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January 2000
A New Science for the 21st Century

By Bernard E. Rollin


For most of the 20th century, science has been captured by erroneous philosophical assumptions that hardened into unquestioned ideology. Two major components of this ideology are, first of all, the claim that science is “value-free” in general, and ethics-free in particular. Second, science declared itself agnostic about mental states in nonhuman animals, including pain and suffering. Based on the fallacious belief that science could only deal with what it could prove empirically, these two beliefs paved the way for appalling treatment of animals in scientific contexts.

Fortunately, both of these dogmas are being eroded by social concern. No longer content to leave science to its own devices, society has become very conscious of the fact that scientific activity is fraught with debatable ethical assumptions, be it the belief that animal use is not a moral issue or the equally dubious tendency to do human epidemiological studies primarily on males.

Second, society will no longer accept scientific agnosticism about animal thought and feeling. In 1985, social concern for animals in research cut through that agnosticism by mandating in federal law that animals feel pain and distress. As books, films, articles, and television programs that explore animal minds proliferate, science’s ignoring of animal mentation becomes increasingly untenable. Activism should continue to challenge these dogmas.

Finally, one can anticipate serious movements to elevate the legal status of animals beyond property. Serious legal scholars at many law schools are engaging this issue, as are grass-roots efforts such as the Great Ape Project, or the movement in San Francisco to declare people who live with companion animals “guardians” and not “owners.” Ten years ago, the Canadian Law Reform Commission indicated that it was time to raise the legal status of animals. The primates who have been taught to communicate by researchers and have been trashed or sold to toxicology labs when the funding ran out, provide a grim reminder to society of the need for a new legal status, at the least for nonhuman primates.

Bernard E. Rollin is Professor of Philosophy and Physiology at Colorado State University. He is the author of The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Science (Iowa State University Press).


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