Philobiblon: Should wilderness contain humans?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Should wilderness contain humans?

Mathew Parris in The Times this morning laments the creation of human deserts, wild spaces where there are no humans.

In the beginning, man is expelled from the Garden of Eden. In the end, perhaps, we shall leave it of our own accord, closing the gate behind us.

Disconnection from the wild and "the natural" is indeed a problem, but there is, I'd suggest, an equally powerful argument for leaving parts of the Earth alone. The human species has managed to invade, to change, and often to damage, every aspect of the world. Giving nature, some rest, some space, allowing for biological diversity by the exclusion of us, will help to ensure the differing ecosystems that might just save life on earth.

(I've always thought there's something powerful about the line in one of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books that has a planet expel all of its "telephone sanitisers", advertising executives and similar "useless" individuals. And then the humans are wiped out by a disease spread through dirty telephones ... In a world full of telephones (as a "human" world must be today) that disease is a hideous danger.)
But good on the "bedroom blogger", as the media has inevitably dubbed the 16-year-old who has organised a protest in Oxford in favour of animal experimentation. Having done some animal experiments in my agricultural science days (although luckily in ours the goat kids had a very pleasant life), I've seen some animal experiments that should never have been allowed. (A lively, intelligent, interested goat kid, in a metabolism cage 24 hours a day, like a battery hen, is not a pleasant sight.)

But there are some experiments that have to be done on animals - that can save large numbers of human lives (and often other animal lives too). Provided experiments are tightly supervised, the best possible welfare conditions are maintained, and the tests have a clear objective, they have to go on. And those who terrorise anyone associated with them - down to the cleaners and builders - have to be stopped.


Blogger clanger said...

I disagree, and so does the Green Party,* so you better make clear your support of animal testing early in the selection process, to avoid difficulties later on.

Aside from the animal testing that takes place for industrial and cosmetic purposes (because animals are a cheaper resource than alternative testing regimes), animal testing only happens for one reason: because it used to.

Once upon a time, animals were believed to be objects placed here by God for us to use for our own purposes, like bits of wood, or wheat. Now we have dispensed with the God stuff, and learned that animals can communicate with each other in complex ways, have sophisticated hierarchies, familial bonds, use tools, and in some cases are a couple of bits of genetic data away from being our inlaws.

There are some common garden birds that mate for life. How many people do you know that have managed that?

If cars were new, they would have proper filters for exhaust emissions. If smoking was new it would be banned on medical grounds. If experimentation upon animals was new, it wouldn't be allowed at all.

But its cheap, and medical researchers are used to it, so they don't want it to stop. In truth, it really doesn't work very well (animals do respond differently, and there are technical issues with 'patient feedback'). And it is lazy science of the very worst kind. In every other branch of science we are looking at simulation, at understanding fundamental processes and working up from there. In medicine, we just drag some more creatures from the labs and test stuff to see if it works.

How many other sciences cause pain and suffering, and then death to living creatures to advance their field? Maybe weapons testing. Nice company.

Every year, the arguments for continued medical research on animals look more threadbare, and those advocating them look a little more uncomfortable. That has nothing to do with violence.

Let's consider your argument about saving thousands of human lives. Well if we are talking numbers, lets speed things up a bit and start experimenting on people. The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.

Where do you want to start? The brain dead, but kept alive? Those in comas? Convicted paedophiles? The mentally ill? Gypsies? Jewish people? The nazis drew their own line, and we all benefit from the fruits of concentration camp science, whether we like it or not.

Nazi scientists used exactly the same rationale for their experiments. They viewed Jewish people, gypsies, the mentally ill, and homosexual people as being sub-human, and felt that although they were living creatures, they were below the bar.

And no, it is not less cruel to farm a primate in a cage in a lab from birth and then kill it in an experiment, than drag it from the wild. Beyond a certain level, cruelty has no divisible levels.

Ultimately, many animals are higher up the cognitive scale in terms of sentient awareness and pain reception than a brain-stem-dead human being, so really, why not experiment on people-at least their families can consent? Uncomfortable yet? Don't forget all those people who could be cured? How about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay? Tempted? The needs of the many...

There will be a delay in medical research whilst we switch away from the use of animals, but research won't stop. It will change, and modernise, and continue.

We are, or we should be, as a culture, beyond experimenting upon living creatures. We know too much to do it innocently any more. It is cruel. If we continue, the blood will never wash off.

At this point someone would say that I would think differently if I had a terminal disease. I'd hope I didn't, but if I did, I would have a vested interest, and when deciding such things, people declare their vested interests, and do not take part in the vote.

We will still cure those diseases, but if we continue to cause suffering and pain to living creatures as a cheap resource, as mere objects, we will not be saving humanity, because we will already have lost what it is to be human.

However many people die of incurable diseases this year, more will die by the hand of their fellow humans, whether starved, shot, bombed, or unable to access extant treatments. We seem, as a species, to be uniquely gifted at being cruel and destructive, and worse, at finding specious arguments for absolving ourselves.

We don't need to experiment on animals to save a million lives. We could do it tomorrow. But the lives we'd save are in distant countries, so maybe we don't care enough to save them. But we care enough about medical research apparently, not to slow it a little, whilst switching from animal testing.

Of those diseases we have developed drugs for, many millions of sufferers never benefit, because they simply cannot afford them.

Maybe what we really want is to help ourselves, at any cost. Not a particularly noble trait.

