In the past year or so, Davidson has twice spoken about his research in public venues, and on both occasions activists handed out leaflets as people arrived that called attention to his experiments into the neurobiology of fear and anxiety using rhesus monkeys and the contradictions inherent in his claim of compassion and concern for all beings.
At both events, the leaflets led to Davidson making specific claims about his use of monkeys and about Buddhism. In a previous essay, I addressed a number of claims he made during the first presentaion.
This is a reasonably accurate transcript of the comments he made on this topic on November 7, 2007, at the Madison Public Library in a program titled “How the Brain Changes.” An audio recording is available here.
It’s actually, I feel, wonderful that people know that I do do some research in nonhuman primates, it’s not the bulk of what I do, I have that work, I continue to do that work, and I’m proud of that work, and I really welcome the opportunity to directly address it.Let's look at his separate claims:
I’ve been, I have had many soul-searching discussions about this issue with myself, with my colleagues, and with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One of the things which is the most important issue for me is what one’s motivation is to do the work that one’s doing. Actually this is something the Dalai Lama has always asked [about] any kind of work, and my motivation is really to eliminate suffering, and that is why I do my science and why I’m dedicating my life to [it].
In addition to the research that we do on meditation and always compassion, we also study devastating disorders like depression which is responsible for extraordinary morbidity and fatality across the world. There are untold numbers of suicides daily in this country as a function of these disorders. A recent epidemiological study that was done in Scandinavia found that just asking people how happy or unhappy they are in a large epidemiological study predicted over a 20-year interval the extent to which a person would commit suicide with a tenfold increase in suicide rates among people who consider themselves to be very unhappy.
So these are issues which are really profound, they affect people’s lives and they are responsible for devastating suffering on the planet to the extent that the work that we do can help develop new interventions which I firmly believe they can and will and are currently doing. That is something that I think is critical in this program of research and the work that we do in nonhuman primates has been done with noninvasive methods to image the brain, we are actually one of the pioneers in developing methods to study the brain in nonhuman primates in ways in which actually don’t create suffering which are the same methods which I subject myself to all the time.
Modern brain imaging methods we have one of the few systems in the world today for doing that kind of noninvasive imaging of the nonhuman primate brain. So I believe this work is really important, it is done with the intention of relieving suffering. I also do it in a way in which I try to muster all of the gratitude I can for the animals that participate in our research and if you bring that quality to the work that you’re doing I think it transforms it and so I appreciate the sensitivity that this issue raises, I applaud the efforts of people who are working to relieve suffering throughout the animal kingdom and I welcome the opportunity to address this and to underscore the fact that this work is done to actually eradicate suffering on the planet, so I thank you for listening to that.
[A question from the audience] I’d like to follow up on what you just said given the fact that you’re involved with Buddhism and compassion and [unclear] the right to induce pain or kill sentient creatures [unclear] you said that you do experiments on monkeys at the primate center that you do noninvasive work, well my understanding is that you’ve done experiments with Dr. Ned Kalin, and I know that Dr Ned Kalin does a lot of basic brain experiments on monkeys who have been [unclear] restrained for extended periods of time, who’s amygdala is burned and destroyed with acid. These are sentient creatures who should be living in their natural environment and frankly it causes me great pain to think of their suffering.
Well, thank you for that articulate statement I can tell you that we have been pioneers in the development of noninvasive methods to image the brain. To the extent that there is suffering that occurs in the context of the research that we do, we believe that the motivations that we have for doing the research are critical to take into account, we do everything we possibly can to minimize both of the animals, the nonhuman animals as well as the humans.
The experiments that we do in humans require a great deal of sacrifice as well and we can have a very extended discussion here and take the rest of the time on this issue, I think there are probably other questions, but I think the most important thing is the attitude of the scientist who is doing this work, the motivation the scientist brings to the task and also the extent to which gratitude is expressed in the act of doing the work that we’re doing which transforms the nature of one’s relationship with the monkeys that we study.
You know, I think in the best of all possible worlds it would be wonderful to have outdoor enclosures where the animals are not within cages, there are places where the climate permits where that kind of work can be done, it’s not possible to do it in Wisconsin because of the climate and if I had my druthers I would much rather have that kind of facility, but given, sort of the circumstances that present themselves, the opportunities, and the difference I believe we can make in terms of treatment for dramatic suffering that exists on the planet, I’m proud of this work and I think the good that it does so far exceeds the minimal amount of suffering that we create and I think that some of the comments that you made are comments that are made, frankly, for lack of knowledge of the details of this work, and if it really is of interest you should actually look at the papers which are all available free online and take a careful look at what it is that’s actually done.
1. “It’s actually, I feel, wonderful that people know that I do do some research in nonhuman primates, it’s not the bulk of what I do, I have that work, I continue to do that work, and I’m proud of that work, and I really welcome the opportunity to directly address it.”
