Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Structure of Cognition

I recently participated in a public forum along with University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Research Animal Resource Director, Eric Sandgren, and John Webster, a UW-Madison professor of bioengineering who experiments on pigs. You can watch a video of the event here.

During the Q&A, Sandgren said that there are differences between humans and monkeys that justify or excuse our use of them. (See the video above at 1:01:54)

I asked him what those differences are and he replied that there is an “incredible literature” on this, and he referred me to that. I followed up with an email asking him if he would give me a title or two from that incredible literature. I cced UW-Madison bioethicist Robert Streiffer who had been in the audience. He chairs one of the university’s five or six Animal Care and Use Committees. (I say five or six because the previously top animal care and use committee, the All Campus ACUC, was recently decertified, disbanded, renamed, de-authorized or something, in some way, by some agency. I have to say some agency, because it’s hard to know as an outside observer just how to weigh the past few years’ multiple USDA Animal Welfare Act violations against the apparently serious complaints to the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. One or the other or both led to a very rare joint inspection by the USDA and NIH. USDA has very recently had a large team of investigators at the university. Or, maybe the repeated serious biosafety violations and issues entered into the equation, or the Michele Basso fiasco, or even something the public doesn't know about. It’s hard to keep up.)

Sandgren never responded to my email, but Streiffer did, to both of us, and pointed to Michael Tomasello and Josep Call’s Primate Cognition. (Oxford University Press, 1997.) To his credit, Dr. Streiffer has been willing to engage in some debate and discussion on this matter, and I thank him for it.

Presumably, neither Sandgren nor Streiffer would argue that the extreme moral distinctions they make differentiating ethical treatment of humans and monkeys (and other animals) are based on gross appearance. Presumably, they would agree that the (extreme always-fatal) distinctions they make are based on mental characteristics.

Tomasello and Call made two lists of cognitive characteristics that distinguish cognition in all primates and cognition in humans. By placing them side by side and comparing these two lists one might be able to see or begin to tease out the salient characteristics of monkey and human cognition that to Sandgren and Streiffer explain the morally relevant differences they claim to see.

The claims and conclusions drawn by Tomasello and Call are sometimes controversial; other researchers have reached other conclusions. My personal experience with chimpanzees (and other animals) leads me to question some of their specific assertions. Tomasello and Call’s claims seem too conservative to me and somehow biased, but for the sake of trying to understand Sandgren and Streiffer’s position, and by extension, the position of others in the industry, we can accept them as written. I have left out the authors’ speculations on how these characteristics might have emerged. Blogger doesn't allow two columns. Here's a link to a readable .pdf of the image below.
Though the elements in each list might be fiddled with, the overall gist and fundamentals must be a fair statement of the reasons for the position held by those who claim that using monkeys in ways harmful to them is moral because of our mental differences.

Apparently, the animals described by the set of characteristics and abilities in the left-hand column are fair game for those described by the set of characteristics described on the right. To those with this belief, it must be that the non-human set of characteristics and abilities is insufficient to warrant much sympathy or moral concern.

In other words, a being with “the basic understanding of space and objects; the ability to discriminate, categorize, and quantify objects; the ability to recognize individual conspecifics and remember past interactions with them; the ability to communicate with and learn from conspecifics; the ability to create flexible strategies to deal with problems in both the physical and social domains based on both learning and insight,” doesn’t warrant much sympathy or moral concern.

I’m stymied. I can’t get past this point. What sort of moral system would exclude a being with the ability to create flexible strategies to deal with problems in both the physical and social domains based on both learning and insight?

The human cognition list waxes on at length about the power of human language, and how learning combines with the use of human language to help make us so cognitively advanced (smart, I would say, but Tomasello and Call specifically argue that intelligence is an inappropriate term to apply to nonhuman cognition. Humans can be smart. Animals are cognitively complex.)

It’s obvious that we are wildly smarter than any other species. But some people are much smarter than others. So what?

(Human) language is a common distinguishing characteristic appealed to in arguments defending the use of animals. But its presence does not seem to be a prerequisite for thinking. Helen Keller must have thought something before she learned to use sign language.

