KSN - Vol 36, No 3 - Feb 1990: DissectionVolume 36, Number 3 - February 1989 (and 1991 reprint)


by John Richard Schrock

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Dr. John Richard Schrock is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Emporia State University and directs the biology education program. He specializes in science communication, biology education, and insect ecology, and is a member of the Education Subcommittee of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).




by John Richard Schrock

Note: “Dissection” is pronounced dis-séction, not dýe-section.

The loss of dissection, vivisection, and experimentation from public school science classes may pose a more serious threat to the intellectual and physical health of the human population than recent challenges to animal use in biomedical research. While the plight of accident and disease victims should provide an effective defense of animal research for vaccines and cures, the absolute need for examination of real organisms in the classroom and in other science education settings is not self-evident. Indeed, a shallow and naive understanding of the learning process is used to purvey videotapes, models, computer simulations, and stuffed animals as equivalent or superior to real laboratory experiences. The function of this issue of the Kansas School Naturalist is to clarify how the examination of real material is essential to all students' science literacy, and to help biology teachers “hang tough.”


-Biology is the “study of life;” so why are we studying dead things?

-“I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live... The essence of Goodness is: Preserve life, promote life, help life to achieve its highest destiny. The essence of Evil is: Destroy life, harm life, hamper the development of life.” -Albert Schweitzer The Teaching of the Reverence for Life, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, NY 1965.     

-The anatomical facts can be obtained without having students dissect. This leaves the "experience of dissection" argument: Students need to develop skills using the scalpel. This argument may be valid in medical school (where human cadavers would suffice) but is hardly arguable for the mass of public school students who will not enter medicine. “Out of every 1000 students entering the fifth grade, 285 will enter college and about 40 will obtain science degrees.” (OTA, 1988) Therefore, 960 or more will never need surgical or research skills.

-Many people remember classroom dissections as cut-and-slice cookbook exercises. The faint-hearted stood back. The classroom clown flipped an organ across the room when the teacher wasn't looking. The preservative stung everyone’s eyes. When the parts were scraped into the wastebasket, the ordeal was finally over. Students should spend time on more productive tasks.

-“Practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men . . . tender feelings towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind.” Immanuel Kant Lectures on Ethics.

-There is an inherent value in all “subjects-of-a-life;” this defined as organisms having: beliefs, desires, perception, memory, a sense of the future, an emotional life with pleasure and pain, an ability to initiate action in pursuit of a goal, a psychophysical identity over time, etc. (see Regan, 1983)

-What is morally significant depends on whether a creature is conscious, sentient, and able to experience pain. Because it is difficult to define where this line is, we must act as if lower animals are conscious and can perceive pain until there is incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. “If we are genuinely to give the frog the benefit of the doubt, we will not only take care to spare frogs unnecessary pain by using anesthesia; we will also take care not to kill them, or allow them to die, unnecessarily. We will, that is, not use them for purposes of dissection.” (Regan, 1983)

-Science and educational practices must not violate human rights. To oppose cruelty, favor kindness, and require justice insists that non-humans also be included. To argue that humans have “special” rights is speciesism no different from the special rights claimed in racism or sexism.

-“Traditional studies that revolve around identification of body parts and systems at best provide a mechanical and isolated understanding of small segments of the life processes. A behavioral and ecological approach encourages the development of a deeper respect for and understanding of the living animal. . . Such knowledge and values have far greater potential for meaning in the lives of average citizens than familiarity with dissection techniques or memorization of the anatomical structure of a preserved laboratory specimen. . .” Unacceptable procedures include “collection and killing of insects for display or identification purposes.”   Dissection “... is unnecessary in the teaching of biology, is inconsistent with the development of a general appreciation and respect for living organisms, and is therefore unacceptable at the pre-college level.” -From a brochure “A Humane Approach to the Study of Animals in Elementary and Secondary School Biology” by The Humane Society of the United States, 1985.


The previous philosophical arguments are no longer theoretical once a student appears in your class who balks at what have been routine exercises. Jenifer Graham, 15-years-old, of Victorville, California, brought this to national prominence when she voiced a moral objection to her biology course requirement of dissecting a frog. Receiving a lower grade after refusing to dissect, the A-student took the matter to court. In August of 1988, a federal judge dismissed the case and proposed a compromise test of Jenifer’s frog anatomy knowledge “...using a frog that died of natural causes.” (Orlans, 1988) This decision supported both the student’s right to refuse to dissect and the school’s right to “. . . insist on testing knowledge of frog anatomy on a real frog.” Other students in New Jersey and elsewhere have subsequently refused to dissect in biology class and there has been an avalanche of policies restricting animal use and dissection in classes, science fairs, and other educational settings (see OTA, 1988, for examples).


