Category Archives: Philosophy

Understanding the animal, not just its parts

A recent article in the Atlantic, “How Brain Scientists Forgot That Brains Have Owners” is making headlines. The journalist claims that in an article published in early February, titled “Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting Reductionist Bias”, fancy new technologies have led the field of neuroscience astray. The original scientific publication does draw attention to an area of neuroscience that neglects behavior, and outlines the importance of measuring behavior and the brain. However, behavior is not necessary in all areas of neuroscience, and adding behavior to some neuroscience studies could be problematic. Furthermore, the overall goal of the scientific publication was only to suggest that the field of neuroscience is lacking in scientists interested in studying the whole brain rather than the just studying the sum of its parts.

The field of neuroscience is diverse. Take for example the 9 themes at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in 2016:

  1. Development
  2. Neural Excitability, Synapses, and Glia [Neurophysiology]
  3. Neurodegenerative Disorders and Injury
  4. Sensory Systems
  5. Motor Systems
  6. Integrative Physiology and Behavior
  7. Motivation and Emotion
  8. Cognition
  9. Techniques [Technologies]

Glancing over these themes it is apparent that many scientists specialize in different types of neuroscience. Thus, some neuroscientists may study behavior and some may not need to study behavior. For example, neuroscientists investigating questions about technologies or neurophysiology may not need to study behavior at all — it depends on the question. Those only interested in the integration of physiology and behavior would study both the brain and behavior. And those studying cognition or motor systems might conduct experiments on behavior without directly measuring the brain. Whether neuroscientists study brain and/or behavior depends on the research questions they are asking.

Although both publications neglected to discuss the diversity of neuroscience, the main theme of the scientific publication was to change the way scientists interested in the integration of physiology and behavior approach their research questions. Too many neuroscientists focus on using as many new technologies as possible, and then use behavior as an afterthought. The issue here is that some of these new technologies are not yet well understood. Thus, scientists’ research questions using these technologies could be misguided.

Furthermore, behavior is a separate area of research on its own and should never be treated as an afterthought. Thus, the authors suggest that neuroscience needs more interdisciplinary scientists who understand and study the relationships between brain and behavior. It needs scientists that can merge all areas of the field.

All neuroscientists however, no matter their specific question, will help advance the field in different ways. And all neuroscientists do not need to study behavior. However, Interdisciplinary scientists in particular may set the stage for understanding the whole animal and how the brain operates within it. Furthermore, these scientists may help increase the translation of research from animal to human.

The problem of neuroscience without interdisciplinary scientists

A possible issue with scientists only studying one part of the animal (i.e. the brain) is that they neglect the rest of the animal. The authors suggest many neuroscientists only interested in the brain use a top-down approach (brain-behavior) to infer how behavior operates — and this is problematic. A recent experiment on understanding a simple computer demonstrates the potential flaws in a top-down approach. Briefly, computer scientists tested whether the processes of three classic videogames could be inferred by only studying the microprocessor that operated the videogames. In contrast to the brain, the scientists already understood how this computer system operates. After much investigation of the hardware of the microprocessor and how it functions, it remained unclear how the processes in the videogames operated. Thus, by using a top-down approach to understand behavior we will not be able to understand the brain

The bigger problem with measuring the brain and inferring behavior without studying behavior is that you are only studying one part of the animal. Consider the blind men and the elephant:


Quite simply, if I am blind-folded and given an elephant’s ear then I may think it is a fan. For me to understand and determine that I am holding an elephant’s ear, I would need to investigate the whole elephant — beyond a small part and beyond all parts individually. Interdisciplinary scientists study the “whole elephant.”

However, only studying the ear of an elephant isn’t completely problematic. I can measure what it is composed of, stick electrodes in it to see how it responds, pour different chemicals on it to see how it reacts, measure how it grows over time, test it in different scenarios etc. Thus, I can learn many different aspects about this so called fan. However, what I cannot do is infer its function or purpose without considering the whole elephant. Also, I may be unable to determine which findings are related to the potential functions, and which findings are not related to the potential functions.

The elephant and the blind men, also apply to all experiments using animal models for understanding human biology. If I do not investigate or consider the whole “elephant” I may never determine that the “ear” I am looking at has a similar function to “ears” in many other animals. More generally, if I only study neural circuitry in a mouse without considering the mouse as a whole (anatomy, organs, cells, behavior, environment, development, evolution, etc.) then it won’t help me determine how — or if – the neural circuitry may function similarly in the human.

Development is particularly important — and often forgotten — ­when studying the whole animal. You cannot just study the “ear” of the “elephant” at a specific time point in a specific environment because the structure or function may change over time. Consider the development of a frog:


In the tadpole stage the frog has a long tail for swimming and gills for breathing underwater. As it develops into an adult frog, however, the tail is reabsorbed and the frog exchanges its gills for lungs. Developmental context is necessary for understanding the whole animal.

The necessity of neuroscience with interdisciplinary scientists

Interdisciplinary scientists study both neural circuitry and behavior to understand the processes of the brain. However, this does not mean that they study parts of the brain, then study some behaviors, and understand the system. It also does not mean that they take a top-down approach (brain to behavior) or bottom-up approach (behavior to brain) — the choice here should depend on the specific research question. Interdisciplinary scientists study both brain and behavior at the same time. By studying both at the same time they can see how behavior emerges from neural circuitry and how neural circuitry emerges from behavior. The two are dependent on one another, they are not separate.

Consider this optical illusion:


If I just look at the picture on the left, I might only see a chalice and begin describing all of its visual properties and then infer its function. However, if I look at the picture on the right then it might become apparent that the picture is both a chalice and two people looking at each other. If I have too narrow of a focus — only studying the chalice — then I completely miss understanding that this is an optical illusion. Understanding the whole is important, and one part is not the greater than the other.

However, as mentioned earlier when trying to identify the function of an elephant’s ear, if I do not have a starting point for inferring function or mechanism then I could be asking the wrong questions. This is the point that the authors in the original scientific publication also make. If you do not study the behavior of the animal or process that you are interested in, then you will be asking all the wrong questions concerning neural circuitry. One cannot understand the game of chess by just analyzing all the pieces and the board. You must first observe how the game is played, and then you can determine what makes the pieces and the board important.

This is example of watching chess being played first and then analyzing the pieces and the board, represents a top-down approach. However, as already mentioned, the approach you take is particular to the question you are interested in. Different approaches give you different answers. And in the unknown world of brain and behavior, we may really not know enough to properly infer how something functions.

