Response to “The Sad Lot of Lab Chimps” by Jane Goodall and Ray Greek

Jane Goodall and Ray Greek wrote this editorial to protest the use of chimpanzees for medical research.  The latest field in which primates are used is comparative genomics.  In this field, as we learned in class, the genomes of different species are investigated in order to determine which genes are responsible for which physical traits.  Remarkably, all plants and animals encode their genetic material through DNA.  Scientists have already successfully experimented with the DNA of plants and lower animals, and they are now trying to do the same with several different types of primates.  Geneticists have already finished work on the rhesus macaque and chimpanzee genomes and have compared them to the human genetic sequence.

Comparative genomics is just the latest example of a long series of experiments on primates, including “infections with human pathogens, vital-organ biopsies, repeated inoculations for vaccine testing, and transfection for virus production.”  None of these, according to the authors, have affected health care for humans because environmental factors play such a large role in the expression of phenotype, as we discussed in class.  (Genotype is genetic code, and phenotype is the expression of that genetic code.)  Certain factors from our environment, such as drugs and pathogens, can mutate our genetic sequences.  Because the phenotypes of identical twins can diverge so much, the reaction of an animal from a different species would be even more different!  The authors note that primate experiments with HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C have added little to our body on knowledge.  Primate research helped lead to the hepatitis B vaccine, but scientists have created better methods for creating vaccines since then.

Goodall and Greek then argue that even if medical research on chimpanzees were effective, it would not be ethical because they are such close relatives to us.  The authors then make many efforts to anthropomorphize these beasts, including describing their behavior, their mental prowess, etc.  Surely, they say, scientists should find a better means of learning about humans than doing research on chimpanzees.  “If we look into the eyes of one of these [caged] chimpanzees, shall we not feel deep shame?”

I do not have much sympathy for the ethical component of the authors’ argument.  Jane Goodall has spent so much time among chimpanzees that she probably cannot judge this situation objectively.  Who else would look into the eyes of a monkey and feel such strong emotions?  Chimpanzees may be more similar to us than any other animal, but they are still far from human, and I am willing to give up some of their lives to save some of our own.  I agree with Goodall and Greek that we should abandon animal research if there are more effective scientific methods, but I do so for pragmatic reasons, not ethical ones.  Comparative genomics will be helpful.  I have heard that comparisons of human and fruit fly genomes have been quite informative; studies of primates, which share 99% of our DNA, should thus be even better.

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