Monkeys don’t have our language ability, yet UW primate vivisector Ned Kalin has said that “[a]nimals do a lot of things instinctively…. But people – and probably monkeys – have the ability to think 20 steps into the future: ‘In the end I’m going to feel great, because I worked hard to get there,’ or ‘I’m going to get a lot of credit for this.’It’s the prefrontal cortex that brings those emotions into play and guides us in our behavior. If we didn’t have a sense of what would be wonderful or awful in the future, we would behave very haphazardly. "Wired For Sadness." Discover. April, 2000.

Imagine trying to plan even three or four steps ahead without some sort of internal dialog. There is either a dialog of sorts going on in a monkey’s head or else he or she is thinking in a mode unlike any I use regularly.

These two lists are interesting and could be the subject of much disagreement and conversation, but I can’t get past the implication that those who defend the use of monkeys in ways certain to harm them, often involving years and even decades of a severely reduced quality of life, and always death, must believe that those “with basic understanding of space and objects; the ability to discriminate, categorize, and quantify objects; the ability to recognize individual conspecifics and remember past interactions with them; the ability to communicate with and learn from conspecifics; the ability to create flexible strategies to deal with problems in both the physical and social domains based on both learning and insight,” simply do not warrant much concern.

It’s worth noting that the being described above by Tomasello and Call isn’t necessarily a monkey. These are what they term “general mammalian cognitive mechanisms.” Primates have additional “cognitive mechanisms.” So what? What is missing in the description above that gives license to our whims or holds up such beings for sacrifice?

24 comments:

Rob said...

Hi Rick. Sorry to harp on the same point, but I just wanted to correct your mischaracterization of my views. You describe me as believing that nonhuman primates do not merit "much sympathy or moral concern," as holding a moral system from which nonhuman primates are "excluded," and as believing that nonhuman primates can be used according to our "whims." And although you don't explicitly say that I believe that nonhuman primates cannot think or have any sort of "internal dialog," you suggest that I do by grouping my view together with the views of those do.

To be clear: I don't hold any of those views.

To reiterate my statement from the All Campus meeting of January 8, I said: "We [UW] currently allow research that causes harm and premature death to sentient individuals capable of living long lives, capable of happiness and suffering, capable of agency and emotion.... I think that any reasonable view about the ethics of nonhuman primate research must acknowledge that these are significant costs, not to be imposed lightly."

Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, no one that I personally know holds the views you describe. I know of a few examples in the literature of people who have held such views in the past (e.g., Frey and Carruthers), although some of them have recanted and so I'm not sure if any remain.

Despite the mischaracterization, your recent posts have discussed important issues and I have found them very thought-provoking.

Thanks.

Best,
Rob

Anonymous said...

Rob is right -- no single scientist believes that animals are not worth of our moral consideration. The problem is simple: you believe all sentient life deserves *equal* moral consideration to that of humans. Most people (and moral philosophers) do not agree with such view.

Rick Bogle said...

I understand Rob that you would prefer to believe differently. We want to see ourselves in a positive light. But actions trump words. Work like Schneider's and Kalin's seems to be driven primarily by whim. Continuing to approve the work at Harlow doesn't demonstrate much sympathy or moral concern for the animals being used. Not too long ago, vivisectors were willing to say in public that there shouldn't be any moral concern for the animals. The political landscape has changed, but the behavior of the vivisectors, not so much.

Anonymous said...

It is not that Rob "prefers" to believe differently. It is that Rob "reasoned" himself into a different view. You can't even see that?

Rob said...

I take your point, Rick, that people may not be willing to candidly state their views publicly when they believe their views are far outside the mainstream, so some interpretive caution is certainly in order.

