Four legs better?

What the animal research debate tells us about humans.

Tony Gilland

Topics Politics

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Tony Gilland, editor of Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad? in the Hodder & Stoughton Debating Matters series, examines the state of the animal research debate.

One of the worst things you can be accused of today is being arrogant or offensive – even to animals.

Take, for example, the controversy that enveloped comedian Steve Coogan, of Alan Partridge fame. In October 2002, the UK press announced that the BBC had commissioned a new series from Coogan titled I am Not an Animal.

The programme, an animated comedy, apparently revolves around a group of animals living a pampered life in a luxurious ‘club class’ wing of a secret vivisection lab. They are appalled when they are freed from the lab by anti-vivisection campaigners and have to live rough in their natural habitat.

No sooner had this programme come to light than the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) decried the Alan Partridge star for making light of the ‘hideous and appalling suffering’ undergone by animals, and demanded termination of Coogan’s programme. BUAV campaigns director Ms Wendy Higgins said she was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the subject matter – though admitted that she hadn’t yet seen the programme.

The censorious approach taken by the BUAV is all too typical of the animal experimentation debate. Few people are prepared to state straightforwardly what they think on this issue, for fear of offending the sensitivities of those campaigning for more animal welfare or even animal rights.

The animal experimentation debate is, first and foremost, a discussion about the benefits of this research for human welfare. But as such, it raises more fundamental issues – about the distinction between humans and animals, the distinction between rights and welfare, and the decline of an unashamedly human-centred view of the world.

Defending the necessity of animal experiments is not just about defending the consequent benefits to human welfare, although this is important. It is also about defending the spirit of rational enquiry, experimentation and engagement with nature.

First, though, it is worth addressing the specific question of where animal experimentation is at in the UK today. The UK has the tightest regulation in the world; and from April 1999, the UK became the only country in the world to operate two parallel systems of regulation: one statutory set of controls imposed by central government through the Home Office, and a system of local ethical review. The pharmaceutical industry’s Competitiveness Task Force has since brought attention to the increasing complexity of the regulatory process and the danger that, as a result, scientific research may move abroad. This is a legitimate concern.

But another major concern is that the ever-expanding regulation of science and rapid growth in ethical committees presents a deeply suspicious, if not pernicious, images of the motivations of scientists. Too often today, scientists are presumed guilty of some misdeed, malign motivation or carelessness and only granted parole by an ethical committee for a limited time-span.

For example, consider the press coverage that Cambridge University scientists received in August 2002, after an experiment in which they played tunes by the pop band The Prodigy, and tunes by Bach, to mice. Some of the mice had been given a strong form of amphetamine, and died. One year after the study’s findings were reported in the journal NeuroReport, the scientists were rebuked by the UK Home Office – and, of course, by campaign groups. Speaking for BUAV, Wendy Higgins said: ‘They should be prosecuted for animal cruelty. Why should they get special treatment because they’re scientists?’

The press coverage took the side of the mice against the scientists. The scientists were assumed to have engaged in an act of frivolity at best, and callous cruelty at worst. Yet one would hope that, if the study was published in a scientific journal, it was of some scientific interest. Dr Jenny Morton, the lead scientist, insisted that this was part of study looking at the effect of amphetamine on a brain region that degenerates in the course of the debilitating Huntingdon’s Disease. This justification did little to distil the climate of suspicion.

We need to ask what impact this suspicion of scientists’ motivations will have on the spirit of scientific enquiry. Furthermore, if the broader cultural distrust of scientists that is reflected here is allowed to go unchecked, we need to ask what impact all this will have on young people’s enthusiasm for a career in science.

The whole saga surrounding Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) in early 2001 raises similar concerns. The tactics used by the animal rights activists against this research lab were appalling, if not new or surprising. What was more shocking was the way in which the company was dumped so publicly by so many organisations. In response to this, the scientist Colin Blakemore blamed the government for unwittingly encouraging extremists’ efforts to close HLS, when the Labour Party withdrew the small shareholding of its pension fund in HLS.

Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian on 17 January 2001, was even more scathing: ‘The cowardice is breathtaking. At the first whiff of gun powder the captains of industry, the big banks, stock brokers, financiers, pharmaceutical companies and even cancer research charities turned tail and fled. The vigilante terror campaign of animal rights lunatics has all but silenced the voice of reason.’

Big name stock-brokers, shareholders and financiers all got out – Phillips and Drew and HSBC; and in March 2001, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein stopped dealing in the company shares, claiming that its only reason was its policy that it did not act as sole maker for any stock. By July 2001, the British government stepped in, offering HLS banking services via the Bank of England.

In relation to this case, the label of cowardice certainly seems appropriate. But there is a bigger problem than particular organisations’ cowardice in the face of violent threats from activists.

No doubt some organisations were worried by the intimidation tactics used by animal rights campaigners, and threats of violence and disruption. But what is noticeable is that these organisations did not feel under any moral pressure to stand up for the importance of animal experiments. No doubt they were as much concerned that their support for animal experiments might damage their public image and invite negative reactions from their customers as they were with the threats of violence. Certainly, these organisations were not concerned about their customers being up in arms about them acting as an obstacle to important scientific work. This tells us something about where the balance of the argument about the use of animals currently lies.

Writing in the book Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society (RDS), argues that there is a noticeable cycle in the tactics of animal rights extremists. Over a period of five to seven years, particular tactics, such as arson attacks and letter bombs, come to the fore, run their course, then fade away. He remarks that even the campaign against HLS, which emerged in late 1996, seems to be fading away. But the next likely target of attack is already apparent ,with the beginning of the public inquiry into the site of the proposed new £24million Cambridge neuroscience centre, where experiments will be conducted on primates.

The local authority and the police have demonstrated their unwillingness to stand up to protesters by objecting to the location of the site. They have cited the disruption and policing costs that will result from the inevitable protests. From press reports, it also seems that protesters have a new angle – to create fear among local people about their own health, by arguing that diseases such as Ebola and Marburg viruses could spread from the centre and infect local inhabitants.

As Matfield points out, the majority of people do think that animal experiments to help find cures for human disease are, on balance, a good thing. The human suffering involved in not finding cures is of greater concern than the animal suffering involved with searching for the cures. Nonetheless, the intellectual current of this debate represents the decline of a human-centred view of the world, and significant barriers to human progress.

In recent years, we seem to have undergone a major reassessment of ourselves as human beings, which involves placing a greater emphasis upon the apparently destructive side of human nature than upon what human society has achieved. Since Australian philosopher Peter Singer and others began formulating the concept of animal rights in the early 1970s, there has been a major shift in society’s conception of the relationship between humans and animals.

On 10 November, the New York Times published an extended essay by author and columnist Michael Pollan, entitled ‘An animal’s place’. Pollan begins by explaining that the first time he opened Singer’s book Animal Liberation, he was dining alone in a fancy New York restaurant, trying to a enjoy a rib-eye steak. Pollan’s attention is caught by a particular strand of Singer’s argument: that eating animals, wearing animals, experimenting on animals, and so on will one day be seen as barbaric activities, and that animal liberation is the next logical step in the forward march of moral progress.

Pollan notes that this idea is no longer the fringe idea that it was when Singer’s book was first published in 1975, and he argues that some of the biggest victories down this path have been in European countries. Pollan cites the granting of a constitutional right to animals in Germany earlier this year when a constitutional provision obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of humans was amended to add the words ‘and animals’. The Swiss government is amending its laws to change the status of animals from ‘things’ to ‘beings’. Pollan also points to changes in animal welfare regulations that apply to farms in several European nations, preventing sows from being confined to crates or laying hens to ‘battery cages’.

While right to identify this shift within Europe, Pollan forgets to mention the growing support in the USA for granting legal standing to chimpanzees in courts of law – similar to the way in which children have been granted rights, by the judges appointing an adult/human guardian to represent them.

Pollan’s article gives the impression that he really does want to enjoy his steak, but because he is a man of conscience, he sets about taking up Singer’s arguments, scribbling objections in the margin. Singer challenges him: ‘If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non humans for the same purpose?’ Answer – ‘But humans differ from animals in morally significant ways’.

