04 July 2011


VIRTUES OF INFIDELITY. Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage "has for 20 years been saying that monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage .... Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can't help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

"' I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,' Savage says, 'when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death, and being taken for granted.'"

The NYTimes article continues the discussion at some length, without condemning either monogamy or infidelity. I take no rigid position either way, believing that the world should be much more tolerant of diversity, and that many of the social norms we've inherited are antiquated and not appropriate for everyone. We each must find our own balance, and respect the informed choices of others. Candor and mutual consent between/among partners is key. To learn more, please check out my post reviewing the book Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality.

PETA. Equally controversially, research scientist Jamie L. Vernon asserts that PETA Should Rethink Its Campaign Against Animal Research. PETA, People for the Ethical Treament of Animals, has adopted confrontational and even illegal measures to interfere with laboratory research involving live animals. On the face of it, PETA's intent is laudable, but Vernon reminds us that "As much as we would like for scientists to be able to end the practice of animal research, PETA and other animal rights activists must understand that to end this work would significantly impair advances in medical research. In many cases, there are no alternatives to animal research. This is especially true for HIV/AIDS research."

Further, "Federally-funded scientists must go through a complex deliberative process in order to justify research involving animals. The research must be necessary to answer a specific scientific question and alternatives to animal research must be considered. A protocol must be submitted and approved by a highly-knowledgeable oversight committee and proper facilities must be guaranteed in order to humanely house the animals. Once the decision is made to use animals, researchers must conform to the laws, regulations, and policies that govern the practice. These constraints are rigorous and thorough. The NIH Office of Animal Care and Use Regulations and Standards provides the documents, standards and links to resources about appropriate laboratory animal procedures. If a researcher is found to violate these regulations, I believe that individual should be stripped of their right to use animals for research and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Note that Vernon confines his discussion to legitimate medical and scientific research using animals. His remarks do not include the (in my view) truly abhorrent use of animals for commercial research by the cosmetics and other industries, nor their use in circuses, bullfights, and rodeos. He also acknowledges the value of "the use of cell and tissue cultures, analytical technology, molecular research, post mortem studies, computer modeling, epidemiology population studies, ethical clinical research with volunteer patients and healthy subjects, and the use of microbes such as bacteria." The responsible use of lab animals is unfortunately the necessary intermediate step between these preliminary tests and treatment of humans.

During my own studies in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, I was privileged to have access to sophisticated labs for a number of undergrad and graduate course, including mammalogy, ornithology, herpitology, oceanography, and comparative anatomy & physiology. The department of EEB, individual instructors, lab assistants, and nearly all students were acutely aware of the ethical issues surrounding the use of lab animals, and utmost care was taken to encourage an atmosphere of restraint and respect. Such an atmosphere has not always characterized PETA's actions, which have included breaking and entering, destruction of property, setting lab animals "free" with no provision for their safety or survival, and issuing inflammatory rhetoric which targets researchers in much the same way that anti-abortion rhetoric targets physicians who perform abortions .... sometimes resulting in threats, injury, or the murder of practitioners. It is a thorny issue, with no universally correct answer, other than causing the least harm to promote the greatest common good.

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