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Unprincipled Frogs

The global news agency Agence France-Presse recently reported that Hiroshima University researchers have created transparent frogs. What for? Not as a novelty, apparently, nor even to demonstrate the effectiveness of some procedure. The purpose of the feat was overtly ethical: to obviate the need for dissections. If you can see what’s going on inside an animal without opening it up, you don’t have to injure or kill it to advance human knowledge and education.

But peering into this amphibial phial, one may wonder if it is less than half full. Consider the following quotation from the article: “‘You can see through the skin … how cancer starts and develops,’ said the lead researcher…. ‘The researcher can also observe how toxins affect bones, livers and other organs at lower costs.’” Are we to suppose that the cancer will arise spontaneously? Will those toxins enter the frog accidentally? I rather suspect they will be intentionally introduced by future researchers. The frogs, therefore, should not be jumping for joy.

Note also the mention of “lower costs.” This probably refers to being able to use fewer frogs to observe dynamic processes, rather than having to purchase a bushel of them to cut up at different stages. That may sound like a win-win for researchers and frogs. But it casts doubt on the motive of seeking “humane alternatives” to dissection. Indeed, the article alludes to pressure from “animal rights activists,” which is an obvious backdrop to obviating the mistreatment of animals in laboratories.

Still, motives can be genuine even if prompted by protests, and cost advantages are compatible with moral motives. For that matter, even when motives are purely mercenary, the results can be benign. Wouldn’t the use of fewer frogs, and without cutting, be kinder?

However, the article reports that “it would be unrealistic to apply the same method to mammals such as mice as their skin structure is different.” “Unrealistic,” not “immoral.” Here the objection is purely instrumental, not moral: technically the procedure cannot be done or would not be cost-effective. Meanwhile, nothing is said about possible effects on the animals’ behavior, interactions, and well-being. In the case of the transparent frogs, it is simply noted in passing that they “can also reproduce, with their offspring inheriting their parents’ traits, but their grandchildren die shortly after birth.” Nor is there any discussion of the maintenance, shipping, and other routine treatment of the new animals, which presumably will remain much the same as for existing animals used in research.

The manufacture of the artificial animals seems likelier to be a marketing ploy than a genuine moral advance. In the end, we might expect to see more use of frogs than otherwise, if the new frogs are really useful and if the perceived pressure to develop alternatives such as computer modeling diminishes.

Perhaps there is a moral here about the significance of principle in furthering a cause. Consider the otherwise laudable aim and name of a group like the Anti-Vivisection Society. (Actually there are several groups that incorporate this phrase, but my point is a general one.) A particular research and teaching method is targeted for condemnation and elimination. This could be an effective strategy insofar as it elicits an emotional response and focused advocacy. But the invention of transparent frogs shows how the failure to highlight an underlying principle could mean that the true intent is circumvented. For the real goal is the elimination of mistreatment of other animals, regardless of the form it takes. To substitute one type of mistreatment for another, or simply leave the original misuse intact while altering its appearance, hardly addresses that issue.

Joel Marks is professor of philosophy at the University of New Haven.

Published on: November 9, 2007
Published in: Animal Research Ethics, Animal Welfare, Bioethics

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