I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, because the topic is one which seems, on face value, to be fairly black and white, but like most ethical issues, when you start asking the questions, you realise that you’re painting with broad brushstrokes and ignoring the details. And that’s where the devil is, as we know.
Some weeks ago, I read about a company doing neuroscience research by experimenting on cockroaches. It involved attaching a ‘backpack’ consisting of a computer chip and transmitter, onto a live cockroach. Using an app and a mobile phone, a person could then control the cockroach’s left-right movements.
The BBC had picked up the story and was discussing the ethical implications of such an experiment. Now, I’ll admit, when I first read the headline, I thought, ‘well, it’s a cockroach, and we use animals for experimentation all the time.’ But then I read the article, and then I went to the website of the company, and the whole thing began to make my ‘this-isn’t-quite-right’ senses start to tingle. The website details exactly what is involved, but the basics are that the cockroach is submerged in iced water to anaesthetise it, then the backpack is glued onto it. In order to ground the unit, an electrode is poked into the thorax, and then the antennae are clipped, and electrodes inserted into them as well. After a night of recovery to get used to its new headgear, the cockroach can then be plugged in to test its neural activity, and an app can be downloaded to begin to control the left-right movement of the creature.
In the step-by-step instructions, the website certainly goes to great lengths to promote the wellbeing of the cockroach. There are several reminders about ensuring the cockroach remains anaesthetised, and diagrams and photographs for the experimenters to follow, with instructions about how to insert the groundwire so that the cockroach’s oesophagus is not perforated, and a note that the experiment should only be performed on adult cockroaches, because they no longer need to moult. Those behind Backyard Brains are well aware of their critics, and have a page on their site where they discuss the ethical issues raised, and offer explanations of their methods and reasons for the decisions they’ve made. It is obvious that they take their critics seriously, and believe strongly in the benefits of these experiments.
Still, though. I can’t help feeling like it’s not enough. I think perhaps it’s not so much that I have a problem with the science. I think I have a problem with the way they’re promoting this science, and to whom they’re promoting it. Backyard Brains is aimed squarely at young people–in particular, high school students–and the site argues that giving students a head start in science can lead to real breakthroughs. Of course, I completely agree that some young people can achieve absolutely incredible results in the field of science (as well as in other fields). They can have a single-minded passion which really motivates them to solve problems, and they also are in the position where they have a lot of free time, unencumbered by family and work commitments which can prevent older people from devoting time and energy to projects.
But that is some young people. Something like the Roboroach experiment promotes itself as being valuable in helping to understand neuroscience and some of the neural disorders which afflict humans. However, reading over the instructions, I felt as if it was more of a gimmick. The use of the word ‘cyborg’ to describe the cockroach once the ‘backpack’ has been affixed to its carapace is one example. I understand that the gimmick can be what draws young people in, in order to pique their interest and hopefully become more deeply involved in other scientific experiments, but this is an experiment involving a living creature. Is it really OK to dismiss that, in the name of inspiring interest in science from young people? How many students who perform this experiment are really intrigued about possible human applications? How many will really go on to do research into neuroscience? At what point does it become cruel to use live animals in classroom experiments? Are cockroaches deemed acceptable, but would we draw the line at a stick insect? Just because we are not sure how sentience and pain receptors work in some creatures, does that mean we can assume they don’t feel pain or distress?
I realise that experiments on animals have allowed us to advance scientific progress to a greater degree than if we didn’t use them. We expect a lot from our scientists, especially in the sphere of disease prevention or cure. And because we’ve deemed human life to be sacrosanct in this regard, experimentation on humans can only go ahead when the scientists investigating can hold a level of certainty about the side effects and harm for human subjects. However, it’s also dangerous to assume that we can easily determine just how these experiments are affecting the creatures on which they’re performed. Our understanding of how other animals experience distress or discomfort is better than it used to be*, but there is still more to learn. Rather than brushing off concerns about sentience as anthropomorphism, we should constantly be questioning and re-evaluating the ethics of what we do to animals in experiments, and asking those performing the science to do the same.
Of course, there are boards of ethics and mission statements and any number of safeguards to ensure that we are doing the best for the animals we use in experiments, and the scientists and students to whom I’ve spoken and who do this work appear to be genuinely concerned for the welfare of their animal subjects. After all, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it’s not great if your subjects are always dying on you. And I believe that many of them care for the wellbeing of the animals, simply because the scientists are humans and feel that living things share a connection with each other. Is that anthropomorphism? Possibly. But can we really ask people to be completely objective to the point that it doesn’t matter how these animals feel? If anything, to do so would be ‘bad science’, because side effects are of great significance when it comes to treatment of disease and illness.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Backyard Brains is dismissing the effects of the experiments on the cockroaches. However, I am concerned that they’re making available and promoting scientific experiments to a part of the population which may not have the experience or expertise to adequately ensure the care of the insects involved. Backyard Brains argue that their experiments contribute valuable data to research in neurological disorders. I beg to differ. I’m all for supporting and promoting research into this area, but I think if we are going to encourage young people to get interested and passionate about science, then there are better ways of going about it, and if we are going to experiment on live animals, then those experiments need to be adequately supervised, and undertaken by individuals who fully comprehend the gravity and significance of this work. When we experiment on animals, we are changing aspects of their bodies, their lives, to improve our own. We are using the power we have to experiment on a living creature that does not have the opportunity to give its consent. Such a thing should not be taken lightly.
*this links to a paper where animal cruelty is discussed, and which could be distressing to some.