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Ethical lessons from a friendly octopus


At a recent Sacramento science fair, a very controversial racially charged project was on display. I was asked ‘could such a project come to a Canadian fair?’ For the last ten years, I have been on Youth Science Canada’s National Ethics and Safety Committee which provides policies and guidelines for the annual Canada-Wide Science Fair. In this blog I am going to tell you how I got involved. In a follow-up blog I will explain what steps are taken to ensure that such a controversial project does not come to Canadian science fairs.

Educators have several strategies for the initial study of biology. It is worth noting that in Alberta, a blend of these approaches is favoured. Some use a cells and systems approach, which is closely related to more advanced studies in comparative anatomy. Another teaching strategy is the ecological approach, which is the study of organisms within their environment and how they interact. Historically, one method used in many biology texts is the phylogenetic approach. Starting with single-celled organisms, the student learns about the changes in distinguishing features as multi-celled organisms evolve ever increasing levels of sophistication. This ‘march through the kingdoms’ looking at symmetry, tissue layers, embryonic development and other evolutionary significant changes are often presented in such a manner as to reach an apparent end point with the mammals and humans.

The phylogenetic approach has a weakness if it leaves the impression with learners that there is a singular direction for evolution.

This is where ethics come into play. As a boy from the grasslands and the boreal forest, it came as a huge eye-opener for me on my first trip to the ocean to see the diversity of life on display. On a visit to a marine aquarium I first saw a handler working with an octopus. I was enthralled with the interaction and the apparent sentience of this creature. That's when I learned that this octopus was allegedly as smart as a pet dog. That lesson stuck.

Years later, at a science fair discussion on ethics and research projects using animals, I got involved explaining to the chemists and physicists on the board that the vertebrates were not the only higher organisms. Organisms like the cephalopods including the octopus have been around and evolving every bit as long as mammals. Cephalopods are very intelligent invertebrates. They have large brains and complex nervous systems.

I advocated for a broader definition of which animals should be protected from use by student researchers in unsupervised projects. The next thing I knew, I was on the ethics committee. I have continued my role as an advocate for ethical animal research ever since.

In my next blog, I will look at the ethics as set out by Youth Science Canada for science fairs in Canada.

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Ethical lessons from a friendly octopus

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