For centuries, however, it has also been an issue of heated public and philosophical discussion. This review aims to provide a starting point for students and scholars—either in the life sciences or the humanities—with an interest in animal research, animal ethics, and the history of science and medicine. The reader interested in a more in-depth analysis on some of the topics reviewed is referred to the reference list for suggestions of further reading. Because of the taboos regarding the dissection of humans, physicians in ancient Greece dissected animals for anatomical studies . The latter two were Hellenic Alexandrians who disregarded the established taboos and went on to perform dissection and vivisection on convicted criminals, benefiting from the favorable intellectual and scientific environment in Alexandria at the time . For most ancient Greeks, using live animals in experiments did not raise any relevant moral questions.
Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. The belief amongst ancient Greek physicians that nature could be understood by means of exploration and experiment—and the medical knowledge thus obtained to be of clinical relevance in practice—would be replaced by other schools of medical thought. The use of animal experiments to satisfy scientific enquiry would only re-emerge in the Renaissance. Alongside the progress in anatomical knowledge made possible by experimenters defying the Catholic Church’s opposition to the dissection of human bodies, the Renaissance period also witnessed the resurgence of vivisection as a heuristic method for the understanding of animal physiology. In this scene, two boys plunge an arrow into the rectum of a dog, while another boy, most likely the pet’s owner, pleads with them to stop. James I and Charles I, and one of the founders of modern science. Using the results of meticulously planned experiments on live animals, as well as their interpretation through mathematics and physics, in this treatise, Harvey disproved many of Galen’s fifteen-hundred-year-old ideas .
Not surprisingly, Descartes—although a researcher himself—disagreed emphatically with most of Harvey’s findings, since he believed that theories forged through philosophical reflection on metaphysics were superior to those resulting from experimental observation, thus considering experiments or interpretations that did not confirm his own natural philosophy as flawed . Further advancements in physiology would be prompted by questions left unsolved by Harvey, many of them addressed by an ensemble of his colleagues and followers at Oxford who applied Harvey’s principle that life should be interpreted in light of new findings in physics in their physiological experiments on animals . Most physiologists did not expect direct therapeutic applications to result from their experiments . The seventeenth century would also witness the advent of skepticism towards experiments on animals on scientific grounds. In this brilliant artwork, the artist captures the multiple reactions elicited by the use of live animals as experimental subjects in eighteenth-century Britain, for which we can find a parallel in present day’s diverse attitudes on this topic, including shock, sadness, appreciation, curiosity and indifference.
The moral acceptability of inducing suffering in animals on the physiologist’s workbench would also become an issue raised in opposition of vivisection before the end of the seventeenth century . However, the acceptance of the animal-machine paradigm by many physiologists reassured them that their scientific undertakings were not cruel. Opposition to vivisection had raised its tone since the beginning of the eighteenth century, prompted by the popularization of public displays of experiments on live animals—in particular the notorious demonstrations of Boyle’s notorious air pump experiments , which were seen as purposeless, and thus inherently cruel—but became more prominent in the second half of the century, particularly in northern Europe . Among philosophers and physiologists alike, the issue of discussion was now not if animals could feel or not and to what extent, but rather whether vivisection was justifiable based on the benefit for human beings derived from it.