Remembering What We Are

Today is Remembrance Day, anniversary of the end of global hostilities in 1918, and an occasion to recall those who have lost their lives in human wars both before and after that date, including the animals. The traditional Sunday service of remembrance at the Animals in War Memorial in London has not taken place this year, for obvious reasons. However, the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA), which has organised the event in the past, has now made a short remembrance film in that same place, which can be viewed online.

The service is modest and the filming wholly unpretentious. This is true also of the memorial itself, for all its great size: a literal-minded work of sculpture, it makes a plain statement that can’t be misinterpreted. And evidence that it is indeed appreciated in this same spirit is provided in the film by the worn grass patches clearly noticeable round the dog and the horse who escape through the great curve of stone: many children must have been stroking or embracing these life-like figures.war_horse_banner

At the far end of the stone wall are the words “They had no choice”, and these are rightly picked out by the camera at the end of the film. It’s a point made also in one of the inset episodes, a brief address given at his veterinary clinic in Kabul by the former soldier who has set up a most honourable organization called Nowzad to look after animals injured or displaced by conflicts there. These animals, as he says, “had no choice but to be there in times of war.” Indeed as far as I know no animal has ever exercised choice in the matter, whether caught up in a battle zone, or induced to ‘serve’ in some military capacity, or used in experiments designed to improve military readiness, or made into an offensive weapon. So even when the laboratory element is removed, as the most immediately culpable part of this wretched scene, there will be no end to the dispossession and destruction of animals in wars except by the coming of universal peace. Not the least touching of moments in the film is the final prayer for this most implausible of human possibilities.

After all, if anything were needed to convince one of the fragility of this hope, then Park Lane itself, the site of the memorial, would do. In this fine London thoroughfare there’s so little peacefulness that the minister has to shout to be heard. Behind her, the vehicles can be seen in ceaseless impatient rush. So violent is this mechanized activity, that at one point I mistook the racket for an ill-judged attempt on the part of the film-maker to provide special battle-field sound effects.

But then it might as well be war, as to casualties – and as to mentality too, I would say. Nowadays, in fact, motorized transport is a lot more lethal than war (though of course that may suddenly change). Among humans, it seems that somewhere between one and four hundred thousand lose their lives in war zones each year, whereas about 1.35 million die on the world’s roads. And of course here again the other animals are fatally implicated, though they no more wish to drive than they do to ‘serve’ in war. The numbers of animals killed in traffic accidents are hard to calculate, of course. Not that there isn’t plenty of research into this subject, but its concern is not for the animals, as this quotation from a paper titled ‘Large Animal Crashes: the Significance and Challenges’ will illustrate:

Injuries caused by kangaroos and deer are usually mild, whereas camels falling on the roof of the car cause cervical spine and head injuries to the occupant. The moose causes a typical rear and downward deformability of the vehicle roof. [Note how it’s the animals ‘causing’ all this damage!]

Therefore it’s hard to find estimates of total animal lives lost on roads, but one suggestion, for the USA alone, is 100 million a day. That doesn’t include the less visible animals, needless to say, the ones that certainly won’t cause deformability of the vehicle roof – insects and such.

And then, just as in war, it’s not only on the field of action itself that animals are made to suffer. So-called ‘crash studies’ have provided one of the most hideous episodes in the story of modern vivisection. In futile attempts to use animals, with their various non-human anatomies, as guides to characteristic car-crash injuries, researchers have used dogs, pigs, bears, gorillas, baboons, and other animals in ruthlessly engineered crashes. Although in some of these experiments the animals are said to have been anaesthetized, it’s likely that in many they were not, because the ‘crash’ effects wouldn’t be representative if the animals didn’t brace themselves before the impact.

The film Unnecessary Fuss, produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1984, showed another variety of crash test: the direct striking of animals to imitate particular effects of vehicle collisions. This graphic insight into slovenly and sadistic practices at the University of Pennsylvania’s Head Impact Clinic, where baboons were being use in studies of whiplash injury, caused public indignation. Together with PETA’s subsequent campaign against crash studies being made on behalf of Ford and General Motors, it eventually put an end to this foul class of laboratory research in the USA and also in Europe. Unfortunately, as PETA has recently shown, such research using animals does continue – in China at least.

Elsewhere in this blog, there is some account of the sort of animal-research which accompanied the rise of the railway accident, of space travel, of atomic weaponry. In all stages of the material sophistication of human life, animals seem to have been caught in the machinery, or forced into it – usually both. The poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said in a poem about the modern life of his time (1840s), “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.” But at least we chose to be thus ridden; as for the animals, they indeed “had no choice”.

The true situation is horrifyingly pictured in one of the great prophetic works of twentieth-century art, the painting Merry-Go-Round by Mark GertlerGertler. Here the humans are indeed ridden by the machine, which has spun them into a state of mindless half-savage commitment, well reflected in the blaring and unsubtle colours around them, but also they themselves are riding the animals. Yes, the animals are always there underneath, ‘serving’.

Gertler made the painting in 1916. The men are in uniform, regimented, as are the horses they ride. The artist himself was a conscientious objector, with a horror of war (the loom of another war seems to have been one of the prompts to his suicide in the summer of 1939). But the picture is about more than men and women in a mechanized war. It’s about modernity more generally, and the sort of humans it has been making of us: Homo demens, man off his head.

To all this, I recommend the ASWA service as antidote. With its unslick presentation, touchingly solitary minister, stray camera shadows, odd hesitations, even sentimental touches here and there (the poems), it is indeed a remembrance of the true pathos of mortality in which all we animals are alike implicated, and of the morals which belong to that shared situation.

Notes and references:

The ASWA service can be seen here: https://www.aswa.org.uk/news-and-events/aswa-remembrance-service-for-animals-in-war/

The estimate of human deaths on roads is made in a World Health Organization report published this year and posted here: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/road-traffic-injuries. Deaths in war are estimated in this abc news report from 2009: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=5207645&page=1. Both estimates are necessarily very uncertain.

The paper entitled ‘Large Animal Crashes’ was presented at a conference on human impact injuries in 2015, and is accessible here: http://www.ircobi.org/wordpress/downloads/irc15/pdf_files/42.pdf

A very thorough, witty, and sympathetic article about deaths of animals on roads, titled ‘Driving Animals to their Graves’ (from which the 100 million estimate comes), is posted online here: http://www.culturechange.org/issue8/roadkill.htm

PETA’s news announcement made in October last year about the research in China, ‘PETA Takes on China for Smashing Animals in Bloody Car-Crash tests’, can be seen here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-china-car-crash-tests/

The poem by Emerson is titled ‘Ode, inscribed to William H. Channing’.

Mark Gertler’s painting is in the collection of Tate Britain.

Horses and Thinkers: a Poet’s Vivisector, part 2

The previous post ended with Friedrich Nietzsche in Turin, his arms round the neck of an abused horse, and at that same moment falling decisively into the mental catastrophe which silenced him for the remaining ten or so years of his life (1889-1900). As I said before, it seems insensitive to go looking for meaning in what turned out to be the onset of insanity. But then the action itself was wholly right and reasonable. There was, besides, something emblematic about it, as if staged for a public enactment of the German word mitleid (= shared suffering, for which English has the less expressive equivalents ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, or ‘fellow-feeling’, or the still less satisfactory ‘pity’). And on account of this emblematic character, writers about Nietzsche have indeed attempted to make sense of the incident – asking, as one of them has said, “what it means for Nietzsche to embrace a horse”.

The puzzle is that Nietzsche had been so consistent in challenging the value and authenticity of mitleid, especially in so far as it was a part of the Christian moral heritage. In some of the last words he wrote, Nietzsche had said “That which defines me, that which makes me stand apart from the whole of the rest of humanity, is the fact that I unmasked Christian morality.” And in this attack on Christianity it had always been his principle charge that it promoted the anti-heroic qualities, the values that suited the weak and defeated, “all those who suffer from life as from an illness”. Correspondingly, it impeded the rise towards perfection, towards Munch's Nietzschein fact the ‘superman’, of their antithesis, “the proud, well-constituted man . . . who says ‘yea’ to life”. These quotations come from the autobiography whose very title, Ecce Homo (‘Behold the man!’, the words with which Pontius Pilate is said to have presented Jesus to the crowd), announces the anti-moral coup which the author claims to have effected. And the most prized human quality represented by Jesus, at least in his posthumous career, the quality which Nietzsche scathingly refers to as Christianity’s moral value per se, is selfless “love of neighbour (neighbouritis!)”. In fact it’s a “religion of pity”. But as Nietzsche wrote in The Joyous Science (1882), “to live – that means: to be cruel and implacable to all that is old and feeble in us, and not only in us . . . our greatness is also our ruthlessness.”

