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International Socialism, Spring 1992


Steven Rose

Do animals have rights?


From International Socialism 2 : 54, Spring 1992, pp. 145–152.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I am a biologist, not a philosopher, and I experiment with animals in the laboratory. I study the mechanisms of memory, and my research is funded by the Medical Research Council, Science Research Council and various foundations and charities in Britain.

The animal rights movement is a coalition of forces which runs back for at least a century, but in its present form has developed particularly over the course of the last 20 years. It runs from older established organisations such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, through to groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, which are more activist and concerned with the liberation, as they call it, of animals in laboratories.

I wish to begin by looking historically at why the animal rights movement has emerged in the way that it has. Then I want to look at their arguments and the implications of those arguments, and explain why I think they are false. I do so both as a Marxist and as a working scientist, and I wish to concentrate on the animal rights activists view of experimentation, rather than their view of factory farming or other sorts of uses of animals.

In order to understand the origins of the animal rights movement you have to understand something historically about the relationship of humans (people and social organisations) to non-human animals – philosophically, politically and economically. There is a lot of romantic nonsense talked about how in pre-capitalist societies there were different sorts of relationships of humans to animals – much more harmonious – than exist in capitalist or even feudal society. Yet what is abundantly clear is that from the beginning of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (as shown in the Bible, in the history of agriculture, and in the history of the domestication of animals) there is a very strong belief that humans should have domination over nature. This idea and practice of domination runs right the way through the development of Civilisation from its earliest possible times. But it was encapsulated very strongly with the birth of modern – that is Western – science which began contemporaneously with the birth of modem capitalism, back in the middle 17th century. The commitment of the scientific method was unequivocally to the domination of nature. It was humanity’s right, according to the ideologues of both modern science and capitalism, to extract from nature, whether animate or inanimate, all the wealth, all the riches and all the extractable products that nature could provide. This ethic of the domination of nature thus goes right to the heart of the growth of the scientific method from the 17th century onwards.

It is important to understand the growth of this tradition within science and within capitalism in order to understand what the animal rights movement is objecting to, and to set up the critique of science in order that you can see the strength of the animal rights position before looking at its weaknesses.

Modern science however shifted the philosophical base of the problem of the relationship between humanity and other animals, between biology and human life. If humans were biological organisms, and they were subject to the same laws of biology as all other animals, what happened to the soul, to human consciousness and to those things that the Christian religion was committed to believe were uniquely human? The answer given by Descartes, one of the founders of modem science, was that humans were biological organisms just like any other organisms, but differed from other biological organisms because as well as being biological they had a soul which was locked somewhere in the brain. This meant they had the breath of God within them, which gave them certain sorts of divine rights and divine responsibilities. The point of Descartes saying this was to deny that non-human animals had any sort of soul at all: For Descartes the cry of pain of an animal was the squeak of a rusty cog in a machine.

The Cartesian split symbolised the birth of a type of reductionism within science which made it possible to treat animals and the rest of nature as mere objects, a view compatible with the growth of modem capitalism. Cartesian thinking enabled the scientist and the capitalist to exploit animals and the rest of nature perfectly contentedly six days a week, and then remember their soul on Sunday morning. But this convenient compatibility with Catholicism didn’t last beyond the industrial revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, and was given its death-blow with the emergence of Darwinian ideas in biology in the middle of the 19th century.

The work of the early physiologists seemed to accept Descartes’ view of animal pain as the squeak of a rusty cog. Despite the importance of much of this work for medicine, it was not for nothing that physiology became known as ‘the science of pain’. In order to explore animals, particularly in the days before anaesthetics, the whole range of activities which the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection calls vivisection began to be developed. Undoubtedly the sort of experiments that were conducted, although they revealed a great deal of scientific information, also caused a substantial amount of pain. They could even be termed brutal (although perhaps relatively no more brutal than the way hospitals treated their patients at that time, nor the way most workers were treated in the factories of the industrial revolution).

But the main point is this: the whole background and tradition of science in the Western world has emphasised this idea of the domina­tion of nature by science (ie humanity). This idea was accepted rather uncritically by Marx, who speaks strongly about the right of humans to dominate nature, and the role of a communist society in liberating the full productive powers of science. Later Marxists were no less enthusi­astic – certainly if you read Trotsky on the rights of animals and humans you will find he also supports this exploitative and dominating tradition. There is an alternative tradition which can be read into the writings of the early Marx and even more strongly in Engels – a tradi­tion which writers like Ted Benton have tried to rescue – but there is no doubt that the ideology of domination has been central to the view of human-animal relations as much in ‘actually existing socialism’ until its collapse in the last few years, as in the capitalist societies.

