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IOM Report on Chimpanzees in Research

I read the IOM report on chimpanzees in research this weekend. It is approximately 200 pages and reads like a government document not a science report. If I was teaching high school science and this report was turned in, I would fail the student. Before I summarize my view of the report, consider the following from animal protection groups that rely on donations. All of them essentially quote the report out of context or in some cases blatantly inaccurately, saying that the IOM concluded that chimpanzee research is unnecessary.

An email from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)  stated: “Yesterday, the report was released and concluded that the use of chimpanzees in invasive research is not necessary to advance human health.” (Emphasis added.)

The New England Anti-Vivisection Society stated: “The Chimps Hear the Good News: IOM Concludes ‘…chimpanzees [are] not necessary…’ ”  

Wayne Pacelle of HSUS headlined his blog stating: “New Report Confirms Invasive Biomedical Research on Chimps is Unnecessary.” On their homepage HSUS headlined their analysis saying: “Not Necessary.”

On their website, PETA stated: “You may remember that we testified at the IOM committee's hearing on the issue last summer. The committee listened to us and to the scientists who testified and concluded that ‘most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.’ ” So keep those donations coming!

The animal experimentation community also spun the results but less misleadingly than the animal protection community. David Jentsch wrote: “It [the IOM report] did not endorse a ban on chimpanzee research, nor the continuation of the moratorium on breeding, stating that these could potentially cause ‘unacceptable losses to the public’s health’.  It also made clear that ‘animal research remains a critical tool in protecting and advancing the public’s health’.” 

My perusal of the websites of the US primate centers (eg Yerkes, UW, Southwest, OHSU), revealed no comments. The same was true for the website of the American Physiological Society, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, Americans for Medical Progress, and Sigma Xi, although they may comment later.

The above groups, both pro- and anti-vivisection, are not science groups, they are activist groups. They promote what their donors and or members want them to promote. Science does not do this. Science seeks facts about the material universe. No agenda. While I defend the right of the above groups to promote whatever agenda they wish, I take exception to mangling science in order to do so. Moreover, it is not in their best interest to do so. The agendas of most of the above go well beyond the chimpanzee situation and if they distort science for short-term gains, it will come back to haunt them later. Science always wins.

One more specific point before I address the main report in general. Jentsch also stated: “We would like emphasize that the guiding principles ‘adopted’ by the panel are in fact very similar to the three Rs and current NIH guidelines that already guide decision-making regarding animal research.  By quickly adopting the IoM committee’s recommendations without additional comment, NIH may be sending the unintentional message that such principles are not at play in work with other species.  We think this issue needs to be addressed and clarified by the NIH.”

Jentsch is largely correct in saying that the guiding principles the IOM report advocated are essentially identical to what is already in place via the NIH, the Three Rs, and numerous Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs). There is nothing new here irrespective of the jubilation being manifest by some in the animal protection movement.

Onto the real problem with the report.

Evolution. That is the problem. The IOM ignored it. If a creationist read that report and did not know where it came from, he could be very happy with what it says and more importantly what it implies: all animal are merely variations on a common theme made by a creator. Organs are interchangeable per Dr Leonard Bailey and baby Fae. What a drug does to a monkey, it will also do to a human. Per Claude Bernard, the differences among species are quantitative not qualitative. [(Bernard 1957 (1865))p124]

The report basically says that chimpanzees have worked well for modeling human disease and drug reactions. In reality, they have not. However, according to the report, science has now advanced to the point that other animals can be used in place of chimpanzees. In reality, they cannot. Not because other species do not give results as good as chimps, but because neither chimps nor other species can predict human response to drugs and disease. The report mentions alternatives to using chimps in bioassays and other non-predictive uses and it is correct in this. It is incorrect in what it states and implies about chimpanzees functioning well in the past for predicting human response to drugs and disease. (See my previous blog on how animals can be used in science.) They can certainly be used as bioassays, for example to test for contamination of a vaccine, but not as predictive models.

