Open Letter to a Vivisector

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Open Letter to a Vivisector

By David Irving
May 2010

On the evening of April 21, 2010 I tuned in on episode seven of the Charlie Rose Brain Series on PBS co-hosted by you with guests Eric Nestler, Daniel Salzman, Wolfram Schultz, and Nora Volkow. [The panel’s credentials are posted at the end of this letter.] The roundtable focused on the emotional brain in regard to 1) pleasure/reward processes through the neurotransmitter dopamine, 2) addiction and its causes and potential cures, and 3) decision making and social interactions.

As was appropriate, the event was orchestrated and mentored by you, the experienced and honored statesman for the topics under discussion. While hoping not to insult you or anyone else, it must, nevertheless, be said that it was disappointing to witness. Here sat some of the brightest minds in the scientific community behaving as though the use of “animal models” (which includes vivisection) in scientific research is as normal as getting up in the morning for breakfast. To outsiders with an opposing view this was disturbing to watch considering the growing evidence in opposition to the use of research animals both within and outside the animal research industry.

Statements that you and other of your colleagues made at the roundtable were, nevertheless, of special significance and are the focus of this letter. It will not address additional concerns that arose during the evening such as the unsubstantiated, unsupportable, and false statement made by Professor Nestler that “most advances in modern medicine have come about through the use of animal models where aspects of a human disease are recreated in a laboratory animal like a rat or mouse.” That should become clear even from the reading of this letter. Besides, it should be apparent that many methods of medical research exist without dependence on animals including scanning technques, epidemiological surveys, and in vitro studies.

Your comment that “emotions are part of a basic approach avoidance system that is designed to enhance our opportunity for feeling good and decrease our opportunity for feeling miserable” combined with your agreement with Charles Darwin that, as described by you, “emotion is an extremely important subjective state that is universal…shared by people in all cultures and it’s shared by all animals” was remarkable in that in a public forum it defined animals as emotional beings. Further, in regard to emotion, you said “…this is also true for fearful conditions. Anxiety states can also be modeled. And this is essentially what Darwin said. These emotions are conserved, and so one can study these emotional disorders very effectively in animals.”

These statements essentially acknowledge that there is no real justification for doing animal research according to the rationale for animal testing upon which animal researchers traditionally rely. This rationale is based on the theory that animals are different from human beings in that they do not possess consciousness or emotions. But if animals have the capacity to feel good and to feel miserable, as you said, not only is this an acknowledgment of their capacity for emotional depth, it is also an indication that they conscious beings. This is further established in the recent work of scientists working in the field of animal cognition as you are surely aware. Yet vivisectionists continue to deny that animals are conscious, emotional beings as science has been doing for at least the last three hundred and fifty years. This position is evidenced in recent times by well-publicized articles in publications like the U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times, and in other newspapers and periodicals in which scientists have debated whether animals are conscious and have emotions, with those on the side of animal consciousness making up a distinct, small minority. Only within the last ten years have scientists studying animal cognition managed to make any inroads in this debate such as referred to above. But without the rationale that animals are just things without consciousness or emotions, there is no intellectual or moral justification for vivisection and scientists are left only with a mindset based on “might makes right” as a basis for doing it. In general the public supports a value system of right and wrong and behavior based on compassion. People can be persuaded to support vivisectors if they think they are operating on mindless, feelingless creatures. But when those creatures have feelings and consciousness similar to human states of mind, people start saying “stop” and regard vivisection as a kind of social Darwinism.

Such objections were not an obstacle for Darwin himself who in spite of his conviction that animals were emotional creatures was a staunch defender of vivisection. In April of 1881he wrote in The Times of London:

I know that physiology cannot possibly progress except by means of experiments on living animals, and I feel the deepest conviction that he who retards the progress of physiology commits a crime against mankind.

Francis Power Cobbe (1822-1904), an Irish writer, early feminist, social reformer, suffragette, and anti-vivisectionist was around at the time and personally knew Darwin. She had no hesitation in standing up to him. Responding directly to Darwin in The Times she wrote as follows:

It is impossible for a man to devote his life to such a practice [vivisection] without experiencing a growing ardour for scientific curiosity and a corresponding recklessness and callousness respecting the suffering which the gratification of that curiosity may involve.

It is worthwhile noting that Darwin himself detested cruelty to animals. He never performed an experiment upon animals during his lifetime and in The Descent of Man wrote:

In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master, and everyone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless he has a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.

