As we learn more about our animal kin, the issue of medical experimentation becomes more contentious, especially regarding chimpanzees and other primates. Currently only the U.S. and Gabon use chimpanzees for medical experiments. De Waal says:
"The same reason chimpanzees are biomedically important provides a compelling ethical argument against their use. The more an animal is like us, the easier it is to extend our moral outlook to it [sic]. Recent studies have amply documented cognitive, social, and emotional similarities between chimpanzees and humans, including empathy and the rudiments of morality, power politics, and the ability to pick up habits from each other as reflected in multiple cultural traditions across the African continent."
In that same article de Waal, who has a PhD in Biology and Zoology, calls for an end to most medical experiments using chimpanzees. His view is that we should only use chimpanzees in experiments that we believe it's ethical to do on humans. He says, "My personal definition of non-invasive research on apes is simple: the sort of research I would not mind doing on human volunteers. This would include all sorts of cognitive testing, trained giving of (small) blood samples, behavioral observation, and voluntary neuroimaging."
Recently the Public Library of Science conducted an interview with de Waal, fleshing out his views about invasive research on primates and his reaction to a recent Institute of Medicine Report. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Gross: Do you see any applications for our current understanding of this cognition continuum for animals? Are there any policy recommendations aside from the Institute of Medicine report on chimpanzees that you can see coming out of our deeper appreciation of animal capacities in cognition and behavior?
De Waal: I’m not sure that what happened with chimps is going to happen to all species because people don’t worry much about rodents. For example, when we have rodents in the home we try to get rid of them, and so I’m not sure that people are going to apply the same concern that they have for chimps or elephants to other animals.
But I do feel there is a general trend in society, in the public, and scientists need to pay attention to that, of taking animals more seriously than we used to.
And this may also have an effect in the agricultural industry, on how we treat agricultural animals, which is a much larger number than research animals, actually, and so it may have effects everywhere, effects on the ethics of how we treat animals, and this will probably also affect the biomedical community.
It doesn’t mean that we will stop doing what we’re doing but we may start doing it differently. That’s my understanding of the movement, that we will increasingly think twice before we do certain procedures on animals.
Read the complete interview.
De Waal's work, and the IOM report provide an excellent opportunity to explore the ethics of vivisection with older students as well as the inconsistencies in our relationships with nonhuman animals, especially those so similar to us.
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