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MERSENNE  August 2008

MERSENNE August 2008

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Subject:

Report: 5th CHMD Workshop on ‘Experimental Transactions: Science and the Human-Animal Boundary’, Durham University (UK)

From:

Daniel Becker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Daniel Becker <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 16 Aug 2008 09:54:05 +0100

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** Apologies for cross-posting **

5th CHMD Workshop on ‘Experimental Transactions: Science and the Human-
Animal Boundary’, Durham University

On Tuesday 24 June 2008, an interdisciplinary audience gathered for the fifth 
Workshop of the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease on 
Experimental Transactions: Science and the Human-Animal Boundary. The one-
day workshop, organised by Stephanie Eichberg, offered an interesting array of 
papers, with subjects ranging from the mid 17th century to contemporary 
issues. The main focus was on the problem of the human-animal-analogy in 
the biomedical sciences and on the historical and institutional context of the 
laboratory animal. The workshop was held at the Wolfson Research Institute, 
Queens Campus, and was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

The first paper was given by MASSIMO PETROZZI (Johns Hopkins University) 
on Inside and Outside the Laboratory: Animals, Humans and Blood Transfusion, 
1666-1668. Petrozzi addressed the changing perceptions of animals by 
experimental scientists during the 17th  century by focussing on how 
experimental results were informed by the animals’ natural behaviour outside 
the laboratory. Drawing on a wide range of examples, including Robert Boyle’s 
and the Royal Society’s experiments on blood transfusion, Petrozzi argued 
that, for a thorough understanding of animal experimentation at that time, it 
was vital to examine the relationship between the experimenter and his animal-
subject both inside and outside the laboratory.
That this framework is not universally applicable to the various kinds of 
experiments on animals performed during the 17th century was the starting 
point for the discussion following Petrozzi’s presentation. The 17th century 
saw a wide range of very invasive experiments, of which Robert Hooke’s 
experiments on artificial respiration and those of William Harvey on the 
circulation of the blood are among the best known. But, although vivisection 
has received a great amount of attention by historians and admittedly was an 
important part of the animal-experimentalist culture, it was by far not the only 
or even the most important aspect of it. During the classical period, questions 
were raised by experimenters regarding new methods that allowed a different 
approach to the study of living beings and would result in a better 
understanding of human physiology. A major question dealt with the search for 
the best laboratory animal for a given experiment. Petrozzi suggested that 
practicality was the major factor involved in the choice of animals. Sheep, for 
instance, were readily available and commonly thought of as calm animals, and 
therefore highly useful in experiments such as blood transfusion. Another 
question addressed the scientific approach of the discussed experiments, as 
seen from the perspective of the 21st century, where replicability and 
standardisation of the animal-subject are of the utmost importance. Petrozzi 
argued that those factors did matter in the 17th century as well. Experimental 
results were certainly tested and replicated in various places, as an active 
exchange of letters between experimenters suggests. References regarding 
the preservation or alteration of the animal’s natural state, as observed after 
the experiment, could be easily understood and interpreted by fellow 
experimenters on the grounds of common experience outside the laboratory. 
Therefore, it was deemed important to stress that, as opposed to 21st-
century science, it would be impossible to understand animal experimentation 
without reference to the perception of the animal outside the laboratory during 
the 17th century.

In the second paper, Constituting the Human via the Animal: Albrecht von 
Haller’s (1708-1777) ‘Sensibility’ Trials, STEPHANIE EICHBERG (Durham 
University) discussed the dual nature of Haller’s concept of animal sensibility 
vs. human sensation. She showed that concepts associated with the functions 
of the nervous system remained flexible in Haller’s research just as much as 
the handling of the species boundaries during the experiment. For instance 
was Haller’s theoretical understanding of human sensation influenced by a 
contemporary belief in the soul as the prime agent of bodily functions, whereas 
in the soulless animal sensibility could only be assessed by measuring bodily 
pain. 
A main point of the discussion was whether the concepts of sensibility in 
animals and sensation in humans bore any reference to the notion of the Great 
Chain of Being. The Chain of Being had been a major concept not only during 
the time Haller conducted his experiments and therefore must have had at 
least some influence on his theoretical thinking. The problem, however, lies in 
tracing Haller’s individual notion and understanding of the Chain of Being. Was 
it a more materialistic one, focussing on morphological traits and thus 
characterising similarity or dissimilarity between the species; or was it based 
on an immaterial concept, assuming a connective force that runs through an 
alleged chain, thus sustaining its integrity? Eichberg answered that it is nearly 
impossible to tell whether Haller’s notion was informed by mechanist, vitalist, 
or an animist concepts. On the one hand he seemed to have applied 
mechanistic notions to his experimental research; but, when it came to his 
theoretical assumptions, he usually switched to concepts of the soul and/or 
the mind as vital for the function of sensibility. Especially the notions of soul 
and mind led to interesting discussions about the animal soul in the 18th 
century. Eichberg pointed out that mind and soul were used interchangeably, 
especially with regard to humans, thus the discussion was lacking the strong 
religious connotations normally associated with the soul. The concepts of soul 
and mind were rather used to describe and distinguish mental functions such 
as emotions and consciousness. Secondly, she argued that it would be 
valuable to elaborate the concept of bodily soul which was thought to be 
shared by animals and humans alike. Its properties could be analysed in animal 
experiments to investigate bodily functions and at the same time maintain the 
distinction between animals and humans. In general, Haller himself did not 
elaborate in detail about the differences between humans and animals. For him 
the similarity in structure was enough to assume a similarity in function.
 