I don’t really know whether this total crap or not. Eric Sandgren, Director of the UW-Madison Research Animal Resource Center, has said that he is unable to find anyone on campus (other than himself) willing to publicly debate the use of animals in biomedical research. [Note to Eric: Why not give Davidson a call and find out whether he would welcome the opportunity to address this issue at length in a public venue.]
2. “I’ve been, I have had many soul-searching discussions about this issue with myself, with my colleagues, and with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One of the things which is the most important issue for me is what one’s motivation is to do the work that one’s doing. Actually this is something the Dalai Lama has always asked [about] any kind of work, and my motivation is really to eliminate suffering, and that is why I do my science and why I’m dedicating my life to [it]….”
Davidson appeals to his motivation to do good and his good intent as justifications for his actions throughout his statement. It’s a hackneyed aphorism but appropriate to point out that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In considering this defense, we should keep in mind past instances when the same justification was employed.
In the most infamous case, the Nazi medical experiments on unwilling human subjects, we see immediately the risk of any appeal to good intention. An outstanding and important essay on these experiments in this context is “The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments.” Baruch C. Cohen. Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise
The Nazi’s experiments were not intended as torture. This is an important point to bear in mind when considering Davidson’s work and his claims. The Nazis experimented on unwilling subjects in the pursuit of medical treatments and cures for those they valued more than those who they used. According to Cohen, they were, in some cases, successful in their pursuit of benefit.
But few people would be willing to claim that the experiments – no matter the possible or even actual benefit – were justifiable. They were heinous. They were depraved. They were unethical and immoral. Yet, Davidson defends himself just as the Nazi doctors and scientists did. The harm he does is cancelled out by the potential benefit, or so he claims.
This is the identical claim used by the U.S. government in its radiation experiments on unsuspecting human subjects and in all secret potentially harmful experimentation that has ever occurred. It is only and precisely the complete discounting of an actual individual’s interests and the conflating of a (sometimes hypothetical) larger population’s interests that allows doctors, government, and scientists to use us as they wish without pause or concern for our personal preferences not to be harmed.
We should keep in mind the company in which Davidson places himself.
3. “the work that we do can help develop new interventions which I firmly believe they can and will and are currently doing.”
Davidson’s primate-based experiments have led to no new interventions and it is unlikely that they ever will or even could. His fundamental implicit claim is that anxiety and fear in monkeys and humans are biochemically and metabolically identical. This is the only possible justification for using these animals given the complex nature of emotion. Here’s a challenge: Name one intervention for depression in humans that is a direct result of studies into the neurobiology of induced fear, anxiety, or depression in monkeys. (I won’t hold my breath.)
4. “That is something that I think is critical in this program of research and the work that we do in nonhuman primates has been done with noninvasive methods to image the brain, we are actually one of the pioneers in developing methods to study the brain in nonhuman primates in ways in which actually don’t create suffering which are the same methods which I subject myself to all the time.”
This is so misleading. I suspect that it was intentionally misleading. Here are a few passages from a 2007 paper, “Role of the primate orbitofrontal cortex in mediating anxious temperament.” (Kalin N. H., Shelton S. E., & Davidson R. J. Biological Psychiatry):
Methods and MaterialsBut Davidson told his audience that he is “one of the pioneers in developing methods to study the brain in nonhuman primates in ways in which actually don’t create suffering which are the same methods which I subject myself to all the time.” I wonder how often he has the ventral surface of his brain exposed and electro-cauterized and sucked out? Oh yeah, “all the time.”
Experimental Subjects Twelve experimentally naïve adolescent colony-born rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) were the subjects. Animal housing and experimental procedures were in accordance with institutional guidelines. The animals were housed as pairs; each experimental animal lived with a control animal. At the beginning of the study, subjects were, on average, 34.4 months of age. Six randomly selected males underwent surgery at an average age of 35.6 months. Six nonoperated male control animals were used for comparison, since we previously demonstrated that the nonspecific effects of the surgery do not significantly affect the behavioral and physiological measures of interest.
Surgical Procedure Prior to surgery, atropine sulfate was given to depress salivary secretion, and dexamethasone was given to reduce potential brain swelling. Animals were pre anesthetized with ketamine hydrochloride, fitted with an endotracheal tube, and maintained on isoflurane anesthesia. An experienced surgeon made an opening in the frontal bone posterior to the brow ridge to expose the frontal cortex. Both hemispheres were lesioned in a single procedure by lifting the brain to expose its ventral surface. Using microscopic guidance, electro-cautery and suction were applied to the targeted brain area.
