Monday, February 21, 2011

Autophilia: Where morality begins?

Autophilia:  Not, it's not a sex term.  But it is a term we like to use for our human love for ourselves, that makes us act as if the world was made for us to exploit and abuse.   Some, of course, think that a kindly (to humans, not pigs or cows or mice) God set it up this way. Of course, life evolved in such a way that we have to eat, and what we have to eat is or was once alive.  Pigs don't want their throats slit nor carrots to be eaten alive, in order that we may have satisfyingly filled post-prandial naps on the couch.

Sometimes, we decide that for scientific as well as for gustatory objectives, inflicting death, or even disease, on other species, including mammals like rodents and even primates, is justified.  Our autophilia over-rides other aspects of ethics.  But there should be limits....

The fat monkey
There is a story in the NY Times about funded science that uses monkeys to experiment with the health risks of 'couch potato' behavior--obesity, diabetes, and the like.
The corpulent primates serve as useful models, experts say, because they resemble humans much more than laboratory rats do, not only physiologically but in some of their feeding habits. They tend to eat when bored, even when they are not really hungry. And unlike human subjects who are notorious for fudging their daily calorie or carbohydrate counts, a caged monkey’s food intake is much easier for researchers to count and control.
To allow monitoring of their food intake, some of the obese monkeys are kept in individual cages for months or years, which also limits their exercise. That is in contrast to most of the monkeys here who live in group indoor/outdoor cages with swings and things to climb on.
To us, this work is thoroughly disgusting, if not immoral. While institutions purportedly have review boards that must approve every research project proposed by their employees (such as university faculty), this is largely nowadays based on CYA (protect yourself from lawsuit) criteria rather than whether the research really is not cruel to animal or human subjects, and/or whether the experimentation is scientifically justified.

From the TimesAt 45 pounds, Shiva
 is twice his normal weight and carries
 much of it in his belly. He can eat all
 the pellets he wants and snack on
 peanut butter, but gets barely any exercise.
It is perfectly legitimate to want to reduce morbidity and impaired quality of life due to our lazy, McFood-laden lifestyles.  Certainly one should treat those who suffer.  But we don't need animals to be made sick--even rodents, and certainly not primates!--to shows us what we already know.  We know how to address this problem and it has to do with education, income and neighborhood equity, and regulation.  It is not a matter of lack of knowledge.

Of course, now we have people experimenting, and doubtlessly doing extensive genomewide mapping, 'epigenetics', expressomics, nutrigenomics, and all sorts of other made-up types of work to glamorize their value to society. And of course we must acknowledge that so long as that is the reward system, one cannot blame the professoriate for going for it!

But, we know how to solve the obesity related chronic disease problem, we just don't have the resolve to do it.  How about rationing hours spent on video games or TV, intake of fast foods, mileage driven vs mileage walked, and so on?  How about providing wholesome shopping and affordable cost for areas that now are only McServed?  Or banning tobacco.  Banning leaf-blowers by subsidizing the price of rakes.  Outlawing golf carts for those under 65.  And so on.

Or, more drastically: if even then you don't follow decent lifestyle, you are on your own when it comes to health care costs.

Fat monkeys, fat people, professor welfare: what would we learn anyway?
The Times reports that at least one weight loss drug has been shown to be effective on these monkeys, and that gastric bypass surgery can be a treatment for diabetes.  They've also found a drug that makes monkeys gain weight, though it reduced appetite in rodents.  Whether or not these results justify keeping monkeys alone in small cages, and unable to exercise for years at a time is your call.  The story also reports that monkey research has taught us that it's total calories, not type of calorie, that makes us fat.  We've known that for decades.

In the long run, fat monkeys can't make a complex trait simple.  These monkeys are not inbred, a longstanding advantage of lab mice and rats, even though they are less similar to humans than monkeys are.  In fact, 40% of the monkeys don't get fat, which means there's something different about those that do.  Will researchers do GWAS now to figure out what that is?  With as much success as they've had explaining the genetics of obesity in humans?  

Is making monkeys sick much more than yet another playground for the professor class who can't think of more cogent things to do?  Is it much more than something that will give us something to do in between lattes, organic salads, and our time at the Nautilus club, where we can watch TV, yes, but only while treadmilling?

If we had a sane, moral research establishment and health care system, we would take care of these health issues first behaviorally, through lifestyle changes that we already know actually increase quality and length of life, on a large scale.  Then, those who still have morbid levels of obesity or diabetes etc. would be easier to identify. They would be the ones for which genetic, or sophisticated surgical or other approaches would be appropriate, would more likely be truly transformative, or might actually make a difference that the victims can't make on their own.

But that would mean we'd have to get our autohpilia under control, and not justify absolutely everything in our own self-interested terms.  But that doesn't seem on the horizon.  How could it be curbed if we haven't even recognized that the autophilia is a (or the) problem?  And, since it seems characteristic of our species, it may actually be a GWASable genetic problem that our professor class could opportunistically seize upon to justify the next round of Omics!

Meanwhile, it may be a strong thing to say that many will object to, but have the project reviewers, funders, and investigators no sense of shame about what they are doing to these innocent monkeys?


Holly Dunsworth said...

Excellent post.

This is going to read more callous than if I said it aloud, but to answer your last question with my own rhetorial flourish: Do you see people ashamed as they overfeed their pets and their own children? Hardly. Feeding and sharing food and providing food... these are expressions of love. Not saying these scientists love these monkeys, but overfeeding is not seen as cruel by our society at-large so I doubt you'll hear many laypeople object to this study on those grounds.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, well these people are doing it on purpose to make the monkeys sickly. Not out of love (except autophilia, perhaps). A lot of people are essentially saying that parents who allow their children to over indulge (on food or TV etc.) are definitely doing something shameful, since they should know better.

Ken Weiss said...

To be fair (though why do that, I'm not sure), we're in a middle-class work-house. Our jobs, in what has developed as the professor wellfare System, depend on keeping the 24/7 treadmill of grants and publications going.

Few people indeed have something original to say 24/7--indeed, few of us _ever_ do! But if the treadmill must be kept in motion, we have to fabricate problems or puff up solutions.