In his earlier days, Nietzsche’s philosophical hero had been Arthur Schopenhauer, of whom he said, in an essay of 1874, “The joy of living on this earth is increased by the existence of such a man.” (Schopenhauer had died in 1860, but even today one might say the same, as I hope to have shown in the post about him titled ‘Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog’, which is linked in the notes below.) It was Schopenhauer’s plain-spoken atheism that had first impressed Nietzsche. But as well as being the first modern Western philosopher to leave no place for Christianity in his world-view, Schopenhauer had been the first to insist on a place for animals – and not just spare or concessionary accommodation (as if to say, they can tag along too), but a place in no essential way distinct from or secondary to our own. And it’s clear that in his admiration for Schopenhauer’s intellectual achievements, Nietzsche had been influenced by that aspect of his thought. In this “strong and masterful spirit”, he wrote, “we see a sufferer and a kinsman to suffering”, and he had generalized thus: “The deeper minds of all ages have had pity for animals, because they suffer from life and have not the power to . . . understand their being metaphysically.”

But Nietzsche did not follow up this line of thinking, nor did he maintain his whole-hearted admiration for Schopenhauer. Often enough he did speak of animals, especially in his greatest work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5), but not as beings of interest in themselves. Those animals that surround and indeed speak to the prophet in the final scenes of that book – eagle, lion, small birds – are really just aspects of his own thought or state of mind (another use we put them to). And now in this same work Schopenhauer himself is re-introduced, anonymously as the “prophet of the great weariness” (a reference to his supposed pessimism). This caricatured Schopenhauer warns Zarathustra “I come to seduce you to your ultimate sin”, and the sin in question – so he tells Zarathustra “from an overflowing heart” (Nietzsche knowingly libels his old hero in this sentimental image) – is Mitleid!Of course Zarathustra is not seduced. Indeed, it is part of the gift of wisdom which he is said to be bringing to mankind that humans have a destiny which will entail leaving the animals behind: “I teach you the Superman . . . Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss.”

That ‘abyss’ is presumably the absence in the universe of any moral or other meaning except such as mankind himself brings to it as part of his own chosen mission. Therefore when Nietzsche turned most explicitly against his former hero, which he did in The Joyous Science, it was not just the mitleid (“the nonsense about compassion”) that he repudiated, but Schopenhauer’s ambition “to be the unriddler of the world”. He dismissed all that as “mysterious pomp”.

I’ve sketched out that ‘unriddling’ in the post already mentioned, but to provide an even more perfunctory sketch of it here I can say that Schopenhauer argued (following his mentor Emmanuel Kant) that we live in a world of appearances only, a partial reality, because as dwellers in time and space that is all we are equipped to perceive. Behind what we can perceive is reality itself, what Schopenhauer calls “the inner nature of things”. But then he shows that we can, by personal introspection, at least indirectly glimpse what it is that constitutes this reality, namely ‘will’: not a purposeful or well-intentioned will, like God’s, not even a conscious will, but a blindly creative push, of which everything in the world of time and space, everything material, is a helpless product and phenomenon, notably (but not exclusively) every living thing. Nietzsche mocked this theory for its “mystical embarrassments”, one of which was the implication that “the will to life is present in every being, even the slightest, wholly and undivided . . . the multiplicity of individuals is an illusion.” He was actually quoting Schopenhauer there, and it was indeed in this “metaphysical unity of life . . . the ultimate truth that we are all one and the same entity” that Schopenhauer claimed to have found the basis of all morality. Mitleid was not just a generous sentiment; it was a fact about the world.

Back to Nietzsche in Turin, then. This man who had not only repudiated the morality of compassion, but saw himself as the unique embodiment of that emancipation (“I am not a man, I am dynamite”, he had just said in the last pages of his last book, Ecce Homo), flings himself upon the neck of a suffering work-horse and shares its sorrow in a flood of tears. What can be made of this scene, supposing one is entitled to make anything of it?

The biographer Curtis Cate interprets it as a purely personal reaction: Nietzsche recognized in the horse’s ordeal, he says, all the many “humiliating slights and physical sufferings” of his own life. But such a reading introduces an element of self-pity, a sentiment which had at all times been completely alien to Nietzsche’s personality as well as to his philosophy.

A more convincing account is given by Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Near the end of that story, while the woman Tereza sits comforting a loved dog who is dying of cancer, she thinks about the terrible history of human relations with animals. In particular she thinks about the “dominion” so dangerously vouchsafed to man in the Book of Genesis, and that concept of animals as machines with which the philosopher Rene Descartes helped to weaponize it. The author contemplates this image of the woman turning against her kind in sympathy with the animals, and says “Another image also comes to mind: Nietzsche leaving his hotel in Turin.” He describes the incident and then says, “I feel his gesture has broad implications.” Firstly, “Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes.” But more generally it signalled “his final break with mankind”.

And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, ‘the master and proprietor of nature’ [so Descartes called us], marches onward.

It’s a beautiful and sympathetic exposition. I shall just add to it that in a letter of 1880 Nietzsche spoke to a friend about the isolation which his “path in life and thought” had entailed for him, and he said that “even now the whole of my philosophy totters after one hour’s sympathetic intercourse even with total strangers!” If his chosen path in life asked too much of him, so too did his philosophy, at least that part of it which made ruthless mastery of self and world, against every odds of pain and scruple, the measure of human success. More importantly (and one might say fortunately) it asked too much of humanity. In fact I would say that the Turin incident stands as a vivid repudiation of every philosophy or ethic which fails to take into account the clamouring presence in the world of all those beings who inhabited it for so many countless millennia before humans put in their appearance.

And that same impossible demand conditions John Davidson’s Testament of a Vivisector, the poem which I wrote about in the previous post and unfortunately undertook to make some sense of now. As I said there, this poem has a lot of Nietzsche-thinking in it, notably the strained contempt for “vulgar tenderness” and the self-punishing enthusiasm for “Discomfort, pain, affliction, agony” as creative media – in this case, creative of scientific discovery. But as the vivisector sets about experimenting upon his subject, an abused horse of the Turin kind, he faces a preliminary “riddle”: how is it that this ruined animal, “gelded, bitted, scourged, starved, dying”, actually persists in living – is in fact “Laden with lust of life”?

The answer he finds is straight out of Schopenhauer. The horse, just like the man, is driven forward by “Matter’s stolid will”: that is, by the will which animates all material phenomena. Neither has choice in the matter. Horse and man are in every essential way equals in suffering – for it’s made very clear that the vivisector is suffering. But then he imputes a purpose or at least a direction to this unfeeling will (something Schopenhauer expressly denied): it will become gloriously aware of itself at last through human intelligence. And so committed is he to this fantasy of a momentous culmination – his equivalent for Nietzsche’s goal of the ‘superman’ – that he blinds himself to the real and certain truth of that solidarity in suffering, the mitleid. The poem leaves him fixed there, with all the data but not the intuition for the Turin revelation – where vivisection itself still is, in fact.

Incidentally, in his essay titled The Basis of Morality, where Schopenhauer shows that mitleid is indeed that ‘basis’, he lists among the “odious and revolting” practices which violate it both vivisection and the beating of draught-horses.

schopenhauer engraving

Notes and references:

The quotation “what it means . . .” comes from the book Nietzsche in Italy, ed. Thomas Harrison, ANMA Libri, 1988, p.124. Actually the words there are “What it means for a Nietzsche to embrace a horse”, but I excised that rather pretentious ‘a’.

Quotations in para 2 are from Ecce Homo (Nietzshe’s last book, written in 1888 and first published in 1908) in the Wordsworth Classics edition titled Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony Ludovici, p.258-60; Beyond Good and Evil, transl. Helen Zimmern, Modern Library (n.d., first published 1886), p.69; and The Joyous Science, transl. R. Kevin Hill, Penguin Books, 2018, pp.217 and 275.

Quotations in para 3 are from the essay ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, which in its German form was originally published as part 2 of Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen in 1874, but in this case come from an English edition, Thoughts out of Season, transl. Adrian Collins, published by T.N.Foulis, 1909, pp. 116, 128, and 149.

The earlier post about Schopenhauer is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/schopenhauer-and-the-chained-dog/.

Quotations in para 4 are from Thus Spake Zarathustra, transl. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 255, 41, and 43.

Nietzsche’s attack on Schopenhauer’s philosophy comes in The Joyous Science, as cited above, pp. 107-8. Schopenhauer himself is quoted from The World as Will and Representation, transl. E.F.J Payne, Dover Publications, 1969, vol.1, p. 274; also from The Basis of Morality, transl. Arthur Bullock, Allen and Unwin, 1915, pp. 274-5. The original German editions were first published in 1819 and 1840 respectively.

The fine biography Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate (Hutchinson, 2002), describes and interprets the Turin incident on p.550. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber, 1984) is quoted at p. 282.

Nietzsche’s letter is quoted from Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, transl. Anthony Ludovici, Heinemann, 1921, p. 131.

The quotation from Schopenhauer’s The Basis of Morality (text already cited above) is at pp. 94-5.

The portrait of Nietzsche was painted in 1906 by Edvard Munch (Thiel Gallery, Stockholm). Schopenhauer is shown in a detail from an engraving made from the painting of 1815 by Ludwig Ruhl (collection of the Frankfurt University Library).

