Lessons from Darwin, too
Writing in today's Times, Professor Colin Blakemore says everyone wants a piece of Charles Darwin on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Darwin understood the need for both animal welfare and animal research, and sparked a fierce debate by writing to The Times about it in 1881.
The leading antivivisectionist of the day, Frances Power Cobbe, denied any benefit and condemned, as she saw it, the inevitable cruelty of animal research. The Times today even publishes the letters from its archive, with a commentary
Now – with new laws being debated in Europe – is the time to attempt a more nuanced debate, says Professor Blakemore. Today's debate is different in some respects, but is still too polarised. His piece can by summed up in three extracts:
Darwin 'saw that science, just like the complex ecosystems he studied, is a communal process, fuelled by symbiosis, collaboration and interdependence, as much as by competition and predation. Many scientists are fortunate enough not to have to use living animals to advance their area of knowledge, but their work on isolated cells, or computer models, or human patients and volunteers is closely linked to, and dependent on, studies of organ and body systems that are possible only on living animals.'
Blakemore concludes 'I hope that this correspondence might have some influence in the present phase of this debate – the discussion in the European Parliament of a draft directive that would, in the opinion of not only the scientific community but even leading welfare organisations, severely impede the progress of medical research, without obvious improvements in animal welfare.'
'With the possibility that real extremism is being constrained, we have another opportunity in this country to take the lead in the debate to which Darwin contributed. We must move away from the entrenched positions into which passionate commitment has driven all parties. We need a more nuanced debate that goes beyond the total trust of Charles Darwin and the total opposition of Frances Power Cobbe.'