No, Elon Musk, there is nothing ‘cool’ about experimenting on animals
Neuralink Corporation, a company Musk co-founded, has wired up a monkey’s brain with an implant to attempt to make it play video games with its mind – can this ever be acceptable?
Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, became the richest person in the world last month, according to Forbes. This week, he bought $1.5bn worth of Bitcoin, causing the price of the cryptocurrency to reach an all-time high. Love him or loathe him, what Musk does matters to millions.
This is why it was so concerning to hear the news that Neuralink Corporation, a company Musk co-founded, has wired up a monkey’s brain with a tiny implant to attempt to make it play video games with its mind.
In a private speech given on the invitation-only social media app Clubhouse, Musk said: “One of the things we’re trying to figure out is whether we can have the monkeys playing mind pong with each other. That would be pretty cool.”
This is not the first time Neuralink Corporation has experimented on animals. The company has previously implanted wireless technologies into the brains of pigs. Musk described this as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires”.
Despite the company’s claims that these experiments could help find cures for spinal cord injuries and neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, many other scientists are less convinced.
Sadly, Musk’s actions are hardly an isolated incident. They reflect an increase in the number of experiments on animals taking place, despite mounting public concern and a growth in alternative approaches to scientific research. At leading laboratories in the US, experimenting on animals has increased by a staggering 73 per cent in recent years, while more experiments on animals are conducted in the UK than in any other country in Europe. The latest government figures revealed a total of 3.4 million experiments were completed during 2019, with more than half of these performed in universities, often paid for by the taxpayer.
Take the recent outcry in Edinburgh, where the university was accused of using the widely discredited “forced swim” test to research antidepressants. This is where animals are placed in beakers of water from which they cannot escape, literally giving them the choice of sink or swim. While it’s unclear what provoking a drowning experience in small animals can teach us about the difficulties humans face battling depression, these experiments did raise awareness of some of the creative but barbaric ways we still employ, pushing the limits of animals in the UK.
The harmful use of animals in experiments is not only cruel but so often ineffective. In fact, 90 per cent of drugs that successfully pass the preceding animal tests fail in human trials. Animals do not get many of the human diseases that people do, such as major types of heart disease, many types of cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, or schizophrenia. Often the symptoms have to be simulated, to then be tested on. As a result, fewer than five per cent of medicines tested on animals lead to approved treatments within 20 years.
Analysis of 27 “breakthroughs” in the UK also revealed there was a high degree of exaggeration by animal researchers in their findings. Most do not result in anything useful. Sadly, this hasn’t stopped the UK being the second biggest tester of dogs in Europe, including weed killer tests performed on beagles. Beagles are particularly useful to experimenters because they are a very trusting breed towards humans. These tests are unnecessary, cruel and not supported by the British public.
Yet, as we have seen at Neuralink Corporation, animals are increasingly not being used even to test medical or domestic products. Fifty seven per cent of experiments in universities are now believed to be in the area of basic research, much of it driven by the “curiosity” of university researchers. It can be a vicious cycle – many scientists need to perform experiments to be published but the data they are using for comparison is based on animal testing.
It is obvious we all need to ask questions about the direction we are heading in. There are still too many examples of animal experiments being conducted, even when validated non-animal methods are available that are often cheaper, quicker and in many cases, more accurate.
Science has performed admirably during the Covid-19 crisis, but whether it is in British universities or Silicon Valley, we can all clearly do more when it comes to achieving human-relevant science without suffering.
Dr Katy Taylor is the director of science at Cruelty Free International
Enjoy ! – Regards Mark