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A Heartless Science

On June 13, 2004, The Sunday Times featured an article by Jonathan Leake on the subject of non-human intelligence in which he presented the case of a family 'pet' collie called 'Rico', who had demonstrated the power to reason from an early age. Basing his report on research published in the academic journal Science, Leake suggested that the findings of scientists who had worked with Rico showed that 'one of humanity's most precious assumptions ' that our intelligence and reasoning powers are unique to mankind ' may be wrong'.

The article further touched on the subject of the intelligence of other species, quoting as examples apes, dolphins, parrots and corvids, who have all amply demonstrated a capacity to understand human language and process it in a contextual framework. The obvious question was, Leake, postulated: 'Do other animals share with humans the ability to understand speech without sharing the physical ability to speak?' and further, that the notion that other creatures share 'human intellect' (sic) raised some uncomfortable questions about how we treat them.

Naturally, the absence of intelligence in an animal does not preclude suffering, but it is believed that the proof of its existence strengthens the animal rights case, since intelligence implies cognitive abilities, and thus an increased experience and awareness of trauma. Yet the very fact that Leake referred to these qualities as 'human', underpinned the human-centric, speciesist attitude that defines all things: ie: the world according to Homo sapiens. (Thus, for example, what is perceived as an emotional response in non-human animals is commonly referred to as 'human emotion' rather than an emotion that is specific to that individual).

Studies on a wide range of animals show that innate intelligence 'may be widespread'. This revelation is by no means rocket science to those who live closely with non-human animals or who observe them in the wild. Yet because science by its very nature is concerned with the business of 'proof', data and statistics, it seems that laboratory science has the last word.

And so we are told that dolphins can carry out immensely complex tasks, that apes have been taught to 'speak' using a computer keyboard marked with symbols, that chimps in captivity have developed a vocabulary of over 3,000 words, that corvids and psittaci have the power of reasoning and memory, and are able to link cause and effect and learn from the consequences of their actions. The study of many non-human animal species, in fact, shows that these qualities appear to be the rule, rather than the exception. Indeed, we would argue that many of them demonstrate a more highly developed intelligence than some of their human counterparts.

If intelligence is a benchmark of status in deciding whether a non-human animal deserves consideration, then presumably, so too is the capacity for 'feeling'. Indeed, one would say that one does not exist without the other. Carers of non-human animals and students or observers of the natural world have frequently recorded the capacity possessed by human and non-human animals alike to experience responses that we would broadly call emotion. Konrad Lorenz and Gerald Durrell wrote widely on the subject. It does not require a huge empathic ability to recognise, for example, expressions of fear, stress, frustration, joy, grief etc., much less to understand that non-human animals trapped in exploitative situations, and subjected to physical pain and psychological deprivation, will experience the more negative aspects of emotion in the extreme.

Many who exploit non-human animals in the killing fields insist that only humans experience pain and suffering, while using the pain and suffering of experimental animals to illustrate the very quality, which they deny those animals possess. Witness the notorious maternal deprivation experiments (1958) in which psychologist Harry Harlow, subjected baby rhesus monkeys to 'vile torments'. 'Harlow separated babies from their mothers, substituting them for various artificial ones: 'some'pumped freezing cold water over their children; others stabbed them. No matter what the torture, Harlow observed that the babies would not let go'' Such babies grew up violently dysfunctional'and as mothers they tended either to ignore their children or to kill them'. His theory was that "the best way to understand the heart was to break it" (Arts Telegraph, Feb 14, 2004; Lewis Jones in book review of 'Opening Skinner's Box' by Lauren Slater), which he plainly succeeded in doing in the above series of experiments. In doing so, he had obviously to acknowledge that mother love was something experienced not just in the human animal, but in other animals as well. Had this not been implicitly factored into the experiments, any results would have had no relevance in proving his point, albeit an obvious one. Love is universally considered an emotional response.

In Harvard in the 1930s, recently graduated psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner began experimenting with the mechanics of compulsion, using Pavlovian conditioning. By getting non-human animals to do things that were not natural to them using the standardised training system of punishment and reward, he raised questions about free will and stupidity. In the pursuit of his vision of 'a world government of benevolent behaviourists', he kept his baby daughter in a glass 'cage' for two years, training her as he would have a laboratory rat to respond to bells, lights, rewards and punishments. At 21, she was a psychotic; she sued him, lost the case, then shot herself.

Skinner's experiment on his daughter was not unusual in American Society during the early developmental period of psychology. In 1920, John B Watson conducted a famous aversion experiment on a baby boy called Little Albert; the experiment was abruptly halted and records were considered unusable but it -- like many other experiments --was later widely condemned.

The experiments these two men conducted proved no more than was obvious to even a casual observer of human and indeed non-human nature, that what is experienced by the very young in their formative periods, can have profound effects on how they develop in later stages of their lives. There seems little difference between the traumatised baby rhesus deprived of a nurturing parental - specifically maternal figure, and a child deprived of sufficient nurturing in his/her formative years. Both are likely to end up neurotic, even psychotic.

