Mouse ethics, the taming of a monster

0 Posted by - December 1, 2007 - English, proefschrift

Chapter 2

Dualism, or dilemma thinking, is the enemy of compromise and the archenemy of the middle way. As long as people schematize the issue of genetic engineering of animals as “all is permitted”’ versus “nothing is permitted”’, rational social progress on the issue is impossible. What is demanded therefore is a fair description of the issues, one that separates genuine moral questions from spurious ones, dissects out real concerns from obfuscatory rhetoric, and lays bare truly fundamental areas of concern[1].

 

Bernard E. Rollin

 There invariably are moral claims of welfare, respect, justice and the human and natural good at play in particular situations of animal biotechnological practice, but the fabric or constellation of these claims may significantly shift from context to context. What might be ethically permissible in the biomedical laboratory might be prohibited on farms, in the market place, or in the wild. But in each context all things morally relevant need explicitly to be considered and given their due[2].

 Strachan Donelly

Introduction

 

The social and moral debate on mouse biotechnology

Just a few years after the first transgenic mice were born (1980-1981), the debate over the moral and social issues of animal biotechnology gained momentum. When Bernard Rollin published the paper he had presented at the First International Conference on Genetic Engineering of Animals, he was surprised to discover that this was actually the first publication on the social and moral issues of animal biotechnology (Rollin 1995). With the publishing of this paper (entitled The Frankenstein thing) in 1986, the transgenic mouse ‘entered’ bioethical discourse. In his paper, Rollin argues that both scientists and the general public are usually unable to sort out the genuine moral issues emerging from the practice of animal biotechnology. Concerns that have nothing to do with animal suffering, in Rollin’s view the only genuine moral issue at stake, he refers to as ‘the Frankenstein thing’: the intuitive belief that animal biotechnology is one of those things ‘man is not meant to do’. Nine years later, Rollin published The Frankenstein Syndrome, ethical and social issues in the genetic engineering of animals, the book in which he further developed his ideas (Rollin 1995). Rollin was not only the first to write about animal biotechnology, he also became one of the most influential writers on the topic. His highly provocative ideas, notably about the creation of chickens that would be happy to live in battery cages because their nesting instincts had been eliminated by means of genetic modification, evoked many responses from the bioethics community.

In addition to Rollin’s The Frankenstein Syndrome, three other influential academic books on the social and moral aspects of animal biotechnology were published in the 1990s: The Bio-revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora’s box (Wheale and McNally 1990); Animal genetic engineering, of pigs, oncomice and men (Wheale and McNally 1995); and Animal Biotechnology and Ethics (Holland and Johnson 1998). Together, these books give a good impression of how the debate on the social and moral aspects of animal biotechnology took shape. As the title of the first volume (The Bio-revolution, etc.) reveals, mixed feelings about animal biotechnology abounded in the 1990s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scientists and experts from the food industry had high expectations about the genetic engineering of farm animals used for consumption. But, as the BST affair showed, public acceptance of farm animal biotechnology was very low (Rollin 1995). The contents of The Bio-revolution reflect these concerns about the genetic engineering of farm animals. Animal genetic engineering, of pigs, oncomice and men also includes a section on the genetic engineering of laboratory animals and a section on the patenting of transgenic animals. In this book various bio-ethical notions that have become central to the debate on animal biotechnology are already discussed: the telos concept, the notion of intrinsic value, quality of life and animal integrity. These notions are also central in the overview of the ethical debate presented in Animal Biotechnology and Ethics in 1998.

In short, the ethical debate about animal biotechnology focuses on animal welfare and the supposed unnaturalness of animal biotechnology. Roughly, it comes down to two major questions: (1) Do the benefits of animal biotechnology outweigh the harm done to the animals?; and (2) Is animal biotechnology unnatural and therefore immoral? The benefits of the animal experiments are put forward by the proponents of animal biotechnology, usually the scientists themselves (e.g. Dzierzak 1995). Animal welfare issues, on the other hand, are raised by animal ethicists who strive for the protection of (laboratory) animals (e.g. Ryder 1990; Fox 1990). Finally, worries about the unnaturalness are expressed by authors who question the rights of humans to alter the blueprint of life, either because they feel creation or nature is sacred; or because they think that the genome of a species should be left in peace for holistic reasons (Verhoog 1992; Fox 1990); or because they fear that in the long run humans will be incapable of controlling the outcome of biotechnology (Mayer 1995).

Three never-converging tracks

In an article about the invisibility of animals in animal experimentation, Jacky Turner speaks about ‘three never-converging tracks’. On the first of these tracks, animals are seen as ‘disposable mechanisms and materials for research’. On the second track, concern for animals as the ‘cute, the wild or the furry’ is the key issue, while on the third and final track a ‘muted discussion about whether we should be doing all this anyway’ is taking place (Turner, 1998). In the debate about animal biotechnology, three similar tracks emerge. On the first track, there is a discussion about the promises of biotechnology to cure us from life-threatening diseases; on the second track a discussion about animal suffering and animal welfare; and, finally, on the third track a discussion on whether we humans have any right at all to tamper with genes or to ‘play God’. Along these three ‘never-converging tracks’ of animal biotechnology, different and even incompatible images of mice seem to appear. On the first track, the mouse appears as a high-tech laboratory tool, the best scientific model to study human diseases imaginable. On the second track, we see the mouse as an animal imaginable made of flesh and blood, a victim of science. A scientific ‘trial’ is literally a ‘trial’ in the sense of an ‘ordeal’. The third track is the most complicated one. It comprises both the mouse as a monster (resembling Frankenstein’s prototype) and a more positive, but equally challenging, image: that of the mouse as the pioneer species of the new world of biotechnology.

If there are so many different and apparently incompatible mouse images, then is it possible at all to find an unequivocal answer to the question; What exactly is the genetically engineered mouse? And. if not, can at least some consensus about the moral meaning of the genetic engineering of mice be reached? How should we deal with the genetically engineered mouse? What are the key issues that lie at the heart of the moral and social debate about animal biotechnology? How do researchers, in particular those who are members of animal ethics committees, deal with these issues?

In order to answer these questions, I will reconstruct the moral debate about animal biotechnology along the three different tracks mentioned above. In the following sections I describe the different mouse images that appear along these tracks in more detail. I base my reconstruction on two types of documents, two sources. On the one hand, I will focus on the writings of philosophers who participate in the debate, but I will also rely on publications by biomedical scientists. In this latter discourse, much emphasis is placed on animals as research tools, but also on animal welfare issues. I will flesh out how the articulation of the moral and social aspects of animal biotechnology differs on each track.

The first track is dominated by the scientific perspective. Here the genetic engineering of mice is seen as a more or less standard laboratory technology that plays an important role in a scientific understanding of genetics and genetic diseases in particular. The animal suffering involved is taken as a necessary evil, to be mitigated no doubt (by technological means: that is, by ‘refinement’, see below), but in a manner comparable to the way scientists treat other instruments, that is with care. The moral significance of these mice is that they help scientists to unravel the genetics of human diseases.

