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On Experimenting with Living Creatures

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By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

Rom Harré, Linacre College, Oxford and Georgetown University, Washington DC, is the author of Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the Living Laboratory. In it he looks at the controversial role of living things – plant, animal, human – in scientific experimentation from a new perspective: setting aside moral reflection it examines the history of how and why living creatures have been used. In the original post below, Harré talks about ways in which living things has been experimented with – not necessarily on – throughout history.


Animals and plants have played a part in science since Aristotle began the study of embryology by opening one of a clutch of fertilised eggs each day until the last one was due to hatch. Recently reflections on the way living creatures and their remains have been used in research has centred on the important moral problems that this raises. Not much attention has been given to how organisms have played a part in science more broadly. I was struck by the fact that most discussions were centred on experiments on animals and little was said about experimenting with animals. The role of plants in science was largely ignored – after all few people believe that flowers feel. Nevertheless there is a surely a kind of moral depravity in laying waste a stand of plants.

Scientific research is as much a practical matter of managing equipment as it is sitting in one’s study building theories. What sort of equipment do scientists use? There are instruments that react to temperature, the presence of gases, the Pavlov's Dogslapse of time, and so on. Equally important are pieces of apparatus that are used to study natural processes in isolation from the complexities of the real world. They are simplified versions of natural things and processes. In short they are models or analogies of the real thing. A calorimeter with a mixture of ice and salt is a kind of analogue of the ocean, and we can use to study what happens when the sea freezes,  but in comfort of home, so to speak.

People used animals and plants for certain very specific purposes. Roland Beschel estimated the age of glacier moraines by the diameter of lichens calibrated in the local churchyard, an organic clock. John Clarke constructed a model world for a group of voles out of an old swimming pool he had come across by accident as an apparatus for studying the effect of overcrowding on populations. Barry Marshall used his own stomach as an apparatus for testing the helicobacter theory of peptic ulcers.

Suspending our moral feelings we can follow Stephen Hales’ studies of blood pressure with experiments that could lead only to death of the animals he chose for this purpose.  In the imagination we can attend Pavlov’s lecture in which he demonstrated the nervic hypothesis of digestive control using a dog he had surgically modified for the purpose. Stephen Hales worked tirelessly to improve the lot of prison populations, and Ivan Pavlov built a monument to honour of the dogs that played an essential part in his researches. Marie Antoinette insisted that some animals be sent aloft in a balloon before human aeronauts were risked, just as dogs preceded people into space.

Sometimes the animals and plants are imaginary – such as Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat. Sometimes the living apparatus is the site of an infamous fraud – Trofim Lysenko’s claims to have achieved the Lamarckian evolution of better wheat. These are human stories, excerpts from the scientific careers of heroes and villains.  Only in the light of what and why real people made use of living beings and their remains can we wisely test our moral intuitions.

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