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article imageScientists close to taking the pain out of animal suffering Special

By David Silverberg     Sep 5, 2009 in Science
Neuroscience and genetics research is working on knocking out pain in livestock animals. As contentious as it is to genetically modify animals to make them pain-free, a philosopher believes we have an ethical duty to "keep all options on the table."
It's been a concern for vegetarians, farmers, meat producers and pet owners -- how do we ease the suffering animals face? Several studies and lab tests are progressing to work towards pain-free animals, with a focus trained on livestock cattle. Now a philosopher says in a recent paper we must consider the option of genetically modifying (GM) animals to lessen the pain they feel.
Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, writes in a paper soon to be published in Neuroethics: "Depending on how much of the full range of suffering can be eliminated and a host of other complications, people who are concerned with eliminating unnecessary suffering ought to consider GM livestock a serious option."
He goes on to say that reducing the capacity for pain in animals through genetics research "would lead to a world in which there is much less unnecessary suffering."
Shriver has some science to back up his argument. Mice lacking a gene called Nav1.7 are not as sensitive than normal mice to heat and pressure.
It's been long posited that pain neurons are situation in the brain's anterior cingulate cortex. Those with lesions in this area aren't affected by pain, but they can't understand why.
A recent study showed that rats with ACC damage behaved as though they were less affected by pain. Also, last year a research found a gene expressed almost exclusively in the ACC called P311. Mice without P311 recoiled from heat and pressure. So when the researchers taught their mice to associate a region of their pen with a painful formalin injection, normal mice quickly avoided that area, while those lacking P311 kept returning.
In his paper, Shriver claims that things occasionally go wrong and animals are not immediately killed. He adds, "eliminating the affective component of pain would almost certainly prevent a great deal of suffering." interviewed Shriver about his argument and found out about the health risks of pain-free genetics and academia's response to the idea.
DJ: What interested you in delving into this topic?
Adam Shriver: I have been a vegetarian since the age of five, when my mom read Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation, so have for most of my life been aware of the consequences of eating meat. From a pretty early age I thought quite a bit about the question of how similar human suffering is to that of other species.
One of the crucial ideas in my article is the fact that you can dissociate the sensory dimension of pain (that responsible for the intensity, the modality, and the ability to localize) from the affective dimension of pain (the "unpleasantness" of the pain sensation). The first time I heard this idea was reading philosopher Daniel Dennett's paper "Why You Can't Build a Computer That Feels Pain" in an undergraduate class at Iowa State University. The idea of having a pain but not minding it fascinated me.
Then, at Texas A&M while getting my Master's degree, I heard a talk by Psychologist Perry Fuchs where he described an experiment where they appeared to be dissociating the affective and sensory dimensions of pain in mice. I had two great instructors at Texas A&M who were interested in similar questions, Gary Varner and Colin Allen, and I ended up writing my Master's thesis on the question of whether mammals experience pain in a way similar to humans, relying heavily on neuroscience.
Finally, in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology program at Washington University in St. Louis, I started attending the journal club at the Anesthesiology department. I realized that a lot of the really interesting research on pain was at the cellular level, and I took a course in cellular and molecular neuroscience at the medical school. As I was taking the course, I was reading a lot of very interesting articles from Dr. Min Zhou, who was studying a part of the brain that plays an important role in the affective dimension of pain, the anterior cingulate cortex. I was reading about the subtle manipulations he used in his experiments and suddenly realized that there could be important policy implications if these techniques could be extended to animals in other circumstances.
I actually think its very interesting that there has been so little discussion of this idea previously. Scientists are doing genetic manipulations all the time, but I think the idea of knocking out pain as a policy suggestion is not really focused on because the vast majority of pain research is done with the intention of finding ways of alleviating human pain, and society in general is clearly not comfortable with the idea of genetically engineering humans.
DJ: It's been found there is little public support for knocking out pain receptors in animals, as evidenced by an online survey conducted by Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Your reaction?
Philosopher Adam Shriver
Philosopher Adam Shriver
Courtesy Adam Shriver
AS: most people said that we shouldn't bio-engineer animals who don't feel pain. However, if we already "have" bio-engineered animals that don't feel pain, many people felt like we would have a moral obligation to use those animals rather than animals that did feel pain.
I feel like these results are very much like a political poll early in the race. It is important data; however, there's a lot of room for people's opinions to change. There are a lot of potential reasons people might have for thinking that we shouldn't create pain-free animals. Some of these might be worries that no matter what we do, the animals are really suffering in some way. Some might be worried that this could pose health risks to humans. Some might be worried that if you eliminate the ability to feel pain you will also eliminate the ability to feel pleasure. I think these types of worries are all based on scientific questions, and if you could show that yes it really is possible to have animals that are almost identical to normal animals, in fact able to even enjoy the world just as much as normal animals, yet are only lacking the ability to suffer, then people would be much more receptive to the idea.
On the other hand, people might have worries about genetic engineering as a whole. This might come into conflict with certain religious traditions. My hunch is that people's aversion to genetic engineering as a whole will probably decrease over time, but that remains to be seen.
Ultimately, I'd say that it is an argument that takes a lot of explaining. I presented the paper to an environmental ethics class last semester. At the end of the presentation, while the proposal was definitely not supported by a majority of students, a significant number of people agreed.
DJ: You implore us to keep options on the table. Do you see the greater scientific or philosophical movement not doing so? Do you believe they are close-minded or open-minded to this concept?
AS: I think the scientific and academic community is fairly open-minded to discussing ideas like this. I do think the initial suggestion tends to make people uncomfortable, but I've found academia to be willing to discuss and debate ideas if those ideas are supported by arguments. I've tried to address most of the reactions people initially have in the full article at Neuroethics. The reason I emphasized keeping options on the table is because, since this is ultimately a suggestion about policy, I see it as having a broader audience than just the academic community, and I know from experience that most people are a little shocked by the proposal.
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