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In Context #2 (Fall, 1999, p. 11); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Killing to Understand
Stephen L. Talbott

When In Context reader George K. Russell was a biology undergraduate in the late 1950s, he learned to dissect frogs for many experimental procedures. Over time, he became aware of how the gains in knowledge from this work were outweighed by a gradual loss of feeling:

Frogs, for me, had been quite special creatures in my youth, and I had spent an inordinate amount of time seeking them out in their natural habitat, watching tadpoles metamorphose into adults, and pursuing as best I could an amateur's interest and love for the frog's natural history. Later, however, whatever initial misgivings I may have had regarding our laboratory studies gradually diminished, and the frog became a sort of object to be manipulated, a thing rather than a living organism.
Today Russell is a professor of biology at Adelphi University and Editor-in-Chief of Orion magazine. He has also for many years been a pioneer in the development of alternatives to animal use in the teaching of biology. One of the turning points for him occurred when, as a beginning faculty member, he was asked to oversee a laboratory exercise in which a rat was to be killed as a source of liver enzymes.
I seriously questioned the necessity of this procedure and refused to carry out the protocol. I was able to locate a plant source of comparable enzymes which easily met the scientific requirements of the class exercise. Many of the students seemed much relieved by this simple substitution, and an unexpectedly long conversation with them revealed sensitivities and a sense of caring I had not appreciated.
An estimated six million vertebrate animals are dissected yearly in American high schools alone. A good part of Russell's concern is focused on the treatment of the animals themselves. But he also worries about the emotional and mental life of the students. "Even if the experiments were always successful and were always carried out in the most humane way possible, the destructive effect of the experience on the student, in my view, simply would not be worth it." After an hour or two's work, he says, you have "a heap of dead animals" and "a class of students filled with distaste."

In discussing a well-known and "severely cruel" series of ex-periments in which young monkeys were separated from their mothers and then subjected to painful physical abuse by the surrogate, mechanical "mothers" to which they tried to cling, Russell points out that many students study this work in a "total ethical vacuum." But the vacuum is not really a vacuum, since

to treat such matters in courses on psychology or biology without full consideration of the ethical context is to teach, de facto, a lesson in ethics. The implicit message for the student, in brief, is that ethical concerns simply do not count or matter.
Russell goes on to observe that "it will not suffice" merely to add an ethics course to the curriculum. Ethics must be integrated into the entire course of study. And, significantly, there may be "no better approach in this regard for the student and teacher than a consideration of animal use, and alternative procedures, within the biology curriculum itself."

One could add here the more general suggestion, radical as it may sound, that students actually get to know the animals whose biology and psychology they are studying. Russell mentions that the traditional sequence of dissections—earthworm, grasshopper, crayfish, teleost fish, fetal pig—was introduced with the nineteenth-century educational reforms of Thomas Huxley. But "lost altogether is Huxley's insistence that such studies be prefaced by direct acquaintance with these life forms as living creatures; live specimens of representative phyla were to be included in classroom study and students were directed, wherever possible, to seek out and observe living earthworms in the soil, crayfish in ditches and streams, and fishes in local waterways."

I have rarely heard of a biology class where the students investigated the living animals in conjunction with the classroom dissections. To put it briefly, very few student dissectors ever learn what a grasshopper is really like, and few will wish to undertake a closer study of these animals after they leave the classroom.

George Russell is author of the 1978 manual, Laboratory Investigations in Human Physiology, published by Macmillan. His remarks here are taken from a paper he delivered at the Third World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, held in Bologna, Italy, August 29 - September 2, 1999. Copies of the complete paper are available from the author, whose email address is

Original source: In Context (Fall, 1999, p. 11); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Killing to Understand

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