Regardless, this example of chess also applies to all experiments using animal models. For example, I might have learned how to play chess on a large and heavy wooden board with specially molded iron pieces. And as long as I understand the rules and processes of chess, then I can play chess on any board — be it big or small, plastic or wood, physical or virtual. But if I spend all my time studying the chess pieces and never watching how the game is played, then it might be difficult for me to identify which chess piece does what on a different chess set. Just like it would be difficult for me to determine which brain areas of a mouse might be analogous to which brain areas in a human without measuring behavior.

The authors also explain that multiple neural circuits may be responsible for a single behavior, and a single neural circuit may be responsible for multiple behaviors. This further complicates the issue of studying one part of the animal over the other. Thus, one specific neural circuit does not map to one specific behavior.


In conclusion, the neuroscientists who published the original scientific article are correct: behavior is necessary and you must study it if you want to understand the brain. However, all the fancy techniques neuroscientists have developed, independent of behavior, help us ask specific questions about neural circuitry and about behavior. Also, all scientists experimenting on animals —not just neuroscientists — should understand the arguments used in this paper and apply it to their own experiments. This will help us better understand how findings in one species might relate to findings in another, and thus help the translation of all science using animal models.

Justin Varholick

More thoughts on animal suffering

My recent article “Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals” elicited many thoughtful comments and plenty of debate, both on this blog and in Reddit. In this new post I have compiled some new thoughts that came up during the debate. To view the full discussion, please follow the hyperlinks.

Do animals have the ability to suffer?

I think that, strictly speaking, most animals species do not have the ability to suffer. These will include animals like corals, jellyfish, starfish, worms, clams, snails and insects that comprise millions of species with nervous systems so small that cannot possibly endow them with enough consciousness to suffer. In comparison, the species of chordates that can be said to suffer are a tiny minority. My work is in pain neuroscience, where we make quite nuanced distinctions between suffering, distress, pain and nociception. We know that many species have nociception, but we cannot infer from that that they feel pain, and even less that they suffer. Other show the same physiological signs of distress that we have (elevated levels of cortisol in the blood), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they suffer. There are animals that clearly do not have nociception, pain, distress or suffering, like sponges. On the other end of the cognitive scale, it is clear that humans do suffer. At what point in the evolutionary tree the ability to suffer appears is not an easy question to answer.


Philosophers have been speaking of suffering as an absolute, something that exist in itself. In fact, neuroscience points out that suffering cannot exist without consciousness and is not independent of certain cognitive abilities like emotions and memory. An animal can only be said to be suffering inasmuch as it is conscious of this suffering, which links the problem of suffering with the “hard problem” of consciousness. This is because an unconscious animal would be just an automaton, something that responds to stimuli without having a subjective experience of those stimuli. As long as a being is self-conscious, including having extended consciousness, the life of that being has value of its own. So, like it often happens when we look at the living world, there is a gradient of minds between complete automatons and fully conscious human beings. Consciousness, and its attending capacities to suffer and be happy, develops gradually with evolution. So suffering, like consciousness, had to develop gradually during evolution. I doubt that there is a threshold, a hard line, with suffering on one side and not suffering on the other, so we have to wrap our minds around the fact that some animals have more capacity for suffering than others. Therefore, different species should be treated according to their mental capacities, which is, if you want, a hard form of speciesism. But it is what we do all the time, for example, when we kill the fleas that afflict our dog. Clearly, the dog has more moral standing in our eyes than the fleas.

In addition to consciousness, I think that suffering requires the presence of a self because otherwise the existence of the subjective experience of suffering doesn’t make sense. This is a variant of the problem of consciousness: do non-human animals have a self? That’s doubtful. Maybe apes and dolphins do, rats and mice probably don’t. But, again, that is highly speculative. Hence, there has to be a scale of suffering. In that scale, humans are capable of much deeper suffering (and much deeper happiness) because we can see ourselves as selves with an existence extending in time, so we not only suffer in the present, but we can see that we have suffered in the past and that we will suffer in the future. Without episodic memory and extended consciousness, animals do not have selves with that continuity in time.

An endangered fox in the California Channel Islands

An endangered fox in the California Channel Islands

Questioning the ability of animals to suffer doesn’t mean that scientists are looking for a justification to inflict pain on animals. Rather, here scientists face two different moral imperatives. The first is the fundamental dictate of science of looking for the truth unhindered by cultural and societal biases. This leads us to examine the questions of animal pain and suffering in an objective way. The second moral imperative is not to be cruel to animals that can potentially suffer. It is because of this and the cautionary principle that we treat animals like rats and mice as if they can suffer, even when we don’t know for sure that they can. However, we do know with absolute certitude that humans can suffer, which is an additional argument to put human suffering before putative animal suffering. Therefore, it is morally justifiable to use animals in biomedical research to alleviate human suffering, while at the same time taking all possible measures to minimize the distress of animals involved in research.

We need a definition of suffering for many practical matters and not just for animal research. Of course, we should treat animals, and even plants, with respect and not harm less for frivolous reason. But sometimes it is necessary to harm animals. There are many cases in which is necessary to kill animals to protect the environment – the case of pigs and goats in the California Channel Islands comes to mind. In those cases we need to balance two wrongs against each other: the suffering caused to the animals and the destruction of the environment produced by them, possibly including the extinction of some species. Animal research is another example: we need to use animals to find the cure for human diseases. When we look at the ethics involved in those cases, we need to carefully consider whether the animals involved do suffer or not, and how much weight we put on that suffering.

Feral pigs are an invasive species in the California Channel Islands

Feral pigs are an invasive species in the California Channel Islands

Suffering is not the only relevant issue in the animal research debate

Some animal rights proponents argue that mental abilities are a red herring because the only question that is relevant in the animal rights debate is whether animals can suffer. This is not true for two reasons.

First, this is in direct contradiction to what other animal rights proponents say: that animal rights go beyond the right to life and the right not to suffer, and also include the right to be free, the right not to be used for somebody’s else goals, etc. Then the question of whether animals have the mental capacities that enables them to know whether they are free or to care about whether they are being used are completely relevant.

