Hearts and Minds

The final topic debated in the UK House of Commons before its Christmas recess was ‘Animal Testing’. Present in the Chamber for this “important debate”, as its sponsor Margaret Ferrier wistfully called it, were Ferrier herself, a Home Office minister to respond, and one other MP. I could find no mention of the occasion anywhere in the press or broadcasting media. By contrast, the transplantation of a pig’s heart into the body of a man at the University of Maryland Medical Center three weeks later has been given world-wide media coverage. Well of course, because it’s a first-of-its-kind news story, a will-he-survive yarn, and a this-is-the-future drama, all rolled into one. No doubt it would also be a bravely-battling-patient story too, except that this particular patient was unfitted for the role by his conviction for a very violent crime and his history of medical non-cooperation.

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But principally it’s a human-testing story, with ethical problems which affect us. Should a human patient, even one already in mortal danger as this patient had been, be subjected, however willingly consenting, to such hazardous surgery and the associated novel drugs, neither of them yet brought to the stage of clinical trials? Then, even if the operation and its likely successors prove safe to the patients, it’s quite likely that viruses harmless to the animal species may cross to human populations with much more serious effects, of a sort with which we’ve become familiar. Particularly worrying in the case of pigs is the porcine endogenous retrovirus, whose acronym PERV might be regarded as a moral summary of this whole subject.

So much for the human ethics. As to the animals, their claims in the matter were implicitly decided upon years ago. For the Maryland operation is just a moment of sudden visibility in a long history of trying out these Dr Moreau-like possibilities on different animal species. As one of the Maryland scientists has said, by way of justifying the operation, “We’ve done this for decades in the lab, in primates, trying to get to the point where we think it is safe to offer this to a human recipient.” Just that word “trying” has a chronicle of suffering implicit in it.

The nature of that suffering, as it occurred in the UK at the laboratories of Huntingdon Life Sciences from 1994 to 2000, was courageously uncovered by Dan Lyons of Uncaged Campaigns. The web-site Diaries of Despair recounts these experiments and Lyons’ campaign to publicize them (as linked in the notes below). But these cruel and disgusting experiments have continued in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, and of course they’ll go on into the future. “We really need to do more science,” a specialist in transplant immunology tells the journal Science in its article about the Maryland operation, but it hardly needs saying; even if it hadn’t already been the motto of all scientific research, there are commercial interests making sure that it’s acted upon in this case. Even in that short Science article, we encounter five of them: Revivicor, Makana Therapeutics, Recombinetics Inc., XVIVO, Kiniksa Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

Certainly there has been some official attention paid, over the years, to the welfare of the animals miserably caught up in this research, from the report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 1996 (Animal-to-Human Transplants: the ethics of transplantation), through to the academic bio-ethicists offering their comments this month. In the Nuffield report, only two of the ten chapters were devoted to the animals, but they contained serious and well-intentioned discussion. Still, we have to understand what such pronouncements are really aiming to do. A few phrases from the report will illustrate it: “It can be argued . . . It might be held . . . Those who favour . . . As an alternative, critics advocate . . . For some people . . . for others.” Likewise Oxford University’s Professor of Practical Ethics, lending his weight to the BBC’s report on the Maryland operation: “Some people might say . . . others would say.” His judicious conclusion is that “Those are just positions we are going to have to reconcile.” The momentum of these authoritative voices is always towards a common ground, a sort of pop utilitarianism: what ethics will content the maximum number or offend the fewest?

The argument (repeatedly used) that taking out the organs of pigs in this way will be ethically no worse, and numerically much better, than eating pigs, is really of that same type. What do most people think about eating pigs? They think that it’s all right. There you are then. And that would explain why another Oxford bio-ethicist thinks it worth saying that we should only use gene-edited pigs if we can “ensure they do not suffer unnecessary harm”. I’m not certain when that would last have been a keen point of ethics (1822?), but it’s certainly common-ground thinking in Western society now (however violated in practice). The question being put is not ‘what matters?’ but ‘what do most people think matters?’ Perhaps indeed that’s what ‘bio-ethics’ is: a branch of sociology.

At one point in the Nuffield report, the authors ask “what sort of people do our social and technical practices reveal us to be? If we do not like what we see when we look honestly in the mirror, then there is cause for thought at least.” It’s disappointingly weak conclusion in that last clause (wasn’t the whole point of the study that “thought” was required?), but otherwise an important statement. It shifts the ethics, if only for the moment, from utilitarianism to what’s usually termed virtue ethics: what sort of conduct would characterize the sort of humans we wish to be? In this conception of ethics there is always some idealism and therefore some momentum towards moral growth – with some promise, then, of keeping up with the growth in our technical capacities and ambitions, as instanced by the Maryland operation.

Accordingly, when the transplant surgeon in Malorie Blackman’s teen-novel Pig-Heart Boy (1997) says “I have no trouble looking in the mirror”, it confirms that he’s just a stationary character, a datum of the situation (as summarized in the title). The boy himself, in contrast, feels all the ups and downs of the choice facing him. Still, we discover that choosing to go ahead is the brave decision: indeed, going in for it twice (for the first operation fails) makes him positively heroic. He says to his yet unborn brother, “I hope one day you’ll be as proud of me as I am of you.” So even in virtue ethics we remain in the world of opinion, and we find that exploiting animals can be cast in a form complimentary to humans. Accordingly, one science journalist reports the Maryland operation as “The latest promising update in humans’ quest to harvest life-saving organs from our four-legged, porcine friends”. A quest! Yes, that’s a fine thing to be engaged in, as is saving (human) life, and even the not-quite-serious animals seem to cheering us on. As Blackman’s surgeon drearily says, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”

Is there no way out of this fog of opinionation? Yes, of course there is. Where this operation raised a question of human ethics – is it right to put a human patient through a still experimental procedure? – the ethics professor provides an unequivocal answer (though still, note, a vicarious one): “As long as the individual understands the full range of risks, I think people should be able to consent to these radical experiments.” Then why should the animal ethics be different? That a pig cannot formally consent or withhold consent should put an end to the matter. But anyway we’re full aware of their preferences, for they express their pleasure in good things, and they make piercingly clear their dislike of being harmed. We can therefore know as a fact that no pig, allowed to understand “the full range of risks”, would consent to be killed in this or any other way. Therefore to speak of animal ethics in connection with xenotransplantation is humbug. If we “look honestly in the mirror”, as the Nuffield report suggests, what we see in this case is a brilliantly clever, cowardly, dishonest gangster: “cause for thought”, perhaps; more importantly cause for a complete change of mentality.

Notes and references:

The BBC’s online account of this operation, which quotes the Oxford bio-ethicists, as well as the Maryland University scientist, can be seen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59951264

The Diaries of Despair web-site is here: https://www.xenodiaries.org/summary.htm

The report in Science can be seen here: https://www.science.org/content/article/here-s-how-scientists-pulled-first-pig-human-heart-transplant

The 1996 report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a very thorough 142pp study, can be read online or downloaded here (the mirror quotation comes from p.44): https://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/publications/xenotransplantation

Pig-Heart Boy was first published by Doubleday in 1997. Quotations are from the Corgi Books edition of 2011, at pp.33-4, and 255.

The “humans’ quest” quotation comes from an online news journal called Fierce Biotech; the whole article can be read here: https://www.fiercebiotech.com/medtech/revivicor-s-genetically-modified-pig-heart-first-successfully-transplanted-human-patient

Escaping the Human Condition at Polperro

Russell Hoban’s 1975 book Turtle Diary has now been added to the Penguin Modern Classics list, a very proper honour (if it is one). This most original and poignant novel tells the story, in their own alternating diaries, of two solitary Londoners, identified only as William G. and Neaera H., both somehow stranded in mid-life. They are brought together by an urge to free the sea turtles being displayed at London Zoo in “their little bed-sitter of ocean”. Since the keeper himself agrees with them that the turtles shouldn’t be there, the liberation is not as difficult to accomplish as might have been expected. In fact the first paperback edition (1977) makes no prior secret of its success: the front cover shows the turtles heading out to sea from their launching-point at Polperro in Cornwall.

Turtle cover 1

Perhaps then it’s going to be a story of the type commonly called ‘heart-warming’, with two lonely people finding happiness together, the turtles merely the submissive means? Perhaps even, as one online commentator records having to explain to his mother, the turtles are “but a metaphor”, a charming way to show that human beings have the power to liberate themselves? More formal critical discussions of the novel tend to assume so, treating the turtles as story-line, and the humans as the real plot (they’re persons, after all). But that’s not true to the book.

William G. and Neaera H. do indeed seem to be, in different ways, renewed by what they’ve done for the turtles, but there’s no confidence about it: as the zoo-keeper says to William, “Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” And certainly they don’t find happiness together; the last page has them going separate ways (a finality which the film version of 1985, generally faithful to the text, couldn’t quite agree to: for more about the film, see the notes).

Besides, the book insists, in so far as a fiction can, on the self-sufficient reality of the turtles. It’s their characterizing feature:

They may be headed for extinction, but they’re real, they work. When we put them in the sea, they’ll do real turtle work.

This reality is not a scientific matter; there’s little documentary zoology in the book, though the extraordinary migration-journeys of the turtles are much wondered about. Rather, it’s an existential reality, showing up as authentic all the more movingly in the context of that poor de-natured and tourist-dependent village in Cornwall: “When I think of the turtles going into the ocean,” Neaera writes,“I think of it happening in that place that so badly needs new reality.”

In fact an impatience with human unrealities is felt throughout the book. Both William and Neaera are caught up in fictions, he as working in a bookshop, she as a writer of “cosy, cheerful” children’s books about humanized animals: Gillian Vole’s Christmas, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, and so on. (Hoban is evidently making some fun of himself here, not just as a writer of this fiction, but as one who began his own literary career with a series of children’s stories about Frances the Badger.) But now, in their reaction to all this, they seem inclined to abjure the humanizing business altogether: “Anything is whatever it happens to be, why on earth make up stories?” An escape for the animals is implied in this vision of human forbearance. Thinking of kestrels, as pictured in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘The Windhover’, Neaera writes “they don’t want mannered words but only the simplest and fewest . . . preferably no words at all.” And accordingly she abandons her own project of making a publishable story out of the water-beetle which she has ordered by post and installed in an aquarium for that purpose:

Who am I to use the mystery of her in that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to be paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of?

No, the author of this book is not thinking of the turtles as metaphors. It’s the poor humans whose reality is equivocal, as that quotation suggests. And although the story-line of Turtle Diary shows turtles being set free by humans, the cumulative evidence of the book is the other way round: it is the animals who must save us. “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation,” Neaera thinks, “is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” Or at any rate, finding our proper place in the animal world must save us. As William says, “we’re all swimmers, we’ve all come from the ocean. Some of us are trying to find it again.” This rediscovery, so he reads in a book by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade, is what the shaman is able to experience on behalf of humanity. He quotes from the book:

While preparing for his ecstasy and during it, the shaman abolishes the present human condition and, for the time being, recovers the situation as it was in the beginning. Friendship with animals, knowledge of their language, transformation into an animal are so many signs that the shaman has re-established the ‘paradisal’ situation lost at the dawn of time.