Threat-Related Anxiety To assess defensive and anxiety-related behaviors, all animals were tested before and after the lesions were made using two different paradigms, each with three different conditions (alone [A], no eye contact [NEC], and stare [ST]). Control and experimental subjects were tested at the same time, and the mean time between the lesioning procedure and the first postsurgical behavioral test was 4.3 months. The first test was conducted using the classic human intruder paradigm (HIP), consisting of 9-min periods of A, NEC, and ST. As part of a separate study, the second test used a modified HIP paradigm. In the classic HIP, during the A condition, animals were placed alone in a test cage for 9 min. This condition predominantly elicits coo vocalizations and locomotion. This was followed by the NEC condition, in which a human entered the test room, stood motionless 2.5 m from the cage, and presented her profile to the monkey while avoiding eye contact. The NEC condition elicits freezing behavior. After NEC, the intruder left the test room for 3 min and returned for the ST condition, during which the intruder stared at the monkey with a neutral face 2.5 m from the test cage. The ST condition elicits defensive hostility and barking, an aggressive vocalization. The modified HIP consisted of 20 min of each of the three conditions (A, NEC, ST) on three different days. The classic and modified HIP paradigms were repeated for all subjects after the experimental animals were lesioned.We should also keep in mind that the monkeys Davidson uses are born into a captive environment known to induce mental illness and that all the monkeys, or a significant portion of them, are sick all the time. This is the baseline suffering he adds to in his own unique way.
Assessing Snake Fear Subjects were adapted to the Wisconsin General Testing Appa-ratus (WGTA) test cage, and their food preference was determined. Subjects were taught to reach for their preferred rewards on top of the clear plastic stimulus presentation box. Subjects were presented with two of their most preferred foods randomly placed on the distant left and right corners of the clear plastic stimulus presentation box, requiring the subjects to reach over the stimulus for the food rewards. The box contained one of four stimuli: 1) nothing: empty box; 2) tape: roll of blue masking tape; 3) rubber snake: curled black rubber snake 120 cm long; and 4) snake: live northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus) 170 cm long. Subjects were tested for 1 day, during which each stimulus was presented six times in a pseudorandom order. The real snake was never presented during the first five trials and no item from either the snake or the non snake stimulus categories was presented for more than three consecutive trials. Each monkey received the same order of stimuli. Each trial lasted 60 seconds regardless of the subject’s response, and the inter-trial interval was 45 seconds. Latency for the animal’s first reward retrieval in each trial was used for analysis.
5. “You know, I think in the best of all possible worlds it would be wonderful to have outdoor enclosures where the animals are not within cages, there are places where the climate permits where that kind of work can be done, it’s not possible to do it in Wisconsin because of the climate and if I had my druthers I would much rather have that kind of facilility...”
Davidson is an ignoramus. And worse, he’s an ignoramus who people trust and believe. No matter the climate – balmy or tropical – every monkey used in the sort of studies Davidson does and in essentially all others, are kept in small barren cages. Davidson either doesn’t know this, in which case he speaks about something he has no knowledge of, or else, he was just telling the public what he imagined they would like to hear from a Buddhist initiate, a man of compassion, a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, or a Person of the Year.
6. “I’m proud of this work and I think the good that it does so far exceeds the minimal amount of suffering that we create and I think that some of the comments that you made are comments that are made, frankly, for lack of knowledge of the details of this work, and if it really is of interest you should actually look at the papers which are all available free online and take a careful look at what it is that’s actually done.
“The minimal amount of suffering.” This is always what one hears from those who don’t have to do the suffering. Suffering is a relative term; it is always greater for the one enduring it or being subjected to it. This discounting of others’ pain and fear is grotesque and monstrous.
Davidson’s claim about the “ignorance” of his questioner is an insult given the realities of his work as highlighted above in his 2007 paper. I hope people will look at his papers as he urges. Here they are. These are his primate-related papers:
Role of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Mediating Anxious Temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2007
Brain Regions Associated with the Expression and Contextual Regulation of Anxiety in Primates. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Fox AS, Oakes TR, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2005
Calling for help is independently modulated by brain systems underlying goal-directed behavior and threat perception. Fox AS, Oakes TR, Shelton SE, Converse AK, Davidson RJ, Kalin NH. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005
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
The primate amygdala mediates acute fear but not the behavioral and physiological components of anxious temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ, Kelley AE. Related Articles, J Neurosci. 2001
Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing hormone levels are elevated in monkeys with patterns of brain activity associated with fearful temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2000
Asymmetric frontal brain activity, cortisol, and behavior associated with fearful temperament in rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Larson C, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Behav Neurosci. 1998
Individual differences in freezing and cortisol in infant and mother rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Rickman M, Davidson RJ. Behav Neurosci. 1998
A new method for aversive Pavlovian conditioning of heart rate in rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ, Lynn DE. Physiol Behav. 1996
Lateralized response to diazepam predicts temperamental style in rhesus monkeys. Davidson RJ, Kalin NH, Shelton SE. Behav Neurosci. 1993
Lateralized effects of diazepam on frontal brain electrical asymmetries in rhesus monkeys. Davidson RJ, Kalin NH, Shelton SE. Biol Psychiatry. 1992