November 05, 2007

On Animal Research

I originally wrote the following as a response to a thread on Pharyngula which, in turn, was written as a statement on an attack carried out by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) on the home of Edyth London. Dr. London is a researcher working on solving the problem of nicotine addiction, and I of all people certainly hope that her research pays off.

I was addressing a particular comment that seemed to me to be particularly misguided, but the larger point is that animal research is still a necessity and likely to remain one for years to come. Does that mean that researchers enjoy doing it? No, most view it as a necessary evil that leads to a greater good, including benefits for animals themselves in many cases. The thing that really grabbed me about the particular comment to which I replied, though, was that it assumed that doing animal-based research would somehow be particularly human, and that a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel wouldn't have done it themselves. Moreover, the comment betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of why animal research in general, and the use of particular animals as models, is carried out.

I'm quoting myself below; if what's here seems strange it's because it's out of context, it would be best to review the original discussion.

There are some very strange arguments about this topic here. Personally, I haven't used animals in my research other than insects, which ALF and PETA don't seem particularly concerned with because, I assume, they're neither particularly cuddly nor intelligent. Having said that, arguments like this are very strange to me:
Imagine an extra-terrestrial life form more intelligent and technologically superior to us. Would it be ok for them to come here and do research on humans, the way we do on animals? (Arguing that humans kill each other, too, e.g. in war.)
We can imagine that all we like, but it hasn't happened and isn't very likely to happen. If there are extra-terrestrials who are capable of traveling the tremendous distances necessary to reach earth, they've already done many of the same things to get to that technological point that we have, which includes doing research on whatever animals they have handy. It's easy to forget some 45 years after the fact, but the first terrestrial creatures to travel into space weren't humans, they were animals. In fact, they were our closest relatives because we had to know what would happen to a human traveling into space before we started sending them up there. I have no doubt that any extraterrestrial civilization that has ever launched a rocket did something quite similar with the equivalent animals from their own planet.

It would make no sense for an extraterrestrial civilization to want to do research on humans for another reason; their evolutionary history would be so different from our own that they almost certainly couldn't learn anything from research on us. In scientific research, we don't just pick animals at random. We choose animals that have something in common with humans so that we can extrapolate what's learned from them. We use apes in neurological research because they have nervous systems extremely similar to our own. We use pigs to test digestion because their digestive systems are very close to humans. It's not about amusement, and it's not done because researchers are sadists who enjoy doing harm to animals. It's done because we use an animal that's as similar as possible to a human being in some important way so that we can be as sure as possible that whatever it is we're researching won't harm or will work for human beings. At the same time, the research done on animals also produces benefits for animals. Veterinary medicine doesn't materialize out of some void; it involves animal testing, too.

So, no, it wouldn't be alright for some hypothetical extraterrestrial to perform physiological research on humans — not simply because of some ethical issue, but because it would be bad science. They'd be using a poorly chosen model organism in the first place. In fact, we'd be rather safe in saying that any such researchers would be both a bit dim and sadistic. Moreover, because we have done research on animals and because it has allowed us to learn so much more about humans, we're in a good position to give any such extra-solar researchers the information they're looking for in the first place without their having to run a batch of new experiments on us.

I have the impression, formed over years, that those who oppose animal research generally haven't thought their arguments all the way through. The fact is, most people in the biological sciences have the highest regard for other living things — so much so they've dedicated their lives to learning everything they can about them. The sort of thinking practiced by groups like the ALF and by Tom here are so profoundly misdirected that it really is hard to separate it from the sort of conspiracy nonsense we often see spewed by Creationists.

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