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Should You Let Your Kids Watch an Autopsy?

Biology teachers believe dissection is essential, but studies show otherwise.

Should children have been present at the public dismemberment of a juvenile giraffe conducted by the Copenhagen Zoo?

I participated in a discussion about this incident today on the BBC radio show World Have Your Say. BBC broadcast journalist Jamie Whitehead stated that had this incident taken place in Britain with children present, it might have constituted grounds for mental cruelty. Indeed, 85% of parents polled by the Daily Mail (the second largest newspaper in the UK) indicated they would not have allowed their children to watch. But according to Bengt Holst, director of the zoo, children in the audience greatly enjoyed watching the "autopsy" (and subsequent feeding of the body parts to the zoo's lions), and it had great pedagogical value.

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Reflecting on this question brought to mind a bizarre discussion I had with my daughter's middle school biology teacher. For her science project, my horse-crazy daughter chose to do a project on horses, including information on their evolution, habitat, social organization, and impact on the environment. Her teacher rejected the project proposal.

My crestfallen daughter was as bewildered as I at having her project proposal so summarily rejected. When asked to discuss her thinking on this, the teacher explained that she had rejected the proposal because it wasn't science. She encouraged my daughter to focus on a part of the horse, such an eye or a heart, and suggested including such items in her display. This teacher was a great believer in dissection as the quintessential pedagogical tool for teaching biology, and enjoyed performing them whenever possible. When I pointed out that, by her metric, the local butcher was a scientist while Jane Goodall was not, she relented, but grudgingly.

What do children learn from observing or performing dissections?

According to the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the major ideas that students must learn in biology are cells, heredity, matter and energy flow, behavior of organisms, interdependence of life, and the evolution of life. It is difficult to see how any of these are learned from watching or performing dissections.

Despite this, the overwhelming majority of biology teachers consider dissection a crucial part of the curriculum. In a recent survey, 72% of biology teachers agreed that dissection is a valuable part of school biology curricula, and almost three-fourths of these teachers agreed that dissections foster interest in biology among students.

But in an interesting disconnect, none of the teachers surveyed claimed that dissections enabled students to gain a higher level understanding of anatomy and physiology, nor did they believe that dissections enhanced critical thinking or scientific argumentation skills. Instead, the most common reason for including dissections was that it was a “hands-on activity.” In other words, dissections are used as a form of entertainment in the biology classroom.

Very few studies have actually been conducted comparing the level of biology mastery acquired through the use of dissection as opposed to alternatives, such as computer-based virtual dissections. But, as it turns out, the teachers are correct in their assessments. Of the six studies that actually compared test performance outcomes, four found no difference between real and virtual dissections, and one reported that the alternative group scored higher. But contrary to teachers' beliefs, no differences in interest in science were found.

Was it beneficial for children to watch the dissection of Marius?

So what did the children who watched the dissection of Marius the giraffe actually learn? One reasonable inference is that animal bodies are pretty much like inanimate objects that are interesting to cut up. Dissecting an animal is pretty much the same as taking apart an alarm clock to see what makes it tick. Children are great imitators, as advertisers frequently need to be reminded: One advertiser had to yank a TV ad that showed a two year old putting his peanut butter sandwich into a CD player because so many youngsters who saw the ad gave it a try.

While empathy and a moral sense emerge early in childhood—as early as six months of age, according to recent research—the ability to predict the outcome of one's actions takes time to mature and experience to fine tune. That is why it is generally a bad idea to let a five-year-old babysit an infant or care for a puppy. They typically don't realize how easy it is to harm such fragile creatures.

To expose young children to the intentional harming of animals for no other purpose than prurient interest teaches them a dangerous lesson: That animal life is cheap and the ending of it need not be justified.

Perhaps the larger issue is this: In moral philosophy, there is a (deontological) principle called the Doctrine of Double Effect, which, in its simplest form, says this: It takes more to justify an intentional harm than a harm that is anticipated but unintended. Marius was a living creature capable of experiencing fear, pain, happiness, and pleasure. It required more than simply needing to free up space or prevent him from breeding to justify intentionally killing him. And the disposal of his remains should not have been used for entertainment thinly veiled as pedagogy.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 11, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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