Cutting out a Path to Knowledge: a Poet’s Vivisector

The poet John Davidson, who enjoyed a period of literary success in the 1890s but then fell out of fashion, is still sometimes to be found in anthologies. Most usually it’s with his fine poem ‘The Last Journey’ – actually the epilogue to a much longer piece – in which the speaker sets out on a walk toward his death (for Davidson believed in rightly timed suicide, and showed that he did in 1909):

I knew it in my heart my days were done.
I took my staff in hand; I took the road,
And wandered out to seek my last abode.

Or sometimes it’ll be ‘A Runnable Stag’. This is the ballad of a hunt on the North Somerset coast, starting with the hunters and their thrills, but gradually preferring the experience of the animal, who finally takes to the “sheltering ocean”, so that his disappointed pursuers

Beheld him escape on the evening tide,
Far out till he sank in the
Severn Sea.

Incidentally, that phrase ‘runnable stag’, meaning an animal of the right ageDavidson photo and size to make a good hunt out of, belongs with ‘research monkey’, ‘ornamental fish’, ‘heritage cattle’, and a myriad other fictitious species in the un-Linnaean system of classifying animals by their usefulness to ourselves. Davidson’s poem movingly corrects that way of thinking.

A much harder poem of his to enjoy – indeed to read at all, so harrowing is it – has the title The Testament of a Vivisector. It’s about 230 lines long, and was published as a volume of its own in 1901. This is the story of a single ruthless vivisection, told as a dramatic monologue by the practitioner himself. As we’ll see, it’s as much about his world-view as it is about his chosen work, but his work is the foreground of it.

Here is a man gripped by the “zest of inquisition”waiting_for_death (the unpleasant historical associations of that word are deliberate). The victim of his research is a broken-down horse just reaching the cat’s-meat end of his downward spiral of servitude to humans. The vivisector rescues this animal from “a raw-faced knacker”, and upon the horse’s living body he then starts “cutting out / A path to knowledge”, apparently in solitude and on his own premises. The whole thing would have been a completely illegal procedure, of course, even in 1901, but then Davidson exactly wished to picture an antinomian, a rebel against the pressures of conscience or of conventional decencies. In short, this is a man who “reveres / Himself, and with superb [i.e. proud] despite / Maltreats the loving-kindnesses of men.

I suppose that such a man might be called ‘Nietzschean’, and certainly Davidson was impressed by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he called “the most powerful mind of recent times”.

To dramatize such a man with such an outlook, Davidson thought vivisection an appropriate activity – with very good reason. For although there is histrionic exaggeration here, this man’s attitude is essentially the same one actually boasted of by the pioneers of modern vivisection a few decades before (they mostly learned to be more discreet about it after the outcries of the 1870s and 80s). Thus Davidson’s vivisector, driven as he is by “headstrong passion and austerity”, and “purged”, so he says,

Of vulgar tenderness in diligent
Delighted tormentry of bird and beast,

is echoing the words of the practitioner Claude Bernard, in his standard introduction to experimental physiology:

The physiologist is not a common man (‘vulgar’ is Davidson’s word), he’s a man seized and engrossed by the scientific idea which he pursues; he hears no more the cries of the animals, he sees no more the blood which flows, he sees only his idea and is aware only that these organisms are hiding the secret workings which he wishes to uncover. [from Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale, Paris, 1865, p.180: for the original French, see the notes below.]

Claude Bernard’s wife and daughters were repelled by this demonic single-mindedness, and apparently deserted him (they became campaigners against vivisection). Just so is it for Davidson’s vivisector:

I live alone: my wife
Forsook me, and my daughters.

Going further into the dark of his profession, this man’s specialism in physiology is one of the most unpleasant and most productive of ingenious cruelty in the vivisector’s catalogue: pain itself.

I study pain – pain only: I broach and tap
The agony of Matter.

The topic, we know, is perennial and boundless, or limited only by the ingenuity of researchers (a paper in the journal Science Advances last month describes how mice respond to the neurotoxic venom of the Australian stinging tree Dendrocnide excelsa). And here, for all his unsavoury hermitism, Davidson’s vivisector knows that he has “compeers”. There are, for instance, “those / Who tortured fourscore solipeds to carve / A scale of feeling on the spinal cord.” This must be a reference to actual research, but I can’t identify it: perhaps, since so many horses or other ‘solipeds’ were available there, it was part of the work being done at the notorious Alfort Veterinary College near Paris.

It’s to such “compeers”, then, that this vivisector feels related, not at all to society as a whole. The trajectory of his work reflects this professional self-commitment. We’re told that when he first practised his craft (“began to hew the living flesh”), his aim was “mitigation of disease”. Others like him were perhaps initially doing it “shrewdly as a livelihood, / Or to delight or help mankind, or make a name”. However,

                 in the end, to know –
Merely to know was the consuming fire
Of these strong minds, delivered and elect.
(a very Nietzschean company)

The vivisector seems then to travel beyond even that stage of merely inquisitive research. In his isolation, or rather his wretched partnership with the suffering horse, his own specialism loses human reference altogether, and becomes for him a model or instance of the way the universe works. The horse comes to stand for all material things, living or inert: “It may be matter in itself is pain”, he speculates, and that

                 systems, constellations, galaxies
That strew the ethereal waste are whirling there
In agony unutterable
.

He himself, meanwhile, is simply an instrument used by the universe to come to an understanding of itself – “In me accomplishing its useless aim.”

One often hears the phrase ‘what it means to be human’ as the claimed insight from some neuro-scientific investigation, or indeed from all sorts of intellectual and artistic endeavour. In this poem, what it means to be the universe pushes that anthropocentric will-o’-the wisp aside: preoccupied as we may be only with ourselves, we’re in fact steadily working for the equally unfeeling and selfish purpose of the universe,

          the infinite vanity
Of the Universe, being evermore
Self-knowledge.

Such are the last lines of the poem.

The Testament of a Vivisector was published during a period of very active controversy. The newly founded British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was running a vigorous campaign against the Brown Institution, a place founded and endowed fifty years back as an infirmary for sick animals but transformed by the University of London into what BUAV’s Frances Power Cobbe called “the headquarters of vivisection in England. In that same publication year, 1901, Stephen Coleridge, secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, publicly identified the London hospitals that ran vivisection laboratories (in his pamphlet The Metropolitan Hospitals and Vivisection). A dedicated alternative hospital, ‘the Antiviv’, was about to open in Battersea (as described elsewhere in this blog). These and other protests, projects, and scandals were to culminate in the second Royal Commission on the subject in 1906.

John Davidson warned his readers in a preliminary note to the poem that it would not please either side in this controversy. Certainly the story of the vivisector marking down the weary horse and putting it to pitiless use (without anaesthetics, of course) would be horrible for zoophiles to read. But after all, that was and is the main objection to the practice – that it causes pain to helpless animals. Davidson therefore puts a strong case against it as his very premise and story-line.

The case for it, at least as it is shown practised in the poem, depends upon our accepting the remarkable world-view proposed by the vivisector, that the story of the universe – or of ‘Matter’, as he sometimes calls it, for he doesn’t attribute mind of any sort to it, except via mankind – has been one of gradual and strenuous self-discovery, in which scientific humanity is the final and successful means. As to the pain caused, why should the universe mind? And isn’t he suffering too: “Have I no pain?” he rhetorically appeals. He even wonders, as we’ve seen, whether pain is not the universal condition, constituting indeed the grand discovery now being made through human agency.

If this seems an almost pathological condition of mind, a perilous mixture of self-mortification and human-supremacism, it may be taken as a fair caricature of the state of mind in which vivisection has made its case and found its justification. As I’ve already said, the vivisector fits naturally into it, and dramatizes it for us. It wasn’t, however, a mere fiction for Davidson himself. In his last substantial poem, titled The Testament of John Davidson, he presents the idea again more plainly: “Men are the Universe / Aware at last.” And then he takes it a step further into a terrifying simplicity:

It may be that the Universe attains
Self-knowledge only once; and when I cease
To see and hear, imagine, think and feel,
The end may come, and Matter, satisfied,
Devolve once more . . .
Back to ethereal oblivion
.

Here the idea emerges in all its megalomania, and the wilful alienation entailed in it leads naturally and tragically on to that last expedition taken by the poet in the epilogue quoted at the start of this post.

Megalomania, alienation, self-destruction: who could say that Davidson doesn’t carry his whole species with him on that ruinous journey? Often one feels that only a complex madness of that kind can explain mankind’s treatment of fellow-creatures and the world-habitat shared with them. I’ve said that Davidson admired the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (though with some reservations). It’s plainly recognisable in his portrait of the vivisector: the rejection of conventional (or any) morality, the trust in an “elect”, the proud willingness to take and to cause pain, the hubristic over-estimate of the human, the vaunting of solitude. In fact The Testament of a Vivisector may be read as a cautionary fable for that philosophy.