On the second track, we have the individual animal’s interests in mind, and welfare aspects become relevant. Genetically modified or not, these mice have the same needs and interests as ordinary mice. They feel and behave like ordinary laboratory mice. In discussing the mouse images on these two tracks, I will argue that the technology as such, that is, the modification of the mouse’s genome, does not seem to be of decisive moral relevance. It is the effect on the individual animal’s welfare that is morally problematic.

This takes me to the central point in my argumentation, a point that is put forward by Bernard Rollin. Why not, as he invites us to do, solve this problem with biotechnology and ‘genetically turn off’ the animal’s ability to suffer? It is here that moral objections that stem from the third track emerge. In discussing the ‘Rollin chicken debate’ (focusing on key authors such as Fox, Verhoog, Bovenkerk et al., and Rutgers and Heeger), I will argue that the current bioethical debate is stuck somewhere at the crossroads between the second and third track, unable to bring about any convergence between the two perspectives. According to Rollin, only welfare issues are morally relevant. Other objections are, as he argues, merely aesthetic. Many other philosophers have strong objections to this way of reasoning, since there is clearly more at stake in animal biotechnology than animal welfare: issues such as ‘integrity’ or ‘naturalness’. But these ideas are intimately connected with our vision of nature. Therefore, they are difficult to explain and to discuss. In day-to-day practice, a utilitarian balance between human benefits and animal welfare seems to be the dominant ethical framework, for both biomedical scientists and members of animal experimentation committees. Yet, sooner or later, discontent with such an approach stimulates authors to open up alternative perspectives: a third track. Why this is the case can be explained using Martijntje Smits’s monster theory. I will argue that, to many people, the genetically modified mouse, despite its general use in the biomedical laboratory and its apparent domestication, is still a ‘monster’.

Part One: Images of the mouse and their moral meaning

First track: The invisible mouse

As we saw in the previous chapter, scientists like to present the genetically engineered mouse as the best laboratory animal available (Clarke 2002). It is the top dog of the biomedical laboratory, an indispensable tool for investigators in many areas of biomedical research (Boguski 2002). With the help of transgenic mice, scientists can study human diseases in animal models that mimic these diseases more closely than any other scientific model imaginable, except Homo sapiens himself. In the words of Kenneth Paigan, former Director of the Jackson laboratories: ‘The mouse has become our surrogate. It is the creature we turn to do experiments, so important in reaching an understanding of ourselves, that are either technically impossible or morally inconceivable in human subjects’ (Paigen 1995: 215). The genetically engineered mice embody promises of new therapies and medicines that may cure us from life-threatening diseases. These mice, as the living promise of modern biotechnology, give hope to patients. According to some researchers, genetically engineered mice are our only hope to find a cure for cancer. That the mouse represents a promise is also noticed by philosophers. ‘They promise to transform scientific and biomedical research, medical therapies and health care, economic markets [..], if not the rest of our lives. They augur a new era of human existence and well-being’ (Donelly 1994: S14).From this perspective, these mice represent the faith we have in the progress in biomedical science and salvation from human physical suffering. The mice are sacrificed in order to improve our lives. In that sense, the genetically engineered mouse is a potential hero, an animal that (figuratively speaking) puts its life at risk and suffers for the benefit of all. If we find a cure for cancer, we owe it to the mouse. The mouse is one of scientist’s greatest allies (Clarke 2002). It is a brave soldier that helps scientists in their search to find cures for life-threatening diseases.

In contrast with the image of the mouse as a brave soldier, but using the same metaphor of the battlefield, the mouse also appears as ‘the unknown soldier’. Seen this way, the mouse is an animal without a name, without an identity, merely a means to an end. Turner speaks about laboratory animals as the disposable mechanisms and materials for research (Turner 1998). This description is justified by the sheer number of mice involved in medical research and the scientific, statistical, and molecular gaze that so detachedly studies these animals. Researchers usually have no interest for the animal as such. They are only interested in specific parts, the expression of specific genes in particular organs. After the removal of these parts of interest, cells are examined in test tubes or Petri dishes, and gazed upon with the aid of microscopes. In the laboratory, the researchers study microscopic cells that, once outside the body, no longer refer to the mouse from which these cells were taken. The remainder (the dead mouse) is disposed of as mere waste material.

On the first track, that of the disposable mechanisms and mechanisms for research, a complex image of the genetically engineered mouse appears. On the one hand, the mouse is presented as disposable material, while, on the other, the genetically engineered mouse is praised as a hero, a brave soldier, the living promise of biotechnology. Both are extreme images of the genetically engineered mice and only show a part of the total picture. They reveal a great deal about the practice of biomedical science, but very little about the living animals that are used. In this process of technification and glorification, the living animals that are the central source of information and research data in the biomedical laboratory become invisible. This process can be observed by examining the language used in scientific reports. As Turner states, ’animals used in experiments are conventionally referred to in scientific reports with no more recognition of their sentient existence than if they were inanimate items of laboratory equipment’ (Turner 1998: 29). Maybe this is even more the case for the creation of high-tech genetically engineered mice. When Paul Orban and his group reported about the Cre-Lox technology, they explained that they ‘sought to generate a transgenic mouse system that would establish whether Cre could effectively mediate chromosomal DNA recombination’ [italics mine] (Orban et al. 1992: 6681). Masaru Okabe who created the first ‘green mice’ refers to his experiments as ‘the production of mouse lines’ [italics mine](Okabe et al. 1997).

This is not to say that scientists do not see the mice they use, but rather that, from a strictly scientific perspective, the mice themselves are irrelevant. Palmiter and Brinster, after creating the giant mice, promise that ‘optimizing the condition for integration and gene expression of foreign genes in mice should facilitate the [..] application in other animals’ (Palmiter et al. 1982: 614). The scientific value of the genetically engineered mouse is that of a system, a model, a mouse line, or, in brief, a tool. The challenge of the scientist is to make the mouse into the best molecular model or system of (human) genetics imaginable. Of course, this may imply that this system is to be handled with care, but basically for technical reasons. The genetically engineered mouse itself has disappeared under this ‘molecular gaze’. In the scientific journals, the mouse is referred to by a number, the code name that reveals its genetic modification. The genetically engineered mouse has become an artifact, a man-made laboratory tool.

Another aspect of the invisibility of the animals, that Turner observes in scientific writing is the assumption of the unavoidable necessity of animal experiments (Turner 1998). ‘Nearly every paper or research news article involving animal experiments makes a ritual bow in the first paragraph or the abstract to a human disease or health problem’, she writes. However, a surprisingly common ending to these articles is of the form: ‘The question remains, how relevant are these findings to human beings?‘ (Turner 1998: 33). In this respect, experiments with genetically engineered mice do not differ from other animal experiments. On the one hand, this has to do with stereotypical forms of legitimating animal experiments; on the other hand, this uncertainty about clinical applications is an inherent part of science in general and of animal experiments in particular. Animal experiments always precede clinical studies. The results of clinical tests on real patients cannot be built into reports of animal studies simply because they have not yet been conducted. After the conclusions are drawn, based on the animal trials, relevance of the research still remains an open question.