It seems likely that the perceived callousness in Darwin’s argument to which Ms. Cobbe objected may be why vivisectors are often regarded by opponents as subscribers to a “might makes right” philosophy, especially given the many gruesome examples of cruel animal research that have been uncovered and reported. The antagonism illustrated by the dispute between Darwin and Cobbe nearly one hundred and thirty years ago continues today unabated without resolution and with far greater intensity. It does appear experientially that the ratio of anti-vivisectionists to pro-vivisectionists has increased considerably and will continue to increase. That is because growing public awareness increases the size of the anti-vivisectionist movement while the pro-vivisectionist side decreases as more and more pro-vivisectionists come to agree with the reasoning presented by the anti-vivisectionists.

One of the most powerful arguments against vivisection is the dawning recognition of just how destructive our treatment of animals is to the entire world and of the importance of extending compassion to animals as a necessary element for the survival of the planet. This is seen, for example, in the abuse and over production of farm animals for the worlds’ meat eaters resulting in the creation of 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the destruction of ecosystems like rain forests in Brazil and Costa Rica for pastureland for cattle to be exported for hamburger, or in the squandering of billions of tax dollars in the killing of countless millions of innocent animals in research laboratories.

The general consensus conveyed by vivisectionists up to the present that animals are not conscious, emotional beings has benefitted the animal research agenda in several ways. It has helped reassure a large segment of the public that cruel animal experiments such as those animal researchers have frequently been caught performing—like the 2003 menstrual test experiments at Columbia University in which medical researchers removed an eye from baboons and then abandoned the animals in cages without care or painkillers—did not really matter that much because animals were just things that had no feelings or consciousness anyway. This view has also assisted in dispelling public concerns about the enormous expenditure of billions of tax dollars for university and medical center animal research by the National Institutes of Health and other government funding organizations that is cruel and unnecessary and that is done just to generate institutional income and build high profile, high-paying careers for animal researchers that reflect favorably on the universities involved. This is not to imply that some scientists who engage in animal research do not believe their work is for a good cause. This is apparent from comments like those made above by Professor Nestler. But aside from these efforts, animal research projects are repetitive, frivolous, or unnecessary and designed primarily to collect public tax money for the financial benefit of animal researchers and their institutions. They do not benefit humankind.

My own experience related to the Columbia University experiments referred to above illustrates this quite succinctly. In 2003 at the time these experiments were going on, as an alumnus I wrote a letter in protest sent to officers of the medical school, the President of the University, and every single trustee asking the university to address not only the issue of the baboon experiments, but other cruel research that was also happening there like the experiments in which mother baboons and their babies were repeatedly operated on in utero to measure the flow of nicotine through the umbilical chord, and the experiments in which the researchers implanted metal pipes in the craniums of monkeys driving them into a frenzy in irrelevant menstrual stress studies. The suffering these “conscious, feeling” animals endured ended only when they died from the effects of these experiments or when they were killed by their researchers. Columbia’s general response to the public’s complaints about these experiments, including mine, indicated that the university’s greatest concern was how to escape the negative publicity in which it was suddenly involved. Now that science is beginning to admit that animals do have emotions and that they are conscious beings, perhaps it is time to turn in retrospect and consider what those baboons and monkeys in Columbia University’s laboratories might have been experiencing as they had an eye gouged out, had metal pipes implanted in their craniums, or were operated on repeatedly in utero just because human beings addicted themselves to drugs and tobacco.

The obvious fact that it is unethical to torture animals to try to cure addiction problems that human beings have created for themselves never seems to occur to highly intelligent, extremely well-educated scientists who perform animal research and the institutions that employ them, as illustrated by the above examples. It should be more than apparent that those who claim to function according to some set of moral standards can hardly justify making animals pay for human mistakes. Because this is clearly unethical, all animal research involving addictions of any kind, smoking, drugs, sex, anything whatsoever, should be stopped immediately. Human addiction is a problem for humans to resolve, not animals. Those who deny this cannot really claim to function according to any set of morals worthy of serious consideration. Nevertheless, addiction testing on animals continues at Columbia University today. It stains Columbia University’s reputation and, for that matter, every other university in the country and the world that engages in addiction testing on animals.

