Animal Rights

Anti-Vivisection: Then and Now

| by Dr Ray Greek

Anti-vivisectionists have probably been around about as long as vivisection has been. But both really gained traction in the mid-1800s. Claude Bernard and his colleagues were on one side while Bernard’s wife and daughters, along with many others, were on the other. The controversy centered on ethics and compassion but some started criticizing vivisection on scientific grounds. All in all, most of those science-oriented criticisms turned out to be wrong. Lets briefly examine science circa 1850.

The Germ Theory of Disease was just being discovered as were various diseases caused by germs such as bacteria. Humans and animals can both be infected with various “germs” and in some cases the responses are similar. So it should come as no surprise that a superficial study of infectious diseases resulted in the conclusion that animal models had predictive value for medical science. Had cancer or coronary artery disease been the primary killer of the 19th century, vivisection would probably have struggled and eventually been abandoned by science and society alike. Regardless, a superficial examination (or an examination on the gross level—the level seen with the naked eye) revealed many similarities between species. This was the era in which vivisection thrived. The main diseases of the era in which vivisection achieved prominence influence society even today. Just as in the 1800s, some reject vaccines, the Germ Theory, along with science in general, in part, because both are associated with vivisection. 

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Anti-vivisectionists of that era went way overboard in criticizing the science of vivisection. For example, one surgeon stated that performing surgery on animal tissues had made him unfit to work with human tissues. This is blatant nonsense. One ties sutures, controls bleeding, and handles the tissues more or less the same way whether the patient is a dog or human. Many anti-vivisectionists claimed that knowledge could never come from the vivisection lab because knowledge would not allow itself to come from such evil. Along the same lines, the anti-vivisectionist and theosophist Anna Kingsford thought she had killed Claude Bernard by throwing her psychic energy at him. Theosophy was big in the 19th century in Europe.

In conclusion, IMO vivisectors of the 19th century learned a lot about the gross structures that mammals and humans have in common. Probably most could have been learned from human-based study but that is a topic for another time. Let there be no doubt that the fundamentals of anatomy and physiology could have been learned from vivisection.

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By 1900, vivisection had a track record and some of the conclusions from the dog lab had been shown false. For example, Bernard and others thought diabetes was a disease of the liver, not the pancreas, because of studies in dogs. This would eventually be corrected, but there was good evidence for the role of the pancreas from autopsies and that added insult to injury for the vivisection community. From the early 1900s to about 2000, the anti-vivisection community largely pointed out where vivisection studies failed and justified their position that vivisection was scientifically flawed on the basis of these failures.

Such was not a bad position. In science the burden of proof is on the claimant (in this case the vivisection community) and if one can show enough examples of failure, when the practice in question is claimed to be predictive, or in some cases the responses claimed to always be identical to humans, then examples count a lot. Examples in the forms of supported case reports can invalidate a scientific claim while case reports cannot prove a scientific claim. Proof requires data, usually in the form of controlled studies.

It was also a decent position because of the claims of the vivisection community. If the vivisection community had claimed that animal models helped them form hypotheses for testing in humans, the anti-vivisectionists of the 20th century would have had little to criticize from a scientific perspective. Failures are to be expected for hypotheses. But the vivisection community went as overboard with their claims as the anti-vivisection community of the 19th century had with theirs. William Osler’s statement, in a 1907 address to the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons, implies that animal models are of predictive value for human response to drugs and disease:

The limits of justifiable experimentation upon our fellow creatures are well and clearly defined. The final test of every new procedure, medical or surgical must be made on man, but never before it has been tried on animals. . . . For man absolute safety and full consent are the conditions which make such tests allowable. We have no right to use patients entrusted to our care for the purpose of experimentation unless direct benefit to the individual is likely to follow. Once this limit is transgressed the sacred cord which binds physician and patient snaps instantly. (Osler 1907)

And many others supported Claude Bernard’s position that: “Experiments on animals, with deleterious substances or in harmful circumstances, are very useful and entirely conclusive for the toxicity and hygiene of man. Investigations of medicinal or of toxic substances also are wholly applicable to man from the therapeutic point of view; for as I have shown, the effects of these substances are the same on man as on animals . . .” (Bernard 1957) Statements and position illustrated by the above would hound vivisectors as more and more differences in response to drugs and disease surfaced between species.

