Science, Animal Abuse, and Sacred Things

by Catherine Roberts
[Catherine Roberts received her doctorate in microbiology at the University of California in 1943; from 1946-1961 she did research in microbiology and genetics at the Carlsberg Laboratorium in Copenhagen. She then gave up her work to devote her energies to writing against current scientific practices, and in 1967 published The Scientific Conscience followed in 1980 by Science, Animals, and Evolution: Reflections on Some Unrealized Potentials of Biology and Medicine. We reprint with permission the following article which appeared in Wake Up India, Journal of the New Life for India Movement (13:3), September 1990, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Madras, India.]

The whole world is depending more and more upon science to alleviate suffering and prolong life. Scientific and technological expertise, having contributed so much to bettering the plight of mankind in these respects, usually appears as the most valid kind of knowledge to those who consider the unrestrained advance of science to be a moral obligation. The innovative ways science devises to combat hunger and disease help to make life comfortable and secure and are eagerly welcomed in India as elsewhere.

Yet the great religious traditions of India seem particularly able to fit the problems of material existence into an evolutionary vision that stretches far beyond the secular morality of science and technology. It is a vision of life evolving spiritually through self-transcendence in accordance with an eternal moral law that pervades the cosmos. And I am convinced that only by thinking in terms of the purpose and direction of what lies beyond, will we be able to recognize, and resolve, our moral dilemmas here on earth -- not least those involving the interactions of men and animals.

Animal abuse at the hand of man takes many forms, including the terrible treatment of sentient creatures by scientific investigators. Biomedicine justifies such procedures by the health benefits they bring to humans and nonhumans, a position that is widely supported by the general public. There are also many animal advocates who morally oppose animal experimentation and hope to abolish it. Usually placing no religious significance on their efforts to help animals, they tend to denounce the immorality of animal research by secular arguments which have been successful in bringing the whole issue of vivisection up for recent debate. How do such animal advocates respond to the claims of biomedical investigators that the use of experimental animals is morally necessary to alleviate suffering and save lives?

A few extremists make the false claim that no health benefits have ever resulted from vivisection. The majority who support alternatives to vivisection in tacit admission of the health benefits that have been derived therefrom take the position that it is best to downplay or avoid the issue in order not to damage their cause. Both strategies are based upon a partial evasion of the truth. Moral movements flounder on such shaky foundations. Antivivisectionists need to acknowledge openly that medical and veterinary science have advanced through the abuse of nonhuman life and in doing so have prevented or cured illnesses in countless human beings and other animals. When the existence of these health benefits and the ethical motivation that lies behind them are passed over or denied, animal advocates, whether of secular or religious persuasion, do animal researchers an injustice that morally weakens their own cause.

If animal research had never helped a single man or beast, the case against it would be much easier to prove. It is extremely difficult to persuade the world that bioscientific procedures that can lead to improved health and longer life should be dispensed with. But since these procedures inflict enormous suffering and death upon members of other species, animal advocates must try to resolve the moral issue inherent in the scientific claim that noble ends justify all means.

The diversity of Indian religious philosophies could provide animal advocates everywhere with a wealth of ideas about how to proceed. Already Western supporters of nonviolence against animals are referring to the ancient doctrines of ahimsa and compassion and to India's long tradition of vegetarianism. Indeed, Buddhist and Jain views about improving man's ethical relationship with animals have relevance for everyone concerned about the abuses to which sentient animals are subjected in scientific laboratories.

More importantly, Indian religious traditions could provide a grand unifying view of the inseparable bond between morality and religion which antivivisection, with its predominantly secular perspective, generally lacks. In my opinion, the final success of animal advocacy will depend upon an underlying recognition that however secular it once considered itself to be, the movement is, and always has been, a human response to a divine ethic. No one can say just what this divine ethic is; human beings cannot fully comprehend, but only glimpse, its nature. Yet human conscience and intuition reveal that to be in ever closer alignment with it, our ethical choices must promote universal order, harmony, justice, and compassion. In this way man senses the objective existence of the sacred moral law of the cosmos.

In various ways world religions and religious philosophies support the view that ethical conduct ultimately depends upon man's relation to the divine. Some Indian religious ideas emphasize evolution by envisaging evolving life not as a primarily biological process but as a spiritual pilgrimage in which virtue plays a major role. In this view the immortal part of the individual survives death to experience successive reincarnations, and all earthly lives are subject to the eternal laws of karma and dharma, which provide never-ending ethical education about what is right and just. The Rig Veda even goes beyond karma and dharma in its concept of rita, the law of cosmic order and harmony that is the primary manifestation or emanation of divinity.

Were animal advocates to consider these fundamental ideas relating evolving man to eternal divine reality, they could substantially improve the man/animal relation. They could point out, for example, how morally retrograde is the bioscientific claim that nonhuman creatures have to be tortured and killed in unlimited numbers for the sake of health benefits to others. No ends can justify such means. Serious students of the Rig Veda are not apt to support a practice that enormously augments disharmony, chaos, cruelty, and injustice on earth.

The knowledge and the health benefits that have arisen out of bioscientific animal abuse cannot of course be denied, nor can they be unlearned. But spiritually evolving human beings no longer need to proceed in this direction. Our inherent fear of death cannot be eliminated but it can be spiritually modified. When there is more awareness of man's obligation to promote the order, harmony, and righteousness of the cosmic Good, then the search for more scientific knowledge and more health benefits will be seriously curtailed by ethical imperatives. Biology and medicine will not only begin to phase out methods based on animal exploitation but will begin to realize that some of their goals also impede life's alignment with the cosmic order. Biomedical expertise can now thwart death by artificially maintaining life in the body for long periods regardless of the quality of life so prolonged. This gives scientific support to the secular idea that physical death is absolutely final and therefore to be avoided at all costs. The religious idea that death is but a naturally recurring stage of life's evolutionary journey and the gateway to a higher form of existence is rarely considered. And genetic engineering, discontent with the slow pace of biological evolution, is now creating artificial beings through highly sophisticated manipulation of genic material which nature could never duplicate. Can it ever be morally right, for example, to produce abnormal, arthritic pigs by the introduction of a gene from the human growth hormone that makes them grow faster for commercial profit? The science of life, denying its ties to the sacred, is running amok, with animal abuse as one of the many glaring symptoms of the disorder into which it has fallen.

The great minds of ancient India, centering upon life's spiritual evolution in accordance with the moral law of the cosmos, recognized that science, religion, and philosophy together constitute an inseparable whole with ties to the sacred. Western culture now lacks this wisdom. Contemporary Indian minds, drawing upon their ancient heritage, could play a significant role in contesting secular dependence upon the immoral methods and goals of science and technology. By such efforts the man/animal relation would be improved -- and human evolution would take a giant step forward.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Theosophical University Press)

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