Evolving Thoughts

When I was sixteen, I was rebelling against whatever society had got by getting stoned, generally screwing up, and eventually getting thrown out of high school six months before I graduated. Laurie Pycroft on the other hand, decided enough was enough with the Animal Liberation Front’s terrorism activities, and began blogging about it, leading to the foundation of, wait for it, a pro-science movement defending the use of animal experimentation.

Seed Magazine has a short item about Laurie that got me interested, so a short Google later, I discovered that not only did he set off a demonstration in Oxford, but an organisation has been established, called Pro-Test. In true form, the ALF supporters started sending him death threats. Imagine that! Death threats to a 16 year old unemployed kid! Because he availed himself of his democratic right to protest their activities and defend good science. He needed police protection after his name and address was given to the ALF.

Yes, it is good science. Using animals allows us to discover things that serve the interests of human medicine, not to mention just learning about biology. I worked for ten years in a medical research institute, and I know first hand that the animals are not made to suffer. Forget all that emotive crap about electrodes in their heads and so on – there are strict rules about how experimental animals can be treated, and they are not allowed to suffer, at least in anything I ever heard of.

Anti-vivisectionists, as they used to be called before the current round of insanity, have a long history in the UK; Arthur Conan Doyle was one supporter. They opposed animal cruelty in scientific experimentation, quite rightly, in the 19th century, but they also seem to mistake emotional reactions for facts. And their response to it is not to lobby or protest any more. Now they want to “blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet“. They are as bad, or worse, than anti-abortionists in the US.

I have had animal libbers tell me that we can use computer models to work out what will happen instead of using animals. Crap. We can’t even model a single cell in detail. We make make all the models we like, but we still have to test them.

The ethics underlying animal liberationism seems to be based on an extreme form of act utilitarianism – pain is to be minimised at all costs. Human pain is therefore less worthy than animal pain, and we should all be Vegans. No matter that Nature itself is cruel and pain-inflicting, or that moral valuation applies first and foremost to humans as a human act. So long as a little finch or mouse is saved from death, you apparently can try to kill a kid. It’s very like the anti-abortionists, who place the life of a developed actual human being, whether the mother or the doctors, beneath that of a 128 cell blastula, which has, at best, a limited chance of development.

If you want a war on terrorism, one that really does threaten democracy, try fighting those who think their deeply-held beliefs permit them to use violence against other citizens. That is terrorism. Kudos to Laurie.

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    June 11, 2006

    Brian O’Connor used to do a great job bloggin regularly about animal rights radicals at Animal Crackers. Unfortunately, he gave up blogging earlier this year, but he’s left his archives posted.

    I’ve been meaning to write about this again for a while. (It’s been a while since I’ve written about animal rights craziness.) I saw the story that you’re referring to.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    June 11, 2006

    This Pro-Test group has been doing some pretty interesting work. I’ve gone to both of their rallies, and I’ve written about them in detail. I think scientists back in the US could learn a few things from them in light of the challenges facing science there.

  3. #3 Heathen Dan
    June 11, 2006

    That’s disgusting. ALF is as much a terror organization as anything on the CIA-FBI blacklist.

  4. #4 Ian H Spedding
    June 11, 2006

    Corkscrew wrote:

    You’re begging the question – can one really think of a wad of cells as being “innocent” or “guilty”? If I get careless with a kitchen knife and slice off the tip of my finger, should I avoid binning this “innocent” object? As Batman said, it’s not who we are but what we do that defines us. Blastulas don’t think, or feel pain, or emote. They just sit there and quietly divide.

    I can see no problem with extending the presumption of innocence to the unborn. What else could they be at that age?

    The difference between your fingertip and the “wad of cells” is that the latter – if allowed to “sit there and quietly divide” unmolested – will develop into an adult human being, whereas your fingertip will not, unless there is something about yourself you are not telling us.

    The real question is that, if we accept there’s therefore a spectrum of humanness, where do we draw the line? Draw it too far one way, you get abortion-clinic bombers. Draw it too far the other way, you get the Nazis.

    The problem with that is trying to define such a nebulous quality as “humanness”, let alone trying to locate the point at which it can be said to start. Far simpler to take conception as the point at which the development of the individual begins.

    As for the abortion-clinic bombers, they have no more justification for taking the law into their own hands than do the animal rights terrorists. In time of peace, killing is only morally and legally justifiable where there is no alternative as a defence against an immediate threat to oneself or others.

    In a democracy, where abortion or experiments on animals are legal, the proper response is to try and change the law.

