If you looked into the eyes of evil, would you even know? What if someone claimed to be good, compassionate, or even holy? If evil wasn't branded with a swastika, wearing a mask, or had a pointed tail, could you distinguish it from good?
On February 13, 2007, Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, gave a public talk titled “Be Happy Like A Monk.” For his work on the neurobiology underlying Buddhist meditation, Davidson was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2006. He is a personal friend of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2005.
Davidson explained to the audience his methods for studying emotion and the effects of meditation in volunteers, both members of the general public and Buddhist monks. He defined happiness and talked about some epidemiological studies that have looked at possible correlations between happiness and marriage and happiness and money. The research strongly suggests that neither marriage nor money buy happiness. Then he went on to discuss the “Voluntary Cultivation of Compassion.”
The lecture hall was completely filled. The overflow was placed in a nearby hall and watched on closed circuit television. Davidson took questions after his presentation.
As people arrived they were given a leaflet that called attention to a part of Davidson’s research that he was unlikely to call attention to himself.
He finished his presentation with what he explained was one of his favorite quotations and a short video clip of the Dalai Lama urging students at MIT to embrace compassion. The quotation was from a letter to a friend written by Albert Einstein:
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.Davidson announced at the beginning of his lecture that he would respond to the leaflet at the beginning of the question and answer session at the end of his talk. He did; this was his response:
I want to ask myself and respond to the issue that was raised in the leaflet that was handed out. Let me begin by saying that this is a very complicated and nuanced issue and I think that it is important at the outset to calmly and dispassionately reflect on this question. We have – I personally as a scientist have struggled with this issue a lot, and in fact I’ve spent many hours talking with the Dalai Lama himself about this issue, because it is something that has been of deep concern to me.The remainder of this essay is a response to Davidson’s remarks above and a few others from the lecture.
It is very clear to me as a scientist, that research on animals is important for the alleviation of suffering on our planet. I’m committed to that as a scientist and I believe that there are certain kinds of research which are just critical to do which will have enormously widespread impact in the relief of suffering.
One of the things that the Dalai Lama always asks us is, “What is your intention?” What is the scientist’s intention in the work that he or she is doing? The leaflet refers to the fact that a good portion of my work is on fear and anxiety, and it is.
If you look at the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the first noble truth is that life is suffering and we don’t have to look very far to see suffering in our world, and my research is deeply committed to understanding the nature and roots of suffering and to eradicating suffering in whatever ways that I can contribute to that enterprise. And so the work that we do in rhesus monkeys, and I must say it’s a really small portion of what we do, and it’s all done collaboratively, is done, in that context and with that intention.
The research on fear and anxiety is not because we want to promote fear and anxiety, it’s because we want to eradicate suffering of all sentient beings. And moreover, at the Waisman Brain Imaging Laboratory one of the things that we have been among the world’s leaders in is developing ways to non-invasively image the rhesus monkey brain, the non-human primate brain so that we don’t have to use invasive procedures. We actually have at the Waisman Brain Imaging Laboratory a small PET scanner that is specifically designed for pets, for rhesus monkeys, and it is a way that we can image the brain using the same imaging devices that I go into all the time. So this has been a tremendous advance because we can now see things in the brain of an animal without having to actually do surgery and engage in invasive procedures.
So it is a very important issue and I think that anyone who does research at the animal level needs to ask him or herself what his or her intention is, and if the intention is, the work is being done for the purpose of alleviating suffering and if everything possible is done to minimize the discomfort and suffering the animal subjects and if there’s reason to believe that the work will benefit the alleviation of suffering in sentient beings.
I personally have made the decision that this work is important and should go forward, and I will stand up to that position and I will advocate for it and I will defend it. [Seemed to wait for applause that never came.]
So, I do think it is an important issue. I appreciate it being raised. I think it’s important for those of us who do work at that level be reminded us of its importance. So, I will now take questions from the audience.
Davidson: “Let me begin by saying that this is a very complicated and nuanced issue and I think that it is important at the outset to calmly and dispassionately reflect on this question.”