“That’s the crux of it,” William thinks: “abolishing the present human condition.” And as he reflects upon this in relation to his own life, he shows where the turtles fit in:

Could I abolish the human condition? Could I swim, experience swimming, finding, navigating, fearlessness, unlostness? Could I come back with an answer? The unlostness itself would be the answer, I shouldn’t need to come back.

Described here is the answer as instanced in the turtles, but of course there are many other animals to think about, and the book does think about them. It begins in the zoo, and after that it touches upon spiders (being studied on space flights), birds, whales, animals in films and fictions (King Kong, Peter Rabbit), animals in the news. All of them are more or less caught up in the “human condition” – insulted by human vulgarity (“sharks . . . the ultimate challenge”, a documentary film-maker brags) or in other ways harried by our human refusal, restless as we are in our own unsettled identity, to let other things be themselves (“Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.”

It’s this conspectus of harassed animal life that gives the freeing of the turtles a significance beyond itself. For although, as I’ve said, that action is not as complicated as Hoban might easily have made it (this story isn’t a ‘caper’ any more than a ‘romantic comedy’), it’s manifestly an important one. The two agents of it feel it not as an adventure but as a portentous obligation, “a massive chain welded to leg irons on both of us”. Neaera thinks, “I feel a gathering-up in me as if I’m going to die soon, I await a Day of Judgement.”

When the turtles have indeed been launched, just before dawn in Polperro, there’s a moment of exhilaration, of shaman-like re-unity: “it seemed all at once that I didn’t need answers to anything,” William writes. “Where the moon ended and I began and which was which was of no consequence. Everything was what it was and the awareness of it was part of it.” But this ecstasy is quickly borne down by the pains and puzzlements of ordinary life which Hoban so sympathetically describes. And when Neaera, suffering this reaction, re-visits the keeper at his aquarium, he offers a more resigned, perhaps more forgiving, summary of it all:

‘There’s nothing you can do about this, you know,’ he said. ‘Nothing to be done really about the animals. Anything you do looks foolish. The answer isn’t in us. It’s almost as if we’re put here on earth to show how silly they aren’t.’

The mixture of kindness and surrender in this consolation makes Neaera cry. “It’s all right,” the keeper says, tenderly. “You needn’t hold back, these are all salt-water tanks.”

Penguin turtle cover

Notes and references:

The film Turtle Diary, 1985, stars Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, and Michael Gambon. It is mostly faithful to the book, though necessarily missing out much of the wit and brilliance of Russell Hoban’s writing, as well as much of the thinking. Also, with uncomfortable irony, it relied on public zoos to provide the turtles to be liberated – and then presumably put back in their tanks for public viewing. Still, it’s an excellent film, and although not available as a DVD it can at present be viewed online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iyHEmeGbc4

As a book, Turtle Diary was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1975. Quotations are from the Picador paperback edition of 1977, as shown in the illustration along with the new, more post-modern, Penguin Classics cover (2021). There have been several other editions in between.

Attitudes at zoos like London Zoo have of course changed since the 1970s. At least some of the turtles kept there at present are themselves rescued (from smugglers), and the emphasis is all on ‘conservation’. However, looking at London Zoo’s web-site, I don’t find that the consumerist outlook has changed, or that the human clamour is in any way restrained (“the must-do experience! . . . your chance to get up-close to some of our most popular animals” etc.). If anything, the knowledge of animal scarcity has given the animals more exhibition value. Besides, looking at animals is fun!

Another Concordat Christmas

It’s an Advent phenomenon religiously studied each year in this blog: the awards ceremony and annual report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. Must Christmas entail this duty of attention, among all its other demands? In earlier years, the portentous title (Concordat!) and the atmosphere of inter-house competition at a school did provide some slight comic relief, but now the relentless expansion of its missionary activities, and in fact the Concordat’s patent effectiveness, have worn that fun away. Reading through it all is merely hard work. Still, this is the animal-research profession talking to itself about how to address the rest of us. That alone makes it important. And then, the Concordat has, within its few years, transformed the public management of this subject, from 150 years of strenuous secrecy to a quite unnatural effusiveness, even bumptiousness (I’m thinking, for instance, of the llamas at Reading University – “our Fifi” and others – tirelessly boosted for “helping scientists”). It’s a revolution of a kind, and we have to wonder what its consequences are going to be.

Of course events like open days, science fairs, and laboratory tours have been cut back in 2021. As one university put the point in fine higher-education prose, “Due to the pandemic there have been restrictions on public engagement activities that have been possible regarding animal research.” Therefore the emphasis has been upon online publicity and communications within the research institutions. These are easier, less challengeable PR functions. They are also more completely within the grip of PR professionals, whose influence seems accordingly more conspicuous this year. 

It’s not just that the costs to the animals – i.e. the bad news, which the PR people are not in a position to know much about anyway – are going unspecified or even unnoticed among the vivid and exciting prospects of discovery and cures. That omission is something which the Concordat’s annual reports habitually ask signatories to address. More insidiously the published ‘information’ is slanted or spun, so that what is called transparency is really propaganda. For instance, Bath University (one of the Concordat’s ‘Leaders in Openness’) is specially featured in the report this year for promoting awareness of its animal work “across campus”; as a result, we’re told, “staff felt better informed about the necessity of animals in research.” Of course it’s an axiom in the profession that hostility to animal research is the product of ignorance. To be “better informed” is to see “the necessity”, then. But information and persuasion are distinct things, and wouldn’t be confused like this if ‘openness’ were really a primary purpose.

Besides, such deliberate management of the information easily strays into actual falsehood. Sampling the publicity of the 122 signatories to the Concordat (by now a mighty symposium of material), I find the Physiological Society strangely mis-telling the history of its part in the run-up to the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Apparently the Society, founded by happy coincidence in that same year, joined the British Medical Association in a “campaign” which “led to the incorporation of additional protections for experimental animals.” Eh? In fact, the Society was founded largely in order to resist the proposed legislation. It included in its original number several of those who, during the Royal Commission on the subject, had given evidence hostile to the mere idea of “protections for experimental animals”, interpreting it as an attack upon their professional honour. The Society’s first chairman, Professor Burdon Sanderson, was one such. So was his colleague Emmanuel Klein, who had notoriously declared himself “entirely indifferent” to the sufferings of experimental animals. It was these Physiological Society men, together with the BMA, whose lobbying turned the proposed Act from a measure really capable of protecting the animals (for instance, the original draft prohibited experiments on dogs, cats, and horses) into an Act which was instead aimed (so the anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe declared) at “protecting their tormentors”.

Well, that’s history, or story anyway. But it’s worth mentioning that the Physiological Society subsequently delegated its more propagandist activities to an Association for the Advancement of Medical Research, specially created for that purpose. This in turn became the Research Defence Society, which was itself re-formed a few years ago as Understanding Animal Research, the organisation which now supervises the Concordat. And the story told on the Physiological Society’s web-site, wrong as it is, reflects a notable change in the outlook of this promotional dynasty. From militant defence of the professional interest, it has come to regard itself as owner-manager of the whole dispute – much in the way the Concordat urges institutions to originate (to “own”) news stories, rather than respond defensively to ones published by journalists and others. It’s in this context that one should understand Bath University’s action (cited in this year’s Concordat report) of inviting the Animal Justice Project to set up its protest on campus rather than out on the streets during Open Day 2018. ‘The Concordat, your one-stop reference for everything to do with animal research: we even manage the argument against it!’

Of course it isn’t really ‘everything’, even on the research side. Those signatory institutions that do some of the harshest experimenting, and often on the larger animals, namely the Contract Research Organisations, are permitted greater secrecy (for “business reasons around competitiveness and confidentiality”). They aren’t expected to identify particular research projects on their web-sites, or even to declare their animal numbers. Signatories which don’t do their own research (medical charities, for instance, or professional societies) likewise have less to say, though for different reasons. But all of these are encouraged to spread the word in other ways: in annual reports, in staff newsletters, on notice-boards, and, more ominously, when recruiting staff or funding awards. In these latter cases, they are advised to make it clear, even where the position or grant has no connection with animal research, that the institution is committed to such work. In fact we’re told that it’s now considered “good practice”, for all Concordat institutions, “to include interview questions highlighting that the organisation carries out animal research as part of the recruitment process for all staff regardless of their role.” So if you accept the job, or the award, you implicitly – or perhaps expressly (depending on what form those “questions” take) – endorse the animal research.

One signatory apparently doing an especially fine job in this respect is the Pirbright Institute. At any rate, it received a Concordat award this year for its “internal engagement practices”. Apparently Pirbright’s staff have been so thoroughly engaged that “no one in the organisation is unaware of the research which goes on there.” But then Pirbright is a research laboratory whose declared mission is “To be the world’s most innovative centre for preventing and controlling viral diseases of livestock”. This, we’re told, will be achieved by “the development of vaccines, antivirals, diagnostics, genetic selection, genetically modified animals and arthropod vectors [insect carriers or similar], and the modelling of disease outbreaks.” Surely the staff must already have deduced for themselves that Pirbright’s research involved animals? I suspect that here again the providing of information has been confused with the celebrating of institutional values and successes – with in-house boasting, in short. 

By the way, you’ll notice the rationale of research implied here: using high-tech force to sustain industrialized animal farming and its various pernicious effects on human and planetary health. Among Pirbright’s research themes is avian flu, one of whose regular visitations is, at this moment, causing many thousands of poultry and ducks in the UK to be prematurely destroyed. Avian flu is endemic in wild bird populations, but it seems to do limited harm there. It’s in so-called ‘commercial’ flocks, over-crowded and stationary, that it flourishes most ruinously – flocks like the 22,000 ducks destroyed this month on a ‘farm’ in Northern Ireland. Of course being prematurely killed was the ducks’ destiny anyway, but such culls highlight the perversity of this roundabout of animal disease and animal research. Pirbright’s tonic internal PR may create a loyal and committed staff, but that has nothing to do with the real value of the work.

The same is true more generally of the whole Concordat push. It’s a most smooth operation, in its way brilliantly conceived and carried through, worlds away in technique from the clumsy and defensive indignation of the old Physiological Society or the Research Defence Society. But its purpose is not essentially different. When the report notes that 97% of its signatories agree with the statement “the Concordat is an important step forward for biomedical research”, we know what sort of progress they mean. They mean what the Physiological Society meant: allowing the professionals to know best and carry on their work in peace. They believe that the Concordat’s managed publicity will accomplish this. And yet the authors of the report note with concern that, “Despite openness”, Concordat signatories “are seeing increasing protests from organized groups”. They sound puzzled by this, but we needn’t be. Openness is certainly a great improvement on secrecy, and perhaps has a reassuring effect upon those wishing to feel reassured, but it leaves the substance of the trouble, the ethical wrong, completely untouched. Until “an important step forward” in that respect too becomes part of its mission, the Concordat will go on making (no doubt) a lot of noise, but not much difference.

Notes and references:

The Concordat awards ceremony, held on 6 December at the Royal College of Physicians in London, is reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/openness-awards-and-paget-lecture-2021/  The annual report is here: https://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Concordat-Report-2021.pdf  All quotations not otherwise referenced are from that text, including statements made by signatory institutions.