  5. #5 Ian H Spedding
    June 11, 2006

    ALF are terrorists and criminals, pure and simple, and deserve to be treated as such. There is no justification for attacking people who are working to alleviate human suffering and who, as I understand it, go to great lengths to minimise any suffering caused to the animals used in their research.

    Having said that, I would be sorely tempted to kill any human being that threatened or took the lives of my cats and I believe people who are wantonly cruel to animals should be punished much more severely than is currently the case.

    The abortion argument got a thorough workout in a couple of threads on Pharyngula. I am opposed to it on the grounds that human life should not be taken without good cause and that a human life should be considered in its entirety, as an event stretching through time – Heinlein’s “pink worm” – which begins at the point of conception. The exception is where we are forced to make a choice between the life of the mother and that of the zygote/blastula/embryo/fetus. Since the loss of the mother would be devastating, not only to herself but to her family and friends, the fetus should be sacrificed – the lesser of two evils.

    In the case of a pregnancy following rape, I can understand the distress of the victim but, if her life is not threatened, I would be bound to ask why the fetus should suffer for a crime in which it had no part. I can see no justification for punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

  6. #6 John Wilkins
    June 11, 2006

    Nick, I linked your blog in the post. Good job of reporting.

  7. #7 Corkscrew
    June 11, 2006

    I can see no justification for punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

    You’re begging the question – can one really think of a wad of cells as being “innocent” or “guilty”? If I get careless with a kitchen knife and slice off the tip of my finger, should I avoid binning this “innocent” object? As Batman said, it’s not who we are but what we do that defines us. Blastulas don’t think, or feel pain, or emote. They just sit there and quietly divide.

    The real question is that, if we accept there’s therefore a spectrum of humanness, where do we draw the line? Draw it too far one way, you get abortion-clinic bombers. Draw it too far the other way, you get the Nazis.

  8. #8 Nick Anthis
    June 11, 2006

    Thanks for the link. Being in Oxford right now has really been a case of being in te right place at the right time, esp. since “scientific activism” is what my blog is all about.

  9. #9 Corkscrew
    June 12, 2006

    Apologies for overlong post

    I can see no problem with extending the presumption of innocence to the unborn. What else could they be at that age?

    The same thing that most unintelligent wads of cells of any age are – morally indeterminate. Null, if you like.

    The difference between your fingertip and the “wad of cells” is that the latter – if allowed to “sit there and quietly divide” unmolested – will develop into an adult human being, whereas your fingertip will not, unless there is something about yourself you are not telling us.

    You appear to be suggesting that the mere act of taking an embryo outside the human body – for example, in the process of in vitro fertilisation, instantly changes its moral status – suddenly, it will no longer develop into a human unassisted. Am I understanding you correctly? Does that mean that removing a blastula from the female womb would constitute murder, and replacing it would be the creation of new life?

    If not, I’d note that, given sufficient scientific knowhow (which we don’t possess yet, but we’re getting close), one could actually clone a copy of myself from the DNA found in a fingertip. My fingertip has at least as much potential as a frozen blastocyst.

    The problem with that is trying to define such a nebulous quality as “humanness”, let alone trying to locate the point at which it can be said to start. Far simpler to take conception as the point at which the development of the individual begins.

    Why conception? One sperm plus one egg define the resulting individual just as tightly. And one fertilised ovum doesn’t necessarily correspond to one finished human – should chimaeras* actually be classified as two individuals? Should identical twins be classified as only one?

    At some point we have to define a limit to what we consider human. It’s always going to be rather arbitrary if looked at too closely – the creation of a new human is an inherently fuzzy process. Your cutoff point is slightly sharper than most of the others, but it’s still not absolute (what about a sperm and ovum in the process of fusing?), and the mere fact of its comparative clearness of cut seems a rather poor reason to select it. Do you have any others?

    As for the abortion-clinic bombers, they have no more justification for taking the law into their own hands than do the animal rights terrorists. In time of peace, killing is only morally and legally justifiable where there is no alternative as a defence against an immediate threat to oneself or others.

    In a democracy, where abortion or experiments on animals are legal, the proper response is to try and change the law.

    {devil’s advocate}
    Abortion clinic bombers would say that the threat was indeed immediate against the embryos they were attempting to protect. One attitude that seems to come up a lot as they’re lead off in chains is “there’ll be no more abortions at this clinic today”.

    Is the proper response always to try to change the law? What if your Jewish neighbour had just been moved into a concentration camp – wouldn’t you feel justified in breaking him out by force rather than attempting to unelect Hitler?

