Animal Researchers Are Consciously Cruel

The Rise for Animals Team, April 23, 2024

This past Friday, researchers presented the “The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness” (the “Declaration”), recognizing that — contrary to the lie of human exceptionalism — consciousness is widespread among animals who are both similar to and very different from humans, including fish, crustaceans, and insects. 

The Declaration received some significant media attention, and, while we applaud(!) both its advancement and publicity, we cannot help but lament the indirect yet deafening statement being made (simultaneously) about the animal research industry’s abiding power:

To present day, it remains both newsworthy and controversial for scientific experts to proclaim that other-than-human beings *may* experience their own lives

And, though tragic, this is anything but unintentional.  

We’ve previously looked at the devastating heritage of René Descartes (portrait above), an infamous vivisector who asserted that nonhuman animals lack consciousness and, therefore, should be considered and treated by scientists as inanimate (“beast”) machines. The Declaration provides more than one example of how Descartes’ legacy is alive and well in modern vivisection, including that the Declaration is underpinned by animal research itself — research deemed “necessary”  to push back against Decartes’ enduring ghost.

Put differently: because of Descartes’ surviving position (which “was a boon to the animal researchers who thereafter felt free to dissect unanesthetized animals without conscience” and has “been widely used as a justification for experimenting on live animals”)1Though beyond the scope of this comment, consider as a takeaway this most inescapable irony: Descartes’ “animals are machines” rationale is facing broader scrutiny only as actual, inanimate machines are prompting discussions of consciousness. Reports Nature: “ . . . the time is right to consider whether most animals might be conscious. ‘We are experiencing an artificial-intelligence revolution where similar questions are being asked about machines. So it behooves us to ask if and how this adaptive quality of the brain might have evolved in nature.’”, science has adopted as a default the conception that nonhuman animals do not experience consciousness . . . or pain . . . or any other physical or emotional sensibilities that could render their exploitation unnerving or unethical. 

This means that convincing others to consider animals as conscious beings requires animals’ violation and exploitation; it requires their subjugation as research subjects . . . 

To be sure, the evidence grounding the Declaration was obtained by harming other-than-human animals as tools for human, curiosity-driven inquiry. For example, “[o]ne experiment created stress for crayfish by electrically shocking them, then gave them anti-anxiety drugs used in humans.” Another relied on octopuses “picking between two chambers”, including “one where they had previously received a painful stimulus in favour of one where they were given an anaesthetic”. 

. . . and gives rise to the only aspect of the Declaration (i.e., its predication on animal experimentation) behind which animal researchers are likely to throw their support.

Modern animal researchers may not want to talk about — and, indisputably, do not want us to think about — animal consciousness. 

As they put it, they “don’t really want to know these things” (even though they observe them firsthand each and every day of their professional lives): 

The more science reveals about the intelligence of other species, the more difficult the questions about using them. Once you consider them to be rational creatures, analyzing their relationship with the world and with other beings around them, the picture changes. It is less easy to regard an animal as a tool, another resource on the shelf, a furry test tube….

Animal researchers certainly don’t want those of us outside the industry to know these things, either. To wit, this type of knowledge, which educates us about and contextualizes the fundamentally and irremediably unethical nature of animal research, enjoys a unique kind of potential – the potential to undercut the “persuasive efforts funded by stakeholders” to “manufactur[e] public consent for animal exploitation.” 

Yet, if left to the scientific establishment, the Declaration will not succeed in mobilizing change. 

The Declaration states that “[w]hen there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal”. We would substitute “unethical” for “irresponsible”, but, either way, we must recognize that the entire animal research industry has already been shown to be both unethical and irresponsible. 

Despite previous proof that mammals and birds are conscious — and now, despite evidence that cephalopods, fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and others are conscious, too — almost all mice, rats, and birds, and all cephalopods, fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks, and insects, are not considered “animals” for purposes of U.S. animal research law. (Far from unintentional, this is by political design.)

Moreover, even those other-than-human animals (such as nonhuman primates) to whom animal researchers have made some concessions in the realm of consciousness still endure suffering and death in laboratories — their “welfare” considered minimally, at best, and only when convenient for their human captors.

Instead, we must use the Declaration to educate others and change the scientific establishment’s default.

It there is momentum to be spurred by the Declaration, then, perhaps it comes in the form of strengthening a particular call echoed by some legal commentators — that the default position retained from the era of Descartes must be turned on its head and replaced by adherence to the precautionary principle; this is to say, rather than assuming that animals are not conscious until proven otherwise, researchers should assume that animals are conscious until proven otherwise. 

This would also fall directly in line with at least one of the Declaration’s implications, that of pushing scientists “‘to reckon with this larger question — not which animals are sentient, but which animals aren’t?’”

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