Congress Critter Hilarity

August 16, 2011

Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R, Maryland) had an Op/Ed bit up in the NYT a few days ago. He’s against the use of chimpanzees in research.
Fair enough, our elected Representatives are welcome to their opinions. But there were two glaring items that require correction or comment.
First, he tells tall tales about Nim.

Nim was taught sign language — and he used those signs to tell his human interlocutors that he was traumatized by his living conditions.

You can’t believe everything you see in the movies, Congressman. For example, here’s what the actual scientist involved with the Nim project, H. S. Terrace (PubMed), had to say:

While analyzing those sequences I obtained quantitative evidence that Nim could indeed create grammatical sentences and that I had the most powerful evidence to date that a chimpanzee could construct particular meanings by using a grammatical rule. This would have been exciting news by any standard.
But while preparing my findings for publication, the research took a decidedly different turn. After reviewing a video I’d seen at least a dozen times previously, I noticed that Nim’s positive results were caused by a simple artifact. Nim’s teachers signed what he signed but a quarter of a second earlier. This meant that Nim’s signs were mainly imitative and not spontaneous. How had other scientists and I missed these prompts while watching the video previously? I realized that when I observed Nim sign producing signs, either in person or on videotape, my attention was always riveted on his hands because I thought they were making history and I didn’t want to miss a second of it. I saw the same symbiotic relationship while viewing other tapes of Nim and movies of other apes (e.g., Washoe and Koko) that had purportedly learned ASL.

Sound familiar? This is not gotcha time. It is absolutely fundamental to the discussion whether or not the feel-good, seemingly truthy beliefs about what has and has not been shown about the cognitive capacity of a given species under discussion are supported by the data. There may very well be other arguments or rationales of more importance, some of which may point in the same direction. But this is no excuse for using untruths to make an emotional plea.
The second inane statement of the good Congress Critter that requires comment is as follows:

Past civilizations were measured by how they treated their elderly and disabled. I believe that we will be measured, in part, by how we treat animals, particularly great apes.

Indeed Congressman? And you are so worried about how we shall be viewed by future civilizations are you? No doubt that explains your compassion for gays, underrepresented minorities, injection drug users, eventual victims of gun crimes, undocumented immigrants, poor children that need health care, those with mental health disorder, endangered species(!)…
Why do I feel certain that an even closer look at your voting record would reveal a generalized lack of compassion for your fellow citizens that happen to be unlike yourself?
Pardon me, but your tut-tutting about the use of chimpanzees in research rings a tad wee bit hollow.
Additional Reading:
Speaking of Research


6 Responses to “Congress Critter Hilarity”

  1. Gruffi Gummi Says:

    Perhaps some Elected Representatives would like to volunteer, to save the monkeys?


  2. Lou Jost Says:

    Nevertheless, I want to compliment the representative for taking this stand for inter-species compassion. We should be pleased to see him showing compassion. And maybe it will spill over into his treatment of his own species.


  3. daryl Says:

    what then price and good and will pass d durg test


  4. Paul Says:

    I can’t help seeing the irony in Bartlett’s statement that “Past civilizations were measured by how they treated their elderly and disabled” when he recently voted for changes to medicare that would, over time, significantly reduce the level of healthcare available to elderly Americans.
    Perhaps he is hoping that the current civilization won’t be judged by how it treats its elderly.
    There is a legitimate debate to be had over whether Chimpanzees should still be used in medical research – what procedures should be allowed and in what fields – as advances such as the development of GM rodent models are replacing them in several of the few areas where they are still being used (e.g Hepatitis C research), and whether the NIH should continue to fund chimpanzee colonies for research. That is what the IOM committee has been established to determine, but Bartlett’s ill-informed interjection is the very opposite of the cool rational approach that the committee appears to be taking.


  5. informania Says:

    I think this discussion should be on emotional experience instead of cognitive abilities.
    Potential suffering is not a function of our abilities to solve crossword puzzles or to speak, read and write, I’d even like to argue cognitive functions present mechanisms for relaxation on emotional experience. i.e. Higher cognitive abilities facilitating the coping with negative circumstances.


  6. Making meaningful changes to carbon emission policies would do FAR more to save the great apes than banning research on them. /justsayin


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