Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Farm and In the Lab

In my animal ethics class this week, we're discussing transgenic animals and research. Transgenic animals are genetically modified animals--from the GloFish to the oncomouse (i.e. mice that "model" cancers by getting them), as well as animals, such as rabbits, that express human proteins in their milk which can be used in medical therapies. This stuff makes my head spin a bit. On the one hand, much of the research is interesting, even exciting (does a cancer-resistant mouse bespeak of cancer-resistant people in the future?).

But it's also troubling. Ian Hacking claims of over-bred animals (like turkeys) that "we have created a species that cannot have any dignity" (in Cavell et al, Philosophy & Animal Life, p. 155). Earlier in the essay he discusses oncomice, and I assume that he would say the same of them. Even for comparatively benign transgenic research, animals are killed in the process of creating the transgenic lines: embryo donors, particularly mice, are euthanized; and most viable transgene implantation methods are less than 100% successful--some animals don't exhibit the transgene, and some are born with (unintended) problems. But then millions of (ordinary, industry standard) rats and mice are killed every year in labs already.

So is there a special problem with killing in the context of transgenic research? Only if there's a special problem with transgenic research, it seems. Hacking points to one possible problem, though it perhaps doesn't apply to all transgenic animals. Considerations of dignity probably won't move the interdisciplinary conversation very far--at least, convincing biologists and chemists that rats and mice have a kind of "animal dignity" (as Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson use the term) might be a hard row to hoe. Even then, perhaps curing cancer trumps animal dignity--viz. human dignity trumps animal dignity. I have to confess that I'm not sure that it shouldn't. That may seem foul (or, if you're all for this, a moment of clear-headedness), but in cases like the oncomouse, it certainly doesn't seem like you can have it both ways.

I think most people would like to have it both ways. For it to be ok to eat animals as long as they've lived happy, natural lives. For medical (and transgenic) research on animals to be ok as long as they've been housed in sufficiently enriched environments, and been administered the kind of anaesthetics and analgesics we'd use to alleviate human pain in surgeries, and then euthanized painlessly. And I guess it is ok if you're comfortably utilitarian or a certain kind of theist. (It's interesting to find those two groups in the same camp.) Or if you've accepted the idea that in the animal world--of which we are and are not a part--might rules.

In a Nietzschean mood, I would say: and we have to be strong to live! This doesn't mean exercising our strength indiscriminately or foolishly, however. But that just brings us back to the start again...

[I seem to have misplaced my copy of Cora Diamond's essay on animals and experiments (in The Realistic Spirit); I need to find it; perhaps it will help...]

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