February 19, 2010
Adam Shriver, no doubt driven by kindness and goodwill towards other animals, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times today that is chilling in its implications. Shriver notes the unnecessary and often cruel suffering that farm animals undergo as they’re being prepared for our supermarket freezers. But then he offers hope of salvation from their suffering in a bizarre and frightening direction: apply genetic engineering to create new breeds of animals that don’t experience suffering all. They would continue to experience pain, but a crucial part of their brain – the anterior cingulate cortex – would be genetically modified to stop functioning, and as a result they would no longer suffer from the consciousness of that pain.
At first sight, this might seem like a humane research direction, and I’m sure Shriver has nothing but the best intentions. But this approach carries with it some sinister implications and augurs threateningly for a new and disturbing potential outcome of the intersection of neuroscience and genetic engineering.
Like so many stories on the subject of animal feelings, this one begins with René Descartes (1596-1650), the guy most famous for his declaration of “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes applied the same logic to animals. In his view, they didn’t think, therefore they weren’t. Or, to be more precise, only humans, with their immortal souls, have the capability to think and feel. By contrast, animals are mere instinctual machines, with no more capacity for feelings than vegetables. “We should have no doubt at all,” he wrote, “that the irrational animals are automata.”
Strange as we may now view this, it was taken seriously at the time… to the great detriment of animals. An observer at the time wrote of the gruesome torture administered to animals through vivisection, in the name of Descartes:
The [Cartesian] scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy.”
Descartes had kicked off a long and powerful tradition which remains influential to this day. It enjoyed its heyday in the behaviorism predominant in psychology throughout much of the 20th century, where the metaphor of “animal as machine” continued to be taken literally. “Behaviorists tested the capacities of animals not through naturalistic observation but through highly controlled stimulus response experiments. Speculation about the subjective experiences or thought processes of animals seemed unscientific: animals didn’t think, they reacted.”
Turns out, though, Descartes and the behaviorists were wrong. Animals do suffer. And over the past couple of decades, neuroscientists and ethologists have discovered multiple pathways of experience shared by both humans and other mammals. Hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin, which play crucial roles in our experience of love and bonding, turn out to have similar impacts in rodents and other mammals. Evolutionary research shows that we share with other mammals “perhaps the most momentous achievement of evolution,” the subjective experience of core consciousness. This core consciousness is tied directly with a sense of self and of feelings. As neuroscientist LeDoux puts it, “I will say that capacity to have feelings is directly tied to the capacity to be consciously aware of one’s self and the relation of oneself to the rest of the world.”
As Shriver is no doubt well aware, the anterior cingulate cortex (“ACC”) plays a central part in this glorious process. The ACC, in the words of one research team, “is primarily involved in assessing the salience of emotional and motivational information.” The ACC acts like a super-sensitive, multi-faceted feedback mechanism for a creature’s moment-to-moment existence. It monitors competing demands, detects unexpected changes in the environment and within the creature, funneling this information to the appropriate parts of the brain to prime a response. In short, it has a key role in monitoring the self and directing attention. In fact, it’s likely that without a fully functioning ACC, a creature would no longer have a self. That’s probably why, in the experiments that Shriver discusses, rats without a functioning ACC withdraw their paws from a painfully hot area, but they don’t learn to avoid that area like normal rats. Because they’ve lost a self to perceive the salience of an experience.
So Shriver’s proposed genetic engineering program would breed something never before seen on this earth: a mammal without a self. Descartes, in his dualistic speculations, bizarrely proposed that the pineal gland might be the seat of the human soul. Based on current neuroscience, if the soul of a creature has any one locus in the body that is an absolute prerequisite for its existence, that would be the ACC.
We’ve gone down this path before, only with humans rather than animals. In the first half of the twentieth century, neuroscientists found that frontal lobotomies seemed to miraculously cure symptoms of agitation and mental suffering. Neurologist Walter Freeman promoted this procedure in the 1940’s and 1950’s, to the extent that by 1951, nearly 20,000 individuals had been lobotomized in the United States. As we now know, as a tragic consequence of these procedures, these unfortunate victims lost not only their anxieties, but their sense of self.
I suggest that Shriver is proposing a 21st century, sanitized version of a lobotomy. Only in this case, the lobotomy is already prefabricated through genetic engineering, and the zombie creatures formed would never even have had a self to lose. In a ghastly irony, Shriver’s program would put Descartes right back in the driver’s seat. Descartes said animals had no soul, no feelings. He was proved wrong. Now, Shriver wants to create a breed of animals that would make Descartes’ grotesque fantasy of “automata animals” come true.
I agree with Shriver that unnecessary farm animal suffering is a grievous aspect of our modern world, and that much more needs to be done to alleviate it. But his proposal threatens an inner sanctum of nature which even we humans have not yet ventured to desecrate: a creature’s subjective sense of self. We’ve trained, tormented, killed and eaten other animals from time immemorial; but we’ve never genetically engineered a creature to be a zombie. Along with the powers brought to us by the discoveries of neuroscience and genetic engineering, we must establish a set of principles that incorporate a sense of what is sacred in the natural world… before we create a true Cartesian nightmare where all that’s left are we humans and our own artificially constructed environment, engineered for our consumption.
 Letter to Marin Mersenne, 13 July 1640, cited by Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 37-8.
 Quoted by Masson, J. M., and McCarthy, S. (1995). When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delta, 18.
 Talbot, M. (2008). “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots.” The New Yorker(May 12, 2008).
 de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). “Darwin’s last laugh.” Nature, 460(9 July 2009), 175.
 Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 211-12.
 LeDoux, J. (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 125.
 Bush, G., Luu, P., and Posner, M. I. (2000). “Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6: June 2000), 215-222.
 Kerns, J. G., Cohen, J. D., MacDonald, A. W. I., Cho, R. Y., Stenger, V. A., and Carter, C. S. (2004). “Anterior Cingulate Conflict Monitoring and Adjustments in Control.” Science, 303(13 February 2004), 1023-1026.
 Gallagher, H. L., and Frith, C. D. (2003). “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2: February 2003), 77-83. Note: while this study focuses on ACC’s role in the human sense of self, (including “secondary self,”) the role of the ACC in forming a mammalian sense of core self would appear to homologous.