A Harvard neuroscientist is drawing backlash for her studies on infant monkeys, as is the scientific journal that referenced the research. Per Science, Margaret Livingstone has studied the primates for more than four decades, specifically monkeys' vision. In some of the experiments she's done, in order to see how the parts of the brain that are behind facial recognition develop, Livingstone and her team have taken baby monkeys away from their mothers, and in some cases, kept them from seeing any faces—monkey or human—for up to a year. Sometimes that would involve lab staff donning masks. In experiments in 2016, however, the eyes of two infant monkeys were sewn shut with sutures, and the monkeys' eyes remained shut for a year, even though the sutures dissolved after just a few days.
This methodology wasn't known to most in the primatology community until Livingstone was invited last month to pen an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, which put a spotlight on her previous research, published in late 2020 in PNAS. Now, many scientists, as well as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are angry at Livingstone—not only for what was done to the monkeys' eyes, but also because the babies were separated from their mothers. "It fails on every scientific and ethical level," University of St. Andrews primatologist Catherine Hobaiter tells Science, noting how important the mother-child bond is for monkeys. "As a human, I'm horrified."
Hobaiter obtained more than 250 signatures from animal behavior researchers, grad students, and others on a letter she has since sent to PNAS that asks the journal to to take down Livingstone's latest contribution. PETA, meanwhile, wants Harvard to cut off Livingstone's studies, and for the National Institutes of Health to stop funding her work. A spokesperson tells Science that PNAS is "evaluating formal criticism submitted to the journal." Not every scientist is on the anti-Livingstone bandwagon, though. "If we're going to understand how the brain functions, we're going to have to do experiments that generate visceral reactions," Harvard neuroscientist and monkey expert Bertha Madras, who hasn't worked with Livingstone, tells Science.
Madras adds, "We have to be looking at the greater good." Livingstone herself, who says her team no longer uses eye sutures, says she's received threats since her work has been more widely publicized, and that it's been crucial for research on autistic children, as well as for Alzheimer's and cancer therapies. Harvard, meanwhile, has issued a statement insisting that PETA's accusations against Livingstone are "misleading," and that she and her team adhered to "applicable federal, state, and institutional policies and regulations that ensure the humane and safe care of and use of animals." "Research led by Dr. Livingstone continues to provide critical knowledge about vision, visual disorders, brain development, and neurological disorders," the university notes. (Read more monkeys stories.)