    (I am aware that Hitler wasn’t a democratic leader when he was engaged in genocide, but he had the support of most of the populace for most of it. It’s just a thought experiment.)
    {/devil’s advocate}

    * Two distinct fertilised ova can fuse together to form an individual with two unique sets of DNA inside them – a chimaera. I’m told this really causes problems for DNA testing.

  10. #10 ArtK
    June 12, 2006

    The ALF nutters have often bothered me — I agree that they are terrorists and criminals. They’re also stupid. Some of their actions cause more pain and suffering for the animals.

    One of their favorite targets are mink farms — while I agree that mink farming is a very bad thing, their approach is just awful. Smashing cages and releasing mink who are less capable than their wild cousins of taking care of themselves. They have a very short life-span once released. They spend that time predating in an eco-system that isn’t able to adjust to that many at one time. A lose-lose for everyone, but especially the mink.

    Of course, we could get into splitting moral hairs: Is it better to die of starvation and exposure in the wild, or be killed in a supposedly humane way?

  11. #11 Robert Nanders
    June 13, 2006

    This is the kind of thinking and discussion that makes me happy to read. I can’t stand the animal first nuts that want to forget that humans are animals too!

  12. #12 Ian H Spedding
    June 13, 2006

    Corkscrew wrote:

    You appear to be suggesting that the mere act of taking an embryo outside the human body – for example, in the process of in vitro fertilisation, instantly changes its moral status – suddenly, it will no longer develop into a human unassisted. Am I understanding you correctly? Does that mean that removing a blastula from the female womb would constitute murder, and replacing it would be the creation of new life?

    If a blastula were to be removed from the womb so that it died, and if this action were taken for anything other than an overriding moral reason such as preserving the life of the mother – the ‘lesser of two evils’ case – then I would regard it as morally, if not legally, equivalent to murder.

    If, on the other hand, the blastula were to be preserved in a frozen state, for example, so that it could be re-implanted in a womb at a later date and continue its interrupted gestation, then I would not regard that as immoral.

    If not, I’d note that, given sufficient scientific knowhow (which we don’t possess yet, but we’re getting close), one could actually clone a copy of myself from the DNA found in a fingertip. My fingertip has at least as much potential as a frozen blastocyst.

    The problem of clones is a little more difficult but I would argue that a clone’s life, as an individual, begins at whatever point the cell is stimulated to begin development.

    Why conception? One sperm plus one egg define the resulting individual just as tightly. And one fertilised ovum doesn’t necessarily correspond to one finished human – should chimaeras* actually be classified as two individuals? Should identical twins be classified as only one?

    Yes, ideally, the fusion of sperm and ovum is the starting-point even though it may not be possible, in practice, to know exactly when this happens.

    Identical twins are still two discrete individuals and should be treated as such. A chimaeric individual is still an individual being for the purposes of human rights.

    At some point we have to define a limit to what we consider human. It’s always going to be rather arbitrary if looked at too closely – the creation of a new human is an inherently fuzzy process.Your cutoff point is slightly sharper than most of the others, but it’s still not absolute (what about a sperm and ovum in the process of fusing?), and the mere fact of its comparative clearness of cut seems a rather poor reason to select it. Do you have any others?

    By defining the individual as beginning at the point when sperm and egg fuze and granting it the right to life thereafter, we avoid much, if not all, of the metaphysical and moral haggling over what it means to be ‘human’, when personality begins, what qualifies as ‘sentience’ and so on. Far from being a poor reason, I see that as a big advantage.

    {devil’s advocate}Abortion clinic bombers would say that the threat was indeed immediate against the embryos they were attempting to protect. One attitude that seems to come up a lot as they’re lead off in chains is “there’ll be no more abortions at this clinic today”.

    And I would have to concede that the abortion clinic bombers have an argument – as far as it goes. What they ignore is that if you allow the moral views of any group, however deeply held, to override those of a democratic society, as expressed through the ballot box and legislature, you open the way to anarchy.

    Is the proper response always to try to change the law? What if your Jewish neighbour had just been moved into a concentration camp – wouldn’t you feel justified in breaking him out by force rather than attempting to unelect Hitler?

    I would, but it does raise an interesting point.

    I could try to evade it by asking whether or not what happened in the concentration camps was, in fact, illegal according to German law at that time. If it was, then breaking the prisoners out would amount to the prevention of a crime.

    If not, I would argue that there are certain rights to which all human beings should be entitled, regardless of race, colour or creed. I do not claim that they are God-given or natural or universal in any metaphysical sense, just that they are what ordinary, reasonable people, given the choice, would agree, if only on the grounds of enlightened self-interest, should be the entitlement of all in any civilized society.