The Physiological Society account of its own history is online here: https://www.physoc.org/about-us/history-archives/historicalhighlights/foundation-of-the-society/  Klein’s evidence to the Royal Commission appears on pp.182-6 of Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876. Frances Power Cobbe is quoted from an earlier post in this blog, in which there is more detailed discussion of the passing of the 1876 Act: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/in-defence-of-frances-power-cobbe/

The Pirbright Institute’s web-site, where its mission is posted, is here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/  Incidentally, Pirbright carried out some of the animal testing for Oxford University’s vaccine research, on mouse and pig ‘models’, as reported here: https://www.pirbright.ac.uk/news/2021/01/early-animal-studies-pirbright-and-oxford-yield-promising-results-new-potential-covid Avian flu in Northern Ireland is reported here: https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/uks-largest-ever-bird-flu-outbreak-reported-in-northern-ireland/ar-AARJuy8?ocid=mailsignout&li=BBoPWjQ

From Electrons to Humans: a Mindful Planet

A review of the scientific evidence for the existence of feelings in squids, octopods, cuttlefish, crabs, lobsters and crayfish has just been published by the London School of Economics. It concludes thus: “We recommend that all cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans be regarded as sentient animals for the purposes of UK animal welfare law”. The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which commissioned the report, has accepted the LSE’s judgement, and accordingly these animals will now be included in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill which is currently on its way through Parliament. This doesn’t mean that the many savage cruelties to which they are presently subjected will cease when the bill becomes law. Defra expressly reassures interested parties on this point: “Existing industry practices will not be affected, and there will be no direct impact on shellfish catching or on restaurant kitchens.” What it does mean, more vaguely, is that the welfare of these species will be “well considered in future decision-making”.

Octopuses and other cephalopod molluscs (squid, cuttlefish, nautilus) are already ‘protected’ animals in UK scientific research – to the extent that a licence is required for research that uses them. But certainly they are used, here and elsewhere in the world; such research indeed provided the evidence for the LSE review, and in fact the review refers to some of these animals as “intensively studied laboratory species”. And the research of special interest to the LSE is of course that worst kind of all, research into pain and distress. The review’s list of references indicates as much, with such key phrases as “anxiety-like behaviour”, “affective-motivational aspects of pain”, “acute and chronic effect of low temperature”, “noxious shock”, and “the effect of Crustastun on nerve activity”. Crustastun, by the way, is a slaughter device manufactured in the UK, either as a “single-animal unit for the hospitality sector” or as a “large-scale stunner for processors” (this weird language, half euphemism, half let-‘em-have-it!). So, as with much of the other research cited, that particular study was aimed at improving the lot of animals being treated as food, as indeed was the whole LSE review. Cruelty for kindness’s sake, then, if they but knew it. Haeckel decapods

In a most humane study of these and other marine creatures, titled Metazoa (meaning, roughly, multi-celled animals), the zoologist and philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith comments ruefully on this perversity in his own case: “All through this book I have used information that was gained, directly or indirectly, from experiments that were cruel in various ways . . . behind the scenes is often a lot of suffering.” But in fact Godfrey-Smith was pursuing something much less measurable, but possibly more important, than the sort of sentiency studied in those experiments. The sub-title of Metazoa is Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, so the book is dealing with a theme that is commonly regarded as the most intractable mystery in both science and philosophy. Even in humans, capable as they are of reporting on their experiences, the ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ of consciousness have no agreed answers and no prospect of any. The word itself is very variously defined, and even more loosely used. In animals, of course, who don’t speak at length to us, the puzzle is yet greater, but also, I hope to suggest, more promising.

We can at least start by putting consciousness into a sort of status-position in studies of the animal mind. First to come, after the merely insentient condition of stocks and stones (if indeed they are altogether insentient, a point we shall return to), is ‘nociception’, the awareness of harm without associated sense of pain, a state sometimes attributed to insects and also to some sharks, probably quite wrongly in both cases. Then comes sentience, the feeling and minding of both pains and pleasures. And then, inclusive of sentience, comes that state of unspecific mental awareness called consciousness. Paraphrases for it, used by Godfrey-Smith and others, include ‘presence’, ‘sense of self’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘lived experience’, and ‘having a point of view’. But perhaps the most favoured formulation is still the one which Thomas Nagel used in an essay which more or less launched philosophical study of the subject in 1974, titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ An organism has consciousness, said Nagel, “if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism [his emphasis].” It’s this formulation which the Oxford academic Charles Foster uses for the first line of his book of practical researches into the subject, Being a Beast (2016): “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.”

In Nagel’s essay, the bat was more of a thought experiment than a zoological subject: for him, the mystery of bat-experience illuminated the possibly insuperable difficulty of using science – that is, objective impersonal testable enquiry – to get at an inward and subjective condition. Still, he was convinced that there was a real experience called ‘being a bat’, however unimaginable to us. He nicely pointed out that a bat would surely find the experience of being a human similarly unimaginable, but would be wrong to conclude that there was no such thing. But it’s an indication of the uncertainties of the subject how very much opinions vary even among specialists: from denying consciousness to all except humans (though “Great apes come close” – Ramachandran), to stopping short at crustaceans (Edelman), right on or in to termites (“probably” – Searle). Petra Stoerig, a professor of biological psychology, goes beyond this sort of prize-day thinking. She argues (as indeed Godfrey-Smith does) that consciousness should be looked for not just in the mind, where humans have been hoarding it hitherto, but in the whole body of an animal. For instance, in elegance and control of movement many other species show “a basic form of self-awareness of which they may have more than we do”, and “there are plenty of other instances where they actually have more.”

This is indeed the necessary step, to disengage the study of consciousness from the human standard. For even the momentous Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness of 2012, in which some distinguished scientists stated that non-human animals possessed cerebral equipment capable of giving them conscious awareness, couldn’t help picturing humans as the central store and paradigm of this property, rather honourably sharing some of it with some of the others: “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” And with that disengagement will come, as Petra Stoerig shows, a better appreciation of different animal conditions. She has said “there are very many aspects to self-recognition and self-awareness . . . if you want to test them in different types of species you had better adjust your question to the species.”

Some of these many aspects are what Godfrey-Smith describes in Metazoa. His general aim is “to make sense of how experience came to exist on earth”, and he both reasons and shows that it had to come about when animals acted in and on their environments. Not just a feeling for what was going on around them became necessary to their welfare, but a distinction between their own bodies and the outside world. Thus the banded shrimp, having a variously-limbed body (“like a Swiss army knife”), needs to distinguish between its own complex parts and the external lives and surfaces that may bear upon them. In doing so, it is “sensing the world in a way that tracks the divide between self and other. Insects, part of the same arthropod phylum, must have something of this sense of self too, Godfrey-Smith says, because their flying is “a behaviour featuring especially complex feedback between action and the senses, the sort of feedback that contributes to a point of view.”

The octopus, with much more manoeuvrable limbs than the shrimp’s, and limbs which have their own nervous systems, is possibly “a being with multiple selves”, or at least a self that can divide and re-unite as required. And again Godfrey-Smith rejects the old human-centred style of assessment; the octopus is not so much ‘smart’, a term suggestive of ability to pass human tests, as “behaviourally complex”, “sensitive”, “exploratory”, terms relating to the inner life. He says of octopuses, with a respectful diffidence characteristic of his attitude to all the animals he encounters, “I think they experience their lives in a rich way.”

I should add that these are indeed encounters rather than generalizations, as you’d expect in what is partly a work of ethology (though of course there are generalizations too). Thus, a particular banded shrimp, one with a missing fore-limb, is a recurring presence in the book, last observed missing also a second fore-limb and looking “tired, very much on his own, and probably near the end of his days.” One octopus goes on a sort of “rampage”, as if showing off (“she certainly raised hell along the way”); another moves “in an unusual, stylized-looking way . . . winding his arms over his head and backward for no apparent reason, coiling an arm into a wheel.”

This is a helpful reminder of two things we know. One is that every ‘self’ is a true individual, however conditioned by its species-design (though collectives of ants and social bees may be an exception here). To speak in a general way of ‘the octopus’ or ‘a bat’ is a convenient fiction only. And then, such encounters as Godfrey-Smith describes are reciprocal; the animals are observers in their turn. He sees them looking at him. It’s a meeting of consciousnesses, a mysterious communion of alien beings.

So we come back to the questions, where and how in the story of life did consciousness enter into the material world? Of course there are many suggested answers, variously plausible, but one of them neatly and most appealingly makes the questions themselves unnecessary. This is the theory called ‘panpsychism’, which proposes that mind or awareness in some form was part of the story from the beginning, that so far from being a rare and elite property, consciousness (as the philosopher Philip Goff has said) “pervades the universe and is a fundamental part of it.” More specifically put by another proponent, “An electron . . . is a primitive experiential entity.” Primitive in the sense of coming first, certainly, but capable of combining and developing to create more complex selves and more acute awareness, until it reaches the hypertrophic condition that makes of the human mind a Babel of real and imagined voices.

Though it may have a somewhat outlandish sound, panpsychism is an established and serious philosophical (perhaps in time also scientific) position. Back in 1979 Thomas Nagel (subsequent to the ‘bat’ essay) argued that it was at least as plausible as any refutation of it, and that therefore “it should be added to the current list of mutually incompatible and hopelessly unacceptable solutions to the mind-body problem”. Since then the theory has gathered considerable academic support and substance. And as well as being attractive in itself, panpsychism has one great educational merit: it teaches us at last to look at the world, and at animal life in particular, not as their detached managers but (to use Frans de Waal’s image) as fellow-swimmers in the waters of consciousness.

Ever since René Descartes, in the seventeenth century, divided matter and mind as distinct creations, and gave the mind to humans alone (identifying it with the soul), zoologists and ethicists have had to chip their way back into the animal kingdom finding mind bit by bit. The situation is instanced in all those ‘smarter than you thought’ researches reported in the press. It’s evident again in the laborious species-by-species concession of sentience, just now reaching squids, crabs, shrimps and their kind, as we’ve seen. Panpsychism starts us at the other end, the right end. Our assumption will be that mind (or awareness or experience, however we name it) is as universal as matter. Now let researches prove, for instance, that a fly or a snail doesn’t have it. Until they do (if they ever can), we must concede, to all the animals, awareness and appreciation of their own worlds, and allow them to experience those worlds unimpeded and especially unkilled by humans. conscousness books

Notes and references:

Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans, by Jonathan Birch et al, was published by LSE Consulting Ltd in November 2021. It includes a survey of current practices in the fishing, farming, and slaughtering of these animals. It can be read online here: https://www.lse.ac.uk/News/News-Assets/PDFs/2021/Sentience-in-Cephalopod-Molluscs-and-Decapod-Crustaceans-Final-Report-November-2021.pdf?mc_cid=63826dec2c&mc_eid=22bb4a3259

The government’s response is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lobsters-octopus-and-crabs-recognised-as-sentient-beings

Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness is published by William Collins, 2021.

Thomas Nagel’s essay is reprinted in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979. The quotation about panpsychism comes from an essay of that title published for the first time in that same collection.

Being a Beast is published by Profile Books, 2016. In this most remarkable book, Charles Foster attempts to live the characteristic lives, each in turn, of a badger, otter, fox, red deer, and swift. The result is a comic-heroic story of honourable failure.