Do not engage in philosophical debates with students, parents, and other parties. Philosophy is something philosophers do; many of the “logical” systems developed lead to conclusions that simply are not acceptable to your students nor match with how the real world works. As a science teacher, your job is to get students to open their eyes and develop skills for solving problems in the real world. The following are techniques that are really required of you as a teacher and intellectual:

1) A belief system should be internally consistent; it should not propose a criterion in one area and violate it in another. A student has a blanket  rejection  of  furs–but  wears leather shoes? Is repulsed by the Draize test–but wears makeup? Feels (incorrectly) that lab use depletes and endangers the wild populations–but eagerly participates in a transportation system that is immensely more destructive to wild animals.

2) Your understanding of science should be complete enough to be internally consistent as well. If your college education in biology is only 15 to 28 credit hours, you are going to need a lot more coursework. (Some university biology teacher programs do not even require anatomy and physiology.)

3) You do not need to “re-invent the wheel” by research into primary sources in science and philosophy. Read the Skeptical Inquirer and collect articles from professional science and science education journals (particularly the Journal of Biology Education) that clarify the animal rights and dissection issue for your students. Share problems and strategies with teaching colleagues at KABT and KATS.

4) Insist on validation and “ground truth.” If a student reads something controversial, have him/her bring the article in so together you can address exactly what is stated. For instance, some will claim that animal research has not contributed to cures of human diseases. If you have seen the NOVA film footage on the development of penicillin, or the history of Pasteur, etc., you can effectively and directly refute erroneous statements. “How many in class have relatives with diabetes who rely on insulin?” can rapidly force students to realize the serious consequences of ignoring the realities of animal research. “How do you know to go to the doctor when you have a stomach pain . . . if it is heartburn? . . . if it is appendicitis?” helps students understand that the health of people depends on the education level of patients as well as on the training of doctors.

5) And if you can afford the time, expand your reading of the philosophy behind animal rights beliefs. However, your knowledge of biology and the science process is your first line of defense.


A biology teacher who limits students to outlining the book and answering questions at the end of the chapter is a lousy teacher--but we do not discard the textbooks. Likewise, a teacher who conducts a “parts-is-parts” dissection lab is a lousy teacher, but hardly an argument to discontinue dissections.

I recall observing student teachers at separate schools conduct the same cow eyeball dissection lab. Both had secured fresh eyes from local slaughterhouses. The young man matter-of-factly held up a specimen and systematically walked through the steps in the dissection and listed all the items students were to look for. The ninth-graders worked away as he patrolled the classroom, answering questions and making sure nothing “got out of hand.” It was an adequate lesson. Two days later I observed the second student teacher with equivalent classroom facilities and similar students. She very carefully withdrew the eyeball from the container and, using essentially the same words, summarized the procedure. In the way she handled the eye, every student noticed the care and respect she had. This was not a “piece of meat” but a delicate and complex structure to be handled with care. And the students assumed this same careful manner as they delicately explored the lens and retina. A good teacher is enthusiastic and we can expect this enthusiasm and respect to be contagious in the classroom.


-Maintain a classroom atmosphere that is safe and free of horseplay and “teasing.”

-Provide materials and equipment that are adequate and relatively safe.

-Maintain an intellectual atmosphere where students know why they are involved in the chosen learning activities and feel free to inquire and explore.

-Answer students’ questions honestly, with more regard for reality than authority.


-Dissect as though everything will have to be put back together.

-If you don’t know what a part is, don't remove it until you have identified it; what it is connected to helps you identify it.

-Pull apart rather than cut apart; you want to see whole units first.

-Remove skin or membranes in layers, pulling the top layers up with forceps or fingers and separating this from underlying tissue by using the scalpel handle or blade.

-Use “razor sharp” blades, scalpels, or scissors at all grade levels; dull blades cause students to saw and use unnecessary force that likely may result in cuts to the student.


Humans generally value other humans and “higher” animals more than “lower” animals, plants, and non-living objects. This can be demonstrated by having students conduct a mental exercise described as the “hammer test.” Lining up the virus and living organisms in order from primitive to recently derived, you are asked to mentally consider taking a hammer and smashing the organism. At what point would you hesitate? At what point would you definitely stop? Why would you stop in that exact spot? A good biology class with an understanding of the small gradations between these organisms will see how difficult it is to draw a line for many properties. A teacher who poses this mental exercise must be ready to help students clarify their concepts of “hurt” and “pain” and “consciousness.”