Nietzsche himself suffered, in his middle age, a mental collapse from which he didn’t recover, though he lived for another ten years. Leading up to it there had been a period of increasing megalomania; one biographer calls it “self-infatuation” [541]. But the immediate occasion of his collapse, the so-called ‘incident in Turin’, was the sight of a worn-out horse much like the vivisector’s being beaten and goaded by its master. It seems that Nietzsche intervened and tearfully embraced the animal, before being detached from it and led away by friends.

It may be impertinent, even in some way impious, to look for meanings in something done in a state of derangement. Not indeed that there’s anything obviously deranged about pitying a distressed horse (rather a sign of mental health, one would say); it’s the contrast of that tender-hearted action with Nietzsche’s declared philosophy that makes a puzzle of it – and it has indeed been puzzled over by critics and biographers. In the next post, I hope to say more about it and suggest a meaning to it which will help to make sense also of John Davidson’s poem.

Notes and references:

The poem was originally published by Grant Richards. I don’t know of any more recent edition, but the text is available in the Internet Archive, at https://archive.org/details/testamentsno100daviuoft/page/26/mode/2up

Davidson’s description of Nietzsche comes in his preface to The Testament of John Davidson, Grant Richards, 1908, p.18. The later quotations from that remarkable poem are at pp. 47 and 142.

The original French of Claude Bernard’s remarks is this: “Le physiologiste n’est pas un homme du monde . . . c’est un homme qui est saisi et absorbé par une idée scientifique qu’il poursuit; il n’entend plus les cris des animaux, il ne voit plus le sang qui coule, il ne voit que son idée et n’aperçoit que des organismes qui lui cachent des problèmes qu’il veut découvrir.”

The paper in Science Advances is titled ‘Neurotoxic peptides from the venom of the giant Australian stinging tree’, and was published on 16 September 2020. I don’t mean to imply that therapies against the very painful results of a sting from this source aren’t worth devising; let’s indeed avoid pain, but not by making other animals suffer it for us.

The story of the ‘Antiviv’ is told in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/the-antiviv-a-hospital-without-cruelty/

The term “self-infatuation” is used about Nietzsche at that time in Curtis Cate’s biography Friedrich Nietzsche, Hutchinson, 2002, p. 546.

John Davidson is shown from a photograph of 1896. The wood-engraving is a detail from Waiting for Death by Thomas Bewick; it was published in 1832.

Two Franciscan Texts and the Worm in a Wild Apple

Today is World Animal Day, an event currently sponsored by Naturewatch Foundation as a contribution towards making the world “a fairer place for all animals”. This year it has more or less coincided with the publication of a survey showing exactly how fair the world has been, at least for undomesticated animals, over the last fifty years. According to Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, there has been “an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016”. This makes the World Day emblem, high-WAD_logo_2016_RGBmindedly aimed as it rightly is at promoting a sense of human responsibility, seem more than ever a wistful phantasm.

The date for World Day, chosen by its founder Heinrich Zimmermann in the 1920s, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Even in his time, the early thirteenth century, St Francis was preaching the need, as Living Planet Report puts it, “to heal our relationship with nature”. Centuries later, just as humans were beginning to use the world up at a faster rate than it could regenerate itself (the Report makes 1970 the tipping-point), a latter-day disciple of his was telling an audience of scientists that we would not escape ecological ruin unless we took St Francis for our guide to sustainable living. Lynn White, a history professor at UCLA and a committed Christian, was addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a gathering in Washington on the day after Christmas, 1966 (his talk was published soon afterwards in their journal Science). He spoke of St Francis as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”, in that “he tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” In order to fit humans to give up that fantasy of cosmic favouritism enjoyed by them under orthodox Christianity (“the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”), St Francis had preached “the virtue of humility not merely for the individual but for man as a species”. In fact St Francis would surely have had that World Day emblem with the hand of God underneath, and man himself a silhouette among the others.

It was this heretical saint’s most remarkable miracle, Professor White said, that he didn’t “end at the stake”. All the same, “He failed.” Christianity held on to its conception of man as world-monarch. And that same conception, so White argued, was therefore inherited by Western science, which was, until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, practised as a branch of Christian thinking called ‘natural theology’, or the study of God’s mind in nature. Christianity declined, but that convenient self-image did not decline with it. Science and technology, “so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature”, have indeed been able to turn the image into a matter of blatant fact. White therefore concluded that “More science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis . . . We must re-think and re-feel our nature and destiny.”

Professor White’s paper is quoted by Esther Woolfson in her book published last month, Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species. The book is a comprehensive tour of our history and present days of divine-right monarchizing over the other animals: hunting them, eating them, showing them off, experimenting upon them, dressing in them, compulsively trading in them and in their images, corrupting them as fancy pets, and theologizing to keep them in their places (where Professor White comes in).

In short, the familiar pageant of misery and wrong: need we see it going by again? Of course, because the real thing itself is going round in an everlasting circuit, and besides, there are always new things to be made to see in it. And Esther Woolfson has a sharp eye for the humanly or psycho-pathologically expressive instance, being both an anthropologist and a person of imagination and sensibility. Her account of taxidermy and its grotesque byways (“a badly stuffed mouse in spectacles”, “birds and squirrels acting out faux-human weddings”) is a notably horrid example woolfson bookof her acuteness in this respect (I can’t believe that she was happy to see one of taxidermy’s “sorry memorials” used to illustrate her book’s cover). So also is her study of the hideous vanity-culture of hunting. She quotes Ortega y Gasset from a greetings card intended for the hunting man in your life: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted”. For she’s clever with vivid quotations; in his own words she pins down the crooked human nature of Harry Harlow (he of the maternal deprivation experiments). That comes in the chapter titled ‘Rights’, which is mainly devoted to the subject of vivisection, a word she does use in the text and the index. It’s a word that rarely appears in indexes these days (they prefer the polite ‘animal research’). When it does, I take it for a sign of candour, and this is indeed a candid, un-euphemistic book.

Esther Woolfson is also the author of Corvus, a vivid and fascinating history of her relationships with a number of crows living en famille at her house in Aberdeen (Corvus is discussed elsewhere in this blog). Perhaps by preference, perhaps on the advice of her publishers, she has used a similarly personal style in Between Light and Storm. The book is therefore as much a memoir of her encounters with places, books, and ideas, as an account of these things in themselves: “beautifully observed experiences”, as one testimonial on the back cover calls them (quite accurately). This format worked in Corvus brilliantly well, but then that was a book about her bird-companions and what she learned from them over the years. In face of the great disaster of human misuse of other species, which is her subject in this new book, the personal element ought surely to be purged away. Instead, it’s very much in the foreground, and produces a meditative, even whimsical, effect:

Questions stay with me – what can be inferred about us from what we choose to eat? [she asks in the chapter titled ‘Blood’] Do vegetarianism and veganism necessarily indicate anything about our propensities for virtue? If they do, which and what and how? They may, but then again, they may not.

Moments like this need the kindly editor’s blue pencil through them, but as I have said, I suspect that the publishers felt that this book would be more attractive to the general reader, its horrors more willingly beheld, if presented in this ‘innocent abroad’ style. Good, if they’re right, because while nobody can tell the whole wretched story, a large part of it really is well and unflinchingly told here.

The worst part of the story, namely that humans have in no essential way changed, is made clear throughout. The author writes on page 4 that the complex of beliefs which supports our assumption and practice of “dominion over everyone else on earth” has endured for three thousand or so years “like some lost-cause corpse hovering in cryonic vitrification”.  Two hundred and seventy pages later, having thoroughly illustrated the assertion, she says it again: “The ancient religious-philosophical arguments about human supremacy on which our lives and economies are founded seem as entrenched as they ever were, as damaging and expedient.” The book’s sub-title should really have been ‘How We Still Live with Other Species’.

World Day for Animals is an occasion for optimistic and purposeful actions in the manner of St Francis, and for the celebration of animal-friendly projects round the globe. All the same, reading Esther Woolfson’s book, and looking back at what we’ve failed to do in the fifty years since Lynn White made that address to America’s scientists, it’s hard not to feel restless in one’s own human skin. Here again, one of Esther Woolfson’s quotations fits the case very well. It comes from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, published in a collection of 1948 and titled ‘Original Sin’. Jeffers pictures the human species in its earliest days:

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world.

These pioneering humans discover how to trap a mammoth in a pit and cook it alive in situ. Around them, as they enjoy their disgusting triumph, is “the intense colour and nobility of sunrise”. Contemplating this paradox of beauty and delinquency, the poet says

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.

 

Notes and references:

Living Planet Report 2020 is published online here: https://www.zsl.org/sites/default/files/LPR%202020%20Full%20report.pdf. Quotations are from pp.4 and 6. It’s a very well-presented and authoritative document, though not of course quite Franciscan in philosophy: that is, it has the conservationist mind-set of viewing by species rather than by lives.

Professor Lynn White’s paper, titled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, was published in Science, 10 March 1967 (vol.155, pp.1203-7).

Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species is published by Granta. The book Corvus is spoken of in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/how-to-learn-about-magpies/

The poem ‘Original Sin’ appeared in the collection The Double Axe (Random House, 1948).

Life and Times of Moscow’s Street Dogs

The first animal made to orbit the earth was the Moscow street-dog Laika, sent up in Sputnik 2 on 3rd November 1957. There was no plan to bring her back alive, and in fact she died even sooner than intended, for after a short time her capsule over-heated. The contraption with Laika’s corpse inside continued to circle the earth hundreds of times, until its scorched remnants fell to the ground in the following April. A cinematic impression of that journey is the starting-point of the film Space Dogs, conceived and directed by Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter, and just recently released. The sombre Russian voice of the narrator (very sparely used during the film) speaks of a “legend” that the ghost of Laika “has roamed the streets of Moscow ever since.”

If that seems a whimsical sweetening of an unpleasant fact, the film soon corrects it. Even for a ghost, returning to those streets wouldn’t be much of a home-coming. Not just is the life there hard and unwelcoming; the film makes painfully clear that home, for these dogs, simply means elsewhere. They are never wholly at rest, always quick to move on, always looking for something other than what’s immediately there. Even when there’s food of some sort, they seem only half-attentive, convinced that it’s not what they’re really after. They tend to congregate in pairs or groups, but their relations with one another look fragmentary and unserviceable. This life on the streets seems like a dogs’ version of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

SpaceDog in car

The point is unhappily instanced in the already-notorious scene where a dog, the one whom the camera is mainly interested in, catches a young cat. It takes more than a few moments for the dog to kill the cat, with intervals of inattention. A half-hearted attempt is made to tear and eat the body, but then the dog loses interest. (This is all very hard to witness; if you watch the film, you may like to know that it occurs between minutes 26 and 32.) He doesn’t seem to know why he caught the cat, except that the cat was trying to get away.

It’s a scene which allegorizes the street-dog situation. Elsa Kremser says, by way of justifying the inclusion of such a painful episode, “It was important to show it, to show the wildness of these animals”, but it shows rather the reverse. These dogs are only vestigially hunters; they evolved away from their wolf-genome millennia ago, choosing or being chosen to make terms instead with the human way of life. In fact they exchanged their birthright of autonomy for a mess of pottage, as Jacob persuades Esau to do in Genesis 25, and with similar simplicity of judgement and unhappy results. And now on the streets of Moscow, as in other cities across the world, we see them deprived even of the pottage. The true ghost, then, is surely the ghost of that birthright deal; that’s what haunts them. It’s the half-glimpsed thing they’re continually looking for.

Into this wreckage of domestication came the Soviet space scientists, in their military trucks, catching dogs and measuring them to see if they would fit into a capsule, for they believed that the harsh life of the streets produced animals well-hardened for the vicissitudes of space-flight. The dogs were taken, says the narrator, “to a secret place far, far from the city gates” where further selection took place. At this point we are shown hundreds of today’s dogs in a kennels of some sort – standing in, presumably, for those 1950s cohorts. These must be strays, but they appear very much more animated than the dogs on the street, barking and ramping behind their wire-netting, urgently seeking to be noticed. Perhaps the catching and penning has aroused their expectations, reviving something of that old species symbiosis.

Well, if that was how it did indeed feel to the space dogs, the film shows how wrong they were. Their situation was in fact wholly servile, obedient to “the commands of a mighty king”, as the narrator says – more simply, to the whims of a predator, who happened not to want to eat them. What he did want is shown in Soviet archive footage from the 1950s. We see the space dog in prepchosen dogs trained to endure the forces of rocket propulsion, surgically fitted with sensors and other prosthetics, and finally sent up to try out for us the horrors of the journey itself. One or two are shown shakily resuming life on earth.

Although this archive film has never been shown before, it was evidently taken for publicity purposes. Some of it shows procedures which must have caused pain and distress, but there is no obvious impatience or rough Space dog science pichandling. The shots of the journey itself look terrifying but are hard to interpret. In fact this must all be viewed as censored material. As to what happened to the unselected dogs, we don’t know. Presumably they were directed into other and less picturable bio-science researches. Perhaps that is what those modern dogs in their cages are really waiting for. A review in the Guardian reasonably complains that we should have been told more, that these “unspeakable acts are presented without comment or context.” But it’s really the special motive of Space Dogs to keep human interpretation, even human comprehension, to a minimum. Elsa Kremser says of the street-dogs, “we realised we always think of them in relation to our world . . . But we don’t know their perspective! We wanted to find out what they think about our world.”

It’s this aim, unfulfilled as it’s doomed to be, that determines the visual and moral character of Space Dogs. Apart from the space-research footage, the film inspects the world at the height and bidding of the dogs, and at late or very early hours of the day (what Levin Peter calls “their time”). Humans are most immediately pairs of legs, striding off nowhere, or lounging space dogs picunpredictably, occasionally lunging out, occasionally bringing food or water. In themselves, these humans make little sense, loitering or gyrating round their garish lights and sounds, leaving their junk about (cars, balloons), but still the dogs are drawn to their vicinity; here if anywhere their own lives, it seems, will find their purpose. The film scrupulously refrains from suggesting what that might be. There’s no story-line here, no contrivance of any sort (though some editing of course there must have been). Accordingly, although there are longueurs (the Waiting for Godot effect), it’s an instructive and honourable film.

And if not a story, there is a sort of prospectus. The last scene shows some very young dogs, perhaps puppies. Someone apparently puts poison out for them, but one of them survives. Survival is all that’s required. So on it will go, the clumsy and shockingly costly re-casting of nature which has been our great gift to this world, and also, as poor Laika had to pioneer it, our absurdly hubristic proposed gift to such other parts of the universe as we can get at.

Notes and references:

For more about Laika and other animals used for space research see a former post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/.  The special element of treachery involved in research using dogs is very finely dramatized in Richard Adams’s novel The Plague Dogs, discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/the-plague-dogs/

Space Dogs has won a number of awards, as detailed on the Raumzeitfilm web-site, where there are also details of its release and distribution: https://www.raumzeitfilm.com/film/en-spacedogs.  The film was released on the membership film-streaming service MUBI this month, and some interesting pages are devoted to it here: https://mubi.com/films/space-dogs-2019

Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter are quoted from an interview with Cineeuropa here: https://cineuropa.org/en/interview/376799/

The Guardian review, with a foolish punning title, was published on 10 September and can be read here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/sep/10/space-dogs-review-cosmic-canine-mission-lacks-gravity

Pimping for Farmers

The feast of St Francis of Assisi on the fourth of next month will also be World Animal Day, “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. It’s good to see that this anniversary is noticed and promoted in one of the UK Parliament’s Early Day Motions, the one numbered 696. Although these EDMs rarely turn into actual parliamentary debates, they usefully publicize the concerns and special interests of the groups of MPs who sign them. So far, just 23 MPs have signed this EDM 696, but it was only posted in July, immediately before Parliament’s summer recess. In its final words, the EDM “encourages everyone to show their support for animals in the lead up to and on World Animal Day itself.”

Quite puzzlingly, six of these same MPs have also signed EDM 686, titled ‘Pig genomes decoded’, which takes a wholly opposite view of how we should relate to animals. The purpose of this EDM is to congratulate Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute on its part in establishing “the whole genetic make-up of pigs”. This is an achievement which will “enable more accurate use of gene-editing technologies to develop pigs with desired characteristics”; it will also “enhance biomedical research in which pigs are used as models to study human health”: two new ways of not showing support for pigs, then. The work was a collaboration involving “40 scientists from 15 laboratories in the UK and US”. It was led by Roslin in the UK and, in the US, by the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska, part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS for short: readers may enjoy recalling that the research establishment featured in Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs has the initials ARSE).

Roslin itself is a ‘meat-animal research centre’, but it avoids the crudely definite  word ‘meat’ in its publicity. Habitually it uses some variety of the collocation “animal and human”, as if we’re all in this together. Thus its declared mission is “to enhance the lives of animals and humans through world-class research in animal biology”. MARC isn’t nearly so tactful: its more expansive mission statement speaks of “high priority problems for the US beef, sheep, and swine industries . . . efficiency of production . . . a lean, high quality, safe product . . . the production and agri-business sectors . . . improving animal production.” There is no mention of animal welfare or animal health, still less any reference to that dangerously evocative theme “the lives of animals”. And this establishment, with which Roslin has been collaborating for at least ten years, has indeed no tradition of interest in animal welfare. As one of its scientists said in response to a complaint that the pigs were being over-crowded, it’s a “non-issue”.

