Ouch

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Okay. So today I had a new experience. I read an article: scientists have successfully proved that simple sensory impulses can be transmitted between the brains of two different animals using the Internet. If you keep rats as pets, take a deep breath before you click that, the picture is a bit harrowing.

Now I’ll tell you something about myself, before I begin. I was brought up by a science teacher. Every time our cat killed some unfortunate fuzzy and gifted it to us, my mother would fascinatedly explain to me exactly what parts of its anatomy the varicoloured innards scattered over the carpet were, and what they did. The time as an adult that I discovered a fox had eaten almost all of a hedgehog on our back lawn, I was the one picking up its remains with a stick and a plastic bag while my partner (also male) peered at me in horror from the safety of the kitchen window. I remember my thoughts running something like “Right, better get this lot in the bin before it starts to smell… poor old hedgie…  oh look, that must be its large intestine. And isn’t it clever how the fox has eaten everything except the prickly skin?”

Safe to say I’m not that squeamish, then. I’m also a long-term disapprover of the extremist end of the animal rights movement in the UK. News agency Reuters once described my country as “the Afghanistan of animal rights”, and it appals me on a regular basis that the ordinary people of Britain will condone pretty much any kind of insanity and violent behaviour as long as it’s done in the name of animals. Me, I think terrorism is terrorism, and there have to be better ways. So I don’t usually find myself much affected by the RSPCA’s Christmas missives with their sad-eyed beagle pups and perfectly groomed kitty cats. And don’t get me started on what I think about aggressive RSPCA charity-muggers (and they always are for the RSPCA) going door to door.

But I read that article and the only thing I could think was – poor bloody rats. I wanted to know how the implant was done – is that horrible USB-port thing on its head actually a circuit board directly connected into its brain? If there are wires going straight from that through its skin to its brain tissue, what kind of risk of infection is the animal at, and how long after being given the surgery can it possibly be expected to live? The article doesn’t tell us anything about that – it just diverts off into facetious scare-mongering about “rat multiborgs”. I should write a short story about a terrifying thousand-rat superbrain that wants nothing more than a nice warm nest (um, you didn’t need the filling in your sofa did you?) and lots of that lovely spaghetti you’re making tonight. Based on my rats I suspect it’s the only thing it’d be after.

Warning: the above video *will* make you cry.

So yeah. I know there are ethics committees and scrutiny and the rest of it, and I’m very glad of that right now; but I’m also, for the first time, officially on the fence about animal rights. Part of me feels guilty for being so emotional about this; I’m a practising Pagan, and part of the deal I made with myself when I accepted that I have a need for faith in my life is that I’d never allow my religion or beliefs to make me act like an idiot. It’s very hard to do in practise; I found that out when I realised I couldn’t actually like the fact that the Seahenge timbers had been removed, preserved and will be stored indefinitely. My flatmate, a recovering evangelical Christian, pointed out to me that my having an irrational objection to that was no different to American evangelists having an irrational objection to same-sex marriage. I couldn’t disagree. Stand in the way of social progress or stand in the way of scientific progress – the only right answer to a choice between those is “No”.

But I also find myself asking exactly how far our greed for technology needs to go. One of the possible applications of this idea is to help paraplegic people live more independent lives – as independent as possible given the scope and cost of the surgery and equipment they’d rely on, of course. I am not paraplegic, and I can’t say how someone who is might feel about that, and yet I wonder; where do we stop? When do we acknowledge that we are smart, creative monkeys, but the first thing we do is always, always to exhaust every possible avenue and resource to look after our own? We can and must also be thinking about preserving the whole world on which we live, and this article has made me realise that more personally than I ever have before. I’ve got a whole book on the uneasy symbolic relationship between rats and the human race – we see ourselves in rats, in their teeming numbers and destructive capability. So will we, arrogant vermin that we are, ever realise that we don’t have the right to own all this? When does each one of us climb down and say, yes, I as an individual could demand the “right” to be given that technology to support me – but I’m not going to, because the cost it has for other people and creatures is too high.

Perhaps part of the reason I found that article so hard is the rat in the photo looks so much like Pepper. But perhaps it’s a good thing that he did. I’ll keep making my bread by hand instead of in a machine, and keep cooking fresh food instead of buying ready made, and keep an open mind about the simple way. I wonder what the Amish think about rats.

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3 thoughts on “Ouch

  1. Can’t say I disagree with much you’ve said there, except a few points of info.
    Firstly, this research seems to be applying the existing medical technology – direct neural control of robot prostheses, which is pretty exciting IMO, but I don’t see how this will advance it – to something that’s not really an issue. We already have distributed computer networks made from y’know…computers, and we already have nearly instantaneous global communication. Like so much technology, it looks like a solution in search of a problem.
    Secondly, yes the connector on its head is attaching the computer to an array of micro-electrodes going into its brain – specifically its motor cortex. I wouldn’t have one fitted for fun, but my experience with having holes drilled in my head and bits of brain spooned out & stuff leads me to believe it’s much more squicky than it is painful; and from my time as a zoologist I doubt the rats would perform this kind of task at all if they were in major distress.
    Secondly, foxes rarely kill hedgehogs. it as much more likely to be a badger – they have very long, strong front claws that they use to unroll the hedgepig and get at its belly. Foxes just aren’t really up to the job.
    And thirdly, I reckon the Amish, like most traditional farmers, think rats are the reason god gave us cats.

    • It was you that told me it was probably a fox to start with! Make your mind up, honestly. 😛

      I’m glad to know you think they weren’t in much distress but tere’s still infection risk and life expectancy and so on. I still think that for the sake of experimentation, especially if you’re right about solutions in search of a problem, it’s a lot to put an animal through.

      • Really? Must’ve been a while back – I’ve known about the badger thing for years 8-/
        And even though I’m sure it’s not as bad as it looks, I’d still take a lot of convincing that the study as outlined in the article justified the use of animals in that way.

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