Nonetheless, if you are attributing beliefs to people on the basis of their actions, rather than on what they say their beliefs are, it must be kept in mind that the actions in question are not the product of people’s beliefs about the moral status of NHPs taken in isolation. Rather, the actions are the product of (a) their beliefs about the moral status of NHPs, taken in conjunction with (b) their beliefs about the harms of research and (c) their beliefs about the value of the research. For example, if I remember correctly, you stated that you approve of purely observational field research on NHPs. We can’t validly infer from that that you believe that NHPs have virtually no moral status. Why not? Because you also believe (rightly or wrongly; it doesn’t matter for this point) that such research isn’t harmful. Similarly, the fact that someone approves of Schneider’s or Kalin’s research and that you, Rick, believe that the research has no value does not license attributing to that individual the belief that it is permissible to use NHPs in research that has no value. Rather, the far more likely conclusion is that they disagree with you (rightly or wrongly; it doesn’t matter for this point) about the value of the research. They might well also disagree with you about how harmful the research is.

My sense, admittedly not backed up by any systematic social science research, is that the current debate about NHP research isn’t between those who believe that NHPs have virtually no moral status and those who think they have some substantial degree of moral status. Rather, the current debate is among those who agree that NHPs have some substantial degree of moral status, but who disagree about precisely how much moral status, the particular form that it takes, and its practical implications.

I’m afraid I am not quite as optimistic as Anonymous is in the 8:44 AM post above, as I expect that there may well be a few scientists who believe that even NHPs have virtually no moral status, but I don’t think that’s the typical view among animal researchers. And, just to say it one last time, it’s not my view and I’m pretty sure it isn’t Eric’s view either.

I am still curious if you have other examples in mind of people who have explicitly endorsed the kind of view you describe, either recently or in the more distant past.

Rick Marolt said...

To Anonymous:

Opposing cruelty to non-human animals does not require moral equivalence. You probably oppose cruelty to animals outside the lab even though you do not think that non-human animals and people have the same moral status.

The opinions of "most people" are not very helpful sometimes. Most people probably prefer Justin Bieber to Beethoven. Most Americans deny evolution. Morals are not a matter of polling.

If you have data on the beliefs of moral philosophers, would you please share it?

I do not know any philosopher of morals/ethics at UW-Madison who has taken a public position in favor of experimenting on monkeys. I know of four who oppose it in private, as do professors in other departments.

Anonymous said...

Marolt says: "Opposing cruelty to non-human animals does not require moral equivalence."

But opposing the benefits the research stands to offer patients dying from AIDS, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Autism and cancer does require an explanation.

You must explain on what moral grounds you decide to deny these patients the benefit of animal research.

Philosophers that have proposed alternatives to the all-or-none status of moral status?

There are many: Anderson, Warren, DeGrazia, Singer, and many others. Look up two-tier theory or sliding scale theory of moral status, for example.

As for scientists and philosophers not talking? This is simply explained by the promise of some elements among your movement to direct violence against such individuals.

Rick Marolt said...

Rob,

What are the practical implications of your beliefs and the beliefs that you attribute to researchers?

It's hard for me to imagine that researchers believe that monkeys have any moral status and nonetheless confine the monkeys for life, give them diseases and birth defects, damage their brains and eyes, poison them with lead, keep them hungry for twenty-five years, etc. What belief about moral status is consistent with those actions?

One answer may be that "monkeys have some degree of moral status, but people have a higher degree". Maybe people have ten moral status units and monkeys have six moral status units. But aren't the monkeys treated as if they had zero? What could researchers do to demonstrate any lower moral regard for the monkeys?

How much moral status must a monkey have to avoid being harmed and killed in a lab? Which characteristics must a monkey have to acquire that moral status? Or can only people have that degree of moral status?

Some of these points and questions relate to my earlier post that you did not respond to:
http://primateresearch.blogspot.com/2010/11/marolt-to-streiffer-on-housing.html

If researchers believe that monkeys have "some substantial degree" of moral status and if the ACUCs make ethical decisions, then we would really expect some things to be different in the labs such as housing and limits on experiments,if not an outright ban on experimenting on monkeys — especially if some research is not producing significant practical benefits.

What we see instead is the continuation of the same experiments and the frequently stated wish to increase the labs and do more experiments. See the recent news about the facility in Mount Horeb. And WARF is now transferring the property between the NPRC and the Harlow Lab to UW-Madison so that labs can be expanded there.

