It's a moral imperative

August 26, 2005

Forget the medical arguments, if we care about animals we must do research, writes Chris Barnard

Threatened expansion of animal-rights activity against Oxford University marks the latest round in the institution's battle with extremists and adds fuel to the ongoing public debate about animal research.

But, while the Government and scientists continue the engagement, it is worth asking whether their case for the use of animals is appropriately focused.

The reflex response to those who would abolish the use of animals is that animal research has clear benefits for humanity, particularly in terms of medicine. While many might sign up to that, it limits the debate. For a start, such utilitarianism will never cut much ice with hardcore abolitionists because it attempts to justify self-interested exploitation of other species. In a black-and-white world, mice can never be men, and no amount of cost-benefit relativism will change the extreme moral view that we have no right to exploit other animals for our advantage. But there is another reason why we should broaden the argument.

The fact is, there is a clear need - some might argue responsibility - to study other animals in their own right. That we are having a serious impact on our planetary cohabitants, whether ecologically or through managing them for food or the whims of the commodity market, is hardly in doubt. Much of that impact arises from indifference in the face of financial benefits, but it is exacerbated by our as yet shadowy grasp of what can be done from the animals' point of view to alleviate it. A sophisticated understanding of how other species function is essential if the problem is not simply to be compounded by well-intentioned, but misguided, shots in the dark. Such understanding cannot be gained by staring passively at animals in their natural state.

For the same reasons as medical research it requires experimentation, some of it invasive.

The point is illustrated with fine irony by the study of animal welfare.

Few would disagree that the acceptability of using animals in scientific research should be judged against its impact on the animals' welfare. This is the principle underlying licensing of animal research by the Home Office and its credo of the 3Rs - replacement, refinement, reduction. The problem is that our scientific understanding of the welfare of other species is still in its infancy.

Most concepts of welfare hinge on anthropomorphic ideals of comfort, health and hygiene, or notions of what constitutes a natural environment or opportunity for behaviour. However we dress it up, the animal's predicament is judged largely by how we might feel if we were forced to experience the same thing.

But there are sound reasons for being wary of this approach. That we are preoccupied with our own welfare makes sense from an adaptive point of view, in that we are a long-lived species with a long period of parental care, where sickness or premature death can have serious consequences for our overall reproductive success. But the life cycles of many other species are nothing like this. For many, the prospects for future survival are thin in the extreme, and the priority is to throw everything into reproducing as early and as copiously as possible. These differences make simple clinical yardsticks, such as stress hormone levels and susceptibility to disease, widely relied on in judgments of welfare, extremely difficult to interpret.

Do they reflect impaired welfare or do they instead reflect adaptive choices (in the sense of naturally selected responses) by the animal to trade off future survival in favour of likely benefits now? If we mistake adaptive choices for impaired welfare and take steps to "remedy" them, then, far from solving a welfare problem, we're more likely to create one.

Avoiding such problems requires insight into how an animal has evolved to respond to the environment around it, something that is beginning to be achieved, but only through rigorous controlled study and experimentation.

To avoid reliance on subjective guesswork for solutions, a vigorous culture of animal research is imperative. But the case for studying animals in and of themselves is not only scientifically pressing, it also has the moral potency to engage the opposition lobby without self-serving appeals to improvement in our own quality of life.

Chris Barnard is professor of animal behaviour at Nottingham University and president of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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