The brief citations of specialist opinions (Ramachandran and others) are taken from interviews conducted by Susan Blackmore and published as Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2005). The quotations from Petra Stoerig come from the same book. Susan Blackmore has also written an excellent summary of the subject in Consciousness, a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2017). She believes, incidentally, that human consciousness, in particular our sense of a persisting self, is a language-bound illusion.

Philip Goff is quoted from an interview in Scientific American (14 January 2020) titled ‘Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?’, which can be read online here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-consciousness-pervade-the-universe/  The quotation about the electron is from Peter Ells, Panpsychism, O-Books, 2011, p.115.

Frans de Waal’s image comes from the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?(2016), discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/thinking-ourselves-kings/

The fly and the snail: Godfrey-Smith provides various evidences for the self-hood of flies, and the snail is the subject of a very clear account of the whole question in an essay by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, titled ‘Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail?’ and published online here: http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/Snails-201223.pdf

The illustration showing various decapods comes from the 1904 book Kunstformen der Natur (immediate source Wikipedia), written and illustrated by Ernst Haeckel, the great marine biologist and evolutionist. Haeckel was an early proponent of panpsychism, though he didn’t call it that, and he was also a pioneer of the science of ecology (a word he himself invented).

Memories, Consolations, and Truths

Last Sunday being Remembrance Day, there was a gathering at the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane, London, a few hours after the grander ceremony in Whitehall a short distance away. A service of hymns, prayers, and readings was conducted by ministers from the Anglican Society for Animal Welfare, and modest wreaths were laid against the great stone walls. Not that the Memorial was conceived as a specifically Christian place (though Heaven knows, Park Lane could do with a holy landmark of some description to offset the worship of money and cars which is daily practised there with fanatical devotion). In fact the Memorial is not really a spiritual conception at all: it’s a plain, life-sized representation of the animal species which have been induced into human wars, with just the simplest visionary touch where a horse and dog escape through the wall and into a freedom beyond. There is not even, I would say, the consolation of beauty, except in so far as animals themselves, and therefore faithful images of them also, are inherently beautiful. It’s just a plain and highly visible statement: this is what we’ve done (and are doing).

memorial wall

I noticed a few purple poppies at the ceremony, as well as red ones, in the wreaths or on lapels. This token of remembrance was introduced by Animal Aid some years ago, as a way of bringing the animals into proper attention at the same time as the human casualties of war. It corresponds, of course, to the British Legion’s red poppy, a token of remembrance that was inspired by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. That’s a fine poem, but its message is that the dead should be honoured by the finishing of their work: “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” Go on with the war, in short. It’s a very understandable demand for a poet to have made on behalf of his killed comrades in 1915, but not one well suited to remembrance in peace-time. Therefore nowadays it’s Laurence Binyon’s more philosophical poem ‘For the Fallen’ which is usually recalled; indeed, some lines from it are read at most or all remembrance services across the land (including the one in Park Lane). And it’s a poem which can’t be heard without a thrill of emotion, for it assuages our painful debt to the war-dead by generously immortalizing their heroic youth:

            They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old:

            Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

            At the going down of the sun and in the morning

            We will remember them.

This I take to be the sort of memory symbolized by the red poppy – bereavement qualified by pride and admiration, as summarized in Binyon’s phrase “a glory that shines upon our tears”.

War Memorial Horse

And naturally enough the purple poppies have become assimilated to that consolatory version of war-memory. The making and distribution of them is nowadays managed by the War Horse Memorial, which gives the proceeds to various horse-related charities. As its name suggests, the WHM’s first cause was the making of a memorial, which can now be seen near the race-course at Ascot. This impressive and touching monument, created by the Sculptor Susan Leyland, is a more traditional image than the Park Lane one: the horse stands on a plinth high above the observer, nobly waiting to serve. And this is indeed how the WHM views the animal part in war, speaking on its web-site of “the nobility, courage, unyielding loyalty and immeasurable contribution these animals played in giving us the freedom of democracy we all enjoy today”.

The purple poppies have been recommended in similar terms to those dog-lovers who use the services of Hugo and Hudson, suppliers of fashionable collars, leads, coats, and other accessories of dog-ownership (though not the poppies themselves, of course). The firm’s blog says that the poppies “come in a variety of styles” (which will you choose?), but that they “all show solidarity in allowing us to remember fallen heroes whether they be human or animal.” It’s surely a sincere sentiment (and I should mention that Hugo and Hudson don’t seem to use leather in their products). It has, in fact, something of the same magnanimous purpose to it that prompts Binyon’s poem and all such efforts to repay the debts of war with extravagant praise. Well, it’s the least we can do.

But even during the First War itself, the poet Siegfried Sassoon (himself a notably courageous soldier) was famously mocking such “laurelled memories”, and juxtaposing them with ignobler realities of scene and conduct. And of course there have always been the best and the worst of humanity on show in wars; humans are free, in so far as their personalities permit the freedom, to feature anywhere on that moral spectrum. But other animals are in a different case. They may indeed have often shown a most moving and beautiful loyalty to particular riders, handlers, or others whom they “served and died alongside”, to use the consolatory words of the Animals in War Memorial. But mostly there has been no such opportunity for them: not so much conscripts as living equipment, they have not so much “served” as been put to use in whatever theatre of war chance and species characteristics have chosen for them. That includes, of course, the wholly unglorious defence-research laboratory, where serving and dying are completely stripped of thanks and laurels, indeed of remembrance of any kind. All this, we know, still goes on.

Therefore Animal Aid dissociated itself from the purple poppy in 2015. As its director at that time, the much-missed Andrew Tyler, said, Animal Aid’s original purpose had been

to make it clear that animals used in warfare are indeed victims, not heroes. They do not give their lives; their lives are taken from them. But too often, the narrative promoted by the media has been one of animals as the valiant servants of people in violent conflict. This is precisely the opposite message to that which we intended . . . the dominant narrative (animal victims of war are heroes who died for us) is so deeply embedded that only a huge effort (costly in every way) can uproot it and lay down something that will benefit the animals.

I think that the Animals in War Memorial does not quite make up its mind what attitude to take. The imposed suffering, the herding, the careless profligacy, and the force (“They had no choice”, it rightly announces) are well expressed. But then so also is the patience, amounting to willingness. This may well be true to actual life, but it’s not true in the moral and spiritual dimensions. No animal knowingly agrees to death in war or to war itself, nor should any animal be tricked into participating. It’s here that the Memorial falls short, fine and moving as it is. Some sculptural equivalent of Pablo Picasso’s great indignant painting from the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, is needed; look at the horse and the bull in that painting, for instance. Or something modelled on the woodcuts of Sue Coe (as shown elsewhere in this blog).

memorial night-view

Still, we should be grateful for the Memorial, presenting its conspicuous message, day and night, to passers-by in central London. And that remembrance ceremony itself on Sunday, with none of the ordered brilliance and massed emotion of the Whitehall show, was just right: informal, slightly ragged, nearly drowned out by the din of Park Lane’s insane momentum, an occasion where not glory, but sorrow, awkwardness, and even shame, could be properly felt.

Notes and references:

The Animals in War Memorial was designed by David Backhouse, and inaugurated in 2004. More about it can be found on its own web-site, which also features the night-time photograph: see http://www.animalsinwar.org.uk/ Other aspects of the Memorial and of remembrance are discussed in this blog on previous November anniversaries.

The War Horse Memorial itself, and the work of the organisation, are described and illustrated on its web-site here: https:thewarhorsememorial.org/about-us/. The photograph shown above is from the same source.

Hugo and Hudson’s blog is quoted from their web-site here: https://hugohudson.co.uk/blogs/news/remembrance-day-2021-remembering-the-animal-victims-of-war-with-the-purple-poppy

Siegfried Sassoon’s phrase “laurelled memories” is quoted from his poem ‘Glory of Women’.

Andrew Tyler’s statement on the discontinuation of the purple poppy is on Animal Aid’s web-site here: https://www.animalaid.org.uk/the-issues/our-campaigns/living-without-cruelty/the-purple-poppy/

Last Gift to the Animals from a Friend in Parliament

The winner of the Westminster Dog of the Year show, as judged on College Green last week, was a French Bulldog called Vivienne. She had been entered into the competition by Sir David Amess (pronounced ‘amis’), the MP who was killed at a constituency surgery on 18 October. Vivienne was a popular – indeed a prejudiced – choice, but then the show is a way of drawing attention to the pleasures and responsibilities of dog-companionship, rather than a serious assessment of canine points, in the scientific Crufts manner. To some extent it’s even a parody of Crufts, or I hope it is. Being light-hearted, then, it brings out that curious facetiousness which seems to infect the subject, with talk of “our furry friends” and “pawlitics”, and so on. Still, the result was a very proper and moving recognition of Sir David’s devotion to animal interests during his long parliamentary career.

The tributes paid to him in the House of Commons spoke of his “love of animals”. As far as I have noticed, Amess himself did not use that phrase, either about himself or (as so commonly heard in Parliament) about the nation. He spoke rather about their qualities – “absolutely wonderful animals” (of elephants), “sensitive and intelligent animals” (of pigs), “a generous, giving nature” (of the dog Vivienne). His concern was impartially for all suffering animals, loved or not. During a debate about wildlife crime in 2019, he spoke of his collaborations with the former MP Ann Widdecombe: “we led campaigns against live-animal exports, the badger cull, animal experimentation, dog meat, the fur trade, and the netting and killing of songbirds throughout the Mediterranean.”

That homely concept ‘love of animals’ also misrepresents the strength and range of attention which David Amess brought to these problems. In that same debate, occurring at a time when there was still some inclination in his own party (Conservative) to revisit and even repeal the Hunting Act, he said this:

It beggars believe that anyone would set dogs on foxes and think that it is acceptable to have them physically torn apart. I think that most civilized people, and I hope most Members of Parliament, would find that repugnant.

Not affection, or not just affection, but a humane society was what he wanted (and you note the joke implied in putting himself and other MPs in a separate category to “civilized people”: he was a humorous man). So of course animals were part of a corpus of public problems, interests, and concerns he wished to deal with. But they were also much more than that to him, for they were part of his spiritual convictions as a Roman Catholic. During a debate promoted by Amess himself on 7 December 2011 about the use of animals in research (a practice which he considered “ethically and morally wrong”), he reminded the House that the Holy Family in the Bethlehem stable was “surrounded by animals”. He therefore invited the government to make animal-free medical research “the final gift, after gold, frankincense and myrrh, to both kingdoms represented by the nativity.”

“both kingdoms”, because human-centred research would be a boon as valuable to humans as to the other animals. And that image of co-existence in the stable is also a reminder that although David Amess commonly spoke about ‘animal welfare’, he was aiming at something much more elementary. On 19 January of this year, he led an ‘adjournment debate’ (an opportunity for backbench MPs to direct government attention to a matter of concern) on the difficulties which animal charities have been experiencing as a result of Covid-19. “This pandemic,” he told the House, “may be all about our relationship with animals.” It should therefore “prompt a much-needed reconsideration of our relationship with animals . . . a new vision.” It was this vision which he hoped might be discussed in the general debate which, just before the autumn recess on 23 September, he urged the government to schedule in acknowledgement of World Animal Day this year. That was his last appearance in the proceedings of the House.

