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The Phylogenetics of Animal Testing

Phylogeny Friday — 30 May 2008

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Research on animals in under attack throughout the world. Animal rights activists not only stage rallies against animal testing, but they also engage in criminal behavior. They vandalize property, sabotage experiments, and terrorize researchers. How can scientists fight back?

Michael Conn and James Parker have written book documenting the animal rights issue from the scientists’ perspective (The Animal Research War). Conn and Parker have also briefly described their position in the FASEB Journal. Here is how they summarize their book:

This book is a personal account of what it is like to be intimidated (and yes, one of the authors has experienced what it is like to be intimidated while traveling, at home, and at work)–but we want the book to go far beyond that and to be a thoughtful analysis of the effect of animal extremists on the world’s scientists, their institutions, and professional societies.

We trace the changing way in which the public and legal system views animals and the evolution of the animal rights movement. We profile its leadership. We show how funds given in the belief the donor is supporting homes for stray animals may actually be routed into activities that destroy the life-saving work of university researchers. We look at the arguments frequently used by animal activists. Most important, we reveal the truth behind animal research.

I’m bringing all of this up because Andrew Read has written a review of The Animal Research War for Nature (Vivisectionists strike back). Read’s take on the book is largely negative. Not because he disagrees with research on live animals — he actively does research on mammals (reviewed here) — but because Read thinks Conn and Parker have glossed over a lot of important details. Read argues that Conn and Parker’s sound-bite approach toward combating animal rights activists, while necessary, needs more open information regarding how animals are treated and the benefits of research on animals.

Read also brings up a very interesting point regarding the restrictions on performing research with certain types of animals. Specifically, how do we choose the amount of legal hurdles required to perform experiments on primates, cats, dogs, rodents, birds, and even invertebrates.

Another difficult issue is how we should deal with phylogeny. In the United States, rats, mice and birds are not given the same legal cover as primates, cats and dogs. Under the UK system, one species of octopus is covered, but you can do what you like to the others. Is there a sound basis for replacing mice with zebrafish in toxicology testing? Should there be welfare protection for crustaceans? Or no protection for chickens?

There is no welfare protection for insects, including Drosophila. At my university, protection is only granted to vertebrates, although I’m hazy on the details. I’m not sure whether people working on fish, amphibians, or reptiles need to fill out IACUC forms. I know it’s a big deal for the mouse labs on campus.

But the important issue here is: are our current restrictions on animal research phylogenetically sound? If the situation is as Read describes, then they are not. Here’s a phylogeny of mammals:

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Source: Murphy et al. 2001. Molecular phylogenetics and the origins of placental mammals. Nature 409: 614-618 doi:10.1038/35054550

Primates and rodents are in Clade III, while cats and dogs (Carnivora) are in Clade IV. Why are cats dogs treated better than mice and rats, despite the fact that mice and rats are closer relatives to humans? Probably because people have an emotional attachment to cats and dogs, while mice and rats are viewed as disgusting pests.

This is not to say that phylogenetics should be the deciding factor for the amount of legal cover given to specific animals. But the decisions should be made rationally. Other factors, such as cognitive ability, should also be taken into account. That’s the justification behind protecting one species of octopus (it’s so smart!), even though that decision is a bit murky, as Read points out.

I’m nowhere near qualified to offer an intelligent opinion on the matter, but I do find it interesting. How much weight should evolutionary relationships have in deciding which species get legal protection in animal research?

Comments

  1. #1 Zen Faulkes
    May 30, 2008

    A major concern about animal research revolves around the concept of suffering, and people tend to assess animals’ capacity to suffer by using general neural and behavioural complexity in place of actual research on (say) nociception, stress, and the like.

    Phylogeny is relevant in that it helps to predict that general neural and behavioural complexity. That is, if Octopus vulgaris has enough behavioural and neural complexity to warrant special attention, probably Octopus cyanea or Octopus rubescens do too, by virtue of their close relationship.

  2. #2 Paul
    May 30, 2008

    I suspect that reason why protection is only given to one species of octopus under UK legislation is simply that at the time the law was being drafted (and perhaps even now) that was the only species of octopus used in general biomedical research as opposed to more zoology/conservation orientated studies.

  3. #3 Robert
    May 30, 2008

    “Read argues that Conn and Parker’s sound-bite approach toward combating animal rights activists, while necessary, needs more open information regarding how animals are treated and the benefits of research on animals.” One wonders if READ read the book. It’s excellent and has pages and pages on those topics. Read has missed the boat. His comments are like saying SILENT SPRING didn’t have enough information on the industrial revolution. This is one of the best books around and changed the way I think about this.

  4. #4 pony
    May 31, 2008

    I read the book too and couldn’t disagree more with the Read write-up. This is a seminal book for communication of these issues to the public. It may not be perfect, but it is the first book in the US or UK to start pointing us in the right direction. It says things in the way I would like to be able when talking about what I do to friends and neighbors. Read is off babbling about some octopus, when scientists are getting firebombed and having they kids threatened. In many ways Robert (above) above has it right. This is a call to action book much like Silent Spring.

  5. #5 ADSL Ba┼čvuru
    June 27, 2008

    Read is off babbling about some octopus, when scientists are getting firebombed and having they kids threatened. In many ways Robert (above) above has it right. This is a call to action book much like Silent Spring.

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