by Nick Drake, from European Vegetarian - Issue 2/3/00
This article looks at the use of animals in experimental
procedures and attempts to understand whether or not such work is
scientific, i.e. that experimenting upon live animals falls within
accepted definitions of good scientific practice. The term 'animal
experimentation' is used in preference to 'vivisection' although the two
are often used synonymously: vivisection can also include
experimentation upon healthy people in order to try to study human
disease; but this controversial topic is not dealt with here.
Furthermore, no attempt is made to discuss a wide range
of specific examples of experiments. Many individuals and organizations
have written about such work many times before and it is available to
the public. Instead, basic principles of the scientific method are
introduced with the aim of answering the question: 'Are animal
What is science?
A concise definition of science is 'an organized and systematic activity
that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses that knowledge into
testable laws and principles'. The eminent biologist, E. O. Wilson,
defines five diagnostic steps which can distinguish science from
The same phenomenon is sought again, preferably by independent
investigation, and the interpretation given to it is confirmed or
discarded by means of novel analysis and experimentation.
Information is abstracted into the simplest, most aesthetically pleasing
form - scientific abstractions are 'elegant'.
Generalizations can be made unambiguous if something can be measured
properly using universally-accepted scales.
The best science stimulates further discovery, often in unpredictable
new directions, and new knowledge provides an additional test of the
original principles that led to its discovery.
The explanations of different phenomena most likely to survive are those
that can be connected and proved consistent with one another.
Does animal experimentation follow these principles?
Scientists design experiments to investigate particular questions. This
is not possible in animal experimentation -- the animal comes as a
whole, living system. The scientific method is best applied by varying
one parameter in an experiment, ensuring everything else remains
constant, and observing how that single change affects the overall
system. Animals are complex systems: we do not know how to isolate
specific properties in a living creature whilst leaving everything else
Animal Experimentation and the Scientific Method
Animal experimentation is not scientific. It does not adhere to the five
diagnostic steps listed above. There is no experimental model for the
human species: All species and even individuals within a species differ
from each other, and there is no known way to extrapolate accurately,
reliably and repeatedly experimental observations from one species to
Experiments on whole, living animals (including people)
are generally not reproducible. For example, the age of the animal can
produce different, unpredictable results from the same stimulus. The
time of day or year, and the conditions in which the animals are kept,
can change the results of even simple tests. Such results are
intrinsically false within the species concerned -- it would be
meaningless to extrapolate them to another species.
Perhaps even more alarming is the choice of animal for
each experiment. The Home Office states that approximately 2.5 million
animals were used in scientific procedures in 1998 (and it's estimated
that at least another 4 million were killed as 'wastage,' bred but never
used in any experiment). The vast majority of these were rats and mice.
But rats and mice are not chosen because they are the species which have
the most similar biochemical reactions to those of people, but rather
because they are cheap and quick to breed. Scientifically, one would
expect experiments motivated by human illness to be performed on people
with such illnesses; the second best choice would be healthy human
volunteers; and if no person is available to act the guinea-pig,
chimpanzees and other primates are the least worst animal choice. But
chimps are expensive to keep, difficult to breed and can deliver a much
worse bite than any mouse. Science is not a major factor when choosing
the subjects of live animal experimentation. Animal experiments are not
economical in the scientific sense.
The animal experimentation 'method' works like this: A
researcher tries to model a human illness in a different species,
perhaps by inoculating a pathogenic agent into an animal. This creates
an infectious disease in the animal, different from the human version,
which the researcher tries to cure with a variety of drugs. In other
words, this method introduces errors at each step, which multiply
geometrically. The probability that any cure found for the 'animal
model' will work for humans with acceptably minor side effects falls
closer to zero with every action the researcher takes. Moreover, there
are no 'universally-accepted scales' to allow measurements of one
species' reactions to be applied to another's. Generalizations from
animal experiments are never unambiguous.
