A change in attitude by Frank W. Dobbs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1996:

Several rather exciting recent
events indicate that the scientific community
is beginning to take the problems
of animal experimentation, both
ethical and scientific, more seriously.
The first was the 1995 publication
by the Medical Research
Modernization Committee of a collection
of papers called Aping Science,
critiquing the use of living primates in
experiments aimed at improving human
health. The MRMC is an organization
that publishes articles concerning various
kinds of medical progress, but in
particular critiques investigations of socalled
animal models and their role in
learning about the cure and prevention
of human disease.

The remarkable aspect of
Aping Science was the inclusion of a
paper by Richard C. Lewontin, holder
of the Louis Agassiz Chair of Zoology
at the Harvard Museum of Comparative
Zoology. The article is too long to
summarize in any detail, but it is an
excellent review of the questionable
validity of animal models for human
disease in general and primate models
in particular. In concluding, Lewontin
remarks that, “only humans are a good
model for humans,” and that, “Only
the study of large and heterogenous
experimental populations of humans
will give an adequate model for generalizing
to the human species at large. If
we want to study the human lot, we
need to study lots of humans.”
One must admire Lewontin’s
courage. It is most encouraging to have
such a prestigious mainstream scientist
testifying on record as to the weaknesses
of animal model methodology.
The second remarkable publication
came in the October 11 edition
of Science, which with the British periodical
Nature is generally regarded as
one of the two most prestigious journals
in the general science field. In
addition to presenting scientific papers,
Science always opens with a news and
comment section, covering a variety of
topics of interest to the scientific community.
The lead article in the issue in
question is titled “Hunting for animal
alternatives,” and summarizes some of
the progress that has been made toward
achieving the so-called “three ‘R’s” of
reduction, refinement, and replacement
of the use of animals in research.
The article cites statistics
indicating that animal use in U.S. laboratories
declined about 35%, 1985-
1995. In the United Kingdom, use fell
almost 50% between 1974 and 1992.
Most impressive, animal use in labs in
the Netherlands has fallen 60% since
1978. Dutch law specifies that no animal
experiment shall be undertaken
“without considering whether all or part
of the problem can be solved without
the use of animals.”
More significant than any
particular item of information in the
article itself, however, is the fact that
it was published at all. As recently as
five years ago, it probably would have
gone unheard of. It will be interesting
to see how readership responds.
Among the article topics was
the replacement of an in vivo corrosivity
test with an in vitro test (as reported
in ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1993.)
The term in vivo refers to live animals;
in vitro means literally “in glass,” not
involving living animals. The old test
involved shaving the hair off a rabbit’s
back and dribbling on a sample of a
corrosive chemical to observe the
effect. The new test uses a skin-like
membrane, is just as accurate, and is
much cheaper and faster.
A setback occurred in
attempting to validate a variety of substitutes
for the infamous Draize test on
rabbits’ eyes. None of the substitutes
worked as well as the Draize. The possibility
of using a combination of substitutes
is now being explored.
The reader should not imagine
that the S c i e n c e article is pro-animal
rights or anti-vivisection. The
authors state in introduction, “Concern
about expense, a slow shift in attitudes
among scientists, and political pressure
from animal activists––who sometimes
use extremist tactics––have made alternatives
to animal testing a growth
industry.” They point out that we are
still far from being able to eliminate all
animal testing, and that violence by
groups such as the Animal Liberation
Front is counterproductive.
It is disappointing that problems
with experiments involving traditional
animal models, the subject of
Lewontin’s paper, were not mentioned
at all. However, the overall attitude of
the S c i e n c e article was matter-of-fact,
rather than argumentative or hostile,
and certainly signals a change in the
attitude of the scientific community. A
rather cynical aphorism of science history
is that old theories die when the
scientists holding them do, and it is
quite possible that teaching the youth of
the late 20th century that the feelings of
all sentient beings matter will be
remembered as the most productive
activity of today’s animal activists.
[Frank W. Dobbs, of
Evanston, Illinois, is a retired chem –
istry professor.]

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