It is important to help students understand how they cannot avoid “harming” some organisms. Every time a student swallows, thousands of mouth bacteria perish in stomach acid. Every defecation abandons billions of bacteria to dehydrate or rupture. Perhaps 150,000,000 yeasts are killed when you bake a loaf of bread. A predator that doesn't eat prey dies. The amino acids that we require are not all readily available in plants, thus revealing our ancestry was not strictly vegetarian. The more students learn, the more they will realize that concepts of life and death and pain and awareness are not black-and-white distinctions, but fade into gray areas. The science teacher helps the student learn this by “holding the students against the real world.”

Erwin Schroedinger, in an important 1945 book, What is Life?, described how the ability to perceive the world was a property of most organisms, if not of all life itself. Of course, for a Paramecium that bumps into a wall, this “perception” is little more than a simple predictable chemico-physical response, certainly not the mental imaging we develop when we collide with a wall.  The “ends” for some factors are clear: the Paramecium is not conscious or self-aware; the Chimpanzee is. “We have no evidence that organisms lacking a central nervous system are capable of thinking about objects and events.” (Griffin, 1984) But as we proceed to examine more recently derived animals, we observe greater abilities to sense changes in the broader environment, to organize and interpret these sensations, and to respond with a more complex repertoire of behaviors. Finally, we observe David Attenborough, in Life On Earth, crouching in the midst of a family of mountain gorillas and whispering to the camera: “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know....”  And we listen when Jane Goodall reports that Chimpanzees: “...are capable of reasoned thought, generalization, abstraction, and symbolic representation. They have some concept of self. They have excellent memories...show a capacity for intentional communication . . . show emotions that are undoubtedly similar, if not identical, to human emotions–joy, pleasure, contentment, anxiety, fear, and rage. They even have a sense of humor.” (Goodall, 1987) See the OTA report for lists of animals used in education and their similarities and differences to human anatomy and physiology.

LIFE and DEATH are often seen as an absolute good and bad, respectively. Yet to save the life of a plague-infected animal or human requires that we promote the death of the bacteria. Students in developmental biology are surprised to learn that animal development depends as much on certain cell lines dying at the appropriate time as it does on cell proliferation. Normal human cells live in tissue culture only several dozen replications, whereas cancer cell lines appear to be immortal. In evolution, death is a major agent in natural selection, and essential to keeping the numbers of maladapted individuals low.

PAIN is likewise vital to the survival of humans and complex animals. Pain is required for both the human baby  and the young kitten to define where their bodies end and where the environment begins. It stops you from twisting the pickle jar lid so hard you damage the tissues in your hand. Leprosy patients without pain wear away fingers and toes. Children born with a rare absence of pain perception laugh as they seriously cut themselves and others. Pain is therefore as vital to life as sight, and we know it must be inflicted at certain  times  for  greater  good, as in receiving a MMR inoculation.

EMPATHY is the ability you have to put yourself in another person’s shoes: “I know what she means.” “I know what he must feel.” This is based on the commonsense observation that people are very much alike in the way they perceive the world. It is obviously a trait we value greatly, the base of the “golden rule” in many cultures, and a process that (combined with symbol communication) makes history and literature possible. While we value empathy with other people and encourage it in our students, we must be very careful to distinguish this from the sympathy we may give a dog or cat. From our understanding of their structural differences and experimental evidence, we can be sure they do not perceive the world as we do. As you rub your cat under the ear, assuming it "likes" the massage, the smell-oriented feline is more likely getting an itch scratched, an "itch" more closely related to scent-marking than to affection for an owner.

ANTHROPOMORPHISM is the error of reading human characteristics into animals that couldn't possibly possess them. It is promoted by giving animals human names, by children's picture books with animals that talk and behave as humans, and by referring to mommy and daddy animals where there is no evidence of parental investment. Biology teachers have contributed to this by using animals' organs as representative models for the human system and not pointing out the differences that exist as well.

IMAGINATION--Much more work remains to be done on varieties and degrees of higher animal thinking (see Griffin, 1985), but one distinction between humans and other animals that can be understood by many students is "imagination," as described by Jacob Bronowski:

"What goes on in the mind when we imagine? You will hear from me that one answer to this question is fairly specific: which is to say, that we can describe the working of the imagination. And when we describe it as I shall do, it becomes plain that imagination is a specifically human gift. To imagine is the characteristic act, not of the poet's mind, or the painter's, or the scientist's, but of the mind of man.

"My stress here on the word "human" implies that there is a clear difference in this between the actions of men and those of other animals. Let me then start with a classical experiment with animals and children which Walter Hunter thought out in Chicago about 1910. That was the time when scientists were agog with the success of Ivan Pavlov in forming and changing the reflex actions of dogs, which Pavlov had first announced in 1903. Pavlov had been given a Nobel prize the next year, in 1904, although in fairness I should say that the award did not cite his work on the conditioned reflex, but on the digestive glands.