The theory that science has relied upon for centuries that animals have no emotions or consciousness came from René Descartes (1596-1650). His concept of a mechanistic universe that regarded all living entities other than soul-possessing human beings (according to Descartes only humans had souls) as little more than “things” to be used however humans saw fit, has now been brought to light. For this we can thank enlightened scientists like Rupert Sheldrake who standing outside the mainstream have had the courage to speak out against this absurdity in spite of peer pressure to continue down the same mechanistic path that the majority of animal researchers still embrace today. They would like to avoid the fact that, as Marc Bekoff, a biologist at the University of Colorado and a leading scientist in the field of animal cognition, has pointed out, if we begin to regard animals as having emotions then “we can no longer treat them as objects; they're not mere things for us to do with what we please.” Bekoff and scientists engaging in similar work, like Jonathan Balcombe, who was praised by Nobel Prize recipient in literature J.M. Coetzee for escaping “the narrow orthodoxies of institutional science,” are busy proving just how alike human beings and animals are.

One of the most important debates in the world today is the question of the inherent right of animals to possess rights and of the necessity for human beings to recognize and respect those rights. If human beings refuse to change their relationships with animals, whether it is on factory farms or in research laboratories, as noted above, this planet is headed for far greater problems than it faces today through the loss of biodiversity, the contamination of our rivers, oceans, and the air we breathe, the destruction of the rain forests, the ruination of the world’s health, and cataclysmic disruptions arising from increasing world poverty, the causes of which all can be traced directly to the exploitation and abuse of animals—or, the world view that” might makes right.” If we are to survive the enormous problems that challenge the world today, however, we must escape the indoctrination of this Descartian universe that binds us to a belief system dependent upon the cruel exploitation of other species. Fortunately, in the field of medical research, many alternatives to animal testing are available and are well documented in the medical community. It is the job of medical researchers to take advantage of them and open new avenues of investigation without relying on animal models.

Most human beings have the capacity to understand what life essentially is, anatomically, psychologically, psychically, or aesthetically. It only takes a little imagination to recognize that the miracle and wonder that equals a human being applies also to a mouse or any other living creature. From this simple recognition we can proceed to an understanding of our interrelatedness to all forms of life which extends outward to the universe and at this juncture begin to abandon our “might makes right” way of looking at life. The mere fact that one species is more intelligent than another does not make it superior to the other any more than the fact that one person is more intelligent than another make that person superior to the other. Nor does the fact that, for example, crows can remember and distinguish one human being from another whereas humans cannot possibly remember and distinguish one crow from another, except maybe by size, make crows superior to humans. All species have their own special attributes and exist as a small, independent miracle within a far greater miracle—existence. This is the beginning of a world view that recognizes the interconnectedness of all species and of the necessity to support and assist each living creature that cohabits our planet side by side with us. It is a new way of looking at life and it is essential if we are to hold our world together and prevent it from coming apart. This is the path to the future and the evolutionary step the world is presently engaged in taking. As always, the birth pangs are many.

Thank you for your time.

Yours truly,

David Irving

cc: Eric J. Nestler, Daniel Salzman, Wolfram Schultz, Nora D. Volkow
Charlie Rose

Eric Kandel joined the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1974 as the founding Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. He is a Professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Columbia University and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In the year 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He has been recognized with the Albert Lasker Award, the Wolf Prize of Israel, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, and the National Medal of Science. In Austria he was awarded the Österreichisches Ehrenzeichen für Wissenschaft und Kunst <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96sterreichisches_Ehrenzeichen_f%C3%BCr_Wissenschaft_und_Kunst> and the Viktor Frankl Award of the City of Vienna.

Eric J. Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., is the Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience, Chairman of the Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain Institute at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

Daniel Salzman is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Columbia University.

Wolfram Schultz is a Professor of Neuroscience, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at Cambridge University.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D., is Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She was the Associate Director for Life Sciences the Director of Nuclear Medicine, and the Director of the NIDA-Department of Energy Regional Neuroimaging Center at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and was also Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Associate Dean for the Medical School at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She was named Innovator of the Year in 2000 by U.S. News and World Report.

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David Irving is the author of The Protein Myth: How to Reduce the Risk of Getting Cancer, Heart Disease, Strokes, and Diabetes While Saving the Animals and Building a Better World (forthcoming 2011). An accomplished musician, he has played French horn with ensembles like the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera and was a member of the Oakland Symphony and the Graz Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra (Austria). He attended the New England Conservatory of Music, the Vienna Academy of Music, and graduated Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University from which he also earned an M.A. in music composition.