Monday, December 19, 2011

Chimps looking back at us

Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives, and as such have long been used in medical research, particularly in the kinds of experiments that have been deemed unethical to perform on humans.  They've been used to test vaccines and drugs and new medical procedures, and in psychological and behavioral experiments, and so forth.  Now, in recognition of the similarity chimps have to ourselves, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the US is saying that the continued use of our nearest brethren in experimentation is immoral and unethical, and they are recommending that their use be drastically curtailed.  According to the CNN story reporting this:
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.


Anne Buchanan said...

Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon is said to have said, in the late 1950's, when he'd had enough of people complaining that most of science fiction was crud, that "90% of _everything_ is crud". Sturgeon's Revelation.

So, at the end of the day -- or year -- does it all boil down to these two philosophers, John Cleese and Theodore Sturgeon? e=2r, and 90% of everything is crud? Ah well, we'll continue to overlook that all we would really have to say is that 90% of research is crud, and keep on expanding the message for another year!

But, if Sturgeon's Revelation is anything close to true in science, it's a sobering caution when it comes to decisions about the use of animals in research, chimps or otherwise.

Ken Weiss said...

'Crud' may be too, well, cruddy a word for what 90%(or more) of research is. But the fact that the same applies to most things humans do, meaning temporary and ephemeral, there are lessons for those of us who are not impervious to learning that we'll all eventually be lost in the shuffle.

Science is these days a middle class game, that too many of us are made to (or, if senior and with management powers, make each other) take too seriously, as if it has cosmic importance, rather than understanding our latest papers as really just being our antelope or basket of berries for the day.

Much as he lived an enviable life, even Darwin who did have lasting impact, is dead as a Dodo. The rest of us probably take ourselves far too seriously, and perhaps with negative consequences for those around us or even for ourselves. But we, too,will join the Dodos.

For those of us who are lucky enough to believe that there will be some redress after life here on earth, perhaps the most important thing is to live this life in ways to deserve that later passage, by treating each other better.

For the rest of us, for whom science gives no reason to think there will be such an encore, maybe it's even more important to put life in perspective, by treating each other better.

As a new year approaches, let's not take our 'crud' too seriously, or at least not as seriously as those things in life that really do mean more.

Whether chimps live less illusionary lives than we do, or, for that matter, will also find redress in an afterlife, we don't know. (Are there Neandertals in Heaven? Where is the line drawn for eligibility to such a passage?) At least, a measured perspective on human life can perhaps help clarify what we have any right or business doing to them.

Indeed, where the line is to be drawn includes considering the many mice whose short lives will be under our own control, without appeal, in the coming year. For them, there is no Mouse Haven.

These things are hard to think about, but we hope that what we and our many highly appreciated Commenters have to say on MT never loses an aspect of self-relevance and reflection.

John R. Vokey said...

I believe it is a=2r (like it matters). But, of course it is 90% (or 95% or 99%) crud. That is not in and of itself a bad thing, and as recent surveys have shown (see, e.g., Hedges' comparison between experimental psychology and particle physics), that is probably the best we can expect. The satires are fun, and reveal a truth of a sort, but not one we should run away from: we need to make it clearer to the public that, indeed, most of it is crud, but that that is not a failing, but just how science works.

John R. Vokey said...

As to Ken's issues: the evidence for anything like self-awareness, reflection, explicit thought, or anything resembling what we normally think of as human consciousness in nonhuman animals, including our closest genetic relatives, is weak at best. I will grant that just possibly lab-raised and extensively-trained chimps may have demonstrated the rudiments of such consciousness (but that has yet to be shown conclusively, a la Povenelli). As for the rest, including these same close relatives in the wild (and molluscs, spiders, worms, insects, mice), at best, meat robots. Indeed, it is difficult to see what benefit human consciousness would provide them.

The real issue, though, is why that should be the defining criterion for our use of them in research. If it isn't (and I can think of all sorts of other reasons not to use lions and elephants in lab research), perhaps we should discuss those instead of simply the extent to which the species in question is like us.

Ken Weiss said...

'How science works' is the way to put it, but we have institutionalized science and that means routinized it as well. A lot of public funds are invested in what makes science arguably less productive per unit than it might be, and it is certainly less accountable. Some areas are funded at a posh level compared to the return (one can argue this way about NIH funded biomedical science relative to other fields)

Also, it drains effort systematically from teaching. A professor's papers are hardly cited, in part because 'that's how science works' but largely because we have built a self-serving guild that let's us bejewel ourselves with baubles (our publications), rather than training many more students that paper-readers, and those students could perhaps make far greater net gains in scientific knowledge during their lives in the private sector.

