This post introduces the authors’ recently published Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems article, “Using animal history to inform current debates in gene editing farm animals: A systematic review.”
Interdisciplinary scholarship for historians often means studying another discipline (say, evolutionary biology) to draw insights that produce new historical knowledge. Another approach is multidisciplinary, or sharing authority with scholars from another field during the research, analysis, and interpretation of the past. In a collaboration between historians and animal welfare scientists at The University of British Columbia, we tried to do just that. After a year of collaboration, we published a systematic literature review in a leading journal, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. To our knowledge, this is the first historical review for that publication.
“Our research was driven by a shared concern about the ethics and governance of using new gene-editing applications on farm animals.”
We were drawn together by a joint commitment to research that engages contemporary issues: for example, public history is also referred to as “applied” history; animal welfare science often falls under the umbrella of applied animal biology. Our research was driven by a shared concern about the ethics and governance of using new gene-editing applications on farm animals. We wondered if surveying the scholarship of animal history could inform current debates about this technology. We hoped that this approach would provide new insight into how novel technologies in agriculture emerge and how these are perceived by people over time.
One early challenge was developing a shared vocabulary for our research team, as the historians and scientists often used concepts in different ways. Consider the concept of “animal welfare,” key to our collaboration. We, the historians (Will Wright and Heidi Tworek), approached this via examples from the early development of the field, including work by women-led civil society organizations like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that increased public awareness over examples of humane treatment of cattle and horses. We, the animal welfare scientists (Nina von Keyserlingky, Katie Koralesky, and Dan Weary), approached this from the perspective of how the concept could be broken down and how these sub-elements could be assessed, specifying that welfare includes how animals feel (e.g., free from severe or prolonged fear or pain), function (e.g., in good health), and express natural behaviours (e.g., their ability use of highly motivated evolutionary behaviours). Although it took time for the five of us to all get on the same page, this was achievable because we committed to regular meetings where we would discuss such issues.
The research methods also differed greatly. The historians focused their work on describing a few, finely detailed examples and discussing how lessons from these case studies may be relevant to today’s debates around the use of biotechnologies applied to farm animals. For example, we placed the current discussion around the use of gene editing to produce hornless cattle into context of dehorning’s history. An 1892 Report of the Ontario Commission on the Dehorning of Cattle recommended the then new practice of disbudding during calfhood over the older technology of dehorning adult cattle, based upon evidence that this new procedure was quicker and resulted in wounds that were faster to heal. The Commissioners also reasoned that some pain was unavoidable, but that “suffering” (defined as prolonged pain) could be minimized with the new technology. A similar logic has been provided by modern proponents of gene editing to produce genetically hornless (i.e., ‘polled’) cattle, who argue that this new technology provides a way of eliminating pain altogether by removing the need for disbudding. However, other historical examples show the importance of other types of societal concerns around horns, and thus the implications changing the bodies of cattle in this way. For example, the history of Longhorn cattle emphasized the value of horns (for defense from predators) under the open range conditions common in the Americas during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. This example shows how horns can be important in the natural lives of cattle, and how the biological features we value about animals can change over time.
In contrast to historians’ focus on a few, richly described examples, the scientists brought to the project their focus on reliability and reproducibility in the methods used in our literature review. Historians rarely apply a systematic approach to their reviews, but our collaboration included the use of defined search terms, and rigorously applied defined inclusion and exclusion criteria. We also described these methods in our paper, allowing other researchers to potentially replicate our search. We, the scientists, are trained at sharing the study design and making every step as explicit as possible, so the underlying logic in the finished paper is in plain sight. Although this approach may seem formulaic to historians, we suggest that it can push the discipline to think more rigorously about what evidence is included in historiographies and why.
“Our partnership demonstrated anew the promise of multidisciplinary approaches over lone interdisciplinary scholarship.”
The animal welfare researchers also knew many of the contentious points raised when CRISPR applications are applied to farm animals, having studied them through surveys, focus groups, and other methods to gauge public attitudes. We found that current stakeholders are better prepared to anticipate public contestation when they know fault lines and sticking points from the past. We, the animal welfare scientists, gained an appreciation for what animal history is and can do, specifically how understanding historical contexts can provide insights into the research questions and issues we investigate today.
We are not the first collaboration between history and science. Ecologists and climatologists have shown the way in this regard. Still, our partnership demonstrated anew the promise of multidisciplinary approaches over lone interdisciplinary scholarship.
Dr. Will Wright is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and was a post-doctoral fellow in the History Department at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver from 2021 to 2022.
Dr. Heidi Tworek is Canada Research Chair (Tier II) and Associate Professor of History and Public Policy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Dr. Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk is a Professor and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Welfare at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Dr. Dan Weary is a Professor and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Dairy Cattle Welfare at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Dr. Katie Koralesky is a post-doctoral researcher in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.