"Hunter duly trained some dogs and other animals on Pavlov's lines. They were taught that when a light came on over one of three tunnels out of their cage, that tunnel would be open; they could escape down it, and were rewarded with food if they did. But once he had fixed that conditioned reflex, Hunter added to it a deeper idea: he gave the mechanical experiment   a   new   dimension, literally--the dimension of time. Now he no longer let the dog go to the lighted tunnel at once; instead, he put out the light, and then kept the dog waiting a little while before he let him go. In this way Hunter timed how long an animal can remember where it has last seen the signal light to its escape route.

"The results were and are staggering. A dog or a rat forgets which one of three tunnels has been lit up within a matter of seconds--in Hunter's experiment, ten seconds at most. If you want such an animal to do much better than this, you must make the task much simpler: you must face it with only two tunnels to choose from. Even so, the best that Hunter could do was to have a dog remember for five minutes which one of two tunnels had been lit up.

"I am not quoting these times as if they were exact and universal; they surely are not. Hunter's experiment, more than fifty years old now, had many faults of detail. For example, there were too few animals, they were oddly picked, and they did not all behave consistently. It may be unfair to test a dog for what it saw, when it commonly follows its nose rather than its eyes. It may be unfair to test any animal in the unnatural setting of a laboratory cage. And there are higher animals, such as chimpanzees and other primates, which certainly have longer memories than the animals that Hunter tried.

"Yet when all these provisos have been made (and met, by more modern experiments), the facts are still startling and characteristic. An animal cannot recall a signal from the past for even a short fraction of the time that a man can--for even a short fraction of the time that a child can. Hunter made comparable tests with six-year-old children, and found, of course, that they were incomparably better than the best of his animals. There is a striking and basic difference between a man's ability to imagine something that he saw or experienced, and an animal's failure."

From "The Reach of Imagination" in A Sense of the Future by Jacob Bronowski. Copyright (c) 1977 by MIT Press. Reprinted with permission.


When you try to convey information to a student, you carefully select words from a usage vocabulary related to the experience you want to relate, a word that you expect to be in the students' recognition vocabulary. When the student hears the word, it is "meaningful" if she/he associates it with a similar experience.

If there is no multisensory real experience with the item or relationship named, the word is meaningless unless it is associated with other words with which the student has real experiences. Obviously, if your understanding of liver is limited to "big", "brown", and "organ", it has a very limited and easily forgotten "meaning."

Meaning diagram


The central issue in dissection is that educators and others are equating the educational value of words, pictures, and other abstractions with that of direct  multisensory  experiences.  An analysis of the amount of information conveyed, sense by sense, by various media reveals how impoverished such abstractions are.

For humans, all learning must be input through one of five channels: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and a complex of touch-related senses. You can't teach using stimuli a person cannot perceive. Within each sensory channel you can either experience the full stimuli of the object or process, or you can subtract qualities from the full experience until only a few "pixels" or sound waves are left. Thus seeing a real person is more "meaningful" than seeing a movie of them. . . than a color photo . . than a black-and-white . . than a written description. Now, sometimes we do want a more abstract road map because the topography and vegetation shown in an aerial photo gets in the way of finding streets--but we ultimately realize that the aerial photo has more of reality in it than does the road map. On this scale, written and spoken works are completely abstract, with no correspondence or association with the reality symbolized, except by social agreement: Thus we do not understand foreign languages we have not "learned."

Sensory Scale

Direct experiences, including dissection, provide the maximum multisensory stimuli and lay down the greatest memory in our understanding of the mechanics and diversity of anatomy. Alternative "experiences," where the students' actual experience is a flat computer screen pattern or a plastic model, lay down less memory and are more easily forgotten.


A student who has a rich supply of real experiences is easy to teach; a teacher's words are more meaningful and explanations trigger memories and unanswered questions: "Aha, so that is why . . . ."  Once a student builds this additional understanding, the student in turn pays closer attention to additional related experiences--actually "sees more." This is why an athlete pays closer attention when you explain muscles or why a farm kid lingers longer in front of a museum display of a hawk. At one time, our school children were experience-rich (about the natural world) and we provided the information that made it all come together. Today we must provide both the information and the experience base to make it meaningful.

Beyond the senses that frame our experiences are three properties of outside experiences that are relied upon to develop an accurate mental map of the world using a scientific "attitude."

