Category Archives: Science

Animals as Subjects of Research

Note: This post discusses experiments that study human problems using animal bodies as models for the human body. I have a separate post on research that aims to understand animal behavior, biology, etc.


The Situation:

When we do scientific experiments on humans, they need to give informed consent. This means that the participant knows what he/she will be asked to do, whether there are any potential risks or benefits, the purpose of the experiment, and that his/her well-being and safety is given highest priority. In contemporary science, anything else is considered unethical and cannot legally be performed.1

Of course, this is not always so clear cut. What if the experiment depends on the participant not knowing what is being tested? This is the case in many psychological experiments. In this case, the participant is given as much information as possible before the study, always including potential risks, and then debriefed after the experiment is completed. What if the participant is unable to understand the relevant information? If the participant is too young, or mentally incapacitated, then another person who has the participants’ interest in mind can give consent under certain circumstances.

Many scientific experiments with very real benefits simply cannot be performed under these restrictions. Animals are used as experimental subjects in these studies. The logic behind this assumes that 1) animals have less cognitive capacity than humans, and 2) this makes it permissible to experiment on them in ways that would be unethical with humans. It is estimated that 115 million animals are used in research per year worldwide,2 everything from chimpanzees and other primates to dogs and cats to reptiles, rodents, and insects. Nearly all of them are killed upon completion of the experiment.2

Animals cannot give informed consent, for obvious reasons. You cannot explain to an animal why an experiment is being performed, what benefits or risks might be involved, and what will be expected of that animal. The animal cannot make the decision whether it wants to participate. Just as infants or mentally incapacitated humans rely on others to make this decision for them, animals’ interests are represented by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which evaluates proposed experiments based on the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act.3 The committee decides whether an experiment’s use of animals is justified, whether the animals will be kept in acceptable conditions, and if suffering will be minimized under the limitations of the experiment.

Scientists who use animals are guided by the Three Rs: Replacement, meaning that other methods should be used if possible, Reduction, meaning that as few animals as possible should be used, and Refinement, meaning that procedure should minimize suffering and enhance welfare for the animals.4

I would like to point out the difference between this approach and the one described at the beginning of this article. With human subjects, the study is of secondary importance to the participants’ well-being. However, when evaluating animal experiments, there is an implicit assumption that there are experimental results that justify animal suffering. The IACUCs are only there to ensure that the experiment fits this description. The problem is that the legal standards for justifiable use of animals are surprisingly minimal. Just as with meat, leather, and other animal industries, the truth about these animals’ lives are not well known to the public, suggesting that there is incentive to keep these facts secret.

The Animal Welfare Act is the legislation that guides these decisions and experimental designs. It requires that a veterinarian be consulted for anything involving more that momentary pain, that the use of animals is justified in a written report, and that anesthetic be used whenever possible. There are also minimal requirements on how the animals are housed and obtained. These regulations only apply to vertebrates, and exclude birds, rats, and mice explicitly bred for experimentation. The vast majority of animals used in testing fall into this category, so they receive virtually no protection. This exclusion should be a red flag that the laws are not really designed to protect the animals. There is no difference between a rat bred for testing and one captured from the wild, yet one is given some legal protection and the other is not. Even so, over 1 million animals per year are covered under these laws in the US.5

The situation then is that nearly all animals used as experimental subjects can be subjected to anything, and the rest of them can be subjected to psychologically and physically damaging studies in the name of science. In practice the committee members on the IACUCs are not experts in veterinary medicine, zoology, or even the area of science that the studies they are evaluating fall into. This means that they are not particularly qualified to determine the effect on the animals involved or the scientific value of the study.3 This means that the committees are extremely lenient. They operate on a majority-rules basis, and the committees are usually small, so two or three people often make the decision.

The result of all of this is that animals are still used extensively in scientific research. An estimated 57% of those animals are subjected to more than momentary pain or discomfort.4 Many alternatives to animal testing are in development, such as computer models, synthetically grown tissues, and improved noninvasive scanning and imaging techniques. However, scientists can usually still make the case that animal use is justified based on the limitations of these alternatives.

