Interview with Dr. Dan Lyons (English)

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(November 2009)

Dan Lyons is Campaigns Director of Uncaged. He is one of the UK's leading authorities on the politics of animal experimentation. He has been awarded a PhD for his research into the evolution of British animal research policy. He has also been awarded two prestigious prizes for his research, the Arthur Ling Memorial Award sponsored by Plamil Foods and the Andrew Gamble Prize for the Outstanding Thesis of 2006-7, awarded by a committee of academics at Sheffield University's Department of Politics, which is one of the top three centres for politics research in Britain.

1) Since when have you been vegan and why did you become vegan?

I have been vegan for about 17 years. As a teenager I started to cut meat out of my diet, especially red meat, for a mixture of health and ethical reasons. Then at university I became vegetarian, as I had met other veggies and had the opportunity to cook for myself. I joined the student animal rights society at Sheffield University, and that opened my eyes to the suffering the animals experience in the dairy industry, as well as providing a social environment that promoted vegan values.

2) As far as I see it there is the moral argument which says that all animal experimentation is morally wrong, and then there is the scientific argument which says that animal experiments impede scientific progress. Could you explain the scientific argument against animal experiments?

The most significant scientific weakness of animal experimentation is that animal models of disease in a laboratory environment do not correspond to the situation they purport to model – human beings in our much more complex life situations. Firstly, there are biological differences between species (and, for that matter, between different sub-species, and different ages/genders within species). Because animal organisms are incredibly complex systems, a difference in one process, for example, the rate a drug is cleared from the body between, say, rats and humans, will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the system. This means that results cannot be reliably extrapolated across species.

Additionally, when researchers attempt to model human diseases in animals, they have to artificially replicate the disease, and so the actual phenomena they are studying in the lab is different to the real target of study – human diseases. There also environmental differences which further undermine the relevance of animal research. Organisms are not atomised, isolated entities. The laboratory environment has profound effects on the physiology of animal, both directly and via psychological stress.

3) Is the scientific argument against animal experiments valid against ALL experiments with nonhuman animals or are there any experiments that could be useful for scientific progress?

A few animal experiments in the past have produced results that have assisted in the development of medicines. But even an extremely poor research methodology will end up producing a small proportion of results that turn out to be useful in hindsight. That doesn’t mean that the methodology is valid. The fundamental weaknesses of animal experimentation as a predictor of human biology mean that it is not a scientifically valid method, and should be abolished on those grounds alone.

4) Which ways of testing should be used instead of animal experiments, especially for testing medication?

There has been a historic neglect of human-based methods because of a dominant ideology in science that has prioritised laboratory experimentation on animal surrogates over real-world observations and studies. Laboratory animal experimentation has been a self-serving professional convenience at the cost of real-world relevance. In laboratory experiments it’s relatively easy to generate quantitative data and give the appearance of controlling external variables, which creates an illusion of ‘scientific method’. But at the same time the research becomes detached from the real world and merely represents an abstract, publication-driven exercise with no reliable contribution to human medicine. When scientists can perform identical animal experiments in different labs, and produce contradictory results, it indicates that it is a very crude and unreliable method.

The logistics of eliminating animal testing for medicine is going to require initially the gathering of more data relevant to humans, a task which has hitherto been neglected. Once we better understand the cellular basis of human diseases it opens the door for new biomodule systems to be used to test the effect of potential medicines on cells. And by linking multiples of these biomodules a “quasi vivo” system can be created. For instance, linking biomodules containing skin and liver cells allows the researcher to witness communication between the different tissue types and more accurately predict irritation.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is now driving a whole new approach to testing that rejects the use of animals in favour of an approach that focuses on identifying and evaluating cellular response pathways responsible for adverse health effects when sufficiently perturbed by deterioration, pathogens or environmental agents under realistic exposure conditions.

These new methods, combined with clinical observation, computer modelling, and microdosing volunteers and patients can provide better, more efficient and, of course, more ethical medical research and testing.

5) Could you tell us about your Boycott Procter & Gamble campaign? Why Procter & Gamble, how can people support the campaign, how do you convince people to join the boycott, and can such a boycott lead to less animal experiments?

Procter & Gamble are the world’s largest consumer products manufacturer who still perform animal tests for the sake of cosmetics, toiletries and household products. They make products like Herbal Essences, Olay, Max Factor, Ariel and Pantene Pro V. P&G’s massive scale makes it a hugely influential organisation. As one industry magazine puts it: ‘What P&G does, others emulate’. Although some smaller companies are also guilty of animal testing, with power comes responsibility, so P&G deserves particular criticism. Furthermore, by targeting and influencing P&G, Uncaged hopes to spark a domino effect throughout the industry.