A case may be made, however, for animal experimentation
to be labeled heuristic, since there are clear examples of serendipitous
discovery. But many of these discoveries are observations of unexpected
results: a drug having the opposite effect of that predicted, for
example. Such discoveries almost always contradict original principles
or hypotheses; the work is not truly heuristic.
Modern laboratories attempt to make experiments
reproducible by using animals which are as standard as possible. Animals
are fed standardized diets and kept in as identical conditions as
possible. The result is not standardized animals, however, but abnormal,
even sick animals, whose natural impulses have been paralyzed by such
standardization. It would be profoundly inaccurate to draw analogies
between such animals and human beings, most of whom manage to eat varied
diets, touch everything around them and face daily exposure to
innumerable, random substances.
Biomedical research methods
It is important to realize that there are no 'alternatives' to animal
experimentation, since such methods would be seen as equally valid and
hence of no scientific merit. There are, however, many scientific
biomedical research methods:
Cell and tissue culture techniques have many
applications in research and great potential for replacing many
unsatisfactory animal procedures. For example, substances intended for
human use must undergo toxicity testing on human cell and tissue
cultures. At present, much toxicity work is still carried out on whole,
live (non-human) animals!
Epidemiology - studying diseases within whole
populations can lead to huge gains in knowledge with high accuracy and
low risk. Major advances in our understanding of, cancer and HIV, for
example could be attained simply by observing their characteristics
among specific population groups. Instead, vast sums of money are
currently expended on laboratory research into cures for such
afflictions, before we have any deep understanding of their propagation
DNA profiling is certainly controversial, but will
undoubtedly become a significant tool for pharmaceutical companies. In
the future it is likely that prescriptions will be tailored to each
patient based upon a DNA analysis of their probable responses to
different drugs and, in principle at least, this could significantly cut
back both animal and human testing programmes.
Computer modeling allows the researcher to explore many
more possible combinations of potential medication than any laboratory
programme can offer.
In summary, the natural models for human illnesses are
sick people, not healthy animals or purpose-bred animals made sick to
mimic human illnesses. Sadly, there are many ill people in the world and
many illnesses for which we still need better prevention and/or cures.
This is a situation which will not improve while governments,
universities and pharmaceutical companies continue to misapply research
efforts to animal experimentation. Researchers need to seek out the ill,
wherever they are globally, and engage with them in the struggle to
improve human health.
Animal experimentation is bad, lazy pseudoscience which can be replaced
with numerous, scientifically rigorous, methods, such as clinical
observation, epidemiology, cell and tissue culture studies, and
mathematical models. Results obtained from animal studies and applied to
humans can only ever be interpreted with hindsight. We can never know a
priori if a substance or technique which 'works' in one species will
work in another.
Animal experimentation is scientifically illogical and
produces results which cannot be reproduced freely. It does not follow
the standard scientific method. Medicine should not progress by trial
and error because the 'errors' are human and animal lives.
'No experimenter on animals can provide a single useful fact about human
disease.' (D. A. Long, 1954, British National Institute for Medical
'The idea, as I understand it, is that fundamental
truths are revealed in laboratory experimentation on lower animals and
then applied to the problems of the sick patient. Having been myself
trained as a physiologist, I feel in a way competent to assess such a
claim. It is plain nonsense.' (G. Pickering, 1964, Oxford University)
'It was by good luck that in the initial toxicity tests
we used mice, because if we had used guinea-pigs we would have concluded
that penicillin is toxic.' (Statement by Sir Howard Florey, joint Nobel
Prize winner with Fleming and Chain for the discovery of penicillin)
Croce P., 1999, Vivisection or Science? An investigation into testing
drugs and safeguarding health. Zed Books, London.
The author, Nick Drake, has a background of research in
the physical sciences and has been taught scientific methodology and
processes at various UK universities.
Why is animal experimentation still tolerated in a
sophisticated, civilized world? Perhaps because such basic truths as its
non-scientific nature rarely reach the majority of people. So spread the
word: Verifiable truth is of the greatest power, and always wins
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