Most researchers involved in the genetic engineering of mice will no doubt have sincere motives. They will genuinely believe that one way or another their research efforts will help biomedicine to effectively address health problems such as AIDS or cancer. At the same time, they have to be realistic, in the sense that the creation of the ultimate research model that might lead to a cure for cancer or AIDS is still a long way off. A good example of an over-optimistic view on the progress of science as a result of mouse research is Mice make medical history, a response to the breaking news of the cracking of the mouse genome, published by Tom Clarke in Nature’s Internet news service: ‘An army of mice, perhaps 25 million strong, each day helps researchers worldwide to study and devise treatments for human ailments such as cancer, heart disease, AIDS and malaria. Mice are helping to unravel mysteries of biology, such as why we grow old. Discoveries made using mice have netted 17 Nobel Prizes, and more will undoubtedly follow’ (Clarke 2002[3]).                                                              

Second track: The mouse that suffers

On the second track, that of the wild, the cute and the furry, the genetically engineered mouse appears primarily as a victim of science, an animal that suffers from being subjected to biotechnology and deserves some form of protection against this practice. It is the image of the mouse made of flesh and blood, the effort to make visible again the animal that became invisible in the scientific representation of the mouse. On this track, what we see is the phenotype of the mouse; its genetic code no longer matters. We look at the consequences of the genetic modification, so to speak, from ‘the animal’s point of view’. One of the most important arguments against animal biotechnology is that the animals might suffer from it, that their welfare is at stake.

According to the members of the Joint Working Group on Refinement, the use of genetically modified mice is of serious concern from an animal welfare standpoint (Joint Working Group on Refinement 2003). This is not just because of the numbers of animals involved (current transgenic technologies are inherently inefficient in terms of the numbers of mice used in relation to the number of founder genetically modified mice ultimately obtained, prior to these animals being conventionally bred). It is also because of the surgery and other invasive techniques associated with it and the deleterious effect that genetic modification can have on animal welfare. In particular, female mice used as providers of fertilized eggs or as embryo recipients undergo procedures, such as surgery, that can cause pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm (ibid.). In the case of donor mothers, (by egg donation), discomfort is caused by superovulation and the subsequent killing to collect the eggs[4]. In the case of the foster-mothers, discomfort is caused by laparotomy after mating with sterile males. Discomfort also occurs when females that in nature are too young are forced to mate with often much bigger and aggressive males. The sterile males used to cause a ‘pseudopregnancy’ with the foster mothers, have in many cases undergone vasectomy.

In addition, genetic modification as such can also compromise animal welfare by exposing animals to pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm. This may be intentional (as a result of the genetic modification introduced) or unintentional (through the disruption of gene function by random integration of the transgene into the genome, ibid.). Perhaps the animal will suffer pain as a consequence of the modification of its genome, or perhaps it will be seriously deformed. Transgenic mice are usually designed as animal models for a human disease. This means that the animals are genetically programmed to become ill. Doing harm to the animal’s welfare is not only inevitable; it is the very aim of these interventions. As a result some mice will suffer from being genetically engineered. However, for the individual laboratory mouse, it will not make much difference whether it suffers as a result of a genetic modification or as a result of another type of animal experiment. The same rules of animal care apply to genetically modified and otherwise modified mice. From a ‘second track perspective’, the intrinsic value[5] of a genetically engineered mouse is equal to that of an ordinary or ‘wild type’ (laboratory) mouse. To the individual mouse it is irrelevant whether it is transgenic or genetically modified: it ‘feels’ and behaves like a mouse and has mouse needs and interests.

Within scientific practice, there is a long tradition of discussing and developing ethical guidelines and codes of practice for the use of laboratory animals. This discussion is influenced by the works of animal ethicists, in particular by the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan. To Peter Singer the most important reason to respect the rights of animals is that they have feelings and can suffer pain. Singer speaks about sentience in this respect: ‘The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all’ (Singer 1989: 78-79). If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. Tom Regan argues for animal rights on the basis of the principle that an animal is an ‘experiencing subject of life’. According to Regan, those who are the experiencing subjects of life have inherent moral value (Regan 1989: 112). And, according to the definition of Regan, all mammals fall into the category of being a subject of life. Because the animal is aware of the fact that it lives, it has a moral status. In their writings, Singer and Regan have pointed out that animals have characteristics that justify us to consider animals as being morally respectable.

Long before Peter Singer published his Animal Liberation (1975), Russell and Burch formulated the most influential guiding principles for the use of laboratory animals. In order to ‘remove inhumanity’ from the laboratory, they introduced the three R’s: replacement, reduction, and refinement. ‘Replacement means the substitution for conscious living higher animals by insentient material. Reduction means reduction in the numbers of animals used to obtain information of a given amount and precision. Refinement means any decrease in the incidence or severity of inhumane procedures applied to those animals which still have to be used’ (Russell and Burch 1959: Chapter 4[6]). These key principles in laboratory animal ethics also apply to the genetic engineering of mice. When planning an animal experiment with genetically engineered mice, scientists should always first investigate seriously whether it is possible to conduct an alternative experiment that does not require the use of animals. Secondly, they should always try use the smallest number of mice that is statistically possible. And, last but not least, if no alternative is available, they should always seek to design the experiment in the most mouse-friendly way.

Some animal experiments involving biotechnology will, according to the three R’s, be more ‘mouse-friendly’ than others. If one compares the genetically modified mouse to the ‘wild type’ inbred mouse, the former is not always worse off. The new technologies are in many cases more mouse-friendly. Take, for example, clinical test where genetically modified mouse models are used with inducible promoters. These mouse models are more refined than the classical mouse models. They mimic human diseases better and are therefore more reliable. The onset of a disease can be studied in a controlled manner. An example of an improvement of technology that led to reduction of animal numbers is the use of fluorescence gene markers. This technique means that a visible marker is added to the gene of interest. The gene expression can be followed in such a mouse in real time over a longer period. Because the development of the illness can be followed in the same mouse over an extended period of time, researchers need smaller numbers of mice than before to answer the same question in a statistically reliable way. This is why Jeffery Burkhardt can argue that ‘biotechnology is perhaps the best for animals’ (Burkhardt 1998: 117).

In spite of the positive effect on the number of mice needed for a single experiment, the estimate is that the number of mice used in biomedical research will nevertheless increase as a result of the genetic engineering technologies. Some predict that the new possibilities of gene technology will result in an explosion in the number of laboratory mice. For each gene there will be a scientist who wants to study its function in a knock-out or otherwise genetically modified mouse. In his commentary in Nature, on the publication of mouse genome sequence, Bradley predicts that ‘the avalanche of the (mouse) genome sequence will be followed by an explosion of mutant mice’ (Bradley 2002: 514). That the genetically engineered mice will never offer an alternative to (replacement) animal experiments needs no further explanation. The genetically engineered mouse models are perhaps more refined and will result in the use of a lower number animals than the classical research models, but they are still based on using living laboratory animals.

