I am aware that this is the last blog before Christmas, so I apologise in advance for the less than cheery topic. In this weeks blog I would like to draw attention to the matter of Animal testing and ask the question “Is it worthwhile?”.

For a long time my biggest qualm with animal research was the thought the have to animals suffer, despite the fact the results can be extremely beneficial. You’ll find that animal rights groups will stir up the emotions of the public with the use of upsetting and graphic imagery. However do not be manipulated by this sensationalist propaganda. Anyone who takes the time to actually read into animal research will find that it is rarely if ever inhumane, and that regard for the animals welfare is a priority. The BPS(British Psychological Society) for example have a strict list of rules which researchers must adhere to. I’ll include a link to the full document in my references at the bottom, but to save you the time here are a few of the key points:

 

  • Animal research may not be used if alternatives are available that enable research goals to be accomplished e.g. Simulations.
  • In accordance with The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 researchers must use the smallest number of animals to accomplish the research goals.
  • Harm and distress must be kept to a minimal level.
  • The benefit of the research findings must outweigh the potential harm to the animals.


As you can see, harm must be avoided at all costs and animals may only be used if the potential research findings are considered worthwhile. But this raises the question of, What is considered worthwhile? I will attempt to show you by outlining some key findings and their implications which came from animal research.

The first example I’ve chosen is the research conducted by B.F. Skinner. I’m aware that most of you have heard this, but for the sake of clarity here it is in brief. B.F. Skinner used the operant conditioning chamber, or colloquially known as The Skinner box to investigate learning behaviours. Animals inside the chamber(typically pigeons or rats) had a number of different levers which they could press, each would result in a different response. Some levers would provide an electric shock(punishment) and others would provide food(reward). What Skinner found was that animals would learn behaviours much faster when rewarded than when punished. This seems very simple but was actually a very important finding, Skinner has since been voted the most influential Psychologists of the 20th century(http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139).

But how has this finding been applied ? The most obvious application would be in the training of animals for institutions such as the police. Dogs with their superior sense of smell can be used to detect explosives and other weapons and as result save lives. A second application of Skinners findings in the rehabilitation of criminals with the use of token economies. In brief token economies are a system used in correctional facilities in which people are awarded for positive behaviours. Rewards can be material goods such as money,cigarettes, or privileges such as additional time in the exercise yard. Research has shown that token economies are effective in improving behaviour in both youth offenders(Hobbs & Holt 1976) and adult offenders(Ayllon & Millan, 1979) in prisons and correctional facilities.

Another example of beneficial animal research was conducted by Hubel and Wiesel, in which they used single cell recording to study the visual systems in apes and cats. In 1981 they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Their findings have aided in the understanding of the visual system,sensory processing and the treatment ailments such as cataracts in children. In short, animal research has been hugely beneficial advancing our understanding in a number different fields, and these finding have been used to improve the lives of many.

This may be the case, but what about generalisability? If we’re going to claim that research may not be representative due to a small sample, then surely research conducted on a separate species cannot be representative of humans? I too had this thought, and it’s a point I feel is often neglected in animal research debates. This answer isn’t a simple yes or no, but instead it depends. Animals research in terms of emotions or higher level cognition is relatively useless because the differences between animals and humans is too large. However from a purely biological standpoint animals can be in valuable. Animals such as rats share on average 85% genetic similarity with humans and some primates are more than 90% similar. (http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/faq/compgen.shtml). Green(1994) suggests that in terms of basic biology that mammals share a great deal of similarity. It’s certainly true to say that there are differences, but similarities are sufficient that the results can be used to enrich the understanding of humans. Animals research can be especially useful in providing information on long-term effects for example. As animal life-span is much short than a human, we can determine the long-term effects of a drug for example in a relatively short period of time.

In conclusion, animal research is invaluable to the progression of knowledge and until an equal or superior alternative is available, animal research will continue to have a place in science.

References:
Ayllon & Milan, 1979 – http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&q=Ayllon++Millan+1979&btnG=Search&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_ylo=&as_vis=0

Hobbs and Holt,1976 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311924/

BPS Guidelines for animal research – (https://www.distancelearningcentre.com/access/assessments/ethical_guidance/BPS_ethics_wkg_with_animals.pdf )

Green(1994) – I obtained of copy of this as an E-book a few weeks back and sadly couldn’t find the link, however for more info on the book see here- http://www.getcited.org/pub/103140890)

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