INTERACTION--The old teaching machines and their modern computer counterparts claim to be "interactive" based on one property: they provide a different response to the varied student input at the keyboard. But interacting with a real "liver" does not feel or taste or smell or sound like a keyboard and only partly resembles the visual image presented. If there were true interaction, we could fully teach students to drive or swim at a computer terminal. Obviously the bumps of the road, the jerks of the steering wheel, and the buoyancy of the water are essential interactive experiences to driving and swimming.

TEST TRUTHFULNESS--Once we reach out to poke and prod (interact with) the real world, we watch carefully for what happens. We get much additional information about our world this way. But the back of a photo doesn't show you the other side of the liver. And the plastic model does not have live cell structure. But the dissected animal does "test true:" it shows the other side, the microstructures, and anything else you want to ask of it well beyond what the teacher or textbook author ever anticipated. There is nothing more misleading than a fruit fly computer "lab" that gives exact 3:1 offspring from a hybrid cross. Computer "dissections" are also false in their "perfection." A small percentage of humans (and animals) are right-left reversed. A larger number have four instead of two kidneys. Abnormalities are an added bonus in real labs.

REAL CONSEQUENCES--In the real world, if your knowledge is wrong, you suffer the consequences. If you make a driving error, you have a wreck.

VIVISECTION involves dissecting or cutting into an animal while it is alive. For some reason, the term is not used when we cut living plant matter, as when we "dissect" flowers in biology labs (the tissues are kept alive by immersing stems in water), cut bouquets, harvest living crops, or even peel (living) potatoes. The major uses of vivisection are: 1) basic research in biochemistry and physiology, 2) applied research in the causes and treatments of animal and human diseases, 3) testing of trial surgical techniques and drug effects, 4) testing of toxic effects of commercial non-medical products, 5) specialized medical education including surgical techniques, and 6) general biology education for all students.

If you open your mouth underwater, you cough and sputter. But this does not happen when you use all those abstract "alternatives." Students sheltered by an abstract curriculum not only remember less, they don't worry about the consequences of not knowing. Personally, I am glad that marginally competent drivers have to suffer the consequences of their accidents, for that is the only factor that keeps them on their side of the road. Likewise, our safety during epidemics of contagious diseases relies on a general minimal level of biological and medical understanding in the public at large. And we individually suffer (perhaps die) if we do not know a pain in the lower abdomen may be appendicitis and not a stomachache. Dissections and tours of slaughterhouses and hospitals add the vital dimension of "real consequences" that is desperately lacking in much of U.S. education today.


LIVE ANIMALS--A person who drives a car but doesn't know what is under the hood or how it operates cannot repair it, doesn't know why it needs oil, gas, and air, and doesn't comprehend why certain operations or usages are harmful. The general acceptance that mere observation of external anatomy and behavior can provide an adequate experience base for understanding functional anatomy, diversity, evolution, and science process is a sad commentary on the current state of science literacy in the general public and the science education community endorsing this view.

PICTURES--This medium does not lay down any memory of sound, taste, smell, or touch; it provides a one dimensional “perfect” visual image; and does not interact, test true, or provide real consequences.

MODELS--Imitation models (not made from real taxidermy, etc.) improve on pictures by providing a three dimensional or stereoscopic input, but do not usually test true to touch--and otherwise have the same limitations as pictures. Real specimens mounted in museum displays are at a higher level because they are test truthful for surface features (although there are usually restrictions to touch). The public does not have an appreciation for museum and school collections as genuine objects with irreplaceable research and educational value. Hopefully, most people will gain an understanding of how animals are essential in biomedical research because most of us have empathy for accident and disease victims. But the critical educational function of genuine specimens in museums and classrooms is far less obvious. Each teacher and museum educator must be able to explain why real artifacts and three-dimensional displays perform an educational function that could not be served by models and audiovisuals.

COMPUTER SIMULATION AND “HYPERTEXT”–Despite the media hype, these experiences are not truly interactive, nor test truthful, nor do they provide real consequences. The National Advisory Group of Sigma Xi, the Science Research Society, recently provided this sober appraisal of such educational technology in its report "An Exploration of the Nature and Quality of Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics and Engineering (1989)":

“Two examples of the constructive use of computer simulations are: 1) to provide students with mock experiences with complex equipment in the laboratory in order to dissipate student anxiety, save time and protect the equipment, and 2) to display graphically changes in numerical values as predicted by a specific model, in response to variations of the parameters in the model . . . The National Advisory Group supports appropriate uses of computer simulations but takes a very strong position against their use to replace laboratory hands-on experience. Students need to learn to critically assess computer simulations, to question the models on which they are based, and to recognize that simulations are not true science or engineering investigations.”

