Dominic Lawson: I'm on the side of humans, not animals

I'm revolted by the idea that research on the brains of live chimpanzees should be made illegal
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For those of you who have not yet read the latest issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, here is its top story: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has advised the Lyme Regis Lifeboat Guild to abandon its annual fund-raising event, known as "conger-cuddling". This activity is essentially a piscine version of skittles, in which a dead conger eel is propelled by one team to knock over the opposing side's members, who stand on wooden blocks.

The RNLI gave as its reason the fact that an anonymous animal rights activist had threatened to film the highly popular local event and use the footage as part of a "national campaign" against conger-cuddling, which was "disrespectful" to a recently deceased eel. It is, I suppose, a tribute to the terror which the animal rights campaigners have inflicted on their enemies that the chairman of the Lyme Regis Lifeboat Guild felt obliged to issue the following statement: "The RNLI is not prepared to be involved in an event that may be seen as some as a barbaric throwback due to its use of a dead animal." This episode brings to mind Bertrand Russell's remark that "animal rights will end up with votes for oysters".

The abandonment of the Lyme Regis conger-coddling competition will not cause much harm, aside from denying the RNLI a few thousand pounds in donations. But the continuing animal rights campaign to prevent Oxford University from opening an animal research testing centre is a much more dangerous affair.

Last week Newsnight conducted a public debate in Oxford Town Hall between the two sides in the dispute. It was a triumph of public service broadcasting. I didn't believe that Gavin Esler would be able to keep order, so passionate are the feelings on both sides. But everyone managed to have their say without interruption. This might not have been to the benefit of those against the laboratory, in their battle for public support.

Mel Broughton, one of the animal rights movement's most notable figures, was asked by Gavin Essler whether he would accept experimentation on one malarial mosquito, as part of the search for a treatment for the disease which kills about one million a year, mostly children. No, he would not. Immediately the truth about such campaigners was revealed: it is not that they believe animals are as valuable as humans. They believe that animals are much more valuable than us. Why they believe this is a matter for psychiatrists rather than philosophers.

Mel Broughton's appearance was striking. There was a wired tautness about his lean face, and a vein throbbed visibly on his forehead. He reminded me of the sort of people I used to see during my undergraduate days at Oxford - but they were campaigning for the Socialist Workers Party or some other Trotskyite organisation. I suspect that the younger members of the extreme animal rights movement are the sort of people who, thirty years ago, would have been members of a revolutionary Marxist sect. Their empathy was not with oppressed animals, but with the oppressed proletariat; the problem for the student revolutionaries was that the oppressed proletariat made it increasingly clear that what they wanted was not the overthrow of the capitalist system, but its material benefits: colour televisions, foreign holidays, and a wide choice of motor cars. "False consciousness", this was called by the Marxist students. But there is only so much false consciousness that a revolutionary can endure before rejecting the workers as a bad lot, and deciding on a career in advertising. Animals, however, have a big advantage over the proletariat. Being dumb, they cannot let their would-be saviours down by telling them that life in the laboratory is really not too bad: "The scientists always seem pleased to see us, and the food is plentiful - not too keen on the injections, though."

We cannot know what the animals think of their life in a laboratory; any attempt on my part to guess is vulgar anthropomorphism - and not just because animals can't speak. As Wittgenstein wrote: "If a lion could speak we still could not understand it." Or in other words, our thought processes are so utterly different that genuine comprehension of the animal mind is impossible.

The moral problem for the animal testers is that when searching for a cure for man's most intractable neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, they conduct experiments on the animals which are closest to us - the higher primates. The most moving contribution to the Newsnight debate was from Michael Robins, who had suffered from appalling tremors, which convulsed his body from the moment he awoke to the moment he went into a heavily drugged sleep. Dr Tipu Aziz had managed to cure what drugs had failed to achieve - by something called "deep brain stimulation". Dr Aziz discovered this technique through experimentation on the brains of live chimpanzees.

Some people will understandably be revolted by such experiments. I am revolted by the idea that such medical research should be made illegal. Here, there is an unbridgeable moral gap. But when the animal rights campaigners claim that such experiments are unnecessary, and that they are "bad science", then their arguments move from the moral to the dishonest. As Dr Sophie Petit-Zeman of the Association of Medical Research Charities points out, they cannot claim both that animals are too close to us to be subjected to involuntary experimentation, and yet so far removed from us that the results of such tests are meaningless.

This is not to say that all animal-lovers are completely deluded. I am almost embarrassed to admit that the Lawson ménage consists of six dogs (Aslan, Patter, Holly, Thistle, Peugot and Snowy) three ponies (Shaggy, Troy and Pluto) three goats (Muncher, Cashmere and George) - and five chickens (Mrs Buff, Lavender, Scales, Hip and Hop). But if it were necessary to conduct medical experiments on all seventeen of those creatures in order to find a treatment for a potentially deadly infection that one of them had given to either of my daughters, then I would not hesitate to agree.

You might argue that my view is coloured by the fact that it would be my own child's life that was at stake. But every sick child has parents; and it is tax paid by the nations' parents which is now funding - to the fury of the protesters - the extraordinary security measures to protect those constructing the Oxford animal testing centre.

Ultimately, this debate comes down to a simple question: are your most intense feelings of empathy reserved for humans or animals? Despite all the wickedness of which we are capable, I am on the side of humans.