Thursday, July 26, 2012

Probably the Most Depressing Post I'll Ever Write

Sometimes my thinking goes to some really dark places, and a really weird thing happens:  I recognize that I'm being grim and fatalistic, but it doesn't seem all that unreasonable.  I think it's probably some kind of cognitive dissonance that allows me to think wild theoretical things without the emotional weight of real-life consequences, but knowing that intellectually doesn't have any practical effect.

Here's a case in point:  P.Z. Myers, a biologist and blogger that I generally enjoy reading and often agree with posted this yesterday.  In it, he discusses a medical science experiment in the U.K. wherein kittens' eyes are sewn shut in order to explore the relationship between the physical, structural growth of the brain and visual processing.  The Mirror conducted a (typically useless, as public opinion polls tend to be) public opinion poll about whether this was an acceptable practice.  For a number of reasons including the fact that kittens are wonderful and people love them and the decidedly inflammatory tone to the article, the poll was, at the time of Myers' post, roughly 92% against these experiments.

The point of the post, to some extent, was to encourage readers to "pharyngulate" the poll, a process wherein readers of Myers' blog, Pharyngula, rush the polls to reflect the community's pro-science, skeptical values.  When last I read the comments, the poll had been successfully pharyngulated to the extent that the numbers were closing on an even split.

Meanwhile, in the comments section of the post itself, the chatter among Myers' readers departed from the typical script wherein fans agree and dissent comes from outrageous trolls and wingnuts. In this case the debate was, as blog-comment debate goes, fairly collegial and, with notable exceptions, civil.  While a large majority supported the "necessary evil" of animal testing, there was a contingent of loyal opposition that just couldn't get behind it.

The general consensus posited by supporters was that opponents found this exercise horrific because the animals in question were kittens, a species for which humans feel a particular emotional and often familial attachment.  A portion of the naysayers agreed that they would feel differently about non-companion animals, and a tiny faction opposed animal testing full stop.

Some way into the hundreds of comments, Myers' chimed back in to say that he found it disturbing that people would suggest that there was some inherent difference in using kittens, over, say, ferrets as the process was so mildly intrusive and humanely practiced that it should not be objectionable regardless of species. The implication from the pro-test crowd was that opposition was illogical and emotionally-driven at best and anti-science nut jobs at worst.

You can probably guess that I, a person who just yesterday exclaimed over some delicious potato chips, "Wow!  They taste like sour cream and onion, but no cows were raped to make them taste good!" oppose animal experimentation.  And I KNOW huge advances in medical science have come from it.  And I KNOW that even products labeled "no animal testing" contain ingredients that were likely tested on animals some other time by some other company. And I KNOW everyone's just dying to say, "If your mother/boyfriend/self/insert-loved-one-here had cancer/multiple sclerosis/insert-lethal-disease-here and animal testing could produce a cure you'd change your tune," but you know what?  This is where shit gets really dark.

Because while I've actually worked myself into full-on panic attacks thinking about the possibility of losing the people dear to me (Have you seen the movie "The Fountain"?  I wept uncontrollably for nearly half an hour afterwards at the idea that I could easily lose my then husband to long disease or in the blink of an eye to a simple traffic accident or mad gunman) but I really just can't square the morality of torturing and killing animals (yes, they're "euthanized" afterwards... the silver-lining of which is it cuts down on the lingering psychological effects) in the name of possibly reducing suffering in others.

This debate is one of those intractable ones like abortion and religion wherein arguments on both sides are familiar and heavily worn and generally ineffective in swaying the opposition.  The comment-section debate was chock full of but-they're-not-sentient-yes-they-are-okay-maybe-but-they-don't-have-agency arguments with a heavy dose of sewing-their-eyes-shut-isn't-painful-sometimes-it's-used-therapeutically-and-you-don't-call-it-torture-then-plus-lab-assistants-care-for-and-about-the-animals-post-op.

To which I say this:

I feel bad when I step on my kitten's tail because I know she feels pain. I put the cats in a different room when I vacuum because they experience fear.  They experience and remember and avoid recurrence of trauma as evidenced by their immediate flight at the sight of said vacuum cleaner or the grim cat Alcatraz that is the travel kennel.  To the extent that they have preferences for what does or doesn't happen to them, however reflexive and instinctual those preferences are, they have agency.  Sometimes, like children, their preferences are overridden for their greater good (going to the vet, say) but, as with children, we respect their needs and desires as members of the community that is our home.

As to the relative lack of suffering involved in this procedure (compared to, I dunno...force-feeding poisons? putting chemicals in their eyes?  vivisection?) I'll turn some smug chump's comment back on him: "I don't see anyone opposed to animal testing volunteering themselves."  EXACTLY, you moron.  You would not conduct this very "gentle," very "non-invasive" procedure on your child or yourself, so please spare me the argument that it's really no big deal.  And there are a lot of cringe-inducing things we do to treat disease, things that are painful and difficult but which we deem a worthwhile trade off for the privilege of staying alive (radiation and chemotherapy come to mind) that we wouldn't dream of inflicting on a healthy person.  Context matters in questions of morality.