But certainly David Amess was there in spirit on Monday afternoon last week (25 October) when there were two separate but concurrent debates on animal themes. One of them was the second reading of the government’s Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the legislation that should at last put an end, among other abuses, to the live exporting of farm animals. The other (held in Westminster Hall) was titled ‘Animal Testing’, and had been occasioned by a parliamentary e-petition calling for the abolition of animals in laboratory research – a petition whose 236,000 signatures had far exceeded the number required to trigger such a debate. In both these debates, at the start and finish and indeed throughout, Amess was spoken of with more than ordinary ceremony. It’s clear that MPs really did like and admire “our late dearly loved colleague from Southend West”.

Sir David Amess MP of the month - web image

In the case of the Westminster Hall debate, the theme was one whose importance he had especially urged upon the government over many years (he had entered parliament in 1983) and in many different ways: on committees, in speeches, in early day motions, at parliamentary receptions on the subject (like the one he’s pictured introducing for Cruelty Free International). The debate itself had been postponed for a week, because the original timing had been taken up with tributes to David Amess in the Commons and then a service of remembrance in St Margaret’s Church across the road. MPs had therefore had time to re-compose their speeches. Not only the many reiterated tributes but, I would say, a more than usually passionate statement of the case against animal research was the consequence of that.

Notably, the concept of animal rights, which has tended in the past to startle and even enrage MPs, had made its way into the thought and language. The debate was opened by Martyn Day (MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk), who said that “animals, as sentient beings, deserve the same consideration as humans, and have the right not to suffer at our hands.” Can the case be put more absolutely than that? Fleur Anderson (Putney), described herself, perhaps with more passion than exactitude, as a “very committed animal rights activist”. A different but also very important principle was asserted by Ruth Jones (Newport), who said that MPs had duties not just to their human constituents: “we also have a responsibility to our natural world, wildlife and animals.” Not that the two duties are separate, for as another speaker had observed, many and perhaps all MPs receive more mail about animal concerns than about any other topic. This debate, said Ruth Jones, should help them to decide “what we can do to keep our animals safe”. She wasn’t talking about pet animals, but about all the animals an MP might represent, including those favoured for research.

Perhaps most significantly of all, there was the suggestion that the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, with all its various accretions of statutory instruments and Home Office guidance, the whole bundle so often eulogized by ministers and research scientists, should cease to be regarded as the last progressive word on this subject. Fleur Anderson argued that animal research should have been part of the debate on the Kept Animals Bill in the main chamber of the House. In fact the same point was being made there, that the Bill should be revised to bring laboratory animals too into the special protections being prepared for those others (livestock, puppies, primates as pets, and zoo animals). The implication was that the essential principle of British law on animals in research since 1876 – that such animals were to be excepted from other legislation against cruelty (as they are, for instance, from the Animal Welfare Act of 2006) – should at last be discarded.

In accordance with the habit of eulogy mentioned in the previous paragraph, the government’s original response to the e-petition had referred to the “robust regulations” which protected animals from unnecessary or unethical experimentation. Martyn Day now commented on this phrase: “I can think of many words to describe regulation that allows factory-farmed puppies [he was evidently thinking of the beagle puppies bred at MBR Acres] to be daily force-fed chemicals directly into their stomachs for up to 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic, but ‘robust’ certainly is not one of them.” He then took the 1986 Act’s efforts to promote so-called ‘alternatives’ to animals and turned it more than inside out: the Act should be amended to “remove animal experimentation as an ‘alternative’ in scientific procedures”. In short, the 1986 Act should scrap itself.

The two debates on Monday of last week occupied together about four and a half hours. It’s true that neither of the two debates was well-attended (Westminster Hall debates rarely are). And ‘debate’ is rather a misnomer for these formal events anyway. Mostly, the contributions consist in the reading aloud of prepared speeches, with therefore a great deal of wearisome overlap. Interventions there are, but brief and usually not able nor even intended to divert the flow of a prepared speech. This is the ordinary House style, very unlike the pugilism of the more celebrated Prime Minister’s Questions: so much the better, no doubt, but then, however powerful individual contributions may be, the net impression is of business completed. This was indeed a frequent complaint of Sir David’s, that good and agreed intentions were producing no practical results.

Still, Parliament is that narrow strait through which animal ethics has to pass on its way from ideology to the desired condition of national fixture. David Amess made the best of it, and in his long political career, always as a backbencher, he achieved a great deal for animals. And in the wretched circumstances of his death, he seems to have made a last gift to them of his popularity in the House. For not just were those many vehement speeches delivered with him in mind; there was more generally a strong feeling that the House owed it to him to accomplish something definite, much as another of his long-pursued ambitions, city status for Southend, was granted post-mortem, or indeed as Vivienne was elected Dog of the Year. Winding up the second reading of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the Minister of State at Defra, Victoria Prentis, quoted some words spoken by David Amess about live exports, and lastly said “I commend the Bill, in his name, to the House.” I hope that his name and example may have likewise persuaded the House to act upon the public wish, expressed in that e-petition, to see an end to vivisection.

Notes and references

The Westminster Dog of the Year event is reported by the BBC here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-59076946

Quotations from speeches come from Hansard’s records for the relevant days and occasions, accessible from its home page: https://hansard.parliament.uk/.

Thus transcripts of the two debates of 25 October can be found here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-10-25/debates/486708F3-E5DE-4121-B9E0-F146AFF73031/AnimalTesting  and https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-10-25/debates/58F30AB3-1785-491F-B9ED-0DDD739F64D8/AnimalWelfare(KeptAnimals)Bill The debate on wildlife crime took place on 20 March 2019. Other debates are dated in the text, I hope.

The e-petition debated on 25 October can be read here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/581641. The debate also incorporated a separate e-petition on the same subject: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/590216

One of the current Early Day Motions tabled (i.e. put forward for others to sign) by David Amess is no.256, ‘Accelerating human relevant life sciences in the UK’, which can be read here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/56714 Another important EDM to which he is a signatory is no.175, ‘Public scientific hearing on animal experiments’, here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/58611/public-scientific-hearing-on-animal-experiments . A good way of drawing your MP’s attention to the subject is to invite him or her to sign these EDMs or, if they already have signed, to thank them for doing so.

In his book Ayes and Ears: a Survivor’s Guide to Westminster (2020), David Amess describes the workings and failings of the place, his own experience of becoming an MP, and his efforts to get things done in the House of Commons. The book is published by Luath Press, but seems to be out of print at present.

The photograph of sir David Amess shows him speaking at a parliamentary reception which he hosted for Cruelty Free International in 2015 (image used courtesy of CFI).

The Librarian Who Caused a Scandalous Riot

There have been several references in this blog to the man who became, in 1882, Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, but little mention has been made of the man regarded as his chief opponent during the ensuing controversy over vivisection at the university. This man, Edward Nicholson, was appointed, in that same year, chief librarian to the university (Bodley’s Librarian). It was a portentous year, for then also John Ruskin was elected to a second and hectic stint as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a stint brought to an abrupt end by the same controversy.

Nicholson’s long period in office was one of the most crucial modernizing phases in the Bodleian’s history. He turned the Bodleian from a gentleman-scholars’ club into a busy and efficient university-wide institution. But his reforms, and of course his leadership of the anti-vivisection campaign in the 1880s, made him many enemies in the university. Accordingly there was afterwards something like a conspiracy to deny him the memorials to which he was surely entitled: a commissioned portrait, for instance, such as was accorded to both his predecessor and his successor, or his name attached to the collection of papers which he bequeathed to the library (they were jumbled into other collections, such as ‘Eng. Misc.’, and remain so). But he needs and deserves remembering – here in particular for the heroic stand he made against vivisection at Oxford University in the 1880s.

Burdon Sanderson came to Oxford with an established reputation as “the arch-priest of vivisection”. Nicholson too had made himself known on the subject, in a pioneering book titled The Rights of an Animal: a new Essay in Ethics, published in 1879. And it surely was new; Nicholson himself called it “so far as I know, the first systematic attempt in our language – may be in any language – to treat the question of man’s social relations to animals as a branch of moral philosophy.” But it was not the merely intellectual treatment of the subject which its sub‐title suggests. It was purposeful and practical, as indeed that telling formulation in the title – an animal –  implies: not a generality of animals, but every particular animal was claiming its rights of us. So at the end of the book Nicholson gives advice on how to turn ethics into useful effort. And that was what Nicholson was now finding himself required to do at Oxford.  

nicholson cartoon

It was not Burdon Sanderson himself, nor even the laboratory being planned for his use, that Nicholson opposed, though the controversy came to simplify itself in that way, as the cartoon illustration indicates (more about that in the notes). What he wanted was that the university should impose two conditions upon the work done by Burdon Sanderson and by all his successors at Oxford: first, that anaesthetics would be used in all experiments which would otherwise cause pain, and second, that there would be no experiments at all using domesticated animals. You’ll notice that these are conditions which UK law has yet to catch up with even now, but to Nicholson well over a century ago they seemed “morally indispensable”.

That phrase comes from the petition which Nicholson organized and presented to the university’s governing Hebdomadal Council in 1883, requesting that a distinct motion on these conditions should be put to Convocation (at that time the university’s legislature). The petition had 143 signatures to it, for Nicholson had enlisted the support of many heads of colleges, many professors (including John Ruskin) and fellows (including Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll), and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness, to say nothing of all the Oxford graduates whose MAs entitled them to vote in Convocation. But the Council rejected the petition – “an intolerable wrong”, Nicholson thought, with typical passion. He believed that his party would have won the vote; probably the Council had thought so too.

Still, to obtain the necessary land and funds for the laboratory, the Council had to get the approval of Convocation. There had already been two sessions for this purpose, but a third and fourth would yet be needed. Nicholson therefore announced that the coming sessions would be turned into that debate on vivisection which the Council had refused, and he at once began preparing for them.

Evening after evening, after his strenuous days in the Bodleian Library, Nicholson put his talents as an organiser and publicist into the push against the laboratory. Printed letters and cards, circulars and other documents went out from his house at number 2 Canterbury Road, telling academics and graduates of the university, in Oxford and far beyond, what they needed to know about the rejected petition, about Burdon Sanderson’s record as a physiologist and as a witness at the 1875 Royal Commission on vivisection, about the coming votes in Convocation, and about what the University’s Council was doing. As to this last, the Council itself had finally felt obliged to campaign for its own policy, rather than move ahead with patrician self-sufficiency (its preferred method then as now). So by the time of the second vote in 1885, as one contemporary recalled, Oxford MAs “had been inundated with leaflets from both sides, with the names of prominent men attached, for weeks before the day of debate.”

