the definition of someone ‘for’ it is lacking. Those who identify as being against animal research are generally against all animal experiments. Those who identify as supporting animal experiments are generally only supportive given strict conditions (based on regulation, purpose etc).

I also want to see alternatives to animals testing and research continue to be developed. Animals may well be the best model we have for many bits of research, but I want better. So should you. These would have the potential to be cheaper, and even more reliable.

It’s true that there’s little dialogue between the biomedical community and the now established anti-research lobby and this isn’t surprising since they are effectively having different conversations. The biomedical community is figuring out how to improve animal welfare and is engaged in an ongoing harm/benefit debate. The demands of those opposed to animal research are effectively too uncompromising, too unreasonable, too damaging to the public good to be accommodated.

Their policy asks are all about banning research, which merely sends it abroad (often to places with lower regulatory standards), rather than doubling down on developing alternatives to animal studies which will be the only realistic way to reduce the overall number of animals used in research.

So are pro-research and anti-vivisection viewpoints, polar opposites?

Animal Rights perspectivesNo. The research community is supportive of measures to improve animal welfare while recognising the importance of balancing it with the needs of those suffering from disease worldwide.

Indeed agreement between researchers and the animal rights movement can be found through investment and development of alternative technologies, while accepting that some animals will continue to be needed in the foreseeable future. If only we could focus on that, instead of engaging in a public bun fight between two sectors which aren’t even having the same conversation.


Empathy and Altruism in Rats?

A recent paper in Science discussed behavioral data in rats suggestive of empathically motivated behavior. This is a potentially very important report for two major reasons. First, a deep understanding of the mental and psychological abilities of rats, and other species, is a crucial goal for comparative psychologists, evolutionary biologists and other basic scientists. Second, the autism spectrum disorders are characterized by atypical reciprocal social interactions, and difficulty with experiencing and understanding the emotions of others appear to contribute; therefore, an animal model system in which we can learn how the brain responds to and processes the emotions of others is crucial to progress in this area. For these reasons, the experiments address a very significant question.

The experiment consisted of having a rat placed in an arena (the free rat) who is able to see and interact  with a companion that is trapped in a cylindrical restrainer with a door (the trapped rat).  It was found that the free rat learned over time to free the trapped rat by intentionally opening the door.  In control experiments, rats did not open empty tubes or ones containing an inanimate object.  When given a choice between getting access to chocolate and freeing the trapped rat, they would often free the rat even before eating the chocolate, suggesting that the motivation to liberate its companion trumped even its desire for the chocolate, a potential sign of altruism.

The authors concluded that “the free rat was not simply empathically sensitive to another rat’s distress but acted intentionally to liberate a trapped conspecific.”

The media reported on the finding by declaring science has shown altruistic behavior in rats.  Some media titles include “Rats: Holiday spirit in rodent form”, “If someone calls you a rat, take it as a compliment”, “Rats kind-hearted, generous creatures”, “Rats show Empathy and Altruistic Behavior”, “Rats are as compassionate as humans” and so on.

It appears that both the press, and perhaps even the authors, interpret the findings as implying the following:

  1. The free rat has a mental state that represents the well-being of a conspecific.
  2. This representation generates a distressful response in the free rat.
  3. The free rat learns it can act in a way to relieve the distress of the caged rat by opening the door of the cage.
  4. The rat intentionally acts to relieve the caged rat from distress even when there it has nothing to gain from the action.

Dr. Daniel Povinelli, in a Nature coverage of the paper, had a different view, saying that “This work is not evidence of empathy — defined as the ability to mentally put oneself into another being’s emotional shoes.”

Though the view that rats exhibit empathic behavior may be consistent with the data, we must ask if there could be alternative, simpler explanations that do not necessarily involve invoking assumptions 1-4, above.

One possibility is that the trapped animal is generating an alarm signal, either in the form of vocalizations or pheromones, that generates stress in the free rat.  The free rat may then learn it can stop the distressing signal by opening the door (so-called negative reinforcement).  In acting in such a way, the free rat would then be relieving its own distress rather than the perceived and shared stress of a conspecific.

Is this possible?

The authors did not measure chemical signals but did measure vocalizations during their experiments and found that “significantly more alarm calls were recorded during the trapped condition (13%) than during the empty and object conditions.”