The next speaker, FRANK-WALTER STAHNISCH (University of Calgary) talked 
about 19th Century French Physiology and the Conception of the Human-
Animal Analogy: The Case of François Magendie (1783-1855) and Claude 
Bernard (1813-1878). Stahnisch suggested that matters of locality and 
practicality as well as the context-dependent choice of the ‘right’ animal had 
an important influence on the production of physiological knowledge. He 
demonstrated that the human-animal relationship was equally variable, 
depending on the experimenter’s research conditions. The discussion picked up 
on the question about what Magendie and Bernard, who were experimental 
physiologists of two consecutive generations, understood under the term 
analogy and how they used it. The use of analogies as explanatory aids has a 
long history, but its foundations lie in the shared values of the scientific 
communities in question – be it the shared experiences in the laboratory, the 
similar training and use of the same textbooks, or shared disciplinary 
objectives. Stahnisch remarked that there had been two uses of the concept 
of analogy in the medical context of the mid 19th century. Firstly, analogy was 
used as a means of transferring phenomena from one species to another. 
However, this was usually limited to clinical environments, where it referred to 
the conceptual transfer of symptoms between patients in order to arrive at a 
diagnosis. The other meaning focused on conclusions by analogy regarding 
bodily functions, which were derived from investigations conducted on 
different animals. These conclusions by analogy were used to obtain a fuller 
picture about the respective bodily function. Another question was whether 
pragmatism, both regarding locality and practicality, really was the dominant 
reason behind the choice of an animal-subject. This is especially relevant since 
today’s animal experimentation seems to focus on a few privileged species, like 
guinea pigs, mice, or rats. Stahnisch argued that the question, which animal 
would be the best choice for a given experiment, was very much part of the 
discussion within the experimental discourse. But it was also one of the major 
problems. On the one hand, there was the rational approach, which could 
involve obtaining external advice on the best animal for an experiment. But this 
ideal choice was often not readily available or its acquisition involved major 
difficulties. Therefore, proxies were needed as substitutes. Similar to Petrozzi, 
Stahnisch stressed that the apparent flexibility of experimenters in their animal 
choice was not voluntary, but rather a means to an end. The rational way of 
circumventing the lack of the rational option was to revert to pragmatism. 
Thus, as Stahnisch suggested, the pragmatic factor remained the most 
important one.

How the aforementioned relationship between experimenter and laboratory 
animal had changed in the 20th century was the basis for ROBERT KIRK’s 
(University of Manchester) paper on A Chance Observation: Ethological 
Approaches to Laboratory Animals and Human Health c. 1945-1969. Based on 
the papers of the pharmacologist Michael Robin Alexander Chance, Kirk showed 
how ethological considerations and the individual relationship between 
experimenter and animal restored the status of the laboratory animal as an 
agent mediating knowledge, and as an individual being. The result was a better 
understanding of laboratory animals both in the context of the laboratory and 
in relation to the experimenter. 
The discussion elaborated on the extent of the relational change in an 
understanding of the animal in its different experimental contexts. The 
experimenter, as an ideally objective observer, was determinedly non-
interventionist, and thus should have remained unaffected by the animal itself. 
But, as it was remarked, the change Kirk was describing rather looked like a 
further step towards developing what Michael Lynch has called the analytical 
animal. This was another way of objectifying the animal, this time with regard 
to its behaviour which became increasingly abstracted from the animal as a 
living being. Although Kirk generally agreed with this point, he emphasised that 
Chance, whilst certainly objectifying the animal, did take the animal into 
account as a living being and individual. Chance did not view it, as had been 
done during the 18th- and 19th centuries, as a kind of convenient, yet 
sophisticated but anonymous knowledge generator.