The implications of this attitude were thoroughly exposed a few years ago in the New York Times by Michael Moss (the journalist who had made public in 2009 the true nature of ‘pink slime’ as a constituent in processed meat). He described in particular the various MARC projects aimed at increasing the profitability of cows, pigs, and sheep as procreators, and the consequences in animal suffering. There was the failed Twinning Project for cows, which force-raised the incidence of twin births, even triplets, but also dramatically raised the proportion of frail, deformed, or dead offspring, and created nightmare scenes at parturition, a hard enough business when only one calf has to be brought out (the Center pursued this project for 30 years before giving up). Then there was “pasture lambing”, a project to breed ewes who would produce and care for their lambs alone and unaided (no costly husbandry required!) wherever in the widespread Center lands they happened to be. Deaths of these purposely neglected new-borns – from starvation, hypothermia, predation – were up to three times the normally expected number. In the case of pigs, various gruesome operations on the wombs and ovaries of sows were tried, as a means to increase the numbers of piglets born and the frequency of pregnancy; for, as the pig-research company Agriness says by way of cajoling insufficiently ruthless farmers, “The difference between what could have been produced by every sow and what was actually produced means money lost . . . What about you? Do you know the productive potential of the sows on your farm?”

It may be that animal welfare at the Meat Animal Research Center has improved a little since 2015, the year of the New York Times exposé. There is now at least an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in line with other research establishments, though farm animal research is largely exempted from the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act which governs research practices in the USA, a fact of which the MARC has for years been taking full advantage. There is new accommodation for the pigs, albeit a grim concrete-floored barn with no sign of straw or of anything for the pigs to do except loiter. But a photograph on the MARC web-site proudly shows 13 or 14 piglets suckling a sow (the natural number in a litter would be about ten). They’re all on a metal grid.

In short, there’s been no change to the conception of science as force which animates this institution. After all, as its sponsor-establishment ARS says, food-production is “a continual evolutionary battle of humans versus insects, mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes and contaminants.” So it’s a war, and science is our weaponry. (Aptly enough, the land on which MARC operates formerly belonged to the military, which mainly used it as an ammunition storage site.)

Accordingly the research on reproduction being conducted there is altogether invasive in its thinking and practice. It includes the study of “factors that influence puberty, estrus, sexual behaviour, ovulation, fertilization, implantation, embryonic and fetal mortality, parturition, and early post-natal mortality”. The hands-on, or hands-in, “research efforts”, we’re further told, “involve regulation of follicular and testicular development, ovulation rate and sperm production, embryo and fetal relationships with uterine function, and identification of quantitative trait loci in both cattle and swine.”

This grotesque rummaging in the generative organs of animals makes the old-fashioned trade of pimping seem a healthy and life-enhancing activity. MARC says that its research into reproduction “includes both sexes”, and this is true of the practitioners as well as the practised-upon. Both men and women do this work: it’s hard to know which is the uglier concept.

Anyway, supposing one needed enlightening on this point, it’s clear that the attitude towards farm animals which Ruth Harrison challenged all those years ago in her book Animal Machines (1964) lives on in good health and funds. More than that, its scope is constantly expanding. In the UK there is going to be a Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock, which will provide funds from government and industry for “state-of-the-art facilities” at several research institutions. For Roslin this will make possible a new Large Animal [note, not ‘meat animal’] Research and Imaging Facility. This will represent (so its media staff say in their PR frenzy) “a quantum leap in infrastructure available to the animal sciences innovation pipeline in the UK”. Roslin will also be able to set up an Informatics Hub, which will propagandize and train farmers and others “in their delivery of genomic improvement”. The ARS publication Transforming Agriculture (2018) shows equivalently grandiose ambitions for the USA.

It’s a common defence of animal research that it accounts for a very small number of animal lives compared to meat-eating. For instance, the organisation Speaking of Research, by way of introduction to the recently published 2019 UK statistics, puts chicken and fishes at 90% of the total, cattle, sheep, and pigs at 1%, and medical research at 0% – meaning, I suppose, invisibly few. (Most of the remainder is wild-life killed by cats, another frequently cited point of comparison, though how it helps to justify animal research is unclear.) But that 91% has itself been a product of animal research. As Ruth Harrison wrote in Animal Machines, her 1964 study of industrial farming, “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.”

Nor can it be said that the research is merely corrective of problems, making an existing unpleasant practice more efficient; as we’ve seen, it’s much more ambitious than that. The leader of the pig genome project at Roslin, Professor Alan Archibald, is quoted in Farmers Weekly (4 July) as follows: “Pork is the most popular of all meats [really?] and, with a growing global population, we need to improve the sustainability of food production.” In so far as this non-sequitur means anything, it expresses the intention of promoting pork in the world’s diet. And in other projects Roslin likewise promotes other meats, including chicken and fish (as aquaculture).

To claim that animal research uses comparatively few animals is therefore humbug. It is present and instrumental at the conception, birth, expedited growth, and premature death of all the billions of animals accounted for by industrialized agriculture. I know that it’s been said in this blog often before, but this is one of the most culpable tragedies of animal research, that it is thus constantly and aggressively shoring up a diet which we now know very well is bad for the health of humans, bad for the planet, and bad for the animals, wild as well as confined, who have to pay for it with their lives.

I wish that EDM 696 had mentioned some of this (EDMs are allowed up to 250 words). It should at least have included the word ‘vegan’, last used with ethical purpose in an EDM twelve years ago. Still, such as it is, please write and tell your MP to sign it!

Notes and references:

The aims and events of World Animal Day this year are described here: https://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/. The Early Day Motions can be seen at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57220/world-animal-day and at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57211/pig-genomes-decoded.

The Roslin Institute mission, and information about its new facilities, are quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin. The cloned sheep Dolly was another Roslin achievement, featured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

MARC (full name the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/. Its research into reproduction is featured at https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/rru/

The New York Times article of 19 January 2015, titled ‘U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit’, can be read online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?_r=0

Agriness is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.agriness.com/en/piglets-2/

The Agricultural Research Service’s publication Transforming Agriculture was published in 2018 as its ‘2018-20 Strategic Plan’. The quotation about “a continual evolutionary battle” is taken from p.6, and the whole thing can be read here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/00000000/Plans/2018-2020%20ARS%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines is quoted from the 2013 edition (CAB International), pp.37-8.

The article in Farmers Weekly about the pig genome project can be accessed here: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/pigs/medical-breakthrough-could-help-farmers-breed-healthier-pigs.

A Belgian Artist Admonishes his Nation

Among the countries engaged in work on Covid-19 is the Kingdom of Belgium. “Research in Belgium uses animals to find effective treatments for Covid-19”, announces the European Animal Research Association (EARA), an organisation which promotes awareness and acceptance of vivisection in EU member states, much as UAR does in Britain. The animals in question include mice, rabbits, and llamas. Monkeys too, although the Belgian institution that has been using them in its work, VIB-UGhent (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie at the University of Ghent), manages to publicize its “important milestone in the development of a Covid-19 drug”, and specifically “the moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments”, without mentioning animals at all.

The EARA aims to induce such organisations to be less bashful. In fact a few years ago, when it wished to counter unfavourable publicity on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, the EARA published on that day a collective declaration of intent by Belgian science institutions to be more open (or at least publicity-conscious), on the model of the UK’s Concordat on Openness. VIB was a participant, perhaps without much enthusiasm. At the time (2016), the EARA said it had chosen Belgium for the purpose because “if we could successfully carry out this project in Belgium, then it could be reproduced anywhere.” That sounds like a chauvinist jest, but the thinking was that Belgium, with its strong regional identities and three official languages, would be unusually resistant to collective action.

Perhaps also in mind was the fact that the country does not have a strong tradition of concern for animals to make sense of such distractions from the business of research. It had no dedicated animal welfare law until the 1929 Protection of Animals Act, in which vivisection occupied just one article. Yet already Belgium was notable enough for its practice of animal research to be apostrophized by one of its most famous citizens, the artist James Ensor (more of him in a moment), as a “tormenteur d’animaux”. Even now there is no dedicated anti-vivisection grouping in Belgium, though since 1992 the excellent organisation GAIA has included animal research in its campaigning. But as a practitioner of animal research Belgium is not much less active than the UK in proportion to its population. And with about 2.5 % of the EU’s population, Belgium accounts for about 5% of the animals used in EU research.

Anyway, that 1929 Act had been preceded by several years of contention, to which, as we’ve seen, James Ensor had vigorously contributed. As a highly unorthodox artist, a pioneer of expressionism, Ensor had suffered many years of rejection and neglect, but finally he had become a figure of national celebrity, had even been created a Baron by King Albert. This recognition to some extent tamed Ensor; in particular, he destroyed all the copies he could recover of his savagely satirical print featuring Albert’s predecessor Leopold II as Roi Dindon (i.e. ‘King Dolt’). But his rage against disrespect of nature, and in particular against animal research, was never mollified, or gentrified as to its expression. In an interview at that period, one of those formulaic interviews which set the celebrity to fill in their favourite this and most regretted that, Ensor’s answer to “Ce que je deteste le plus” [what I hate most] included among other things “les vivisecteurs gavés de cruauté, bouffis de suffisance et d’insensibilité profitable” [vivisectors stuffed full of cruelty, bumptiousness and lucrative insensibility.] Incidentally, that French verb gaver, when used about animals, means to force-feed; it’s borrowed into the English of the animal-research world as ‘gavage’, presumably to help camouflage a very ugly procedure.

