Making laboratory animals, and animal laboratories

Recent books have highlighted the advent of synbio (Adam Rutherford), and the future of animals engineered for our amusement (Emily Anthes – which I’ve yet to read). But lets not forget that there is a long history of science using animals for its own purposes, and fashioning them to suit in lower tech ways. Rom Harre reviewed this history entertainingly a few years ago.

Alba, an albino bunny born in February 2000 at France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research, had an unusual trait along with her pink eyes and white fur. Thanks to the addition of a gene for the so-called green fluorescent protein taken from a jellyfish, the rabbit glowed in the dark, sort of. The artist Eduardo Kac, who maintained that she was created at his behest, published a photo of Alba illuminated under ultra-violet light, and apparently glowing green all over.

The ensuing publicity led to a breakdown in the collaboration between Kac and the scientists. The lab director blocked plans to exhibit the bunny as an art project. There were questions about the authenticity of the photo – the gene is not expressed in rabbit fur. But Kac’s image, tweaked or not, highlighted science’s growing ability to fashion animals for its own ends, in this case as an aid to studying cell movements in developing embryos.

Rom Harré’s intriguing book shows how this is part of a long and rich, if often controversial tradition. His topic is not animal experimentation as usually conceived – in developing drugs and vaccines or toxicity testing of chemicals. He is a more interested in living things as part of the material culture of the sciences. As he puts it “Pavlov’s dogs were pieces of apparatus, as much as the arrangements of glassware in the chemistry laboratory or circuits and resistances in the physics laboratory.”

A companion to his equally informative Great Scientific Experiments, published by OUP almost 30 years ago, it is not exactly a popular book – it is, as he says, organised on philosophical lines. But it is a scholarly work with a light touch, with consistently clear explanations of exactly what role living beings played in a particular scientist’s intellectual explorations. The biographies of all the scientists which introduce their work, are mostly minimal, and sometimes add little, but he always has something of interest to say about what they did.

This is not unexplored territory. There is a growing literature on science’s use of other creatures, with studies like Robert Kohler’s Lords of the Fly about Drosophila and Karen Rader’s self-explanatory Making Mice, and popular books on the nematode worm and genetics by Andrew Brown and on a whole range of species which have found uses in studies of heredity in Jim Endersby’s recent Guinea-Pig’s History of Biology. But Harré has a more expansive conception of “living” than any of these. It includes, for instance, Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment in which collapse of a wave function seals the fate of a cat in a box, and Richard Dawkins’ computer-generated biomorphs. With these, one feels, he is stretching a point. Schrödinger’s story of a cat dramatises a feature of the quantum mechanical world, but would work just as well if there was, say, a device inside his imaginary box which boiled an egg, or simply struck a match. Nothing essential about the set-up requires the presence of a living thing.

Similarly, Dawkins’ biomorphs demonstrate the powerful effects of repeated rounds of selection, but could just as easily have been modelled in ways which do not happen to resemble living forms – in fact the general point he wants to make might even come across more effectively that way.

However, this inclusive approach does allow an unusually wide-ranging look at how a large collection of creatures, including humans, has made unwitting contributions to science. As Harré highlights, they have not just been used for testing hypotheses. Living things have been used as detectors – the scientific version of the canary in the cave – a practice now being extended by engineering creatures such as zebra fish to respond to water pollution. They have come in handy as aids to measurement, especially in geology and, more climate sciences. They have been at the centre of innumerable investigations of physiological, biological, medical and evolutionary topics. They have even been the vehicle of one or two notable scientific frauds.

These diverse uses are illustrated with brief treatments of a large collection of scientific episodes, old and new. We meet chimps essaying sign language, Harry Harlow’s maternally deprived rhesus monkeys and Pavlov’s much put-upon dogs. There are glimpses of Mendel’s sweet peas, Peter and Rosemary Grant’s Galapagos finches and Galvani’s frogs. Less expectedly, there are also accounts of uses of lichen and pollen grains, ticks and worms, and an unfortunate mouse with the cartilaginous shape of a human ear grafted onto its back.

The mouse, like Alba the fluorescent bunny – who does not appear in these pages – was as much a stunt as a product of science. That is an aspect of animal use, which Harré does not comment on. But it is hard to think of anything else which escapes him in this diverting and stimulating tour of the ways our efforts to make sense of the world intersect with the things in it which are, or have been, alive. (2008)

(Pavlov’s Dogs and Schrödinger’s Cat: Scenes from the living laboratory

By Rom Harré

Oxford University Press)

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