Where exactly is the belief in "some substantial degree" of moral status demonstrated?

Anonymous said...

@Marlot

Have you read the NIH guide? The Animal Welfare Act? Do you believe these documents describe the treatment we owe to animals as if they were inanimate objects with no moral status?

Rick Marolt said...

"But opposing the benefits the research stands to offer patients dying from AIDS, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Autism and cancer does require an explanation."

What benefits are you talking about? Little progress on curing those diseases has been made. You seem willing to trade terrible suffering of others (monkeys) for the hope of benefit to us. Seems both unjustifiably optimistic and selfish to me.

There is much evidence that the claimed benefits from research on non-human animals are grossly exaggerated. Monkeys cannot be very good models of human diseases that they do not get. They do not get HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's. After decades of using hundreds of millions of animals in cancer research, the cancer mortality rate has barely improved, and probably mostly due to fewer people smoking. UW researchers admit that the "hit ratio" is low. Basic science in general seems to be in a crisis.

If I had any of those diseases, I would still oppose experiments on monkeys on moral grounds. Principle turmps self-interest. Or it should.


"You must explain on what moral grounds you decide to deny these patients the benefit of animal research."

Sentience, intelligence, emotions, family and social relationships. Compassion, respect, empathy, the Golden Rule, duty, reverence for life.

But I don't think that people stand to lose many benefits if experiments on monkeys end, so I would not frame the issue that way.


"Philosophers that have proposed alternatives to the all-or-none status of moral status? There are many: Anderson, Warren, DeGrazia, Singer, and many others. Look up two-tier theory or sliding scale theory of moral status, for example."

You said that most moral philosophers do not give equal moral consideration to people and non-human animals. I asked for data that supports your "most". This is not data.

I have not argued for moral equivalence. I said that moral equivalence is not needed to oppose cruelty to non-human animals. One can recognize a higher degree of moral status in people than in monkeys but still oppose experiments on monkeys.

But if you like the two-tier or sliding scale approach, are you saying that experimenting on some people (babies with severe birth defects, the severely cognitively impaired, people in a persistent vegetative state) against their will should be acceptable? Or do you automatically put all people at the top of the scale? Where are the gradations in your scale and why do you put them there?


"As for scientists and philosophers not talking? This is simply explained by the promise of some elements among your movement to direct violence against such individuals."

I doubt it.

Rick Marolt said...

"Have you read the NIH guide? The Animal Welfare Act? Do you believe these documents describe the treatment we owe to animals as if they were inanimate objects with no moral status?"

Pretty close. I take better care of my inanimate objects.

Small cages, artificial environment, no daylight, chronic diarrhea, self-mutilation, neurosis, intentional birth defects, brain damage, lead poisoning, intentional infliction of disease, withholding of food and water, solo housing in many instances, repeated experiments on the same monkeys, electro-ejaculation, no retirement option. Much of the treatment would be criminal cruelty outside the labs. What degree of moral status is consistent with this treatment?

We treat our dogs and cats better at home even though monkeys probably have more of whatever you think the basis for moral status is.

You're attributing an all-or-nothing moral equivalence model to me, but I think it fits the research community better. Monkeys in the labs are treated with almost no moral consideration. If they were treated with more, that is, if the researchers and ACUCs recognized a "substantial degree of moral status" in monkeys, then wouldn't we expect some protocols, perhaps those that cause birth defects and brain damage, to be rejected by the ACUCs? Better housing? A decrease in the number of monkeys used? Wouldn't ACUCs reject experiments that have little chance of helping people? How about a sanctuary? Fewer accidental deaths of monkeys? Fewer criminal complaints and federal inspections?

Do you agree that monkeys have a "substantial degree of moral status" as Streiffer says they do? Do you think the treatment of monkeys in UW's labs is consistent with that degree? If not, what can be done to improve the treatment? (By "treatment", I mean housing, handling, vet care, experiments — everything.)

Anonymous said...

“What benefits are you talking about? Little progress on curing those diseases has been made...”