PALPATIONis the technique a physician uses to diagnose by feel. The liver feels different from the stomach. Press on a pelvic organ; if the fingerprint remains, it is the colon with moldable feces; if firm and rubbery, it is the uterus. This is a refined skill for doctors, but we all use it in everyday life. When a child asks "Let me see that," he holds out his hand (and gets angry if you only let him see it). What we gain from touch is desperately overlooked or undervalued in education.


Examine any current biology or anatomy text's explanation of how muscle cells work. All muscle cells contract and relax; none forcibly expand. To restore a body shape or position requires the contraction of opposing muscles, extensors, to stretch out the relaxed flexors. This is the current party line. It is embarrassing that generations of students have dutifully copied this dogma in notebooks and regurgitated it on tests without stopping to ask “Wait a minute teacher; then how can a boneless heart that lacks flexors and extensors expand?” Now if your text addresses this question, the standard answer is that blood pressure in veins re-inflates the heart. Yet any biology student who has dissected a beating frog heart knows it keeps on beating after it is empty. The textbooks are currently inadequate or outright wrong in their explanation of heart expansion, sticking out your tongue, or the movement of elephant trunks and squid tentacles. Yet the error is only apparent to those students with direct experience with hearts and these other structures.

The actual mechanisms for expansion are “hydrostats,” muscle cells running crosswise that squeeze and elongate the relaxed muscle cells (March 26, 1988, Science News 133:204-250). Any good biologist and any good biology teacher would kick themselves, “Why didn’t I question that?” Yet you would only have had reason to question the current view if you had the real experiences; otherwise the standard explanation would never be challenged.

DEMONSTRATIONS–This is a good learning experience (hopefully a review) for the teacher. However, it attenuates the sensory input for students as more distant observers and eliminates direct interaction for the student. TV monitoring of demonstrations greatly improves the experience, but still denies interaction to the majority of students.


Grab a biology book from the early 1950s and try to find three consecutive pages that you could teach today without adding serious revisions or qualifications. Of course it is not possible. Our understanding has greatly advanced; new terms have replaced old to indicate new associations and functions. All abstract media, from computer simulations to photographs to models, function to elaborate the textbook. When the textbook must be revised, many of these abstractions will have to be changed as well. But the real lab work, in 1950 or today or in the year 2010, will not change. The fruit flies, the animal dissections, the myriad experiments, the human body, will all have the right answers in them "for the looking." We know from the work of mathematicians Godel and Turing that no model can prove itself complete. "Whatever kind of machine a rabbit's eye is, it is ultimately different from any simulator we can make." (Schrock, 1983). The real world has to remain the ultimate touchstone in science.

As an added benefit, the structures and processes we experience in the natural world provide us with metaphors which help us build better images for other natural phenomena.


Russia of the 1920s and the 1930s desperately needed better strains of wheat and other grains to survive poor soils and severe weather. Nikolai Vavilov grasped the new genetics being unraveled by Morgan and other Western scientists. Vavilov realized the importance of securing a diversity of seeds from countries where major crops originated, and was the "father of seed banks."

At the same time, Trofim Lysenko rose to prominence with his work on converting winter wheat to spring wheat with temperature treatments. Although this inheritance of acquired charac-teristics was not clearly demonstrated by experimental evidence, it did appeal to a Communist desire that traits gained by hard work could be inherited by off-spring. Because of his strong personality and Lamarckian ideas that gave support to Marxist ideology, Lysenko became Stalin's favorite and was promoted to President of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1938 and Director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences in 1950.

While Western geneticists were making exciting strides in genetics, any Russian geneticist who argued against the inheritance of acquired traits was labelled an anti-Michurin Morganist neo-Darwinist, and was harassed, intimidated, and eventually banned from research. Vavilov, who championed the reality-based Western genetics, died in Saratov prison in 1943. Russian lost 3000 good scientists and 30 years of benefits from valid genetics work due to dogma (see Nature 339: 415-420 June 8, 1989 and The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko by Z.A. Medvedev, Columbia Univ. press 1971).

The falsehood of Lysenko’s “science” is not apparent in the textbooks, pictures, and lectures of his time. Today, Lysenko would love hypertext and simulations–“You, too, can convert wheat into rye with ‘Lysenko-Lab.’” His arguments, logical and internally consistent, spread through Russian and also Chinese universities of the time. But it failed when it came to producing the increased yields predicted. Valid lab and fieldwork just didn't support it.