Second, the way we treat a being is also determined by the intrinsic value we give to that being. For example, a species has an intrinsic value, so when a species goes extinct this means a terrible loss, and a deep moral wrong. Humans deserve respect not just because they suffer, but because of their intrinsic value. And that intrinsic value is based on our rich mental lives, our ability not just to suffer but also to be happy, to enjoy beauty, to find meaning in our lives. Therefore, mental capacities beyond the ability to suffer or to think intelligently are fundamental. It’s not just about humans, the same reasoning is used to give a dog more intrinsic value than the fleas that it carries in its fur.

But even if we accept the narrow framing that suffering is the only relevant question, suffering does not exist in isolation of all other mental functions. In particular, there cannot be suffering without consciousness because if there is no subjective awareness of the suffering, then it is not really taking place. Also, suffering, like happiness, acquires a deeper meaning for beings like us that can put it in a context of a life with a past and a future, in the middle of a society and a culture that creates a much richer context for any of our experiences.

Ultimately, the thing that worries me the most about the whole animal rights movement is how it has come to degrade the idea of what it means to be human by denying our rich mental abilities and making us equals to animals. Instead of elevating animals to human status, it degrades humans to animal status. Therefore, the animal rights movement is really a form of misanthropy, a radical anti-Humanism.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon

Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals

One of the cornerstone ideas of the animal rights movement is that there are no fundamental differences between humans and animals: humans are just animals, only more intelligent (Ryder, 1991). Therefore, some argue, since having a larger brain is just another quirk, like having larger tusks, animals should have many of the same rights as humans. In particular, they should have a right to life, a right to freedom and a right not be used by humans. Moreover, the well-being of humans should not be put above the well-being of animals (Singer, 1991), so that doing research on animals cannot be justified by improvements in human health, as scientists claim (Ringach, 2011; Bennett and Ringach, 2016). Of course, all of this flies in the face of the values of all human societies from prehistory to date, which have used animals for food, clothing, work and entertainment. No matter, says the animal right activist, that is unethical and has to stop (Reagan, 1985).

In the past, justification for human primacy over animals came from religions that stated that humans are superior to animals because they have an immortal soul, and that God commanded humans to rule over animals. However, the Theory of Evolution and modern physiology have pushed back against those beliefs, showing that there is an evolutionary continuum between animals and humans and that there are no fundamental differences between the physiology of the humans and other mammals (Rachels, 1990) . If the only difference between humans and animals is that of a higher intelligence, does that justify that we treat ourselves better than the animals? Or is this just self-interested behavior, “speciesism”, as the animal rights proponent Richard Ryder has called it (Ryder, 1991)? To strengthen their case, animal right proponents invoke the “marginal case”: these include infants and those with significant mental impairment who, lacking superior intelligence, then should presumably be treated the same way as animals (Reagan, 1985; Singer, 1991). Otherwise, they argue, we should be prepared to give animals the same rights that we readily give these marginal case humans.

However, modern neuroscience has in fact uncovered many differences between humans and the rest of the animals that makes us unique. These differences are not limited to a quantitative difference in intelligence but extend to many other mental and behavioral abilities that make us completely unique (Penn et al., 2008), a qualitatively different type of being.  Below I provide a list of the most important of those abilities.


  1. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand what other people are feeling and thinking [pp. 172-178 in (Blackmore, 2004); pp. 48-54 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. We do that by running inside our heads a model of what is happening in other person’s mind. Of course, the model is not always right, but nevertheless it is extremely valuable because it lets us predict the behavior of people around us. Theory of mind seems to require the right anterior insula, a part of the brain cortex that evolved very rapidly in apes. The function of the right anterior insula is to create hypothetical models of the internal state of our body in different circumstances (Craig, 2010, 2011). For example, when we imagine what it would feel like to stab our toe, is the right anterior insula doing that. Likewise, the right anterior insula can make a model of the internal state of the body of another person. Of course, theory of mind is much more than that and involves the cognitive abilities of many other parts of the brain. Research on theory of mind has revealed it to be uniquely human (Penn and Povinelli, 2007), although some studies claims to have found it in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (Call and Tomasello, 2008; Yamamoto et al., 2013). One negative aspect of theory of mind is that it often creates the delusion of attributing human consciousness to inanimate objects or animals. The same way we project our thoughts and feelings to a person that we see behaving in a way similar to us, we project human thoughts and feelings to an animal or an object we see doing something that resembles human behavior. This delusional form of theory of mind is responsible for the anthropomorphizing of animals that is so common in modern culture.
  1. Episodic memory. There are two basic forms of memory: procedural and declarative [pp. 303-306 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. Procedural memory is present in both humans and animals and consists in the retention of perceptual, motor and cognitive skills that are then expressed non-consciously. For example, when we walk, swim, ski, listen to music, type on a keyboard or process the visual information we get from a television screen, we use procedural memory. Declarative memory stores information about facts and beliefs about the world, and can be further divided into semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is about facts in the world that stand by themselves, independently of our self, whereas episodic memory is remembering things that happened to us. That is, episodic memory retains events as they were experienced by ourselves in a particular place and time. Episodic memory appears to be uniquely human, because it involves subjective experiences, a concept of self and subjective time. This is important because it allows us to travel mentally in time through subjective experiences, while animals are locked in the present of their current motivational state.


  1. Humans emotions. Mammals, birds and some other animals have a set of six basic emotions listed by Ekman: anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. However, we humans are able to feel many other emotions that regulate our social behavior and the way we view the world: guilt, shame, pride, honor, awe, interest, envy, nostalgia, hope, despair, contempt and many others. While emotions like love and loyalty may be present in mammals that live in hierarchical societies, emotions like guilt, shame and their counterparts pride and honor seem to be uniquely human. There is much controversy these days on whether dogs feel guilt and shame, there is evidence that they do not, but they may also have acquired this emotion as a way to interact with humans. What is clear is that many of the emotions that we value as human are not present in animals.