P&G say that if people buy their products, then they are ‘voting’ for P&G as a company. By the same token, if you buy P&G products you are voting for cruel and unnecessary tests on animals.

Conversely, if you boycott P&G, you are voting for a more compassionate future. A boycott is the most fundamental moral action that people can take to show disapproval and to reject an unethical company. By exercising their choice in a conscientious and positive way, and boycotting these products, each individual can make a difference. Through publicity and loss of income, together we can encourage Procter & Gamble to stop testing on animals.

6) Could you tell us about the International Animal Rights Day and the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights? What is the aim of these campaigns?

Uncaged's campaign for a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights is the only major initiative aimed at promoting the basic values that underpin the animal rights movement. International Animal Rights Day (IARD) on December 10 is a day of action dedicated to highlighting the compelling case for animal rights.

I think it is essential that animal rights advocates devote a proportion of our resources to pushing the basic, rational case for our cause. Although 'animal rights' appears radical to those unfamiliar with the issue, we know it is simply the reasonable application of most people's innate compassion and the values of a genuinely civilised society. Acceptance of animal rights is an essential fundamental belief that must be established if individuals and our culture and legal system are to stop barbaric practices like animal experiments and factory farming, and alleviate the tyranny and oppression suffered by animals.

7) Do you have any advice for making our vegan and animal rights advocacy as effective as possible? And how can campaigns against vivisection be used to, in the course of these campaigns, introduce people to veganism and animal rights?

It is vital to understand how people and society works, rather than just assume everyone is just like us. People are, generally, not very rational and take their moral values mainly from their social environment. We are also creatures of habit. Therefore radical change usually takes time. We have to exercise what is known in discourse theory as ‘witcraft’, altering individual and cultural perspectives and values by using language which is familiar but leads them on a progressive path towards animal rights and veganism.

Campaigns against vivisection can alert people to the abuse that animals endure and hence make them realise how important legally-enshrined animal rights are to protect them from that abuse. Once you are communicating with people then it is much easier to raise the ethical issues around eating animals and encourage them to take the journey to veganism.

8) Do you have any tips for people who want to campaign against vivisection and for animal rights in countries where this movement is still very young?

In a way, I envy their situation as the very novelty of the cause can make it more attention-grabbing: ‘the shock of the new’ as the saying goes. I think a very important thing is to avoid alienating the public and the media because if you do, they stop listening and change becomes much harder. When you start from a clean slate you have the chance to maintain a positive trajectory for animal rights. Don’t descend into inward-looking cliques or cult-like associations – we cannot save animals without having the political strength of a genuine mass movement.

9) The reasons why nonhuman animals are killed for food and other products is the demand by the general population for these products. But with animal experiments it’s not a clear matter of supply and demand. What is really the reason why animal experiments are done and what is the solution to abolish them? Do campaigns need to target the general population or certain institutions?

Firstly, I think the first sentence doesn’t describe the whole story, and implies an individualistic, positivist social ontology that is not only empirically inaccurate but often underpins reactionary and conservative politics. People’s desires and demands don’t appear in a vacuum. Apart from cultural habituation, the political and economic power of animal food industries perpetuates current levels of animal consumption.

But you are right that animal experimentation, apart from for consumer goods which is a relatively small proportion, is even more insulated from consumer action. What happens today is strongly influenced by history. Vivisection became institutionalised in the late 19th century by powerful interest groups in physiology and medicine who perceived animals as little more than automata, and believed that rats were essentially biological miniatures of human beings. Perversely, the practice also gave physiology and medicine a veneer of scientific respectability that elevated their professional status and political power. Once the practice and the power of vivisectors became institutionalised, they became a law-unto-themselves. The freedom to vivisect is more about professional pride and autonomy than a desire to help humanity. Its role in marketing pharmaceuticals since the second world war has strengthened its structural power.

To abolish vivisection we certainly need to target the public as public opinion and political action is our greatest asset. But sometimes we also have to try to engage with the scientific community is constructive ways because, whether we like it or not, they hold the key. No matter how much we disapprove of them, they are not going to suddenly disappear. Finally we have to apply political pressure because vivisection only happens ultimately, because politicians allow it. Now, obviously, politicians don’t act in vacuum either and are subject to heavy political pressure from the vivisection industry. That’s why a combination of methods needs to be employed so we can start a virtuous circle, where positive changes in social, scientific and political spheres reinforce each other.

10) Do you have any predictions for the future animal experiments?

On the whole, I am positive that we may start to see the number of experiments on animals start to fall. The development of a whole new approach to non-animal approach to testing will not only save millions of animals’ lives every year in that area, but encourage the replacement of animals in more fundamental biological research.

There is also growing awareness of animal sentience and the dogma of human supremacism seems to be faltering. So ethical pressure and technological change can combine to achieve positive change.