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Peter Singer defends animal experimentation

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William Crawley | 11:40 UK time, Sunday, 26 November 2006

The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation is regarded by many people as the "bible" of the modern animal welfare movement, has accepted that animal experimentation is sometimes justified. In a documentary to be screened tomorrow night ("Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing", BBC 2, 9 pm), Singer is seen in conversation with Dr Tipu Aziz, an Oxford neurosurgeon specialising in parkinsonism. Aziz explains to Singer that 40,000 people have, to date, "been made better" through a treatment developed by means of experimentation on monkeys. About 100 monkeys worldwide have had parkinsonism induced in them for research purposes. Singer says:

I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided ... that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see this as justifiable research.

Some will regard this new statement from Singer as an ethical U-turn. And, if Singer has argued in the past that we are never , under any circumstances, justified in causing harm or suffering to an animal, it would indeed be a massive U-turn. But a more careful reading of his books will show that Singer's position is more nuanced than that. His statements in this documentary are consistent with the following ethical stance: One should not cause harm or suffering to any sentient being capable of experiencing harm or suffering except for very good reasons. Enjoying the taste of an animal's flesh would not, for Singer, constitute a "good reason" to cause harm to this or any other sentient being. Similarly, harming an animal in order to commodify its skin or fur would not constitute a "good reason". And destroying the few remaining members of an endangered species would be difficult to justify (even for experimentation purposes). But I think most reasonable people would draw a distinction between causing suffering to an animal for aesthetic pleasure (eating, cooking, clothing) and causing suffering in the furtherance of research designed to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world. And the loss of one hundred monkeys set against the health gains of 40,000 human beings would satisfy the terms of that distinction. Singer is not the first vegetarian to consistently defend animal experimentation under limited and clearly specified circumstances.


  • 1.
  • At 02:10 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:

I agree, Singer's position is consistent. One of the things I loved about his book Practical Ethics was how rigourous and consistent it is. I think that once you accept Singer's initial propositions you are carried through to his conclusions, or at least to something very like his conclusions. He nearly convinced me of his position, but on a third reading of his book I realised that I DON'T actually support the foundations on which he builds his ethics.

As it is, not only do I fully support the use of animals in medical experiments but I wear them and eat them too.

I guess that makes me unreasonable, huh?


No, Stephen, William said that you are reasonable if you can make the distinction between experimentation for good reasons and eating them. You can, in fact, see the distinction, so you are a reasonable person. (That you believe the distinction is irrelevant is itself inapposite.) :-)

  • 3.
  • At 09:59 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:

LOL John!

I should also mention that I have a number of hand drums at home the skins of which have come from a slain creature.

I'm a philistine. Not at all like these vegetarian sophisticates ;)


  • 4.
  • At 02:21 PM on 27 Nov 2006,
  • Candadai Tirumalai wrote:

For the generation of Bernard Shaw, a lifelong vegetarian, vivisection was an urgent moral issue. GBS wrote: "Vivisection...advances human knowledge...at the expense of human character."

  • 5.
  • At 08:59 PM on 27 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:

Saving thousands of people at the expense of a hundred monkeys...does that sound like the death of human character to you?

Come off it! What is truely tragic about this tale is that Singer is getting flack from organisations such as SPEAK who seem to think that saving thousands of humans isn't worth a few monkeys.

Idiots! They're clearly lacking in brain cells. I recommend some red meat to remedy the problem.


  • 6.
  • At 11:16 PM on 27 Nov 2006,
  • Matt Johnson wrote:

I think that Dr. Aziz was describing the temporary relief of certain symptoms of an illness, there was never any mention of thousands of human lives actually being saved in return for the lives of this international monkey brigade.

The question that the I would have liked the BBC programme and professor Singer to address would be who decides that the deaths of one set of sentient beings is ok if it eases the suffering of some other group? How can you gauge the suffering of non-human animals against the quality of life for human animals with, in this case, a particular degenerative illness?

Dr. Aziz felt that he could justify his choices. He is a human being and a scientist. It is interesting that so often the ethical choices of human scientists seem to be in support of 'the tyrranny of human over non-human animals', ( P. Singer, Animal Liberation).

The view that humans have some intrinsic right to make choices regarding the lives of non-human amimals smacks of left over bible nonsense, of man having dominion over the creatures of the earth, and is therefore not only immoral, but also unscientific.

  • 7.
  • At 07:28 AM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:

Well, actually, animal experimentation HAS saved thousands of human lives as well as easing pain and suffering from other conditions.