  1. Empathy and compassion. Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel what another person is feeling from their own frame of reference. It is a well-established fact that many animals react to distress by other animals by showing signs of distress themselves. However, this does not seem to represent true empathy as defined above, but a genetically encoded stress response in anticipation of harm. Since empathy requires feeling what the other person is feeling from their own frame of reference, it seems to require theory of mind. Only if we stripe the requirement of adopting the other’s frame of reference we can say that animals have empathy. Empathy involves the newly evolved anterior insula in humans (Preis et al., 2013), bonobos and chimpanzees (Rilling et al., 2012). Compassion is currently thought to be different from empathy because it involves many other parts of the brain. It seems to be associated with complex cultural and cognitive elements. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that animals are not able to feel compassion.
  1. Language and culture. Although animals do communicate with each other using sounds, signs and body language, human language is a qualitative leap from any form of animal communication in its unique ability to convey factual information and not just emotional states. In that, human language is linked to our ability to store huge amounts of semantic and episodic memory, as defined above. The human brain has a unique capacity to quickly learn spoken languages during a portal that closes around 5-6 years of age. Attempts to teach sign languages to apes has produced only limited success and can be attributed to a humanization of the brain of those animals, raised inside human culture. The effectiveness of spoken and written language to store information across many generations gave raise to human cultures. The working of the human brain cannot be understood without taking culture into account. Culture completely shapes the way we think, feel, perceive and behave. Although there are documented cases of transmission of learned information across generations in animals, producing what we could call an animal culture, no animal is as shaped by culture as we are.
  1. Esthetic sense or the appreciation of beauty also seems to be uniquely human. Of course, animals can produce great beauty in the form of colorful bodies, songs and artful behavior. What seems to be lacking is their ability to appreciate and value that beauty beyond stereotypical mating and territorial behaviors. Even attempts to teach chimps to produce art by drawing have largely failed.
  1. Ethics is the ability to appreciate fairness, justice and rights. It is at the very core of our ability to form stable societies and to cooperate to achieve common goals. It depends on theory of mind (which allows us to “put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes”); on social emotions like guilt, shame, pride and contempt; on empathy and compassion, and on cultural heritage. Lacking all those mental abilities, animals have no sense of ethics. Even though some studies have shown that monkeys have a primitive sense of fairness (particularly when it applies to their own interest), it is but a pale anticipation of our sense of justice. It simply goes to show how that ethics is rooted in our evolutionary history. The fact that animals cannot even remotely comprehend the concept of rights is a strong argument for why they should not have rights. What sense does it make to give animals something that they do not know that they lack?


  1. Extended consciousness. They question of what is consciousness has been called by scientists and philosophers “the hard problem” due to the difficulty of answering it (Blackmore, 2004). Therefore, the related question of whether animals have consciousness, or what animals have it, remains similarly unanswered in the strict sense. However, based on their behavior, we commonly assume that animals like cats, dogs and horses are conscious and able to make some autonomous decisions. On the other hand, unless we invoke some mystical definition of consciousness, it is safe to assume that animals with small nervous systems, like jellyfish, worms, starfish, snails and clams have no consciousness whatsoever. They are like plants: living beings able to react to the environment as automatons. That leaves a lot of animals for which it is hard to guess whether they are conscious or not: insects, fish, octopi, lizards and small mammals like mice and rats. What has been becoming clear is that we humans possess a kind of consciousness that no other animal has: the ability to see ourselves as selves extending from the pass to the future [pp. 309-321 (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. This special kind of consciousness has been called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “extended consciousness” [Chapter 7 in (Damasio, 1999)] and allow us a sort of “mental time travel” to relive events in the past and predict what may happen to us in the future (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Extended consciousness is based on our ability to have episodic memory and theory of mind. Episodic memory configures remembered events around the image of the self, whereas theory of mind allows us to create a model of our own mind as it was during a past event or to hypothesize how it would be in a future event. I should also point out that a few animals (apes, dolphins and elephants) may turn out to have episodic memory, theory of mind and hence extended consciousness. However, this is still very much in doubt.
  1. Suffering and happiness. It is a common mistake to confuse suffering with pain and happiness with joy. Pain is the representation of a bodily state and the emotion associated with it (Craig, 2003). Likewise, joy is an emotion associated with an excited but pleasant body state in an agreeable environment. Suffering and happiness are much deeper than that, and refer to the totality of a mental state, encompassing cognition, emotion and state of consciousness. Although suffering and happiness are normally associated with certain emotions, there is not always a correspondence with them. For example, one can be happy while feeling scared or sad, or suffer even in the presence of a passing joy. The error of philosophers like Peter Singer (Singer, 1991) and Tom Reagan (Reagan, 1985) is that they consider suffering as something that occurs independently of cognition and other mental abilities, when it does not. Arguably, happiness and suffering require some continuity in time, which would seem to require extended consciousness. Furthermore, conceptions of happiness extending to antiquity refer to lifelong attitudes like hedonism (the quest for personal pleasure) and eudemonia (working to acquire virtue or to achieve goals that transcend oneself), pointing to the fact that human happiness depends on cultural values. In view of all this, we need to wonder whether happiness and suffering can exist in beings that have no episodic memory, no extended consciousness, no sense of self, and no culture. Can happiness and suffering really be attributed to animals lacking these mental abilities? Or is this an illusion, an anthropomorphizing caused by the overreaching of our theory of mind? Without going to that extreme, it is quite clear that we humans have a capacity to be happy and to suffer that goes far beyond what animals can experience. So human suffering counts more than any suffering than an animal could have.

There are many more differences between human and animals. However, the ones that I have listed here are important because they give us our special feeling of humaneness. All of them are based on scientific facts about the human mind that are slowly being unraveled by neuroscience, not on religious beliefs or on ideology. However, what cannot be based on science is the value we attribute to those differences. Ultimately, this is a decision based on our ethical intuition. Still, for most people what determines how much consideration we should give to a being is its ability to be conscious; to feel empathy; to feel guilt and pride and shame and all other human emotions; to be happy as we are happy and to suffer like we suffer.

An important corollary of the ideas proposed here is to utterly refute the “marginal case” argument. Thus, even when a human brain is damaged by disease, accident or old age, most of the properties that I have listed here remain because they are deeply engrained in the way the human brain works. Theory of mind and extended consciousness appear early in human life and are the last things to go in a deteriorating brain. It takes coma to deprive us of them. A person may have a reduced intelligence or other cognitive disabilities, but s/he still has theory of mind, empathy, compassion, extended consciousness and all those human emotions. That is why when we encounter those people we recognize them as humans and we know we should treat them as humans. They are not animals and should never be treated as such. Intelligence is just a tiny part of what it means to be human.

Another important idea is that there are vast differences in the mental abilities of animals and, therefore, in the way they should be treated. Many animals, like jellyfish, worms and clams, do not have any mental capabilities at all, do not feel pain, and can be treated the same as plants. In the other side of the mental spectrum, it is possible that we will find that the great apes, dolphins and elephants have some form of theory of mind and extended consciousness, and therefore deserve a special treatment compared to other animals. Dog and cats have evolved special ways to communicate with humans that make them special in our eyes. So, when it comes to ethical consideration, animals should not be put in a general category, but each species should be assigned its own value. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the quandary of not being able to rid our dog of fleas because these insects have the same “rights” as the dog. This is, in fact, what we have been doing all along: to establish a hierarchy of animals that deserve more or less consideration based on their mental abilities, putting humans at the top. Speciesism is unavoidable because we cannot treat different species of animals the same way.

