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The Impact of Animal Experiments on the Development of Modern Medicine

Deutsch - Español - from EVU News, Issue 1 /1997 - Français - Italiano

Bernhard Rambeck has a doctor’s degree in Biochemistry. Since 1975 he is the leader of the department of pharmacology of the Centre for Epilepsy in Westphalia (D). He is author and co-author of several scientific works. He wrote the book: Mythos Tierversuch (The myth of animal experiment, see EVU News 4/96, Books)
At all times, humans have tried to cure diseases or injuries and to defeat death. The essential knowledge of healers used to come from observing sick and healthy human beings and animals. Anatomic examinations of the deceased also played an important role in certain eras. In any culture, doctors and healers tried to prevent diseases through adequate nutrition, the avoidance of poisonous substances and the balance between a human’s physical and mental powers. When illnesses nevertheless occurred, they tried to cure them by preparing a great variety of mostly plant-based drugs. Surgery has always been known to doctors, and thousands of years ago patients were already put in a state of deep unconsciousness by using hallucinogenuous or somnifacient herbs. The aim of medical schools and academies used to be the passing on of knowledge collected in connection with the treatment of illnesses and injuries.

There still were, of course, outsiders trying to find out about nature’s secrets by experimenting on animals, on convicts or prisoners of war. But the significance of such forcibly obtained knowledge for the development of medicine was low. Until the late 19th century, the majority of doctors treated their patients according to the principle known as “nil nocere” – first of all not to harm – but paid little attention to the question whether an animal made artificially sick or intentionally injured would bring new findings for humane therapy.

The introduction of vivisection

Only in the middle of the 19th century did the French physiologist Claude Bernard make animal experiments a touchstone of any medical knowledge by publishing his book “Introduction à l’étude de la médicine experimentale” (Introduction to the study of experimental medicine, 1865). He, thus, forced medical science into a then unimaginable materialistic direction. Under horrible conditions and without anesthesia, he started to operate on restrained dogs and cats and performed physiological experiments. From countless documents we know that most of the medical profession was terrified by the cruelty of his methods. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the supporters of experimental medicine succeeded at the universities. Vivisectionists immediately tried to transfer their animal test results to humans. In many cases, this meant a pitiful fate for the patient because in those days as well as today, the transferability of animal test results to humans cannot be predicted. Only clinical experience would tell whether a therapy or a drug could be successfully used in human medicine.

The actual significance of animal experiments in medicine

Due to the fact that, since Claude Bernard, many scientists in the field of medicine used both, animal experiments and clinical experience at the same time, it is almost impossible to determine today which of the findings are based on which method. Since Claude Bernard, experimenters and their supporters will surely attribute any success or achievement in the treatment and cure of illnesses to research based on animal experiments. But, historians have shown that the most significant progress in medical science was not achieved through animal experimentation. Until the early 20th century, infectious diseases were among the main causes of death in the industrialised world. Their massive decline since the turn of the century lead to a significant increase in the average expectation of life, and, can mainly be attributed to improvements in social medicine, better hygiene as well as better nutrition and living standards, but surely not to the relatively late development of antibiotics and vaccines.

The idea of healing

The introduction of animal experimentation and its scientific principles shifted the emphasis of the idea of healing to a mechanisation with regard to the repair of defective organs. Healing in its original sense with a holistic aspect meant both, body and soul. Yet, in today’s medical science healing and therapy are only considered real if they fit into scientific standard frames. The systematic introduction of animal experimentation into medical science since the middle of the 19th century has led to an increased replacement of vitalistic and holistic ideas of healing by scientific models. It is, of course, mere speculation to think what could have become of medical science without the introduction of animal experimentation. Perhaps preventive measures – such as the ones which led to a massive decline in infectious diseases – would have succeeded on a large scale. Maybe homoeophathy and similar alternative systems would have developed to become scientifically accepted methods. But this, we can only presume.

The animal experiment as a child of its time

On the other hand, it is quite clear that 20th century’s medical science with its orientation toward animal experiments is a child of its time, a time when everything seems to be technically possible, from landing on the moon to organ transplantation. Animal experimentation as a means of medical science does fit into that totally materialised 20th century. Whatever cannot be measured does not exist. And whenever healing cannot be explained materialistically and proven, it is called quackery or mere fantasy.

It is not by chance that animal experimentation was only introduced into medical science in the 19th century. From a technical point of view, science would have been able to perform similar tests already centuries before. Animal tests could only be considered useful when the idea was sufficiently accepted that humans were a more highly developed mammal. As long as it was part of the generally accepted philosophical idea that humans differed from animals in their mental and spiritual properties, there was no basis for experimental research on animals. Animal experiments would only “make sense” when science declared humans to be a further developed ape. On the other hand, animal experimentation brought a mechanistic scientific way of thinking deeper and deeper into medicine.

The peak of animal based medical research

After Claude Bernard, the number of animal experiments increased continuously until the middle of the 20th century. The peak might have been reached when the first heart transplants were performed and immediately after the Contergan (Thalidomide) disaster. With Barnard’s human heart transplants – just in the “heartless” Apartheid state of South Africa – it seemed to be possible to take even the last hurdle for a technomedical science which was, on a long-term basis, supposed to solve any medical problem. The fall then began with the Contergan (Thalidomide) disaster which had occurred inspite of all the toxicological studies. Of course, this tragedy was used as grounds to perform an even greater number of animal tests, but meanwhile the blind trust in technomedical science had been shaken.

The tradition of animal experimentation in modern medical science has caused industries and universities to make huge investments in animal testing research, hoping that they may reveal solutions for today’s medical problems, especially for heart and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, epilepsy, rheumatoid and allergic disorders.

