How can we conduct ethical and comprehensive multispecies research? Lessons in science, ethics and storytelling from Animal Studies (Part 2) – Towards a System of Ethics for Animals in Science and Science Communication

Today, I am going to try and fashion some ethical framework for science communicators to tell stories about animals, or scientific knowledge whose production involved animals in one way or another. I don’t mean for this to be a comprehensive survey of ethical protocols already in practice, but to examine what animal studies literature can tell us about various viewpoints in this regard.

I will start with JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. Although it is a work of fiction, I found it useful to treat it as a dialectical moral tale with no real resolution. There are a variety of points of view that are portrayed in the book, from Elizabeth Costello’s claim that the meat industry is analogous to the genocide, and how human views of ecology don’t take into account animal paradigms. Let me present some exceprts as follows.

“I return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh holocaust, yet as far as I can see our moral being is untouched. We do not feel tainted. We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.

“We point to the Germans and Poles and Ukrainians who did and did not know of the atrocities around them. We like to think they were inwardly marked by the aftereffects of that special form of ignorance. We like to think that in their nightmares the ones whose suffering they had refused to enter came back to haunt them.

“We like to think they woke up haggard in the mornings, and died of gnawing cancers. But probably it was not so. The evidence points in the opposite direction: that we can do anything and get away with it; that there is no punishment.”


“In the ecological vision, the salmon and the river-weeds and the water-insects interact in a great, complex dance with the earth and the weather. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In the dance, each organism has a role: it is these multiple roles, rather than the particular beings who play them, that participate in the dance. As for actual role-players, as long as they are self- renewing, as long as they keep coming forward, we need pay them no heed.

“I called this Platonic and I do so again. Our eye is on the creature itself but our mind is on the system of interactions of which it is the earthly, material embodiment.

“The irony is a terrible one. An ecological philosophy that tells us to live side by side with other creatures justifies itself by appeal- ing to an idea, an idea of a higher order than any living creature. An idea, finally — and this is the crushing twist to the irony — that no creature except man is capable of comprehending. Every living creature fights for its own, individual life, refuses, by fight- ing, to accede to the idea that the salmon or the gnat is of a lower order of importance than the idea of the salmon or the idea of the gnat. But when we see the salmon fighting for its life we say, it is just programmed to fight; we say, with Aquinas, it is locked into natural slavery; we say, it lacks self-consciousness.

“Animals are not believers in ecology. Even the ethnobiologists do not make that claim. Even the ethnobiologists do not say that the ant sacrifices its life to perpetuate the species. What they say is subtly different: the ant dies and the function of its death is the perpetuation of the species. The species-life is a force which acts through the individual but which the individual is incapable of understanding. In that sense the idea is innate, and the ant is run by the idea as a computer is run by a program. (Coetzee, 1999)

Throughout the book, there are various characters, which perhaps act as foils for real life philosophers challenge many of the claims made by protagonist Elizabeth Costello, and we even understand by the end of the novella that Costello herself is unsure of her beliefs. Yet, there are parts of her claims that may be interesting to consider as scientists and science communicators.

Let us consider for a moment the use of laboratory animals. Each year, millions of various laboratory animals are killed for the welfare of human knowledge, and it often does no real service to the species of animals killed themselves. Moreover, due to the fact that scientists typically deal with model organisms, in controlled laboratory settings, they often do not have sufficient correspondence to the lives of animals in the field. Thus, the genocide she speaks of that she compares to the Holocaust can be argued to be ongoing within scientific establishments, let alone the food industry.

Another place for concern towards animals within the scientific establishment exists in the ecological sciences. Costello discredits ecology as a useful tool by which one can find meaning in the lives of animals or a system of ethics because “The species-life is a force which acts through the individual but which the individual is incapable of understand” (Coetzee, 1999). As such, the individual organism may indeed be denied its agency when it comes to ecological frameworks, and it is only humans, as self-appointed stewards of nature look to ecology as a tool to manage it. This is one point that I disagree with Costello about. I do not think ecology is useless to animals, and that they are not “believers” in ecology. They may not have formal taxonomical divisions and energy balances worked out as humans do, but they have a more practical and spontaneous approach to what we call ecology. I think each individual animal possesses this knowledge, and to deny this fact would be to deny animal agency.

