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John Gluck’s autobiography traces the journey of a psychologist who begins his research career as a star protégé working on Harry Harlow’s famous social deprivation experiments on monkeys and ends up dedicating his life to publishing and lecturing on the ethics of animal experimentation. Gluck’s writing demonstrates that he is an exceptionally perceptive person, and he carefully walks readers through his thought process as he begins life as someone finely attuned to the well-being of animals, later suppresses these feelings in the pursuit of science aimed at alleviating human suffering, and finally has a moral revelation that leads to a thorough critique of current research ethical protections in the United States. The book raises valuable questions for anyone with an interest in animal research and ultimately anyone interested in seeing both the challenges and rewards of living a life deeply informed by ethical questioning.
Bookended by an introduction and epilogue about euthanizing ill monkeys that drive home the intense emotions that arise in Gluck from seeing each research animal as an individual whose life has meaning, the main chapters trace Gluck’s life from a young child to the founder of the Research Ethics Service Project at the University of New Mexico. Early in Gluck’s life, he is acutely aware of the kindness and attention his family members lavish on their family pets and the intense sadness they feel upon the pets’ deaths. However, while attending university in Texas, Gluck recounts suppressing his own feelings for animals in an attempt to fit in with a rugged Texas cowboy/rancher ethos that didn’t, “struggle with ethical questions, grieve over death, or become saddened by cruelty,” but instead “took the offensive against pain and suffering, confronting the cycle of life and death by participating in it directly and unselfconsciously” (Chapter 1, paragraph 62). The researchers at Texas Tech University similarly played a role in hardening Gluck, pushing him through a series of poignant events from having to capture wild animals for research to killing rats by throwing them against concrete walls. By the time Gluck arrived at Harlow’s lab at the University of Wisconsin, he hardly blinks at the idea of separating baby monkeys from their mothers and keeping them in social isolation in order to test the effects of isolation on cognitive and social performance. Gluck excelled at this research and eventually was hired at the University of New Mexico and built a flourishing primate research center there.
Though Gluck is very successful as a researcher, it is clear that seeds of doubt remain in the back of his mind about the methodology he is employing. These seeds are nourished and eventually sprouted through the pointed questions of concerned students, his friendship and collaboration with a group of thoughtful veterinarians, and of course Gluck’s own exquisite sensitivity and awareness of each animal, which never quite is fully submerged despite the self-professed abandonment of his concern for animals. When Gluck decides that he will take a sabbatical at the University of Washington to evaluate how well his research maps on to clinical practice, Harlow fascinatingly quips, “another man lost to science.” And by the time Gluck decides to spend a year at George Washington University working with prominent ethicists Tom Beauchamp and Barbara Orleans, the trajectory of his moral journey seems clear. When he returns to the University of New Mexico, he gradually phases out his research on primates and founds an ethics research center on campus through which he provides guidance on research on both humans and other animals.
Gluck’s book has several aims and, to our minds, succeeds at each of them. One aim is to help members of the animal protection movement gain a more nuanced understanding of how ethical decisions play out in animal laboratories and the values and ideas that shape researchers’ commitments to animal research. Gluck’s book clearly illustrates the researchers’ commitment to a noble idea of the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the hope of alleviating human suffering, and his descriptions of the ethical dilemmas that come up presents a more realistic picture of what life is like for laboratory animals than some of the more extreme portrayals put forward in the media. Another goal of the book is to help researchers become more acutely aware of some of the ethical challenges presented by using animals to serve human ends. Though we suspect some critics might claim Gluck doesn’t sufficiently highlight the ways in which research on animals had advanced medical science, surely any researcher could gain from engaging with Gluck’s unflinching glance at some of the costs of animal research that are not always foremost on people’s minds.
Subjecting oneself to moral criticism is often an exceptionally difficult task for many, especially when doing so in as public a forum as an autobiography. In light of this, Gluck’s book is a tremendous act of courage. It is clear that he views his previous actions as seriously morally flawed, but even so he does not try to downplay or excuse his choices. Gluck views his book in part as an act of atonement, and his book is colored throughout with very clear efforts for Gluck to acknowledge his moral and intellectual debts, including those to all of the researchers who shaped his intellectual development.
One other fascinating aspect of this book: Gluck presents Harry Harlow as an exceptionally generous mentor and thinker and builds on the mythos of Harlow also seen in Lauren Slater’s 2005 Opening Skinner’s Box without resolving the challenging contradictions that seem to underlie Harlow’s thinking. On the one hand, Harlow’s approach boldly rejected behaviorist commitments towards refusing to use language that implied mental states in nonhuman animals. Harlow used not only terms like pain and pleasure but even such evocative language as “suffering” and “despair,” to describe the conditions of his monkeys. Yet despite this language, or perhaps even because it, Harlow showed no hesitation whatsoever in producing these states in the service of scientific advancement. This combination has led to Harlow being caricatured as an exemplar of cruelty in contemporary critiques of animal research.
Though Gluck portrays himself as having abandoned his ethical commitments and then regaining them later in life, the vividness of his recollection of individual animals strongly suggests that he never truly lost that part of himself that is acutely sensitive to the perspective of the animals he interacted with. For example, even during what should have been the nadir of his concern for animals, he promptly took steps to euthanize a monkey who had been suffering in inadequate lab conditions. Gluck’s journey seems not so much about adopting an entirely new set of ethical principles or concerns, but rather about unearthing compassion that was present all along but sometimes buried under other concerns. Whether one agrees with his ultimate recommendations or not, hopefully this book will help readers to be better in touch with their own compassion as well.
© 2018 Adam Shriver and Joyce Sato-Reinhold
Adam Shriver, The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Joyce Sato-Reinhold, UBC Animal Welfare Program.