At the crossroads: ‘The Rollin chicken’ debate

The image of the living mouse, with mouse needs and interests and the ability to suffer from biotechnology, is hard to reconcile with the image of the laboratory mouse as a disposable mechanism or material for research. It is as if we are standing on two different tracks simultaneously, or at a crossroads. On the one track, we see an animal we have to take good care of as we keep it in captivity. On the other track, we see a valuable laboratory tool that helps us in our investigations into the mysteries of genetic diseases. The genetically engineered mouse is a living artifact. Between the ‘cute and the furry’ living animal and the ‘man-made’ laboratory tool there seems to be an unbridgeable gap. However, it is the responsibility of the researchers and the animal ethics committees to somehow make a trade-off between the two. The benefits of the experiments, the promise of the mouse experiments, have to be weighed against the animal suffering involved. The key question in laboratory animal ethics is: ‘Does the benefit of the animal experiment outweigh the harm done to animal?’ In order to cope with the tension between doing harm to the animal (wrongdoing) and the benefits of science (utility), the mouse is reduced to an abstract or idealized life form or, as Turner argues, made invisible. Another solution to the necessary animal suffering can perhaps be found in biotechnology itself. If, for the individual animal, only welfare issues are morally relevant, then why not, genetically turn off its capability to suffer? This would be a first-track solution to the second track-problem. This question lies at the heart of the ‘Rollin chicken debate’.

In order to ‘pass between the horns of the dilemma regarding chronically defective, suffering, genetically engineered animals’ and ‘the principle of conservation of welfare’ in the case of creating genetically engineered mouse models, Rollin suggests that it is necessary ‘to obliterate all subjective experience’, that is, ‘to totally eliminate consciousness’ in the mouse. One possible way of achieving such a mouse model could be by genetically engineering ‘these animals both to be a research model and to be born decerebrate’ (Rollin 1995: 205). With this ‘solution’ Rollin follows the same line of reasoning as he did in his ‘chicken’ example. In his 1986 paper, he first suggested creating a chicken deprived of its nesting instinct by turning off of the gene that codes for the drive to nest. This gene can be substituted by a gene that will allow the chicken to be satisfied with merely laying her eggs in a cage. Such a chicken, Rollin argued, would not need a nest when laying eggs. Being happy to lay eggs in a cage, this chicken would not suffer from being a battery cage chicken (Rollin 1995: 172).

To Michael Fox, however, the creation of such animals amounts to a highly disputable proposition.[7] Expressing his disgust, he refers to Rollin’s chicken experiment as ‘a potentially misleading eugenic idealism’ (Fox 1990: 34). In reply to Rollin, he introduces the telos concept. The telos or ‘beingness’ of an animal is ‘its intrinsic nature coupled with the environment in which it is able to develop and experience life’ (Fox 1990: 32). What Rollin is suggesting to do with the chicken is telos-violating and therefore immoral. Interestingly, telos is also one of the key concepts for Rollin when discussing animal biotechnology. At first sight, he seems to have a similar definition of telos: ‘the set of needs and interest, physical and psychological, genetically encoded and environmentally expressed which make up the animal’s nature’ (Rollin 1989: 295). In 1995 Rollin more or less gives the same definition. ‘As ordinary people know well, animals too have natures, genetically based, physically and psychologically expressed which determine how they live in their environments. Following Aristotle, I call this the telos of an animal, the pigness of a pig, the dogness of a dog –“fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly”’ (Rollin 1995: 159). How is it possible that two philosophers using the same notion come to such different conclusions about the moral acceptability of animal biotechnology?

The reason why these two authors articulate such diverging moral reasonings concerning the chicken experiment is because they stand on two separate tracks. Rollin discusses the fate of the chicken while focusing on the interests of the individual animal. He is standing, so to say, on the track of the cute, the furry and the feathery in this respect. On this track, only animal welfare is relevant. Rollin’s chicken is, according to its re-engineered telos, no longer able to suffer. It is exactly for this reason that Rollin sees no moral objections to the genetic engineering of the chicken. ‘If genetic engineering is used to genuinely suit the animal to its stipulated environment, and therefore eliminate the friction between telos and the environment which clearly results in suffering, boredom, pain, stress and disease, and this conduces to the animal’s happiness, it does not appear morally problematic’ (Rollin 1986: 296). In 1995, he adds that: ‘If the animal could be made happier by changing their natures, I see no problem in doing so [..]. Telos is not sacred; what is sacred are the interests that follow from it’ (Rollin 1995: 171-2).

Fox, however, who refers to harmony and the unity between the animal and its environment, is standing on a third track, where the effects of animal biotechnology on the animal’s ‘nature’ are emphasised. The kind of animal proposed by Rollin is, in important respects, no longer a chicken. To Fox it is not only relevant that the animal is not suffering; it is also relevant that Rollin’s artifact no longer functions like a ‘normal’ animal in a ‘natural’ environment. ‘The organism and its environment are one, and we recognize that unity and harmony as health and the full expression of the animal’s telos. The telos is in part preconditioned for and dependent upon a particular environmental niche and optimal conditions for its normal development and expression, which in turn means health and fulfillment for the animal’ (Fox 1990: 34). The debate between Fox and Rollin is not really a debate in the sense of ‘exchange or arguments’. Rather, they are arguing along the lines of two completely different, never converging tracks. We might consider this an example of what Lyotard (1983) has called a ‘différend’. On the one track, the focus is on the suffering and well-being of the individual animal, while, on the other, the focus is on the significance of the animal as part a larger whole, a natural world where different species have their unique place. A trade off between the second and third track seems hardly possible.

The problematic position of Rollin at this bifurcation is well expressed by Henk Verhoog who asks: ‘How can we get to know that transgenic animals show abnormal behavior, or that they suffer, when the animal’s ‘telos’ is changed through genetic engineering?’ (Verhoog 1992: 272). What is happening in Rollin’s example of the chicken without the urge to nest, is that the telos is replaced by a new telos which is intentionally designed by humans. But what is the meaning of telos if it does not refer to anything outside human action? Something that belongs to the animal as such, something that is given? According to Verhoog this is where Rollin goes wrong. Taking the concept of telos seriously means that we have to refer to the idea of species-specific behaviour in a particular habitat. ‘To have a nature of its own is unthinkable without taking into account the species to which the animal belongs’ (Verhoog 1992: 272). Accepting that the animal’s species-specific nature may be changed by genetic engineering will in the long run undermine the very foundation of Rollin’s theory, Verhoog argues. If telos is simply the equivalent of the genetic program, it has no value in the moral assessment of animal biotechnology. Telos can only be of moral relevance if it refers to something outside the individual animal, something that is given by nature.