Let me finish by saying that this is not an argument to treat animals cruelly or poorly. It is only an argument to treat humans better than animals and to keep using animals for our benefit. We should care about the welfare of animals, even as we try to understand how similar and how different they are from ourselves. What moves us to treat animals well is our empathy, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our cultural values. Things that animals do not have. Ultimately, we must treat animals right not because of what they are, but because of who we are.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.


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Yamamoto S, Humle T, Tanaka M (2013) Basis for cumulative cultural evolution in chimpanzees: social learning of a more efficient tool-use technique. PLoS One 8:e55768.

Sanctuary, Zoo, Lab: Name Games or Core Differences?

The announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) and Chimp Haven (a federally funded sanctuary for NIH retired chimpanzees) has led to increased dialogue, particularly in regards to what this means for the chimpanzees’ well-being and importantly, the kinds of activities that a sanctuary is allowed to engage with the animals under their care. We previously covered some of this issue, with concerns raised about the the deaths of 9 chimpanzees recently transferred to the Chimp Haven sanctuary (see here and here). In light of continued planning for relocating chimpanzees, the central focus has been on the question of whether the deaths have resulted in serious consideration and thoughtful review to identify any changes that could reduce future risks and best protect other animals’ health and wellbeing.Maynard

The recent announcement of a zoo-sanctuary “research partnership” has again prompted the question of the impact on the relocated chimpanzees’ well-being. Moreover, subsequent discussion has also illustrated a number of areas where facts and solid public information about the transparency and oversight of such research may be critically lacking. The discussion also highlights issues at the core of ethical consideration of chimpanzees. They are issues that not only play a role in decisions about where the chimpanzees should live, and in what activities they should take part; more fundamentally, they are issues that define what is meant by sanctuary and what is meant by research. That definition is central to informed and productive dialogue.

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 1In many cases it appears that there are widely divergent views of what defines a sanctuary and what is meant by research. This is why, in part, the recent announcement of the Chimp Haven-Lincoln Park Zoo partnership was surprising to many. Particularly surprising was a statement by the sanctuary’s Chair of the Board of Directors that indicated the facility hopes to recruit scientists to bring research funds to the sanctuary in order to continue their research that has been truncated by federal decisions to retire research chimpanzees.Science - David Grimm 7.28.16

In various promotional materials about the new partnership between the zoo and the sanctuary the emphasis was on how the program might benefit understanding of chimpanzees and assist with animal care and conservation goals. At the same time it rapidly became evident that enthusiasm from the zoo and its chimpanzee program director, Dr. Stephen Ross, partially reflects benefits gained from access and use of the large sanctuary chimpanzee population, including research opportunities unavailable in the zoo. Others also appeared to see this use of the sanctuary chimpanzees as appropriate and justified. For example, the zoo’s press release about the partnership includes a congratulatory statement from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a group opposed to NIH’s previous chimpanzee research:

“This important partnership between an accredited zoo and an accredited sanctuary is further evidence that we are in the midst of a new, compassionate era in our treatment of chimpanzees,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Chimpanzees are amazing animals, and these two organizations are helping to define how best to learn from them, educate about them and most importantly, to care for them.”

Increasing public interest in the ethical justification for zoos

HSUS’ position on the ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos is not readily apparent, and their statement stops short of endorsing the zoo itself, or the perpetuation of captive chimpanzees via breeding in captivity (something that is banned in research centers and sanctuaries). Yet, others have raised similar questions well before the most recent decisions about NIH-funded chimpanzee research (see, for example, Jamieson, 1985; Regan, 1995)– though with significantly less media coverage. Furthermore, serious and thoughtful consideration of the different uses and human interactions with apes continues well beyond the simple and polarized messages that sometimes dominate the recent public portrayals of the issue  (for example, Norton, Maple, & Hutchins, 1995; Gruen, 2014; Bennett & Panicker, 2016; and many others cited within these references) .

Discussions about the role, ethical justification, and necessity of housing chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities have arisen not only because of the retirement of NIH chimpanzees. Rather, societal consideration of zoos has also increased over time. Most recently, the tragic death of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, along with the closure of the 140 year old Buenos Aires zoo, and movement away from keeping elephants in zoos, have sparked much public dialogue.

The tone of reflection is evident in a number of the titles of articles, op-eds, and blog posts. For example:

The ethical justification for keeping chimpanzees in zoos merits serious and well-informed consideration as it forms the foundation of societal decisions. The same kind of consideration is already mandated for research with animals, including chimpanzees, in the US and elsewhere.  In both cases, the public dialogue and public interests are served by providing facts about the animals’ care and treatment, but also by full and balanced presentation of the justification itself.

Intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries

Speaking of Research typically focuses solely on animal research and on animal testing rather than other interactions and uses of animals by humans, including zoos, entertainment, and private ownership.  In the case of chimpanzees, however, the intersections between research, zoos, and sanctuaries are now at the forefront of many of the debates, decisions, personal, and the societal deliberations.

There are a number of reasons for this intersection. Among them: the movement of research chimpanzees to sanctuaries and zoos; the fact that US decisions about research chimpanzees has resulted in a likely shift of research opportunities to zoos and other types of facilities; and, most recently, the new partnership between a federally-funded chimpanzee sanctuary and a zoo.  At the same time, the new standards of care and housing for chimpanzees adopted by one federal agency, the NIH, has raised questions about whether the same standards should be extended to all chimpanzees (for further information and discussion see previous posts “Where should US chimpanzees live?” and “Chimpanzee retirement: Facts, myths, and motivation”).

What are the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?