On the other hand, modern medicine certainly would not be what it is today without these experiments. They certainly yield useful and life-saving results that go on to make people’s lives better.

The Psychology:

I’ve only talked to a few people who do this kind of research. One person treated the whole thing as a joke and didn’t seem to care, but everyone else I have talked to says that performing these experiments does take a psychological toll. It’s not easy to inflict suffering and end lives every day. But people do it. Some writers have brought up Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, where human participants were told by an authority to deliver increasingly painful levels of shock to another person. The shocks were not actually administered, which is lucky because many of the participants delivered lethal doses. These results were used to show that authority figures can greatly influence people’s behavior. (Sidenote: This experiment would be considered unethical and could not be performed today because it causes distress to the human participants.) Although this kind of dynamic may be a factor in researchers and their experiments, I think the pressure comes more from the culture and their peers. These people get through the day by telling themselves that the research will reduce suffering in humans in the future, that it’s a necessary evil. They also comfort themselves by saying that alternatives are being developed, and in the future these kinds of experiments will not be necessary. These kinds of justifications come from the fact that this is the way medical research has traditionally been done (which is not an ethically sound justification). It’s seen as inevitable, despite the obvious ethical questions involved.

When medical researchers doubt the ethicality of their experiments, it is due to feelings of shock or disgust at their own actions. However, if these feelings are mediated by the justifications above, the researchers will continue with their work. With repeated exposure, these feelings become less and less intense and will probably disappear completely. Then, when those researchers start to train the next generation, they are so desensitized to the violent nature of their work, that they pass on the status quo as a given. It becomes a cultural norm, which makes it very difficult, psychologically, to question and change.

What I found hardest to understand is how a researcher can inflict great pain and suffering on a beagle in his/her lab, and then go home and love his/her pet dog. Such an extreme case shows the psychological power of the situation. Either the test animals are completely separated from the pet animals in the researcher’s mind, or else there would be a huge cognitive dissonance felt between the conflicting set of feeling and actions. Studies have shown that when people feel cognitive dissonance between their thoughts and their actions, they tend to modify or justify their thoughts, and keep their actions the same. I would guess that this effect is very powerful in these cases.

The Ethical Questions:

Does reducing the suffering of humans justify the suffering of animals? Why not the opposite?

Why do we have different standards for different animals? Are these reasons justified?

Are there any research subjects that justify the suffering of animals? If so, how can we distinguish them from those that don’t?

What is the best way to move toward more humane alternatives?


The utilitarian view is that if the research will prevent more suffering than it causes, then it it justified. Peter Singer says that the suffering of an animal is given equal weight to that of a human, so by his view this is a numbers game. Does the research save more people than it does kill animals? The biggest problem with this is that it is usually impossible to tell how many people a study will end up saving. The whole idea of quantifying suffering is not easy to implement.

An animal rights theorist like Tom Regan would say that we cannot use animals in tests at all. They cannot give informed consent, and we have no right to inflict suffering on them because of their intrinsic value. In the scientific realm, this would be how we approach the problem if we raise animal suffering to the current moral level of human suffering. Scientific studies cannot be performed on humans without informed consent. By this logic, animals are not eligible to be test subjects.

Most people don’t think about in either of these ways. Most people do think human suffering is worse than animal suffering because humans are perceived to have more developed cognitive capabilities (according to humans). Indeed, it does seem that most, if not all, nonhuman animals cannot comprehend that they are being used, that they might have had a better life under different circumstances, or other abstract conceptualizations of their own situations. I do think this is relevant to the discussion. But it also brings up more problems. If we are justified in using animals because we are somehow cognitively superior, then it follow that if a hyper-intelligent alien species were to come to Earth, they would have the right to perform experiments on us, based on the fact that they can comprehend things that we cannot, and on the assumption that experiments on us will save alien lives. Harold Herzog calls this the E.T. Dilemma.6 I think most people would have a problem if hyper-intelligent aliens came and started doing painful experiments on us, but based on our own actions, we can’t really blame them for it.

