Tails magazine presents...

What primate labs say about us

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2008 at 8:42 pm

This past weekend, the WISC-TV show For The Record in Madison, Wisconsin, aired a debate among eminent scientists, ethicists, and animal advocates on primate testing. The discussion centered on the proposed expansion of a primate lab devoted principally to research on depression at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

First of all, let me say that animal testing is a complicated issue, but that my first sympathies are with the immediate victims, the voiceless animals themselves. Rather than rehash the arguments of the animal activists (many of whom are probably Tails readers already), let me provide a little background on the person behind the experimentation to try to get inside his head (pardon the pun).

Dr. Richard Davidson, laboratory director at the Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, depends upon rhesus monkeys for his experiments involving treatments of depression and anxiety disorders. His extensive research, based on his experiments with primates, has led him to emphasize the plasticity of the brain; he believes that, on account of this plasticity, the cultivation of happiness and compassion are akin to developing skills such as learning to play the piano or dribble a basketball. Dr. Davidson is even––get this––pals with the Dalai Lama, and noted for conducting research on the (human) brain during states of meditation. All in all, I’d say he sounds like a reasonable, open-minded person whose controversial studies produce what I would call intuitive results.

What justifies the ethically ambiguous urgency of his research? According to Davidson, depression is the leading cause of disability for individuals aged 5 and older in the world. Yet his findings on the brain’s plasticity indicate that we can avoid depression, and engender happiness, to a remarkable degree ourselves, independent of medication (I for one didn’t need a fellow primate to die to tell me this, and I’ve had some dark days). To the extent this is true, I think Dr. Davidson has been willfully dismissive of the impact the well-being of animals has on human well-being. I’m no math wiz, but I think that more happy monkeys in the world has at least a possibility of meaning more happy humans in the world.

There is an abundance of science indicating that monkeys and apes experience not only physical, but emotional pain, much as we do. One of the cruelest of ironies in this situation is that it is primates’ extraordinarily similar neurological makeup to our own––their very intelligence, emotionally and otherwise––that makes them so “perfect” for the kind of studies Dr. Davidson is pursuing. They are just not human enough, however, just furry enough, you might say, for them to be at our mercy––and to make us have to use our emotional intelligence to decide how we should treat them.


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