The report constantly commits the phylogenetic fallacy—phylogenetic closeness implies the same mechanism and the same response to drugs and disease. LaFollette and Shanks wrote in Two Models of Models in Biomedical Research: “to reason that phylogenetic continuity implies underlying causal similarity is to commit what we term the modeller's phylogenetic fallacy.” Burggren and Bemis wrote in 1993: “Unfortunately comparative physiology traditionally has been, and continues to be, outside the framework of contemporary evolutionary biology, often embracing theories, positions or approaches that contemporary morphologists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists have abandoned . . . While comparative physiologists have made an art of avoiding the study of variation, such heritable variation nonetheless is the source of evolutionary changes in physiology as well as for all other types of characters . . . Yet the use of "cockroach as insect," "frog as amphibian," or "the turtle as reptile" persists, in spite of clear evidence of the dangers of this approach. Not surprisingly, this type of comparative physiology has neither contributed much to evolutionary theories nor drawn upon them to formulate and test hypotheses in evolutionary physiology.” (Burggren and Bemis 1990)

Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald stated: “Evolutionary biology is so firmly integrated with the rest of biology that it is not possible to mark a boundary between them. But modern medicine has been a peninsula. It is broadly and firmly connected with most regions of biology. . . but has just a few thin bridges traversing the gulf to evolutionary biology. Knowledge about the evolution of antibiotic resistance is perhaps the best developed bridge between the disciplines. The discovery of the evolutionary basis for sickle cell anemia – protection against malaria – is another. . . .There are probably many reasons for the paucity of bridges. One stems from the inadequate appreciation of the pervasiveness of evolutionary principles. From secondary school through medical school, the fundamental relevance of evolution to all human life has often been ignored or even suppressed.” (Ewald 1994)

For more on why evolution is important regarding the use of animals as models for humans, see:

An analysis of the Bateson Review of research using nonhuman primates

Evolution and medicine: the long reach of "Dr. Darwin"

Animal Experimentation: the Legacy of Claude Bernard

Animal Models in Light of Evolution

For more on the importance of evolution in medicine science see

Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine by Nesse et al.

The Evolution & Medicine Review

The above links are a very partial representation.

I will submit a detailed critique of the IOM report to a peer-reviewed journal sometime next year and will post when/if it is published. The science portrayed in the IOM report is pathetic and the fact that the scientific community as a whole does not condemn this is inexcusable. Sadly, the scientific community will not condemn the report for two reasons. 1. Shanks always complained that the real problem with society’s failure to accept evolution was not, in many ways, the fault of society but the fault of the biology community. Shanks’ experience was that very few people with a doctorate in some division of the biological sciences really understood even the fundamentals of evolution. The more I learned about evolution, because of Shanks, and the more I subsequently interacted with biologists, the more I came to agree with him. I can understand physicists and chemists not having a full comprehension of evolution but even they should appreciate the fundamentals. Ironically, some physicists and other non-biologists demonstrate a better understanding of natural selection and descent with modification than many biologists. Furthermore, when one considers scientists in the fields of applied biology, eg medical science and drug development, one finds the most ignorance of the fundamentals of evolution. Everybody likes to quote Theodosius Dobzhansky, who stated: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” but very few actually put that into practice; even in the biology community.

2. Current science education produces scientists that have expertise in one very, very small area of science. Many times this expertise is more akin to technical expertise in conducting experiments and assays than actual scientific thought or knowledge. The days of the science polymath are gone secondary to the explosion of knowledge but scientists should appreciate the fundamentals of areas outside their narrow sub-sub-sub-discipline. Moreover, very few scientists appreciate the philosophy of science which, arguably, should tie it all together and that is vital in fighting creationism, alternative medicine, and other faux sciences. Regardless of sub-specialty, every scientist should understand the fundamentals of evolution, Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, the periodic table of the elements, and the fundamentals of philosophy of science. (This is obviously a very partial list.) In part because evolution gets so little attention in freshman biology, and no consideration in other introductory science courses, someone with an undergraduate degree in science can graduate without knowledge of even the very elementary facts and concepts about evolution. Add to this lack of education the fact that science societies are more concerned about emphasizing the importance of their field to federal officials so their scientists can obtain grants than they are about whether those grants produce anything of value to society. Add again to the equation the fact that there is a strong taboo against challenging scientists outside one’s own very small area of expertise. All of this equals a situation where nonsense goes unchallenged.

Every successful politician can talk out of both sides of his mouth. Just make sure your position statement contains statements such that both sides can clam victory and your re-election is secured. Keep those donations coming! In the final analysis the IOM report is a political document not a scientific or ethical analysis. Being a political document, you can find support for the continued use of chimpanzees as well as for the opposite position. A quote attributed to Edmund Burke says: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This is certainly applicable to the current topic. Unfortunately, some otherwise good people are simply ignorant. Which reminds me of another aphorism that is apropos: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it may be because you do not understand the situation.


Bernard, Claude. 1957 (1865). An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. Translated by H. C. Greene. New York: Dover.

Burggren, W W, and W E Bemis. 1990. Studying Physiological Evolution: Paradigms and Pitfalls. In Evolutionary Innovations, edited by M. H. Nitecki. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ewald, P W. 1994. The Evolution of Infectious Disease. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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