But Ensor’s most dramatic intervention in the controversy was his painting of 1925 titled Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs (usually translated as ‘The Vile Vivisectors’, but ‘shameful’ might be more apt). He was now in his sixties, and had generally turned away from painting in favour of writing and music. His greatest works were done, and it’s an indication of his earnestness that he not only undertook this sizeable picture (62 by 80 cm), but made a second version of it four years later, eloquently unaltered by the disappointing law of 1929.

With its chinoiserie patterns, grotesque and masked figures (including skeletons), and crudities in the tradition of the satirical cartoon, Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is wholly characteristic of its artist. Even the presence of the artist himself (top right in hat) is a familiar trope: in one gruesome painting, The Dangerous Cooks (1896), Ensor’s own head is being served up to a group of critics, two of whom are spitting or perhaps being sick. But whereas these various elements often create baffling results – one modern critic has justly called Ensor’s art “always compelling and often utterly mystifying”Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs has a strong, even blatant programme.

Reading from the left, a skeleton, on whose cranium a bird is spitting, bribes a compliant priest to endorse the practice which is dramatized under their hands by the convulsed James Ensor The Vivisectorsfrogs. The priest, upon whose head the same bird seems to be defecating, is with his other hand gripping the arm of a woman, presumably one of his browbeaten flock, herself consequently being spat upon. Her other arm is held by a skeleton doctor preparing a syringe. Next comes an even more obviously unhappy woman (or is she wearing a mask?), whose wrist is being held by a second skeleton.

These five figures seem to be ranged in contemplation of something out of the picture, so perhaps the roundel at the top is being imagined as a mirror reflecting what they watch. Here, anyway, a physiologist is giving a class, showing the inner workings of a dog whom his assistant is helpfully disembowelling. Ensor was not a believer, but he frequently used the crucifix as an image of unjust suffering, sometimes putting himself there, sometimes Christ; here it’s the lab animal.

Finally, at the top right, Ensor himself and three masked heads express their indignation by spitting at the repellent scene or its mirror image. “Infâmes vivisecteurs,” Ensor is saying with characteristic vehemence; “je vous crache tout mon mépris à la face” [I spit with all my scorn into your face].

Skeletons have always been seen, naturally enough, as disagreeable reminders of mortality. They frequent Ensor’s pictures as mockers of human pretensions and comforts. They are present at the fun of carnivals, or lounge in bourgeois sitting rooms. One of them waits patiently, with scythe to hand, for some doctors to finish treating their Ensor's human herdpatient. Perhaps most eloquently of Ensor’s outlook, in Death Pursuing the Human Herd the skeletons stampede an endless crowd of panicking humanity along the narrow streets of Belgium. In Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs the skeletons appear as sinister sponsors of vivisection, and at the same time reminders that medicine cannot, whatever sacrifices are imposed in its cause, save humans from death, though it may postpone death, a point that is perhaps being hinted at in the doctor’s time-piece.

Well, why not at least endeavour to postpone it, then, at any cost (to others)? Ensor’s answer is implied in the mood of shame, anxiety and defeat created in the painting. That mood is all the more poignant for the futile gaiety of the clothing, with its forlorn celebration of colour and natural forms. These are fallen people, a fallen society.

It’s an answer which, in its heroic form, was famously incorporated by Homer (if it was Homer) in the Iliad, millennia ago. Sarpedon, the king of Lycia, is urging his friend and fellow-warrior Glaucus into battle against the Greeks, and he gives two reasons for them to hazard their lives in this way. One is that to behave high-mindedly is the proper counterpart of their privileged status in the world; the one vindicates the other. They had an obligation to be, as Alexander Pope translated it, “The first in valour, as the first in place.” And the second reason is that to duck the battle doesn’t after all mean getting to live for ever; otherwise, as Sarpedon candidly admits, he himself would forgo the fame and stay safe at home. The best, the only wise, course is therefore to act reputably, “Brave though we fall, and honour’d if we live”.

A species could do worse than make that its motto. Certainly we may hope, and indeed strive, to stay alive, knowing as we do that eventually we must fail; what we mustn’t do is gain time dishonourably by making others endure the strife for us. That’s the infamy which Sarpedon exhorts Glaucus to spurn, and which Ensor angrily showed that his own contemporaries, so far from spurning, were thoroughly implicated in, as their successors still are.

 

Notes and references:

The EARA press release about Belgian research, which incidentally also provides a link to a map showing all such Covid-related animal research in the world, can be read here: https://www.eara.eu/post/research-in-belgium-uses-animals-to-find-effective-treatments-for-covid-19.  Its account of the World Day counter-publicity is here: https://www.nature.com/articles/laban.1025.pdf?origin=ppub. VIB’s own announcement is here: https://vib.be/news/vib-achieves-important-milestone-development-covid-19-drug

The EU Commission issued, earlier this year, comparative tables of animal research in the various member states for the period 2015-17. From those numbers I’ve made a rough estimate of Belgium’s position. See https://230099ef-af46-4cc6-b2be-415f0041b55e.usrfiles.com/ugd/230099_1c8721de340d4dee9b70acdc3c7afc8e.pdf

Quotations from Ensor himself are taken from the Les écrits de James Ensor (Brussels, 1921) p.131, and Ecrits de James Ensor de 1921 à 1926 (Ostende-Bruges, 1926) p.6. This second reference is for the interview, which may have been a device of Ensor’s own, rather than a genuine exchange. Some of the answers and indeed the questions are eccentric and fanciful, though the answer quoted is serious enough.

The quotation about Ensor’s art comes from a piece in the Royal Academy’s RA Magazine for Autumn 2016 by Michael Prodger, titled ‘James Ensor: a man of many masks’, and accessible here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/james-ensor-man-of-many-masks. Ensor’s later pictures are generally not much discussed, but Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is reproduced and briefly spoken about in Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s Ensor (Tashcen 2016) pp.87 and 89. She also mentions the second version of the picture. But of course there are very many books about Ensor, who is now considered one of the greatest and most original of the modernists.

The Homeric episode of Sarpedon and Glaucus comes in Book 12, lines 310-28.

Counting the Cost Again: the 2019 Numbers

The numbers for UK animal-research procedures completed during 2019 have now been published by the Home Office. The total was a little over 3.4 million, a fall of 3% on the previous year. That means that there has been a modest decline in the total every year since 2015, tending to correct the brisk upward tendency which began after the year 2001, when the number was 2.62 million. We’re now back at any rate to pre-2010 levels. In fact, 2019’s total is, as the Home Office text says, “the lowest number of procedures since 2007”.

Back in 2001, that 2.62 million number was the lowest total since the 1986 Act had been passed, the lowest in fact since the mid-1950s. The notable fact was modestly presented in that year’s report as the first of fourteen ‘main points’ in ordinary black type, after eleven pages of general introductory matter. By contrast, this year’s achievement appears in a special box of ‘key results’ on page one, a three-colour affair enriched with graphics of various kinds, the numbers being set in eye-catching 36 point type. Why not? It makes navigation of the essential information that much easier. But of course it also quite changes the reading experience. The feeling you get is that the Home Office, rather than merely allowing you to know all this, as in earlier days, actually wants you to know: wants you to know that the numbers have gone down, certainly, but also, it seems, that 57% of the procedures were made for the purpose of ‘basic research’ – not obviously a point to boast about, but getting the same vibrant treatment in that text-box. The remainder of the report is laid out in a similarly easy-read style.

No doubt it’s partly the ‘Concordat effect’ that we’re seeing, and have been seeing gradually over the last few years of these government reports: the fashion, that is, for a more bullish PR, which celebrates rather than apologises for animal research, cleverly extolling at the same time both its claimed great achievements and the promise to do as little of it as possible. It’s also, I suspect, a response to the two-yearly Ipsos Mori surveys of attitudes to animal research (the next one is or was due this year: see notes below for previous ones). These surveys habitually find that respondents consider themselves ill-informed about animal research and regard the institutions that practice or supervise it as secretive and untrustworthy. “Come See Our World!” is how the promotional organisation Americans for Medical Progress title their digital introduction to the wonders of animal research. It’s a slogan which the Home Office now seems to have adopted too.

Here, anyway, are a few points about that world, as it was in 2019.

Regulatory testing:

This is probably the most unsavoury class of procedure, conducted to satisfy national or international laws of one kind or another. It continues to make up about one quarter of all the experimental (as opposed to GA animal-breeding) work. It’s the industrial end of animal research, involving the mass through-put of animals in standard testing regimes. The products and devices being tested include medical therapies, but also pesticides and other lethal products, and the techniques used for testing them still include, astonishingly, the ruthless LD50 AND LC50 tests. Accordingly this category of research is consistently the worst for animal suffering. In other experimental work, about 4% of the procedures are usually counted as ‘severe’; in 2019, the rate for regulatory testing was 10.8%. We are told (on page 14) that ‘severe’ procedures are those which cause “a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health and well-being”. Since all sixteen of the “eye irritation/corrosion” procedures conducted on rabbits in 2019 were classified as ‘mild’, and there is an intermediate category ‘moderate’, we can form some idea of how major that departure has to be.

