The most dangerous assault on the teaching of science in public schools doesn't come from creationists, who object to the teaching of evolution. The danger is in animal-rights activists peddling what they call "humane education."
Like every dubious educational trend, humane education starts with a reasonable concept. Kids who mistreat animals are likely to mistreat, maybe even murder, people when they become adults. Teach kids to respect animals and society gains, they claim. To the extent that the programs stick to that principle, they can be a plus.
But some so-called humane educators have a political agenda that veers away from teaching respect for life and instead embraces the philosophy that animals have the same moral status as humans. These educators oppose scientific research using "nonhuman animals" and want to grant animals civil rights.
Another tip-off that humane education isn't just about being kind to Fluffy is when the works of Princeton University professor and philosopher Peter Singer, whose writings are the underpinnings of the animal rights movement, are on the suggested reading list (you'll find him listed on the International Institute for Humane Education's website). This is the institute's idea of humanity: Singer opposes primate research, but supports infanticide. "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person," Singer has written. "Sometimes it is not wrong at all."
As a step toward equal rights, groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals fight animal research in the field and animal dissection in schools. They argue that computer programs can replace dissection for students and can be a good substitute in medical research. Nonsense, says Dr. Linda Cork, who chairs Stanford University's comparative medicine department. "The reality is you cannot do biomedical research without animals."
If animal-rights activists had their way, Cork would be out of business. She took me to the underground animal-research laboratories at Stanford's School of Medicine. The majority of the research animals are mice and rats, kept in stacks of small cages.
Cork's project uses a specially bred line of narcoleptic Doberman Pinschers. When the dogs saw us through the door window, they jumped up and barked. For them, a dog's life is entirely indoors. Staff members are encouraged however to play with them, as evidenced by the chew toys and balls on a ledge by their door. Do I want to fling open the doors and instigate a doggie break-out? Of course I do.
But then I'd be sabotaging a project that could help the 135,000 narcoleptic Americans, as well as research on unraveling the mysteries of sleep. Cork noted that the number of animals used in research is tiny when compared to the number of unwanted animals euthanized each year. She's right: According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2 million to 3 million dogs and 3 million to 4 million cats were put down in 1999, while only 100,000 dogs and cats were used in medical research. So, with the prevalent -- and needless -- abuse and neglect of animals, why pick on medical researchers?
PETA argues that animal experiments are "useless" because animals' biology is different than that of humans. Stanford University Medical Center neurobiologist William Newsome relates tales of going to talk to schools where students announce that they are morally opposed to animal research, and would end it tomorrow.
How noble. And how easy to say if you don't consider the consequences. "If people had stopped (animal research) in 1900, people would still be dying of diabetes and crippled from polio. There would be no such thing as open-heart surgery," Newsome explains. Ban such research today, and expect few advances against AIDS, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease in this century.
So you can call the animal-rights movement many things, but don't call it humane.