Bear in Mind

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A Convenient Untruth

Of mice and men, and the lies science lives.

Three mice having a ball.
Public domain
Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love. — Fyodar Dostoyevsky


In an age where information bombards us by daily gigabytes, it’s tough to come up with anything new or surprising. Even fashion innovators are forced to repackage past fads as nouveau “retro.” But every so often, something breaks through the “same-old, same-old” to prompt gasps of disbelief. “Knockout mice” are one example. [1]

At first, they seem to be just one of the routine methods by which science conducts its trade. Indeed, it is staggeringly true and tragic that animal models—the use of animals as surrogates for humans— are the backbone of biomedical and psychological research and science on the whole. But after stripping away the Arendtian mask of banality, [2] we encounter an even uglier reality: science’s well-kept secret, its Convenient Untruth.

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First, who are knockout mice? They are not rodents who, like Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly, turn heads because of a peculiar attractiveness. Sadly, a knockout mouse is an individual who lives her entire short life in a laboratory cage. One of her genes is “knocked out” with a viral injection that hijacks homologous recombination, the mechanism used by healthy mice to repair their DNA. Researchers reach down to the core of a being, to the biological essence of millions of years to tamper with the soul’s code. This genetic meddling elicits unnatural mutation in the mouse’s psychological state, color, or other attribute. The progenitors of this technique were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2007. [4]

One example of knockout mice are those made deficient in the gene encoding alpha-calcium-calmodulin-dependent kinase II. After their blueprints are virally manipulated, these alpha-CaMKII knockout mice abandon their prosocial ways to exhibit “a well-circumscribed syndrome of behavioral abnormalities, consisting primarily of a decreased fear response and an increase in defensive aggression, in the absence of any measured cognitive deficits.” [4] In plain speak, once infected, the mice attacked each other with such brutality that “their backs were broken and there was blood everywhere." [5] Scientists consider these mice compelling as a means to study the “molecular and cellular basis underlying emotional disorders involving fear and aggression.” [3]

Scientists are not really interested in rodent psychological states. Government agencies (not including private industry) spend billions of dollars studying the emotional lives of mice not to better their lives, but to probe the nature of the human mind and body. Animal models are so common, so culturally accepted, that it is easy to become lulled into a complacent acceptance of their validity. But a moment’s reflection reveals the hairline fracture in the logic of science’s Convenient Untruth.

First, a step back for an objective vantage. Science’s adherence to Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, suggests that humans are the best subjects—not mice—to learn about humans. Obviously, humans are not used as subjects because it is both unethical and illegal. The psychological capacities and sensibilities, the souls, of our species forbid this kind of abuse; witness numerous mandates such as the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and the Code of Conduct and the Declaration of Helsinki. [6] To use humans in knockout studies would profoundly violate our human sense of morality and ethics.

All this makes sense—until we look at the other half of the equation, namely, why mice are used as surrogates for humans. This is where scientific reasoning transforms from its comfortable linearity into pretzel logic. The logic train goes something like this:

1. Humans are not used in certain medical experiments because it is considered unethical.

2. Scientists look for an alternative method to probe phenomena (in this case, about the nature of human fright and violence).

3. Scientists utilize animal surrogates who possess psychological, ethological, and neurobiological attributes that are comparable with those of humans.

But, then, if mice and other animals possess the same psychological, neurobiological, and genetic qualities that ethically disqualify humans from such abuse, then should they not also be exempt? Apparently not. Here is where science’s trail of logic turns back onto itself: On one hand, science maintains that mice possess attributes that qualify humans for protection, but on the other, denies that mice qualify for such. This twisted thinking violates any scientific consistency and logic. [7, 8] Further, by the hand of scientists, mice are genetically forced to relinquish their rodent ethics and betray their own species’ prosocial covenant. Notably, no such genetic manipulation was needed to compel researchers to do what rodents would not.

The truth of the matter is this: researchers do these things because they are not allowed to do them to humans, and because they can do them to mice. Ethics and law belie what is known scientifically. Animal models are the great Convenient Untruth that exposes the unsavory underbelly of research. Genetically engineered agro-frenzied mice are a prime example of how scientific knowledge is routinely used selectively to realize unethical gains. Scientists, researchers, and professionals of all kinds are guilty of living this lie.

Science’s Convenient Untruth has brought immeasurable suffering to billions of animals. But suffering, like trauma, cannot be kept at arm’s length or neatly compartmentalized as “someone else’s problem.” Those who have created, promulgate, and live science’s Convenient Untruth are not immune from what they do. As Dostoyevsky has observed, those who lie to themselves and others eventually cease to love. To cease loving is to cease being loved, and without love, the soul cannot live.

Literature Cited

[1] Knockout mouse definition. Wikipedia. 

[2] Arendt, H. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, London, Faber & Faber.

[3] ASBMS. 2012. American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. http://www.asbmb.org/uploadedfiles/aboutus/asbmb_history/nobel_wi...

[4] Chen, C., et al. 1994. Abnormal fear response and aggressive behavior in mutant mice deficient for alpha-calcium-calmodulin kinase II, Science 266 (5183), 291-294.

[5] Grandin, T and Johnson, C. 205. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando. Quoted in http://mybrainnotes.com/brain-fear-autism.html Sarah Neena-Koch Mybrainnnotes blog.

[6] Capaldo, T. and G.A. Bradshaw. 2011. The bioethics of Great Apes: Psychiatric injury and duty of care. Animals & Society Policy Series.

[7] Bradshaw, G.A. and B. L. Finlay. 2005. Natural symmetry. Nature, 435, 149.

[8] Bradshaw, G.A., and R. M. Sapolsky. 2006. Mirror, mirror. American Scientist, 94(6), 487-489.

 

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

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