The issue is neither complicated nor nuanced. Beginning his response in this manner suggests that the simple details of the matter will leave him looking anything but compassionate. His admonition to reflect on the question dispassionately seems contrary to his comments concerning compassion. He mentioned compassion nearly 20 times during his talk. Compassion is the deep emotional response to suffering in others. Telling his audience that a deep emotional response to life is laudable except when it has to do with him injecting acid into the emotion centers of monkeys’ brains, frightening them, and taking public funds to do so, should signal us that he is a little less than transparent or a man of compassion.
Davidson: “It is very clear to me as a scientist, that research on animals is important for the alleviation of suffering on our planet. I’m committed to that as a scientist and I believe that there are certain kinds of research which are just critical to do which will have enormously widespread impact in the relief of suffering.”
Davidson seems to view science as a fundamentalist. When he says that it is clear to him – as a scientist (is this like being a Baptist?) – that research on animals is important and critical to relieve suffering, just what could he be referring to?
It is a simple matter of fact that very little actual science exists to support his claim. It is only very recently that any careful study of this question has taken place. The results have supported the anecdotal studies that have seemed to demonstrate the generally uniform failure of using any species as a good predictive biological model of another species.
Davidson either ignores or is ignorant of the recent and widely reported conclusions by Perel et al., in the British Medical Journal: “Discordance between animal and human studies may be due to bias or to the failure of animal models to mimic clinical disease adequately.” [Perel P, Roberts I, Sena E, Wheble P, Briscoe C, Sandercock P, Macleod M, Mignini LE, Jayaram P, Khan KS. Comparison of treatment effects between animal experiments and clinical trials: systematic review. BMJ. 2007 Jan 27;334(7586):197. Epub 2006 Dec 15. Review. See too: Pound P, Ebrahim S, Sandercock P, Bracken MB, Roberts I; Reviewing Animal Trials Systematically (RATS) Group. Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans? BMJ. 2004 Feb 28;328(7438):514-7. Review. ]
Making a claim that “as a scientist” he is convinced, implies that he is aware of scientific evidence to support his claim. But there isn’t such evidence. Davidson was actually citing the dogma he thought might convince his audience that he isn’t evil, that the ends justify his means, that a man of compassion can torture restrained animals.
Davidson: “One of the things that the Dalai Lama always asks us is, ‘What is your intention?’ What is the scientist’s intention in the work that he or she is doing.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Intention is very important, there is little doubt about that and good intention is why we have Good Samaritan laws that protect people from being sued if an injury occurs during the course of trying to rescue someone. And no one faults a dentist when she drills out your cavity.
But intention is not the carte blanche that Davidson implies. If a scientist wants to find ways of helping rape victims recover, she is not at liberty to have people raped, no matter how honorable her intention. Davidson argues that because he wants to study the neurobiology of fear and potentially alleviate anxiety in human patients, he is then at liberty to experiment on the brains of monkeys and frighten them.
Davidson: “If you look at the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the first noble truth is that life is suffering and we don’t have to look very far to see suffering in our world, and my research is deeply committed to understanding the nature and roots of suffering and to eradicating suffering in whatever ways that I can contribute to that enterprise.”
Davidson’s comment is misleading. The Four Noble Truths are at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. Upon his enlightenment, awakening to the nature of reality, Siddhartha Gautama, now the Buddha, the Enlightened One, met some fellow aspirants with whom he had previously wandered and practiced various deprivations.
He said to them that he had realized four truths concerning the cause of suffering and its cessation. He explained that suffering was an inevitability of life. Being born means that one will experience various pains, sorrows, illnesses, losses, and finally, death.
He explained that this suffering is caused by the fact that we have desires and that all of our desires are for things that are impermanent. Everything that we want, good health, love, wealth, friends, satisfaction, power, life, everything, will pass.
He explained that if we can overcome our desires, our longing, our wanting, that we can escape from suffering.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Buddha’s method for doing this. He called his method the Eightfold Path.
This is the Buddhist path to ending suffering. Right action includes abstaining from harming sentient beings. Right livelihood includes abstaining from dealing in enterprises based on using sentient beings. Not one of these parts orders us to hurt others or condones hurting them, no matter our intention. Buddha explains the certain detriment to anyone intentionally harming another.
This message of concern and compassion for all is repeated throughout the Buddhist canon.
