Monday, February 11, 2019

Mea culpa, mice!

Animal research is purportedly protected by university and broader review and approval criteria.  The relevant IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) approval committees meet regularly, go over research and/or grant applications their faculty wish to submit for funding to the feds, and so on, and approve them for humane handling and other criteria; approval is required before the work can go on. 

Approval?  Well, what I have seen over many years, is not that 'anything goes', but lots of bending to allow scientists to act like Frankensteins so long as the victims--and that's what they are--can't protest.  We define what is 'humane' for them.  That makes it 'ethical' research.  And, no surprise, it does not require that whatever be approved is something we would voluntarily undergo ourselves (for knowledge's sake!).  Well, maybe the Nazis did that....

I am writing this to express my own very deep regrets for my many years of research on mice.  Mice were almost my only victims (no guinea pigs, etc., baboons once or twice briefly), but they were many.  And they did not have to sign any informed consent!  We did to them what our purportedly protecting IACUC approved, and deemed 'humane' and 'justified' for the new knowledge we would gain.  Note the 'we' here.  This was entirely selfish.

A lab mouse (source: cdn9wn.com)

And, dare one ask: what fraction of the knowledge gained by animal research is really of any substantial value to humans (none, of course, to the animals' own species)?  By what 'right' do we enslave and torment (if not, often, horrify and torture) innocent animals, to build our careers?  Because it is score-counting for our own selfish interest that is part of the story, even if, of course, that story also includes the desire for genuine new knowledge, which we hope will lead to improvements of some kind (for us).

Well, they're 'just animals', we rationalize (I think, a rationale conveniently provided by Descartes, who judged all but we soul-bearers to be no more than autonomous machines).  IACUC restrictions mean that we don't torture them (well, we pretend so, at least, using our not their definition; and we certainly do do things to them we'd be jailed, or even executed, for doing to humans).  Animal research is, after all, for our own good (note, again, the 'our' in this excuse).

What is the reality of the IACUC protection system?  It may avert the worst tortures, but it rationalizes much that is so gruesome that if the public knew of it......  For example, we can 'humanely' make transgenic mice who suffer--even from conception--some serious physical, health or behavioral defect, by investing them with, say, some known serious gene defect so that, hopefully, 'we' can figure out how to fix it (in humans, not in the victims from whom we learned the tactic).  I have been present at a purported meeting about research ethics, where a prominent university official bemoaned the care (already minimal, really, from the victims' viewpoint) that his IACUC committee exercised.  Why?  Because, he said, their Committee sometimes turned down faculty proposals that might, if funded, have brought in significant overhead funds to the University.  I mean, really!

A clear statement of the problem, for those humane enough to listen
There is a poignant, indeed deeply disquieting article in The Atlantic ("Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition", Ross Andersen, March, 2019).  Animals of all sorts, including even invertebrates, have self-awareness of one kind or another, essentially a sense of 'me'.  They presumably generally don't know about the inevitable finiteness of life, including their lives, so are saved from at least some of the abstract fears and fearful knowledge we humans may uniquely understand.  But they are not just things, cellular machines, and they do have fears, experience pain, and so on.  And yet.....

And yet, we noble university professors, not to mention those working in industry and agriculture, do to animals what we would not do to ourselves or each other (well, about what we do to each other one can say much that is just as sad as my reflections on animal research here).

So, to the mice (and those insects I've knowingly destroyed, and countless animals that I've eaten), I offer my mea culpa!  Sometimes, one must kill.  Life is an evolutionary phenomenon most of whose actors must, because of their evolutionary history, dine on objects of similar makeup.  Meat is one form, but do we too easily dismiss plants?  There are recent reports showing that plants are far more social, sentient, and aware than is convenient for us to think about with ease, as we munch away on our daily salad or fruit and veggies.

Darwin saw in his way what is to blame.  Life evolved as a self-renewing chemical phenomenon, and species evolved to dine on each other because, in a sense, we're all made of the same stuff.  It is a cruel truth of living existence, and that is one reason Darwin's work was controversial and is still resisted by those who wish for comforting theological accounts of reality and a joyful forever-after.  But we know--even they know--some of the harsh realities of life here and now.

We researchers always have some sort of justifying rationale for what we do to animals.  We have the approval of a committee, after all!  We're doing it for the good of humanity, to understand life, or for some other self-advancing careerist reason, including bringing in money to the university.  But, the bottom line is: we do, in fact, do it.

Fare thee well...
So, you countless mice, whose lives I terminated so I could get ahead, even if doing so as 'humanely' as possible after selfishly using them as I did, here's my apology.  I can't take back what I did to you, all within our acceptable research standards (note, mice, I said 'our', not 'your' acceptable standards).  Even where I could find, or construct, some rationale for my work, such as health-related discovery, basic knowledge, and so on, the payoff for us is small, and the cost to you, mice, was total and involuntary.  And one can debate how valuable the knowledge really was in the grand scheme of things.  How many of these must suffer before even one serious benefit, even one just for humankind, be gained?   I, and my lab group over the years, didn't really 'need' to do it, except  mainly for our careers. Was it enough that I did, after all, give you life, some sort of short life at least?

I so wish there were some way I could make it up to you.