I recently had the opportunity to write a post for Nautilus on a subject that is dear to me - the use of crows and other intelligent members of the corvid family for neuroscience research. Corvid intelligence has been noticed by humans for millennia, and more recently by ethologists and psychologists. The fascinating thing about these animals is that like all birds, they do not have a neocortex - the part of the mammalian brain that has countless times been implicated in intelligence. Now, there is just one lab in the world - Andreas Nieder at the University of Tübingen - that has started peering into the brains of these fascinating creatures to try to understand how crows’ cortex-less brains enable them to perform amazing cognitive feats. You can read the full story on Nautilus.
The post received moderate praise (thanks, mom!), but some of the comments on Nautilus struck me because they focused not on the ideas or experiments I proposed, but on the treatment of animals in research. Ricky, for example, wrote:
Leave crows alone. We don't need to [add] any new species to the list of animal slaves exploited by humans for masturbatory scientific inquiries
Muhammad Abbass wrote:
I stopped eating meat finally because I could no longer deny the sentience and emotional lives and in so many respects, equality we share with all living things. Using unconsenting creatures for tests and experiments is hideous and should damn any soul which practices such wickedness.
Linda Cassidy quoted Albert Schweitzer:
We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which
we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity
does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to
make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of
compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.
Cate Moses quoted Mark Twain:
I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. . . The pain which it inflicts on unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.
While it might seem at times that a lot of scientific research produces nothing useful to humanity (this reminds of Rachel Maddow’s take on Sarah Palin’s science spending ideas), we should remember that vast improvements in technology, understanding of the workings of organisms, and human health in the last century were mainly a product of animal research.Tremendous progress in understanding the brain came from “slicing up brains and whatnot,” as Paul wrote.
Because animals have played a central part in so many studies, concern for animal welfare is a very important subject. It is paramount that humans treat other beings with respect and dignity. Being the most dominant species on this planet, we have a responsibility to be stewards to all life. Humans are the most powerful and cruel creatures on Earth, but also capable of quite a bit of empathy. Arguably, our ability to empathize has been expanding over the centuries to include not only different members of our own species, but animals too. There is no doubt that many animals can experience physical and emotional pain - their brains are similar enough to ours to claim this with certainty (even crows, whose brains are rather different, most likely have the capacity for suffering).
Animals being capable of suffering does not mean that we should not use them in scientific research.
One could take the utilitarian stance and say that whatever suffering animals incur, the benefits to humans from the gathered scientific knowledge are greater. This is a great argument to support biomedical research - for example, cancer studies, which may induce debilitating tumors in mice, but has obvious benefits to human health.
On the other hand, the history of scientific research has seen many studies in which the pain inflicted on the animals overshadowed the scientific gain. A key example of this are Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys, in which he would socially isolate the animals for months at a time, were useful only insofar as to start a conversation about animal welfare. No scientific knowledge produced from such work is worth torturing smart, social animals. Fortunately, we have come a long way from this, and the scientific community is now acutely aware of the importance of animal welfare and recognizes what a privilege it is for us to use animals for research.
The type of research I do now, and the kinds of experiments Andreas Nieder has been doing with the crows don’t really fall into those categories though because the amount of suffering imposed upon the animals is as minimal as possible. We don’t put these animals under a lot of physical pain (the electrode implantation surgeries are done with utmost care and animals are given extensive post-operative care, not to mention that every procedure is carefully reviewed by animal care staff) or emotional trauma (we are required, and rightfully so, to give our animals plenty of social time and access to toys. As an aside, I’d like to mention how overjoyed I am when training my rats to see how excited they are to play their video games!). This sort of physical and emotional well-being that we strive to give our animals more than justifies our research. Granted, the lives my rats live are nowhere near as enriched as my dog’s (who is not used in invasive research studies), but certainly better than what some comments on Nautilus would have you think.
As Linda suggested, “… maybe you can actually figure out (like the crow) how to apply it [sic] without dissecting animals.” This brings up one final idea. It’s not death (or dissection) that’s cruel. Killing an animal, especially if the death is fast, is far from cruel. As soon as the neurons stop churning out action potentials, experience, awareness and consciousness all disappear. This is simply a logical conclusion of neuroscientific knowledge. Is it cruel to kill a person who would never be aware of his or her death?
Real cruelty lies in treating sentient beings unjustly. Being lucky to be endowed with the mental faculties necessary to come to this realization, we humans must take care to treat animals with respect. After millennia of treating others poorly, we should be mature enough now, as a species, to do science while caring for others, whether animals or humans.