img: Gabriel Meono

a scientific report of mother-infant attachment behaviour in monkeys has drawn hyperbolic coverage from the media, & outrage from animal welfare groups & some scientists. all research has ethical implications. a balance must be struck.  

original articles: Livingstone, 2022 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), Grimm, 2022 (Science), reported in: The Daily Mail by Stacy Liberatore on 25th October 2022 image source

this story was in episode 33 #monkey #infant #vision #animal #rights

the error bar says

the Daily Mail - a British tabloid that rarely misses an opportunity to misrepresent science - leads on an emotive, difficult story from the United States about the use of non-human primates - monkeys - in vision research.

Professor Margaret Livingstone has studied the brain & its visual system for decades. she has worked with lobsters, cats, monkeys & humans. it is some of her recent work with monkeys that has caused controversy.

Livingstone was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, & as such was invited to present some of her work. she took the opportunity to write about some observations made in female monkeys shortly after they gave birth. in one monkey that gave birth to a stillborn infant, her lab noticed that providing a soft monkey toy stimulated maternal behaviours.

following this observation, her team studied this behaviour in more depth, & experimentally, by removing infant monkeys from the womb before birth & replacing the infant with a soft toy.

in a second series of experiments, the lab has used common surgical procedures to close the eyelids of newborn monkeys to study their visual development.

animal rights campaigners & some researchers working with animals have described Livingstone's work as 'unethical', 'inhumane' & 'cruel'.

is it unethical to study monkeys in this way?


the ethics of animal experiments is not easy.

what is easy, however, is to see how the Daily Mail has framed this story. the majority of their coverage is of the protest against the research & very little is on the reasons for it, despite a lengthy & detailed statement given by Livingstone. perhaps the mail online were upset that the distinguished US neuroscientist 'declined to comment' to the undistinguished UK tabloid. more likely they chose to fuel outrage by describing - & i quote - "research that involved ripping newborn monkeys from their mothers".

the research did not involve any ripping. careful surgeries to remove the baby monkeys were conducted under anaesthesia.

i've met many researchers who work with animals. i've received training in animal research & have done some work with animals myself. i am also an animal lover. these things are not incompatible, but they do conflict. many scientists share these ethical dilemmas.

in a letter written by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a neuroscientist supports their case to close-down this line of research with evidence from twenty-three papers detailing the effects of visual deprivation on the brain. much of this evidence was obtained directly from animal experiments.

for now, in the interest of balance, Professor Livingstone can have the final words. she writes:

"Whether you support animal research or not, you have benefited from therapies derived from work done in animals. And so have your pets. Veterinary medicine also relies on studies in animals. Pets that receive antibiotics, pain killers, cancer treatments, or vaccines or have surgery are the beneficiaries of research done in animals."


ethics isn't monochromatic