On “Free-Range Research”
Here's a potentially Gray Matter for you brought to you by Deb Durant. In Wired, "Free-Range Research Could Save Chimps–and Our Conscience," by Brandon Keim, introduces (to me, at least) the idea of free-range research sanctuaries. Think Save the Chimps + ethology. The champion of this research, Pascal Gagneux, a primatologist from the University of California, San Diego, said: "You can learn incredible things by not mistreating chimpanzees."
For the moment, Gagneux's sanctuaries are hypothetical. Some primatologists think they're a bad idea. They would certainly be expensive, complex and ethically tricky — but that's the nature of the relationship between our species.
Chimpanzees are, after all, 98 percent identical to humans, and possess qualities — high-level cognition, a sense of self, emotions and a capacity for altruism — that in many ways compare to our own. Some consider chimpanzees to be people; Gagneux equates them with human research subjects incapable of giving informed consent.
But bioethical hairsplitting aside, chimpanzees are extraordinary and special creatures. They're also dying out — and preventing any members of a rapidly dwindling species from reproducing may be misguided.
"Condemning captive chimpanzees to extinction is not wise at the moment," said Gagneux. "What if chimpanzees go extinct in the wild? People will say, 'There were smart scientists who cared about chimps, who agreed to sterilize all the captive ones.' Chimpanzees are dangerously endangered. There are captive populations whose conditions we could improve, and from whom we could learn."
Under his compromise, chimps now used in research would live in places resembling zoos more than laboratories. "They'd sleep outside, and build their own nests," he said. Scientists could watch the chimpanzees, who would be trained to give blood samples useful for genetic research — but not, said Gagneux, against their will. When chimps died, researchers would recover and study their bodies.
Here's the line that caught my attention more than most: "But if wild chimpanzees go extinct, captive chimps will be better than nothing." Better for whom? Better for what? There's certainly an intention to help chimps. However, if we're helping them because they're "the best model for human origins" and because "There are all sorts of questions that only chimpanzees can provide answers to," I start to question the intention.
What do you think about free-range research? If it helps chimpanzees, does it matter if the intention is to help us? And what about the notion that living in captivity is better than nothing?