A strange black tide of irrationalism and superstition is currently washing over science, and trying to drown the free pursuit of knowledge. Some of its waves are crude and obvious, like the resurgent Christian creationism and Islamic fundamentalism. But most are more subtle, taking care to pose as alternative scientific theories. Pick up any newspaper any day and you'll find these irrationalists poisoning debates with their sickly sea-water - the deniers of anthropogenic global warming, the peddlers of "alternative" medicine, the animal rights activists who claim that experimenting on animals is totally useless.
The current debate about whether to lift the ban on testing on higher primates - chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas - in a global emergency is a good example of this encroaching darkness. There is a serious debate about whether we can legitimately use our closest cousins as instruments for our own advancement, and, as it happens, I come down on the side of the animal rights activists. An adult gorilla has the same ability to use language, the same complex emotions, and the same capacity to feel pain as a three-year-old human child, or many disabled adults. So we should only use that gorilla in an experiment if we would also use a three-year-old child or a disabled adult with comparable mental functioning - an abhorrent situation I cannot imagine ever sanctioning.
Professor Colin Blakemore, the brilliant brain scientist who sparked this debate, believes the species boundary between humans and gorillas is enough to sanction the difference in treatment. I don't. Species boundaries are simply arbitrary places on the evolutionary chain, and irrelevant when compared to the capacity to feel pain and to understand yourself over time.
But however much I disagree with Professor Blakemore, he has been right to raise it as a painful moral dilemma. There is indeed an incredible amount of medical progress we could reap from higher primates if we experimented on them, and we are forfeiting it by abandoning the experiments. It's a terrible choice.
The people I cannot respect are the activists who deny this dilemma even exists, and argue that experimenting on animals is useless. They spread bogus, black pseudo-scientific theories (often misquoting senior scientists) denying that animal tests have ever lead to scientific progress - ignoring the fact that insulin was discovered after testing on dogs, and many developments in neuroscience have come from testing on primates. They claim that scientists are simply sadists, running these experiments for Mengelian purposes.
I have a modest proposal to resolve the dilemmas thrown up by these new anti-science movements. Just as most of us now carry organ donor cards, we should carry Ethical Consistency cards that declare our beliefs about science and are checked before we receive any medical treatment. I would reluctantly but certainly tick a box that said I disagree with testing on higher primates. No doctor should give me treatments derived from tortured gorillas. The people such as Morrissey, who jeer "we will get you" at all scientists who test on animals (even mice) should decline all medicines that have ever been tested on animals. Here are the other boxes that should be listed - ones I would not tick:
Box one. Do you accept the theory of evolution? If the answer is no, then - as the US journalist Katha Pollitt has suggested - you should be denied all medical treatment dependent on it. That means no vaccinations for creationists. Flu vaccines only work because scientists track the evolution of the influenza virus and adjust the vaccine accordingly. If bird flu evolves to the point of human-to-human transmission, they should refuse to accept Tamiflu on the grounds that the science behind it is "filled with holes". We can expect the rapid depopulation if the Deep South if they have any ethical consistency.
Box two. Do you believe in "alternative" medicine? Do you think, as Charles Windsor does, that it is more important for a medicine to be "rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world" than for it to work in scientific trials? Fine. Next time you are in a car crash, the paramedics will not send for a surgeon. They will send for an African witch doctor - you know, the ones Africans can't ditch fast enough once they have access to real medicine - and he will use magical potions and try to achieve "balance and harmony" between your bashed-in mind and your bleeding body.
Box three. Do you accept that man-made global warming is real, and has doubled the intensity of hurricanes in the past 50 years? If the answer is no, then your home should be logged on a computer database, and when those super-charged hurricanes come, you can sit in your battered home and mock those grant-greedy scientists who made such predictions.
Box four. Are you a religious fundamentalist who believes women are inferior and should be confined to the home? Fine, no penicillin for you. Discovered by one of those irrational women, you see, when she should have been wiping up baby vomit.
There are plenty more potential boxes - on embryo experimentation, on post-modernists who believe "Western" science is equivalent to witch-doctory, and so on. For too long, people have been allowed to piggy-back on the Enlightenment, enjoying its incredible fruits but jeering at it as "soulless" or fundamentally flawed. But how many people would cling to these irrationalist anti-science theories if they actually had to feel the consequences in their own blood and bone? I am prepared to pay for my belief that testing on primates is morally wrong. Are the opponents of science prepared to pay for theirs?Reuse content