By the end of the 20th century, there were so many examples of where animal models clearly failed and, more importantly, where these failures cost lives, that vivisectors had to organize or employ PR firms and lobbyists to spin reality. From a scientific perspective however, anti-vivisectionists still lacked one important piece of the puzzle. Vivisectors frequently acknowledge that animal model X did not in fact fulfill the criteria as a good predictor of human response. However, they went on to assure society that there was another animal model being invented and that model would succeed where animal model X had failed. (Today, this argument takes the form of genetically modified animals.) Anti-vivisectionists had no counter to that argument. They needed a scientific theory to account for the failures and successes of animal models and that would answer the question of whether trans-species extrapolation would ever be possible. The empirical evidence proved that current animal models had failed but this did not prove the paradigm was destined to fail.

In the mid-20th century, evolutionary biologists started advising caution to their vivisectionist colleagues regarding their claims for animal models. Even then, the better evolutionary biologists knew that the odds were stacked against animal models in general in terms of having predictive value for human response to drugs and disease. There were just too many differences between species and these differences were not inconsequential. They were the reason there were different species in the first place. Vivisectors largely ignored the advice.

Also in the mid-20th century, two new fields of physics were being developed. Chaos and complexity arguably date back to the turn of the 20th century but the real work began in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, chaos is considered a division of complexity studies and both have revolutionized physics. As I have often explained, animals and humans are examples of evolved, complex systems. That statement summarizes the problems with animal models. Complex systems are highly dependent on initial conditions and the reason we have different species is because the initial conditions (genetic make-up) change (in the form of mutations and changes in regulation and so forth). The fact that animals and humans are evolved, complex systems means that animal models will never be of predictive value for human response to drugs and disease. No matter how many genes one adds or deletes, the background genes will differ among species as will other initial conditions, modules, mechanisms, networks, and emergent phenomena. (For more see (Greek, Menache, and Rice 2012, Greek, Pippus, and Hansen 2012, Greek and Rice 2012, Greek 2013b, a, Greek and Hansen 2013a, Greek and Hansen 2013b, Greek and Menache 2013, Jones and Greek 2013).)

Anti-vivisections now had a complete scientific argument to present to society. (Greek and Hansen 2013b) In my next blog, I will discuss what animal protectionists and anti-vivisectionists have done with their new gift from evolutionary biology and complexity science.

Photo of Anna Kingsford in pubic domain via Wikipedia Commons


Bernard, C. (1957). An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. 1865. New York, Dover. 

Greek, R. (2013). Animal Models in Drug Development. New Insights into Toxicity and Drug Testing. S. Gowder. Manhattan, InTech: 124-152.

Greek, R. (2013). Animal Models of Cancer in Light of Evolutionary Biology and Complexity Science. The Research and Biology of Cancer. Hong Kong, iConcept Press.

Greek, R. and L. Hansen (2013). "The Strengths and Limits of Animal Models as Illustrated by the Discovery and Development of Antibacterials." Biological Systems: Open Access 2(2): 109. doi: 110.4172/BSO.1000109

Greek, R. and L. A. Hansen (2013). "Questions regarding the predictive value of one evolved complex adaptive system for a second: exemplified by the SOD1 mouse " Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology:

Greek, R. and A. Menache (2013). "Systematic Reviews of Animal Models: Methodology versus Epistemology." Int J Med Sci 10(3): 206-221.

Greek, R., A. Menache and M. J. Rice (2012). "Animal models in an age of personalized medicine." Personalized Medicine 9(1): 47-64.

Greek, R., A. Pippus and L. A. Hansen (2012). "The Nuremberg Code subverts human health and safety by requiring animal modeling." BMC medical ethics 13(1): 16.

Greek, R. and M. J. Rice (2012). "Animal models and conserved processes." Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 9(40).

Jones, R. C. and R. Greek (2013). "A Review of the Institute of Medicine's Analysis of using Chimpanzees in Biomedical Research." Sci Eng Ethics.

Osler, W. (1907). "The historical development and relative value of laboratory and clinical methods in diagnosis. The evolution of the idea of experiment in medicine." Transactions of the Congress of American Physicians and Surgeons 7: 1-8.