A review of Monkey Wars by Deborah Blum

Reviewed by Mark Steadman

Monkey Wars
by Deborah Blum
Oxford University Press
February 1996, Paperback, 330 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0195101096

The Rhesus Macaque or Monkey is a small, relatively docile and populous primate indigenous to the Asian sub-continent that share over 98% of their DNA with humans. Between 1964 and 1978, 332,000 of them were imported from India to take part in social, behavioural and drug experiments, from being flown into space to being given Malaria. In Monkey Wars Deborah Blum walks us through the battle-field between animal researchers and animal rights activists and asks how much suffering is worth how much knowledge. Written in 1994 the book still holds up today, just as books written on politics or religion still do, as deep moral questions don’t tend to evaporate away.

The easiest of the animal researchers to criticise, that Blum mentions would probably be ‘Comparative Psychologist’ Harry Harlow who pioneered social experiments on baby monkeys involving removing them from their mothers for example in contraptions he called ‘pits of despair’; isolated chambers used to study the effects of loneliness. Other studies involved replacing their mothers with machines that thrusted spikes or emitted spurts of cold air at them. One wonders about the utility of this research as well as the ethical validity of contraptions he nick-named ‘rape racks’; used to force monkeys to reproduce, and ‘iron maidens’; ersatz mothers made of cloth and machinery, programmed to thrust metal spikes at their offspring. Hundreds if not thousands of monkeys have been tortured in this way to prove… that infants don’t like being separated from their mothers. Surely something we already knew?

The harder questions that come up in animal rights debate involve people like David Gil Amaral, now professor of psychiatry at the University of California, slicing up the brains of sedated chimpanzees to study their Hippocampus or the tremendously wasteful, but useful work of lab technicians in the 50s creating polio vaccines from the bone marrow of rhesus monkeys (approximately a million of which were killed in the process). Fighting against all of this research are PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and ADL (the Animal Defence League) and their partiality to sloganeering (a rat, is a pig, is a dog, is a boy) and outbursts of criminality, such as breaking and entering into labs to steal videos of baboons given whiplash after being hit with pistons upside the skull (the 6 hours of footage they got was then edited down into the 26 minute short, Unnecessary Fuss). There is a technical problem with testing drugs on animals. As Blum points out, animal testing only augments our understanding of the effect that drugs have on animals. In 2006, six men, who were taking part in a drug trial in Northwick Park Hospital, suffered organ failure and brain swelling after being given a drug (TGN1412) that caused no ill-effects when given to monkeys at a 500-fold higher dose. Monkeys may share 99 percent of their DNA with humans but that 1% makes a difference.

When faced with strict absolutism it’s hard to not think that the exact opposite must be true, as the Just Stop Oil group are currently finding out. If PETA and the like are a bunch of tree-huggers who believe that humans are evil then perhaps we should ignore and let the loose the dogs of monkey experimenters. One can finesse this debate, however, by pointing out that different species in general are not good cohabitants. The deadliest diseases known to man have been given to us by animals, often whilst they were being studied in labs, as well as vice versa. One naturally feels sympathy for an animal that’s treated as a crash-test dummy, but let’s also spare a thought for the humans that think animals are friendly, huggable, soft-toys of joy.

The documentary ‘Project Nim’ documents the futile attempt of the LeFarge family in Manhatten’s Upper West Side trying to raise a chimpanzee as a family member, and the inevitable terror that ensues. Steve Irwin, ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ spent his life arguing that stingrays and crocodiles weren’t that dangerous, before being killed by one of them. Timothy Treadwell made famous by the Werner Herzog film ‘Grizzly man’ lived wild in Alaska for months at a time, making friends with the local bear population before one of those friends ate him alive. Might a greater respect for animals be shown in a
greater distance being kept between them and us.

Humans are duty-bound to care more for other humans than animals. Protesters who wear t-shirts expressing a desire that the matador dies during a bull-fight misread the room if they think they’re endearing themselves to the public. The one time I went to a ‘Corrida’ in Madrid and the one time anybody ran outside in floods of tears, was when one of the matadors got speared in the groin (and survived thankfully). Every 2-3 years a plaque goes up inside the walls of the amphitheatre on the Calle de Alcalá to commemorate a newly departed bull-fighter. Wouldn’t we have a better chance of stopping this barbarity if more attention was given to the human risks?

About the reviewer: Mark Steadman writes book reviews and articles freelance. Before taking up writing he studied philosophy at Kings college London before working as a teacher. He now writes full-time.