In his commentary (“The Unkindest Cut,” May/June), Thomas Bickleman tries to convince us that dissection should not be a part of high school biology classes. But his arguments are flawed and his conclusion wrong.
Let’s start by putting things in perspective. In this country, we slaughter between 10 million and 16 million unwanted cats and dogs in pounds each year and kill billions of animals for food. The use of animals for research and education constitutes only 0.3 percent of animal consumption.
Are the animals used for dissection slaughtered needlessly? Bickleman implies that dissection plays almost no role in the most important aspects of modern science. But, in fact, the study of diseases like AIDS and cancer, environment-related disciplines like genetics and toxicology, and space travel all involve research using animals. It’s no coincidence that 54 of the 76 Nobel Prizes awarded in medicine and physiology in this century have been based on animal research.
Bickleman says that dissection is just “the simple process of identifying body parts” and argues that this “encourages rote memorization, making students believe that science is merely the acquisition of information.” Wrong again. Hands-on dissection labs are all the things Bickleman says science should be: Students use observation skills to “recognize principles of commonality”; they also “analyze and interpret” their findings in relation to the functions of the organs, “make inferences” about animals in relation to their adaptations to the environment, and “establish associations” between animals and themselves.
In fact, contrary to what Bickleman claims, dissection, presented properly, increases our appreciation for all living creatures by showing us how they are similar to us. After dissecting, my students express awe, enthusiasm, and gratitude for the experience. Their understanding of animals has been deepened in a way that cannot be accomplished with a computer or videodisc.
It is extremely important for high school students, who are about to choose colleges and careers, to get this kind of hands-on lesson. Basic knowledge of comparative anatomy that dissection provides is indispensable for every professional involved in the health of people and animals. Those interested in health careers must be given a chance to find out if they are excited, or squeamish, about anatomy.
But dissection opportunities are just as, if not more, important for students who don’t choose a career in health science. For these people, high school biology may be their only exposure to fundamental anatomy, and their classes should be both memorable and productive. Dissection helps make biology unforgettable because the body of a real animal is used, enabling students to observe firsthand the complexity and intricacies of living creatures.
It is interesting to note that between 1977 and 1987, the number of college students graduating with degrees in biomedical science dropped 28 percent. This drop occurred concurrently with the rise of the animal rights movement. Bickleman cites Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to support his point of view. He doesn’t mention that PCRM was chastised by the American Medical Association for “misrepresenting the critical role animals play in research and teaching.” PCRM has close ties to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an extremist animal rights group that considers it immoral to use animals in any way—as food, in zoos and circuses, or for animal research.
In summary, Bickleman asserts that dissection “gives students a very wrong view of the relationship between humanity and the animal kingdom.” He doesn’t spell out what that relationship should be, but he is critical of those who think “the acquisition of information is sufficient to justify the termination of an innocuous creature’s life.” I would put it another way. Humans certainly have a responsibility to treat animals humanely. We also have a responsibility to gain knowledge that helps us protect the environment, save human lives, and fight disease. Hands-on anatomy that uses dissection is important. It gives teachers an inherently good opportunity to raise students’ level of understanding of life science, its processes, and possible career choices. The knowledge derived from dissection is worth more than the loss of life of an animal humanely killed. It is certainly worth more than the meal for which a cow or chicken must die. Cutting open a pickled animal is no more inhumane than dressing a chicken for dinner.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as Keep Dissection In Class