dignity in a curious context

May 30, 2008 at 9:51 am | | news, science and the public, science community

The “dignity” of plants? I don’t get it.

This Nature news article discusses a legal quagmire that has resulted from a Swiss law requiring the “dignity” of creatures be considered in funding research.

By Merriam-Webster’s definition, dignity is “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed” or “formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language.” The latter definition hardly applies, unless you think that one can determine when a plant appears reserved or serious—or when it doesn’t.

As far as being esteemed, I understand that some people would prefer to see a sapling on the forest floor than in a test tube, but scientific research in a laboratory has no effect on the natural beauty of a woods.

The bottom line is that, because plants are not sentient, we should not be concerned about their “well-being” or “dignity.” That’s not simply anthropomorphizing, that’s animopomorphizing.

Now, I might be biased, because I’m a vegetarian. In my more naïve days, I opposed animal experimentation. (Of course, I have always opposed violence or crimes against animal researchers or labs.) Today, I feel that the subject is too complex to blindly oppose all vivisection, or to stubbornly support cruel animal experimentation. The complications arise from the fact that animals are sentient—feel pain and have desires. Meanwhile, there are benefits to humanity as a result of animal experimentation that cannot be denied. While I hope that vivisection will be phased out over the next several decades, I do not support a ban.

Research on plants is a simple issue: plants are not sentient. The values we see in plants—independence, natural life, etc.—are only emotions that we place on them. Again, I understand the desire to see majestic trees in their natural habitat, but that should not interfere with our desire to learn. Anyway, it’s not as if plant researchers go clear-cut forests and do little experiments!

Whatever, I just needed to rant.


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  1. What about the dignity of bacteria?

    Comment by kendall — May 30, 2008 #

  2. “While I hope that vivisection will be phased out over the next several decades…”

    I know you only said you hope it will happen, but it seems quite unlikely to me. What do you think might take its place? I’ve heard people talk about replacing animals with computer models, but a predictive computer model of an animal that bridges all the necessary spatial and temporal scales to understand, say, drug effects, seems more than decades away.

    Comment by Andre — May 30, 2008 #

  3. the phase-out has already begun: animal models for dissection in anatomy and med-school classes and even doctors practicing new procedures are being replaced (when appropriate) by virtual-reality type computer programs.

    nevertheless, i suspect final-phase studies of drugs will use animals for many generations. i guess i just mean that we can grab some of that low-lying fruit now.

    Comment by sam — May 30, 2008 #

  4. That seems reasonable and good.

    Comment by Andre — May 30, 2008 #

  5. As an undergraduate I slaughtered countless slime mold amoeba in our quest to purify a 130 kD glycoprotein. If Dictyostelids take over the world i’d be tried like Eichmann.

    Comment by Axicon — June 2, 2008 #

  6. I never thought that a vegetable was a “creature” (from your first sentence), but of course it may well be.
    The older generation used to say that you got to respect food. My grandmother always insisted that I would cut the salad neatly: “There is enough destruction as it is” she used to say. So I am not sure that salad has dignity, but I am sure nature should be respected. It is ambiguous, isn’t it? How do we teach that to our kids?

    Comment by claude — June 4, 2008 #

  7. “The bottom line is that, because plants are not sentient, we should not be concerned about their “well-being” or “dignity.” That’s not simply anthropomorphizing, that’s animopomorphizing.”

    let’s send all brain-dead humans to a quick undignified death those nonsentient bastards!!! i say we make fertilizer out of them and feed them to the plants!!!! how ironic would that be?

    Comment by John — July 3, 2008 #

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