The scientific argument has an ethical foundation, while the ethical argument rests firmly on the implications of scientific discoveries.
Throw into this topsy-turvy mix what is essentially a faith-based defense of animal experimentation by its adherents or the dissembling by those with a vested interest in vivisection and you have an olio of positions and claims that a bystander is likely to find as confusing and at times as inscrutable as a heated theological debate between Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutherans.
The scientific argument makes the basic claim that species differences overwhelm the similarities between say, humans and macaques, and make discoveries in macaques largely inapplicable to humans; put another way, the details of the biology of one species or strain aren’t reliable predictors of the details of biology in a different species or strain. This claim has been examined and defended in considerable detail both from a theoretical vantage (Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation. LaFollette H, Shanks N. Routledge, 1997; Animal Models in Light of Evolution. Shanks N, Greek R. Brown Walker Press. 2009.) and empirically (see for instance the many examples cited in Greek C, Greek J. 2000, 2002, 2004; Comparison of treatment effects between animal experiments and clinical trials: systematic review. Perel P, Roberts I, Sena E, Wheble P, Briscoe C, Sandercock P, Macleod M, Mignini LE, Jayaram P, Khan KS. BMJ. 2007.)
This evidence and the theoretical explanations for the cited failures of one species to meaningfully predict another species’ reaction or response to a drug or disease-causing agent is used by critics to argue that animal experimentation should be severely curtailed or stopped altogether. They argue essentially that animal models are misleading and necessarily reduce the financial support available for clinical research. If animal experimentation isn’t as productive as clinical and human cell- and tissue-based methodologies, then it should be stopped because the best methods should receive the funding.
This argument seems doomed to fail because it rests on an often unspoken belief about societal ethics: If experiments on animals aren’t the most productive methods, then hurting and killing them isn’t justified. This is why vivisection’s adherents and leaders sometimes call it a necessary evil. The scientific argument is predicated on the assumption that we will stop doing something that hurts others if it can be pointed out to us that the benefits we thought we were getting aren’t actually forthcoming.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. The benefits we accrue from hurting others need be only very slight, arguably trivial, to justify great harm. Most of us find flavor alone to be more than adequate justification for hurting and killing animals. If the taste of a fried egg is enough to keep us supporting the caged-egg industry, then it is hard to see how even the most remote possibility of some small medical advance won’t be enough to keep most of us silent or uninterested in the plight of the animals in the labs.
The ethical argument makes the claim that other animals suffer much like we would if we were treated like they are treated, and thus, justice and compassion demand that we severely curtail animal experimentation or stop it altogether whether or not there is any value in the practice.
The claim of similarity is rooted in science. A large and constantly growing body of evidence is demonstrating cognitive characteristics of other animals that have traditionally been used to delineate the claimed moral divide between them and us. People making the ethical argument point to the work of scientists like Jane Goodall, Donald Griffin, Irene Pepperberg, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Marc Bekoff, and articles like National Geographic’s “Animal Minds.”
This seems to be the argument that is having the greatest effect. One reason the more straightforward concern about animals might have greater impact than an argument about the low value of animal models is suggested by medical historian Robert N. Proctor in a comment about branding Nazi medical science as quackery:
It is curious that, immediately after the war, people were eager to argue that Nazi medical experiments “were not even good science.” The American prosecutor at Nuremberg, for example, felt compelled to point out that Nazi medical experiments were “insufficient and unscientific,” “a ghastly failure as well as a hideous crime.” One is left with the impression that if such experiments had been “good science,” this would somehow make a difference in our attitudes toward them. And yet the cruelty of an experiment is not lessened by its scientific value. Furthermore, Nazi experiments were not entirely “insufficient and unscientific,” in the restricted sense of these terms. The experiments were undertaken by trained professionals; the results were presented at prestigious conferences and scientific academies. (Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Harvard University Press, 1988. p. 220).The growing recognition and acknowledgement that other animals suffer as we would seems to be the driving force behind the bans on pig farrowing crates, experiments on chimpanzees, bullfights, etc. Questions of economics, wasted opportunities, or misleading results hardly matter once someone begins to empathize with an animal being hurt.
On the other side of the issue, there seems generally to be two camps, though some people clearly have a foot in both while some aren't aware that there are two camps. There are the adherents and the vested.
The arguments used by adherents seem similar in nature to the arguments used by adherents of any faith-based belief system. Among adherents there is an unwillingness or inability to examine, let alone challenge the fundamental tenents. There seems to be a blind belief at work that disallows much critical thought that is coupled with a broad acceptance of dogma. A good example of this are the assertions made by Tom Holder, spokesperson for ProTest a.k.a. SpeakingofResearch. Holder claims that all medical progress is the result of animal experimentation. Period. No doubt, just unquestioning faith. (See P. Michael Conn is a Liar.)
There is irony in the adherents’ blind faith. On the one hand, they see themselves as champions or at least believers in rational thought. They decry the denial of science they claim to see all around, the lack of science education, which they claim, explains much of the criticism they receive. They claim that those who speak out for animals are driven by a hatred of humans, but then ravage anyone who disagrees with them. They deny the evidence that disproves their beliefs, and refuse to test their faith.
The adherents are led by those, like the Benny Hinns of evangelical Christianity, who may understand the falseness of their claims, but who reap great riches from the mythology. Thus, the Holders and the people duped and preyed upon by organizations like the Foundation for Biomedical Research fawn at the feet of those they perceive to be their potential saviors or whom they see as authority figures—perhaps driven by some need for approval from a father figure.
The Benny Hinn want-to-bes of the vivisection industry, the P. Michael Conns, the Colin Blakemores, the David Jentsches, these people understand where their mortgage and boat payments come from. They understand that it is in their own financial best interests to sell the Holders on the idea that vivisection is a sacred talisman, to sell the media on the notion that they wish they didn’t have to hurt and kill animals, and that the animals are all respected and well-cared for. They seem to believe that were the public to learn the truth, that they might be pilloried or at the least be forced look for honest work. To the critical ear, their claims sound much like Benny Hinn’s tongues, but to the Holders, it is revealed truth.
So, on the one hand are the critics, whose scientific arguments are actually moral ones, and critics whose ethical arguments are actually scientific ones. On the other hand are the champions of science who refuse to confront the history of medicine or to acknowledge the implications in the discoveries concerning animals’ minds and who blindly follow the tongue-speaking vested interests who work to keep their dark world a secret and mislead and frighten an understandably confused public.