The Subject of Debate

by Michael

This is a story I wrote in March 2005, as part of my coursework for a Masters in Science Communication. It was the only time I got to write fiction for the course and I was rather pleased with it, on the whole. As well as rehearsing some positions around ethics in research, it was an exercise in writing an ending with a twist. Is it predictable?

Sami is to be destroyed. I am sitting quietly in a corner of the lab when the news filters through. It will be done humanely, of course, but it is still hard for us to hear, especially for Dr Oliver. Especially as Dr Oliver is the one to do the deed.

Sami is a chimpanzee. Dr Oliver has been working with her for over seven years, and she has made remarkable progress. Together, they can share rudimentary communication – or so it appears. And in many respects, appearance is everything. Perhaps it only ‘appears’ that I am myself having a conversation with Dr Oliver.

“It’s not fair, Rabbit.”

I am Rabbit. It’s a nickname I have acquired since coming to the lab a few months ago. I have no say in the matter, naturally, but I don’t mind. I’ve come for six months on an informal basis, recommended by my previous lab head. I do as I’m told, and I’m certainly not going to complain about a nickname.

Something about the ears.

Anyway, I’ll be over and out of here soon enough, and I’m not going to spoil my time in the most famous lab in the university by kicking up a fuss over a stupid nickname. Rabbit it is.

I can’t think of anything to say in reply to Dr Oliver, so I nod and hope that he’s not expecting me to resolve the issue. It is far too complicated for me to deal with. I can’t even look him in the eye. I know how much Sami means to him: not just as an experiment, but a friend, almost. Much more than a pet, at least. Part of the team. And now she is condemned.

She really is part of the team, that’s not just sentimentality. Everyone chats to her when they come into the lab and sometimes she responds to what’s being said and sometimes she reacts in what seems to be an arbitrary and uncomprehending manner – but then, so do the PhD students sometimes. She’s been interacting with Dr Oliver for most of these seven years and with him, she’s almost human.

I say that as if being human is a privileged state, which, of course, it is. Whether it should be or not is a difficult question. By training, or rather, by teaching Sami, are they changing her from a chimp into a human, or are they enhancing her chimpness with a quality hitherto reserved for human beings? Or is it just the case that Sami is developing her own personality – some would say identity – regardless of what species she happens to be? But when Sami is dead, these questions will, I suppose, return to being merely academic.

Into the lab comes John Flannery – late, as usual. He’s a post-doctoral researcher from the humanities department, seconded here because of his linguistics research. Dr Oliver often says it’s been an eye-opener how John’s expertise has informed the experiments on language and learning. He says it mostly in response to behaviourologists’ raised eyebrows.

John is breezy this morning. “What’s up?” he says, dumping his satchel on his desk. “Anyone would think….” He pauses, aware that something is seriously wrong. Dr Oliver is the only one who can tell him.

“Sami is to be destroyed.”

*

Sami is in the observation room with John and Kath, another post-doc. I am still in the lab, reading. Well, pretending to read. The only others in the lab are Dr Oliver and Professor Jones, the man who’s decided to kill Sami. Neither of them pays me any attention, which suits me fine because I get to listen.

Jones is justifying the decision: “Look, Oliver, no one is saying your work hasn’t been of fundamental importance, or that you have to stop the programme. It’s just that this chimp-”

“Sami.” Dr Oliver is tight-lipped.

“This chimp has reached a point where the lines aren’t so clear. It’s dangerous, things could get very messy.”

“Dangerous? Messy?”

“You might not think about these things, but I have to. What if the animal rights lot got wind of this? They’d be on us like a tonne of bricks.” Jones puts on a voice: “‘If it can communicate, it’s got a sense of self, it’s got rights, and the arguments for experiments to stop are clearer than ever.’ That’s what they’ll say, and they’ll say it loud and aggressive. And, this time, people might start to agree.”

“They’ll say it when the research is published, whether Sami is alive or not. She doesn’t have to be sacrificed like this.”

“Oliver, this isn’t going to be published. Not yet, not until the political climate is … different.”

Dr Oliver is shocked – their previous conversations obviously didn’t get this far. “You expect me to sit on this until – when? Until the animal rights people are all under house arrest? Until we persuade them that we’re right? We can’t keep this to ourselves, Professor, it’s too important, the implications are huge.”

“I know it’s important, Oliver, don’t think I don’t know that. But perhaps you don’t realise just how … important it is.”

“Sami has exhibited behaviour consistent with self-awareness at an intellectual level. She clearly has preferences about her environment, and she is asking us to alter that environment to suit her better. She’s not asking us to stop the experiments – she enjoys them, she likes learning new things. It’s a revolution in our understanding, yes, but it can’t be used to argue against the programme.”