For whatever reason, it seems that philosophers across time have had a difficult understanding of human beings and the precise nature of their relationship with animals, even if it is in fact known very well to the individual in question. Consider the case of Derrida’s cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am. He remarks on the layers of shame regarding his nudity before the animal, and the shame associated with feeling ashamed before it. He takes us through the history of philosophical thought whereby humans have tried to distinguish themselves from animals, a term which Agamben calls the Anthropological Machine. And yet, this Machine confounds philosophers in novel ways every day. Derrida notes that

The impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that point on one might call it a kind of animalseance: the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant…It is as if I were ashamed, therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed…Ashamed of being naked as a beast. It is generally thought…that the property unique to animals, what in the last instance distinguishes them from man, is their being naked without knowing it. Not being naked therefore, not having knowledge of their nudity, in short, without consciousness of good and evil. (Derrida, 2008, pp. 4-5)

Ways to distinguish human ontologies from animal ontologies is often used in the moral justification as to why it is ethical to consume their flesh or use them in experiments. However, since the beginning of human history to this day, we have struggled with questions regarding the consumption of animals as food and as raw materials for scientific discovery and I believe that although veganism for the entire world is not the answer to question of nonhuman ethics, I think steps may be taken to reduce the harm done to animals using what we already know about them. I will discuss this moral view as expanded by Temple Grandin later in this essay.

This understanding of our relationship with animals aside from the epistemological divide also involves their treatment and position in our socioeconomic system. As life, they constitute an interesting component of our economic systems and yet the life itself is undervalued in this consideration and often no longer seen as a special kind of commodity but rather interchangeable with everything else that is non-life. Shukin notes that

As the ability to distinguish between animal and capital dwindles in the global mobile of market culture, or as animal life ceases to mean and matter in ways capable of challenging its symbolic and carnal currency as capital, market discourses themselves fetishize animal alterity. Neoliberal cultures speculate in signs of noncapitalized life even as they effectively render it incarnate capital. (Shukin, 2009, pp. 225-226)

With the advent of biotechnology and bioprospecting, it seems that life of nonhumans have become a mere commodity in the global capitalist market. While laws are in place in many nations to regulate bioengineering-related enterprises, the rate of expansion of these technologies is too fast for the laws that have traditionally protected these realms. As such, many people find themselves often at a loss for a system of ethics when it concerns technologies and products derived from life forms or the creation of new life forms. So far, when it concerns the formal status of animal ethics, we have two systems of thought, as Cavalieri postulates

Animal welfare aims at improving the treatment of animals, but without changing their status as inferior beings. Animal liberation pursues instead the goal of a moral and legal extension of equality to nonhuman beings. So far any alliance between human and nonhuman advocacy can only involve the first type of movement. (Cavalieri, 2012, pp. 49-50)

Thus, the only practical application of any of these philosophical questions regarding the morality of animals in science is concerned manifests itself in the form of animal welfare. Animal welfare can help us implement policies and ways of interacting and documenting animal lives with special attention to their agencies and their livelihoods. Animal liberation is something that I think for the most part, and for most animals, is still something that may not be formally recognized by human authorities for a long time coming. I do not think however, that human authority is the ultimate arbiter of the right to the existence of animals and their habitats in the world, despite our apparent position on the top of the ecological pyramid. Nonetheless, for moral considerations of animals in science, Temple Grandin suggests that we need practical and applicable methods by which we should treat our animals. Although much of her focus is on the food industry, I believe much of it may also be applied to animals that are used in science as experimental subjects or those in the wild that are observed. Grandin postulates that

Any animal that has the capacity to suffer when raised for human food deserves to live in an environment that prevents suffering and provides it with a life where it has opportunities to experience positive emotions…. human beings have the mental capacity to know that they should prevent suffering in animals. Nature has no morals; the natural conditions just exist. Animals eat other animals and sometimes kill them in a painful manner, or draught causes starvation…Nature cannot be moral or evil because it has no intent. People have the intellect to be good stewards of both the land and the animals, because they are aware that their actions can cause either suffering or destroy the environment. (Grandin, 2012)

I am aware that various research protocols already exist concerning various mammal and bird species that are used in experimental research, but beyond their use as data points in a scientific study, it seems we care to know less about their agencies and differences, because we seek to standardize our systems of experimentation. However, there are cases in which this standardized system may not apply, for instance, the Experimental Lakes Area, where experiments are conducted on whole ecosystems.

So finally, what can the animal studies discipline teach us to become better scientists and better science communicators? I believe in the principles of what is known as biomimicry. While on the surface, biomimicry may seem like a simple way to look to nature to find new designs; I believe this sort of knowledge extraction certainly subverts the assumed chain of being of humans and animals, with humans occupying the top tiers of this hierarchy. I think biomimicry should expand beyond a simple human tool for innovation but as a eco-conscious system of philosophy and ethics, in which the interconnected voices of all living beings are acknowledged as much as possible, and that we take extra care to not deny the agencies of other living communities. I know because of the constraints in the current scientific establishment and state of knowledge, this is indeed a long way to go, I believe that this philosophy should be implicated in studies of bioethics at a formal level. It is then that we as scientists and science communicators can claim that our ethical standards really do meet what we know about other nonhuman beings.


