Animal Rights

Alternatives: Facts and Fallacies

| by Dr Ray Greek

The following is from FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed.

So how does one properly define the word alternative?

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The word alternative comes from the Latin alternare—meaning to interchange. According to The New Oxford American Dictionary it means: “One of two or more available possibilities.” The important thing here is that it implies viability.

A scientifically invalid practice cannot be replaced with an alternative. Consider this example: Eating broccoli is not an alternative to eating rocks for nutrition, but it is an alternative to eating asparagus.

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The Encarta Dictionary defines alternative as follows:

Other possibility: something different from, and able to serve as a substitute for, something else.

Example: You could take the bus as an alternative to driving. Note that the original choice in this example—taking the bus—is viable.

Possibility of choosing: the possibility of choosing between two different things or courses of action.

Example: We gave you the alternative; you decided to stay. Again, the original choice—leaving, presumably—is the original and viable choice.

Option: either one of two or one of several things or courses of action to choose between.

Example: I can’t decide which of the two alternatives is worse. Both are viable, just not great.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines alternative as follows: “Something that is different from something else, especially from what is usual, and offering the possibility of choice: an alternative to coffee.” The original choice is viable—in this case, coffee.

Another example: There must be an alternative to people sleeping on the streets. The original is viable; in this case, people are actually sleeping on the streets.

I’m afraid I have no alternative but to ask you to leave (that is what I have to do). Again, the original is viable; in this case, staying is viable if the person behaved better.

The opposition parties have so far failed to set out an alternative strategy. The original is viable; in this case, the original strategy is viable, just not acceptable to all.

An alternative venue for the concert is being sought. The original is viable; in this case, the concert was scheduled for a certain venue and could have been held there, but now needs to be changed.

We could go to the Indian restaurant or, alternatively, we could try Italian. Again, the original choice is viable because indeed the Indian restaurant serves food.

Is there a circumstance when it is appropriate to use the word alternative when referring to nonanimal based modalities?

Yes. As we have seen earlier in this book, there are clearly scientifically viable uses for animals, such as replacing a damaged human aortic valve with a valve from a pig. Using animals as incubators or bioreactors to grow viruses is also scientifically viable. Within this context, then, it would be appropriate to say that a synthetic aortic valve is an alternative to a pig valve.

Remember, in order for something to be an alternative, the original choice or course of action must be viable. The use of animals as predictive models is not viable; therefore, a predictive modality that does not use animals is not an alternative.

If predictive modalities are not alternatives, then why do I hear so much about alternatives and the Three Rs? 

The Three Rs is a concept that has been embraced by groups that would seemingly be on opposite sides of the issue: the animal experimentation community and many in the animal protection community. That fact alone should give one pause: one must question the motivation of groups that support the Three Rs when the very people whose conduct they supposedly oppose also support this concept. This does not prove malfeasance but it suggests closer examination is needed.

The Three Rs has been around for almost 50 years. In 1959, two British scientists, William Russell and Rex Burch, published the results of a systematic study they conducted on the ethical aspects of animal research and the development and progress of humane techniques in the laboratory. This study launched the concept of the Three Rs: Reducing the number of animals used; Refining techniques so the animals suffer less; and Replacing animal-based tests as alternatives are invented.

In the ensuing years, finding alternatives to animal tests—the Replacement component of the Three Rs—has become a cottage industry consuming billions of dollars and employing thousands of people. Yet the Three Rs has been a dismal failure. More animals are used in research and testing now, and more money goes to animal-based studies, than in the 1950s and 1960s when Russell and Burch were popularizing the concept. Additionally, more animals are used now than when the Three Rs groups—the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECCVAM) and the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM)—were organized.

Why? Because the Three Rs have been applied to animal use that purports to predict human response. As we have discussed earlier, most animal use is justified by scientists to society-at-large on the grounds that it is predictive for humans. Now consider the number of people whose employment hinges on the search for alternatives to tests that don’t work in the first place. It’s no surprise that they are outraged whenever it is pointed out to them that if a test does not fulfill the function it was designed to fill, it should be abandoned for that purpose regardless of what else is or isn’t available.

Waiting to abandon a test that does not work until we can find one that does (finding an “alternative”) is not just a misuse of the word but utter nonsense as well. The Three Rs should never have been applied to animal use that purports to predict human response. But there are more problems with this failed concept.

What other problems do you see with the Three Rs?

To answer that, let’s examine who defends the animals as predictive models industry. They can generally be divided into two groups. The first group is made up of the animal experimenters themselves—those who use animals in research or their representatives. They have their incomes directly linked to animal experiments. The second group is the people involved in the Three Rs industry who, like the animal experimenters themselves, have their incomes linked to strong claims about the predictive utility of animal models.  Included in this latter group are those who profess to be advocates for animals but who say: “Gosh darn we just have to experiment on animals. We just have to.” (This is a direct quote from the current chairman of the board of a large, prominent animal protection organization.)

What both groups have in common is the difficult problem of saying animals are capable of predicting human response while simultaneously saying that is not why they are used, since the evidence that animals cannot be used to predict human response is overwhelming.