Why Dissection?

Hart LA, Wood MW, Hart BL. 2008.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Pages: 240

All is not well in the state of US science education. Schools are oriented to improving student scores rather than students. There is a striking shortage of highly qualified male college applicants. Science education and health and sex education are separated in the curriculum. Seventh grade is the last year that biology is required of American students. Not surprisingly, students emerge poorly prepared to take responsibility for their personal health.

These are some of the tidbits I gleaned from Why Dissection?—a thorough if not sparkling analysis that includes the perspective of students, teachers and the animals. One of the book's best sections is an engaging, generously illustrated and sometimes lurid account of the social, political and even criminal history of acquiring human bodies for dissection.

But the most remarkable thing about the school dissection exercise is that it has remained virtually unchanged in the past 50 years, a period marked by stunning advances in technology and other aspects of science education. Today, the use of animals in medical education has all but disappeared, and veterinary education has evolved to a more clinical approach largely non-consumptive of animals. And what a travesty that institutional approval is required (and sometimes denied) for animal use practices in college that have no oversight in the pre-college curriculum!

The authors lament the dearth of attention given to teachers in the dissection controversy, and while teachers themselves are partly responsible for this void, one must sympathize with the burden faced by any teacher interested in exploring dissection alternatives. The proliferation of computer simulations and other materials, catalogued by the thousands in online databases, represent a double-edged sword. How does a biology teacher wade through all the choices and decide what is or is not an appropriate, high-quality learning tool? This might be a leading cause of stagnation on the dissection issue.

Among the suggested solutions is an organized effort to build a database of instructor-rated materials. The European Centre for Alternatives, which includes user-reviews, is a hopeful step in that direction. It seems unlikely that the pro-dissection National Association of Biology Teachers will take this on. If the authors' prescription for change is correct, the pro-animal organizations might do well to focus more of their energies on making the transition to alternatives as easy as possible for teachers.

Paradoxically, the authors assert that "…dissection of animal cadavers is on its way out." (p. 91), when there is little data here to support it for pre-college curricula. More perplexing is that in an era of unprecedented public concern for the environment, and of critical declines in global frog populations, frog dissection marches along as if nothing has changed in the 90 years since it began. The time is ripe for an in-depth investigation into the details of the frog supply trade. The last and perhaps only time this was done was an extensive 1971 exposé published in BioScience, which documented inhumane and wasteful conditions of transport, housing and processing of frogs (Gibbs et al. 1971).

In the early 1960s, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) introduced the 5E instructional model: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. This solid foundation sorely needs another 4Es: environment, ethics, education, and economics. All will be served when the frogs are finally left in the wetlands (or at least put back) and biology is taught without killing. 

— by Jonathan Balcombe, Senior Research Scientist, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


Gibbs, E.L., G.W. Nace, and M.B. Emmons. 1971. The live frog is almost dead. BioScience 21: 1027-34.

Balcombe is author of The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives, and Recommendations (Humane Society Press, 2000) and Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (Macmillan, 2006).