How far an individual behavioural analysis of laboratory animals reached was 
demonstrated by EDMUND RAMSDEN’s (Exeter University, London School of 
Economics) presentation Experimental Methods in Social and Behavioural 
Psychology: Travelling Facts in Human and Animal Experiments in 
Overcrowding. Referring to the animal ecologist John B. Calhoun, Ramsden 
showed how knowledge about rodent behaviour in the laboratory ‘travelled’ on 
to an evaluation of urban settlements and human society. Calhoun’s research 
thus crossed not only species boundaries but also disciplinary boundaries, and 
had a major impact on social scientists and environmental psychologists during 
the second half of the 20th century.
The discussion at first reflected on the surprising speed by which the results 
of Calhoun’s experiments crossed these disciplinary boundaries. Calhoun 
published his articles in journals with a broad readership, thus ensuring a quick 
dissemination of his ideas. At the same time, there has been a shift in popular 
culture towards a new form of science fiction, i.e. the science fiction of 
everyday life, with an enormous amount of literature being published on 
apocalyptic scenarios dealing with overcrowding and increased stress in human 
urban settlements. Thus, there was a huge amount of attention both from the 
public as well as the professional sphere for Calhoun’s research.
A more specific question addressed the anthropomorphic language in which 
Calhoun published his work. In direct comparison to the work of other 
scientists concerned with behavioural studies, such as Nikolaas Tinbergen, it 
becomes quite clear that the general tendency was to adopt a more serious 
tone and to avoid anthropomorphism. Ramsden remarked that his research 
suggests that Calhoun was very much prepared to explicitly establish a 
connection between animal and human behaviour directly and evidently.

The last paper focused on Contemporary Debates in the UK about the Use of 
Animals in Science. PRU HOBSON-WEST (University of Nottingham) reviewed 
quantitative and qualitative data from surveys assessing the public opinion 
regarding animal experimentation. She showed how different questions in 
interviews or questionnaires could change the outcome of polls that allegedly 
represented public opinion. Sections from (anonymous) interviews with 
scientists and animal rights campaigners provided an interesting insight in the 
different conceptions of the human-animal relationship and how this featured 
in contemporary discourses. The discussion began with the interesting 
question whether the former utilitarian concept of the ‘greater good’ as an 
argument for animal experimentation in science has now been replaced by the 
public opinion. Hobson-West answered this in a tentatively affirmative way, 
saying that even in acts of law concerning animal experimentation, the public 
opinion is implicit. The question remained of what came first, the acts of law 
governing animal experimental conduct, or an abstract ‘public opinion’ 
demanding legislative control. These reflections led to the consideration 
whether there really was or is an ethical ambiguity towards animal research or 
scientific authority respectively. It was agreed that it might be worthwhile to 
take into account how polls and lobbies construct public opinion, since without 
technologies of elicitation and their results, the public opinion would be nothing 
but an empty signifier.

The final discussion picked up some of the major issues raised in the workshop. 
One fundamental question addressed the historical concept of the laboratory 
animal: from when on it would be prudent to speak of laboratory science 
proper? It was generally agreed that the notion of laboratory animal was tied 
to the phenomenon of the 19th-century rise of modern science, but that the 
conceptual changes regarding its status can be traced back to the late 17th 
century.
The need for interdisciplinary studies on the subject was another important 
point raised in the discussion. The historical issues raised in this workshop 
(e.g. matters of animal standardisation and the laboratory as a space 
generating a specific kind of knowledge) will contribute to discussions not only 
of interest to the history of medicine and history of science, but also to other 
disciplines, such as geography, sociology, or the life sciences. Vice versa, 
approaches from these disciplines can contribute to a better understanding of 
the changing conceptions of the human-animal boundary in the history of the 
biomedical sciences.

This well-organised workshop addressed a wide range of relevant topics in the 
history of animal experimentation and fostered lively discussions. The diverse 
backgrounds of the audience from various parts of the academic spectre 
added much to the value of the day’s value.



Daniel Becker, Doctoral Fellow, Department of Philosophy and Centre for the 
History of Medicine and Disease, Durham University

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