Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 683:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 683.

Today, we wonder: should we kill an animal to save a human? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A stray dog attached herself to me last week. That's the sixth stray we've picked up in as many years. She's a beautiful Labrador/German Shepherd mix. She's the last thing in the world we need -- and utterly irresistible. What a soft touch!

Now a friend from the biology department sits at my lunch table. "John," he says, "Can't you say something on the air about using animals in the lab? The antivivisectionists are doing us in. We'll never cure cancer and AIDS at this rate."

"I can't stand seeing animals hurt," I say. "Yeah, me too," he answers, "my wife and I belong to the SPCA." This is no kid trying to get famous by hacking up monkeys. He's my age. He wants only to do the right thing while he has time. I take him seriously.

Meanwhile, animal lovers -- people a lot like me -- have broken into animal research labs. They've wrecked equipment, harassed researchers, and distorted the truth. They've painted research doctors as the kind of cold-blooded killers who enjoy pulling wings off flies -- when they're not doing worse things at work. The costs of litigation and security have run the price of research up by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most of the animals are rats -- 85 or 90 percent. Less than two percent are cats, dogs, and monkeys. We're happy enough to see rats killed in the name of pest control. Then we're horrified to see them killed in the name of science.

Dogs are especially suited to blood flow research. My stray dog, running with the angular grace of a young horse, could well have ended in someone's lab if she hadn't found me. I think of her with her chest open -- doctors injecting blood into her heart to learn its elastic properties. She wouldn't be in pain. But she wouldn't live to tell about it, either.

Still, when I'm sick, I take medicine that was tested on animals. Already, I'd go after anyone who tried to hurt my stray dog. Yet I eat the meat of much larger animals.

My friend's face creases with concern. "The animal activists are winning. We'll never cure anything if this keeps up."

I'll credit activists with creating a huge sensitivity to cruelty. If many scientists were once careless and callous, far fewer are today. I wouldn't want the activist voice silenced. Neither would I want to see it victorious.

Seventy years ago, we killed a hundred or so dogs learning about insulin. Now insulin sustains 15 million diabetics. I wish the inventive mind could unravel our animal nature without help like that. It can't. Maybe someday -- but so far, it can't.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Royte, E., Animal Rights: Right or Wrong. Lears, May 1992, pp. 64-67 and 86.

Holden, C., Animal Rightists Trash MSU Lab. Science, 13 March, 1992, p. 1349.

Photo by John Lienhard

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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