Before taking a view of the debates themselves, which were two of the most crowded and disorderly ever to have taken place in Convocation, we should pause to notice Nicholson’s courage in thus discomposing the university. He was a new and untested presence there, by no means a unanimous choice among the library’s curators (one of them thought him “vain, egotistical, and vulgar”: not a gentleman-scholar, then). The Times newspaper, with its many Oxford connections, reported the matter with some acidity: “It would be mere affectation to deny that this appointment will be viewed by many with considerable surprise.” More immediately, Vice-Chancellor Benjamin Jowett gave Nicholson warning that his activities in the campaign might be considered damaging to the library, and by implication to Nicholson’s own career with it. As to that, there survives among Nicholson’s papers a draft letter from 1884 in which sets out his response. Here are some sentences from it:

Dear Mr Vice‐Chancellor, It will be a satisfaction to me if you will allow me to make quite clear to you my feelings and intentions in regard to the matter which you spoke of this morning . . . On the matter of principle I feel as strongly as it is possible to feel, and so I consider it a duty from which I cannot deviate for one moment to do all I can to avert the practice [of vivisection] in Oxford. If the majority on February 5th [that was the third of the four Convocations] had been able and willing to compel me to resign my office on account of my action in this matter, I should have taken that action just the same . . . if Council were to propose any further grant without allowing a vote on the principle [as we know the Council in fact did] it would be our duty to oppose the grant.

I can’t find whether Nicholson actually sent, to the man who had originally been his main ally among the Curators, this bold and uncompromising letter, but he certainly acted on it.

The Convocations, then. That debate on 5 February was rowdy enough, or became so. Jowett himself presided, and the proceedings were opened by Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The professor of medicine, Henry Acland, then spoke in praise of Burdon Sanderson’s high moral character (that familiar argument: ‘trust the professionals’). Speakers against the laboratory included Dr Pope – “who, we are credibly informed,” reported the students’ Oxford Magazine, of course relishing the commotion, “spoke with a loaded revolver in his pocket” – and Nicholson himself, characteristically “bristling with little books and papers”. Unfortunately the debate got entangled in one particular animal procedure which Burdon Sanderson had spoken of in his evidence to the Royal Commission. He had called it “a beautiful experiment” and one which he had enjoyed “great pleasure in repeating” a number of times (he’s quoted thus in the cartoon). This naturally caused some vocal indignation. But now the Waynflete Professor himself, who had hitherto “leaned against the side of the arena, gaunt, grim, notable”, came forward (“received with a storm of applause and hisses”), and explained that the animal had been a brain-dead frog. The debate proper did not recover from this anti-climax (if it really was one), and the vote went against Nicholson’s party.

But a fourth Convocation was needed, and it took place on 10 March the next year. This time the university’s Sheldonian Theatre was even more crowded and the debate even more unruly. The Times on that day had printed statements from the opposing parties, making clear that it would be a major Oxford University event. One of those present recalled years later that “hundreds of non-resident graduates had come up to vote from London and the shires . . . the Sheldonian Theatre was crammed, the upper undergraduate gallery no less than the lower.” There was “row on row of ladies interested in the scene”. Those Sheldonian galleries climb steeply up into the dome; it’s a room which can look and sound precariously crowded – or excitingly so, as seems to have been the case on that occasion.

Again, Vice-Chancellor Jowett presided and Dean Liddell opened the proceedings. That imposing and celebrated Oxford figure was given a respectful hearing, but he seems to have been the last of the speakers to enjoy the privilege. Canon Liddon, a celebrated orator, came after the Dean, spoke against vivisection, and was booed. When Bishop Mackarness started to describe some of the revolting experiments being done in France and Germany, someone (so the historian Charles Oman recalls in Memories of Victorian Oxford)

got upon a chair, and led, waving his arms, a regular chorus of the word ‘name’ or ‘shame’ – I could not quite make out which. The Bishop kept his feet and tried to proceed, but the rhythmical din continued.

Another speaker against the motion, the new Professor of Modern History, Edward Freeman, well-known for his publications against animal cruelty, “was absolutely howled down.” Those who spoke in favour of the motion were no better treated, and when a clergyman sprang up and “got in enough sentences to demonstrate that he was about to defend vivisection by the example of Christ”, this absurdity so aggravated the disorder that Benjamin Jowett brought a premature end to the debate and the matter was put to a decision. The university got its way by 412 votes to 244. (The total of votes did not represent the numbers present, of course: only graduates and fellows of colleges were entitled to vote.) Charles Oman calls the event “a scandalous riot”.

A defeat then, but also a very great achievement, as Oman’s disapproval itself suggests. For Nicholson turned a project whose first two supply votes had passed through Convocation hardly noticed into a controversy which in 1884 and 1885 generated some of the fiercest passions ever witnessed in the Sheldonian. (The much more famous debate about evolution, held in the University Museum in 1860, was really a very mild affair in comparison.) He forced the whole university to take the rights of animals seriously, and to suffer a convulsion commensurate with the importance of the decision it was taking. In doing so, he gave that Oxford generation a lesson in ethics which very few of them can altogether have missed or forgotten.

One of Nicholson’s supporters in the campaign against vivisection at Oxford, writing to console him on the evening of the 1885 defeat, said “the protest will remain a valuable one, and one which we may hope will not be forgotten in the future history of the Laboratory.” Yes, a most valuable protest, and a courageous and visionary man: there are good reasons – indeed, moral obligations – to remember both.    

Notes and references:

This post has been adapted from a longer article first published in the Oxford Magazine. The full text can be read here, including a more detailed set of footnotes: http://www.vero.org.uk/bodley.pdf

John Ruskin’s time as Slade Professor, and its abrupt end, are recounted in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/remembering-john-ruskin-rightly/

Burdon Sanderson was called “the arch-priest” in The Oxford University Herald on 27 October 1883, about the time he took up his duties as Waynflete Professor. Nicholson’s description of The Rights of an Animal comes from contemporary publicity material for the book.

The Times’s comments on Nicholson’s appointment were published on 6 February, 1882

Quotations about the Convocation debates come from Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, London, 1941, and from two university journals of the time: the Oxford Magazine, then primarily a student paper, for 13 February 1884 and 11 March 1885, and the Oxford Review for 7 February 1884

The hostile curator was Mark Pattison, writing in his journal, as quoted in an unpublished thesis in the Bodleian Library about Nicholson’s professional career, written by K.A.Manley, 1977).

The consolatory letter was written to Nicholson by the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Driver.

The contemporary cartoon shows Burdon Sanderson ‘experimenting’ upon Edward Nicholson. The ‘Blue Book’ of the caption, on a copy of which Nicholson’s hand is resting, is the Royal Commission Report on vivisection, published in 1876. As the frog indicates, the reference there and in the speech-bubble is to the “beautiful experiment” that became a theme of the 1884 Convocation debate (though the date given for this vivisection of Nicholson at the “Sheldonian Laboratories” seems to be miswritten “5th Jan”). Unfortunately I have mislaid the source for this illustration, but I thank the archive concerned and hope that the unattributed use will be forgiven.

Putting Sentience Back into Law

Today is World Animal Day, described by its present sponsor, Naturewatch Foundation, as “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”, with the aim to “make the world a better place for all animals . . . a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings.” Today is also the feast day of St Francis of Assisi who, in legend at least, saw and addressed sentience in all of nature – a noble over-estimate, if it is one at all. He is the patron saint of sentience.

St Francis 2

That term ‘sentient beings’ ought to be a tautology, but we know that in fact the truth in it needs constantly insisting upon, if we are indeed to re-make a world where so many human practices and interests have depended upon disregarding it. The formal recognition of animal sentience in law is therefore a most important and also a contentious achievement. That achievement is one that the UK government is now in the middle of attempting, with its Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill – part of the government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare (discussed in this blog on 1 June). The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 13 May, and first debated on 16 June. It was given more detailed attention in the committee stage on 6 July, and is now waiting to be further debated at the ‘report’ stage. When the House of Lords has finished debating and revising it, the Bill will start round again in the House of Commons.

It’s a very short document, consisting of just six clauses and essentially two themes: first, the concept or fact of sentience in animals, which was there in the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty but lost to UK law by Brexit; and second, the establishment of a permanent Animal Sentience Committee to alert the government to any effects which its policies may have on “the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings”. Still, this short bill has so far occupied the Lords for over eight hours of debate, with many more to come. It is evidently, then, a controversial proposal. Good, because that must mean that it really does imply change.

Of course most of the speakers in the House of Lords debates have expressly and willingly accepted that animals, vertebrate ones at least, are indeed sentient. They have said, what is quite true, that sentience is implicitly acknowledged in all British animal welfare law going back to the early nineteenth century. But I suspect that this emphasis on history, and its corollary that recognising sentience is nothing new, has a political sub-text: it keeps sentience within the traditional ethical context, where humans decide what duties they should feel towards animals. The Countryside Alliance, which has strong interests in the continuation of that ethical tradition, composed a ‘Briefing Note’ for their Lordships before the debates, in which the point is clearly made: “Of course, recognition of sentience and the welfare needs of animals is not the same as recognising that animals have rights, in the sense that human beings have rights.” And therefore, as Baroness Mallalieu said in the House, the introduction of the term into law, though unobjectionable, “is strictly unnecessary”. The Baroness is (as indeed she made clear) president of the Countryside Alliance and herself a farmer, representing then a complex of interests in keeping things as they have been.

So does the formal acknowledgement of sentience in law represent a threat to traditional practices? I feel sure that it does. One of the familiar features of debates like these in the House of Lords is the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ trope. Lord Benyon, the minister who introduced the bill (thank-you to him), said “I am proud, as I hope your Lordships are, of the UK’s reputation as a nation of animal-lovers.” Lord Trees spoke of “our proud history of protecting animal welfare”. It’s what we are and choose to do, you see, and what we therefore take credit for. But the focus on sentience re-locates the ethic; it becomes something in the animal that demands certain conduct from us. As the Countryside Alliance tacitly fears, it moves ethics along the welfare-rights axis in the rights direction.

Moreover, once out of our hands, there’s no telling what the revised ethic may require of us. One speaker feared, perhaps facetiously, that we might be told that worms have sentience. Others were concerned with the more immediate threat to ‘country sports’, shooting and fishing; in fact one of the amendments proposed during committee stage was to add birds and fishes to the single excepted species in the Bill’s working definition of ‘sentient animal’ (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens”).

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill foresees that the Secretary of State, so far from excepting species like fishes and birds, may probably wish to add species into its definition of sentient animal. Several speakers in the debates asked that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans be included now, rather than later. After all, the government has had an expert report on the sentience of these animals awaiting its attention since December 2020, and this seems sure to be affirmative. In this connection, some of their Lordships (‘lordships’ seems to be a collective term that includes females), fear that the sentience test, so crucial to the Bill, will undesirably turn the status of animals into an aspect of research science rather than a democratic ethical decision. For it will be scientists, not ministers or MPs, who decide how sentient particular animals are, though ministers will have to endorse or reject the science.

There’s surely some merit in that warning, but anyway sentience cannot be regarded as a complete foundation for animal or any other ethics. It confines the question to pain and pleasure, but life itself is a value, in worms as in all other cases, and also an implicit right once entered into – hence Professor Tom Regan’s philosophy that imputes rights to whatever can be said to be ‘subjects-of-a-life’. Still, we’re talking now about law, which never is or pretends to be the sum of morality.

