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Vivisection Past and Present

On May 21, 2013, Dario Ringach published, on the Speaking of Research site, an essay titled “Animal rights activism and medicine 100 years ago,” Ringach discusses the arguments made by animal activists 100 years ago and concludes: “What is striking about this book is that it illustrates very clearly how little (if at all) the arguments and tactics of animal rights proponents have changed over the last 100 years.” I will address these claims but will also address the related issue of how vivisection activists use and abuse words.

Ringach begins by showing some letters anti-vivisectionists sent to vivisectors. The letters contain the usual emotional responses of the former in addition to some rather unpleasant wishes regarding the family members of vivisectors. In the case of the emotional pleadings, Ringach is correct in stating that the verbiage has not changed that much. However, he is wrong is attributing the lack of charity demonstrated in some letters to the activist community as a whole. This is the fallacy of insufficient statistics and is commonly used by vivisection activists. In this case, Ringach assumes the letters containing the vitriol, both then and now, were and are representative of the entire community.

Ringach also errs in calling the activists who opposed vivisection in the 19th and early 20th centuries “animal rightists.” The philosophy known as animal rights was unheard of in that era and some of the most ardent activists ate meat and wore fur and the feathers of exotic birds. Not exactly a rightist thing to do. The 19th and early 20th century activists were anti-vivisectionists. Even Claude Bernard’s wife and daughter were among them. Anti-vivisectionists oppose vivisection. That’s all! Today, some may also be animal rightists but many are animal welfarists or even welfarists only for specific breeds or species. Some eat meat and hunt. Such is the nature of reality. There were no animal rights activists 100 years ago.

Ringach then quotes the [Second] Royal Commission on Vivisection (1912) as stating that the usual pictures of animals undergoing vivisection are misleading and that the Commission was composed of “advocates and opponents of animal experimentation.” First, I have a copy of various parts of the 1912 report from Royal Commission on Vivisection, including a description of the Commissioners, and cannot find one anti-vivisectionist on the Commission. Most were vivisectors or already on record as supporting vivisection. Moreover the Home Office refused to allow anti-vivisectionists on the Commission, so it is no surprise that the Commission found the pictures of the era misleading and the statement that the Commission was balanced is just propaganda (which suggests that the tactics of vivisection activists have not changed much in 100 years). Second, the Commission stated that one reason the pictures were misleading was because they were of animals being vivisected without the use of anesthesia. This was the case for some experiments of that era and is still true today for some experiments. There is no law that mandates anesthesia for all animal experiments. It is strongly suggested but there is a big loophole. If the Institutional Animals Care and Use Committee  (IACUC) approves, the vivisector can forgo the anesthesia. This is simply the law of the US and most of the rest of world. And spare me the usual rhetoric regarding how much IACUC’s care for animals and would never allow anyone to do such things (see [1, 2]). Such things happen routinely. I have been there!

Ringach then quotes scientists with a vested interest in vivisection as supporting vivisection. Again, we see the same thing today. Ringach also reproduces a statement from Charles Darwin supporting vivisection. I don’t think Darwin had a vested interest in vivisection but neither did he really know anything about it. He was emotionally repulsed by it but ended up supporting it mainly secondary to peer pressure. Regardless, even if Newton, Darwin, and Einstein supported a practice, they would still need to provide scientific evidence for the claims being made. Otherwise, the support of smart, famous people is just another argument from authority (see Argument From Authority. Part I, Part II and Part III.)

Ringach then launches the usual unsupported claims regarding past successes of animal experimentation: vaccines, antibiotics, etc. This is an example of the post hoc fallacy, concluding a causal relationship exists when only a temporal relationship exists, along with the simple case of making claims and not supporting them with arguments (formal arguments not ad hominem-type arguments) or evidence. Unsupported arguments are not fallacies; they simply violate other elements of critical thought.

Ringach’s essay raises another issue. Vivisection activists frequently attempt to score points with the public by objecting to the term “vivisection.” Vivisection is from the Latin vivus, “alive,” and sectio, “cutting.” It is defined as surgery or another experiment that involves cutting and that is conducted for experimental purposes on a living organism (also see here and here). Many people who experimented on animals and or wrote about the history of such referred to the practice as vivisection [3-7]. Schiller:

Vivisection was an ancient tradition and its roots went back to dissection. Its original aim was living anatomy. Herophilus and Erasistratus of Alexandria are known to have practised it in the third century, B.C. According to Celsus they even used human subjects. In the 18th century Maupertuis attempted to justify the vivisection of criminals for the benefit of mankind. Galen was the real promoter of the method and he attempted to establish animal vivisection as the foundation of physiology. [3]

Claude Bernard himself referred to what he did as vivisection [[8] p 19, 104]:

In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master, and every one has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life." [[9] p90]

(Note Bernard’s justification: an “increase of knowledge,” not a increase in medically-relevant knowledge.)

One reason vivisectors give for disowning the term is that it is associated with experimenting on animals without the use of anesthesia and they claim that such does not happen these days. This is untrue for three reasons. First, it does happen today. Second, anesthesia was discovered and used by medical practitioners in the 1840s and Bernard began his career around this time. Bernard did not use anesthesia for every experiment: “The physiologist is no ordinary man. He is a learned man, a man possessed and absorbed by a scientific idea. He does not hear the animals' cries of pain. He is blind to the blood that flows. He sees nothing but his idea, and organisms which conceal from him the secrets he is resolved to discover.”[8] But he did use anesthesia at times, as did his colleagues.

Third, as Ringach himself states, The Second Royal Commission on Vivisection (1912) condemned experiments on animals without the use of anesthesia, yet they called themselves The Second Royal Commission on Vivisection. Only recently has the term vivisection been disowned by the vivisection community. The term is an accurate portrayal of the practice. It might imply horrible things and bring to mind heinous images, but the term is still accurate.

Ringach could have pointed out the real mistakes made by the anti-vivisections of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many rejected science in toto and relied instead on theosophy. [6] Others denied that anything at all could be learned from experiments on animals. All in all, after reading both sides of that era, I have to conclude that each was wrong about roughly the same percentage of facts. The animal rightists and anti-vivisectionists of today should stop repeating the mistakes made in the 19th century regarding science and catch up on what science actually is how science has advanced since that time (see my essay posted at Our Hen House). Vivisectors and vivisection activists should also catch up on the latest science, including genetics, evolution, evo devo, complex systems, and personalized medicine, and stop lying.


1.         Plous, S. and H. Herzog, Animal research. Reliability of protocol reviews for animal research. Science, 2001. 293(5530): p. 608-9.

2.         Rice, M.J., The institutional review board is an impediment to human research: the result is more animal-based research. Philosophy, ethics, and humanities in medicine : PEHM, 2011. 6: p. 12.

3.         Schiller, J., Claude Bernard and vivisection. J Hist Med Allied Sci, 1967. 22(3): p. 246-60.

4.         Sechzer, J.A., The ethical dilemma of some classical animal experiments. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1983. 406: p. 5-12.

5.         Anderson, B.O. and A.H. Harken, Carl John Wiggers' visionary views on vivisection. Ann Surg, 1992. 216(1): p. 80-6.

6.         Rupke, N.E., Vivisection in Historical Perspective. 1987, London: Routledge.

7.         Mayer, J., The expression of the emotions in man and laboratory animals. Vic Stud, 2008. 50(3): p. 399-417.

8.         Bernard, C., An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. 1865. 1957, New York: Dover. 125.

9.         Darwin, C., The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. (1871) 1936 New York: Modern Library.


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