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Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public HealthCAAT

Animals and Alternatives in Testing: History, Science, and Ethics

Joanne Zurlo, Deborah Rudacille, and Alan M. Goldberg

Chapter 1

Science and Society

The little I have hitherto learned is almost nothing in comparison with that of which I am ignorant. - Descartes

Although the word "scientist" was not coined until 1840, the desire to understand the natural world and one's place in it are basic human aspirations. The scientific knowledge of the ancient world was practical and related to specific ends. Astronomy developed in most ancient societies in order to facilitate calendar making, and the Mesopotamians created a basic algebra and geometry in order to assist them in surveying and developing. The ancient Egyptians, consumed by the afterlife, acquired basic anatomical knowledge through embalming practices and the rudiments of hygiene dysentery, and typhoid (Ronan, 1982). The first attempts to classify and systematize knowledge of the natural world were undertaken by the Greeks.

In medieval Europe, the sciences were considered "magical arts" and were usually based upon ancient authorities and superstition. Roger Bacon, in his Opus Majus, published in 1265, noted the causes of error - authority, custom, popular prejudice, and the concealment of ignorance with the pretense of knowledge. He pointed out that the two methods of acquiring knowledge are argument and experience. Mere argument, he commented, is never enough, for "the strongest argument proves nothing so long as the conclusions are unverified by experience."

Bacon's insistence on the gathering of data is one of the hallmarks of science. Systematic attempts to organize data into a coherent system, attempted by early Greek scientists such as Aristotle, Hippocrates, and the astronomer Ptolemy, vanished in the Middle Ages as the quest for knowledge of the natural world was perceived as a challenge to the authority of the church and an inappropriate subject of study. The legacy of the Greeks themselves proved a formidable obstacle to the acquisition of real scientific knowledge when later investigators refused to accept any new information that contradicted the revered yet erroneous doctrines of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen.

The birth of modern science dates to the year 1543 and the publication of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) and Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) which challenged systems of belief dating back to the second century. Copernicus' assertion that the earth circled the sun precipitated as spiritual crisis. Ever since Ptolemy, men and women had believed that the earth was the center of the universe and man the pinnacle of earthly creation. Copernicus' calculations did nothing to alter the latter perception but began the slow intellectual journey that shattered the first. His ideas were mathematically elaborated, experimentally tested, and finally confirmed by Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and Newton.

Vesalius' impact was not quite as far-reaching but it had a profound effect on the practice of medicine. Until Vesalius' detailed dissections of human corpses, medicine was largely based on the teachings of Galen, a revered Greek physician and writer whose knowledge of human anatomy was largely deduced from animal dissections and whose treatment of disease was based upon the doctrine of the four bodily humors. Unlike most medieval instructors in anatomy, Vesalius performed dissections himself. Therefore, he saw firsthand the inaccuracies of Galen's descriptions and was able to challenge them. In doing so, he destroyed the foundation of medieval medical practice, which, like astronomy, was based upon ancient tradition and inherited knowledge.

In this he was succeeded by William Harvey whose 1628 book On the Motion of the Heart and Blood demonstrated that the heart was the center of the circulatory process, that the same blood flows through both veins and arteries, and that the blood makes a complete circuit throughout the body. Harvey, whose findings were achieved "by autopsy on the live and dead, by reason and by experiment" (Richardson, 1987), is considered the inventor of modern laboratory science. Paracelsus, a 16th century chemist and physician, also contributed to the decline of Galenic medicine by rejecting the humoral theory and initiating the use of chemicals as treatments for disease.

Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood led to a more extensive use of vivisection in Europe. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine by 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard provided scientific medicine with the philosophic rationale it had previously lacked and greatly accelerated its development and ascendancy over clinical (i.e., empirical) medicine. The increasing use of animals as subjects of scientific research was by no means universally applauded, yet by the early 20th century, the knowledge accruing from such investigations was testimony to the success of the method (Fig. 1, Russell and Burch, 1959).

Historical Perspective on Human Dissection

Dissection of human cadavers, a key element of contemporary medical training, has been viewed as both morally and legally unacceptable throughout much of history. Although practiced in ancient Egypt in the city of Alexandria, where Herophilos, Erasistratos, and others explored the nervous system, circulatory system, genitals, and the eye, human dissection was forbidden throughout Greece and later Rome. Galen's work in anatomy and physiology was seriously compromised by his inability to dissect human cadavers, a handicap that led to many errors not redressed until Vesalius' corrections 1,400 years later. Dissection seems to have been generally accepted throughout Renaissance Europe, although anatomists (including Vesalius) were sometimes accused of practicing human vivisection and were careful to protect themselves from such charges.

In 1832, the Warburton Anatomy Act legalized the sale of bodies for dissection in England, in an attempt to end the practice of "body snatching" from cemeteries. In The Old Brown Dog (Lansbury, 1985), an analysis of the psychology and sociology of antivivisectionism in Edwardian society, Coral Lansbury notes that opposition to animal experimentation among the poor and working classes was often closely linked to fear of one's corpse being sold for dissection. According to Lansbury, this fear was not unfounded as "those who died in the workhouse or the hospital and had neither friends nor family to claim the body were regularly handed over to the surgeons" (Lansbury, 1985).

Many working people were convinced, she notes, that scientists vivisected animals only because they could not vivisect humans and that if the bodies of living human beings were made available, they would be used. Meanwhile, the scientific argument for animal experimentation was based upon the ethical inadmissibility of the use of living human beings for most research, necessitating the use of animals as surrogates. Ruth Richardson's scholarly study of the Anatomy Act, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Richardson, 1987), similarly explores attitudes of the poor toward scientists and surgeons. Like Lansbury, Richardson finds ample evidence that the poor were often victimized by unscrupulous and/or inadequately trained practitioners and that their bodies, in life as in death, were often treated as "teaching material."

Figure 1. The expansion of science and of animal experimentation


Reprinted from Russell & Burch (1959).