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Scientists Have Learned from Cases of Animal Cruelty

"Science is an imaginative adventure of the mind seeking truth in a world of mystery."

-Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1956

One of the primary goals of science is the betterment of mankind, and we would all like to believe that the pursuit of this noble end is paved with purely moral means. But the unfortunate truth is that the quest for knowledge has occasionally been conducted with draconian cruelty toward animals.

We can look back at René Descartes' work for original examples of this ghastly cruelty. Known as the "Father of Modern Philosophy" for his pioneering efforts in the discipline, Descartes' also made monumental contributions to the fields of geometry and mathematics. But for such an enlightened human, Descartes carried out some of his research with brutal inhumanity.

Descartes.jpg René Descartes

Descartes believed that animals were no more than organic automata. He contended that they were incapable of feeling pain or emotion, and that they were more akin to machines than living beings. In the 1600s, Descartes put this theory on open display. He and his assistants would conduct public demonstrations in which they vivisected and tortured conscious animals -- often dogs. As the animal subjects writhed and cried out in apparent agony, Descartes would tell onlookers not to worry. The movements and sounds, he insisted, were no more than programmed responses. The animals were not really in any pain.

Hundreds of years later, the topic of whether or not animals can feel pain remains a controversial issue, mostly because it is notoriously difficult to assess how animals experience the sensation. The majority of people would agree that animals can feel physical pain, but there may not be consensus on emotional pain.

By using monkeys to study depression in the late 1950s, University of Wisconsin Professor Harry Harlow showed that primates do appear to feel emotional pain. But in doing so, he acted with what many would deem to be heartless cruelty. Most infamously, Harlow utilized a tool he dubbed the "pit of despair" to completely isolate infant monkeys for weeks, months and even years. After long bouts of solitude, many of the subjects would blankly stare at the wall, repetitively circle their environment, or engage in self-mutilation. Harlow described his studies with frank detail:

No monkey has died during isolation. When initially removed from total

social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional

shock, characterized by ... autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of

six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5

days later. The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so

devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that 12

months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This

assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated

the animals socially...

harlow.jpgHarlow's experiments were cruel, yet eye-opening.

Harlow and Descartes' accounts are only two cases of callousness in a long history of animal research, but they are certainly compelling anecdotes. Today, however, we can all take solace in knowing that neither of these two experiments would ever be permitted.  

Though rare, there's no question that malfeasance can occur in animal research, but there's also no doubt that scientists have learned from their mistakes over the years. A recent study showed that 90% of monkey research was justifiable. (100% is better, but 90% efficiency in anything is quite good.) Also, the NIH suspended funding new chimpanzee research until further notice.

Animal research plays a vital role in science. In this role, cruelty has no place. Therefore, it is reassuring to see that today's scientists are making sure these precious resources are treated with respect.