Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, is being criticized by her peers for her recent study ‘A Mother’s Love’ in which she permanently separated mothers from their babies to study their behaviour.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in September and received very little publicity or media coverage -meaning there was little interest in her study.
But her cruel experiments on macaques -separating mothers and babies- has intensified the ethical debate on animal testing. Over 250 scientists asked PNAS in a letter for a retraction of the study.
“We cannot ask monkeys for consent, but we can stop using, publishing, and in this case actively promoting cruel methods that knowingly cause extreme distress,” Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who co-authored the retraction letter, said.
Alan McElligot of the City University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Animal Health also signed the letter and told news agency AFP that Livingstone appeared to have duplicated research performed by American psychologist Harry Harlow.
“It (Livingstone’s study) just ignored all of the literature that we already have on attachment theory,” Holly Root-Gutteridge, an animal behaviour scientist at the University of Lincoln in Britain, said.
In 1958, Harlow also separated mother and baby monkeys to study their behaviour. His study was already seen as controversial in those times as people’s questioned whether such harmful animal experiments were needed to predict human behaviour.
Harvard Medical School defended the ‘A Mother’s Love’ study in a statement, arguing that Livingstone’s research could help human mothers with the loss of their babies.
Root-Gutteridge said that Livingstone could have studied wild macaques who naturally lost their babies instead of taking away their newborns -macaques are 5.5 months pregnant. In her past work, Livingstone sewed the eyelids of infant monkeys shut to study the impact on their awareness.
Funding animal experiments
The fact that Livingstone’s questionable study was conducted at Harvard, a renowned university, and published by high impact journal PNAS is part of a bigger problem where studies that have little to no value to human health but are very cruel to animals continue to be funded and praised, Root-Gutteridge and McElligot argued.
McElligot referred to a much-critiqued 2020 paper praising the efficiency of foot snares in capturing cougars and jaguars for a scientific study in Brazil. More recently, experiments on marmosets -tiny monkeys- that included invasive surgeries have attracted controversy.
The experiments were conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who said the cruel monkey experiments were to understand Alzheimer’s in people better. But many scientists have argued that results in animals rarely have the same effects in humans.
According to watchdog group White Coat Waste, the US government spend over $20 billion annually “for wasteful and cruel experiments on dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals.”
These huge amounts of money are also an incentive for universities and other institutes to continue to use animals in studies -animals are viewed as lab resources.
“The animal experimenters are the rainmaker (driving force) within the institutions because they’re bringing in more money,” primatologist Lisa Engel-Jones, who worked as a lab researcher but now opposes the practice and is a science advisor for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said.
“There’s financial incentive to keep doing what you’ve been doing and just look for any way you can to get more papers published because that means more funding and more job security,” Emily Trunnel, a neuroscientist who experimented on rodents and now also works for PETA, added.
Testing drugs on animals
Public opinion on using animals for experiments is changing. In September, the US Senate passed the widely supported FDA Modernization Act, which would end a requirement that experimental medicines first need to be tested on animals before any human trials.
Most drugs that pass animal tests do not work in human trials, and new technologies such as mini-organs, tissue cultures, and AI models are better predictors of drug effects in humans.