The following statement concerning Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation (New York Review/Random House, second edition, 1990), was sent to The New York Review following a review by Mr. Singer of several books on the treatment of animals in the April 9 issue.
To the Editors:
The objectives of both editions of Singer’s book are clearly stated in the preface of the 1975 edition, which is reprinted in the 1990 version. He wishes to convince us that “animals suffer from the tyranny of human beings” (p. iii) and to persuade us to end this “oppression and exploitation” of animals by extending to them “the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests” (p. ii). To achieve these goals, he uses the techniques of propagandists, but he masquerades them in the guise of responsible scholarship. His methods include quoting authorities out of context, misquoting them, and quoting from obscure sources that are at best difficult to find and frequently impossible to check. Because of space limitations, we shall restrict our comments to his chapter on the use of animals in biomedical research, and present only three examples of the misrepresentations that it contains.
Singer selects research projects that can be exploited for maximal emotional impact and portrays them as the norm. About 25 percent of the pages in this chapter are devoted to criticizing studies on animal behavior and drug addiction—yet such research constitutes a very small fraction of the total use of animals in research and testing. He is particularly critical of the work of Harry Harlow and others who studied the effects of rearing infant monkeys in isolation. In attempting to discredit the value of and need for such studies, Singer quotes (p. 32) a British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, who wrote:
The evidence has been reviewed at some length because much of it is still little known and the issue of whether deprivation causes psychiatric disturbance is still discussed as though it were an open question. It is submitted that the evidence is now such that it leaves no room for doubt regarding the general proposition—that the prolonged deprivation of the young child of maternal care may have grave and far-reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his future life. Although it is a proposition exactly similar in form to those regarding the evil after-effects of rubella in foetal life or deprivation of vitamin D in infancy, there is a curious resistance to accepting it.
Singer’s quote deleted the important qualifier in the first sentence (underlined) without using ellipsis dots to indicate the deletion, and he neglected to include the last sentence (also underlined). He states that even though Bowlby’s conclusions were made in 1951, before Harlow began his research, “This did not deter Harlow and his colleagues from devising and carrying out their monkey experiments” (p. 32). However, when stated correctly (i.e. as he wrote them), Bowlby’s conclusions support doing the kind of studies that Harlow and others conducted in order to test the validity of the clinical evidence in an animal model. Such tests would (and did) convince skeptical physicians of the dire consequences of inadequate maternal attention.
It is significant, but not surprising, that Singer neglects to mention any of the benefits that have derived from the studies of Harlow and his associates. These benefits include improved methods of care for premature infants so that they thrive and thus can be removed from incubators earlier, and the acquisition of important insights into helping children who have problems socializing with their peers.
In another attempt to discredit animal psychology research, Singer selectively quotes (p. 47) from an article by Steven Maier, which examines the usefulness of learned helplessness in animals as a model of depression in humans. The complete statement of Maier (beginning in the middle of a paragraph, where Singer’s quote begins) follows, and the sections that Singer deleted are underlined:
It can be argued that there is not enough agreement about the characteristics, neurobiology, induction, and prevention/cure of depression to make such comparison meaningful. Indeed, it has been argued that depression itself would not meet a rigorous application of the above criteria (McKinney, 1974). That is, depression might be sufficiently heterogenous in behavioral characteristics, neurobiology, causation, and prevention, that a given collection of depressed individuals might not closely match another. It might seem that a consideration of subtypes would resolve the issue, but even subtypes are probably not unitary in nature. Even a subtype of depression is a clinically defined syndrome or collection of events, and there is no strong reason to believe that such a collection will have a single cause. There may be many “routes” to what is labelled as depression, and they may not reduce to a single type even on a conceptual level. It would thus appear unlikely that learned helplessness is a model of depression in any general sense. However, animal “models” seem useful precisely because they do not duplicate the full clinical phenomenon but can allow the study of a single “route” in isolation [emphasis added].
Singer then states (p. 47), “Although Maier tries to salvage something from this dismaying conclusion by saying that learned helplessness may constitute a model not of depression but of ‘stress and coping,’ he has effectively admitted that more than thirty years of animal experimentation have been a waste of time and of substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money, quite apart from the immense amount of acute physical pain that they have caused.”