“Your words will be twisted, Oliver. You won’t have control over your arguments. The papers will run the story; you’ll be interrogated not interviewed. It’s no reflection on you; no one would be able to handle this story if it got out.”

Dr Oliver is clearly upset. He takes a breath. “We can write it in technical language so only scientists can appreciate–”

“No, Oliver,” Jones says, with a cold finality. “This is not your decision. You can keep your research notes on the chimp–”

“Sami.” The response is automatic now.

“But they cannot be published and you have to destroy it. Go back to the rats – there are some really interesting things there that would … go down more easily.”

Dr Oliver doesn’t reply. Professor Jones turns and leaves the lab. It’s clear that despite Jones’s adamant decision, the issue is not resolved. How can it be? I lift my head and Dr Oliver sees me.

“What do you think, Rabbit.”

I honestly don’t know.

*

It’s getting late in the day, but everyone is here now. Dr Oliver has called a meeting of the senior staff. He wants to discuss options. Some of the graduate students are here too, but I think they, like me, realise that they’re not here to speak, not yet.

Dr Oliver opens the debate: “Sami is a chimpanzee, an animal, like all the other animals we have in this laboratory. But Sami is different because she has learned to communicate with us with gestures and noises. Although saying that, it may be that we have learned to communicate with her. Either way, because of this event, it has been decided that Sami will die tomorrow. I don’t fully understand Professor Jones’s reasons and I’m not sure I ever can, but I want to discuss with you, since you all have a stake in what goes on in my lab, I need to discuss this.

“I don’t want Sami to die. She is too valuable in terms of the research we are going to do, the levels of understanding that we will reach. Imagine what she can teach us about ourselves, how we learn, why we learn. And yes, there is an emotional attachment there, I admit it quite freely. I can’t say if it’s the same attachment as I have to any of you, or to the chair that I’ve been sitting on for nine years; whether it’s because of who Sami is, or just that she’s been here so long; but I will miss her. To lose her like this is unimaginable. It is wrong.”

Dr Oliver is looking at the floor by this stage. The rest of us are still and quiet. There are some hushed murmurs of agreement, perhaps. After a pause, John speaks.

“Who is learning from whom is an interesting point, Oliver. I’m not heading into semantics, I just find it interesting that the reason you want to keep her is to continue to experiment. This isn’t vivisection, of course, but surely the principles are similar? I don’t know, that’s how it seems to me.

“I don’t want Sami to die, obviously; I don’t think anyone actively wants her to be killed. But keeping her here, continuing the work – or even if you took her somewhere else, I suppose – it would be very strange to do all this work, spend all that time and yes, you’d achieve something with her, but no one would know and given the decision of Jones, you know, who has authority here, well no one would know, and, then, what would be the point? It isn’t ethical.”

“Can I say something?” says Kath, Sami’s semi-official carer at the moment, responsible for feeding and cleaning as well as a research role. “Professor Jones is in a difficult position, but that doesn’t mean whatever he decides is right. He doesn’t know Sami like all of us do. That kind of makes him objective, in one sense, but it also leaves him less than fully informed.

“I think it’s your decision, Oliver. I mean, that’s got to be why we’re here, isn’t it? To help you make the decision?”

Dr Oliver looks up. “It’s not – I don’t have the right to make this decision, not at any level, but yes, you’re right, it is a decision I have to make. I honestly don’t know what is for the best. Obviously for Sami, it’s better she live than die. For me, personally, the same. For me professionally, though – but how important is that? For the university: well, how much do they count? For the people who might be attacked if Jones is right and it attracts the kind of violence we see elsewhere…. For all of you, for the cause of science. There are too many – it’s very complicated.”

Kath takes his arm for a moment as she speaks. “Oliver, I look after Sami, and God knows, I love her. I do. But she’s an animal. I’m so glad you don’t kill and dissect the chimps to analyse their brain chemistry the way we do the rats, it would be appalling to do that every day. But fundamentally, where’s the difference?”

I am somewhat surprised by Kath’s viewpoint. Its inconsistency as much as anything. I’m involved with the rodent arm of the research – part of the reason I don’t know Sami as well as they do – but rats are demonstrably capable of learning. And if that’s the attraction of Sami, then why shouldn’t it hold for the rats? Now I think about it, I can’t see any rational distinction between chimps and rats. Kath seems to think this lack of difference means humans have dominion over everything non-human. I suppose I’m more inclined to assume it means that if rats and chimps can be considered equally (in some sense), they should also be considered alongside humans.

The discussion is provoking some novel thoughts and I’m not sure my argument could stand up to criticism. I keep my mouth shut.