Yes, says Singer, we shouldn’t treat pigs and children alike, but we should show them equal consideration – children have an interest in being educated and pigs in rooting around in dirt. Plus we all share an interest in avoiding pain. Singer pushes Pollan even further: ‘Infants and the mentally disabled, whose mental functions do not equal those of a chimpanzee, cannot reciprocate our moral attentions but we nevertheless include them in our moral attentions. So why do we exclude the chimpanzee?’ Answer – ‘Because he’s a chimp and they’re human’.

But Singer persists in nagging at Pollan’s conscience: we would not be happy to advocate discrimination between humans on the basis of differences in intelligence, and lack of intelligence is no justification for discriminating against animals – either we owe no justice to the severely mentally disabled or we do owe justice to animals with higher abilities. Apparently at this point Pollan puts down his fork, but then goes on with his tortured debate with himself.

Pollan’s moral dilemma is clearly not unique in modern society. Where he ends up is quite interesting: he allows himself to eat the meat he enjoys, but only if it comes from non-industrial sources where animals are treated with respect and have an enjoyable existence, where they are allowed to act out their instinctual behaviour, and have a painless death.

Pollan has written a number of articles critical of modern farming practices, so he ends up where he wants to be – critical of industrial agriculture, eating meat, and feeling morally virtuous. A very lucky man indeed. He argues that if he were to become vegetarian, he would actually deny a great many animals their existence. In fact, his whole argument gets him where he wants to be by putting his case in terms of the best interest of animals. He cannot simply say that he wants to eat meat – he has to go through a tortured debate in his head to justify that, on balance, his meat eating will also benefit the animals involved.

Whatever you think about Pollan’s particular argument, it certainly seems to be the case that few people today feel comfortable in arguing for things purely in terms of what is the best interests of human beings. Arguments about excessive animal welfare regulation in the UK, for example, and fears about scientific research going abroad, are often posed in terms of the extent to which animals will suffer more in other countries, due to the welfare protections being less rigorous than in the UK. It is seen as unacceptable to argue for UK-based research simply on the basis of the jobs and research benefits it will bring to this country.

So why do Pollan and so many others have such a tortured time trying to justify things in terms of the best interests of humanity? Why do the arguments put forward by Singer and his contemporaries have broader resonance in society now than in 1975, when the book was published? This has little to do with a realisation of the unique capabilities of animals. Rather, it represents a blurring of the distinction between animals and humans; a self-imposed demotion of the human species.

Three key examples of the way the distinction between animals and humans has been blurred are: the discussion about human pain and animal pain; the discussion about animals and culture; and the discussion of animal rights. It is worth looking at each of these in turn.


The view that animals suffer pain in a similar way to humans is an increasingly prevalent view, and a key plank of the arguments against animal experiments. Both sides of this argument are developed well in the book Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?.

Tom Regan, US philosopher and president of the Culture and Animal Foundation, asks where the line should be drawn between the simplest forms of animal life and the most complex. As Regan points out, nobody thinks that the use of amoebas poses any vexing moral questions. His concern is with mammals, and he argues that, in all essential respects, these animals are physiologically like us, and we, like them. In particular, he says, we know that an intact, functioning central nervous system is associated with our capacity for subjective experience, ‘because the central nervous system of other mammals resembles ours in all the relevant respects, it is reasonable to believe that their central nervous system provide the physical basis for their subjective awareness’.

Regan argues that we know that animals enjoy some things and find others painful, because they seek to find the former and avoid the latter. Moreover, he states, ‘both humans and other mammals share a family of cognitive abilities (we both are able to learn from experience, remember the past, anticipate the future) as well as a variety of emotions (fear, jealousy and sadness)’. Regan concludes that the physiological complexity of mammals is an important aspect of the argument for animal rights, because it means that animals, too, are subjects of a life that is experientially better or worse.

Stuart Derbyshire, who researches central mechanisms of pain at the University of Pittsburgh, argues the opposite. Referring to the International Association for the Study of Pain’s definition of pain, he argues that ‘the commonsense view of pain as a low-level phenomenon directly contingent upon injury is a mistaken one. Pain is actually a high-level process that makes no sense in the absence of sentience. Pain accompanies injury in minds that are capable of subjectivity and this criterion is a reach for animals’.

