The Frontal Cortex

Caring for Animals

I’ve gotten numerous emails about my recent post on animal rights – I called animal experimentation a “necessary evil” – but I think this note from a reader eloquently captures the ambivalence that many scientists feel:

I have a child with insulin-dependent diabetes. I am constantly aware that every single advance keeping her not only alive, but so healthy that others never notice her condition, rests on the shoulders of thousands upon thousands of creatures. These animals have suffered, and these animals feel pain as much as we; many are almost unbearably intelligent and are emotionally…sweet, endearing. It is for this reason that I keep lab rats and greyhounds as pets–a small thanks that cannot go nearly far enough, and an act which has only made me simultaneously more grateful and sadder for the involuntary plight of the laboratory animal.


  1. #1 Thomas Schroeder
    June 19, 2009

    Robert Pirsig, in his brilliant magnum opus, “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals,” beautiful presents an evolutionary-based hierarchical system which states it is morally acceptable for us to conduct animal testing. In this system, he identifies four levels of patterns in the following order of ascending morality: inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual.

    As explained on the associated wikipedia page, “Pirsig describes evolution as the moral progression of these patterns of value. For example, a biological pattern overcoming an inorganic pattern (e.g. bird flight which overcomes gravity) is a moral thing because a biological pattern is a higher form of evolution. Likewise, an intellectual pattern of value overcoming a social one (e.g. Civil Rights) is a moral development because intellect is a higher form of evolution than society.”

    Animal testing, an intellectual-based pattern, is acceptable because it is a higher form of evolution overcoming social and biological patterns. Eating animals, however, is immoral because it is a lower form of evolution (i.e. a biological-based pattern) devouring higher form of evolutions (social and intellectual patterns).

  2. #2 reggie
    June 20, 2009

    and why isn’t it a “necessary evil” to experiment on Jews or criminals or Blacks or the retarded — a lot of very good, productive science could be done… ‘Necessary evil’ is a copout for a medical system run amok, in which prolonging human longevity is unwisely perceived as a valuable priority.

  3. #3 Chuk
    June 22, 2009

    I like animals fine, and hate to see any of them tortured. But I’m also a parent, and if it would save my child’s life, I’d do horribly painful things to every lab rat in the world. Multiply that by all the kids (and everyone is someone’s kid) who have had lives saved or even greatly improved by medical techniques and medicines that required animal experimentation, and it really seems like no contest.

    Testing makeup is just stupid, though. If you can’t make it safe without animal testing, do you really need redder lips or poofier hair?

  4. #4 jb
    June 24, 2009

    Excerpts from Chief Seattle’s Letter from December, 1854:

    “Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

    “We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

    “Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

    “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

    Thank you for bringing this topic up, Jonah. It is a matter that is often overlooked by we consumers/patients. But if one does think about it, one can’t put a pill in one’s mouth or undergo a medical procedure without wondering what animal research went into it and under what conditions was the research done. One can at the very least acknowledge this debt as one acknowledges and is grateful for the animals who provide our food.

    Is this a ‘necessary’ evil? There are systems of medicine that don’t depend on animal testing. If I had a sick child as described in your post, would I give up Western medicine to use such as system instead? I don’t know.

    In your recent book you mention a mentally ill man who mistreated animals as a child. How will history judge a civilization of adults that has/is mistreating some animals for food and medical research?

    Thank you again from a concerned member of this civilization.

  5. #5 reggie
    June 24, 2009

    “But I’m also a parent, and if it would save my child’s life, I’d do horribly painful things to every lab rat in the world.”

    and is it okay for me to torture your children in order to save mine… or, are you willing to save the lives of a 100 starving children by foregoing cancer treatment on your 80-yr. old father and using the money to get food and water to children in true need. Our medical system, focused on aging and natural diseases is a broken joke, ruled by selfishness and the profit motive.

  6. #6 Joe S
    June 25, 2009

    Blaming the medical system doesn’t work for me; it’s the Human Values system that needs attention.

    The “my kid before the animals” is part of it. But here is how it seems to work:

    1. My kid before me.
    2. Me before you.
    3. You — if you are like me (Catholic, white, black, American, etc.) — before “the other.”

    I’ve recognized this for a while, but I’ve not been able to beat it out of my own brain. For example: I am a fan of the NY Yankees, and I am positive that all Red Sox fans are Devil-worshipping, baby-raping, dog-abusing MFers.

