Tag Archives: rats

Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)

Glow F**k Yourself

Photo via http://kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com/kidsnews/2009/05/glowing-animals-gallery.htmlI believe that, at this time, we have mastered the technology of making glow-in-the-dark animals.  First there were the glowing mice, then the rats, the commercially-available atrocity the “glo-fish“,  Alba, the glowing rabbit who was also an “art installation”, pigs, and a whole host of other critters, and now, apparently, we have the glow-in-the-dark beagle.

What our intrepid scientists are doing, really, is stuffing extra genes into an animal to see if they can.  (Yes, that’s apparently all the justification they need.  They probably put the word “cancer” in the grant application, though.  You never know, this might be it!)  When scientists want to swap a gene from one organism to another, they choose to transfer a gene which makes the target animal, which ordinarily does not glow, produce a glowing protein.  They do this because that kind of thing is really easy to spot and doesn’t require complicated blood testing to see if it’s taken hold.  If the resultant animal glows, voila! — you have successfully transplanted a gene.

Why do they feel that making more glowing animals is necessary at this time?  I think we’ve passed the point of “required replication” of that original first experiment and entered the world of “unnecessary duplication of results”.  We’ve been shuffling genes around for years, as evidenced by that impressive list above.  We’ve even done beagles before, in 2009.  I think we’ve certainly seen that “we can” make glowing animals.  Now that “we can”, what are we doing with this amazing new technology?

To quote from the beagle article:

“[ByeongChun] Lee said the genes injected to make the dog glow could be substituted with genes that trigger fatal diseases. He and his team would then be able to chart the course of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more, better understanding how such diseases develop.”

It is fascinating how that paragraph doesn’t say, “The creation of transgenic beagles will allow us to give laboratory dogs a whole host of genetic diseases they don’t normally get, so that we can study how those diseases affect dogs, as if that were somehow relevant to how they affect people!

Yes.  The whole point of this ludicrous enterprise is that eventually, we will have man-made “animal models” for diseases that animals don’t normally even get — as though studying how these transplanted diseases behave in their new, unnatural hosts will tell us a damn thing about how they behave in humans.  We have reams and reams of evidence — including some generated from actual scientists doing animal-related experiments — that animal and human systems are not identical, and therefore we cannot extrapolate directly from one to the other, and here these people are, wasting time, money, and animals on making more animals to chew through while flailing helplessly in circles blathering about how they can cure cancer if only they can grind up a few more mice.

Ever notice how none of the articles point that out?  None of them say, “This will allow us to kill hundreds, maybe thousands, more dogs every year while searching for cures for human diseases.”  It’s always “Ooh, look at this adorable puppy — which may be a cure for cancer!

Am I saying that we should never, ever investigate recombinant DNA?  No.  Am I saying that perhaps we should think about using our newfound power of shuffling genes about to create hardier or more fruitful food crops that could feed impoverished nations, rather than new “animal models”, “designer fish” and “art installations”?  Yes.  We do not need to learn to cure artificially-induced Alzheimer’s disease in dogs.  We need to learn to cure it as it occurs naturally in people.

“We have learned well how to treat cancer in mice and rats but we still can’t cure people.”

– Professor Colin Garner, quoted in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

I love science.  I love learning new things, and exploring new ideas.  I understand that we can learn things from animal research we cannot learn anywhere else.  This?  This is a grotesque parody of research.  This is an absolute waste of funds.  There are human-based studies at my local VA hospital desperate for funding to help wounded veterans overcome combat injuries.  There are developers who could really use grants to help design new prosthetic limbs.  Why are we wasting money on this?

But ooooh, lookit the cute glowing beagle!