Precisely at this point something interesting occurs in Rollin’s line of reasoning. Somewhere between 1995 and 1998, he realises that the reference to nature (a notion that clearly has a normative dimension according to some philosophers) in his telos definition is problematic. In his 1998 definition he therefore replaces ‘nature’ with ‘genetic program’. ‘The telos of an animal means the set of needs and interests, which are genetically based and environmentally expressed, and which collectively constitute or divine the form of life or way or living exhibited by that animal and whose fulfillment or thwarting matter to the animal’. In order to emphasise that only welfare is relevant he adds that ‘the fulfillment matters positively to the animal and brings happiness’ and that the ‘thwarting matters in a negative way and brings suffering’ (Rollin 1998:162). Nature is irrelevant, because, as he explains, ’strictly speaking, as Aristotle points out, individuals do not have natures’. According to Rollin, we may see telos ‘neither as eternally fixed’ as did Aristotle, ‘nor as a stop action snapshot of a permanently dynamic process as did Darwin, but rather as something infinitely malleable by human hands’ (Rollin 1998:157). For Rollin there are no fundamental moral objections against the genetic engineering of animals. The only relevant question is whether or not animals will suffer from the genetic modification. No wonder that Rollin speaks about win-win situations when discussing the creation of animals that have no consciousness (Rollin 1995: 183). To Rollin the third track is simply morally irrelevant. It is based on misguided emotions; it is ‘the Frankenstein thing’. This does not mean that Rollin sees no objections to this type of experiments. Only they are not moral objections, they are aesthetic objections (Rollin 1995: 175; Rollin 1998: 168). People simply prefer to see chickens brooding on a nest.

Animal integrity and the species concept

With his ‘chicken experiment’ and his suggestion of creating a decerebrate mouse model for biomedical studies Rollin has challenged many philosophers to point out what it is other than animal welfare that is at stake in animal biotechnology. Most people seem to reject this type of experiments and do not believe that their objections are merely aesthetic. As Bovenkerk and colleagues note: ‘Rollin’s concept of interest is too narrow to analyze our moral intuition’ (Bovenkerk et al. 2002: 17). In order to bridge the gap between, on the one hand, the existing moral theory (an animal ethics largely based on the notion of animal welfare) and, on the other, our moral intuitions (suggesting that creating this type of chickens is morally unacceptable), the term ‘integrity’ has been introduced in the animal biotechnology debate by Bart Rutgers and Robert Heeger. They defined ‘integrity’ has as ‘the wholeness and intactness of the animal and its species-specific balance, as well as the capacity of the animal to sustain itself in an environment suitable to the species’ (Rutgers and Heeger 1999: 45). The attractiveness of this notion, which is reminiscent of Rollin’s concept of telos (in particular, the older definition from 1989) and Fox’s definition, is that it applies both to the second track of the cute and furry (on which the individual animal’s welfare issues are taken into account) and to the third track (where the effects of animal biotechnology on nature as a whole are discussed). ‘According to the definition, integrity refers to both the individual and the species’ (Rutgers and Heeger 1999: 45). The notion of animal integrity has both dimensions: a concern for the welfare of the individual animal and a reference to its ‘given’ nature.

To philosophers like Verhoog, Rutgers and Heeger in the Netherlands and Alan Holland in the UK, the species notion is an important frame of reference in the moral assessment of animal biotechnology (Verhoog 1992, Rutgers and Heeger 1999, Holland 1998). For Rollin, this remains a peculiar line of reasoning. ‘Can we harm or violate a species?’, he asks rhetorically (Rollin 1995: 35). His answer is clear: ‘Species cannot be harmed because they are not sentient, only members of some species (notably vertebrates) are’ (Rollin 1995: 35). Another difficulty of the species notion is that there are many different definitions, and these are used simultaneously in the debate. According to the biologist Ernst Mayr, there are at least three different interpretations of the species concept (Mayr 2002). The first is the traditional typological species concept, referred to by philosophers as ‘natural kinds’. In this definition, ‘species’ refers to a more or less constant type, separated from other species by a clear demarcation. In a second species concept, ‘species’ is understood as a group of organisms with the same properties and a common descriptive name. The third and most dominant species concept is what is called biological species concept, defined by Mayr as ‘groups of interbreeding populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups’ (Mayr, 2002). In addition to the species concepts that stem from the natural sciences, there is a variety of species concepts that are not based on biology, such as the biblical notion of a species. In contrast to the Darwinian dynamic vision of a species, the biblical species concept is rather static species.

Whether or not the violation of a species is regarded as problematic depends (amongst other things) on the choice of a particular definition of a species. When Rutgers and Heeger speak about species-specific behaviour, they refer to a concept of a species that belongs to Mayr’s second type. Verhoog proposes to view species as natural kinds. They all refer to species as a particular way of being and appearing, which animals of the same type share on the basis of their nature. If we perceive this nature as morally relevant, then the violation of a species is morally relevant. But, if we view the species as ‘a momentary organization of a certain chunk of information’ (Verhoog 1992: 273, quoting Shapiro), the genetic engineering of animals, in terms of violating species, cannot be regarded as morally problematic. When the definition ‘interbreeding population’ is used, as Rollin does, most forms of genetic modification do not violate the nature or integrity of a species. A genetically modified mouse with human genes inserted in its genome can still reproduce itself by mating with a wild type mouse. Therefore, to Rollin the violation of species is not an object for moral concern. But why should Rollin’s definition be more adequate and of greater moral relevance that the phylogenetic definitions, or other definitions, based on other theoretical frameworks? (Verhoog 1992: 276). To non-biologists, the species concept is not a biological concept, but rather a cultural concept, it refers to a particular recognisable entity that forms a meaningful whole that we can observe and recognise immediately for what it is, we simply see which individuals belong to a specific species. This assumes a totally different perspective on nature and on species than the ‘objective’ species concept of the natural scientist.

Part Two: The ‘thing’ about animal biotechnology

The mouse that challenges ‘nature’

If animal welfare were the only relevant aspect of animal biotechnology it would be difficult to object to a genetic modification if that modification had a beneficial impact on the animal’s well-being, or if the capacity to feel pain were to be eliminated, as in the extreme case of Rollin’s decerebrate mouse. Yet, most people intuitively seem to have strong moral objections to this type of biotechnology. To most people the image of the Rollin chicken, or a decerebrate laboratory animal, is an abject image. That is not to say that they reject such an image merely for aesthetic reasons, as Rollin suggests. With his thought experiment about the chicken, Rollin did not offer convincing arguments in favour of his opinion that only animal welfare is relevant in the ethical assessment of animal biotechnology. On the contrary, the responses to his thought experiment have clearly illustrated that something else, less easy to define, is at stake in the genetic engineering of animals. Apparently, for Rollin, ‘hard to define’ equals ‘irrational’. What is hard to define is discarded as morally irrelevant. Moral intuitions that lack ‘good reason’, that do not refer to objective values such as animal well-being, are simply delisted as subjective, as merely aesthetic judgments. But is it acceptable to disqualify moral assessments based on aesthetic judgments for this reason? Should we not rather say that many moral intuitions are to a certain extent aesthetically grounded? Another way to interpret these ‘subjective’ moral intuitions is to say that they clearly indicate that animal biotechnology still offers some ‘food for thought’.