    . . . and I believe (if you trouble to check) you will discover those FACTS been confirmed, repeatedly, by legions of medical researchers NOT located in New England!!!

  7. #7 neurolover
    June 29, 2009

    OK, I didn’t read your original column, but if you think animal use for research is “a necessary evil”, is animal use for food an “unnecessary evil?”

    I see neither as evil, and instead think that they are part of the cycle of life.

  8. #8 Ncoffee
    June 29, 2009


    Thanks for being real about this. Anyone who says that these are easy decisions is in some serious denial and is probably just swallowing their own culture without bothering to chew.

    If we’re going to talk about ethics, let’s not pretend the choice between animal life and death is some minor issue that’s just getting in the way of our scientific knowledge.

    If we’re unsure of the lines between what suffers and what doesn’t (as is the case with many mammals), then I can’t think of a better situation in which to err on the side of caution until we have better data (which, considering the complexity involved, will be a long time coming).

    Exactly where we draw the line is highly debatable, of course, but certainly, clearly, and obviously the idea that it can be neatly drawn between humans and animals is outdated and ridiculous at this point in history.

    When do we start getting real and applying our biological understanding of the inter-relatedness of species to our ethics? Because in terms of ethics we’re completely ignoring Darwin’s insights and acting on the intellectual level of the creationist here.

    For example: when I was young, I remember religious friends saying humans could eat animals because they didn’t have souls and we do. Well, sorry guys, but I’m not seeing many pro-animal experimentation/meat-eating arguments that add up to much more than that.

    … And, of course, if people don’t want to honestly talk about ethics, or want to rationalize a complex, important subject like this aside instantly, then the road to thinking like a brute is pretty clearly marked and paved up nicely for them.

  9. #9 kevin
    June 30, 2009

    I disagree with Jonah on both points, that experimentation is a “necessary evil” and that animal researchers are ambivalent/conflicted. Ncoffee wants to draw a line in the sand and I think this is misguided. Rather than elevate animals to human status, let’s lower humans to animal status. Thus, we’re part of the food chain (although very few are preyed upon) and it makes sense that we use animals to our benefit. As to Reggie, we do use african americans, jewish people, mentally challenged individuals and inmates in research. The difference is that now we must get informed consent from the subject and we must get peer-reviewed approval from granting agencies. Maybe Jonah can answer how we get consent from lower animals since this seems to be the logical progression of his thinking in this area. I look forward to further ruminations on this subject.

  10. #10 Ncoffee
    June 30, 2009

    Re: #9 kevin

    “Rather than elevate animals to human status, let’s lower humans to animal status. Thus, we’re part of the food chain (although very few are preyed upon) and it makes sense that we use animals to our benefit.”

    In general, shouldn’t we be trying rise above our animal instincts and following some sort of intelligent code of ethics, instead of just continuing on with the brutality of nature (ie: the “food chain”)? This is just “might makes right”, after all. As we’ve seen, evolutionary logic makes for some really bad ethics.

    As for the consent issue, it isn’t that anyone is advocating handing out consent forms to rabbits — it’s a question of what to do when getting consent is literally impossible.

    And, as per Reggie in post #2, when people make the comparison to experimentation on “Jews or criminals or Blacks or the retarded”, a lack of consent is implied. I don’t think anyone was saying they had an issue with experiments that any of the above have freely agreed to take part in.

    So the problem becomes: is experimentation (that will cause suffering and death) to an entity (with some debatable degree of consciousness, but no ability to communicate/comprehend an approval of consent) a moral thing to do?

    Debates about what kinds of animals suffer and to what extent they suffer are fair game, but to pretend none of them do, or that some of them do but it just doesn’t matter, is really inconsistent with any type of ethical framework.

  11. #11 JPB120
    August 26, 2009

    I see no reason why people should be put above other animals, and why we try to justify their suffering by claiming that it can benefit the human race. All forms of conscious life, ranging from mice to humans to elephants, should be viewed the same and treated with the same amount of respect. Even though they may not have the level of intelligence as humans do, they are still creatures that feel fear and pain even though they are almost certainly innocent.
    If any testing on life should be done, it should be done on death-row criminals or other inmates. While the animals being tested on have done nothing wrong besides exist, convicted criminals have harmed society. Though it’s instinct to care for offspring and want to prevent them from any harm, it has to be realized that countless of other creatures are suffering because of it, when there’s not even a guarantee of it succeeding.

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