You ask what gives us the right to make such choices? Are you serious? The choices are forced upon us. We either do such research or let humans suffer and die. What gives YOU the right to decide that a human life is worth less than the life of an animal that you might question killing rats to save babies?

When you mentioned the "international monkey brigade" in your last post were you referring to anti-vivisectionists?


  • 8.
  • At 01:04 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Tom wrote:

At last! A balanced, objective and critical review of the use of animals in medical research.

The programme came to the sensible conclusion that I think most of us share - that the use of animals, although unpleasant, is indispensible in medical research.

I have yet to hear an animal rights activist present a rationale, informed or logical arguement against the use of animals in medical research and this programme highlighted that fact.

Good job

  • 9.
  • At 01:30 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • matt johnson wrote:

Whether or not what you say is true, I think that I was correct with reference to the specific point made by Dr. Aziz during the brief Q&A with professor Singer.

I agree entirely with your statement that these choices are forced upon us. Many believe that there is no credible alternative to animal testing and a great amount of the information we recieve in regard to this comes from the scientific community, whom we trust, telling us so. These individuals also have a vested interest in maintaining their market share in a competetive field, and will often round up their scientific papers with the caveat, 'More research is needed' thereby securing funding for their animal testing laboratory for another couple of years. Do you see the potential conflict of interests?

I think that simplifying the argument to the point of 'Vivisection or death' is a bit too reductive. The issues up for debate here are far more complicated. It is a shame that this debate is too often polarised by dependence on emotional response to selected information rather than reasoned argument.

A final point, of course I don't believe that human lives are worth less than the lives of animals. That doesn't make sense to me, because although I'm no taxonomist, I think that humans are animals aren't they? Animalia-Chordata-Mammalia-Primata-Hominidae-Homo-Sapiens, to give us our full title.

  • 10.
  • At 04:06 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • judy hungerford wrote:

On the BBC 2 programme on 27 November (William Crawley: Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing) we are faced yet again with, on one side, those in favour of using animal research and on the other the animals rights militants. The tens of thousands of us who are deeply uneasy about animal testing but never resort to violence are never interviewed. Those who do vast amounts of research into alternative methods (including many scientists) were not interviewed. All we see is the apparent 'rational' and measured opinion of the vivisectors versus extreme, often inarticulate, counter-productive animal activists.
We MUST have rationale, calm discussion about this issue. We MUST have absolute transparency and open access to the animal labs. William Crawley himself made the point that he was the first for a very long time given access to the Oxford labs. This is helpful to neither side of the argument.
The very basis of the argument is based on specism. If you believe the human is the superior of all the species then you will believe that animal testing is justified. If, however you believe that we are but one of millions of species, each of which has a valuable place on this extraordinary planet then you may well be against animal testing. To say an animal is not suffering when it is removed from its social group, kept isolated in an unfamiliar and unnatural environment, is given a human disease and then killed, seems somewhat unreasonable. To give an animal a human disease like lung cancer which is caused by smoking seems indefensible. The animal is voiceless and can neither defend itself or fight back. It has no choice in its fate. It is similar to slavery. If a human is suffering from a terrible disease, does that justify giving that terrible disease to another animal purely because it has no means to refuse and is not our species?
It is a pity that the BBC2 programme didn’t give airtime to the reasoned and very concerned non-violent opponents of vivisection.

  • 11.
  • At 07:21 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:


If there was a better way to research and cure diseases then there would be no shortage of funding for it. Do you think scientists and their backers just like to put animals through pain and suffering? There's a need for it.

I would really love to know whether or not you are against all forms of animal testing. And, if you could choose to save 10 humans or 10 gorillas, which would you save and why?

I ask these questions simply because it was you who questioned our use of animals through several mutterings above and I'd like to explore those mutterings further to see how you might justify your position.


  • 12.
  • At 06:12 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Marie Herbert wrote:

The reason that I'm against vivisection, apart from the obscene cruelty involved, Is that clearly results obtained from animal testing cannot be relied upon. Have we all forgotten the disastrous drug trial in the Spring when 6 healthy young men were severly damaged by taking part in a clinical trial?. The drug in question had been extensively animal tested but failed to give any warning as to the problems that would result if given to humans.

I would refer pro-vivisectionists to a comment made by Lord Lucas after a House of Lords visit to a U.K. primate centre in 2003 and I quote: "There were primates that suffered in ways that just made my heart stop. We were doing things to those animals that were unbelievably cruel.....a great deal of suffering was going on in that place"

All this cruelty for what? For results that are not applicable to the species intended and which cannot be relied upon. Clearly, it is not a question of my child or a rat. Animal experiments are useless in predicting results.

