Science and Sentimentalism

By blocking the construction of the new Oxford ­laboratories, ­animal-rights activists are ­harming the university, the public and the animals themselves

Academia Cosmos Health Science

Every Thursday, travellers on South Parks Road in the science area of ­Oxford University are confronted by a dozen or so shouting demonstrators. Armed with banners and placards, they are opposing the construction of the university’s new animal house, which will centralise the existing departmentally housed animal facilities. In addition, every three months, they bus in up to 300 protesters to march in opposition to the steadily rising building. Injunctions prevent them demonstrating near the building, except on Thursdays, and from drowning out lectures in neighbouring labs with their megaphones — though recently a judge declined to make the injunctions permanent. Many of the leaders are in prison, but the protests continue.

They are in prison because many do not stop at legal demonstration, but feel justified in bombing, burning and battering. They burnt down the university boathouse in 2005; last year they planted a bomb in Templeton College. More recently, two members of the psychology staff had their cars firebombed; neither had any connection with animal ­experiments — indeed, the research of one of them helps children with language problems.

But the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has declared anybody connected with Oxford University fair game. It has created such a ­climate of fear that the first contractor pulled out in 2004 and the animal building remained a ­silent shell for a year. Now workmen on the site wear black balaclavas to avoid being ­recognised, and all deliveries come from an anonymous collection point in unmarked vans. The cost of all this security is astronomical; whether the building will eventually function under such conditions is debatable. Clearly, anybody who says the ALF no longer operates in Britain is wrong.

This sorry history has had one good outcome. A remarkable 16-year-old from Swindon, Laurie Pycroft, was in Oxford during an ALF march and took exception to the lies they were shouting about animal experiments ­being painful and useless. So he took pen and paper, and drew up his own placard stating: “Animal tests save lives.”

Pycroft was summarily ejected from the march, but he decided to set up a website drawing attention to the lies and how they should be rebutted. Within a week, the site had received several thousand hits, and ­Pycroft realised there was a hidden majority that objected to the dishonesty, ignorance and irrationality of the antivivisection movement. A new movement, Pro-Test, was born. It attracted nearly 1,000 people to its first march, held in Oxford in February 2006, with high-profile media coverage and support from Tony Blair. Since then, Pro-Test has become highly organised, carrying out two more successful marches, and handing out free doughnuts to the building’s construction workers.

Pro-Test has caught the imagination of the 90 per cent share of the public that supports animal research for advancing medicine. It is rational and well informed, started not by animal experimentalists with a vested interest, but by university students who want to defend truth and reason against violence and unreason. They explain how animal experiments are not cruel and painful, but carefully monitored and controlled by the Home Office. They make clear how important these experiments have been to the advance of scientific medicine. In Oxford, animal experiments have often proved crucial — from the development of penicillin through to techniques for deep brain stimulation for the alleviation of movement disorders such as Parkinson’s ­disease. Almost all modern drugs and procedures derive from animal experiments ­because only these allow scientists to work out the mechanisms involved.

During our lifetimes, two mice and half a rat will be used on behalf of each of us for medical research. Your cat will kill more than that in a single night, and we eat an average of 1,000 chickens, 25 pigs and 15 cows per person throughout our lives. Would an ALF member forgo antibiotics for her child, whimpering in pain from meningitis, because the isolation of penicillin involved the death of eight rats?

But the arguments fall on deaf ears. ­Although the public support for Pro-Test has meant that more scientists are prepared to explain why they do animal experiments, they do not expect the ALF to listen. The antivivisectionists are immune to rational debate.

It is an issue that has been discussed in Oxford for nearly 150 years. In 1876, the first Cruelty to Animals Act was passed, partly in response to a call for the abolition of animal experiments by the newly founded National Anti-­Vivisection Society. This was supp­orted by a number of Oxford acad­emics, including E.B.W. Nicholson, the Bodleian librarian. In 1885, he led an ­attack on the construction of the first physiology laboratory in ­Oxford, which was to be opened by John Burdon Sanderson, developer of the electrocardiograph. The ensuing debates generated greater heat than even the celebrated debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution 25 years earlier.

Then, as now, the opposition was strong on emotion, weak on facts. It became one of poet Matthew Arnold’s “lost causes” mainly due to ridiculous claims, including an assertion that Burdon Sanderson’s heart experiments were causing agonising pain to the animals. When Burdon Sanderson pointed out that pain was impossible ­because the experiments had been carried out on headless frogs, there was uproar. Another claim was that syphilitic goats might escape into the parks and infect the undergraduates; what the undergraduates might have been doing with the goats was left unstated.

Nicholson was part of a tradition led by Matthew Arnold and continued by George Bernard Shaw and C.S. Lewis (who was quite happy to take vitamin B12 derived from animal experiments when he contracted pernicious anaemia). They saw science, and vivisection in particular, as undermining the spirit­ual dimension of life by threatening to explain everything in terms of atoms and molecules.

Despite their ignorance of the ­details of animal experiments, at least their suspicion was based on some sort of principle. Post-war antivivisectionism is irrational and based on envy. The ALF grew out of the hunt-saboteur movement founded in 1962. Most members are unemployed and under-­educated. Their hatred of the establishment, government and big pharma is obvious; their concern for animals less so. They join a depressing catalogue of movements that betray the principles of the Enlightenment; indeed, they are anti-­intellectual. Like supporters of alternative medicine, they seem not to value or understand the scientific method. They embrace pagan or medieval conceptions of the structure and the function of the ­human body, and they do not appear to recognise the need for objective evidence, asserting that intuition and personal belief are all that is needed to validate their views.

It is depressing how attractive these attitudes are to many people. It is even more ­depressing how effective they have been. The new Oxford animal house may never open properly. The security costs and the likely harassment of employees will make it uneconomic. The irony is that the work will take place anyway — abroad, where attention to animal welfare is often negligible. If the ALF were concerned about the treatment of animals, it would have supported, not campaigned against, Oxford’s state-of-the-art facility.