Anthropomorphism in the Lab

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Anthropomorphism in the Lab

From The National Humane Education Society (NEHS)
July 2010

Same but Different

What do the Dow Jones Industrial Average, professional football teams, and political parties have in common? They are associated with animals—bulls and bears, lions and dolphins, donkeys and elephants. We name rock bands after eagles and buy gas that puts a tiger in our tanks. We label people as eager beavers, road hogs, copy cats, and dirty rats. We have bats in our belfries. We’re as sly as a fox, stubborn as a mule, or drunk as a skunk. We’re the black sheep of the family and the lone wolf, or we wolf down our food and fight like cats and dogs. While these zoomorphic (ascribing animal characteristics to humans) phrases are common in the mainstream; the opposite, anthropomorphism (ascribing human characteristics to animals), is considered inappropriate in the scientific community.

Each year, millions of nonhuman animals are used for research, especially in testing drugs, cosmetics, chemicals, and other substances. Scientists believe they must first test these substances on nonhuman animals to determine the animals’ reactions. If scientists believe the results of their tests show a direct correlation to how humans would react, then aren’t the scientists saying these nonhuman animals are just like us? Aren’t the scientists guilty of anthropomorphizing? And, if nonhuman animals are just like us, should we be putting them through tortuous experiments in the first place, experiments that would be outlawed if done on humans?

However, some scientists believe nonhuman animals are not just like us, that they don’t experience pain the same way we experience pain, so we can use them without any moral misgivings. If one follows this logic, that nonhuman animals are not like us in how they respond to pain, then what is their valid use in determining how humans would react to similar experiences? The contradiction in science is simple: nonhuman animals must be close enough to humans that test results will be meaningful but not so close as to make it seem we’re doing something inhumane to them.

This contradiction exists not just in the laboratory of chemicals and other substances but in neurological studies, and in the psychology lab as well. Maternal loss experiments are a good example of the latter. Baby chimpanzees are taken from their mothers and isolated with no maternal contact (human or nonhuman) to understand maternal loss and how it affects babies. We wouldn’t take a human baby away from his or her mother and isolate the baby, but we do this with a chimpanzee baby. The chimpanzee baby becomes depressed, withdrawn, morose. So we say a human baby would have the same reaction. Why is it okay to bring such depression down on a chimpanzee baby when we wouldn’t think to do so with a human baby? How can the chimpanzee baby be different and yet the same as the human baby?

Distancing Ourselves

In order to use nonhuman animals in the laboratory, we must create a distance between ourselves and them. For example, on the pages that sell nonhuman animals for research, the animals are referred to as “products” or “models.” Factory farmed animals are “production units,” not cows, pigs, chickens. And they certainly aren’t individual cows, pigs, chickens. In both the laboratory and the factory farm, nonhuman animals have numbers, not names. The numbering of nonhuman animals, especially in laboratory, is somewhat deliberate. Numbering takes away the animal’s identity; it creates a distance between the researcher and the “subject.”

To be able to do what we do to nonhuman animals, we must make them objects. How else can we accept the inhumanity, in the name of science or the dinner table, if we look at them as living, breathing, sentient beings? In science, often the whole animal isn’t even considered but simply one specific anatomical part. The animal is reduced to an organ, tissue, fluid—nothing more. And in the factory farm, we don’t refer to the meat from a cow as cow steak or cow burger. We give it another label—ribs, sausages, and brisket—to distance ourselves from the species.

Many animal researchers prohibit the words “believe,” “think,” “desire,” “want,” “intend,” “try,” “hope,” “feel,” or “suffer” to be used as they relate to nonhuman animals. They do not believe animals experience conscious pain or are conscious period. Their belief is that the behavior is merely defensive as in the case of nonhuman animals reacting to the slaughter of their compatriots (a word that would be considered highly anthropomorphic). Some believe that nonhuman animals lack language; therefore, they must lack the ability to form concepts; therefore, they must lack consciousness; therefore, they cannot suffer even though they may experience pain. Most scientists refuse to be anthropomorphic. In fact, it’s as if they have committed a sin if they do.

Since all mammals have the same basic brain structure with only the size of the various brain parts differing from species to species, it is easy to conclude that many nonhuman animals experience pain and suffering similar to human animals. One such example to support this conclusion is the fact that when nonhuman animals undergo surgery; for instance, a routine dental cleaning, they are anesthetized and sometimes given pain medication upon awakening as they recover from the procedure. And, since the brain structures in mammals in the area of processing emotions are the same, we can conclude that when we are sad, many nonhuman animals can experience sadness also. They can experience joy, fear, elation, and depression. In fact, we give the same pills to our depressed nonhuman animals as we do to our depressed humans. Many nonhuman animals develop mental illnesses the same as humans do and often under the same conditions: being isolated from those of their species, being kept in solitary living environments with little to no interaction with any species, experiencing loneliness when confined even if they are surrounded by other living beings, etc. Are nonhuman animals the same as human animals? Are they different?

Who Is the Other?

Now we come to the heart of this contradictory relationship where nonhuman animal experimentation is concerned. Scientists say that nonhuman animals think and feel nothing. However, no one can say for certain since we are not nonhuman animals. If we cannot know what even another human animal thinks and feels since we cannot be in each other’s brain, how can we profess to say we know what nonhuman animals can think and feel? So what we’re really saying is: nonhuman animals may think and feel nothing, but ultimately we know nothing about what nonhuman animals think and feel. However, according to some scientists, since we cannot demonstrate that nonhuman animals are conscious beings, we must assume they are not. Does that make sense?

If we can’t prove something one way or another, are we to accept one belief over another? If we accept that nonhuman animals cannot think and feel, then it’s okay to experiment on them because they are not like us. But if we err on the side of believing they can think and feel, then we cannot use them as experimental subjects. Either way, we still have the dilemma of considering nonhuman animals to be like us and not like us. Same but different? Different but same?

Ignoring anthropomorphism means death to billions of nonhuman animals every year. Erring on the side that says nonhuman animals are more like us than not, that nonhuman animals have the right to live the lives most appropriate to their species, is the best reason to engage in anthropomorphism in the care and protection of the nonhuman animals of our society.