Derbyshire continues: ‘there are good reasons for believing that animals lack the ability for reflection, and therefore lack an inner world and the capacity for reasoning and suffering.’ If you go with Derbyshire’s perspective, animal behaviour ‘is a black, silent existence that is not conscious of its own processes, or, at the very most, a dark murky experience that does not compare with our own’. If you’re persuaded by Regan, you will undoubtedly find such remarks offensive.

Speaking personally, though, such issues were put into perspective when I attended a recent school debate on this subject. One sixth-form student said: ‘If you kill a cow instantaneously and unannounced, and kill me instantaneously and unannounced, neither of us will know anything about it. But if you announce that you are going to kill me I will have a strong reaction of fear and anger, contemplation of the life I wanted to lead, the people I love, and it will mean a great deal to me. If you announce the same information to a cow, it will go moo.’

I do not have any expert understanding about the biological mechanisms of pain, but I do know the value I place on human life. In this context it seems quite clear to me that human experience of pain is far removed from anything animals might experience.


Another example of the way in which the distinction between animals and humans is blurred is given by the discussion of animals and culture. Today, it is a quite common viewpoint – even among those who endorse the necessity of animal experimentation – to believe that, in the past, we underestimated the capacity of animals or certain animals (particularly primates), and overestimated the capacity of humans. There is an ongoing search for examples of culture within the animal kingdom, essentially to make the point that we’re not so special and unique as we like to think we are.

This point was illustrated by a recent debate, hosted by the Royal Society and the British Academy (BA) on 2 October 2002 to celebrate the centenary of the BA, titled Do Humans Own Culture?. Professor Andrew Whiten argued, from his study of 150 years’ worth of data on chimpanzee cultural variation, that as many as 39 cultural variants have been found covering aspects of tool use, communication and grooming rituals. Whiten argued that ‘this is cultural behaviour, which is passed on by some kind of observation/learning process. One chimpanzee learns from another, in contrast to inheriting behaviours through genetics’.

Reflecting on our long-standing interest in human culture, and the fact that we have shared the planet with our closest ancestors for millennia, Professor Whiten argued that it is only now that we can contemplate similar analyses for chimpanzees. But while his research is fascinating, why should it lead to comparisons between the ‘culture’ of chimps and humans?

Opposing Professor Whiten in the debate, Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature, replied: ‘Humans do not simply acquire habits from others. We constantly innovate and transform ourselves. There is a fundamental distinction between a process by which certain chimpanzees have learnt to crack open palm nuts using two stones as a hammer and anvil, and a process through which humans have created the industrial revolution, unravelled the sequence of their own genome, developed the concept of human rights and come to debate who owns culture.’

Malik continued with a summary of the three key ideas behind the notions of culture – expressed in terms of civilisation – put forward by Enlightenment philosophers:

civilisation as an expression of human universalities, not difference;

civilisation as a transformative process, an expression of human agency, as much about our emancipation from nature as our embodiment in it;

civilisation as an expression of the belief in progress: technological, moral and social.

Such Enlightenment ideals have lost their popularity today, and are seen by many as rather naive. We seem to be surrounded by a form of cultural pessimism that focuses on all that is presumed to have gone wrong in the past, and all that is feared will go wrong in the future if we do not change our ways. Man’s relationship with the natural world is constantly portrayed as one based on greed and folly, and one which has led us to the stage where we may even be faced with oblivion. To challenge such perspectives often meets with accusations of arrogance.

Yet we live longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before, we have achieved a great deal, we know more and we have greater technological capabilities. Yet we constantly seem to believe in the destructive side of humanity, rather than the creative and constructive side. This is the perspective that allows for comparisons between humans and animals. It is detrimental to the work of scientists who need to experiment on animals, it is detrimental to the spirit of scientific enquiry, and it is detrimental to the future of human society.


