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[LINK] Frans de Waal on the ethics of chimpanzee experimentation

Liza Gross at PLoS Science blogs has an interview with leading primatologist Frans de Waal, “Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal”. There, de Waal makes the argument that the similarities in nature and capacity between human beings and chimpanzees are such that, from an ethical standpoint, experimentation on chimps should be limited to the sorts of experimentation that would be ethical on human beings. This goes further than a recent report from the United States’ Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science, which allowed for the possibility of experimenting on chimpanzees to develop a hepatitis C vaccine.

Gross: What would you say to those who argue that there are huge gaps in cognition between monkeys and apes and humans?

De Waal: Over the years the dividing line between humans, certainly between humans and the apes, has sort of become fuzzy under the influence of field work, such as the work by Jane Goodall, Toshisada Nishida, and others, and under the influence of experimental work on cognition, which has shown all sorts of capacities that we had not suspected in the apes.

Also, neuroscience has not really helped maintain the dividing line because the brain of a human doesn’t contain any parts that the brain of an ape doesn’t have. The human brain is much bigger than, let’s say, the chimpanzee brain. It’s three times bigger. But there’s nothing in there as far as we can tell that is not in a chimpanzee brain. At the microscopic level there are a few differences and they’re probably interesting, but you would think if humans are so dramatically different, as different as the philosophers have often assumed, that you would find something in the human brain that is absolutely unique and that you would say, “Well, there’s a part there that no one else has,” but we have never found it.

Gross: What are some of the seminal experiments that revealed similarities in cognitive or behavioral traits between apes and humans, suggesting we’re not in fact unique, as many like to think?

De Waal: There are many. For example, tool use used to be considered uniquely human. And then when it was found in captivity by Köhler, this is in the 1920s, people would say, “Well, but at least in the wild they never do it.” And then it was found in the wild, and then they would say, “Well, at least they don’t make tools.” And then it was found that they actually also make tools.

So tool use was one of those dividing lines. Mirror self-recognition is a key experiment that was first conducted on the apes. The language experiments, even though we now doubt what the apes do is actually what we would call “language,” they certainly put a dent in that whole claim that symbolic communication is uniquely human.

My own studies on, let’s call it “politics,” and reconciliation behavior and pro-social behavior have put a dent in things. And so I think over the years every postulate of difference between humans and apes has been at least questioned, if not knocked over. As a result, we are now in a situation that most of the differences are considered gradual rather than qualitative.

And the same is true, let’s say, between a chimp and a monkey. There are many differences between chimps and monkeys in cognitive capacities, but we consider them mostly gradual differences.

The more we look at it, even if you take the difference between, let’s say, a human and a snake or a fish, yes, between those species the differences are very radical and huge, but even these species rely on some of the learning processes and reactions that we also know of in humans.

[. . .]

Gross: What in your view is the most compelling reason to stop invasive research on chimpanzees?

De Waal: The most compelling reason would be an ethical one. I myself have never done any invasive studies in chimps for exactly that reason. I don’t want to do that kind of thing on the chimpanzee because they are so mentally and psychologically close to us. Most people of my generation and younger who work with this species share this feeling. It’s almost like you’re working with humans, you know, they are very closely related to us.

It’s very easy to extend the moral qualms we would have with experiments on humans to chimpanzees. It’s much easier to extend them to chimpanzees than to, let’s say, rats or mice which are so much more distant from us.

Gross: What criteria should we use to decide what type of research on chimpanzees would be morally acceptable?

De Waal: I think we should keep doing non-invasive studies on chimpanzees, such as behavioral studies or comparative genomics, maybe non-invasive neuroscience. It’s hard to do the same imaging studies as we do on humans at the moment, but it’s going to happen, I think, one day.

For me, non-invasive would be defined as research that I would not mind doing on a human. And it does require a different mindset at NIH and maybe other funding agencies because sometimes if you submit proposals to them that include chimpanzees, they still will argue, “Well, you’re using animals, why don’t you go into the brain and manipulate it this way or that to enhance your study?”

The science community needs to change that mindset and treat chimpanzee studies basically the way they treat human studies. There’s a lot of things we cannot do on humans, and that we will not do on humans, and that will be the situation for chimpanzee research, I think, where we say, “Well, we can do all the same things that we do on humans, but that’s about it.”

Gross: In your commentary, you point out that the United States shares the distinction with Gabon of being the only nations in the world to hold chimpanzees in biomedical facilities. That’s surprising.

De Waal: The movement to remove chimpanzees out of research laboratories started to get teeth about ten years ago. The movement existed probably earlier but at least ten years ago certain countries like Japan and the Netherlands had chimpanzees in labs and said they stopped this kind of research for ethical reasons, it was very explicitly for ethical reasons.

And I think the U.S. is going to join the other countries, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it will happen because the whole trajectory – and that’s what’s pointed out in the IOM report – is in this direction. And my argument is why not get ahead of that trajectory, and why not do it now rather than wait a couple of years.

de Waal argues at length in a commentary elsewhere at the PLoS site.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 3, 2012 at 1:55 am

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  1. narhvalur

    April 3, 2012 at 6:27 am

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