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Pathfinders

Science, socialism and the animal question

Scientists don’t always find it easy to get on with the public. Aside from the abstruse and technical nature of their work, which inevitably creates a natural comprehension gap, there are political, religious and ideological factors which all too often cause rifts between science and the general public. Socialists, being inclined to reasoned, evidence-based thinking, tend by and large to support the scientists’ point of view, for example in their bitter feud with ‘intelligent design’ advocates, or in their massive protest against the Bush administration’s deliberate distortion of scientific studies for political ends, or in their efforts to overcome religious bigotry which prevents effective vaccination against killer diseases. Sometimes, amid the raving mullahs, the ranting politicians and the grubby interest-groups, the voice of the scientific community can sound like the only quiet note of sanity in the screaming choirs of hell.

There are times, though, when even some scientists start to sound a little reactionary, self-righteous and sanctimonious on their own account. One such instance is the issue of animal rights. Last month the New York Stock Exchange backed out of its agreement to float Life Sciences Research, the struggling US parent of Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire, with just 45 minutes to go before trading began. No reason was given, but media pundits and insiders were unanimous that the NYSE pulled out because of animal rights pressure. Scientists were duly aghast, and cries of ‘Shame!’ echoed round the research laboratories. Leader columns in the scientific press expressed serious concern at how important research was once again being hampered by wild-eyed ideologues without a science GCSE or a bath between them.

But do the scientists have any right to such a moral high ground? It’s true that HLS staff have received relentless harassment including violence and threats against themselves and their families, but the egregious and quasi-terrorist tactics adopted by some animal liberationists do not in turn justify wholesale uncritical support for animal research. Scientists tend to be very defensive about animal research, but their arguments, that such research is always necessary, tightly controlled, responsible and largely painless, are at best questionable and sometimes plain wrong, depending as they do on an idealized representation of scientific research as it is supposed to be, and not as it actually exists in the buck-hungry world of capitalist corporations.

To be fair, animal rights activists can propagate myths about research which confuse the issue (for a list, see http://www.rds-online.org.uk  ). However, scientists do not help their own case with simplistic no-brainer dilemmas like ‘your dog, or your son’, which imply that all testing is for the common good and which gloss over the large proportion of experiments done for cosmetics, food colourings, weedkillers and other non-health-related products. While scientists protest loudly, and rightly, against violent intimidation by activists, they are more likely to shrug mildly at undercover reports of ‘exceptional’ or ‘aberrational’ behaviour among HLS staff, including videos of them punching and kicking animals for amusement, and falsifying test reports. Nor are they impressed with references to animal testing’s long list of heroic failures, including thalidomide and, more recently, seroxat. How many more disasters would we have had without animal testing, they ask, knowing there is no answer. 4000 drugs are undergoing animal testing in Britain today, of which only ten percent will come to market, but scientists who point to this as a sign of the importance of testing do not concern themselves with the fact that many of these drugs are not new treatments but reverse-engineered old drugs designed to get round product patents.

So what would a socialist society’s attitude to animal testing be? In a word, pragmatic. Without being bogged down with imponderable questions of natural animal ‘rights’, socialist science would (if it decided to do so at all) conduct animal research only under conditions of strict and peer-assessed necessity, and with attendant informed public debate, two key factors notable for their general absence today. Much of the pharmaceutical industry would be obsolete or transformed anyway if one can assume, after capitalism, a dramatic fall in heart disease and obesity, two wealth-related conditions for which the present drug market is principally geared, and an even more dramatic fall in poverty and stress-related diseases which presently do not even merit scientific attention. While ‘product’ safety would be paramount, and might conceivably require some animal testing, there would be no need to duplicate the testing for twenty different competing brands, as happens now. Nor, in the absence of private ownership of information,  would producers deliberately avoid established and tested products because of licence restrictions, or because, in the public domain, they were unpatentable and therefore could never yield a profit.

Socialists are not unduly sentimental about animals, and consider that a human’s first loyalty should be their own species. Nevertheless, the degree to which human society is ‘civilised’ can reasonably be gauged by its treatment of animals and the natural world as well as by its treatment of humans, and socialism, in its abolition of all aspects of the appalling savagery of capitalism, will undoubtedly do its part to abolish all unnecessary suffering by non-human sentient creatures.

More on E-Democracy
In case regular readers suspect Pathfinders of a too uncritical enthusiasm where new communications technology is concerned, here is an example where our enthusiasm is somewhat more muted.
With e-democracy projects blossoming everywhere, the interactive approach to government is developing beyond merely doing your tax returns. Now the Scottish Parliament is running an e-petitioning system, where citizens can raise issues and complaints online, the progress of the petition then being fed back to the petitions website for public monitoring (BBC Online Technology, Sept 19).

The idea came from Professor Ann McIntosh, of Napier University, who set the system up with the help of BT and has been running it for a year. "We wanted to show that technology can do a lot more than just support e-voting. It can actually allow participation in decision making," she says, enthusiastically.

Socialists would agree, with one simple proviso: that comms technology be first employed in abolishing capitalism. Then we'd see some real public participation in decision making. As it is, electronic petitioning is likely to be treated the same way as paper petitions, except now it can be ignored  - electronically.