Sometimes Francis Collins does something right

He’s a delusional kook, but Collins is also a competent administrator, and I have to give him credit when he does the right thing.

The NIH, led by Dr. Collins, has recently accepted a recommendation from the National Institute of Medicine that future chimpanzee research funding shall be suspended, and that exceedingly strict guidelines are to be imposed.

They’re just too close to us, and should fall under the penumbra of the same ethical considerations we apply to humans. I’d say the same of gorillas and orangutans…but I don’t think there is any biomedical research being done on those animals, so the restriction would be unnecessary.

(Also on Sb)


  1. says

    Plus, we need to prepare for the simian uprising. Maybe we can score some allies on the other side. We don’t know which one will be Caesar yet.

  2. donk says

    Perhaps I’m biased. Why draw the line at simian? Why not primate or mammal or chordate? The groups we place animals into, pets, pests, food, research, are arbitrary. Mice, flies, and zebra fish are like us, close to us if you will. Would we use them if they weren’t? I’m sure there are good reasons to restrict simian research. I just don’t think they’re the reasons you think they are.

  3. ChasCPeterson says

    They’re just too close to us, and should fall under the penumbra of the same ethical considerations we apply to humans. I’d say the same of gorillas and orangutans

    but not gibbons and siamangs?
    macaques and baboons?
    tamarins and marmosets?
    tarsiers and lemurs?
    rats, mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits?
    finches, lizards, and alligators?
    turtles? newts and toads?
    zebrafish are evidently cool…where exactly to draw that bright line though?

    And wait, in this case ethics are to be evolutionarily based?

  4. cybercmdr says

    The issue I suppose is how to replace them for some of the research being done. Building neural interfaces for prostheses, artificial hearing or vision is a lot easier if you have an animal that is structurally similar and intelligent enough to perform some moderately complex tasks.
    Perhaps we could use the brains of some GOP politicians. It’s not like they are being used….

  5. Gregory says

    I’m not sure that an outright ban on Hominidae research would be in the best interest of science. I do agree with very strict ethical guidelines, though, which I had thought were already in place: I know that a lot of animal research already must be approved by ethical review boards.

    #4, #5 – The problem is that a lot of research, particularly medical research, must be done but cannot be done on humans. Vaccines for HIV, or drugs to treat breast cancer, must undergo thorough testing before they can be administered to humans: hopefully, we learned something from the horrors of the Nazi death camps and US expermiments such as Tuskegee and the downwind fallout tests. So, macaques are used to in a lot of vaccine research because they have an adaptive immune system very similar to the human one and can be infected under laboratory conditions with fewer ethical problems than a human could be deliberately infected; transgenic mice are bred to be highly prone to various cancers so that different treatments can be validated for efficacy and safety before they move on to human testing. There is no way animal testing can be eliminated completely.

  6. Dick the Damned says

    Where do you draw the line? We have a cat, a rescue cat. When i was building the chicken run in our backyard, i noticed she was getting agitated. Then i remembered; where we got her, she was housed in an outdoor timber house & run.

    I would’ve thought that she’d be oblivious to what i was doing. She apparently recognized the form of the construction. And she obviously remembered back several years to her time in the run, & didn’t want to go back to that situation. I’d never have thought she would have that level of understanding. Once the chickens arrived, she was okay with it all.

    So, where do you draw the line?

  7. says

    I am not making an argument from evolutionary propinquity.

    I’m making an argument from similarity in the capacity for awareness (which is probably a consequence in this case of our relatedness…), and I’d say the same thing should be true for elephants and many whales, which also have large brains and apparently a significant ability to appreciate their lives.

    I don’t think you can draw a simple line — there’s a very blurry continuum here. Some people will draw it in one place, others in another. I know that in my case, after working on mammals for several years, I personally decided that my future work would be in anamniotes and invertebrates. I was increasingly uncomfortable with hacking into cat brains.

    You could reasonably argue that I’m erring on the side of sentimentality by thinking it’s fair to block experimentation on chimps…but then I think if we don’t draw the line there, it would also be fair to do experiments on human infants. See? Fuzzy everywhere.

  8. coyotenose says

    Not that I disagree with suspending chimpanzee research, but what is the argument that THIS is where the line is drawn?

    I saw an Oscar fish spend two full days protecting its sick fellow from other fish, even going so far as to lie on top of the ill Oscar so nothing could reach it. Doesn’t that suggest that at least some of them have the ability to recognize suffering and/or feel affection? And if a fish can experience that, how much more can a bird, cow or rat feel than what we’re equipped to detect?

    (NB: I’m aware that one personal anecdote does not Science make, and that some animal research is absolutely necessary.)

  9. thomaspenn says

    The “Where do we draw the line?” argument is one worth having, but it’s a distraction with regards to this current discussion. The fact of the matter is that chimps and other great apes are very similar to humans in their ability to suffer, and deserve the very strictest ethical guidelines before performing any research on them. They should not suffer unnecessarily while we decide whether or not other simians, primates, mammals, chordates etc. also deserve the same protections.