A possible response to that argument is that there is a certain level of intelligence where suffering matters outside of any utilitarian argument, but that line is arbitrary. Of course we would draw it just below our own intelligence, which justifies our use of animals but not any other species’ use of us. That kind of arbitrary line does not hold up under logical scrutiny. It becomes pure speciesism.

As always, there is no easy answer. I believe that in lose-lose situations like this, and many other human-animal relationships, we have to choose the least terrible option. In some cases, that probably does mean using animals as models for humans in medical research. I don’t have a good answer as to how to tell these specific cases from the rest, but I do think that our current system is not working. It seems like there is a great deal of needless, unjustified suffering inflicted on animals by scientists. I think that cosmetics and other commercial products should never be tested on animals. Medical researchers should have to justify their use of animals to independent, federally-funded experts in the research field and in animal welfare. It should be very difficult to get approval to conduct a study that harms an animal. The process and specific cases should be transparent and available to the public and the press. Under these conditions, there is much more push to develop viable alternatives and improve the lives of animals who are giving their lives for ours. As it stands now, the system will only perpetuate itself.

1 McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychology Research Ethics. Retrieved from
2 Humane Society International’s page on animal testing
3 Wikipedia on IACUCs
4 Wikipedia on Animal Testing
5 Wikipedia on Animal Welfare Act
6 Harold Herzog’s essay on the morality of animal research

Animal Intelligence

Alex the Parrot

Alex the Parrot performs a numeracy task

Many of the arguments against the abuse of animals draw on conclusions or anecdotes from the field of animal cognition studies. The idea is that evidence that animals have inner lives of thoughts, desires, emotions, and beliefs is also evidence for animals having moral value. This kind of argument makes sense because not only does it provide a reason to respect animals as individuals, but it also makes it easier for the average person to empathize with animals. The problem is that it’s really hard to figure out what an animal is thinking.

The Situation:

Because humans are creating the experiments, there is always some level of anthropomorphism, or assuming that a nonhuman animal thinks in a similar way to humans. This is a problem all the way from defining intelligence to designing the experiment to interpreting the results. The field has gotten pretty good at removing human interpretation and bias from the picture, but it’s impossible to get away from it completely. And there are cases where it is useful to make comparisons, since we all evolved on the same planet from the same ancestors by the same process. It makes sense that there would be similarities between the mental states of humans and other animals. Anthropomorphism can go both ways, but it’s an important thing to be aware of in this context.

It’s still true that humans are the gold standard when you’re talking about intelligence. When we find something that humans can do but other animals can’t, the animals are labelled unintelligent, and we get a little ego boost. But if we find something that an animal can do that we cannot (usually a perceptual ability), our own level of intelligence is not questioned. There’s certainly a double standard, where humans are assumed to be an intelligent species (according to humans) but other animals have to prove their intelligence or lack thereof on human-set tasks. We are essentially judging an animal’s intelligence on our ability to understand their motivations and behaviors.

Clearly, all animals do not have the same cognitive abilities. Each species has a unique evolutionary history that shapes not only its physical characteristics but its mental capacities as well. Therefore we could see just as much diversity in cognition as we do diversity in physical traits. We’re not at the stage where science can really evaluate this claim. Currently we are only trying to catalogue and compare different species. Unfortunately, this is in the context of studying intelligence, where almost universally, more human-like means more intelligent. I don’t think this is the best way to approach the problem, but that’s what the field does.

With that disclaimer, animals do not perform very well on tasks that are designed to test overall indications of intelligence, such as conceptualization, applying specific learned knowledge to general novel situations, planning ahead, episodic memory, theory of mind, or self-control. Many of these have been tested on humans using the same experiments, and humans, even very young children, greatly outperform animals. Of course, there could be biases implicit in the tasks that favor human cognition, but these results occur over and over in different studies. They also tend to be correlated with larger and more complex brains. When reading the actual results, it’s hard not to think of these abstract abilities as indicators of rationality. It really does seem to be the case that humans understand the world and their place in it at a level that animals simply don’t.

