The Scalpel and
The Enlightenment under attack
By Steven Martinovich
It was conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh who once famously said that if there were another civil war in the United States, it would be over the issue of abortion. In many ways, the anti-abortion movement is at least superficially familiar with the anti-animal research movement. The adherents of the movements cross socio-economic lines and their passions very from moderate to the extreme -- the later of which has driven people in both movements to justify and even carry out violent acts.
As Deborah Rudacille's The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection tells it, the origins of today's anti-animal research movement lies in the 19th century's general revulsion to vivisection and distrust of science. Most scientists -- who sometimes carried out grotesque experiments with little apparent purpose -- believed that animals were little more than automatons. That belief wasn't challenged until English philosopher Jeremy Bentham ignored the question of whether animals could reason and began asking whether they suffered. That change arguably triggered the modern animal rights movement.
Although she telegraphs her desire for decreased animal experimentation within the first few pages of the book, Rudacille turned out a surprisingly balanced book. Through personal interviews and analysis, she takes on both the scientists and the animal rights movement for their various sins, by no means a simple exercise. Her chapter on Nazi medical thought alone proves that Rudacille is unafraid to pull any punches.
The book's fourth chapter, simply entitled "Nazi Healing," opens with a German conference on April 20, 1936 -- Adolph Hitler's 47th birthday -- that looked to integrate academics, scientists, doctors and traditional healers in the fight to create a healthy German nation by bridging the gap between folk healing and modern medicine. As Rudacille points out, Germans tended to prefer so-called natural healing and out of that meeting came a movement that would push preventative medicine and a whole body approach -- a contrast to healing by targeting an affected part of the body. Among the beliefs of many Germans, including those in the Nazi hierarchy, animal experimentation and vivisection was looked at as Jewish cruelty to animals.
This movement ultimately manifested itself into the eugenics movement responsible for the murders of millions of people, prompting Rudacille to ask if elevating animals means automatically lowering human beings. In the Third Reich, bringing the two philosophically closer meant spurred a belief that humans -- like animals -- could be bred better. Like a prized heifer, blonde Aryans represented the best in the human animal, while Jews, Slavs and others were murdered on mass.
Scientists -- of which Rudacille is one -- are not spared a critical gaze. After being seen as supermen for their victory over infectious diseases during the 20th century, large numbers of the public are frightened by new technologies -- such as cloning -- that they see as dangerous and god-like. Scientists -- many of whom have adopted a bunker mentality in response to violence by extremists in the animal rights movement -- exacerbate the situation by refusing to discuss their work in a public context and are seen as arrogant.
In a particularly poignant chapter, Rudacille speaks with researchers who are already or are growing increasingly uncomfortable with their research involving animals because of their own mixed feelings. Although they believe in the importance of their work, many researchers are afraid to defend their experiments because of the difficulty in using rational arguments to defeat emotional appeals. They face pressure not only from animal rights groups, but from the general public who likely doesn't understand the issues behind their work.
To her credit, Rudacille does make an attempt to be balanced but the undercurrent running through Scalpel and the Butterfly is fairly clear, researching involving animals should be further regulated and limited whenever possible -- hardly surprising considering Rudacille spent five years at the John Hopkins Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing. While most scientists believe answers are likely to come from science, Rudacille believes the issues will be resolved by utilizing a more spiritual approach. Indeed, she spends much of one chapter discussing the theories of French philosopher of history Michel Foucault and how animal testing and science itself essentially define what normal is in today's world. Science, Rudacille seems to be stating, has become a policing force -- creating happiness by enforcing certain regulations.
Vivisection grew in popularity among scientists and artists during the Enlightenment, a time when curiosity about the world around us gripped men who merely wanted to know. It is that same desire to know that sees us continue to experiment on animals, albeit in a more methodical fashion. Opposition today, as it was then, is based on a misunderstanding of science and the benefits it has produced. As Frederick Goodwin and Adrian Morrison argued in an October 2000 Reason essay entitled Science and Self-Doubt, we have become victims of our own success. Thanks to animal research, we have eliminated or limited many diseases that a few decades ago could have killed millions. Combined with a general decline in scientific literacy and the fact that fewer people spend any significant time with animals -- outside of their pets -- "Such factors have helped propel the ever tightening regulation of research, stifling the creativity that is its essence and posing a threat to the human well-being that is its goal."
In the end, Scalpel and the Butterfly may end up being unsatisfying to readers on either side of the debate. Those opposed to researching involving animals will likely question Rudacille's acceptance that experimentation with animals has provided a number of important medical breakthroughs while those who support such work will be unhappy with her belief that the expansion of science should be constrained. While she does raise interesting questions about cloning, xenotransplantation and how these technologies will change human beings -- for better and worse -- the book is hampered by her careful balancing act.
Environmentalism, after all, implies a criticism of Western life and how it is organized -- and science is ultimately to blame, say radicals. Those who oppose our society decry things like capitalism, consumerism, technology and Western thought. Regardless of her position, the book would have been better served with an outright declaration of where Rudacille stands on the issue. Despite the flaws, Scalpel and the Butterfly is still an interesting survey of the people and groups behind both sides of the issue.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor of Enter Stage Right.
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