Cavalieri, P. (2012). Consequences for Humanism, or Advocating What? In M. Dekoven, & M. Ludblund (Eds.), Species Matters: Human Advocacy and Cultural Theory (pp. 49-73). New York: Columbia University Press.

Coetzee, J. (1999). The Lives of Animals. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, J. (2008). The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to follow). In J. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (pp. 1-51). New York: Fordham University Press.

Grandin, T. (2012). Avoid Being Abstract When Making Policies on the Welfare of Animals. In M. Dekoven, & M. Lundblad (Eds.), Species Matters: Human Advocacy and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shukin, N. (2009). Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


How can we conduct ethical and comprehensive multispecies research? Lessons in science, ethics and storytelling from Animal Studies (Part 1) – The Nature-Human and the Nature-Technology Divides

 Research involving interactions between multiple species of living beings is of course, nothing new. If anything, it is the very basis of the life sciences, and has been since its advent. However, in the history and much of the philosophy of life sciences, the agency of the subjects studied is not universally acknowledged. The limited understanding I have of the life sciences involves mostly ecology, cell and molecular biology and some bioengineering. Though in the study of ecology, one must consciously account for the agencies of various actors in the environment, their specific roles and any deviation from thence, in much of cell and molecular biology and bioengineering, basic units of life, whether genes or cells, are treated mostly as tools or complex machines for the most part in my experience. As a person who has some experience in doing research with microbial communities that indeed make up whole ecosystems, I realized the extent to which my knowledge and conscious awareness of the agencies of the tiny beasts I dealt with were limited. I looked to the emerging field of animal studies for answers.

I recently read Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science by Donna Haraway. In addition to The Companion Species Manifesto and When Species Meet, it is the third Haraway book I have read in the last few months. When reading The Companion Species Manifesto, I found that Haraway’s approach to the idea of companion species, or even dogs was too narrow to illustrate the multiplicity of relationships between humans and even individuals within a certain species. For instance, her preoccupation of breeds of dogs and their training neglected to examine the diversity and the nuances of the human-dog relationship that goes beyond their breeding and biology, and certainly goes nowhere near the vast cultural and psychological significance of dogs beyond economics and utility. While she acknowledged that there was indeed a long history of co-evolution of dogs and human beings, I found her analysis lacking in some areas I could not put a finger on…until I read When Species Meet and Primate Visions. 

For me, Primate Visions stood out as a very interesting overview of the history of the field of primatology in a way that we are only now beginning to talk about in the scientific world. When we hear of primatologists, it is either in the cases of behavioural studies or of conservation, and the primatologists, admittedly that we see on Discovery Channel or National Geographic often hail from North American or European upper-middle-class white backgrounds. Because we are primed to see the primates themselves as protagonists in these expositions, we don’t pay attention to the involvement of the primatologists themselves as politically significant actors in the stories. Whereas we know and readily acknowledge that in science and media, there is a statistically low representation of women, people of colour and other demographics, it is only recently that we have began to pay attention to how the politics of this affect our treatment of science media as a form of knowledge production. Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions lead us through the history of primatology, which helped me deconstruct a lot of my own biases in the study of animals.

First of all, we must note that primatology is especially well-positioned historically and socioculturally that make it an especially potent intersection of various political forces. Primatology is at the heart of the recent developments in natural sciences running parallel to European imperialist expansion. Haraway notes that

With research stations and conservation areas fostered by France, Belgium, Russia, Germany, and the United States…primate studies were a colonial affair, in which knowledge of the living and dead bodies of monkeys and apes was part of the system of unequal exchange of extractive colonialism…nonhuman primates were a fundamental part of the apparatus of colonial medicine. Part of the ideological framework justifying this directed flow of knowledge was the great chain of being structuring western imperial imaginations; apes especially were located in a potent place on that chain. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 19)

It can be argued that modern biology is derived from the machines of imperialism and capitalism, and perhaps nowhere else has this connection been more established than in the study of primates. By the very basic virtue of the studied primates existing primarily in parts of Africa and Asia, and the fact that most of the scientists involved in conducting these studies were from Europe, the link between primatology as a science and colonialism could not be more apparent. On another level primatology acted as a sort of microcosm for the study of human beings themselves as Haraway notes that their similitude to human beings make them apt creatures to conduct a variety of research on, often to the chagrin of many people within and outside the scientific community interested in issues of animal welfare.