Since the 1939–45 war, and increasingly in the last decades, a deeper and more critical view of science has begun to develop, both amongst radical movements and the left. This criticism sees science, far from being beneficial and progressive, as arcane, mysterious, damaging to global ecology, damaging to humans and as intervening oppressively in human and non-human life. Thus the whole thesis of the domination of nature, which had hitherto gone unquestioned amongst bourgeois or socialist critics, began to come under very sharp criticism from a variety of movements – the peace movement, CND, the ecology movement and, of course, the animal rights movement. These oppositions to the activity and products of science appear to have a sort of coherence. However, I believe that far from having coherence they are very divergent, and the argument put against science as being sexist and racist and concerned with the propagation of a class structure of society has to be very sharply separated from those arguments that the animal rights movement uses against scientific work and experimentation.

My criticism of the animal rights movement should not be seen as a blanket defence of all that science does. More than 95 percent of all the funding of science in capitalist societies goes on research directed to­wards the military or to profit or both. It is inevitable, therefore, that a lot of the experimentation on animals is serving either or both of these two purposes. Thus any criticisms that we make of science must also be criticisms of the sort of society we live in – a capitalist, racist, sexist and imperialist society.

I therefore don’t wish to defend factory farming, which I see as an abuse which comes out of a determination to extract maximum profit from the ways in which animals are handled. I don’t defend either a substantial proportion of the research that is done on drugs and the development of new products, which are often concerned primarily with innovation to increase extractable value or to circumvent patent laws rather than responding to genuine human needs – insofar as such needs can ever be distinguished from those of the social order that promotes them. What I do believe, however, is if you want new drugs and new products you have to research their safety.

Let me now turn to the two key arguments of the animal rights movement, in the context particularly of animal experimentation. One of these arguments is plainly false, the other hypocritical. On the one hand the ideologues of the movement – writers like Tom Regan or Peter Singer and their many followers – say that animal experimenta­tion can tell one nothing at all that is useful about human diseases or the human condition. They argue that the disjunction between humans and other animals is so great that it is not possible to learn anything from animal experiments. This is the false argument. On the other hand they say that because non-human animals, like humans, are sentient and they are creatures that have brains and are organised in a particular way, they therefore have rights. The demand for animal rights, it fol­lows, is exactly the same as the demand for black people’s rights, for women’s rights, disabled rights and so on. That is the hypocritical argument.

It is abundantly clear that, firstly, animals and humans form a biological continuum. The same sort of biochemicals which constitute the biological and physiological processes of our human bodies, constitute those of animal bodies as well. The major difference between human animals and non-human animals is that humans have larger and better developed brains. We have the capacity of speech, to make and manipulate tools, and because of this we can create social organisations. Therefore humans have a history whereas non-human animals on the whole only have a past. This technological and social history is primarily what divides human from non-human animals, not anything unique about our biology or theirs.

It is precisely because of this similarity that one can learn things about the human condition and human diseases by the study of animals.

Many of the drugs and medical treatments which can now be used to treat human diseases exist because of animal experimentation. Treatment for diseases like diabetes, the knowledge of immunology and of immunisation which lie at the basis of transplants and much preventative medicine, and the development of most surgical procedures and drugs, have been contingent on doing animal experiments. There was no alternative in the past, and there is still no alternative now, to the use of animals in this context. It is particularly true in the case of the area in which I work – the brain sciences. The animal rights movement sometimes argues there are alternatives to animal experimentation, such as using tissue culture or bacteria. But for the study of the conditions which are the major causes of distress, disease and death in contemporary industrial society – schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, neurological diseases, strokes and so on – you have to study animals which have brains.

Although there are deep biological continuities between humans and non-humans, some processes certainly work differently in human biol­ogy compared to other non-human animal biology, as the thalidomide case proves, where the drug turned out not to have the birth defect pro­ducing effects on the animals on which it was tested, though it would have done on other species. But all this example shows is that if you want a drug like thalidomide you need more animal experimentation, on different species, and not less in order to be sure the drug is safe before it is used on humans. And those of you who go to the Body Shop and see all their products labelled ‘not tested on animals’ (at least until they were stopped from doing so) need to ask the question: do you really want them to be tested on humans? Most of the Body Shop prod­ucts have in fact been tested on animals – by contractors, or by other manufacturers, or in the past. The argument should be about whether you want the product and not about whether you want the testing. Some also argue that some sorts of animal experimentation are acceptable but that they are against the testing of new cosmetics. It is worth pointing out that less than 1 percent of all the animal experimentation done in this country is cosmetics testing. But, nevertheless, my response is simple. If you want new cosmetics then I would rather they were tested on animals than humans.

The alternative of course is precisely that – to work on humans – and that is the point the animal rights people want to make. They say that the rights of a non-human animal are identical with the rights of a human, therefore there is no difference between working on animals and working on humans, so why not experiment on humans? To take a position which is opposed to this they call ‘speciesism’ and they use the term in the same way that racism and sexism is used. I wish to say that I am, unashamedly, a speciesist. That is I have an unqualified loyalty to the human species and I think it is perfectly possible to draw a dividing line between human and non-human animals which makes sense to everyone but the most perverse.