One of the core issues in this debate is: “What should be the defining characteristics of a sanctuary?”   For some people, the central characteristic is only that the animals receive the best possible care to protect their health and well-being. However, as we have written about previously, this characteristic is not exclusive to sanctuaries. Excellent and humane care can be provided in other settings, including research facilities (for further discussion see: “Can we agree? An ongoing dialogue about where retired research chimpanzees should live”).where us chimpanzees live 07.13.16

For other people, the very concept of sanctuary means that the animals are not used as instruments to achieve any human goal, or to meet any human need. And, moreover, that the animals’ dignity and autonomy receive highest consideration. For example, in an edited volume, “The Ethics of Captivity,” philosopher Lori Gruen says: “There are some captive contexts, such as true sanctuaries, where the goal is not just to promote the well-being of the individuals that live there but to also recognize their dignity and treat the residents with respect” (p. 244). She argues in particular that animals should be provided with the opportunity to choose who to spend time with, other animals or observers, and be able to escape others’ gaze. She also contends that:

“Certain features of current captive practices are fundamentally dignity denying. For example, sending prisoners far away from their families or breaking up social groups in zoo settings denies the most basic choices in addition to disrupting social bonds. Such moves can only be justified if they are clearly in the best interests of the captive, not to serve institutional ends” (p. 245).

In a more recent article, Gruen (2016, “The End of Chimpanzee Research,” Hastings Report) writes in opposition to retiring NIH chimpanzees in the dedicated research facilities in which they currently live. She argues:

“Humans, regardless of gender or gender expression, race, ethnicity, ability, and so on, deserve respect. And I believe respect is also owed to chimpanzees. We make sense of our experiences and values through our relationships with others, and when we are instrumentalized in those relationships, our worth, our interests, and the meaning of our experiences is undermined. This is also true in the case of chimpanzees. … Advocates for chimpanzees oppose retirement in place due to this fundamental difference in [human, our emphasis] values—the ethos of a sanctuary respects the choices and dignity of the animals as opposed to that of a laboratory, where animals are used as tools.” [emphasis added]

What defines the sanctuary ethos and “using animals as tools”?

For many viewing and discussing the current situation, it is the argument about ethos and the degree to which the chimpanzees are “used as tools” that pose challenges to dialogue. One reason is that the terms are not clearly defined or operationalized in a way that allows people with a range of perspectives, experiences, expertise, and philosophical positions to be certain they are discussing the same thing.

For example, it is not entirely clear what behaviors and care practices would provide evidence of an “ethos” that “respects the choices and dignity of the animal.” Ironically, it would also seem that in order to provide an understanding of choice and dignity from the animals’ perspective, detailed scientific research on the animals themselves is needed, where the animals are used as tools to achieve the goal of improving the health and wellbeing of other chimpanzees.

No clear line is apparent that would indicate how we might define all of those cases in which chimpanzees are “used as tools.” For instance, while there may be relatively widespread agreement that chimpanzees used in entertainment are being “used as tools,” there may be far less agreement that chimpanzees in zoos fall in the same category. Similarly, whether noninvasive research qualifies as using chimpanzees “as tools” is also likely to be a point of disagreement. Noninvasive research spans studies of chimpanzees’ cognition, language, puzzle-solving, theory of mind, but also their preferences for various foods, housing, or care strategies, their response to human visitors, and any number of other topics  about which hypotheses can be made and tested with experimental, observational, and other scientific approaches.

The justification for any of this work can readily and reasonably be made in terms of benefits for the animals themselves, for the species, for human understanding, for society. Nonetheless, a reasonable case might also be made that noninvasive research is an instance of using the animals “as tools” because the work can lead to scientific publications, positive publicity and reputational enhancement for institutions and individuals, to satisfaction of human curiosity, and also to new knowledge that benefits animals—but animals other than those participating in the study.

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

Chimpanzees in research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The question of whether noninvasive research—the only type currently allowed in NIH-funded or supported research—is an instance of using the animals as instruments for human goals is not the only one. Moving chimpanzees away from their stable social groups, long-time and familiar homes and caregivers, and into a novel setting labelled “sanctuary,” may also qualify as “using the animals as tools.” In this case, the disruption of the animals’ lives and movement to sanctuary may serve as a tool to make humans “feel better” with potentially little added benefit to the animals themselves (see also K.S. Emmerman, in The Ethics of Captivity, edited by L. Gruen, Oxford University Press, 2016).  It is for this reason that many focus on the outcome – in terms of relative benefit and relative risk to the animals’ health and welfare—in order to make judgments about whether moving the animals is really in the animals’ best interests.

Is the Chimp Haven partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo consistent with the “true sanctuary ethos”?

It is partially for all of these reasons that the recent announcement of a research partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo and the federally-funded sanctuary was surprising to many. It was a surprise because many assumed that chimpanzees retired from research would not then serve in research – and, particularly, that they would not be viewed as a resource for the facility’s fund-raising via fees exchanged for research opportunities. The latter appears to be exactly the rationale expressed by the director of the facility and her collaborators in an abstract for presentation at the upcoming scientific meeting (Spaetz, Taylor, & Fultz, 2016):

“With recent decisions ensuring the retirement of additional chimpanzees, sanctuaries may provide an optimal place for behavioral research with the potential for large sample sizes, a variety of enclosures, and on-site support. A future goal for the sanctuary community is to become self-sustaining. In order to do this, sanctuaries must explore different options including fees for researchers and visiting scientists who hope to continue to study the chimpanzees.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that Chimp Haven has taken this approach. It is similar to that of the Pan African Sanctuaries Alliance (PASA) described by another primatologist, Professor Brian Hare at Duke University. For example, on the advantages of sanctuary-researcher partnerships: “Successful research programs in African sanctuaries will provide researchers with an alternative to more traditional laboratories that do not offer the high quality living environment that are found in Africa. African sanctuaries in turn will become the preferred research venue given their many advantages for non-invasive research.”

At the same time, researchers are described as a resource and benefit to sanctuaries:

“Sanctuary apes can benefit from additional resources provided by researchers through research fees (e.g. for management costs or improvements for research), equipment (e.g. computers, veterinary equipment, etc.) or expertise (e.g. disease screening and other veterinary work). The resources of researchers that never made it to Africa before will be spent in ape range countries to aid in maintaining the high level of care found in African sanctuaries.”

In many ways, Hare, Ross, and others who have advanced sanctuaries and zoos as a viable—and  “ethical”—alternative for science aimed at better understanding chimpanzees appear to share with other scientists an understanding of the value of research in terms of benefits to humans, animals, society, and the environment. They also realize that as dedicated research facilities continue to reduce the number of chimpanzees they house, and eventually house none, sanctuaries – along with zoos – will have “cornered the market” for primatologists, comparative psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and others with expertise and interest in scientific research that can answer basic science questions and those relevant to animal health and wellbeing.