One of the greatest insights into scientific practice and dissemination of research that I can draw from Primate Visions is Haraway’s explicit dictum that “Scientific practice may be considered a kind of storytelling practice – a rule-governed, constrained, historically challenging craft of narrative the history of nature. Science practice and scientific theories produce and are embedded in particular kinds of stories. Any scientific statement about the world depends intimately upon language, upon metaphor” (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 4). This is a particularly important declamation for me as a student of science as well as a science communicator because I have always felt like the work of scientists have been to tell old stories through new discoveries. As science communicators, we often look to a variety of resources and methods to ameliorate disseminating scientific knowledge to a diverse array of audiences, but we seldom acknowledge that in effect, science is a story, and in the case for biology, it is perhaps the truest. As Haraway notes

Biology is the fiction appropriate to objects called organisms; biology fashions the facts ‘discovered’ from organic beings. Organisms perform for the biologist, who transforms that performance into a truth attested by disciplined experience; i.e., into a fact, the jointly accomplished deed or feat of the scientist and the organism. Romanticism passes into realism, and realism into naturalism, genius into progress, insight into fact. Both the scientist and the organism are actors in a story-telling practice. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 5)

Perhaps with this in mind, we science communicators can effectively remind ourselves that what we are doing is reinventing and reconfiguring stories that have already been told, whether through the Christian ethos that spawned Linnaes’s taxonomy (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 9), to what Haraway calls ‘simian orientalism’, the process of otherization through which we create divisions in our knowledge.

Simian orientalism means that western primatology has been about the construction of the self from the raw material of the other, the appropriation of nature in the production of culture, the ripening of the human from the soil of the animal, the clarity of the white from the obscurity of colour, the issue of man from the body of woman, the elaboration of gender from the resource of sex, the emergence of the mind by the activation of body. (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 11)

This is perhaps alluding to theories and practices even in current laboratory research that uses animal models to create working models for the observation of various treatments and to extrapolate their effects on human bodies. We understand the science behind it, and even though it needs a lot of improvement and are not easily translatable to cases involving humans, we lose sight of the underlying semiotic relationship these models create with human beings – that by understanding the similarities and contrasts between our bodies and the bodies of animals, as well as between male and female, and the psychological relationships between gender and sex. It is through differentiation from the other that our scientific narratives are co-constituted.

Haraway further remarks on the relationship between living beings and technology that is continued from this point forward in the same narrative of otherization. While speaking of the emergence of dioramas in museums in the United States and the emergence of the environmental movement, she notes, “from 1890 to 1930…the woes of ‘civilization’ were often blamed on technology – fantasized as ‘the Machine’. Nature is such a potent symbol of innocence partly because ‘she’ is imagined to be without technology. Man is not in nature partly because he is not seen, is not the spectacle” (Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science, 1989, p. 54). This sentiment highlights one of the lasting traits of scientific research and communication, where the scientists often are seen as the subject with agency that performs experiments and observations whereas the object of the experiments and observation are externalized. In similar vein, nature is externalized from the mechanical, and so are human beings, due to their association with machines. This relationship is something that Haraway seeks to break down in her reflections in both The Companion Species Manifesto and furthermore in When Species Meet.

One of the first things that Haraway does while contemplating the concept of companion species is challenge this very nature-technology divide and the nature-human divide. She recounts that

[She is] vastly outnumbered by [her] tiny companions; better put, [she] becomes an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the [her]…they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible…when [she dies], all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “[her]” body, if only for a while, since “[they]” are necessary to one another in real time. (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 15)

By acknowledging the scientifically verifiable fact that human bodies are dwelling places for millions of microbial communities, she questions the very basis of this nature-human divide. She further mentions the case of “Jim’s dog”, a dog-like structure she found one year at a local park that was made of part of a redwood tree, its branches and leaves, and various miscellaneous items, both anthropogenic and not that happened to be around (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008). Upon simple interactions with this entity, Haraway postulates she is doing more than just interacting with its present materiality but also connecting to its deep histories, those that include various human and technological interventions – and thus, by doing so, the already suspect line between the categories of ‘Nature’, ‘Man’ and ‘Technology’ begin to crumble before our eyes.

She further delves into this arbitrary divide in the following chapters. She mentions that modernist version of humanist and posthumanist thought are rooted in what Bruno Latour calls the Great Divide, which seeks to delineate nature from society and humans from nonhumans (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 22). When the roots of this divide are examined, one finds that “Technophilias and technophobias vie with organophilias and organophobias, and taking sides is not left to chance. If one loves organic nature, to express a love of technology makes one suspect. If one finds cyborgs to be promising sorts of monsters, then one is an unreliable ally in the fight against the destruction of all things organic” (Haraway, When Species Meet, 2008, p. 24). For many people trying to navigate their environmentalist passions with a support for say, nuclear power and GMO products, this view probably clarifies why these aforementioned groups seem to be at odds with each other always, given this primal drive to separate the natural from the mechanical.