    I recommend reading a book called The Great Ape Project to understand the scientific and moral argument for including great apes in the moral circle of persons. It includes essays by Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall.

  10. says

    I hope the suspension of chimpanzee research funding does not include behavioral studies, particularly the study of language. I can think of all sorts of studies that would not harm the chimps (and actually might enhance their lives).

  11. Dick the Damned says

    PZ, i can understand your decision. I guess i can also understand the decisions of those who do experiment on the ‘higher’ animals.

    We need to do research on animals, & a utilitarian ethics easily justifies it. It gets more difficult when a justice-based ethics is considered. I guess that’s what unsettles people.

    But rights only exist when they are granted by the powerful. If we as a society don’t give apes rights, then that’s our prerogative. The balance of opinion is shifting towards granting them more rights, when they’re captive, but at the same time, we are destroying their habitat. That seems just a bit crazy to me.

    Anyway, there are the ethics committees, so i guess the scientific community is doing what it reasonably should.

  12. says

    I’m not sure that an outright ban on Hominidae research would be in the best interest of science.

    a ban on Homo sapiens research isn’t “in the best interest of science”. It is however in the interest of conscious, self-aware-ish critters to not be experimented upon.

  13. Strategically Shaved Monkey says

    As a personal decision, I can respect that, but the rationalization seems ver arbitrary.
    Unfuzzying the line seems to me rather simple. As involontary research subjects: humans NO, non-humans YES.
    If there’s doubt as to which category politicians fall into, five them the benefit of the doubt and use them only for coffee enema research.

  14. IslandBrewer says

    …but then I think if we don’t draw the line there, it would also be fair to do experiments on human infants. See? Fuzzy everywhere.

    Wait! Are you saying I need to stop experimenting on my own children? Why do you think I went through all the trouble of just having children?!

  15. sc_5231bb81bdfea7af1d0864dae088fe46 says

    Might I suggest a test? I call it the Amistad Rule: Anything that can get up in front of a jury and articulate some variation of “Gives Us Free” gets to be an honorary human. Accommodations should of course be made for sign language, typing, and smacking tentacles against a wall in Morse code.

  16. says

    I suppose I don’t see why an artificial line should be drawn at chimpanzees. I think the most clear line would be “not our species”. That said, I think all these animals should be treated with the utmost respect, and if they are intelligent enough to be possibly capable of giving consent, consent should be required. And I’ll admit, I think P. troglodytes falls right on that sapience line.

    But, I’d say the same of parrots, elephants, and possibly whales, ravens, monitors, and perhaps even squid/octopi. But a lot of people that toe the intelligence line restrict it to fuzzy intelligences, which I think is wrong too.

    I suppose I’m not really doubting your ethical concern, PZ, but more the reason for the ethical concern.

  17. alwayscurious says

    The news reached me through a garbled emotional filter. But it actually seems that Francis Collins is only adding one condition to the study of chimpanzees that isn’t already a criterion for research in other primates:

    “The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health”

    The other criteria about housing & choice of animal model (eg. why not humans or mice?) are already standard considerations. In absolute terms, they are talking about cutting ~40 studies down to ~20 studies. This seems reasonable both ethically and financially–the loss of science will be minimal.

  18. jimmauch says

    Is it not still important that we do some chimp research. Remember long ago before we studied chimp behavior we thought we were the only tool makers. If nothing else it keeps us aware of the fact that these hair critters just might be our relatives and need special consideration.

  19. says

    That’s because we know how to obtain and measure consent from sapient, talking animals like us. It’s harder if you’re dealing with a potential sapient that can’t vocalize. We’re reasonably sure all hominids can learn to communicate–but even there, there’s a camp who insists that even the most eloquent nonhumans are just mimicking us for treats, and are really just dumb beasts being sentimentally anthropomorphized. Yes, there’s a reason why I call it the Amistad Rule.

  20. leaford says

    And in related news:

    Cheetah the chimp from 1930s Tarzan flicks dies

    Dec 27, 11:59 PM (ET)

    PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) – A Florida animal sanctuary says Cheetah the chimpanzee from the Tarzan movies of the 1930s has died at age 80.

    The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor announced on its website that Cheetah died on Dec. 24 of kidney failure.

  21. Tualha says

    I’d say the same of gorillas and orangutans…but I don’t think there is any biomedical research being done on those animals, so the restriction would be unnecessary.

    Hmm, let’s pretend we’re scientists who used to do research using chimpanzees. Damn, can’t get funding for that anymore. Oh, but wait! There’s no ban on funding for research on other great apes. Just gotta change the protocols a little, and we’re in business.

    It’s kind of like the argument that if abortion is outlawed, there won’t be any more abortions. Because people never try to find a way around a restriction. Right?