Elsewhere in the U.S, as recently as 1972, a 40-year old experiment in Tuskegee, Alabama - one now universally condemned by human rights advocates - was being allowed to run its course. Sponsored by the US Public Health Service (the United States Government), the study involved the 'treatment' of 399 poor African American men for 'bad blood' ' what they were not told was that they were suffering from syphilis. The intention was not to treat them, but in fact to see what would happen to them were the disease allowed to run its course untreated. Even after 1957, when penicillin was found to cure the disease, researchers withheld the drug. By the time the study was exposed, 128 men were dead, 40 women infected, and 19 children born syphilitic, and this in a country founded on the 'rights of man'. Further research carried out in the pursuit of scientific knowledge both in the US and other countries is also known to have been conducted on orphans, service men, and mentally disabled individuals to name a few, as well as on inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

These examples say as much about the mind of the vivisector as they do about how far a scientist is prepared to go in the pursuit of knowledge, and what he or she is prepared to sacrifice in that pursuit. Actually, it appears that potentially, its whatever the doctor orders'

During the launch of a report into the use of non-human primates in scientific research at the Wellcome Trust last week, the MRC's Colin Blakemore echoed the recently-aired views of Oxford vivisector Tipu Aziz when he announced that he strongly supported the use of the great apes where it would be applicable in the event of a global emergency such as a pandemic virus.

World experts on great apes insist that the attempt to lift the 8-year ban on the use of chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and bonobos must be resisted, and that their use in medical experiments was inhumane and unethical. Media-beloved Blakemore said that although he was 'pleased' that apes were not currently used, he was opposed to the ban on the use of apes, who share more than 96% of their DNA with humans (in real terms, even a 1% difference in DNA is vast) because it muddles the boundary between people and animals.

But it was in Blakemore's announcement that the issue of moral boundaries, the subject of which has been delineated briefly above, was so harshly crystallised. He said: "I worry about the principle of where the moral boundaries lie. There is only one very secure definition that can be made and that is between our species and others."

That 'secure definition' as we have seen above is far from secure. In science and in the pursuit of knowledge, there are no boundaries or limits; the scientist is prepared to avail him/herself of Pandora's Box at any opportunity provided s/he can get away with it. In other words, as far as Blakemore is concerned, there simply is no moral boundary where non-human species exist. One could, at least, argue, that the likes of Blakemore and Aziz are consistent in their view, since for them, all non-human animals are expendable. Thus it could be said that when he insists -- as he frequently has - that he is open to debate with animal rights campaigners, Colin Blakemore is merely using rhetoric popularly recognized as doublespeak. Since he is, on admission, absolutely inflexible on the moral boundary, there can be no room for debate.

Scientists preceding Blakemore have shown that the moral boundaries fluctuate. In the 20th century, certain human social groups were considered expendable in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. (Indeed, one might argue that the peoples of the Third World nicely fit that niche today for drug distribution/testing companies). If they turn their attention to the apes once again, might they once again try to justify the use of humans the week after? After all, the subject of stem cell research is already encroaching on human territory.

As Saba Douglas-Hamilton pointed out in The Independent on Sunday: "As humans, we are also great apes, so where does that leave us ethically? Apes share many characteristics with us that we consider to be fundamentally human - like compassion, empathy, self-awareness and a sense of mortality." Dr Jane Goodall also believes such experiments are unethical and that " it is an outrage to incarcerate these wonderful beings in tiny cages and subject them to repeated intensive techniques, knowing that they can anticipate what will happen." (Animal rights campaigners would of course argue that all non-human species suffer equally, whether or not their 'intelligence' is comparable to that of the apes),

Banned in the UK since 1998, experiments on apes are still conducted in Japan, the US and the Netherlands, and one wonders whether it is here that one of the reasons for this public shift among vivisectors in the UK is occurring. It seems likely that the Labour Government, who in 1997 said that it would never approve of research on apes because they are so similar to human beings, would more than likely support such a proposal, were it to arise, given their statutory record on the subject of experiments, and failure to reduce them. In particular, the issue of keeping up with the Joneses in the research arena is very much factored into this, and we must remember that the UK Government have been keen to make Britain the research capital of Europe.

Returning, then, via a circuitous route to Leake's article, we must ask: If animals other than humans are possessed of intelligence, regardless, whether it is 'different' from that of Homo sapiens, why then -- logically speaking - should we stop at experimenting on other species? American psychologists were not averse to it, nor were researchers in the famous trials on Black Americans, nor indeed were the Nazis when they conducted atrocities in concentration camps on their Jewish prisoners. Yet we look on these today for the atrocities that they are. Politician Roy Hattersley once said that 'a society that is careless about animals' pain is likely to be casual about human suffering'. It is a rocky road the scientific community are paving for themselves; full of pit-holes. Sooner or later, that road will rise up to meet them.

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