The blurring of the distinction between animals and humans is central to the debate about animal rights. Here, this trend merges with another key shift: away from modern society’s emphasis upon freedom, towards putting the emphasis upon protection. The classical perspective model of rights – freedom of speech, freedom of association, equality before the law and the right to vote – are all based on the presumption that free-thinking human beings can act upon their conscience and in their own interests, free from the dictates of religion or the state.

These rights were not God-given, but were fought for politically over time, by movements and individuals who believed passionately in demoracy, and their ability to shape the present and future. To compare the so-called struggle for animal rights to these political movements is an insult to the people who fought for, and won, human liberation.

Look, for example, at the list of freedoms for animals, currently being heavily promoted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA):

Freedom from hunger and thirst;

Freedom from discomfort;

Freedom from pain, injury or disease;

Freedom to express normal behaviour;

Freedom from fear and distress.

These ‘freedoms’ are not the outcome of animals fighting for democratic rights, but a checklist created by humans about how people should see their responsibility to animals. Yet these demands are deliberately couched in the language of human rights and freedoms. It is not that anyone, even the animal activists, believe that animals can actively participate in the political process and shape the future of society. It is rather that they, and the institutions that support their views, have come to see rights as meaning something entirely different. The meaning of rights is collapsed together with the concept of welfare.

Maintaining a distinction between rights and welfare is crucial, because it is by blurring this distinction that animal rights activists come up with the argument that confounds many. This is the argument that if we confer rights upon disabled humans and upon children, we should do likewise for animals. But we do not confer rights upon children and mentally disabled people in the same way as rights are held by able-bodied adults.

Children do not have the right to vote, for example, and this right can be removed from those who become mentally disabled, precisely because these individuals are not considered to have the capacity to be fully conscious of the decisions that they would make, and therefore are not considered capable of exercising such rights. What society confers upon children and mentally disabled people is welfare and protection. The form and extent of that welfare and protection, and the best strategies for delivering it, is often a subject of heated debate, but nonetheless we are talking about welfare and protection, not about rights.

Furthermore, society protects the welfare of children and mentally disabled people because they are human. It has been recognised that even those human beings least capable of exercising rights are deserving of protection and dignity, and cannot be equated with animals. The fact that, today, so much time and energy is spent worrying about animals’ welfare itself indicates a worrying trend – that animals are deemed worthy of the kind of treatment afforded to human beings.

But it is one thing to discuss what protection should be given to animals, and another thing entirely to claim that animals have rights. By stealing the language of rights, those who wish to argue for greater consideration for animal welfare are attempting to steal the moral authority that has been won by autonomous individual human beings seeking to exercise free will.

If rights were applicable to animals, they would be fighting for them. Philosophers such as Singer, Regan and Ryder would be more honest if they argued simply that animals should be treated better by humans, rather than pretending that there is some sort of moral equivalence in the relationship.

A final point on animal rights: it is worth considering Richard Ryder’s position on the importance of physical pain to the rights debate. ‘The suffering of pain and distress has become the central issue in ethics today’, he states. ‘It has taken time for other concepts – sanctity, reason, virtue – to be put into their current perspective and for philosophers to realise that conditions such as justice, equality and liberty are all morally subordinate to the reduction of pain. Indeed justice, equality and liberty are psychologically and ethically important precisely because they tend to have an analgesic effect.’

But since when did pain avoidance become the foundation of human society? How could anything of significance be achieved if humans were not prepared to endure pain and danger to achieve greater ends? What a degradation of the concepts of justice, equality and liberty to regard them as important only insofar as they have some impact on our psychology that reduces the pain we feel.

Ryder’s emphasis on the primacy of pain reduction complements all the other negative views of human capabilities that are embodied in this debate. That is why defending the necessity of animal experiments involves opposing the way in which the distinction between animals and humans is becoming blurred, and putting forward a positive vision of humanity’s unique capabilities.

A society that degrades what it means to be human, and degrades the importance of advancing all aspects of human life, is an anti-human one. And this is where the arguments against animal experimentation are taking us.

This is an edited version of Tony Gilland’s speech to the RDS annual meeting, 25 November 2002, London.

Tony Gilland is science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. He is the editor of Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Nature’s Revenge?: Hurricanes, Floods and Climate Change, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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