It is high time that resources were spent on developing the many alternative methods which exist but which need funding in order to obtain Regulatory approval

  • 13.
  • At 06:15 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Clive wrote:

Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation (revised edition, 1990, p. 92) stated: "...the ethical question of the justifiability of animal experimentation cannot be settled by pointing to its benefits for us, no matter how persuasive the evidence in favor of such benefits may be. The ethical principle of equal consideration of interests will rule out some means of obtaining knowledge."

I have to disagree with Mr. Crawley. Singer's views as now quoted from the BBC2 documentary are clearly different from his original position. To call the change a "U-turn" seems entirely appropriate.

  • 14.
  • At 09:52 AM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Stephen G wrote:


Actually the incident you refer to points to the need for MORE animal testing, not less. And isn't it interesting that 1000's of these trials go on all the time and yet we never hear about them. Why? Because the drugs WORKED! When other drugs do not work what is often required is additional animal testing.

I don't really have anything else to comment. The very fact that you claim such experiments are of no use perfectlyu highlights your ignorance - not only about current animal testing, but also historically.


  • 15.
  • At 06:03 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Yehadut wrote:

Peter Singer opposes the vast majority of animal experimentation. Hundreds of millions of animals suffer and die each year in experiments, and it is the exceptional experiment that helps anyone at all. The rare justified experiment should not be used to defend the vast majority of them which are egregious and unnecessary. And yet defenders of experimentation always dishonestly try to paint all experimentation as "killing 100 monkeys to save thousands of humans".

And what of that rare experiment where 100 monkeys are killed to save thousands of humans? People like Singer would say this experiment was justified -- but would also say that killing 100 humans to save thousands is also justified. If you're for animal experimentation based upon the greater good achieved, that logic applies just as much to doing the same cruel tests on humans. With Nazi experiments behind us, it is easy to sympathize with people who oppose all experimentation.

  • 16.
  • At 10:19 AM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Stephen G. wrote:


What you claim in your first paragraph is largely untrue, although admittedly there are, and have been, many unnecessary experiments. I don't see any need to respond further since this error is factual and easily remedied by a little research.

What you say at the beginning of your second paragraph is correct: if you accept some form of ethical utilitarianism or greater good approach similar to that of Singer then you would also have to agree to the human experiment scenario you mention.

However, as an egoist and a libertarian I reject moral utilitarianism and thus I am not obliged to accept that reasoning.


  • 17.
  • At 09:46 PM on 03 Dec 2006,
  • Julia wrote:

The whole of the above debate seems to hang on the unquestioned assertion that "40,000 people have, to date, been "made better" by a treatment developed by means of experiments on monkeys."
Peter Singer, like most people, is quite clear that if animal experiments are not the only (or even the best) way to do the research then they are not justifiable.

The truth is that, when pressed, even Tipu Aziz has to admit that Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) was developed by French neurosurgeon Alim-Louis Benabid, entirely without animal experiments (1). Aziz’s work focused on identifying a different site in the brain to implant the electrodes. Oh, but THAT sort of research cannot possibly be done without animal experiments, he assures us.

Thankfully, while Aziz is so loudly exclaiming that it can’t be done, more innovative researchers are busy doing it.

Highly sophisticated, safe, non-invasive technologies enable scientists to study human volunteers directly. A combination of Scanning and imaging techniques, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and proton magnetic spectroscopy, can provide a detailed, real-time picture of electrical, magnetic and chemical activity in the brain and nervous system (2)(3)(4).

In addition, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) allows researchers to momentarily (and safely) apply a precise electrical signal to any given site in the brain, showing the effects of stimulating or suppressing activity in that area. In Parkinson's, this not only allows doctors to assess the potential of DBS without surgery, but has even been found to be effective as a treatment in its own right - normal research with TMS employs only a brief pulse after which normal brain activity resumes immediately. However, in some patients regular sessions of extended TMS stimulation can be as effective as implanted electrodes, without the risks of surgery (5)(6).

Not only does this sort of research avoid the appalling suffering (denied in the documentary) endured by the primate victims of Tipu Aziz, it also avoids the potentially worse effects of species difference misleading and delaying progress.

It is widely acknowledged by neurologists that billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours have been wasted in research that ultimately turned out to be irrelevant to humans. The artificially induced disease states, and the differing neurological make up of different species, make the animal models so poorly representative of the human situation that animal research tends to mislead more often than it helps (7)(8)(9). Yet at the same time, more advanced research is hampered by a desperate lack of funding.

