The logic of death-for-life runs deep throughout all cultural systems. Whatever the level of scientific sophistication, it is the central lesson taken from the natural order, whether in the easily observed relationships between predator and prey (where death comes to the weak and defenseless and where each feeding subsists on lower levels and is prey of higher ones, making each death a contribution to the whole) or within such abstract notions as biosystems or industrial systems' dependencies on fossil fuels.
When ritualized, this logic becomes the methodology of sacrificial rituals. Here sacrificial victims become valued ritual objects as their demise means life for the human group. The precise nature of the life-enhancing force yielded by the sacrifice often go far beyond the satisfaction of nutritional needs and involve appealing to unseen deities who wield ultimate life and death power. As Peggy Sanday observed in Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge, 1986), "Cannibalism is never just about eating but is primarily a medium for nongustatory messages--messages having to do with the maintenance, generation, and in some cases, the foundation of the cultural order" (p.3). Such appeals can entail:
I share these thoughts to frame an analysis of a contemporary controversy involving the death of nature in exchange for human life: the sacrifice of animals in the name of human longevity. Over the past century, such sacrifices have been conducted in the name of science. Around the time of the first world war, for instance, Serge Voronoff, a Russian emigrant to France, found that eunuchs aged faster than normal and concluded that the absence of a testicular hormone was responsible. The African domains of France, Britain, and Belgium were to be largely depleted of anthropoids to perform gland transplantation operations on his wealthy clientele. Cells from the flesh of unborn lambs were injected into the veins of such long-lived individuals as Pope Pius XII, Bernard Baruch, and Somerset Maugham. More recently, during the 1980s, General Motors killed roughly 20,000 dogs, rabbits, pigs, ferrets, rats and mice in safety tests (The Detroit News/AP, Sept. 28, 1991).And then, of course, there are the animal sacrifices in medical laboratories. Monkeys, for example, are infected with AIDS-like viruses to test the effectiveness of various vaccines. To determine the potency of poisons, rats are given increasing doses of toxins until one-half die (see David L. W. Miller's "The LD-50 Test"). According to a 1994 study of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy, as many as 50 million or more animals were used each year in American medical research before 1970. Because of the growing influence of animal protection groups, this number had declined to an estimated 20 million animals in 1992. The Department of Agriculture now requires laboratories to categorize their animal use in three groups: research causing no pain, research causing pain and distress but is relieved by drugs, and research that causes pain and distress not relievable by drugs. To see the perspective of animal research proponents, take a look at "Animal Research Facts" from the Foundation for Biomedical Research.
As mentioned, sacrificial victims have historically obtained enhanced symbolic significance and value. Such has become the case of animals in the contemporary death- for-life rituals of modern scientific research, as evidenced by the rise of the animal rights movements. In part, these movements have emerged with a growing awareness of the interdependencies and fragilities of ecosystems. The explosion of human numbers over the past century, coupled with industrialization and capitalism, has led to a rapid destruction of the natural order through deforestation, urbanization, cash crops, strip mining, and harvestings of the seas. Among the clearest examples are the expanding deserts of the Third World which correspond with the a growing consumption of firewood. For more than a third of the world's population, the real energy crisis is a daily scramble to find the wood they need to cook their meals. At least half of all the timber cut in the world is used not for construction or paper but rather for cooking fuel and, in colder regions, for warmth. In most poor countries today, a vast majority of people depend on firewood as their chief source of fuel, with the average user annually burning a ton or more of firewood. Such trends cannot last. Archeologist Richard D. Hansen argues, for instance, that a similar deforestation produced an ecological disaster that precipitated the collapse of the Maya civilization in approximately 800 A.D. To produce the stucco for their huge limestone pyramids, the Mayans leveled forests to fuel the hot fires required for transforming limestone into lime.A second factor underlying the rise of the animal rights/anti-vivisectionist movements involves a new sense of connectedness between humans and the animal kingdom, entitling animals to share many of the moral rights enjoyed by the human primate. Ethical systems have historically expanded from the family to the clan, the tribe, the nation, the peoples of the planet, and increasingly to all life forms. Also contributing to this new awareness is Eastern thought that, in contrast to Judeo-Christianity's general moral indifference to the killing of animals, views all life as a single unity.
Time to investigate Americans' attitudes. In NORC's 1993 and 1994 surveys of Americans, the following questions were asked:
The marginals are as follow:
Curious about who are most likely to hold such beliefs? Click below to see:
As can be seen, the influences of education and religion are additive in shaping Americans' toward the moral rights of animals and the morality of animal testing: belief that animals should be entitled to the same moral rights as humans decreases with increasing education and religiosity; belief that it is alright to use animals in research consistently increases with education and religiosity. In addition, it was found that:
Did you catch some of the intriguing interactions going on? With increasing education, individuals are less likely to endorse the moral rights of animals and yet are more likely to believe in the theory of evolution which, in turn, increases the likelihood of endorsing the animals' moral rights. Though increasing religiosity diminishes the likelihood of endorsing the moral rights of animals and though women are more likely to be strongly religious than men, women are more likely to believe that animals should have the same moral rights of people.
The question might occur to you whether there is any relationship between
Americans' attitudes toward animal testing with attitudes toward the other death-related
moral controversies of our times: attitudes toward abortion, euthanasia, and capital
In sum, like Americans' attitudes toward capital punishment, attitudes toward animal testing is a separate dimension of their death ideology, largely unrelated to the powerful connections made between the moral matters of abortion and euthanasia. Supporters of animal testing are significantly more likely than nonsupporters to agree "nature is really a fierce struggle for survival of the fittest" (69% vs. 54%)--a relationship that increases the more fundamentalist one's faith. They are significantly more likely to disagree with the statements "Overall, modern science does more harm than good" and "Any change humans cause in nature--no matter how scientific--is likely to make things worse."
One final thought. A 1997 New York Times article (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "Unchecked Experiments on People Raise Concern," May 14), quoted R. Alto Charo, a member of President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, observing that "We have better information about animal experiments than we do about human experiments." Indeed, in the government's Division of Animal Care, one can find the exact numbers of guinea pigs subjected to biomedical research in 1995 (333,379) and of chimpanzees feeling pain during research but comforted with medication (19,712). In its computer data base, there are 31 years of state-by-state accountings of the experiences of every cat, dog, hamster, guinea pig, chimpanzee, rabbit or farm animal ever used in laboratory experiments.