This is a very new field, and there is an incredible amount that we do not know (and may never know) about an animal’s inner life. Questions about animal emotions and inner experiences are much more difficult to study behaviorally. Studies that use neuroscience methods to study these problems are starting to be performed, but again, the results are compared to what we know about human brains and experiences, which is not a whole lot. However, there are certainly pertinent results on animal experiences that are quite convincing. For example, contrary to the popular belief that fish do not feel pain, the same chemical receptors thought to be responsible for the human experience of pain are present in fish bodies, and fish respond to painkillers in similar ways to humans. To varying degrees, the same results have been found in everything from lobsters to fruit flies to octopi.1 This still does not mean we know anything about what pain feels like to each of these animals, but the evidence is there that it does feel like something. This should already be enough to question our practices, but studies and anecdotal evidence on emotion and relationships between animals provide a great deal more.

The Ethical Questions:

What should define intelligence?

Should human cognition be considered the highest level of intelligence?

Is cognitive ability a good reason to treat some species differently than others?

What are the morally relevant aspects of cognition?


There are certainly problems with the way we study animal cognition and label some species as intelligent and others as not. However, I think we are not able to approach the problem any other way at this point. Perhaps in the far future, we will be able to come up with a less-biased definition of intelligence and more effective ways of measuring it. In the meantime, I strongly believe that we should continue studying animal cognition, as long as we keep these limitations in mind.

An underlying principle in the field is Morgan’s Canon, a variant of Occam’s Razor. It states that any behavior should be attributed to the simplest possible explanation. So if something could be caused by a low-level function like associative learning/conditioning, then we cannot attribute it to higher level cognitive processing. This means that many behaviors that could be attributed to conceptualization, planning ahead, or other sophisticated cognitive abilities end up being attributed to less complex processes. I actually think this is a good way to approach the problem. It leads to a great deal of care in designing experiments and a very critical eye when evaluating them. These are good scientific practices. In fact, I think the human psychology field could learn a lot from this principle. It seems that human behavior is automatically attributed to higher level processes, probably because those are the processes that are consciously available to us. I think if scientists studied human cognition in the same way that they study animal cognition, we would find that we have much more in common than people might think, and animals would be the main beneficiaries of this paradigm shift.

As I’ve hinted at above, rationality does not seem like a good rationale for our use and abuse of animals. It leads to contradictions and ends up as simple speciesism. This is where the idea of sentience comes in. As often happens in discussions of mental phenomena, the definition of sentience has not been entirely agreed upon, but it generally refers to a being’s ability to experience, feel, and perceive the external world. Scientific study has a long way to go before it can clearly draw lines between what is sentient and what isn’t, but there is evidence for sentience in mammals, birds, reptiles, certain fish, and certain invertebrates. The example I described above about fish and pain receptors is an example of scientific study on an aspect of sentience. Contrast this with plants or bacteria, studies of which have revealed very little evidence toward calling them sentient.

The other candidates for morally relevant cognitive faculties might be things like ability to suffer, strength of inter-animal relationships, or capacity for mental illness and its possible effects. These are unfortunately not as studied as typical measures of rationality, but I would argue that this is where the field of animal cognition should focus its resources in the interest of improving the lives of animals. That is a lot easier said than done, because these are very difficult to measure in an experimental setting, or even observationally and anecdotally.

Based on what we know, there is plenty of reason to change the way we deal with animals. Just as in the philosophical situation, there are fuzzy edges to all of these claims, but even if you stick to the middle cases, what we do is not justifiable using this evidence. There is every reason to believe that animals do feel some form of  pain, boredom, hopelessness (read up on learned helplessness), grief, joy, and other complex and morally relevant emotions. To assume otherwise doesn’t make any sense, not only because of the evidence, but because the moral ramifications of being wrong are huge. As we understand animals more and more, we generally find that these mental faculties of animals are more similar to us than what we previously assumed. So it makes sense to air on the side of attributing complex, morally relevant mental lives to non-human animals.

1 Wikipedia on animal pain