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?