    * Two distinct fertilised ova can fuse together to form an individual with two unique sets of DNA inside them – a chimaera. I’m told this really causes problems for DNA testing.

    Didn’t that crop up in an episode of CSI?

  13. #13 Cornelius J. McHugh
    August 21, 2006

    When I was sixteen I was in my second yesr of gainful employment, supporting an invalid mother and a blind sister, neither of whom were capable of earning their own living. I was not sitting at home thinking up ways of legally torturing defenceless animals. The holier-than-thou posters here should give some consideration to the fact that animals can only look to the Animal Liberation Front, of which, by the way, I am not a member, for protection as the so-called ‘laws’ ostensibly for protecting animals are nothing but a sick joke. They whine about people giving high priority to the welfare of animals while smugly assuming that human interests should always take precedence, that even human sperm is more important than non-human life. The author of this blog has made several statements that are totally unworthy of him he seems to assume that because he has no knowledge of laboratory animals being made to suffer that no suffering ever takes place in any laboratory. And as for the ‘emotive crap about electrodes in their heads’, well I have seen photographs of animals heads bristling with electrodes, am I to assume that these were staged, perhaps by the animal rights ‘terrorists’ to further their cause? Much more parsimonious to simply believe that they were real depictions of actual happenings. Regarding the ‘strict rules’ well there are strict rules against murder but the police are never idle. Making a rule is one thing, enforcing it can be a totally different kettle of fish. As for nature being cruel, so what? Animals kill for food, for dominance, for reproductive success and in self defence. No non-human deliberately and knowingly inflicts pain and suffering on another. We like to think that we are no longer constrained by nature, therefore the onus is on us to behave responsibly towards less fortunate creatures than ourselves. The comments that “human pain is therefore less worthy than animal pain and we should all be Vegans” and “so long as a little finch or mouse is saved from death, you apparently can try to kill a kid”(presumably not goat) are totally specious and should be treated with derision. I will grant that all causes attract their share of misfits and sociopaths but I see no reason to label the whole Animal Liberation movement either terrorists or misanthropes. I see them as caring people who are to varying degrees frustrated by society’s uncaring attitude towards non-human creatures and who feel the need to take direct action themselves. Screw Laurie.

  14. #14 Cornelius J. McHugh
    August 21, 2006

    “When I was sixteen I was in my second year of gainful employment, supporting an invalid mother and a blind sister, neither of whom were capable of earning their own living. I was not sitting at home thinking up ways of legally torturing defenceless animals. The holier-than-thou posters here should give some consideration to the fact that animals can only look to the Animal Liberation Front, of which, by the way, I am not a member, for protection as the so-called ‘laws’ ostensibly for protecting animals are nothing but a sick joke. They whine about people giving high priority to the welfare of animals while smugly assuming that human interests should always take precedence, that even human sperm is more important than non-human life. The author of this blog has made several statements that are totally unworthy of him he seems to assume that because he has no knowledge of laboratory animals being made to suffer that no suffering ever takes place in any laboratory. And as for the ‘emotive crap about electrodes in their heads’, well I have seen photographs of animals heads bristling with electrodes, am I to assume that these were staged, perhaps by the animal rights ‘terrorists’ to further their cause? Much more parsimonious to simply believe that they were real depictions of actual happenings. Regarding the ‘strict rules’ well there are strict rules against murder but the police are never idle. Making a rule is one thing, enforcing it can be a totally different kettle of fish. As for nature being cruel, so what? Animals kill for food, for dominance, for reproductive success and in self defence. No non-human deliberately and knowingly inflicts pain and suffering on another. We like to think that we are no longer constrained by nature, therefore the onus is on us to behave responsibly towards less fortunate creatures than ourselves. The comments that “human pain is therefore less worthy than animal pain and we should all be Vegans” and “so long as a little finch or mouse is saved from death, you apparently can try to kill a kid”(presumably not goat) are totally specious and should be treated with derision. I will grant that all causes attract their share of misfits and sociopaths but I see no reason to label the whole Animal Liberation movement either terrorists or misanthropes. I see them as caring people who are to varying degrees frustrated by society’s uncaring attitude towards non-human creatures and who feel the need to take direct action themselves. Screw Laurie.

    Posted by: Cornelius J. McHugh | August 21, 2006 07:18 AM”

    I now see that I have made several grammatical and spelling errors. Apologies for this, regrettably I had very little formal education and it sometimes shows.