How will animals be used in science over the next
20 years? Forecasting the future history of scienceespecially
biomedical scienceis 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 cancerdiseases 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 timein some cases decadesthat 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,
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 usein both research and other
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.
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 degradationfor example
an estimated 18-centimeter rise in sea levels in the last centuryshould
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.