However unreliable, subjecting animals to experiments for which
humans would never volunteer has immeasurable plusses, evident
throughout time. Animals cannot dissent.
There have always been abundant human bodies, tissue and blood to
illumine our knowledge base. However, in the West, Christianity
pervaded, and papal decree forbade autopsy. During the second century
AD, a Roman physician named Galen performed endless animal experiments
to inform his over-500 treatises that drew conclusions about human
physiology. Many of these conclusions were entirely faulty and
contributed to the "darkness" we now associate with medieval times,
during which powerful Church officials continued to frown on autopsy.
The Renaissance offered a slight reprieve. Competitive intellectual
inquiry emerged to overwhelm Church injunctions. Autopsies revealed
medical inaccuracies that had prevailed for 1,300 years since Galen.
They began to cast light on real causes of disease.
In the mid-nineteenth century a man who had failed as a playwright,
Claude Bernard, took up animal experimentation. His tremendous zeal and
the sheer volume of results - accurate or not - that issued from his
subjugation of animals effectively created an animal experimentation
business. Medical research would henceforward extend beyond the purlieu
of physicians; people who could not make it as doctors could still make
a living as animal experimenters, as well as wield wide influence. In
fact, the machine of animal experimentation generated such an abundance
of conclusions that those conclusions very often overwhelmed human
evidence to the contrary.
Soon animal experimenters were asking for and receiving money for
their research. Animal breeders began to profit. Suppliers of lab
equipment enjoyed their expanding market. And so forth. The growing new
industry seemed useful for the study of diseases, even though there were
huge disparities in results between animal species, and between animals
and humans. Then, in the 1930s a single incidence of a drug effecting an
animal the same as a human effectively routinized the use of animals for
drug development too. Of course, the same problems persisted: Animals
often reacted differently to the same chemical substances.
However, the pharmaceutical industry was off and running, developing
strong ties with animal experimenters and using their results to boost
profits. The disaster of thalidomide, a drug designed to suppress
morning sickness that led to over 10,000 babies with birth defects,
spurred the US Congress to offer the American public every possible
guarantee of medication safety. That "guarantee" took the form of animal
Nevermind that thalidomide itself had been tested on animals prior to
release and had not imposed birth defects on them. And that even after
scientists knew what to look for, they found birth defects from
thalidomide only occasionally.
In approximately 10 strains of rats, 15 strains of mice, 11 breeds of
rabbits, 2 breeds of dogs, 3 strains of hamsters, 8 species of primates
and in other such varied species as cats, armadillos, guinea pigs, swine
and ferrets in which thalidomide has been tested, teratogenic effects
have been induced only occasionally.
Nevermind also that there was already ample evidence that chemicals
react very differently in different species. By legislating that all
drugs must prove safe and effective in animals prior to release, the
government created a legal safehouse for pharmaceutical companies and
any other industry with a product of questionable medical safety. Ever
since, when lawsuits occur, big business can justifiably claim that they
acted with due diligence to the full extent of the law. Inevitably, big
business' enthusiasm over this legal safety net has played a large role
in making animal experimentation a sacred cow.