In any case, so long as we boast to the media all the time, we shouldn't be allowed to hide behind 'that's how science works'. That's my view, anyway.

As to consciousness, that's a very debatable concept but I'd not argue with you on it, John, as I think you're far more knowledgeable. But I agree about the criteria and what they should be.

Right or wrong, and though rarely if ever put this way, probably the prevailing view is that research animals are our prey, just as cows and chickens are. We turn them into food via their research use. which translates mice and zebrafish into salaries, that translate into beef burgers and chicken nuggets.

Anne Buchanan said...

Ack, how could I have forgotten the most important thing I learned all year? a=2r.

I guess I'm a little less sanguine about the 90something percent of science that is crud. Or at least about the percentage that can be predicted ahead of time to be crud, based on what we know about methods, previous findings, the mix of motives that drive much of science, the likelihood of payoff relative to cost, and so on. Why, for example, are GWAS still being done, at great expense? Is the expense of searching for the Pigs Nose-on worth it, considering all the other things that that money, much of it public, could be spent on? You'd know better than I, John, whether all the fMRI studies being done should go on. Why are studies of the genetics of obesity, diabetes, asthma, etc., not to mention all the environmental epidemiology that is so flawed, still being done?

In part, to give the science establishment some benefit of the doubt, those studies are still being done because we don't know what else to do, but everyone's jobs, and universities themselves, depend on 'research' still being cranked out. But shouldn't there be stopping rules, when we should no longer spend money on what we _know_ is going to produce crud?

Granted, at one time we didn't know that genome wide association studies were going to confirm complexity, and so perhaps the first ones, that demonstrated this, were worth doing. But now we know. And similarly, there must be many experiments in psychology that don't have to be done anymore. But, Ken's point, that the institutionalization of science is what has made much of it crud is well-taken. A lot of it just doesn't have to be done anymore. But that would require drastic changes in the system.

That doesn't mean that most of science would then be gems, granted. But at least the crud would be clean.

Ken Weiss said...

So, here's a true story old enough that I can't get in trouble by telling it. I once was part of a study of hypertension risk factors in a central American country. The design was 2x2, two 'racial' groups (Hispanic- and English- African-derived), and two environments (rural, urban). After two seasons of field work, it was clear that there were going to be no relevant findings, as disease prevalence was similar in all contrasts tested.

The final year was to flesh out the 2x2 table.
I pointed out to the PI (my Dean, showing how naive I was as a young investigator!), that the last year was not needed to answer the purpose of the grant, and the remaining funds should be returned to NIH...OR, a Native American population in similar environments in the same country could be studied in that last year, to focus the question on 'genes' vs 'environment' in a much more effective way.

I was gently removed from the project for making such a (as I thought then, and still think now) societally and scientifically responsible suggestion. What? Turn back grant money??

The ideas of maximum lifespans, or stopping rules, for grants when or if it's clear to a reasonable person that they've found what there is to find, etc. is heresy (except in some instances in clinical trials where there are such rules). The reason is that the grant system has become a university welfare program. That is why, in the sense of this discussion, it supports so much 'crud'.

Within reason and societal responsibility, universities deserve to be supported (what about more tuition support and attention to students, so they can later contribute to societal quality in general, not just by becoming more professors?). But societal support should be explicit as such, as part of a social contract, rather than through the current system which has evolved too much to be something that is gamed for self-interest rather than for society's interest. Faculty's jobs depend on 'externally supported research' and universities addicted to overhead. There are no secrets about this state of affairs!

One can argue, however, that even with its clear imperfections, what we have is the best we can have, given the tendency of Old Boy networks to form. But such things have been formed to a great extent by the system we now have, as it has evolved. At present, it's way out of kilter, I think.

Gaming undermines honesty and integrity, and that is awful for science, of all things.

Anne Buchanan said...

There's a fairly cynical story in today's NYT about the decision on restricting use of chimps in research. It sounds as though the restrictions are pretty much in name only, retractable on an ad hoc basis. Not really a surprise.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I didn't read your link, but that's my impression of what I know too: Not so transformative. Also, it's only NIH, so anyone without NIH funding now or in the future can continue as-is.

Ken Weiss said...

Given the not very savory nature of the politics in this area (NIH especially, perhaps), I'd be surprised if any established investigator lost funds or the ability to carry on with what s/he was doing.

And I'd bet there has been or will be behind the scenes action to make sure we don't get too sympathetic about dogs, cats, or rhesus monkeys....that would be bad for business.

Hollis said...

A belated thanks for this post and discussion.