The IOM recommends that chimps should be used only if the research project cannot be ethically performed on people and that the use of these primates should be allowed only if their use will prevent humans from being treated to a life threatening or debilitating condition. According to the IOM, aced on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.
The IOM also stated that NIH should also limit the use of chimps in behavioral research in studies that provide very few insights into normal and abnormal behavior, mental and emotional health or cognitive skills. And if the chimps are used in these experiments, NIH should use techniques that do little harm to the animal both physically and mentally.The report itself lists these criteria for deciding when their use is deemed moral and appropriate.
The NIH has long banned killing chimps when their usefulness is over, unless they are suffering. For that reason a number of chimpanzee retirement centers have been established, where chimps are only sent out to pasture metaphorically. They've got tv's, play areas, all the food they can eat, good medical care, and companionship. What more could they ask? Except maybe a good jungle?
Even the latter is provided, after a fashion, by one such place, Chimp Haven, in Louisiana. There chimpanzees retired from research are given a decent environment in which to live out their natural lives, as described on their web site:
Chimp Haven’s construction began in May 2003 on 200 acres of pristine forest, donated by the local citizens of Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Chimp Haven’s facility includes an interconnected network of bedrooms, outdoor courtyard and play yards, and large, forested habitats up to five acres.
We applaud these new regulations. As regular readers know, we have often commented on examples of less than useful research being done. Clinical trials aren't our area, so we can't speak to whether drug testing on chimps is valuable overall, but since a large number of experiments done with humans are let's say inconclusive this must be true for chimps as well, particularly in the psychological or behavioral realm. It has been said, indeed, that the psychological world of chimps is so different from ours that decades of research on chimps' ability to learn 'language'--meaning human language'--have been a misguided waste of research resources, despite the human interest of the results (that is, that most research along such lines, despite protests of the investigators of course, would fall into the NIH prohibited category).
There is of course the question of the arbitrariness by which we decide what species we can do what to in the lab. Why just chimpanzees or other great apes? Why not baboons, who are widely used by researchers (including ourselves, though we only look at ones that died naturally and are interested in morphology rather than physiology or behavior)? What about the long-used (or abused?) rhesus monkeys? Do they not have a cognitive world in which fear and suffering are included? If they are so different from us as to be unqualified for special protection, why do we study them?
The question can be, and perhaps should be, extended to all vertebrates, or perhaps all animals. No one can seriously deny that fish or even insects manifest the signs of fear, though that seems to be the position on which university research review boards act.
There is the interesting case of Neandertals, too, now that their DNA has been sequenced after a fashion (the 'whole genome' sequence available so far is not really the whole genome and it's from a composite of different individual fossils, as far as we are aware). There has been some salivation over the juicy possibility of cloning a Neandertal, in the sense of replace all the 'genes' (protein coding regions) in a human by those sequenced in Neandertals, and then using that for in vitro fertilization in some donor-incubator (a human? a chimp?). Would this be cruelty to the gestator? And what about the 'Neandertal' thus produced?
Neandertals are, consistent with the fossil record and their genomes, very close to humans in genome structure (90% closer than chimps, relatively speaking). Essentially, they were human, and debates about whether they could interbreed with those contemporaries who, based on fossils, seem more directly in our line of ancestors, are rather silly. Indeed, the evidence suggests interbreeding, so that they are direct ancestors. So, where do we draw the research line?
Would it be right to clone a Neandertal, even in the artificial sense just described? Would the new individual be allowed to be experimented on, tested for HIV susceptibility or dissected to see how many lobes in its liver, its brain scanned under various conditions, or put on display? Or would it have human rights--to go to school, to a human home rather than a cage, to vote?
In the 19th century there were strong moves against the torture of animals by science, called 'anti-vivisection' movements, and their descendants are the animal rights groups today. There are many legitimate reasons to ask whether we should do any experiments on animals, and whether understanding human biology or disease justifies it. The response generally is that of course scientists are going to do it whether it's particularly humane or not, but that we do have at least some restraints on the pain and fear etc. we can inflict, and on what species. Also, of course, we do raise and kill many animals to eat, and we're perfectly sanguine about asphyxiating zillions of fish a day so we can eat them.
So, taking care of chimps seems like an unambiguously good thing to do. But it does raise deeper questions.