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Of humans and animals

From food source to objects of worship, there is a long history of complex interactions between humans and animals. Halldór Stefánsson explores it in the second article in our Human minds series on the social and scientific implications of studying human biology.

Halldór Stefánsson, EMBL Science & Society Programme Manager. PHOTO: EMBL/Adam Gristwood
Halldór Stefánsson, EMBL Science & Society Programme Manager. PHOTO: EMBL/Adam Gristwood

By Halldór Stefánsson

Since time immemorial, we have used animals for food, clothing, transportation, as beasts of burden, as well as pets and companions. And more recently, ever since science emerged in the Age of Enlightenment as a field of systematic knowledge production, various animal species have been used as objects for laboratory experiments, while along the way, science has revolutionised our understanding of the unity and contiguity of all forms of life on the planet.

But human-animal relationships have long been much more complex than that. As reflected in prehistoric cave paintings, totemic religions, and modern day pet obsessions, people have used animals in a symbolic fashion as mirrors to see themselves and as icons to render the world meaningful. Anthropomorphism is the name for a quasi-universal tendency among people to project human attributes onto animals, and thereby facilitate and intensify their emotional relationships with them. In short, “if animals are different, they are also a lot like us”.

Varied viewpoints

This deep-rooted sentiment continues to infuse much of the modern, progressive and mostly praiseworthy animal welfare movement. Today, multiple well-organised lobbies and important organisations exist, both international as well as NGOs, dedicated to the enhancement of animal welfare. The European Union itself has specifically issued a comprehensive Directive (2010/63/EU) on the protection of animals for scientific purposes. And going beyond the widely shared welfare concerns, millions of animal rights activists worldwide have joined international organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They commonly hold the view that non-human animals should be regarded as persons and members of the moral community whose interests deserve legal protection: to deny them that right is but a form of discrimination akin to racism or sexism.

Hence, a dilemma exists between the moral assertion that animals deserve rights and the state of affairs on the ground in our complex industrial societies. People continue to be overwhelmingly carnivorous, and animals continue to be essential (and die) for basic, clinical, pharmaceutical and toxicological research. And while most friends of animals the world over are law-abiding, peaceful people, a series of physical and verbal attacks on both research organisations and individual scientists have caused considerable consternation within the scientific community. The situation has prompted a comprehensive response, both to try to preempt such incidents happening, and also to counter the often un-nuanced, if not biased discourses propagated by the animal activist lobby.   

The signatories committed to accepting greater responsibility for animal experiments and to cooperation with the public in the form of a dialogue without prejudice.

The Basel Declaration refers to an initiative launched in 2010 by scientists from around Europe, with Rolf Zeller of Basel University, and an EMBL alumnus, as its main leader. The signatories committed to accepting greater responsibility for animal experiments and to cooperation with the public in the form of a dialogue without prejudice. At the same time, they demanded that essential animal experiments for obtaining research results remain permitted both now and in the future. With the Basel Declaration, these researchers are seeking to show that science and animal welfare are not diametrically opposed.

Proactive communication

To pursue these long-term goals the Basel Declaration Society was founded. To date, it has held four conferences around Europe to promote public awareness of the importance of animal models in experimental biomedical research, to foster communication between researchers and the public, and to enhance the acceptance of the Basel Declaration. The Basel Declaration Society also seeks to bring the scientific community together in advancing the implementation of ethical principles such as the 3Rs (Replacement – Reduction – Refinement) whenever animals are being used in research. The participants in the Basel Declaration Society unanimously hold that science must not only take a clear stance with regard to the responsible handling of laboratory animals, but also has to show greater transparency toward the public. To make the rationale and necessity, as well as the experimental procedures, for the use of animals in research more comprehensible to the public and to decision makers, the Basel Declaration researchers aim to cooperate more closely with politicians, the media, patient groups and schools in giving greater importance to the proactive and open communication of animal research and science in general.

Tags: Human minds, model organisms, Science and Society

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