Then there’s the Animal Sentience Committee, the primary purpose and innovation of the Bill. It will be a permanent and independent committee, free to scrutinize policy, whether extant or in preparation, right across government: “there are no policy exemptions”, says Lord Benyon, and “we want them to decide what issues they should look at.” (In this and other respects, the Bill is a good deal more demanding and more comprehensive than the Lisbon Treaty.) The committee’s duty will be to make sure that ministers have paid “all due regard” to sentient animals, to report on problematic instances, and to receive a response within a period of three months. In theory, then, this committee will at last formally incorporate the interests of animals (officially sentient animals, at least) in the political process, surviving changes of administration and developing its own values as it goes.

The Bill does not specify the membership of the committee, only that the Secretary of State will appoint it. But some of their Lordships seem to have a pretty clear idea of how it’s likely to behave. It will, as they variously picture it, go “roaring off” into government business “like a bolting horse”, “bossing everybody about”, “going round summoning ministers”, and generally “roaming about” Whitehall, until “we all have to discuss animal welfare the whole time and it becomes impermissible not to discuss it every time a Bill comes up.” The committee is not required, as the Lisbon Treaty does require its EU nations, to make allowances for religious and other traditional practices (though of course the minister in the case can and no doubt will do so). It might, some suggested, interfere in foreign relations, finding fault with the treatment of animals in countries which the UK trades with or in other ways has policies towards. It might even (widespread alarm at the idea) direct its baleful attention towards the use of animals in science, interfering in the administration of the 1986 Act which regulates that arena of exploitation.

Well, as to all that, if only! But it must be recalled that the minister referenced in any report published by the Animal Sentience Committee (which can indeed publish as it “thinks appropriate”) has only to “lay a response . . . before Parliament”; he or she will not have to take the committee’s advice. In fact the Green Party’s Baroness Jones predicted that the response of such ministers would “in practice be little more than listing the reasons why they are ignoring the committee.” The committee’s existence might even have the effect of relieving ministers of the necessity to think about such aspects of policy themselves, letting them fall out of the democratic process altogether. “This Bill”, she said, “is the Government pretending to do something about animal sentience.” She summed it up as “a disaster”.

An empty show, then? Or (as the Countryside Alliance fears) a “Trojan horse” sneaking “extreme animal rights activists and environmentalists” into the citadel of government? I believe that even as a PR enterprise the Act would be making a valuable point, but in practice the Sentience Committee would surely make certain it was much more than that. Of course the Bill may not survive its passage through Parliament. After all, one of the amendments proposed on 6 July was the deleting of its first clause, the one which creates the committee, which is as much as to say deleting of the Bill. However, we must hope for a better result.

You may have seen that the government has now published a response to the recent consultation about relaxing controls over the genetic editing of farm crops and animals (another Brexit dividend: see this blog for 14 March). The announced intention is to relax restrictions in the case of plants, but to leave the animals fully protected for the time being. Now there’s a case for the Animal Sentience Committee when the question comes round again, as it eventually will. Let’s hope that by then that troop of animal activists and environmentalists will be out of the wooden horse and ready for battle!

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill can be read here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/58-02/004/5802004_en_2.html#pb1-l1g1

The second reading in the House of Lords (the first being simply the notice given of the Bill’s existence) is reported in Hansard here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2021-06-16/debates/81851658-6B9F-4739-8199-22398F81085F/Debate  The committee stage is reported here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2021-07-06/debates/B8CBC730-DC86-4D6C-B915-C145CF158B80/Debate  Note that the committee stage is the point at which definite amendments are proposed, but some of them (like excepting birds and fishes from the category ‘animal’, or dropping clause 1) are ‘probing amendments’, aimed at highlighting a concern rather than actually making the changes specified. Although the debates brought out strong feeling on both sides of the argument, not very many members were present, even allowing for those who participated online.

The Countryside Alliance’s responses, as quoted, appear in a Briefing Note https://www.countryside-alliance.org/getattachment/News/2021/5/Animal-Welfare-Sentience-Bill-2021/Animal-Welfare-Sentience-Bill-Second-Reading-Brief-Lords-160621.pdf?lang=en-GB and on the web-site here: https://www.countryside-alliance.org/news/2021/5/animal-welfare-sentience-bill-2021  These are actually quite measured though wary accounts of the matter.

The government’s announcement on the subject of genetically edited plants and animals is published here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/genetic-technologies-regulation/outcome/genetic-technologies-regulation-government-response  The subject was treated in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2021/03/14/the-grand-old-craft-of-gene-editing-a-consultation/

The illustration shows St Francis preaching to the birds, a detail from the fresco of latish 13th century by the anonymous artist referred to as the Master of St Francis (in the public domain). St Francis has been spoken of in this blog here https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/ and here https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/

Philosophy at the Crick

The Francis Crick Institute in London (informally ‘the Crick’) is a huge research enterprise, “the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe”. Its ultra-modern building accommodates 1900 scientists collaborating across multifarious specialisms. The aim is “to make discoveries about how life works” and to turn these discoveries into medical therapies (one of its incorporated institutions is Cancer Research UK). Although so visibly and self-consciously progressive, this establishment which opened in 2016 is already the leading user of laboratory animals in the UK. It also supplies GM animals to other laboratories.

Crick facade

The Chief Executive Officer of the Crick is Sir Paul Nurse, the geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his research into the chemistry of cell division. Nurse is a most distinguished scientist, whose work has helped to explain what is more or less the essence of life: its ability both to replicate and to innovate, and therefore to turn from the first viable cell into a whole world of plants and animals, still on the go after three billion or so years. He has now written a book titled What is Life? Since he has unique authority to answer such a question, and since we may imagine that the monster Crick and its envisaged future are implicated in the answer, it must surely be a book worth studying.

What life isn’t, Nurse insists, is some peculiar force or substance distinct from the rest of the material world. Versions of that assumption, commonly termed ‘vitalism’, have dominated thinking in the past (even William Harvey, the pioneer of experimental biology, thought in that way), and they still survive here and there. But the contrary notion, that lives are “astoundingly complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, chemical and physical machines” is, so Nurse says, “now the accepted way to think about life.”

The book confirms and illustrates this thinking in the case of life’s smallest viable unit, and Nurse’s own specialism, the cell. Most of the book is in fact a lively biology lesson (though deplorably without graphic aids), likely to fascinate and educate anyone who hasn’t studied biology recently or gone past Ordinary Level and its equivalents. In short, it’s a popular summary, best interpreted as part of the Crick’s express ambition to “engage and inspire the public”. The book is well-designed to do that, and this purpose may explain why, for all the excursions into particular discoveries and how they happened, there is no mention of animal research. Anyway, What is Life? does answer its own question: to be called life, the book concludes, you must be a self-maintaining physical entity with the power and purpose to pass on your own natural form – either intact or with some unpredictable variance – to a succeeding generation.

Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, and one must look elsewhere for the book’s ideological force. If this book is the Crick’s address to the nation, what is it encouraging the nation, whether intentionally or otherwise, to feel and believe? Certainly it makes the machinery of life seem astonishing, as indeed it is, and Paul Nurse enjoys and insists on this – among other ways by using many an exclamation mark. A sense of wonder, then, but not merely contemplative wonder: it’s clearly linked to the activity of discovery. Some of the notable personalities and researches which have made the wonders known are sketched in, including those in Nurse’s own laboratories. There, for instance, it had initially seemed “slightly preposterous” to mix yeast cells and human DNA on a Petri dish, in order to determine whether the mechanism of cell-division in these far-distant life-forms might be exchangeable; however “it was worth a shot. And, amazingly, it did work!”   

So this book is partly about “the thrill of scientific discovery”. And in fact in its first edition it had the sub-title (subsequently dropped) Five Great Ideas in Biology, which clearly made the life-scene a function or aspect of the human mind. Well, of course it is that in some sense but, as Nurse concedes, life did get on without human awareness, let alone understanding, for almost all of its unimaginably long history.

Perhaps there’s only just a distinction here, between wonder at the phenomena of life, and the excitement of knowing about them. But I think that the distinction is brought out by the place which humans enjoy in the life-scene as viewed by Nurse.

He does make the point again and again that “we humans are related to every other life form on the planet”, including, of course, the yeast cells which he first worked with. He also insists that this puts upon us a responsibility “to care about it” and “to care for it”. In this can be seen how much has had to be learnt since a previous celebrated attempt on this same subject, William Beck’s Modern Science and the Nature of Life, published in 1957. That’s a book which likewise persuaded its readers against vitalism, tracing the gradual revelation of the chemico-physical basis of life, and incidentally foreseeing exactly the work for which Paul Nurse earned the Nobel Prize. Having established that there is no other-worldly motive taking care of things, Beck concluded that “Man . . . is going to have to look after himself.” And he gave his book this portentous last line: “Man has already done much, but it is dawn, not midnight, and, in the gathering light, he looks magnificent.” (No smirking, please; this was 60 years ago.)

That is not Nurse’s attitude at all, but still he does take for granted that humanity is a special case. A recurring feature of the book are the short runs or lists of life-types: “towering forests, swarming colonies of ants, huge networks of underground fungi, herds of mammals on the African savannah, and very much more recently, modern humans.” In these lists, humans seem always to come at the end like that. The suggestion is irresistibly that humans are indeed the culmination, or at least the point of rest. And there is no encouragement to efface our special interest: Nurse habitually speaks of “we humans”, “ourselves”, “our own”, “us humans”, even “our world”.

what is life cover

I’m sure this is deliberate, part of the “engage and inspire” policy; and after all, his readers all are humans. Still, the net effect is not so different from William Beck’s more candid heroics. And I believe that it leads to a subtle misrepresentation of the true case. In the later part of his book, where Nurse speaks (in rather general terms) about the necessity of science as a means “to make life better”, he includes among the beneficiaries of this amelioration “the ecosystems that we are an inextricable part of”. Well, are we? Certainly we can’t do without the ecosystems, but they could surely do perfectly well – much better, in fact – without us. We are extricable. It’s strangely anthropocentric not to acknowledge or even notice this.

You may have remarked in Nurse’s definition of life as reported above the rather surprising idea that life has “purpose” – surprising not just because this seems a distinctly mental property for entities which include single cells, but also because Nurse often calls organisms “living machines”. But of course the purpose in question is a matter of action or behaviour, not thought. What we observe in these machines are “purposeful behaviours that have evolved because they improve the chances of living things achieving their fundamental purpose, which is to perpetuate themselves and their progeny.” And in his chapter about evolution (one of the ‘five great ideas’), Nurse qualifies the term, speaking more accurately of “the apparent purposefulness of living things [my italics].” Meanwhile evolution itself, the great biological machine to which all these lesser machines are subordinate, operates “without any controlling intellect, defined end goal, or ultimate driving force.”

Seemingly purposeful behaviours in the toils of a purposeless will: the tragic pathos of this situation is not remarked upon by Nurse, who doesn’t pretend to give philosophical or moral commentary (though he is fairly free with generalized phraseology of the “vast and awe-inspiring universe” sort). But looking to future research, especially research into the nature of consciousness, he does believe that it will need co-operation “between the humanities and the sciences”, and he specifies the contribution of philosophers. Certainly I was impressed, reading What is Life?, by the natural fit it would make in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer – who did believe, in his turn, that philosophy should be able to account for the natural sciences.

Contemplating the world now pictured for us in What is Life?, Schopenhauer inferred a great impersonal and impartial drive activating all lives, lending them temporary purposes which they think (in the case of humans) their own, urging them into procreation and pitilessly discarding them. He called this drive the Will, and he said this about it:

It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature which is manifested.