The experiment in the sciences

An essential aspect of the natural sciences has here been applied to medical science: The experiment under widest exclusion of the chance factor. There is no doubt that this principle has helped the empirical sciences to achieve epoch-making successes. Since Galilei and Newton, many substantial physical constants and laws have been found through experiments. In physical and chemical tests they tried to determine the relationship between cause and effect in its original form and to exclude any influence that mere chance may have on the result.

The medical experiment

Referring to medical science, this principle means that the effect of chemical substances, physical influences or operations is examined using the animal model. By repeating the experiment or performing the same experiment on a greater number of animals, scientists try to exclude any accidental influences on the results.

When testing new substances on patients, the influence of the experimenter – or better the clinical supervisor of the study – and mere chance may have, is usually avoided by a „placebo controlled double-blind cross-over study“. This means that when testing drugs, neither the patient nor the doctor responsible is actually supposed to know whether the test drug or a placebo (without an active agent) is used and in what sequence. By using mathematic-statistical methods, results are verified for their significance. When doing so, the patient is reduced to a simple physical system of cause and effect – as was the test animal before him.

But with this method of proceeding, some general problems are not considered. An experiment only makes sense if it does in fact include the most essential quantities of influence. When a human disease is investigated on an animal model, this is a problem from a methodological point of view as there are significant differences between a human being and an animal concerning their physiology, their biochemistry and their metabolism. But, first of all, a most important quantity of influence surely cannot be modelled in animals, i.e. the psychic, mental and spiritual influences on the formation, the development or the progress of a disease.

The questionable logic of animal experiments

A physical experiment will only be able to answer physical questions and a chemical experiment will only answer those of the field of chemistry. The question is whether at all there is a “medical experiment”. When it is about the art of healing, can we experiment in a scientific sense? There surely is a way to do studies on human beings or animals with a biochemical or physiological formulation of the question, such as “How does an animal, e.g. a rat, react when ethanol (ethyl alcohol) or methanol (methyl alcohol) are administered?” In both cases, it will show more or less severe side effects. But what relevance do such tests have for humans ? A human to whom ethanol has been administered will react in a similar way to an animal, but using methanol he will soon go blind, but not so the rat. The cause for such different type of reaction between humans and rats can be found in the different processing method of methanol in the liver. The problem of physiological dependence on ethanol can also be studied in animals. Alcohol may be administered to rats for a longer period of time and after discontinuation their withdrawal symptoms may be studied. But even leaving aside the unpredictable differences between the two species, alcohol dependence in humans is well known not merely to be a biochemical one, but a psycho-physical one as well, which cannot be studied on an animal. Therefore, there is – inspite of all the animal models – no drug to treat alcohol dependence. The reproach that medical science based on animal experimentation will just treat the symptoms or shift them, has its grounds in the fact that a therapeutical experiment in a holistic sense is indeed not possible and that animal tests will only deal with part of the aspects with no precise predictability of their relevance for humans.

Progress in medicine inspite of animal experiments

You may, of course, ask why ispite of the questionable transferability of animal test results gained in the last 80 to 90 years, a greater number of obviously efficient therapeutics has been developed. The answer is: not due to the animal experiments, but in spite of them they were able to be developed and then studied in clinical trials for their effectiveness. Although in recent decades, the number of animal tests has increased astronomically, they have rarely led to the discovery of new active agents and there is no break-through in fighting modern plagues such as cancer or chronic heart diseases. On the other hand it is well known that these disorders can often be avoided by vegetarian nutrition and by a reasonable life-style without cigarettes and alcohol.

The damage of animal experimentation on medicine

The immense damage medical science has experienced due to animal experimentation consists in the extreme overemphasis of the scientific aspect with a simultaneous suppression of the mental and spiritual aspects for health and diseases in humans. Nobody will deny that important mechanisms in the functional system of humans and animals can be explained on a scientific basis. But the enormous parallelism forced by the animal test research system is to believe that only those aspects are essential for health and diseases which can be scientifically explained and physically proven. Due to this fundamental error, today’s medical science does its research ignoring the core of the problem which causes a disease and makes no progress in fighting the most essential epidemic diseases of civilisation, and all this in spite of the fact that the most gigantic investments are made and an incredible large quantity of detailed knowledge is available.

The criticism of animal experiments on scientific grounds

It is for good reasons that a general refusal of animal tests has recently increased substantially and is more and more often supported even by critical physicians and scientists. It is less for animal welfare reasons than for recognition of the fact that a largely mechanistic or materialistic orientation of medical research has led the art of healing into a dead end. Reductionist ways of thinking have reduced the concepts of life, consciousness, the soul, illness, health and healing to biochemical or physical fundamental ideas and to mere mechanistic interpretations, leaving aside the holistic aspect. Thus, some of the most essential values of these terms have been lost.

The medicine of the future

Will future doctors be healing or will they merely be industry-dependant biotechnicians? There are many signs today which prove that the practising of medical science has reached its limits in every sense, and that by doctors as well as by patients it is considered to be exorbitantly expensive, partly very dangerous and, with regard to the most important epidemic diseases, anything but effective. If humankind is to survive the global problems of modern times, holistic medical science could enter upon the inheritance of traditional and less conventional healing systems including a useful scientific knowledge. Animal experimentation will then surely be of no more importance, but go down in the history of medical science as a murderous error.

For contact: Dr. Bernhard Rambeck
Bethel, Maraweg 13, 33546 Bielefeld, Germany,
Tel.+49 521 144 3236, Fax: +49 521 144 2027