So this alternative scenario is, in principle, a possibility.  The authors dismissed this alternative explanation because the rate of alarm calls was relatively low and yet they remained open to the possibility when they concluded:

Thus, the most parsimonious interpretation of the observed helping behavior is that rats free their cage-mate in order to end distress, either their own or that of the trapped rat […] This emotional motivation, arguably the rodent homolog of empathy, appears to drive the pro-social behavior observed in the present study.

This is a bit confusing and requires clarification.

There are at least two different interpretations of the data.  Not one.

Either the rat is freeing the companion to end its own stress (caused by an alarm signal) or it is doing it to end the perceived stress of the caged rat.   The interpretation of a pro-social, empathically motivated, altruistic behavior is only applicable to the second interpretation and not the first one.

To differentiate among these possibilities one can conduct some additional control experiments.  One could, for example, just play alarm calls that are stopped once a rat presses a lever once placed in the arena.  Or we could use chemical signaling if we learn the behavior is mediated by pheromones and identify the pheromone in question. One could have offered the free rat the option to leave the arena to a dark, quiet place, potentially ending its own distress and leaving the companion trapped.  Or the free rat could be offered the possibility of a “personal sacrifice” (such as a mild shock) to free the other rat, thus paying a price to help his companion.  These are all doable experiments that would help tease apart the different interpretations of these data.

Another potential explanation of the data is raised by video records of these experiments provided as part of the Science article shown below.

In this example, taken after the rat has learned to free its counterpart, we see the free rat going right into the restraint immediately after opening the door.  Why would the rat enter the tube if it truly felt and understood the distress the other rat experienced by being confined?

If one has ever seen rats at the pet store, you know that you will often find them snuggled up together in tubes and tight spaces because they apparently enjoy the safety and security of these types of experiences. This view was raised in an online discussion of the data:

Rats enjoy access to tight enclosures.  We routinely put plastic tubes in home cages for “environmental enrichment” and the rats are often found “snuggled” together in them, especially when resting – presumably an inherent protective response.  In fact, if you try to grab a rat in a cage with a tube, the rat will immediately go for the tube and try to stay in it.  Thus the “trapped” rat could also be seen by the “free” rat as enjoying a protected situation, and the free rat could in fact be displaying “envy” by freeing his companion so that he can enjoy the same protection and/or being motivated for social reasons to have a companion to “snuggle” with.  Indeed, the first thing the free rat did in the video after opening the enclosure was to go right into the tube with the other rat! 

So the basic question is, does the free rat want to get in, believing that his cagemate enjoys the privilege of a protected space, or does he fear for his cagemate and want to release him?   

Again, only additional experiments can address this. Resolution of these alternative views is crucial in terms of both of the prevailing motivations for conducting the study. Either rats are acting to relieve their own distress, or that of another – the difference bears strongly on our understanding of their mental abilities. In addition, if the former, but not latter, phenomena is correct, the value of studying the biology of empathy using rats is significantly challenged.

Still, we are left with a provocative phenomena —  rats freeing one another, invoking similarities with human behavior. There are plenty of other examples in nature where individuals of a species cooperate and interact in ways that could be described in terms of our own (human) mental states as altruistic or empathic behavior.  The examples range from bonobos, to bats, to even single-cell organisms, such as social amoeba (see here and here.)  The behavior is essentially the same across all these species and yet one would be hard pressed to argue that single-cell organisms have a notion of altruism and empathy in the same sense humans do.

Our brains (including those of scientists) are wired in such a way that they readily interpret the behavior of others in terms of our own mental states.  Such ability is useful in many situations, form navigating daily social interactions and even in the description of scientific data.  Care must be exercise in descriptions based on our own mental states when the outcome can have clear moral and scientific consequences.

Scientists must always keep an open mind.  But before rushing to declare that humans must seek moral guidance from rats, we should pause and try to understand exactly what the data say.  As new experiments are done and more information is available, we will surely be able to discern which of the alternative explanations is the correct one. If additional work confirms the (premature) conclusions of the authors, it will lay the ground work for developing new animal models for human psychological disorders, which will be a welcome development. For now, however, we must await that conclusive work.

J. David Jentsch and Dario Ringach