This Will is not itself life, it is not even evolution (which is simply one expression of its ceaseless push within life), but it’s the existential condition for all the lives which Paul Nurse writes about. And what it especially adds to Nurse’s account is the unity of all life not just as to cellular structure or basic genes (which of course Schopenhauer, writing in the early nineteenth century, didn’t know about), but as to experience: all lives are helpless vehicles of the one Will, are therefore part of the one experience. We aren’t just relatives of those ants, fungi, forests, and herds of mammals; in all but the externals we are them.

Schopenhauer is sometimes said to have ‘demoted’ humans in his thinking: no, he just didn’t start with an assumption of their special status; he didn’t promote them. Notably he didn’t give them special rights over any others. Accordingly, he hated and denounced vivisection. Paul Nurse is right: we need him and his like at the Crick.

Notes and references:

Quotations about the Crick are from its web-site at https://www.crick.ac.uk/

What is Life? was first published by David Fickling Books in 2020. The quotations are from the paperback edition of 2021. It’s not a long book – 212 pp. in large well-leaded type. It’s also authoritative, informative, and pleasant to read – therefore well worth reading, though the concluding remarks about climate change, the future, etc., are unsurprising and only of interest because an influential scientist is saying them.

Modern Science and the Nature of Life, by William S. Beck, was first published in 1957. Quotations are from p.292 of the Penguin Books edition of 1961.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is quoted from the Dover Books edition of 1969, vol.1, p.110. The two-volume work was originally published in 1819 and 1844.

Marching, Speaking, and Doing

The National Animal Rights March for 2021 was organized by members of the group Animal Rebellion, and took place in London last Saturday afternoon. The starting-place was Smithfield, the UK’s largest wholesale and retail meat market. With its long history of cruelty and violence, and its setting in London’s centre of finance, the City, representing the rule of the money-interest, this was a very well-chosen venue. In fact it was here, in October last year, that Animal Rebellion set up their plant-based market alternative, beautifully picturing the one viable food-future open to us. And even the more general Extinction Rebellion campaign, radical and eloquent as that is, evidently needs this persuasion. Its current leaflet, as distributed at Smithfield, puts second-to-last, in its ‘What can I do?’ list, ”cutting down on meat”. A placard at Saturday’s march stated the case more accurately and urgently: “Go Vegan, or Go Extinct”.

Smithfield banner

The route for the march took in three stopping-points at noted counter-vegan institutions. There was Cargill, for instance, whose holdings and own operations make it the largest (in the sense most profitable) food business in the world. Despite its plant-leaf logo, tastefully topping the ‘i’ in its name, this company controls the impoverished lives and violent deaths of billions of animals every year. Animal Rebellion calls Cargill the “silent giant”, and certainly it keeps itself anonymous at its London headquarters, 77 Queen Victoria Street. Like so many companies, it prefers to boast about its work (“committed to helping the world thrive) in the nowhere-land of the internet. By the way, the italics for ‘thrive’ are Cargill’s own, so you can see how earnestly sincere it is about this aim.

Then there was the Marine Stewardship Council, round the corner at Snow Hill (the police running ahead of the march to guard the doors at each next stop). This is an organization whose “vision . . . is of the world’s oceans teeming with life”. Plunderable life, that is, for the MSC’s hope is that, by not over-fishing, we can make “seafood supplies” (sometimes known as fishes) lastingly available “for this and future generations”. Our speaker outside Cargill’s offices, Tim Bailey, had told us that the pain of slaughter, however small the animal, was “exactly the same”. This assertion was quoted in news reports, perhaps because it feels like an over-statement or at least tendentious. But we don’t have to know whether it’s true or not, for the right to live is certainly nothing to do with large or small. And therefore the speaker outside the MSC’s headquarters, Laila Kassam, quite properly re-defined ‘over-fishing’ as any fishing”.

March at MSC

One of the founding organizations for the MSC was Unilever, whose offices were the march’s first stop. This is another giant enterprise, which hoovers up successful brands, mainly cosmetics and foods, and makes their profits its own. Most of the conventional ice-creams one’s heard of, for instance, seem to belong to Unilever, for of course it’s not a vegan-friendly enterprise. It is, however, publicly committed to animal-free research (“we do not agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of our products.”), and it posts an interesting video on Youtube about modern alternatives (linked in the notes below). It’s even been commended for its research policy by PETA.

However, as Animal Rebellion says, Unilever sells its products in countries whose governments require animal tests even for cosmetics – notably China – and the enormous volume of Unilever’s international trade therefore ensures that it’s still implicated in animal testing on a large scale. Unilever claims that “Doing good sits at the heart of everything we do”, but it’s the shareholders whom it aims to do good to first of all, something which a march round the City’s money-shuffling institutions makes more than usually obvious. And I doubt that those ice-creams, beverages, shampoos, soaps, and detergents, in so many varieties of packaging but otherwise insignificantly differing within their categories, do anything like as much good for their consumers. Certainly they aren’t worth the life of a single animal.

There are two other reasons for being wary of Unilever’s claims. One is that its newer animal-friendly values come after a very unpleasant history of vivisection. Work being done in the 1970s at Unilever’s own laboratories in Bedford was instanced by Richard Ryder in his pioneering book Victims of Science (the testing of shampoos and soaps in the eyes of rabbits). The same establishment was the scene of a mass raid and exposé by activists in 1984. In the trials which followed that event, one judge called the defendants “enemies of society”, and 25 of them were sentenced to a total of 41 years of imprisonment. More recently, in 2013, Unilever was one of a number of large food businesses said to be testing foods and drinks on animals, in order to justify health-claims.

The second reason for wariness is the bumptious jargon in which the company speaks to its public. “Our philosophy is quite simple,” we’re told: “Live from the Heart!” This is the explanation of “our heart-shaped logo . . . a sign that says ‘here there’s joy!’” How could one possibly trust this sort of sickening hyperbole, or suppose that anyone actually working at Unilever takes it seriously? The similarity of style with Cargill’s gush about “helping the world thrive, or the Marine Stewardlship Council’s vision of “teeming” oceans, reminds us that addressing the public on any aspect of Unilever’s business is a specialism within the company, a profession in itself; this is not the company’s collective voice, not even the voice of the company board. The heart-on-sleeve sentiment is just the fashion of the moment in public relations. It says nothing informative about the reality behind it, and certainly doesn’t underwrite that. Therefore the ethic which first persuaded Unilever and other such businesses away from animal-testing needs to be kept clearly in their sight, and they need to be kept in ours. That was the purpose of the mass visit on Saturday.

Nobody could put the case, or represent it in person, more authentically than the speaker at that point, Mel Broughton. As he told us, he has been putting and living the case for forty years and more: “I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.” In fact he was there at the 1984 raid on Unilever’s laboratories. Not that Mel was making a personal claim for attention. It’s the mark of his commitment to non-human animals that he’s simply purged of vanity and self-interest: a remarkable lesson in personality. And anyway, Mel’s immediate theme was not the past, or even Unilever’s reformed present, but today’s front line in anti-vivisection: the beagle-breeding establishment in Cambridgeshire called MBR Acres (the initials stand for the American owner, Marshal Bio-Resources).

Mel speaking

MBR Acres looks like a factory farm, and that’s indeed what it is, holding about 2000 animals at any one time in sheds with no outdoor runs. The dogs – beagles, because they are small and biddable, indeed trusting – are kept in a germ-free environment, and trained to accept inhalation-masks and injections. Then at 16 weeks or so, they are put into crates and transported to laboratories near and far for use in research. MBR beagles must have constituted a majority of the 4340 dogs used in British research last year, mostly for ‘repeated dose toxicity’ tests. These testing regimes may last for periods of less than 28 days, or up to and beyond 90 days. Such periods represent the likely remaining life-span of the MBR dogs, though some of them survive for re-use. The ordinary life-span of a beagle is twelve years or more. Yes, this is factory farming all right; it’s just that the dogs are being force-bred to be poisoned rather than eaten.

There’s a ‘Camp Beagle’ outside MBR Acres, protesting against, and as far as possible obstructing, the operations. Mel Broughton described the scene, with police crowding at the site entrance, and police vans escorting the MBA vehicles as they carry the dogs away: “We could hear those dogs crying in the back.” There are several videos online showing all this, in one of which can be heard a human crying too, a terrible addition to the distress. Film-clips also show the animals inside the facility, being crated and stacked in the vans. It was film of MBR Acres which is said to have shocked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She has demanded a re-examination of the use of animals in research, with a view to their eventual replacement. Very probably this project will fade into oblivion, as most progressive political schemes do. And anyway, as Mel said, “We’ve waited long enough, for 40 or 50 years . . . This has to end now, and we have to be the ones to do it . . . What all these animals want is liberation, and you are the people who will deliver that liberation. Don’t give in. Believe in what you’re doing.”

Mel Broughton is a most forceful public speaker, using no notes, prompted only by conviction and purposefulness. But as another notable speaker, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, said, “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” Can speaking, or even marching, get things done? Well, they do get things noticed, get things minded, and get things intended. Without those preliminaries, nothing collective gets done; with them, liberations have indeed been achieved in the past, and this of the animals surely can be too. But as Animal Rebellion says, “We must act now, before it is too late. It’s time to rebel for all life.”

Notes and references:

Animal Rebellion describes its 2020 occupation of Smithfield Market, and its thinking generally, in an excellent post here: https://animalrebellion.org/love-and-fruit-in-the-time-of-catastrophe-animal-rebellion-converts-smithfield-meat-market-into-smithfield-beet-market/

Animal Rebellion has published an open letter to Cargill here: https://animalrebellion.org/cargill-family-a-historic-choice-is-upon-you-planetary-destruction-or-climate-animal-and-human-justice/

The Marine Stewardship Council’s policies are described on its web-site here: https://www.msc.org/about-the-msc/what-is-the-msc

Unilever’s policy on safety-testing is presented here: https://assets.unilever.com/files/92ui5egz/production/5f08c41a40e03128d79e5a6161da28b5adb2c507.pdf/alternative-approaches-to-animal-testing.pdf  and the video showing the modern alternatives is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJWG3YCXT0Y  Its earlier work is mentioned in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, Davis-Poynter, 1975, pp.48-9, and a description of the 1984 raid and subsequent trials is given in Keith Mann’s From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007, pp.87-91. The BUAV’s exposé of Unilever and others in 2013 was published in the Daily Mail, as archived here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2345276/Food-giants-Nestle-Unilever-caught-animal-testing-scandal.html

MBR Acres is shown at work in a video made by Free the MBR Beagles here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1K08pAr_NvQ  Other material about it, and about Camp Beagle and the campaign, can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/campbeagle199/

Lloyd George is quoted from a speech given at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and reported in the Times for 20 January. The quotation has been used before in this blog on 26 August 2019 for the post ‘March of a Nation’.

The final quotation from Animal Rebellion comes from a general account of its 2021 actions here: https://animalrebellion.org/rebellion/

The photographs show the march setting out from Smithfield Market, the stop outside the Marine Stewardship Council (with police and pink octopus at the entrance), and Mel Broughton speaking outside Unilever’s headquarters.