There are key differences between the African sanctuary system and Chimp Haven, however. Most primary among them is that PASA exists to care for animals orphaned in Africa as a result of poaching and other human activities and that have no other place to go that can provide for their care. By contrast, for many of the chimpanzees slated to be moved from their current facilities, away from their stable social groups and long-time caregivers in dedicated research centers, Chimp Haven is not the only option.

PASA exists to care for animals and not to create additional animals that are dependent on human care and must be maintained in captive settings. By contrast, Lincoln Park Zoo and others actively seek—through breeding programs— to create more animals that must then be maintained in captive settings. Thus, while one program explicitly seeks to reduce the number of chimpanzees that require human care in captive settings, the other perpetuates the practice.

For zoos, many argue that conservation and education goals provide an ethical justification for maintaining the animals in captivity. Others reject the argument. For example, in an article titled “Shifting Toward an Ethics of Sanctuary,” Gruen argues the logical point: “But holding animals captive has no necessary connection to conservation as there are many successful organizations that engage in conservation efforts that do not hold any animals captive.”


Photo credit: Kathy West

Unresolved questions

A number of questions are likely to remain active points of discussion both within the scientific community and more broadly. They include:

  • Whether continued scientific research should occur—including questions about: what types of work have merit and are justified; who should conduct the work; where it should be conducted; how it should be conducted and supported.
  • How these decisions should be made in absence, or outside of, the well-established and fairly transparent processes for expert and competitive scientific review that has occurred for proposals to NIH and NSF. This is a specific concern for the federal sanctuary that houses federally-owned chimpanzees supported largely by federal funds.
  • Whether retirement in place is the best option for some research chimpanzees.
  • Whether or not sanctuaries should conduct research.
  • Whether or not the federally-funded sanctuary should partner with a zoo.
  • Whether or not zoos should house chimpanzees at all.
  • Whether all chimpanzees in the US should receive the same standards of care as those mandated by the NIH.

In review of those questions and recent events, it is also clear that better dialogue might be facilitated by specifying what is meant by sanctuary. To the extent that research occurs in the federal sanctuary and the sanctuary is used to serve the goals of zoos, it is not at all clear that the term “sanctuary” has the common meaning that appears in public view. That is a problem for a number of reasons. Among them, when it comes to public dialogue and public decisions – both relevant to the federal funding that flows to Chimp Haven* – it is important to be clear about what retirement to sanctuary means and about how it is different from continuing to care for the animals in the facilities in which they currently live.

(*Federal funds provide 75% of the costs for maintaining NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, in 2015, according to NIH, this was $2.77 million. Chimp Haven currently appears to have a $12.9 million federal contract and over $30M in federal funds were invested in facility construction, chimpanzee transfers, and care. There are a number of other chimpanzee sanctuaries in the US, these sanctuaries are not currently part of the federal system and do not appear to be eligible for federal funds.)

Comparison of key features of research, zoo, and sanctuary facilities

The tables accompanying this post (above and below) outline some of the key features that are associated with different types of facilities, some of which may affect animals’ care and others that affect research. The tables cannot account for variation across every facility, but rather shows the typical case for research and zoos, what is known about the federally-funded sanctuary, and what would appear to be the case for a “true” sanctuary as it is defined by Gruen and others. Provision of choice is held up as a central defining element of sanctuary care. Thus, the second table focuses on elements of choice – or autonomy – that are central to the daily lives of animals living in a range of captive settings. As illustrated in both tables, there is a great deal of overlap between the various types of facilities.

Comments that can help further refine this work towards common understanding of the language used in discussion of chimpanzees in the US are welcome. We will return to this topic in the future, with analysis of the information in the tables, comparisons across facilities, and the implications for decision-making about chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett

@2016 AJ Bennett comparison table research zoo sanctuary Table 2

Was Jeremy Bentham an Antivivisectionist?

Jeremy Bentham Animal ExperimentsIn this post we look at whether or not Jeremy Bentham, an eminent 18th and 19th century English philosopher,  was opposed to animal experiments. Ahead of his time in many areas, Bentham advocated for freedom of expression, abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and the separation of church and state. His Utilitarian philosophy has influenced philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Peter Singer.

In his 1789 book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he briefly muses the question of rights for non-human beings. In a footnote, the following can be found.  

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

This bolded section (my emphasis) has been held up by the animal rights movement as an argument against animal research. The quote can be found on the websites of PETA, Animal Aid, New England Anti-Vivisection Society and many other animal rights groups.

NEAVS website, April 2016

NEAVS website, April 2016

You can read a full debunking of Bentham’s argument for the rights of animals in our “Animal Rights Philosophy” section. An extract can be found below:

Bentham neglects to explain why suffering should be a basis for rights. Central to this question is that of “What grants rights?”


It is the power for entirely autonomous thought and action which grants rights to human, uniquely among all animals. However there is more to the advent of rights. With a right comes a duty. My right and your right not to be arbitrarily killed are fundamentally linked to your duty, and my duty, not to arbitrarily kill someone else. My right to property hinges on my duty not to steal from other people. Before civic society came about, humans were free of any laws preventing them from killing each other, however killing your neighbor would justify your neighbor’s friend in killing you. So an unuttered agreement formed that said “if I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me”, and the beginnings of society could come about.

Animals cannot partake in any agreement. They cannot understand the duties required of them that would allow them to receive the protection that rights would offer them.

However, to return to the original question: Was Jeremy Bentham an Antivivisectionist? Many have taken his quote to mean that he was, however, in a Letter to Editor to the Morning Chronicle, March 4th 1825, Bentham tackles this question head on. His first sentence outlines his position clearly:

Sir, —I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it.

He goes on to say what the vast majority of us would agree with – that unnecessary animal suffering should be avoided.

So there you have it – Bentham was not against animal research. Such tactics of adopting people based on single sentences has been common. We have seen Albert Sabin – creator of the oral polio vaccine – misrepresented, we have seen former NIH director, Elias Zerhouni misrepresented. And Bentham is not the only philosopher. While Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, has certainly supported principles of animal rights on a Utilitarian basis, his views on the matter are more nuanced than many activists give him credit for. In 2006, while debating the issue with Prof Tipu Aziz – a brain surgeon who has conducted pioneering work into deep brain stimulation – Singer agreed that Aziz’s use of monkeys could probably be justified. The Independent writes:

In the film Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, Singer is seen in discussion with the Oxford academic Professor Tipu Aziz, who has been conducting experiments on macaque monkeys as part of his work to find a treatment for Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Told by Aziz that tests on some 100 monkeys has led to positive treatment for 40,000 patients, Singer responds that he “would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified.

