Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

I was going to write something about Enron v. Global Crossing (Megan McArdle has already mentioned it, and discussed Jim Cramer's column on it, but I would like to discuss it a bit), but I got sidetracked, and came upon this tidbit from Ben Kepple (my nemesis, I guess :)) in an article on animal rights activists.
It is because people have souls and animals do not. That's not a politically correct argument, nor even a comforting one, but it is one which religious authority supports and the science we have at our disposal seems to indicate. (emphasis added)
Ben, not to be a pest about this, but what science is there that suggests that people have souls (or that animals do not??). Certainly religious authority supports the notion (and is founded on it), but this argument has nothing to do with science. The scientists justification for animal research can come from many sources, but the fundamental one is simply that I value my life, and that of other humans, more greatly than that of animals. I see the ur-kingdom of life (Archaea, Eukaryota, Eubacteria) as a vast web of living organisms, of varying degrees of complexity and interest. All life, with the possible exception of some photosynthetic and chemoautolithotrophic ( a fancy word for self-sufficient rock-eating) bacteria is interdependent, and to some extent dependent on the taking of other lives. If you don't like it, no one is forcing you to live. But if you are still alive, you are so at the expense of other living organisms (assuming you eat). Animal rights activists have chosen a certain form of life (animals with fur and warm blood, basically) and said that these are sacrosanct, and other forms of life (plants, animals, nematodes, bacteria) are not. The reasons for this are, at best, unclear, but usually boil down to "they kinda look like us, or like our pets, so we shouldn't eat them, or experiment on them." This is just a matter of where you draw lines.
I have some experience (limited) in animal research, and I know that it can be technically and psychologically difficult, but in many cases our medical advances are utterly dependent on it. When I was in college, we did experiments on crawdads (neuron patch clamps) and snails (intracellular voltage clamps). Before we did those experiments, we had a long discussion on the ethics of animal experimentation, and discussed the options. It basically boils down to this; if you want to know how something works, you have to study it. If you want to know how nerves, or muscles, or lungs or skin work, you have to study them. Since most people won't volunteer for surgery aimed solely at finding out how they work, we turn to animal studies for this information. When I was in grad school, I did some experiments on bacterial toxin activity in a rabbit model system. It wasn't pleasant, but we had to know if the proteins we were studying had the activity that we were interested in examining. There is simply no other way to get this information, and information (and publication) is the currency of science.
Now, as it happens, Ben and I draw the line in about the same place (people on one side, everything else on the other), but obviously for different reasons. I will concede, however, that research on great apes is disturbing to anyone who has spent much time observing chimps and gorillas at the zoo (they act an awful lot like we do!!), and should be done with the utmost care. But this sort of distinction is lost on "animal rights activists." They don't want to make nuanced decisions about how to do animal experiments, they just want to ban them. As usual, life is full of shades of grey.