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January 2000
Animals and Science: The Next Two Decades

By Niall Shanks


How will animals be used in science over the next 20 years? Forecasting the future history of science—especially biomedical science—is an inherently risky business. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern some clear trends. But before I explain my predictions for the next two decades, it will not go amiss to discuss where we are today.

The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that researchers in the U.S. alone currently use some 16 to 20 million animals each year. Others put the estimate far higher. Exact figures are hard to come by due to industrial and institutional secrecy. Some 90 percent of research subjects are rodent species, primarily rats and mice. Far fewer cats and dogs are used, and the number of primates employed as research subjects is relatively small. Animals are currently used in many different contexts, from industrial product testing in the name of consumer safety, to the search for cures for heart disease, stroke and cancer—diseases that are the major killers in our affluent society at the end of the 20th century.

Heart disease, stroke and cancer will continue to be the major targets of biomedical research efforts for the next two decades because these diseases are primarily diseases affecting older people, and they will follow the “baby boomers” into their old age, taking rather more than 50 percent of them to their graves.

So, though the current trends are toward the use of fewer animals as research subjects, one should not anticipate major reductions in current levels of usage. Animals will continue to pay a grim price for human greed and folly. For it has been known for a long time—in some cases decades—that heart disease, stroke and cancer are diseases that have preventable environmental causes, ranging from poor diet to smoking, alcohol abuse and industrial contamination. Obviously, these diseases cannot be completely eliminated, but their toll could be significantly reduced by more prudent modes of living than are typically found in modern industrial societies. Rising levels of obesity among young people in America today, not to mention current trends in smoking among young people, do not bode well for the future.

Little Reason for Optimism
Though there may be slight reductions in the use of animal subjects in this country, there is little reason for optimism elsewhere. For as developing countries struggle to industrialize in the 21st century, they too will start using animal subjects in ever increasing numbers to foster research in their own developing biomedical industries. And these gruesome trends will be reinforced by multinational drug companies and others engaged in biomedical research, who will simply shift the bases of their current operations away from “over-regulated” Western countries to emerging industrial nations.

Unfortunately, many of these emerging industrial nations are countries that already have dismal records with respect to human rights, and are not likely to be environments that will engender serious concern for animal rights and welfare any time soon. Clearly, organizations concerned with animal welfare will have to internationalize their efforts and take their causes wherever those engaged in animal research seek to evade humane regulation.

If current research into xenotransplantation (use of nonhuman organs in human medicine) bears fruit, we may see entire new industries devoted to the creation and rearing of genetically altered pigs, for example, to provide organs for transplantation to fill the growing “organ gap.” I once came across a British surgeon who put it this way, “Pigs are horizontal men. Put differently, men are vertical pigs.” The success of these experimental technologies will hinge on finding ways to “hide” the transplanted organ from surveillance by the human immune system. The hope is that this may be achieved through genetic alteration of pigs (or other species). Should these technologies begin to succeed, it will likely be bad news for primates, since they are closer to humans, evolutionarily speaking, than pigs.

The Brighter Side
On the brighter side, I expect humane research into animal behavior to continue to yield valuable insights into the cognitive sophistication exhibited by many nonhuman species. Without begging any questions about language use, research has already revealed some startling discoveries about the cognitive abilities of many birds and mammals. The issue of consciousness in animals is currently a topic generating a lot of research interest. I suspect this will be an issue whose importance will grow over the next 20 years.

Research into the cognitive abilities of nonhuman species is not just of scientific importance, it is of crucial moral importance. Cognitively sophisticated beings, and certainly conscious beings, have moral standing, and it is wrong to treat them capriciously. Already many researchers concede that their nonhuman subjects have some moral standing, just not as much as humans. Thus, in a grim calculus in which ends justify the means, they kill their research subjects for the greater human good. A growing awareness of the extent of cognitive sophistication in animals could well be accompanied by a serious critical reassessment of current justifications for animal use—in both research and other industrial contexts.

So far I have mentioned mammal and bird species. These are examples of vertebrate species. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently regulates animal research through rules establishing minimal humane procedures for animal care. The USDA rules currently apply only to vertebrates; invertebrates are excluded from such minimal humane consideration. In the eyes of the USDA, experiments on invertebrates are not animal experiments! I think there may be pressure for change here, especially with regard to the Cephalopoda.

Cephalopods, the most advanced class of mollusks (a class including squids, octopuses and cuttlefish) have a highly concentrated central nervous system within a protective cartilaginous case, and are capable of displaying quite startling sophisticated behavior. It may well be that behavioral research involving invertebrates will yield fruit that will lead the USDA to reconsider its current line in the evolutionary sand. The same research might make so-called “vegetarians” a little more cautious about consumption of seafood snacks.

A Sideshow?
In a way, our good and decent concern for animals in the context of biomedical research may well turn out to be something of a sideshow in the grand scheme of things. The bigger issues concern our current ecological crisis. The fact of the matter is that we are, right now, in the middle of a mass-extinction event, that, though perhaps slower than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, is of about the same magnitude. Human activity is not merely destroying species at an ever-increasing rate; we are destroying entire ecosystems.

Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, using a cautious selection of parameters for a maximally optimistic conclusion, has estimated that some 27,000 species are doomed globally each year. That is 74 species per day, or about three per hour. If current trends continue, we will be losing species at a rate measured in species per minute. This, along with the other symptoms of environmental degradation—for example an estimated 18-centimeter rise in sea levels in the last century—should give us all pause for concern.

As a species, we like to think we have a special place in nature, but our fates are coupled with those of the nonhuman species we interact with. A true concern for family values will involve a concern for these other species, for it is they who will be needed to make up a viable biological environment for our children and grandchildren, and their children down the generations. If our descendants grow up in a poisoned, impoverished environment, it is they who will look back on us with contempt. For they will know that we knew better. And, biologically speaking, the sins of the fathers will indeed be visited upon the children.

Niall Shanks is Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Biological Sciences at East Tennessee State University. Along with Hugh LaFollette, he is author of Brute Science: The Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation, as well as numerous articles on the science and ethics of animal use in science.


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