Or watch the segment of the documentary Monkey Rats and Me, below:

Next time you see Bentham quotes plastered on animal rights websites, just remember:

Sir, —I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it.

Speaking of Research

PR, ethics, and the science of head transplants

There has been a lot of media coverage on the recent claims by Dr. Sergio Canavero that he has successfully transplanted the head of a monkey on to a donor body of another monkey. This story, originally posted by the New Scientist, has since gone viral with some touting miracle cures for paralysis, while others have publicly expressed outrage and disgust. As pointed out by the New Scientist, this is not science, or at the least, not yet. Until the veil of secrecy concerning the conduct of this study is made transparent – no formal conclusions can be made and one can only speculate in regards to the quality of the experiment that was performed. Moreover, as this work still has to pass through the peer-review process, it remains unclear whether this is simply an attempt at publicity. As Arthur Caplan, a New York University bioethicist told New Scientist:

It’s science through public relations. When it gets published in a peer reviewed journal I’ll be interested. I think the rest of it is BS”

So far, the only evidence that Dr Canavero has produced is a picture of a monkey which appears to have had a head/body transplant, as well as a short video of a mouse moving around (despite significant impairments), which also appears to have a transplant (but how long did they live for? When Dr Canavero’s colleague Dr Xiaoping Ren of China’s Harbin Medical University carried out similar head transplants in mice in 2015 they all died within a few minutes of being revived after surgery). While the monkey “fully survived the procedure without any neurological injury of whatever kind”, according to Canavero, it was euthanized after 20 hours for “ethical reasons”. The media storm surrounding this story appears to play up to the researcher’s aims – to find financial backing to continue his research and then move it into humans.

Canavero at TEDx

Two pieces of information in the article by the New Scientist bear scrutiny. The first is that Canavero is quoted as saying “this experiment, which repeats the work of Robert White in the US in 1970, demonstrates that if the head is cooled to 15°C, a monkey can survive the procedure without suffering brain injury.” Second, Sam Wong, author of the article in the New Scientists stated “they connected up the blood supply between the head and the new body, but did not attempt to connect the spinal cord.” Careful reading highlights a simple fact, this study is not novel in any regard – this is a replication of the work by Robert White and is quite simply a “head transplant”. Thus, the same criticisms that were levied in regards to the original experiment by Robert White apply here. As Stephen Rose, director of brain and behavioural research at Open University can be quoted as saying in 2001:

This is medical technology run completely mad and out of all proportion to what’s needed. It’s entirely misleading to suggest that a head transplant or a brain transplant is actually really still connected in anything except in terms of blood stream to the body to which it has been transplanted. It’s not controlling or relating to that body in any other sort of way. It’s scientifically misleading, technically irrelevant and scientifically irrelevant, and apart from anything else a grotesque breach of any ethical consideration. It’s a mystification to call it either a head transplant or a brain transplant. All you’re doing is keeping a severed head alive in terms of the circulation from another animal. It’s not connected in any nervous sense.”

And so, it is worth reflecting at this juncture on the moral and ethical issues surrounding this controversial procedure. Let us assume for a moment that this procedure is in fact feasible. In the original studies by Robert White and Vladimir Demikov, it was made clear that these experiments were lethal for the animal. Simply put, while the head of the animal was capable of “seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling”; none of the other regulatory processes were intact (e.g. breathing) as there was no control over the donor body. Furthermore, like many tissue transplants, rejection of the donor body from the immune system is a large possibility, immunorejection was after all the cause of death in the monkey whose head Dr White transplanted in 2001. Indeed, Canavero has yet to demonstrate any kind of proof of principle with regeneration of nervous tissue with any meaningful metric of control of the donor body.

Perhaps the most interesting insight into Canavero’s thinking comes from a quotation in the New Scientist article where he says:

Gene therapy has failed. Stem cells, we’re still waiting. Even if they come now, for these patients there is no hope. Tetraplegia can only be cured with this. Long term, the body decays, organs decay. You have to give them a new body because even if you take care of the cord, you’re going nowhere.”

These remarks by Canavero are somewhat naive as both gene therapy and stem cell therapy have made substantial advances in recent years, with many therapies now in clinical trials. Furthermore, the claim that “Tetraplegia can only be cured with this [head transplant]” flies in the face of evidence from recent successful animal and clinical trials on a variety of innovative therapies for paralysis, including epidural stimulation, intraspinal microstimulation, neuroprosthesis, and stem cell therapy.

There have recently been a series of major advances in treating paralysis, including epidural stimulation.

There have recently been a series of major advances in treating paralysis, including epidural stimulation.

While there is mounting evidence from studies in rodents that the polyethylene glycol (PEG) implantation approach favored by Canavero may be able to promote repair of injured spinal cord and recovery of motor function in paralyzed limbs, his casual dismissal of the work of other scientists – while often simultaneously citing their work in support of his own approach – exemplifies his arrogance. He would be better off lending his expertise to the work of others who are exploring the potential for PEG in spinal cord repair, work that has the potential to benefit millions of people, but instead appears set on a self-aggrandizing PR campaign in support of an approach that if successful – which seems highly unlikely even if the surgery is a technical success – can only benefit a tiny number of people…potentially at the cost of depriving many other transplant patients of much needed organs.

The reality, however, remains that the procedure exposes the patient (be it mouse, monkey or human) to far greater risks compared to the potential benefits. Indeed, these experiments would never be approved in countries which have strict review criteria, with a clear harm/benefit analysis needing to be performed before such a study is given approval. In these circumstances, the news that leading experts in animal research in China are currently undertaking a major revision to the country’s national regulation on the management of laboratory animals is timely.

But these issues are not unknown to Dr. Canavero. Indeed, as can be seen here (scroll to see response), and in what can only be described as derision and a willful skirting of the law, Dr. Canavero remains set to push forward with his ideas regardless of the consequences. For these reasons we have the gravest of reservations about the course being followed by Dr. Canavero and his colleagues, and call on them to halt this research until a full independent review of the scientific evidence and impact on potential patients can be undertaken.

Jeremy Bailoo and Justin Varholick

The opinions expressed here are our own and do not necessarily reflect the interests of the the University of Bern or the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern.

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.