My family and other lab animals

Reinventing Biology
June 14, 1996

Biological science has developed so rapidly during the last half century that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is being reinvented every week in the pages of Nature. However, the reinvention described in this book is not about discoveries in biology but about attitudes to research. Feminist studies have emphasised the exploitation of women by men and point out that most historians ignore the role of women in past and present societies. In previous publications the editors discussed ways in which the predominance of male scientists in the western world had affected the theoretical framework and practices of biology and medicine.

The 13 contributors to the present volume include sociologists, historians and anthropologists as well as biologists. They were asked to explore a further question: whether the fact that biologists think of themselves as distinct from the subjects of their investigations has significantly affected biological thinking and experimentation. Although the essays are written from different angles the common thread is that current research methods have resulted in exploitation by humans of "the other". Most of the discussion concerns research with animals: several authors claim that some experiments are not only cruel to animals but also desensitise the experimenter and may give misleading results. Doubts are cast on the contribution of molecular studies to understanding evolutionary relationships and on the prospects for developing effective medical therapies from research in molecular biology.

Hilary Rose, a social scientist and historian, outlines the vigorous opposition of Victorian feminists to laboratory experiments carried out by 19th-century physiologists in the name of medical science, and compares the exploitation of animals to the exploitation of women. Karen Messing and Donna Mergler, whose field is occupational health, consider that some scientists submit workers to unpleasant and dangerous environments in the name of science. They comment that most occupational health research is focused on full-time workers in fields which are traditionally male. They point out that, unlike animals, humans can communicate with the experimenters. A research centre set up by the University of Quebec, labour unions, granting agencies and feminist activists has encouraged projects in which workers being studied are themselves able to contribute.

Several professional biologists describe how their views changed during their careers. Ruth Hubbard had enjoyed working on visual pigments, but her involvement with feminist ideas led her to abandon laboratory research. Betty Wall gave up her research on insect physiology. She believes that all organisms, no matter how small, should be looked upon as our relatives and that biologists should talk to them as friends. "We would consider the birds as our winged friends, the cockroaches and worms as our crawling friends, the squid, the bacteria, as our cousins." None of the contributors extends this holistic approach to biology to a discussion of biochemical homologies and on the whole they dismiss such an approach as reductionist.

Few biologists would wish to dispute the conclusion in the final chapter that they should "recognise our membership in the natural world and identify with it", but although readers of this book will learn about current feminist views they will learn little about current biology.

Patricia H. Clarke is emeritus professor of microbial biochemistry, University College London.

Reinventing Biology

Editor - Lynda Birke and Ruth Hubbard
ISBN - 0 253 32909 4 and 20981 1
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £.50 and £12.99
Pages - 291

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