The argument about rights as advanced by people such as Peter Singer in Australia, Tom Regan in the States, Richard Ryder in Britain is to say that animals are sentient beings and do have particular sorts of rights. The problem, however, is that they use this word rights and ani­mals in an extremely broad way. Where do you stop? For example does a gorilla have the same right as an ant? Does a mouse have the same right as a cat? Does a wasp have the same right as a shark? Where is the dividing line in the biological continuum? I think if you ask the animal rights people what they believe, they will say that animals with large nervous systems and which are closest in appearance to humans – i.e. large furry mammals or primates – should have more rights than wasps or mosquitoes. The deputy editor of the New Statesman wrote, in response to my article there, that he had no com­punction in killing a prawn, I guess because he likes eating them in his cocktails, paella and so on, but he is very hostile to me killing chickens. Yet this is biological ignorance on his part because a prawn has in many ways as complex a nervous system as a chicken.

The moment you put the argument in that way it becomes clear that there are a number of paradoxes. Firstly, no animal, other than the human animal, worries about the rights of others – a cat doesn’t worry about the rights of a mouse before killing it. This makes the whole concept of rights a very puzzling one because it is not the animals who are demanding rights, but the humans who are conferring the rights on animals. So we humans, because we are a particular sort of biological organism, are turning round and saying that you cat, monkey, rat have particular sorts of rights. The argument, therefore, is not about the rights of animals, but about the duties of humans. And this is fundamentally different than the way the argument of rights is used in the context of political and social struggles. When the oppressed subjects of history (black people, women, gays and lesbians) rise up and demand rights they are speaking in their own name, and not having rights conferred upon them by some white middle class male elite. Rights are won in political struggle, by the subjects of history becoming articulate by arguing for themselves and making their own history. This is fundamentally different from the way the term rights is used by animals activists. I cannot accept the dishonest and hypocritical argument that animals have rights in the same sense that we use that term for social and political struggles.

What we have to examine is human duty, that is how we as human animals behave to other animals. I don’t doubt that we have duties to other animals, and I don’t dissent from the critique that modem capital­ism is dominating, exploitative and deliberately destroys the sense of responsibility to the environment in which we live. We need to move towards a relationship between humanity and nature that is harmonious and less dominating. But that is a need which comes out of our own need as humans, and does not come out of some mythical concept of animal rights.

As a socialist and a Marxist I am uneasy with the whole concept of rights in this context. Rights are always posed in this debate as if they are some sort of absolute. That is, as if there is an absolute right to freedom of speech, absolute right of animals not to be molested and so on. But this is not the way the world works. Rights are constantly in conflict. The rights of one animal interfere with the rights of another (there is a problem about rights versus dinner!). This is a fundamental biological principle – all organisms exist simultaneously in competition and co-operation with all others. Even if you go naked and deny yourself not merely animal food but also remove all animal fibre from your body, your body is still an ecological battleground for many other organisms. Even if you lie down and die, a variety of different predators, from bacteria to scavenging mammals, will compete for the right to devour your flesh. This is the way biology works. One of my major criticisms of the animal rights movement and the ecology movement in general, is of their belief that somehow if you go back to a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist society you would live in a world where everything is bright and beautiful; that only man was vile, that the world was cooperative and non-competitive before human intervention. Yet before human beings existed in the world species were evolving; many organisms and entire species were dying out. This is a fundamental feature of evolution. The fact is that rights conflict, and because they conflict you cannot get out of the problem of making choices simply by saying that animals have rights. You have to make a value judgment about the value of human life against the value of non-human life.

At the moment the only way we know how to begin to develop a vaccine for AIDS is to work with chimpanzees – I wish there was an­other way, but there isn’t. If we want an AIDS vaccine then chim­panzee research must go on. If you make a judgment that this research should not go on then you are making a judgment that will condemn many to a life of misery and, in many cases, death. That is a choice that is forced upon us not just by the nature of human existence but by the nature of life itself – it is not something that can be got out of by talk­ing about rights.

The animal rights movement is a very complex conglomeration of forces both of the right and the left. Indeed it is an open secret that it has been systematically penetrated by many groups of the extreme right. In Milton Keynes, for example, members of the local animal rights group include supporters of an openly Nazi group calling itself the November 9th Movement, the date of Hitler’s infamous Kristallnacht. The animal rights movement has been used as a cover for attacks on Jewish and Muslim style animal killings. It is worth remembering that the history of the movement is a fairly unsavoury one in a variety of ways. The only country ever to ban animal experiments completely was Nazi Germany during the 1930s. There is also an element within the animal rights movement, among so called ‘deep ecologists’, which is profoundly anti-human which would rather save chimpanzees and whales than humans.

To conclude. I have many criticisms of many aspects of science and its uses under capitalism. I insist that what we need to try and do is to create a science as well as a society which lives harmoniously with nature and understands that nature evolves, that eco-systems are complex and cannot be understood experimentally or appreciated in the crassly reductionist terms which modem science, as it developed under capitalism, has sponsored. But I also insist that we cannot avoid making moral, political and social choices by wrapping up arguments in cant about animal rights. If we want to save human lives, animal experimentation is still necessary.

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