Dissection: Disgust or Discussed?

by Douglas Allchin*

The dissection controversy has brought to the biology classroom something that should have been there all along: ethical discussion about the value of life. It invites reflection: how does one indeed teach respect for life?

Oddly enough, I think dissections--far from being an exemplar of disrespect--may actually contribute significantly to students developing a deeper appreciation for life. This was certainly true in my college class for non-majors last spring. 95% indicated that they learned something valuable from our rat dissection and that included among this was a deeper respect for living things. I think this may be generally true when one foregoes the seek-and-destroy strategy of the dissections of yesteryear, and instead invites students (in a constructivist strategy) to explore, to find how things are connected, to feel and describe textures, to discover for themselves what they are made of. "Things are so much different than the way they are pictured and described in the textbook!" one student noted. "Diagrams give you just one side of the picture and sometimes even two. But with the dissection you get to see the organs in all dimensions, you get to look at it any which way you want and what's better is that you get to touch it. What I learned from the dissection is to appreciate what every single organ does for the body (me)." Students who never see the inside of a real animal, I fear, regard organisms--most notably themselves--as black boxes, or worse, as a virtual reality as thin as the screen it is projected on. I lead dissections because I want my students to develop a respect for life--and I believe they succeed. (I deliberately get my animals second-hand, by the way--from completed research at the university.)

However a teacher views dissection, though, those views should not eclipse the students'. Besides the principle of respect for life is another basic ethical principle that applies to all educators: respect for students. Students 'views on dissection matter. Indeed, all students, not just those who voice some dissent, should see that there are important ethical issues surrounding dissection. Hence, I claim: all biology teachers should engage their stu-dents in discussing the ethics of respect for life.

The first ethical lesson to convey is that merely voicing an opinion or expressing a position is ethically empty. Ethics is not about preaching or rotely following principles, it is about justification. Well reasoned arguments are central in ethics, no less than in science. Teachers should thus guide students in discussing reasons, not positions or platitudes.

The occasion of dissection may well be the very first time some students seriously consider the issue of respect for life. If so, teachers need to encourage their reflection. At the same time, they also typically need to broaden the scope of their inquiry. Respect for life means respect for all life, not an anthropocentric or mammal-centric respect for "life-like-us."

We hear much fuss over cats and frogs and fetal pigs. We hear very little objection to dissection of starfish, oysters, or worms. Why? No wellspring of objection has emerged from an increasingly popular lab on the survival rates of sowbugs in different environmental conditions, though wholesale death is assured for some populations. I have yet to hear a hue and cry over dissecting flowers. Yet all are living. Are we effectively teaching respect for life?

Animal rights activists express outrage at the injustice of killing animals for fur. But shouldn't we be equally if not more outraged about the disparity of wealth between the persons who can afford to buy these coats and the persons who merely want them? Do we think about the lives of persons in war-torn and starvation-ridden regions with the same passion as the lives of animals engendered by the dissection issue?

How fully do we reflect on respect for life? Consider, for example, the shelf of household insecticides--common weapons for killing roaches, ants, mosquitoes, wasps, ticks, termites, spiders, etc., outright. How many persons who question dissection will use such insecticides with impunity? Where is our respect for the life of arthropods? What does respect for life mean?

Consider also the pesticides for the garden, for the cotton field, for the wheat crop, for the orchard. Because how many of us accept eating apples with blemishes on them? We don't want to think about harvest losses or, worse, developing alternative agricultural methods, and so we blind ourselves to billions upon billions of insect and plant deaths. Where is our principle of respect for life?

And lawns and golf-courses: the merciless exploitation of grass, a living thing, grown for the expressed purpose of being trampled and severed on a regular basis. Not to mention the herbicides and widespread discriminatory murder of dandelions and other broad-leaf plants. Where is respect for life in lawns?

Plants remind us that living things encompass many kingdoms and that we need to open our horizons still further. What are antibiotics for, but to eradicate whole populations of bacteria? --Foot powder for athlete's foot, except to kill Fungi? --And disinfectant house cleaners, save for the genocide of our Moneran and Protist cousins?

Finally, consider the most widespread abuse of animals in the U.S.: the raising in captivity of cats and dogs, not to mention guinea pigs, fish, and parakeets. It is not enough that we deprive them of their liberty, or breed them purely for our own enjoyment, apart from their once native habitats. We as a nation feed them tons of meat and meat by-products every year. Who else is not receiving food as a result? Does our respect for life not need reassessment when pets are overfed at the same time one third of the world's humans go hungry?

From my perspective, at least, our culture owes itself some profound self-reflection on respect for life before we can begin worrying about dissection in the classroom. Still, we can capitalize on dissection as a prime occasion to introduce this reflection to students and to spark some far-reaching ethical discusssion.

If indeed dissection is the first time a student thinks seriously about respect for life, teachers should seize the opportunity to encourage and guide further ethical reflection. Much of that guidance, I contend, involves helping students appreciate the ethical scope of the question. Appropriate discussion of the ethics of dissection involves introducing the broad spectrum of relevant cases to respect for life: sources of human food; medical research; recreational hunting and fishing; the domination of pets in homes and animals in zoos; insecticides, herbicides, disinfectant cleaners, and antibiotics. In this way, I think, we can begin to teach authentic respect for life.

Further Reading

  • Allchin, Douglas. 1991. "Dissecting Classroom Ethics," The Science Teacher (Jan., 1991), pp. 44-49. (Includes a student survey for "Values Clarification")
  • Balcombe, Jonathan. 1997. "Student/Teacher Conflict Regarding Animal Dissection." American Biology Teacher 59(1): 22-25.

    *This paper was presented as "Teaching Repsect for Life" at a Symposium on Dissection, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States October 16, 1996.

    The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.