As a scientist with personal experience of serious neurological disease, I can only hope that animal experiments will be abandoned for a more advanced approach sooner rather than later. Unfortunately such progress remains slow while institutions like the BBC do their best to stifle true, open, scientific debate.

(1) New Scientist vol 183 issue 2457 - 24 July 2004, page 40
(2) Dr Hadwen Trust Science Review 2003, pp9-10
(3) Rango M, Bonifati C, Bresolin N. Parkinson's disease and brain mitochondrial dysfunction: a functional phosphorus magnetic resonance spectroscopy study.
J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2006 Feb;26:283-90.
(4) Burn DJ, O'Brien JT. Use of functional imaging in Parkinsonism and dementia.Mov Disord. 2003 Sep;18 Suppl 6:S88-95. Review.
(5) Lefaucheur JP. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS): insights into the treatment of Parkinson's disease by cortical stimulation. Neurophysiol Clin. 2006 May-Jun; 36(3):125-33.
(6)Khedr EM, Rothwell JC, Shawky OA, Ahmed MA, Hamdy A. Effect of daily repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation on motor performance in Parkinson's disease.
Mov Disord. 2006 Sep;21(9):1311-6.(7) Garvey J, Petersen M, Waters CM, et al.: Administration of MPTP to the common marmoset does not alter cortical cholinergic function. Movement Disord 1986;1:129-134
(8) New Scientist online www.newscientist.com/article/mg17623691.500-have-we-got-it-horribly-wrong.html (accessed 2/12/06)
(9) James A. Temlett. Current Opinion in Neurology 1996; 9: 303-7

Thanks for this comment, Julia. Clearly, there are some complex matters involved here, but your response, if supported (as it seems to be) by evidence would, I think, pose a significant problem for Singer's position (since his position rests on the absence of an alternative research method).

  • 19.
  • At 12:19 AM on 04 Dec 2006,
  • David Lane (Oxford) wrote:

Clive (comment 13) missing something important in Singer's view. Singer has raised the question of experimentation on human subjects (e.g., those in vegetative states). That's an example of equal consideration too. Will's post stands up.

Julia says: "I can only hope that animal experiments will be abandoned for a more advanced approach sooner rather than later."

I'm not an expert on these matters, Julia, but it seems to me that you are creating here a false dichotomy between animal testing and "a more advanced approach", as though no animal experiments have yielded any results, which is patently untrue. Are there not enough researchers available to conduct both animal testing and "a more advanced approach"? What precludes both approaches from being conducted? Your argument is, essentially, moral - not pragmatic (as your last sentence would pretend).

The reason you want animal testing to cease is because you feel it is immoral, right?

  • 21.
  • At 07:34 PM on 04 Dec 2006,
  • Clive wrote:

The use of academic-style citations may make an argument appear more scholarly, but cursory inspection of just the first of Julia's (Post 17) references shows no support whatever for her arguments.

Julia writes, "The truth is that, when pressed, even Tipu Aziz has to admit that Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) was developed by French neurosurgeon Alim-Louis Benabid, entirely without animal experiments (1)." Her Ref. 1 is "Parkinson's fix" by Ananthaswamy in New Scientist, July 24, 2004. This article fails to make any mention whatever of Tipu Aziz, and most definitely does not claim that Alim-Louis Benabid developed Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) "entirely without animal experiments."

A quick examination of a database of medical publications easily shows that Dr. Benabid has performed experiments on animals himself, and furthermore that his published work reporting techniques for human neurosurgery makes extensive reference to experiments performed on nonhuman subjects.

In one recent example "Surgical Therapy for Parkinson's Disease" by Benabid and colleagues in the Journal of Neural Transmission (Vol 70, pp. 383-392, 2006), Benabid explicitly cites research carried on monkeys by Tipu Aziz.

As William Crawley responds in Post 18, there are "indeed complex matters involved here," but before we can engage with them we need to have our facts clear. The fact is DBS was derived from intensive research on nonhuman subjects. Its ongoing development depends on animal research, including that carried out by Tipu Aziz.

  • 22.
  • At 09:41 PM on 04 Dec 2006,
  • Marta Ciesla wrote:

I am shocked about some of the comments on this blog. Making jokes is one thing, but I cannot get away from the feeling that some of the contributors seem to forget the fact that it is important to look into the future of our human ethics.
Having drums made of leather, eating animals, etc. That is personal choice, but it is another to free ourselves from enslaving future generations to an industry striving for financial benefit with sick and vulnerable people, who might aswell be our children and grand-children, paying the price.
This debate goes far beyond animal rights, it goes right into lobbying governments and its financial labyrith.