*"We want an end to animal experimentation" []

2/25/2006 06:32:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well I would like to see an end to animal testing, as would the Green policy. I just don't think it is possible or practical to stop it suddenly, in one day, or one year. Over say a ten-year period? Quite possibly, and that would be fine with me.

2/27/2006 06:00:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

Any delay would impact only on the bottom line of Big Pharm. Most medical research is commercial. Animals are a cheap resource. It would be very expensive to switch to other testing mechanisms, but there is no other reason not to do it pretty much immediately. There is no necessity to do this research this way. There is no fixed timescale for medical research.

As I said, we already have cures and palliative treatments for diseases that millions of sufferers the world over (including some in the UK courtesy of postcode prescribing) will never see for economic reasons. It isn't about saving lives, its about Big Pharm profits, and the belief that we might save ourselves.

I'm not suggesting we stop medical research. I'm saying we do it properly. Thalidomide was tested on animals and passed as safe-some of the side-effects never appeared in some animal test subjects, and many animal-responses to drugs bear no relation to human-responses to the same drug.

Medical science is addicted to animal testing. It makes them feel safe. Its a regime to protect a company from lawsuits. Like testing GM crops outside of a sealed environment and the use of growth hormones in farm animals, it is bad science, undertaken for commercial reasons.

2/27/2006 09:41:00 pm  
Blogger spotted elephant said...

Big Pharm is a disgusting industry, and I want no part of helping them.

You make a good point about understanding how things work from the bottom up. That's exactly why animal research (biomedical only) is necessary. We do research because we do not know what will happen. Computer models are a good start, but you need to test things in a living system before you know anything. Physiology is simply too complex to know how a system, let alone a whole organism will respond.

Everyone can agree that animal welfare should be the first concern. I hope that one day we don't need to test on animals, but as of now, we do.

2/27/2006 11:31:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

"Physiology is simply too complex to know how a system, let alone a whole organism will respond."

There are no certainties in life.

With current animal testing procedures, many drugs are still unsafe when trialled on *consenting* human patients. Many patients die through the failure of trialling drugs. It happens. No matter how many animals you test on, you will still kill people in the early stages of a new drug.

Animal testing doesn't make drugs safe. It never has (cf. thalidomide). It makes you feel safer, and makes you feel you can take more shots in the dark. It may speed up the roll out of new medications, which is important for Big Pharm. But it isn't the difference between medical research happening, and a complete cessation. And it hampers any switch to any more expensive, alternative testing regime.

If it does anything, it helps to make medical research a competitive commercial proposition. And maybe it shouldn't.

Nobody ever seems to stop to question whether the pharmaceutical industry would not operate more effectively (in number of lives saved) within the public and academic sectors, with no profit element, and no commercial competition.

We have multiple pharmaceutical giants testing similar products on living creatures in competition with each other to be first to market. Does this make sense to anyone?

They sell their products at a profit, the cost ensuring millions never benefit from them. The profit margin and patent value effectively prevents any hope of universal treatment.

Analyse it, and Big Pharm is about as pleasant as the tobacco industry.

This is not about anthropomorphising cute little bunnies. Its about the cold, hard science of animal behaviour as we now know it to be. These creatures feel pain. They think. They use tools. They communicate. They have emotions. They care for their young, they teach their young, they suffer from stress and depression. Some groups of animals operate with a hierarchy as politically complex as our own. They get lonely. They pine for a lost partner. And in a lab they are entirely dependent on the people who test on them.

As a society we find it absurdly easy to (absurdly) separate pet species and farm animals, petting one and farming, slaughtering, and eating the other, and yet those animals in testing labs are no different from your pets at home. No different from Champ.

This cannot be morally sanitised, and it cannot be excused. People get sick. People die. It happens. And in so many cases (smoking, drugs, obesity, RTAs...) it is actually preventable in the first place, but for our own laziness, stupidity, and greed.

It doesn't mean we should experiment on other living creatures to make up for our own behavioural and biological failings.

We aren't doing it to save millions of sufferers worldwide, because only those who can afford treatment get it.

We should not be considering stopping animal testing: it should be a fundamental ethical tenet of our society that we do not experiment on non-consenting creatures. We should instead be considering how we research without animals, and how every treatment humanity creates, can be disseminated universally.

We could save more human beings, globally, by doing this with existing treatments, than by any new cures, however they are obtained.

If we, as a society, continue to test on animals, at least lets be honest-it isn't about saving more lives. It's about trying to save our own skins, should we, in the future, ever suffer.

And to do that, we allow commercial pharmaceutical companies to produce and sell us drugs as consumer products, in a competitive industry based on the use of living creatures as disposable objects, rather than ensuring everyone on the planet that needs them has the drugs that already exist, whilst moving, perhaps more slowly, with different testing systems, towards future drugs.

I would worry about anyone who could watch a documentary on primate society, and then feel happy to draw a line between people, and everything else, and get their scalpel out to begin work.

If you are serious about saving people from an early death, nationalise Big Pharm and run it as a globally coherent non-profit organisation-because saving the human race from premature death is not a competition, nor is it a business opportunity. Then close down the entire tobacco industry, and disseminate food and existing medications universally.

And I do NOT advocate any form of violence upon anyone in the animal testing industry. If we as a society, allow this to remain legal, then we as a society deserve to live with its shameful blot on our social conscience.

2/28/2006 02:31:00 am  

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