Jerry Vlasak is a dangerous lunatic, a spokesman for domestic terrorists. He is also a trauma surgeon living in Woodland Hills:
Vlasak’s views are so incendiary that he is banned from ever visiting Britain. He has been arrested on a Canadian ice floe, at a traveling circus, at a Rodeo Drive furrier. In La Cañada Flintridge, he once fended off a furious PTA mom while disrupting an elementary school fundraiser featuring circus animals.
Vlasak, a trauma surgeon who lives in Woodland Hills, takes his belief that animal life is as valuable as human to the extreme — openly arguing that killing scientists to stop animal research would be “morally justifiable.” He has become the public face for underground groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which the FBI deems a significant domestic terror threat.
But here’s my problem: I can’t come up with a rigorous rebuttal to animal rights extremists like Vlasak. They claim that there is no moral difference between killing an animal (especially a primate) and killing a human. Of course, I believe that’s an absurd claim. I also believe that animal experimentation in the name of medical science is usually justified.
But then I remember my biology. One of the great themes of post-Darwinian science is the inter-relatedness of life. From the perspective of our cells, there is little difference between a human and a rat, or even a sea slug. All animals use the same neurons and the same neurotransmitters. Pain receptors in different species share a similar design. Blood and flesh and skin are always constructed of the same elemental stuff. We share 98 percent of our genome with chimps.
The distinctions are just as murky from the perspective of behavior. Ants exhibit altruism. Parrots use symbolic logic. Gorillas mourn the death of a family member. Humans exhibit all sorts of animal instincts. Most neuroscientists who study consciousness believe that it exists in a gradient, and that chimps are not unconscious, but simply less conscious.
So how can we scientifically defend any clear distinction between the moral agency of humans and animals? I’m afraid I can’t come up with a good rebuttal to Vlasak and Peter Singer. Sure, I can mutter something about our swollen pre-frontal cortex, but that seems like an awfully flimsy answer. For me, questions of animal rights lead me in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, my moral intuitions argue that scientists are right, and that animal experimentation is justifiable. On the other hand, the science itself leaves me with little evidence to justify my morality.
I look forward to readers telling me why I’m wrong. How do the facts of biology justify animal experimentation?
P.S. I may be unable to rebut Vlasak’s animal rights philsophy, but I can still condemn his tactics in the strongest possible terms. Take it away PZ…