  • 23.
  • At 01:45 PM on 05 Dec 2006,
  • Julia wrote:

Clive (post 21) claims that the evidence shows no support for my arguments, yet even the paper cited in his post confirms what I said.

Yes Benabid has used animals in some of his research, but the fact remains that DBS was discovered in human patients, not animals - as described in Benabid's first two papers on the subject.

Tipu Aziz admitted that this was how DBS was discovered on the BBC2 Newsnight debate (27th July 2006).

From the 1950s to the late 1980s, a standard method of reducing symptoms was to surgically destroy parts of the brain (thalamotomy). To help identify the right area of the brain in which to make a lesion, surgeons would sometimes use electrodes to deliver an excitatory current.

According to the New Scientist article:
'It was in 1987 while performing this kind of surgery for Parkinson's and other tremor disorders, that Benabid's breakthrough came. At frequencies of around 100-130 hertz, the current inhibited the neurons rather than excited them, he found. When he applied the electrodes to certain areas of the movement control centres patients' tremors vanished. Eventually, when facing
a patient for whom lesion surgery would have been especially risky, he
decided to try implanting the electrodes permanently. "The effects replicated those of lesions, but reversibly," says Benabid. "I felt I had reached the end of a quest."'

The paper referred to by Clive does indeed reference Aziz's work on monkeys - it confirms that, as stated in post 17, this work was to find a different site to implant the electrodes. As also explained in post 17, such research can and is being carried out using non-invasive technology with human volunteers.
The main hindrance is lack of funds.

Given that funding for research is limited, it should be concentrated on those approaches most likely to provide meaningful results for human health.
Studying the wrong condition in the wrong species (such as Parkinsonism in monkeys, which has a very different mode of action from Parkinson's Disease in humans) runs a very high risk of confounding progress. There is woefully little independent, scientific evidence about the value of animal testing, but what little there is suggests that animal experiments tend to confuse or mislead more often than they help.
At the same time they divert precious resources away from more promising human based studies.

  • 24.
  • At 01:57 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Clive wrote:

There is a sense in which every breakthrough in human medicine is made with human volunteers. Until a sick human being is treated we do not know that we have a solution – all we have is an hypothesis about how we might treat people – not a treatment. It is in this rather trivial sense that, as Julia (Post 23) claims, Benabid “discovered” the effectiveness of Deep Brain Stimulation in human subjects.

But why was Benabid operating in that particular part of the brain? Where had the knowledge come from that certain parts of the brain were important in controlling movement and other problems caused by Parkinson’s disease? Even in the 1950s doctors would never had received approval to simply destroy bits of a patient’s brain at random in the hope of stumbling across some small piece that might play a role in this disease. Likewise, how did Benabid know that electrical stimulation around 100Hz could inhibit nervous activity? These kinds of basic discoveries are almost always made on animals.

Basic knowledge of how brains work, largely gleaned from animal research, informs medical advances by leading to ideas for new treatments. We see the interrelationship most clearly when we look at the papers that innovative doctors like Benabid and Tipu Aziz publish describing their novel treatments. These papers are loaded with references to discoveries made on animals. And, indeed, both Benabid and Aziz demonstrate the value of animal research in the most direct way possible – by carrying out animal experiments themselves. If animal research really did “run a very high risk of confounding progress” – as Julia wrote – why would Benabid and Aziz waste their time on it? They are both neurosurgeons who could stick to human patients if they wanted to.

Vivisection is a distasteful business. It engenders a visceral revulsion in all who observe it – including the experimenters themselves. But the alternative, to proceed with untested therapies on human beings without the best possible grounding in basic knowledge derived from nonhumans, would be even worse.

To return to where I came into this thread… Thirty five years ago Peter Singer proclaimed a moral equivalence between humans and other species such that no possible benefit to human kind could justify the suffering of animals in experimentation. Now, at last, Singer can acknowledge that a treatment that eased the suffering of thousands of people could justify some harm to animals. This balancing of evils is surely the only sensible approach. What we see in the development of new treatments for Parkinson’s disease is a tight interconnectedness of research on animals which leads to ideas for new treatments which are then tried out on human patients. I don’t have the stomach to operate on animals or people, but without both kinds of scientist the future for Parkinson's patients would be very bleak.

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