Many cancers (breast, brain) were nothing short of a death sentence 40 years ago; not longer so. AIDS was a death sentence too; not longer the case. We might not have fully cured these diseases, but we certainly found ways to manage them and substantially extend the lives of many patients. We also have gained important knowledge about how these diseases develop which will allow scientists to continue their search for a cure. Much of this progress was built on top of animal research. You may not like it, but those are the facts.

“If I had any of those diseases, I would still oppose experiments on monkeys on moral grounds.”

That is your decision and certainly consistent with your moral theory. But you see... it so happens that there is a public demand for “not dying early”. I would be curious how many you will convince to adopt your position of dying prematurely when it could be prevented by scientific research.


“Sentience, intelligence, emotions, family and social relationships. Compassion, respect, empathy, the Golden Rule, duty, reverence for life.”

I am afraid the science on many of these are highly controversial: in particular with respect to compassion, empathy, respect, theory of mind, and so on....

It is not difficult to find videos like this that might raise doubts:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUy5Pex84Wc&feature=fvw

I think experimenting on orphan humans on a vegetative state might be morally permissible. I do not put always people at the top of the scale.

Finally, as for what happens inside laboratories, I am afraid your knowledge appears limited to PeTA videos. And for your comment about violence, I can only assume you are being intellectually dishonest here.

Rick Marolt said...

"I am afraid the science on many of these are highly controversial: in particular with respect to compassion, empathy, respect, theory of mind, and so on...."

I was referring to my compassion, empathy, and respect. I think the human ability to feel those things is pretty clear. I did not mention theory of mind.

The evidence that monkeys are sentient, intelligent, and emotional, and participate in family and social relationships is overwhelming.

"Finally, as for what happens inside laboratories, I am afraid your knowledge appears limited to PeTA videos."

I wrote: "Small cages, artificial environment, no daylight, chronic diarrhea, self-mutilation, neurosis, intentional birth defects, brain damage, lead poisoning, intentional infliction of disease, withholding of food and water, solo housing in many instances, repeated experiments on the same monkeys, electro-ejaculation, no retirement option."

Some of those things, e.g., that monkeys live in small cages and that there is no retirement option, are just obvious facts. Most of the rest comes from UW's lab records and published papers. If I got something wrong, please point it out with evidence so I will not make the same mistake again.

"And for your comment about violence, I can only assume you are being intellectually dishonest here."

I said only that I doubt your claim that moral philosophers (which is what we were discussing, not researchers) declined to support animal research publicly because of violence perpetrated by opponents of the research. Calling a simple doubt about the validity of someone else's opinion about someone else's feelings intellectual dishonesty is quite a leap!

I note that neither you nor Rob Streiffer have answered my most important questions.

Anonymous said...

@Marolt

“I was referring to my compassion, empathy, and respect. I think the human ability to feel those things is pretty clear.”

I asked for your moral justification for opposing medical research. This is not it. Unless you can justify to us why your compassion, empathy and respect for the animals is more relevant than scientists’ compassion, empathy and respect for the human lives they are trying to save.

“Small cages, artificial environment, no daylight, chronic diarrhea, self-mutilation, neurosis, intentional birth defects, brain damage, lead poisoning, intentional infliction of disease, withholding of food and water, solo housing in many instances, repeated experiments on the same monkeys, electro-ejaculation, no retirement option."

It wrong to insinuate this is the situation of every single animal. It is not and you know it. But let me ask you. Assume that cages were larger, with plenty of daylight, animals provided the best possible social environment, retirement options mandated by law, and so on. Would you then approve of the research?

“Calling a simple doubt about the validity of someone else's opinion about someone else's feelings intellectual dishonesty is quite a leap!”

A philosopher was attacked for speaking in favor of research last year at UCLA. Your associate, Mr. Bogle, supports the use of violent methods to stop the research. Are you saying such actions have, or should not have, any impact on open dialogue? If so, I'd certainly say you are being intellectually dishonest.

Rick Bogle said...

