Autistic monkeys

“The laboratory monkeys run obsessively in circles, largely ignore their peers and grunt anxiously when stared at.”

(My Italics and bold face)

This is the very first line of a newspiece reporting on a line of research that resulted in the creation of a type of monkeys that display behavioral similarities to autistic humans. You can read more about the specifics here and here, but briefly, researchers engineered embryos of crab-eating macaque monkeys (Macaca fascicularis) to express extra copies of a gene with the uninspiring name MECP2. Normally, this gene seems to control aspects of the proper functioning of nerve cells. In humans, when extra copies of this gene are present (or when the gene is mutated in a particular way) closely correlates with the expression of autism symptoms & behaviors.

Truth be told, I find the science of this research fascinating, and those who know me know very well that I have a personal interest on the phenomenon of autism. Similarly, those who know me know very well that I am a scientist who knows a thing or two about neuroscience research.

However, I am not going to talk about science today. You see, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I think that this research is wrong. As I commented in the link:

“I am the father of a young man with autism, whom I love with all my heart. I am also a scientist, and I think that this research is wrong. Why create these animals on purpose, with the explicit objective of them to suffer? It is not like they are going to give them any support like we do to autistic humans. These poor animals will have a mind and will be terrified by a world that they are not equipped to understand…”

As a dad, I am not very fond of autism (this is quite the understatement and please, pretty please, ***Read*** this post before judging me!). I know how autism affects the life of my son, as well as how it affects the life and dynamics of my whole family. The most optimistic of us oftentimes talk about disabilities, including autism, as blessings and who am I to disagree?

However, I worry about my son, I worry about what is going to happen to him when I am gone. My wife and I are planning ahead, taking steps for him to be taken care of when the time comes, but, what about the love that only we can give him? It is a safe bet that all parents agree that nobody takes care of your own as yourself…

In fact, I have fantasized about having the means to stay with him for the rest of his life. This resulted in my first (and only so far) attempt to try some science fiction writing. If you want to know more about it, you can go here).

Anyway, about autism, it is true that there are some beautiful moments related to it (please see here and here for a couple of examples). My son is witty, sweet and has an actually beautiful mind, but it is also undeniable that he suffers because of his autism. We also suffer because of it. For example, just ask any mom with a child on the spectrum! Believe it or not, for a mom, it compares to combat-related stress!

Anxiety and despair are common effects of autism. This is why I cringed when I read the very first line about the aforementioned research on monkeys. My “trigger” was the word “anxiously”. I felt so sorry  about these poor animals!

I am fully aware that animal research is a very controversial topic. As a scientist (heck, as a thinking human being), I acknowledge that most of us we would not even be alive if it weren’t  for it; end of story. Now, I am not trained in ethics, therefore I cannot provide an intelligent or even coherent comment on the ethics of specific line of research in these monkeys, on the general animal research controversy, or even on the ethics of consuming animals for food for that matter. However…

This autism-monkey-related research feels wrong, plain wrong.

We are talking about primates here!

I know; the question “Where do we draw the line?” presents itself. For example, there are rodent models of autism used in research right now. Someone could make a case that autism research in mice and rats is also wrong, but honestly, I have no strong feelings against it, and I fully admit that I am guilty of a kind of speciesism here, you’ll get no argument from me in this aspect.

Nonetheless, I argue that even though we do not know exactly what a human mind is (let alone the phenomenon of consciousness in general), if any animals are going to experience what a mind is, it will be primates.

Just imagine that:

**Your whole purpose in life is to experience anxiety, among other unpleasant feelings…

**Your basic biology precludes you from relating with members of your own species…

**The “default state” of your mind is confusion and fear…

**You will receive absolutely no help, simply because your usefulness depends on your condition…

**You will not even know that you can feel better because you have never known any other reality and again, that no one will rescue you from that reality…

I am sure you can imagine more things here.

For these among other reasons, it seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with creating what I believe is a sentient being, with the explicit purpose of suffering. Moreover, as the article states, some scientists doubt that this particular type of monkeys is an optimal model for autism after all, so there is the very real possibility that this suffering will have no silver lining whatsoever.

All of these being said, I must admit that part of me wonders what would I think if I was assured without a doubt that this research will help my boy…

Is this what temptation feels like?

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2 Comments

  1. I would think this through and with an open mind because I think I know you pretty well and I do know how inclined you are to explore a hypothesis. I also regard you as highly ethical stopping at the line that divides an honorable scientist and the darker characters of human history.

    A lot of times, almost every time, the mad evil twisted forgot his/her ethics scientist’s science was also crap. I think this (engineering a model autistic organism) is flawed primarily because I believe the first thing that people need to figure out is what is the underlying cause of autism in humans. I have a sneaking suspicion that we have evolved an amazingly complex neurological system that is still loading on a limited platform and stuff happens but that is highly speculative and, in the meantime, I wouldn’t deliberately create a life for the purpose of watching it suffer, particularly something that is likely with a consciousness.

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