Curiosity Killed the Clam

Some time ago, a quahog clam was found that was initially thought to be 400 some years old. Nicknamed “Ming,” it’s true age was determined by scientists to be 507 years. But in order for curious scientests to verify Ming’s age, they had to open it, which caused Ming’s death. This anecdote caused me to think about ethics and science. To wit, when curiosity is scientific, is anything and everything justified?

One might, of course, say that the life of a clam, no matter how old, is hardly of much import, and anyway, Ming could as easily have wound up in clam chowder as on a laboratory dissecting table. But Ming didn’t die to nourish anyone else, but rather to satisfy the curiosity of a few scientists. Perhaps we are not aware of the extent to which science, especially biology and medicine, has been and is dependent on killing things.

Charles Darwin, for example, killed a lot of animals, especially birds, on his voyage and sent the skins back to London (his description of killing a fox is especially sad), and Audubon used dead birds, most of whom he had shot himself, as models for his famous paintings (he used wires to pose the corpses). We all know the extent to which animals have been used in all kinds of experiments, some of which (to study diseases) have contributed to human health but others of which seem comparatively trivial (to test cosmetics).

I thinking of one series of experiments by Harry Harlow during the 1960s. To test hypotheses about the role of mother-love in the development of normal adults, he took hours-old baby rhesus monkeys from their birth mothers and put them in cages with two surrogate “mothers,” one a wire form with a feeding bottle, the other with fuzzy cloth but no feeding bottle. Harlow found that the infants spent most of their time with the fuzzy “mother.” He also conducted isolation experiments and found that infant monkeys that grew up without contact or interaction with other monkeys failed to reintegrate into monkey society and also suffered long-term health and behavioral problems. The cruelty of these experiments confounds belief and is made worse by the fact that, had he asked any normal human beings (especially relatively uneducated ones who had not been contaminated by the specious theories of behaviorism) they could have told him that a mother’s love is essential to a child’s development. But of course scientists dismiss such testimony as purely anecdotal and therefore not scientific or worth paying attention to.

But, one might say, these examples involve animals, which don’t have the same degree of rights or consciousness as humans, and it is worth the toll to advance scientific knowledge. But as the psychology of sociopathy tells us (without resort to animal experimentation), cruelty to animals is a precursor to cruelty to other human beings. As was seen in the Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates (and even on disabled German soldiers, their own Aryan countrymen). These experiments were not without their applicable results. The experiments on hypothermia yielded actual, objective, usable facts; and it is a dilemma, whether or not to use the results of such experiments in real life cases of hypothermia.

But the Nazis were evil. Americans would never do such things. Except that Americans have done such things, as in the Tuskegee experiments of 1932 to 1972, conducted by our own Public Health Service, the purpose of which was to track the natural progression of syphilis in a sample of African American men. Deception was resorted to: The subjects had been told they would receive treatment for their disease, but in fact did not. Untreated syphilis exacts a terrible toll on body and mind–a fact which was already known, since before the discovery of antibiotics, lots of people died from that disease. In short, the experiment was as pointless as Harlow’s monkey experiments.

Experimentation continues on larger scales today. A wide variety of chemicals are used in all kinds of products. Plastic bottles leach chemicals into the drinks they contain; insecticides are sprayed on fields and gardens; food additives are shown to be cancer-causing, etc. Recently the FDA called for the total banning of trans fats, which have been widely used in processed foods and which are artificially created rather than natural. Commonplace consumer products contain tens of thousands of chemicals whose safety has never been tested (presumably, on animals). Are we not then conducting massive experiments on human subjects (i.e., ourselves) in our homes, schools, and workplaces every day, waiting to see what will kill or sicken us and what won’t?

I’m not sure I’m that curious.

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