Perhaps with the appreciation for the philosophical roots of various contemporary scientific debates, science communicators maybe able to further grasp psychological roots that create impediments to effective science communication, and by extension, good science policy. Engaging in science as an ongoing storytelling practice, one that is not all that different from oral traditions and mythology that only differentiates itself by its immanent critique of itself, we may indeed be able to transcend the artificial boundaries that create barriers to scientific investigation.


Before I conclude, I would like to illustrate some of this principle of understanding the interlinked aspects of nature, humanity and technology, in practice by drawing from a completely different methodology – the arts. Sometimes when the systematic constraints of scientific knowledge dissemination fail us, it may be useful to look to the arts for inspiration and analogies that enable us to appreciate the nuanced complexities of science itself. Thus without further ado, I present to you a samples from The Bedside Book of Beasts – A Wildlife Miscellany by Graeme Gibson, especially those that challenge this nature-human and nature-machine divide.

Netted Together’ by Charles Darwin

If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine – our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions and our amusements – they may partake (of) our origins in one common ancestor – we may all be netted together. (Darwin, 2009)


My aim at present is to popularize the idea of ‘naturecultures’ as first put forward by Donna Haraway as a concept by which to understand our evermore complicated and connected realities. As science communicators, one of the aims we share is to make sense of scientific progress in our sociocultural contexts. Perhaps identification of scientific innovation as part of emerging nature culture is what we need for more nuanced critiques and narratives of science today.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will deal with what Animal Studies can tell us about use of organisms in scientific research.


Darwin, C. (2009). Netted Together. In G. Gibson, The Bedside Book of Beasts – A Wildlife Miscellany. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

Haraway, D. (1989). Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, D. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

This blog has served largely to document the above question since its inception two years ago. Although I am much happier about my career prospects than when I started, I am finding it increasingly true that my vocational ambitions do not conform to conventional 9-to-5 type jobs.

To recap, I am doing a Masters in Environmental Studies at York University. The peculiar thing about my program is that it defines the ‘environment’ as everything that encompasses our physical, social, political, cultural, historical, natural and economic environments. As such, we have theatre graduates trying to become urban agriculturists or planners, musicians trying to become experts in environmental health, engineers doing work on energy policy and arts and culture. I am really enlivened by the diversity of my peers, and wish there was something akin in life that would enable me to carry forward this sense of interdisciplinarity that I have always longed for. However, I know I need more of a focused vision to hone in on what I want to do for subsistence versus what I would do if subsistence was not at all an issue.

It’s very recent, perhaps, just over a year since I have started considering science writing as a real career. What I enjoy about the prospect of becoming a science writer is the extent to which I am the master of my own schedule. This is one of the things I enjoy about academia – the ability to manage my own schedule and workload. I can carry much higher workloads if I know that it is okay for me to wake up at 9 AM then work late into the night rather than try to get everything done between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM. Human creativity and inquisitiveness simply does not work that way.

I also have a great love for academia – whether it relates to social sciences or humanities. I am less hopeful about myself going back to do actual laboratory-based or field-based data collection and analysis for scientific research, however, for the right opportunity, I think I could be persuaded. In either case, I don’t mind working in the social sciences, the humanities or the pure and applied sciences or even their allied organizations if it meant that I would have some hand in contributing to contemporary knowledge production. I want there to be a use for what I am researching and learning outside the immediate academic arena. Someone once told me that this means I could pursue a job in the archival or museum sector, which also thrills me, but I have yet to seek out further information as to whether or not this is a feasible choice.

Lastly, encouraged by some professors and peers, I am interested in, almost embarrassingly so, in the prospect of developing a career in the arts, or science-allied arts. I would think of my art as working off of scientific knowledge, because the art I produce for my own leisure has always been a response to science. I enjoy the interpretative capacities creative professionals are able to use, and I wish there was a way for people trained in pure and applied sciences to become artists in their own right. I suppose there is always scientific illustration and communication, but what I am imagining is much broader than science textbooks, visuals and news stories.

Perhaps over the course of my graduate degree I will be able to further understand what motivates me for a long term career. I have also decided that perhaps it is futile to think of one’s career as a singular entity, and entertain the possibility that one could pursue more than one career simultaneously. This is the possibility that entices me the most for now.