Today we still face the same pressure to make our “science” match with popular or expedient social and political views. In investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, physicist Dick Feynman refused to compromise genuinely-researched conclusions with expected platitudes. He summarized this in the last sentence of his appendix to the Challenger disaster report: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” (What Do You Care What Other People Think by R. Feynman, W.W. Norton & Co. 1988)


We are naturally interested in properties of our own bodies: our own fingerprint ridges, our own curly or straight hair . . . our own blood. We see blood sporadically in cuts and nosebleeds; we need to recognize it as an amazing complex tissue vital to carry food, oxygen, and immune factors. Taking our own blood samples allows us to see our own A-B-O (and other) blood cell antigens and understand how we, as individuals, would be affected by a possible blood transfusion or Rh conflict marriage. Osmotic pressure, complete blood cell counts, and other phenomena are all more interesting and “meaningful” when we see them happen with our blood.

That is why it is so disturbing that over half of the biology teachers who previously conducted such labs have stopped using them. Two-thirds of the time, this is reported as “due to the perceived danger of AIDS transmission.”

The following data from the Center for Disease Control (MMWR Vol. 34, issue 54, page 16) indicate the occurrence of contagious diseases in the United States population at large. Some diseases are admittedly mild, others serious and often fatal. For the school age population, at far lower risk for AIDS via I-V drug use and high risk sexual behavior, the very serious danger from blood cross-contamination in labs has been, and remains, hepatitis. The risk of AIDS from blood cross-contamination using the old-style lancets, plus poor lab supervision and procedures, is extremely remote. Such remote dangers vanish with new self-administered automatic lancets with disposable blades, sterilizable platforms, secure “sharps containers,” and commonsense procedures. When university students, training to become biology teachers, can readily design safe blood lab procedures, there is no excuse for veteran biology teachers to abandon this vital exercise. With adequate resources and competent supervision, fear of AIDS transmission is not a valid reason to avoid modern responsible human blood labs.

U.S. Contagious Disease Cases Reported per 100,000 1976-1985.
Gonorrhea 384.51
Chickenpox 123.23
Syphilis (all) 28.50
Salmonellosis 27.37
Hepatitis B 11.50
Hepatitis A 10.03
Tuberculosis 9.30
Shigellosis 7.14
Aseptic meningitis 4.50
AIDS 3.46
Hepatitis unspecified 2.38
Non-A Non-B Hepatitis 1.81
Whooping Cough 1.50
Mumps 1.30
Measles 1.18

Recent and exciting discoveries in several fields of biology are changing the nature of learning and understanding biology. Now, it is both possible and important for the discipline to respond to current personal needs and societal issues. New foci are needed in our educational curriculum. Dissection and vivisection illustrate a focus on levels of biology (i.e. tissues and organs) which are more classical and less appropriate in terms of current research. Unfortunately, dissection and vivisection are often given more time than is justified by contemporary goals of general science education. Further, such procedures may provide negative experiences for some students, present health risks, and appear to promote a disrespect for life.

Therefore, the National Association of Biology Teachers recommends, where appropriate, alternatives to dissection and vivisection in life science classrooms in schools and colleges. These alternatives may include computer displays, films, videos, models and other teaching strategies. NABT is committed to providing information on alternatives through its publications, convention sessions, workshops and other educational programs.

The above statement was issued by NABT in April, 1989 “News and Views.” An expanded one-page statement was issued October 25, 1989, continuing to promote alternatives when communities are “outspoken in their objections to dissection.”


“Recent discoveries” have expanded our knowledge in biochemistry and cell biology. However, the “nature of learning and understanding biology” remains the same: students learn best from real experiences that allow full interaction and consequences and test true.

“New foci” based on items such as the Krebs cycle or respiratory pathways cannot pretend to supplant an understanding of anatomy and physiology, or the internal complexity and diversity of organisms, in understanding evolution and ecology.

“Negative experiences” from incompetent labs is a problem of incompetent teachers. Any “negative experiences” from competently supervised dissections would include fainting at the sight of blood, revulsion to feces or mucus, etc. Currently, medical personnel receive enough experiences to overcome these harmful socialized handicaps and develop a comfortable and objective attitude toward these realities. A biology teacher should be at the forefront of developing, not ignoring, better attitudes.

“Appear to promote” is a public relations concern. Science teachers have a duty to expand humanity’s understanding of the real world. Galileo’s defense of the solar system and Darwin's ideas on evolution also “appeared to promote a disrespect” for common beliefs. Catering to appearance rather than reality is inappropriate in all cases.


-If the current trend to replace real experiences (including dissections) with abstractions continues, we can expect even more citizens to suffer and even die from waiting too long to gain medical care, all because such "meaningless" education provided no lasting understanding of human biology. Biology teachers should talk with local physicians to confirm the abysmal level of anatomical/medical understanding among American citizenry, and then work to double the high school laboratory coursework required in both anatomy/physiology and ecology/ organismic biology.

