Today’s print edition of The New York Times features an opinion piece by John Gluck—a primate researcher turned primate advocate—about how he came to be deeply troubled by the use of nonhuman animals in research. “Like many researchers,” he writes, “I once believed that intermittent scientific gains justified methods that almost always did harm.”
With heartrending clarity, he reflects on the work he did in the late 1960s as a graduate student under Harry Harlow, whose now notorious maternal deprivation experiments using rhesus monkeys have come to exemplify many of the ethical problems with such research, but weren’t necessarily considered controversial at the time.
The article is powerful, not only because of John’s unflinching descriptions of the experiments themselves, but also the acuity with which he articulates the contours of his worldview during those years, including the logic he used to reassure himself of the value—and moral acceptableness—of what he and his colleagues were doing:
“We kept young, intelligent monkeys separated from their families and others of their kind for many months in soundproof cages that remained lit 24 hours a day, then measured how their potential for complex social and intellectual lives unraveled. All the while, I comforted myself with the idea that these monkeys were my research partners, and that by creating developmental disorders in monkeys born in a lab, we could better understand these disorders in humans.”
Eventually, he writes, this logic failed him, overtaken by a growing inner turmoil concerning the ethics of experimenting on nonhuman animals who unquestioningly suffered as a result: “It was impossible to fully quell my repugnance at all that I continued to witness and to inflict.”
These deep misgivings led him to leave the field altogether, as he elaborates in his soon to be released book, Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals: A Primate Scientist’s Ethical Journey. Over time, he has become a leading advocate for all animals – human and nonhuman alike.
I’m happy to say I’ve known John for years now; he started as my colleague and has since become a very dear friend.
Together, we worked on a project (modeled on the Belmont Report and funded by the National Science Foundation) whose goal was to see if the principles outlined for the protection of the individual interests of human beings used in research could be extended to nonhuman animals. With Tom Beauchamp, we co-edited a special issue of Theoretical Medicine and Bio-Ethics called “Rethinking the ethics of research involving nonhuman animals.” And last year, I interviewed him for this blog, where he spoke with characteristic thoughtfulness and candor about his past and present views and the need to reject the flawed reasoning that underlies the use of animals in research and to devote attention and resources to the development of ethical alternatives.
Many animal advocates have widely shared John’s New York Times article online, and it has already elicited hundreds of comments from people who feel deeply engaged by the issue of animal experimentation. I’m not surprised it has struck a chord, and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that John’s voice—precisely because of his background and experiences as a former primate researcher—has the potential to change hearts and minds in the animal experimentation debate, especially for people who might still hold the worldview that animals are ours to use or who think their vulnerability and suffering matter less than ours.
In John’s story, we see what it looks like in practice to have the courage to acknowledge suffering and to do what we can to ameliorate it; it’s about the good that can result from thinking critically about—and working to change—the exploitative systems of which we are all a part. His journey also helps shed light on the mentality that governs the use of animals in research, which is invaluable to addressing the many ethical issues associated with it. I also have hope that researchers who experiment on animals might even recognize themselves in John’s story and decide to become part of the movement for change.
In his Opinion Editorial – as he, I, and others have suggested elsewhere – John calls for the establishment of a national commission to develop principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research in advance of this Wednesday’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) workshop, “Ensuring Continued Responsible Research with Non-Human Primates.” As he writes in The New York Times, this workshop “sounds like a positive development. But as someone who spent decades working almost daily with macaque monkeys in primate research laboratories, I know firsthand that ‘responsible’ research is not enough. What we really need to examine is the very moral ground of animal research itself.”
You can visit this page to comment on the workshop.
What do think can be gained from stories like John’s? Have you had an ethical journey of your own?