“We’ve done everything right by Sami,” Kath continues. “She’s been so well looked after, lived a great life, pretty much free of stress and pain. She won’t feel a thing when she’s … put to sleep, she won’t have suffered at all. It’s all right, Oliver. There’s no suffering involved in this decision. I know it’s hard, but, really, it’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” says Dr Oliver, stepping back from Kath. “It’s not. I mean, I respect your view, of course, and it has some truth in it. But we can’t use her and throw her away the minute something comes up. How is that fair to her? It’s not about suffering, it’s about, I don’t know, justice.”

There’s another pause before John again breaks the silence. “You didn’t know what was going to happen when you started with Sami,” he says to Dr Oliver. “You had a rationale and a protocol and a hope that you might get somewhere, but at that stage, Sami was an unknown quantity that you felt justified in measuring, yes? Well that has changed. Sami has changed, obviously, but that’s kind of irrelevant. Professor Jones clearly believes­–”

“Jones is afraid,” snaps Dr Oliver. I haven’t seen him this emotional ever. “He never liked what I’m doing with Sami, but we were here first so he’s had to wait. He’s a coward, in every way.”

“Maybe,” says John calmly, “but he’s afraid because he can see what’s coming. Sami has become a potential weapon. A weapon for those who would lynch you for ever having started the experiments that made her this weapon. It’s ironic, but you’ve created an intelligence, the existence of which puts into doubt your right to create it.

“But that’s not my point.” John is often distracted by stray thoughts and has to yank himself back on track. “My point is this: the rationale for keeping Sami has gone. Because the Professor has decided not to publish, the reason for working with Sami is gone. It would therefore be wrong to keep her – she’d become no more than a pet. That would be wrong, Oliver.”

I don’t think this is what Dr Oliver was expecting to hear from his colleagues. He seems dismayed by their lack of support. If no one backs him up, how is he going to be able to save Sami, or even convince himself that it’s the right thing to do?

“It’s my duty to publish my results,” he says at last. “You’re all scientists: you know this much is true. Jones doesn’t have the moral right to stop me.”

“You signed a contract here, Oliver,” says John. “We all did, and it clearly states who has the right to give or withhold the authority to publish from within this department.”

“Think of your position, Oliver,” says Kath. “Don’t throw away your career, your life, for this….”

“It’s not about me, though,” Dr Oliver says wearily. “It’s about Sami and what’s right by her.”

*

I wake up in the lab the next morning. It’s been one of those nights where you don’t feel like you’ve slept at all, but at some point you wake up to find that nothing has changed.

Dr Oliver was here all night too. He’s talking to himself, although he half talks to me as well. He’s also been talking to Sami.

“It’s down to me that she came here and that she’s developed in the way she has. And I was okay with having responsibility for her as long as she was an animal. Which she still is, of course, I mean, she’s not human.

“I asked her, Rabbit: I tried to explain in this ridiculous vocabulary we share that some of us think she should, well I didn’t say ‘die’, I said ‘go away’, but – it wouldn’t surprise me if she understood death. Is that profoundly troubling? Does it change anything? But I thought she should have a say, since she’s capable of communicating.

“I asked her what she wanted to do. She made the sign for life. Who wouldn’t? So I asked her why. She’s never quite understood that gesture. I asked her what she would do with ‘life’. She made the signs for eat and sleep and learn. But she was distressed, confused; she didn’t know – I don’t think she fully understood, but she knew enough to suffer because of it.

“She’s not a machine, no more than I am, or you are. Clearly. And I believe she can suffer – it’s why we make such an effort to minimise suffering. But there’s a tradition of experimenting on animals, and we are educated within that tradition and it’s easy to assume that animal experiments are a valid tool of research – as long as you’re not cruel, but then what does that mean? What is cruelty? Am I cruel to keep her and work with her and study her and subject her to things she wouldn’t experience in nature? Or would it be cruel to abandon her now, to kill her because she has outgrown her usefulness as experimental subject?”

Now it seems to me that all this agonising is getting nowhere. What’s the point of being rational and human if the awareness of the moral consequences of your actions doesn’t help you make decisions? The debate with the other scientists, this internal dilemma, the argument with Jones: none of it is helping Dr Oliver decide what to do. Is there something wrong with these people? Or with the way they think? Maybe humans aren’t so privileged after all.

I say: “You’ll still have me.”

“You’re just a rat,” he says.

He turns and looks at me directly. I meet his gaze. He doesn’t move for quite some time. I realise that this is, in fact, the first thing I’ve said since joining the lab. First thing I’ve ever said. Small wonder he’s surprised. But he knew I’d had the surgery to modify my larynx to make these sounds possible. I suppose my silence had confirmed their assumption that language is for the privileged species.

And indeed, what use is language when you have nothing to say? But now, in this moment, I have something to say.

Before I can say it, though, Dr Oliver runs out of the lab. I feel sick because I know what he is about to do and it was my doing, it was my fault.

Sami is to be destroyed.

I wait, in silence, to find out what will happen to me.

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