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.


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