What troubles participants in the debate about the Rollin chicken and the genetically engineered decerebrate mouse is that these animals are to a certain extent ‘unnatural’. They may argue that the integrity of such animals is violated, or that they no longer display species-specific behaviour, but these and similar articulations seem to express the basic sense that these animals (in our perception at least) are somehow ‘abnormal’ or ‘unnatural’. But what it is that people exactly mean by these and similar phrases is often difficult to explain. Terms such as ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’ may refer to many different things. Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural or physical world, and also to life in general.

The word ‘nature’ is derived from the Latin word natura, which means something like ‘the course of things’ or ‘natural character.’ In various contexts, notably in environmental philosophy, nature may mean something like the ‘natural environment’ or ‘wilderness’. But it may also refer to an essential quality of something, notably of living things. Many philosophers have written about nature. They agree on one issue: that ‘nature’ is a very complicated concept and may be used to highlight very different aspects of our complex relationship with nature. In medical ethics, ‘naturalness’ is usually discarded as being outdated. In environmental ethics, it is still in use, notably in order to refer to situations that are more or less unspoiled by human influence. In animal ethics, naturalness is usually replaced by concepts such as ‘integrity’. To discuss all these possible meanings here in detail would be quite outside the scope of my inquiry. What these writings have in common is that central to notions such as nature and the natural they refer to is that they are used to refer to something that is untouched by humans, something non-artificial, something given, not man-made, something that displays a life and an identity of its own. Nature and the natural are usually opposed to the artificial world, the world produced and reproduced by humans. The term ‘nature’ is used in contrast to notions such as ‘culture’ and ‘technology’ that put humans in opposition to nature. ‘Natural’ is also used to indicate a moral quality. ‘Natural’ is usually regarded as better than ‘artificial’ (for instance in traditional aesthetics) or even ‘perverse’ (for instance, in traditional sexual morality). But there are probably ‘no terms in general currency in debates in applied ethics that are as intricately, subtly and bewildering ambiguous as the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’’ (Burgess and Walsh 1998: 396).

For scientists involved in animal biotechnology, the concepts of nature or natural in relation to DNA are highly problematic. Humans have always influenced the living world and the natural order. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have left our mark on the living world. This applies in particular to the laboratory mouse. The history of genetics is characterised by the manipulation of the mouse genome: in the first place, by the selective breeding of mice and, later, by the technologies of molecular biology. When the first transgenic mice were born in 1980, true ‘wild type’ laboratory mice had already ceased to exist. When talking about nature, I would like to argue that genetically engineered mice are as much man-made living artifacts as they are natural living beings. In fact, they are the result both of natural processes and of human technological culture, they are living artifacts. This, precisely, seems to be the paradox: How can a living animal be fundamentally unnatural?

The mouse as a monster

An interesting study of how society deals with these types of technologies that challenge the nature-culture dichotomy is Martijntje Smits’s Monsterbezweringen (Taming Monsters, the English version, is forthcoming). In this book, Smits introduces the notion of a monster to refer to the products of technologies that make us feel uncomfortable. She gives the following description of a monster: ‘A monster is an ambiguous creature combining seemingly incompatible elements. Due to its indefinite nature it evokes fear and uncertainty’ (Smits 2002: 28[8]). Techno-monsters challenge cultural categories that shape and give meaning to our world. Cultural categories are at the same time moral categories (Smits 2006). They are real to the extent that they are shared by members of a cultural group. They are the result of social learning processes. When new phenomena emerge that do not fit into one of the existing cultural categories, or rather: that seem to fit into two categories that are mutually exclusive, we speak of a category error. A monster is such a category error. It displays characteristics of different cultural categories. According to Smits, the monster is at a stage of semi-identity. Monsters generally evoke strong responses of rejection, followed by attempts to restore the order and correct the category error. This is not to say that only negative responses occur. In the positive sense such errors in classification can also be perceived as miracles or moments of transgression. Two cultural categories that as a result of technology are often the subject of category errors are culture and nature. In modern Western thinking, nature and culture form a central dichotomy: they are twin notions that, on the one hand, exclude and, on the other, presuppose one another. Modern monsters always entail confusions in terms of the culture/nature dichotomy (Smits 2002: 138).

The genetically engineered mice seem to correspond to Smits’s definition of a monster. As living artefacts they transgress the borders between nature and culture. As carriers of both human and mouse genes, they transgress the species barrier between mouse and man, a barrier that until recently was regarded as fixed and unchangeable. In which category do we want to place these mice? As we have seen, they are laboratory animals, that we have to take good care of, but also high-tech and highly valuable laboratory tools. They are victims of science but also potential heroes of biomedical salvation. And, last but not least, as pioneers in biotechnology, the mice represent a model for future human beings. Just like Smits’s monsters, the genetically engineered mice do not fit into any unequivocal cultural or moral category. The genetically engineered mice are what we, in the words of Smits, perceive as an uncomfortable technology. As monsters the genetically engineered mice ask for monster ethics, an ethics of ‘domestication’. How do we have to handle these monster mice?

The taming of monsters

According to Smits, monsters can be tamed, or domesticated, by accommodating categories, or by gradually recognising that monsters (perhaps after some slight adaptations) can, in fact, be placed in an existing unequivocal category, or by adapting the monster itself to the existing categories. She describes four different styles of ‘monster treatment’: a dogmatic style of monster exorcism; a ritualistic style where the monster is adapted; a romantic style of monster embracing; and, finally, a pragmatist style in which the monster is forced to assimilate. The dogmatic style has the character of monster exorcism, because those who adhere to this style want to expel the monster. In the dogmatic style, cultural categories are taken to be strict and inflexible dichotomies. Cultural borders as well as current knowledge and morality are experienced as firmly established, as real. For monster exorcists, the categories form an unchangeable and objective order. As a consequence, in the perception of monster exorcists, there is no place for monsters. For this reason monsters must be eliminated. The exorcism of the genetically engineered mouse as a monster would be the total banishment of animal biotechnology. In this way, the transgression of the border between nature and culture is effectively prevented.

The second option, monster adaptation, aims at transforming the monster into a phenomenon that will better fit into categories (Smits 2006: 501). This is the ritualistic style. Again in this approach cultural borders are not really questioned. Borders are not conceived as pliable, human constructions, but as a reflection of reality. The category classification is, however, less rigid, less inflexible and therefore more refined compared with the dogmatic style. As a result, in this style, slight inconsistencies can be fitted in more easily within the system. Strange new phenomena are not considered directly as undermining and threatening, but rather as not yet fully identified. When the ritualistic style is applied to the case of the genetically engineered mouse, the mouse will be adapted to existing categories. This can be done, for example, by denying that there is something really new or revolutionary in these mice: for example, by stating that genetic engineering is not an unnatural procedure, or that genetic engineering is nothing but a high-speed version of more traditional processes of animal breeding or even of evolution as it occurs in nature. Another approach would be the denial of one of the categories. This is what Rollin does when he claims nature to be an irrelevant notion in the discussion of animal biotechnology. When nature ceases to exist as a category there is no such thing as border-crossing behaviour of the genetically engineered mouse. It is highly questionable, however, whether something like ‘nature’ will go away simply by no longer mentioning it.