-The public will not appreciate the diversity and complexity of living organisms and ecosystems, nor under-stand the evolving concepts developed by the science process. Such a public will support inadequate or ignorant health and environmental policies.

-Non-scientific attitudes about exploratory surgery, autopsy (see The Scientist Oct. 30, 1989), and cremation will increase, with great medical and social costs.

-Because the real world (including dissection) is intrinsically motivating to most students, the decrease in truly “hands-on” experiences will contribute to the continued decline of American students who pursue science careers.

-Foreign schools have been traditionally more authority-based, with standard “leaving exams” forcing teachers to teach-to-the-test. Such foreign schools often utilized recitation and authority-based teaching that provided little recognition for independent reality-based thinking. American schools have traditionally left curricula to each teacher and have been lab oriented in the sciences. As we abandon reality-based lab and field work for non-lab AP courses, teach-to-the-test proficiency levels, and computer simulations, we are moving in the wrong direction at the very time foreign schools are improving. While the number of students entering the “science pipeline” and the level of general public science literacy is falling rapidly in the United States, it is climbing rapidly overseas.


  Dissection is the only way to:

 -Provide meaning to communications about anatomy, physiology, and health.

 -Demonstrate the importance of confirming all science assertions in reality.

 -Prevent "Lysenkoism," where social philosophies distort our models of reality.

 -Expose new questions and short-comings in the current incomplete view.

 -Provide metaphors from nature that serve to help us understand other phenomena.

Further Reading:

Goodall, Jane. 1987. A Plea for the Chimpanzees. American Scientist 75: 574-577. An authoritative defense of humane treatment for primates.

Griffin, Donald. 1984. Animal Thinking. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 237 pages. A credentialed and experienced scientist gathers together scientific evidence of animal consciousness with an awareness of the pitfalls and limitations of studies in this area.

Office of Technological Assessment, Congress. 1988. Alternatives to Animal Use in Research,Testing and Education. U.S. Gov. Printing Office. 441 pages. $59.75. Chapter 9 of this book, "Animal Use in Education and the Alternatives" is an essential resource to the biology teacher, although it fails to recognize the primacy of a real experience base in learning and in science.

Orlans, F. Barbara. 1988. “Debating Dissection.” The Science Teacher November, 1988 pages 36-40.

Regan, Tom. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, Berkeley. This is an exhaustive discussion of the various philosophies of “animal rights” from a proponent's perspective.

Schrock. J.R. 1983. Computers in Science Education. American Biology Teacher 46: 252-256.

The Kansas School Naturalist fully supports the use of living animals in science classrooms.


Vol. 22 No. 3 The Carp: A Manual Stressing Observation
Vol. 25 No. 2 Animals in the Classroom


(in 1990 edition only)

At no time in its history, has the earth been threatened as it is today. Forget the nuclear bombs; a more pervasive and ominous disaster portends–total collapse of the ecosphere. What used to be mentioned as a hypothetical scenario is now a reality. The human population is rapidly bringing doom upon all of earth's inhabitants through ignorance, greed, and lack of interest. It may already be too late to stem the tide, for how can we stop the total destruction of the rain forests, wanton pollution of the air and water, and degradation of the ozone layer with the absence of global governmental control? We are unable to put a stop to the destructive forces at work in the United States, much less convince the rest of the world to cooperate in a joint endeavor to save itself. And it will take a world-wide effort–but how?

A number of activist groups are at work today trying to bring to the attention of the public and governmental authorities the seriousness of the problem, in the hope that by developing a ground-swell of concern something worthwhile might emerge.

One of the special things that you can do is to participate in EARTH DAY. This year, its twentieth anniversary, Earth Day will be recognized on April 22, as part of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Week. The motto for this year is “Earth Day, Every Day.”

In Kansas, most cities will have special programs; in Topeka, a speech on the Capitol steps by Governor Hayden, tree plantings, and other activities are scheduled. If you are not aware of Earth Day you should be. Request information from the Governor's Office; Kansas Wildlife Federation, P.O. Box 5715, Topeka, KS 66605; or Emporia Earth Day Committee, ESU, Box 50, Emporia, KS 66801. You, and everyone, should participate, become informed, and be active in the preservation of the earth everyday, starting now! The threat that I posed is not an idle one–it is real. Read a copy of the February-March issue of National Wildlife and see how bad it is!

--Robert F. Clarke, Ph.D., Editor

The Kansas School Naturalist Department of Biology 
  College of Liberal Arts & Sciences 
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Kansas School Naturalist.
 Emporia State University