I can't think of any distinction between human and animal life that makes the sacrifice and suffering of the latter on behalf of the former acceptable.  We've agreed that we ought not experiment on any humans regardless of their physical or mental capacity or their relative contributions to society so what makes similar considerations fair game when we're talking non-human animals?

Down, down the rabbit hole (ha!) I go to a place where I just don't think humanity inherently deserves...well, a lot of the things we take for granted as a reward for being the smartest monkeys going, where I'm so unclear about what our end game is that I wonder why we play at all, where our similarities to parasitic organisms, propagating and expanding for the sake of it without regard for anything but basic survival are uncomfortable.  Surely we've done amazing, wonderful things with all the gifts evolution has wrought, but to my mind our capacity to ponder and act on complex philosophical and ethical considerations is the characteristic that ostensibly sets us apart from the hoi polloi of critters scrambling to pass on genetic material.

It's normal to want to protect the things closest to you before you extend care outside your personal sphere.  In times of scarcity, a parent will feed his or her child before offering food to the neighbors, and help the neighbors before donating to a charity (mostly, maybe, unless they let their dog poop on the lawn).  But we generally recognize (some more clearly than others) an obligation to the larger society, that despite our desire to take care of those closest to us, it's not acceptable to inflict suffering on others in order to alleviate our own.  Unfortunately, this recognition is incredibly myopic.  As the spheres grow larger into national and international human communities we become increasingly willing to overlook that moral logic, and when it comes to the place of humans in a global, ecological context, that sense of community obligations tend to break down altogether.

I believe, on an individual level, in living while you're alive, making the most and best of every day because when you're dead, you're done.  Ideally we would enact a similar M.O. as a species.  Yes, we should strive to learn and explore everything we possibly can, make the most and best of our big brains, but conscientiously, with more respect for the world around us right now than for our theoretical future selves, because if we go the way of the dinosaurs, we're done.  I don't wish ill on the imaginary future, but I think the greater responsibility ought to be to building for that future by creating the most just and sustainable culture possible in the relatively-controllable present

It feels weird and kind of awful to think so bleakly, and I'm sure there's more than a little news-induced gloom in play, but it's also crushingly depressing that people can so easily rationalize cruelty from a position of incredible arrogance.  I'm not giving up on humanity, I'm just doom-fatigued and disappointed in a thousand different ways.

I'll be over here in my misanthropic cave eating twigs and dying of preventable illness if anyone needs me.


  1. Good post, Meghan, and not nearly as depressing as you feared. Well, perhaps depressing to those to don't like to think about such morally fraught issues, but most of your readers are unlikely to fit into that category.

    That said, this IS one of those issues I mostly don't think about precisely because it is so damn difficult. But if I were to think long and hard about it, I would probably say I don't entirely disagree with you, nor do I entirely agree.

    However, I would say this: While we may be unable to answer these types of fundamental moral questions in an absolute way- "Team A is right on this one, folks"- we can perhaps gain some insight into the seeming dilemma by learning more about WHY people think the way they do about these things.

    And this is where Kahneman's work is relevant again (or others doing similar work). Because this isn't all that different than the, "Would you smother a crying baby to save a dozen people from being discovered and murdered by enemy soldiers?" A hundred people? A thousand?

    The human brain seems to have certain innate stances on these issues: action is seen as more culpable than inaction, even if the results are exactly the same; there are quantity questions to consider- just how much suffering am I preventing by the amount I am causing? etc. Everyone has their slider in a different place on these, but considerations such as these enter into the calculations we all do when considering these questions.

    The more we learn about these things, the greater hope there is that these conversations can be held civilly and productively, at the very least, even if there is no "right" answer.

  2. I really need to start following up on some of your suggested reading.

    And yes, in the context of writing this post and what ended up being a great discussion on facebook about it, I've been thinking about that sort of "lifeboat ethics" (Who gets to go in your lifeboat and who stays to drown: Do you save the old for knowledge, the young for most life to save, the strong, the scientist,etc.) As I told Mike on FB, I think that all possible positions in a debate like this one are problematic and all have the potential to appear monstrous to people coming at it from a different angle.

    But thankfully "yes" to your last point as well. What I've found particularly gratifying has been the willingness of all of the people who've engaged on the subject to approach from the broader perspective you're talking about.

    I think to some extent what made the original Pharyngula discussion particularly infuriating was commenters' refusal to acknowledge the subjectivity of their relative positions.

    It takes a certain amount of courage these days to express an opinion for public scrutiny and even more to really listen to your opponents. I'm not talking about neutering one's beliefs, or being credulous for the sake of politeness, but rather engaging the tenets of freethought in a serious way.

  3. As reflected in "The Matrix", we humans are a virus on this planet - we consume and consume with no thought of our future existence. Those of us who truly care about our ONLY home are powerless against the tide of billions of other people, most of which are motivated by greed or fear due to ignorance.

    During my life, I've taken the high road where I could; unfortunately, it's too little too late. I've grown tired, and I can't even depend on my own family to stand with me.

    Fortunately, viruses die when there are no more hosts to infest; Mother Nature will take care of herself when the human race is far gone.