Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Friday, May 24, 2002


I am going to post a bunch more on bioterror and microbiology based on my ASM meeting experience, but first a couple of small things. 1)Science Friday on NPR is discussing Animal Rights. It is an interesting discussion, and I think worth having. A fundamental point about animal rights, however, is this; we, as a society, value a human life above that of any animal. We have chosen this position for the very good reason that we are human. If we were cats, we would probably value cats' lives over humans'. There is a lot of bogus propaganda being spouted by the Animal Rights' proponents, and exposure of some very silly people calling in (mostly AR activists or proponents). As I listen, it sounds like it will devolve soon into a "Crossfire" like shouting match. Simply put, we need animal models of disease to understand how disease functions. We also need in vitro studies, and in silico studies, but the unimaginable complexity of a living thing makes those untenable as predictive models. I can't even begin to describe the number of ways in which in vivo studies have contradicted the early in vitro studies, because of the countless complexities of a living organism.

I am very interested, as a scientist, in the "host-pathogen" interaction. This fits into the overall rubric of "interspecies mutualism", in which two organisms can interact as host and parasite, host and commensalism, or host and symbiote. Roughly, these three interactions correspond to harm, no benefit or harm, and benefit to the host organism. An example of a parasitism is just about any infectious disease, acute or chronic. A commensalism example is the bacteria that live on your skin, which are harmless (to a healthy individual at least), but do no real good. As an aside, many have argued that the presence of these commensal organisms is actually excluding pathogens from that environment, but that doesn't really count as symbiosis. The classic example of symbiosis for humans is the gut microbes that substantially digest our food, and excrete the nutrients we survive on. All of these relationships have been studied in detail in plant and animal models. It is simply not possible to study these things in vitro or in silico. We can get some idea about how they work by studying cells in a dish (bear in mind that they had to come from somewhere!), but these are simply "entry-level" experiments, and need to be followed up by studies in a good model system.

In addition, it seems to me impossible to grant rights to animals in any cohesive way, except maybe to the other great apes. After all, what is domestication if not slavery, if we propose to grant rights to dogs and cats? What is a Zoo but a horrible prison. The reason I except the great apes from this analysis is the study published in Science and written about in the LA Times about Chimps using stone tools to get at nuts, and teaching their children how to do it. This appears to be a complex, learned behavior that is passed on memetically, rather than genetically. I am not aware of anything like this being discovered in any other species, although complex social structures have certainly been observed before in great apes. This reminds me of David Brin's Uplift Saga, of which "Startide Rising" is my favorite, about a future in which human technology has allowed for the "Uplift" of dolphins and chimps to human level intelligence and communication. It is a really excellent series (well, Sundiver isn't so great, but the other two in the first trilogy are great; I haven't read the later ones yet). The point, however, is that a certain level of intelligence or potential may give us pause. I admit that I am quite queasy about experiments on monkeys and chimps, although that may be largely anthropomorphism. In any event I have to reject the notion of giving rabbits and mice rights, but I think we need to ponder the case of the great apes in particular with great care.

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