Davidson: “And so the work that we do in rhesus monkeys, and I must say it’s a really small portion of what we do, and it’s all done collaboratively, is done, in that context and with that intention.”
Davidson makes two interrelated arguments: a little sin isn’t so bad, and he wasn’t the only one doing it. (And he appeals to his “good” intention once again.)
Imagine using this argument in a court of law. Your Honor, torturing children is a very small part of how I spend my time, and it was, after all, a gang rape. What’s the big deal? In fact, I was helping a scientist who wants to learn how to help rape victims.
Davidson: “[A]t the Waisman Brain Imaging Laboratory one of the things that we have been among the world’s leaders in is developing ways to non-invasively image the rhesus monkey brain, the non-human primate brain so that we don’t have to use invasive procedures.”
Davidson’s experimental work using rhesus monkeys is decidedly invasive.
Experimental subjects. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) were used as experimental subjects. The animals were housed at the Harlow Primate Laboratory and at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Animal housing and experimental procedures were in accordance with institutional guidelines. Eighteen males underwent lesioning procedures at an average age of 34.9 months. Sixteen unoperated male controls were used for comparison and at the beginning of the study were on average 34.6 months of age. [The role of the central nucleus of the amygdala in mediating fear and anxiety in the primate. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ . J Neurosci . 2004 Jun 16;24(24):5506-15.]Davidson: “I personally have made the decision that this work is important and should go forward, and I will stand up to that position and I will advocate for it and I will defend it.”
In spite of Davidson’s claim that he has thought long and hard about this issue and has had long talks with the Dalai Lama about the use of animals, this seems to be his first public comment about the matter. It looks to me that he was embarrassed into making these comments because everyone in the audience had the flier that made his claim of compassion appear to be something other than genuine.
Before ending, I want to point out two interesting facts. First, His Holiness, the purported Dalai Lama, the incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, supports animal experimentation. He has said so on a number of occasions at public presentations. This suggests that either Tibetan Buddhism is an aberration or there was an error made by the Lamas who identified Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara. If the Buddhism practiced by the Tibetans is authentic, there seem to be few other possibilities.
Second, Davidson appealed to Martin Seligman as an authority on happiness. This is telling. Martin E. P. Seligman should be remembered for his studies on the behavior of dogs exposed to uncontrollable electroshock under a variety of conditions. Generally, dogs were placed in slings and repeatedly shocked. After a period of time, a dog was placed in a shuttle-box to test the dog’s ability to learn to avoid electroshocks.
A shuttle box is an apparatus with two sections that an animal is able to move back and forth between. The floor of each side can be electrified independently. Dogs who had been restrained and shocked repeatedly were less able to learn to avoid the energized floor of one compartment by jumping to the other compartment.
Seligman reported that his observations were based on over 150 dogs.
When an experimentally naive dog receives escape-avoidance training in a shuttle box, the following behavior typically occurs: at the onset of the first traumatic electric shock, the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating and howling, until it accidentally scrambles over the barrier and so escapes the shock. On the next trial, the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly than on the preceding trial. This pattern continues until the dog learns to avoid shock altogether. Overmier and Seligman (1967) and Seligman and Maier (1967) found a striking difference between this pattern of behavior and that exhibited by dogs first given inescapable electric shocks in a Pavlovian hammock. Such a dog’s first reactions to shock in the shuttle box are much the same as those of a naive dog. In dramatic contrast to a naive dog, however, a typical dog which has experienced uncontrollable shocks before avoidance training soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until shock terminates. The dog does not cross the barrier and escape from shock. Rather, it seems to give up and passively accepts the shock. On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give. [Seligman, M.E. “Depression and Learned Helplessness.” In (R.J Friedmand and M.M. Katz Eds.) The Psychology of Depression: Contemporary Theory and Research. V.H. Winston and Sons. 1974.]Seligman and Davidson seem peas in a pod. They both claim to be experts on happiness, yet their careers are studded with instances of profound callousness and cruelty.
The idea that society accepts them as experts and looks to them to help people be happy seems to be a corruption of truth, of justice, and to subtly victimize those who seek them out as authorities on anything good and wholesome.