The third style of monster taming that Smits discusses is the pragmatist style. In this approach monsters are assimilated. Both monsters and categories can be mutually adapted to one another. Cultural borders are taken to be human conventions, flexible descriptions of reality. Categories are regarded as descriptive tools. They are much more flexible than in the first two models. Monsters are assimilated in a way that drastically reconsiders both the character of the monster and the conception of what it was a refutation of. Pragmatic monster tamers have a clear, opportunistic willingness to reposition established borders, if that would be advantageous. A form of assimilation of the monster genetically engineered mouse would be the introduction of a new ethical or cultural category, that of the living artefacts. This implies that the well-established culture/nature dichotomy must be amended.

Finally, Smits discusses the romantic style. She describes this style as a form of monster embracement. Embracing of monsters is romantic, according to Smits, because this style clearly distinguishes itself from the striving towards unequivocality and control that is so typical of the first two styles, and to a lesser degree of the third. In her discussion of the different styles of monster taming, Smits shows how fear gradually gives way to fascination. Monster embracers are fascinated by monsters. In their effort to understand the monster, they rely on intuition and spirituality rather than on the logic of classification. This style of monster taming is the least unequivocal style. Fascination for ‘living on the edge’, for catastrophes, and for the category of the obscene, can be mixed with feelings of abomination. Yet, although this style certainly has some sympathetic elements, the unconditional acceptance or even admiration of the monster is not very suitable for dealing with monsters on a societal level. An unrestricted acceptance of the monster would disrupt cultural and societal life and could lead to total madness. The dogmatic style is also rejected by Smits as an unsuitable way of dealing with monsters. It lacks openness for new phenomena that seems indispensable in a quickly evolving techno-culture, and is therefore not realistic. With the current developments in biotechnology new phenomena will emerge almost continuously. The ritualistic style can also have possible violent consequences. The monster can be pressed into a category where it does not belong. That could be the cause of many problems. Important aspects of the monster can be overlooked by ritualistic denial.

The taming of the genetically engineered mouse

On the basis of Smits’s monster theory we can conclude that the way in which scientists and animal ethicists deal with the genetically engineered mice reveals a ritualistic style of monster taming. Genetically engineered mice are adapted to existing categories. They are reduced to the cultural category of laboratory animals. To the scientists, the genetic engineering of mice is nothing new. It is a continuation of a practice of selective cross-breeding of mice for medical science that has been done for quite a long time. Ever since the beginning of the previous century, scientists have used the mouse to unravel the mysteries of genetics. From the perspective of science, the genetically engineered mouse is a logical consequence of developments within molecular biological sciences. Today it is hard to imagine a biomedical laboratory without them. As a result, the average scientist will not question genetic modifications as such. In his or her perception, the genetically engineered mouse will simply be a laboratory mouse. For the use of genetically engineered mice in biomedical science the same ethical rules apply as to ordinary laboratory animals. These rules are described within laboratory animal ethics. The animal suffering has to be justified with good reasons. Between ethics committees and scientists there seems to be more or less agreement that animal biotechnology has to be reviewed and how this has to be done. In animal ethics committees, the fact that the mouse is genetically engineered usually will not play a significant role. In practice, they are treated the same way as ordinary lab mice. For each animal experiment a convincing justification has to be given. That every individual researcher literally has to justify his experiments before an ethics commission might lead to bureaucracy and delay, but it is in general not perceived as unreasonable. A review by an animal experimentation committee has become a routine element within standard scientific practice. Most leading scientific journals demand a notification of ethical approval when animals are used. An ethical review by an animal experimentation committee provides the scientists working with these animals with an index of legitimisation.

The focus of the ethical assessment is on the human intentions behind the genetic modification. What is the goal of the intervention? Does this outweigh the potential animal suffering involved? In practice, only by reducing the genetically engineered mouse to an ordinary laboratory animal, is an ethical assessment of animal biotechnology possible. For questions concerning laboratory animal ethics, such as how to balance animal suffering against future human benefits and how to achieve minimal animal suffering, several reliable ethical frameworks and a number of specific codes of conduct for the genetic modification of animals are available (de Cock Buning and Theune 1994; Joint Working Group on Refinement 2003). To assess ethical questions about the unnaturalness of the mice, is, however, far more difficult. To some animal ethics committees, the fact that the genome is altered does not play a role. For example in the Dutch National Committee on Animal Biotechnology (in Dutch: CBD), questions about animal integrity are opened up for discussion. But in other countries this is not taken to be relevant. For example, in the UK, animal welfare legislation no distinction is made between genetically modified mice and non-genetically modified laboratory mice. But, even if taken into ethical consideration, in practice, notions like ‘integrity’ and ‘unnaturalness’ are not easily captured by ethical frameworks and balances. So questions about the so-called unnaturalness are usually avoided. They do not fit within the moral framework used by the ethics committees that have to make an assessment of animal experiments in a case-by-case approach. On the other hand, there seems to be general agreement on the fact that the genetic engineering of animals is problematic and therefore ought to be restricted to research that serves biomedical purposes only.

So, in addition to the ritualistic style, a dogmatic style of monster taming can be observed. Outside the biomedical realm, genetically engineered ‘monsters’ are banned. The presence of genetically engineered mice outside the scientific laboratory, where the category of laboratory animal does not exist, has been prohibited. This prohibition, a form of monster exorcism, is typical of the dogmatic attitude.

I will refer to this combination of attitudes as ‘the strategy of containment’. We have locked away the genetically engineered mice inside laboratories, both in the literal sense and the figurative sense: they are simply seen as part of the ‘laboratory animal’ category. In the most literal sense, mice are locked away by strictly prohibiting their presence outside the laboratory. Laboratories where genetically engineered mice are produced and kept are working on the basis of very strict guidelines for genetically modified animal husbandry. In the figurative sense the genetically engineered mice are locked away by refusing to consider their introduction in other domains such as pet keeping or wildlife preservation. As a result we can not speak of the domestication of the genetically engineered mouse monster. Outside the laboratory the genetically engineered animals are still not welcome (as yet).

Concluding remarks

Genetically engineered mice are highly ambiguous animals. This makes it hard to reach consensus about the ethical and societal aspects of their existence and use in bio-medical research. As I have argued, there are three different tracks in the debate about animal biotechnology. On each track, different mouse images appear, and all these images evoke different moral responses. On the first track, the genetically engineered mice can be seen as the ‘right tool for the job’ that will enable us to find a cure for life-threatening genetic diseases. From that perspective, these mice are presented to the public as potential heroes. For the scientists who work with them, these mice are very sophisticated models compared with traditional mouse models. They are ‘high-bio-tech fuzzy test tubes’ that allow us to gaze at human genes in an in vivo model. They are treated with care, but mostly because they are valuable laboratory equipment.

On the second track the mice appear as the victims of biomedical science. They are often programmed to become ill and suffer from human illnesses. Their welfare is clearly at stake. In this respect, they are mice like other mice, ordinary living animals, with ordinary mouse needs and interests that ought to be respected and protected. Their suffering is an issue of concern.

