Friday 2 June 2006

'Animals are less valuable than human beings'

Leading researcher John Martin tells Helene Guldberg why it is morally justifiable to cause heart attacks in rats - and why he isn’t scared of animal rights extremists.

‘I believe that animal research is morally justified because animals are less valuable than human beings.’ John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at University College London (UCL), does not mince his words.

He also argues that we have bigger fish to fry – no animal pun intended – than a handful of animal rights activists. ‘I think we overestimate their threat amazingly. I have refused to have my telephone number taken out of the telephone directory. I think the risk to me is minimal.’

I first met Professor Martin at the launch of the People’s Petition in April, an online initiative set up by the Coalition for Medical Progress that allows people who support vivisection – the ‘silent majority’ – to sign up in defence of medical research (see Stand up for animal research, by James Panton). I was immediately impressed by his unapologetic support for experimenting on animals in the name of advancing knowledge and medical science.

As I pointed out to Martin when we met again in his office this week, even most of those who do support vivisection don’t seem to want to go beyond talking about the immediate medical benefits of animal research.

There seems to be an emerging consensus within the scientific community that we should reject the philosophical outlook that says humans are ‘categorically superior’ to animals. But how can we really justify the use of millions of animals in experiments to further scientific knowledge and save human lives – experiments that include cutting animals open, pumping them full of toxins and carcinogens, and ultimately ‘destroying’ them – unless we believe, and are willing to argue, that human beings are morally more valuable than animals?

We seem to have become uncomfortable with asserting human superiority. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we live our lives on the basis of human and animal equivalence. Society simply couldn’t function if we did that, if we really did go around thinking that a man and a dog have the same moral worth and thus should have the same rights. Those who treat animals in the same way they treat their friends or family are generally seen as eccentrics, or even social misfits.

But in political and moral debate, there is a reluctance to declare that humans are superior and thus that animal experimentation to advance medical science is not a necessary evil, but a moral good. Even a working party of the British Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a serious scientific body, said in a report on the ethics of animal research published last year that it rejected the idea of ‘categorical human superiority’ over animals.

What we need, says Martin, is to have a debate asking the basic question, ‘What is a human being?’ He argues that this is one of the most important questions for both philosophy and biology over the next hundred years. ‘It requires both a biological and a philosophical analysis - in tandem’, he says. ‘And out of the decision about what it means to be human comes decisions about how we organise society, our laws…in fact, everything comes from that.’

What sets us apart from all other animals, Martin argues, is our ability to generate creative, abstract thought – ‘and with that, poetry, music and the social networks that bind us together’.

And this – our ability to reflect on what we and our fellow human beings are doing, thereby both teaching and learning from one another – is precisely what has made human progress possible. Through creative abstract thought we have been able to build upon the achievements of previous generations.

Yet today, many seem to go along with the idea that animals are ultimately not that different from humans. This is not the result of intellectual debate and persuasion, where animal rights activists and thinkers have ‘won’ people over to their outlook, but rather points to a broader contemporary cultural outlook that denigrates human abilities.

This loss of faith in human beings and our capacities has far-reaching repercussions. Martin points to the problems currently faced by the medical profession. ‘I have just come from a case presentation where some doctors were telling us that after Harold Shipman [the GP who was convicted in 2000 of the murder of 15 of his patients, and who was suspected of killing many more] it is now almost impossible to prescribe opiates to dying patients in the community. I heard a presentation from a doctor who said he was running around on a Saturday night trying to get hold of one vial of opiates to relieve the suffering of his patient, who was dying in agony.’

This demonstrates a deep lack of trust, he says. ‘As doctors we suffer from the same thing – we have lost our way as human beings. We don’t have the correct leadership. There’s this political correctness that has taken over after Shipman, which says all doctors are bad and need regulating, instead of trusting us. Of course the occasional Shipman may return in future. But not to allow doctors to carry opiates in their bags is on the whole a greater evil than the occasional Shipman.’

Martin wants to put man back at the centre of the universe. And his belief in human uniqueness means that he fully endorses vivisection. ‘People are demanding better and better medicines. They want to live healthy lives, quite rightly. The only way we can keep improving medicine is by carrying out more research, which must involve animals. There’s no way around it.’

Martin and his team at UCL are currently trying to develop a novel approach to treating heart disease, using stem cells. ‘We do that by causing heart attacks in the rats. Stem cells – taken from the bone marrow of the rats – are then prepared and put into the heart, lessening the effect of the heart attack.’

He challenges those who argue against animal research by questioning its validity, who ask whether it is really scientifically or medically useful. This has become a common argument recently, put forward not only by animal rights activists but also by respectable newspaper columnists.

Martin says they are being disingenuous, particularly because they never engage with the detail of the animal research currently being conducted. ‘If anybody says “it’s not valid”, I want to know the detail. I want to know what is not valid about me causing a myocardial infarction in a rat and looking at the effect of stem cells? I cannot see – no matter how technologically advanced we become over the next 50 years – how we could get away from using animals in research.’

Martin also argues that there must be a place for blue-sky research: we should conduct experiments even when we can see no immediate medical benefit, in order to further our understanding of physiology. ‘This is the basis of the scientific method’, he says. ‘Nearly every advance in science has been speculative in the beginning. Just looking at what happens is the way we’ll understand it, and from that understanding we will be able to change things.’

What about the more difficult question of primate research, an issue that even pro-vivisectionists tend to shy away from? I remind him that at the launch of the People’s Petition he admitted to not having a rational argument against primate research. ‘It is more of a sentimental argument. I would try not to do it, if possible’, he says.

I am concerned about the danger of conceding ground on the issue of primate research. ‘No, I won’t concede either’, says Martin. ‘I have done primate research myself, but I find it personally difficult to do. Although, if I was told it was the only way to cure a particular sort of childhood leukaemia, I would certainly do it.’

The medical benefits of research on primates are beyond question. Such research is valid and useful because of the genetic and physiological similarities between humans and apes.

And such research is morally justifiable because in all important respects primates are not like us. In the six million years since ape and human lines diverged, apes have not moved beyond their hand-to-mouth existence, nor have they significantly changed the way they live their lives. As I have argued previously on spiked, a human child, even as young as two years of age, is intellectually head and shoulders above any ape (see Why humans are superior to apes, by Helene Guldberg).

Today’s equivocation over primate research – from the top of society down – is having a detrimental impact on medical research. It is often assumed that the reason why Cambridge University put a stop to its plans to build a primate research centre in 2004 is because of the threats by animal rights activists. No doubt the activists had an impact, but official dithering about primate research is much more likely to have been the deciding factor. Research on great apes – chimps, gorillas and orang-utans – was banned under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in 1986, and the UK home secretary’s Animals Procedure Committee says it has the goal of ‘minimising and eventually eliminating primate use and suffering’. It is this defensiveness about primate research at the heart of government and the scientific establishment which both inflames the protesters – because they sense that even officialdom is ashamed of such research – and which also makes institutions like Cambridge feel isolated when they try to build a primate research facility.

Behind today’s fashionable view of ape and human equivalence there lurks a denigration of human capacities and human ingenuity. The richness of human experience is trivialised when it is lowered to, and equated with, that of animals. We must not dodge the argument for primate research as we call for animal experimentation to continue.

First published by spiked