In spite of assertions to the contrary, I've said that I understand why people resort to intimidation and the destruction of property and that violence has a long -- a very long -- history of working. I've argued, many times, that we -- the vivisecting and the animal rights communities -- have an obligation to find a way out of what seems to me to be a near inevitable likelihood that real violence will break out. I've said that open public discussion about the issue of animal experimentation is a key element in the alternative to violence. This is why I've organized protests, debates, and lectures.
The vivisection community promotes my acknowledgment that violence could succeed where argument has failed as a wholehearted embrace of violence. It isn't, but I do think violence will be a component in the change I work toward unless we find a way around it. Decrying violence isn't the answer; alternatives must be found, but more often than not, the vivisecting community is unwilling to engage in public discussion and works vigorously to derail regulation, public oversight and investigation, and vigorously resists disclosing the plain facts about what they do. See for instance, my essays on this blog:
"The Pressure Cooker" and "Animal Rights Violence".

Rick Bogle said...

"Assume that cages were larger, with plenty of daylight, animals provided the best possible social environment, retirement options mandated by law, and so on. Would you then approve of the research?"

Speaking for myself, no, I would still probably not approve, but your question seems to acknowledge that you agree that much could be done to improve the currently poor conditions.

If such improvements were made, the vivisectors could at least then claim that they really did have some moral concern for the animals' well-being.

Making such improvements should not be done only if, or because they might appease critics, but because they are steps vivisectors would impliment if they honestly had some concern for the animals.

Your question seems to be an implicit admission that you realize they don't.

Anonymous said...

@Bogle

"I do think violence will be a component in the change I work toward unless we find a way around it."

This seems an admission that you are not truly interesting in dialogue nor debate. This is because you are not interested in the actual outcome of such dialogue, nor what the majority of the public thinks. You make it clear that the only thing that matters to you is to achieve your goals by any means necessary.

Your claim that you want "dialogue" is thus an empty one.

Anonymous said...

@Bogle

"If such improvements were made, the vivisectors could at least then claim that they really did have some moral concern for the animals' well-being."

Of course there is moral concern for the animals' well-being. Such improvements are made continuously .

Rick Bogle said...

1. Anon at Jan 1: "Your claim that you want "dialogue" is thus an empty one."

There's some sharp reasoning... you must work in the industry.

2. Anon at Jan 1: "Such improvements are made continuously."

Bald assertions are just that unless supported by evidence.

Anonymous said...

@ Bogle

You say you want open and public dialogue on animal research. You also say that you will not accept the public's decision on that is moral and what is not (according to you the public is uneducated on such matters). You further say that if the public fails to reach your conclusion, violence might be required and justified.

And your justification for your position is that I must work for the "industry"?

Rick Bogle said...

Anon at January 2: "You say you want open and public dialogue on animal research. You also say that you will not accept the public's decision on that is moral and what is not (according to you the public is uneducated on such matters). You further say that if the public fails to reach your conclusion, violence might be required and justified."

The public has never been given a chance to decide on this or a host of other questions. The recent defeat of Dane Co. Res 35 by the university (and Covance) is evidence that the local industry isn't interested in the public's opinion on the matter one way or the other or interested in helping them understand what is going on.

The claims that the public is uninformed on most matters related to science comes from scientists and national polls.

It seems self-serving to argue that the public is informed about science only on matters having to do with the use of animals if that is your claim.

Regarding violence being "required and justified," do you believe that violence is ever required and justified? If so, could you give a few examples of such situations? If it isn't ever justified, what do you think should have been done during WW II, or Rwanda, etc?

Anonymous said...

"The public has never been given a chance to decide on this or a host of other questions."

The point is that you have already decided that you will not accept the public's point of view anyway.

You equal the work inside UW to what happened in Nazi concentration camps (literally). Everyone that disagrees is because they are, in your opinion, either misinformed or have ulterior motives.

Your offer to dialogue is simply the following:

"Either you talk to me and get to see things my way peacefully , or violence will be necessary to make it so."

Rick Bogle said...

Anon at 1/3: "You equal the work inside UW to what happened in Nazi concentration camps (literally). Everyone that disagrees is because they are, in your opinion, either misinformed or have ulterior motives."

At least you got one thing right.

Anonymous said...

Relevant discussion: http://tinyurl.com/4mmqc6c