On the third track the genetically engineered mouse emerges as a monster that challenges the nature-technology dichotomy. This mouse monster is a living boundary object, a boundary being. As a man-made living animal, the genetically engineered mouse belongs both to the world of artifacts and to the world of the living creatures that are part of nature. The genetically engineered mouse is a living artifact that can have a radical impact on our (genetic) self-understanding. Such mice embody future biomedical strategies and applications.

However, the dominant view on the ethical aspects animal biotechnology seems to be a utilitarian (or consequentialist) trade-off between animal welfare and human benefits. Why this is the case can be explained with the help of Smits’s monster theory. The genetically engineered mouse does not belong to one unequivocal cultural category. For scientists it is simply a lab animal. For outsiders it has aspects of monsterhood, as undisputed cultural categories do not yet exist to capture it. But, being there and being real, the genetically engineered mice ask for an immediate response. There is not enough time to develop new rules that may be seen as appropriate by all for the new phenomenon. The ‘birth’ of this monster was not accompanied with clear-cut instructions for its use. The formulation of instructions for use calls for a time-consuming social learning process, which in the case of animal biotechnology still has a long way to go. For the time being, we have to rely on the limited sets of instructions that are available. In the case of the genetically engineered mouse, the rules that apply to the ‘wild type’ (inbred) laboratory animal are the best candidates. The use and treatment of these animals within science are regulated by laboratory animal ethical principles, such as the three R’s formulated by Russell and Burch. This ritualistic style of monster taming seems adequate as a temporary response from a practical point of view. We need a solution right now. Ethical assessment of animal biotechnology in a case-by-case approach by an ethics committee would otherwise be impossible. Scientific practices need clear and workable solutions right now.

But the genetically engineered mice also engender difficult questions concerning, for example naturalness, for which no straightforward answers are available. By reducing these mice to the status of ordinary lab mice these difficult issues are simply avoided. As a result, not all the concerns that are raised by the introduction of these ‘monsters’ are addressed in the animal ethics committees. What we see is that, in addition to the reduction of the mouse to an ordinary lab mouse, the strategy of containment is applied to meet these concerns. Containment is an approach we apply to animals which we find both fascinating or useful and fearsome. The combination of reduction and containment is therefore a fairly understandable monster strategy. It is a reasonably adequate solution for today, but highly unsatisfactory from a philosophical point of view that takes a broader perspective, placing current biotechnology in the context of its past and possible futures. This (temporary) approach only covers the moral questions that emerge on the first and second track. Issues arising on the third track, concerning our vision of nature, remain inarticulate. I believe this is a matter of great concern.

Of all the different tracks, the third track is by far the most problematic one. Mouse biotechnology confronts us with the fact that nature, animal nature and, by implication, human nature, is malleable. What is most troublesome about the genetic modification of mice is that a genetically engineered mouse is unnatural and that by changing its genetic make up we change something unique that has been the result of the long ‘natural’ process called evolution. We do thing with genes that would never have happened in ‘nature’. We are messing with ‘nature’. But how can a living being be unnatural? How can a living being be an artifact? It is not only nature but also our conception of nature and the natural that is under attack, or at least under pressure. Our vision of nature seems adrift as a consequence of biotechnology. But the difficulty we have in defining nature does not mean that we, like Rollin, should simply disqualify the concept of nature as a meaningless phrase when it comes to morally assessing biotechnology. I rather believe it is the other way around. Biotechnology (and the biotech-evolution of the lab mouse) entails important lessons about nature that need to be further explored by philosophy. Biotechnology challenges us to redefine what nature is, what species are, and even what human nature is. We have to redefine what it is to be human. What is the status of our traditional understanding of our own species when DNA can so easily be transferred from one species to the other? But the impact of animal biotechnology as a technology, with considerable implications for our understanding of nature in general and our own (malleable) nature in particular, has remained more or less out of focus in the animal biotechnology debate. The technology as such, the impact of the knowledge of genes on our self-understanding, is not really debated by animal ethicists.

In short I wish to argue that the difficulties in addressing the question about the unnaturalness of genetically engineered mice reveal that the mouse is still considered to be a monster. Dealing with new phenomena such as genetically engineered mice calls for a social learning process. We need time to get used to monsters. Monsters need time to feel ‘at home’ with us. If one wants to follow a monster strategy that in the ideal situation leads to domestication, Smits recommends the pragmatist attitude. Instant improvisation and creativity are important characteristics of this style of monster taming. The pragmatist has an open mind to the constructed character of borders and different rationalities of the various parties involved. Because of its ontological scepticism, the pragmatist approach displays openness to different perspectives. In the case of the genetically modified mouse, pragmatists have an open mind towards the promises the mouse holds for correcting debilitating genetic diseases. But the pragmatist is also aware that, as our understanding of the interaction of genetics and human personality increases, the technology also has the potential to radically alter human nature. As I discussed in the previous chapter, I believe the most important mouse image that may help us to address the complex issues arising on the third track is that of the mouse as the pioneer species guiding us and leading the way into the new world of biotechnology. In my view, seeing the mouse as a pioneer in the biotechnology revolution involves critical analysis of the future potential or the promise of animal biotechnology and the dynamics of power behind animal biotechnology, in combination with a critical analysis of what we mean by (human) nature. We can do this by paying careful attention to imagination, and to the myths, metaphors, images and other half-conscious apparatus of thought that surround the moral and social debate on animal biotechnology (Midgley 1992). What do people express when they say biotechnologists are ‘playing God’? What is it people fear when they refer to ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. What monsters do they fear? And what can we learn by investigating our ‘aesthetic’ objections to animal biotechnology? All this is to be explored further in the following chapters.

 

 

[1] Bernard Rollin (1995) The Frankenstein Syndrome. Ethical and social issues in the genetic engineering of animals, Cambridge University Press, p. 11.

[2] Strachan Donelly (1994) ‘Exploring ethical landscapes’, in The brave new world of animal biotechnology, Hastings Centre Report 24, p. S4.

[3] Accessed via the web, therefore the page number is not available: <http://www.nature.com/news/2002/021202/full/021202-10.html>.

[4] In the context of the first track, where the mouse as a living being is invisible, killing animals is not regarded as harm or discomfort.

[5] The notion of ‘intrinsic value’ is used to indicate that mice, both genetically engineered and the ‘wild type’ have a moral status. To have a moral status means that it is not self-evident that people may use animals as they please. The use of animals has to be legitimized by ethical arguments (Verhoog 1992, see below).

[6] Accessed via the web, therefore, a page number is not available.

[7] Fox notably refers to ‘the chicken thought experiment’, as the decerebrated mice were not mentioned by Rollin before 1990.

[8] Quote translated from: Monsterbezweringen: ‘Een monster is[ ] dubbelzinnig wezen, dat elementen in zich verenigt die niet te verenigen lijken. En daardoor, door zijn onbepaaldheid, vaak angst en onzekerheid oproept’.