Origins of a speciesist
In 1990, more than three million animals were used in scientific procedures.
They included 8307 beagles, 56 greyhounds, 3456 assorted cats, 1304 marmosets
and hundreds of thousands of rats and mice. Many of the experiments were
of the kind that make your toes curl when you read about them, and animal
rights groups complain that 60 per cent of procedures are done without anaesthetic
or pain relief.
Organisations like Animal Aid, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS)
and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) think this
is a disgrace. They campaign for a complete ban on all animal experiments,
and have succeeded in mobilising a lot of young people behind them. The
cause isn't new - NAVS and the BUAV have been campaigning for over a century - but
while in their early days they were seen to be a bunch of cranky do-gooders,
they now seem to be an essential 'cool cause'. All the examining boards
offer an 'animal free' alternative A-level syllabus and World Day for Laboratory
Animals, on April 24, was expected to be marked by one of the largest rallies
I think it's all quite perverse. Don't get me wrong. I'm an animal lover
of sorts myself. I feed the birds in winter, lavish care on my pet gerbil
and avoid treading on spiders. But the stupidity of objecting to research
which could benefit humanity leaves me speechless.
Vivisection is not about nasty men in white coats torturing beagles for
fun. In fact 91 per cent of animal experiments are conducted for medical
reasons. They have helped in the investigation of dental decay; the development
of antibodies to septic shock and of treatments for meningitis, infant pneumonia
and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy; and the testing of drugs for schizophrenia.
In my opinion these are quite legitimate uses for mice and rats, and even
marmosets or beagles.
The animal rights lobby claim that animal experiments are uneth-ical and
immoral. Peter Singer's seminal book Animal Liberation (which, when
first published in 1975, kick-started the modern animal rights movement),
claims that these experiments represent the 'tyranny of human over non-human
According to Singer, the differences between human and non-human animals
are no more profound than the differences between different groups of humans,
and so he believes that those of us who oppose discrimination against humans,
and strive for social equality, must extend our concern to animals. In his
eyes 'speciesism' is akin to racism or sexism. 'Racists', he argues, 'violate
the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of their
own race....Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests
of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own
species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The
pattern is identical in each case'.
Well no, Peter, it isn't. Racists and sexists discriminate against groups
of humans who are quite capable of exercising the rights which they are
denied. By contrast, self-confessed speciesists accept that mice, beagles
(and even my gerbil) do not have the potential for equality with humans.
The gap that separates the human mind from that of any animal, even the
chimpanzee, is a yawning chasm. And I wholeheartedly agree with Jamie Love
of the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics Research that 'when rodents
build something like the Parthenon, write a poem, or make a fire, I
shall be happy to give them rights reserved for members of our own species'.
Right now, however, they can't, so I won't. I'm not even convinced that
my gerbil has a concept of freedom - I certainly don't believe it sits in
its cage aching for the great outdoors.
It's ironic that the animals which inspire such sentiment are the creations
of humanity. The beagle in the box or the little lamb frolicking in the
field would not exist if it hadn't been for our manipulation of animal
husbandry. It's not just the case that some animals are bred specifically
for research - vast swathes of what we see as 'wildlife' or dub 'the animal
kingdom' simply would not exist if humans had not bred them and sustained
them. The animal life that we recognise as wild is a product of a world
shaped more by humanity than by the elements.
Of course humans are animals biologically speaking - but that's where the
commonality ends. As human society has evolved and human language has developed,
so the organisation of thoughts in the human mind has changed. We have evolved
the ability to reason, to plan, to consider abstract ideas. We are unique
in that we are able to develop our society, and ourselves.
Paradoxically even the capacity to extend interest and care to species beyond
our own is unique to homo sapiens. It's hard to imagine beagles campaigning
for the rights of greyhounds, never mind the rights of hamsters.
To claim that laboratory animals have equal rights to ourselves is to degrade
humanity in general. To claim, as many animal rights activists do, that
vivisection is equivalent to Nazi experiments on Jews is to degrade Jewish
people in particular.
The arguments of the animal rights lobby raise many interesting philosophical
and ethical questions: what do we mean by humanity and consciousness? why
do we value human life? what checks should there be on medical research?
But when you step out of the moral maze you have to decide on one issue
above all. Should humans tolerate pain and suffering to protect animals,
or should animals be used to find solutions to human suffering? For
me, there's no contest.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992