Moreover, it’s in regulatory testing that the largest numbers of specially protected animal species appear (“animal species appear”! you see how numbers and tables push the mind towards abstractions): for instance, 3002 dogs (85% of the year’s total) and 2426 monkeys (71% of the total). Not that mice aren’t the most numerous species here as elsewhere: 437,124 of them were used in 2019.

Protection of the natural environment:

Most classes of animal research have shared to a greater or lesser degree in the reduction of numbers last year; even the breeding of GA animals, which has been mainly responsible for the increase since 2001, shrank by that same 3%. One class which noticeably did not shrink was ‘Protection of the natural environment’. This accounted for 13,074 animals in 2018, but for 29,343 in 2019. The animals included 5821 horses and “other ungulates”, 898 birds, and 22,079 fishes. It’s a category of research distinct (at least for statistical purposes) from regulatory testing and from general toxicology. The primary purpose is to understand the health implications of pollutants in the environment, but a common associated aim is the conservation of species and ecosystems: looking after animals, then!

An article about this sort of research, published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms earlier this year, conceded that epidemiology, the comparative study of whole populations, “can provide strong statistical inference linking chemical exposure to disease.” But that’s not enough; to understand the ‘mechanism’ of the harm being done, it has to be animal research. In fact the article is titled ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’. You’ll notice the ambivalence of that last word: what’s to be advanced is both our understanding of poisons, and the scientific discipline called toxicology. This latter aim is the real subject of the article, whose authors wish “to shift the perception of toxicology as an applied science to that of a basic science” and thereby to “enrich the field”. This, they believe, can best be done by relying less on mice and rats, and resolving instead to “utilize diverse model systems”, especially fish (so “casting a wide net” turns out to be a sort of pun; don’t forget that science can be fun!). After all, they say, “The tree of life is vast”; why confine ourselves to “a few distinct branches”?

It’s a classic instance of scientistic thinking: calling in big science to fix the effects, while leaving the causes untouched. (We see it happening also in the case of Covid-19.) More to the point here, the article reminds us that there are always strong professional interests bound up in the growth (and resistant to the contraction) of any branch of scientific research, including those that use animals. That jump to 29,343 will have been good for some.

Roadmaps to nowhere:

Yet in fact both these classes of animal research, regulatory testing and protection of the environment, as well as toxicology more generally, should be especially amenable to non-animal technologies. That was indeed the main aim of a project set up in 2015 with the publication of a document entitled A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology. It was a collaboration between various government-sponsored agencies (including the National Centre for the 3Rs), academia, and industry, whose purpose was to promote the development and marketing of ‘NATs’ (surely a good sign that it seemed worth abbreviating ‘non-animal technologies’). The thinking was frankly commercial (further evidence of real purposefulness, sad to say): “The market potential is huge”, said the ‘Executive summary’. Correspondingly, the stated objections to animal testing were pragmatic, not ethical: its failure to predict for humans had “far-reaching implications, from wasted resources . . . to large financial losses”. As the trendy word ‘roadmap’ implies, this was a programme for the future rather than a survey; it was described in business-speak as “stretching towards a 2030 vision”.

Since we’re a third of the way along that road now, you’d expect the toxicology numbers to be showing some effect; you’d at least expect them not to have grown. But then I can find no surviving trace of the NATs project among all the other ‘roadmap’ projects boosting themselves online. What’s happened to it? The NC3Rs makes the document available on its web-site, but seems to have said nothing further about it since the day of publication. Another of the collaborating agencies, the Medical Research Council, makes no mention of it at all. More eloquently, the Medical Research Council’s laboratories were second only to the huge Francis Crick Institute as users of animals in research in 2019 (Oxford University came third).

That abandoned roadmap was part of an official programme of reform devised during the period of the Coalition government in the UK – largely the effect of having, however briefly, a minister in charge of animals in science who really wished to get them out: Norman Baker. Two other substantial publications had set out the aims of the programme and the progress being made: in 2014 there was Working to reduce the use of animals in research, and this was followed a year later, as promised in its text, by a review of progress titled Delivery Report. In fact the promise had been to publish such reviews “regularly thereafter”. But no others have appeared.

The number of animals used in 2015 was 4.14 million, the largest number since the 1986 act came into force. There’s been a 17% reduction since that high point – a return, as mentioned, to 2007 levels. Perhaps we must regard that much progress as the finished legacy of the Coalition programme, and now we’re left again with optimistic reassurances and pious references to the 3Rs. God knows there was nothing radical about that programme, but it had serious intention. To have let it lapse is a shameful delinquency.

 

Notes and references:

The report for 2019 and the separate tables of numbers can be accessed from this page: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2019 .

The Ipsos Mori surveys for 2016 and 2018 are reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/animal-pains-and-human-attitudes-the-new-ipsos-mori-survey/

https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/the-magic-sound-of-figures/

The Americans for Medical Progress digital tour of animal research was briefly reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/come-see-our-worlds/

Among the various responses to the statistics, the one from Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments is especially authoritative. It talks about the Coalition publications, which were also touched on in this blog when Norman Baker was the subject, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/vero-invites-the-greatest-man-in-politics-to-speak-in-oxford/

The article ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’ was published in April of this year, and can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7132827/

These are the three Coalition documents discussed above:

Working to reduce the use of animals in research (2014: quoted above from p.9): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-to-reduce-the-use-of-animals-in-research-delivery-plan

Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research: Delivery Report (2015): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417441/Delivery_Report_2015.pdf

A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology (2015: quoted at pp. 4 & 6): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474558/Roadmap_NonAnimalTech_final_09Nov2015.pdf

An Impulse to Break Open Cages: the Life and Works of Brigid Brophy

Hackenfeller’s Ape, Brigid Brophy’s first novel, was published in 1953 when she was in her mid-twenties. The setting is London Zoo, where humans and the world’s other animals come artificially face to face, and the book is all about that encounter, in particular the wrongs of it, not just of zoos, but of that whole power relationship which zoos make visible, also audible and smellable (“an odour shabby, seedy, somehow disgraceful: the smell of the caged animals.”). Wrongs, because humans, so far from having any special claim to the world, are themselves just another species participating in the great zoo of life. And the book presents them zoologically from the first, dispassionately noting their “characteristic calls”, “high degree of social organisation” and “courting rites”, none of it especially pleasing.

The hero of the novel – a professor of zoology and therefore well-placed to appreciate all this – is there to study the “courting rites” of the two Hackenfeller’s Apes. But when he learns that Percy (some “facetious spirit” having given the male ape this name) has been marked down as test passenger in a forthcoming space-shot, he rebels. Finding no support from his university, or from the press, or even at an anti-vivisection charity (these efforts are referred to as “field work in the habitat of Mankind”), he devises “an act of liberation” for Percy. It’s also an emblematic action, a model, in the professor’s imagination, for a comprehensive “exodus of the animals” from their confinements. That would cause havoc, certainly, “but he doubted if they would destroy as much as Man did.” Then his dream enlarges; he imagines breaking open prisons, even leading the damned out of Dante’s inferno, “up from their sunless circles to carry the gates by storm”. He pictures with exhilaration “the liberated march of elephant, petty thief and damned soul.”

Of course things don’t turn out quite as he plans. I’ll say a little more about that later.

Hackenfeller’s Ape won the Cheltenham Literary Prize in 1954 (Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net came second). Brigid Brophy went on to write several more novels, two plays, book-length studies of Mozart, of the artist Aubrey Beardsley, and of the novelist Ronald Firbank, a huge Freudian analysis of the human will to destroy (Black Ship to Hell, 1962), and countless essays and reviews. Something of that vision of general liberation is there in all that she wrote. In fact, in her writings and in her public life she was one of the makers of the 1960s and of the liberationist thinking which was the period’s ideological legacy.

She called herself “an impartial Lefty”, meaning impartial as to species, and it was especially in the case of the animals that Brigid Brophy was a maker of that era. Her Sunday Times article of October 1965, titled ‘The Rights of Animals’, effectively founded the modern animal rights movement (the article’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in this blog: see notes below). From it can be traced the revolutionary book Animals, Men and Morals (“we want to change the world”, said Patrick Corbett in its ‘Postscript’). To that book Brophy contributed a chapter mainly about vivisection, arguing – and she was a ferociously rational arguer – for a “Declaration of Independence on Behalf of the other Animals”, on the model of the human-centred one of 1776. The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Peter Singer, who then wrote his own book, the text that came to define the movement (more of that in a minute): Animal Liberation was published in 1975, and has been in print ever since.

And now at last there is a book about Brigid Brophy herself, giving proper attention to all the various contributions she made to the intellectual culture of her times. Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is a collection of essays by academics, fellow-writers, and fellow-campaigners, with lastly a moving account by her daughter, Kate Levey, of Brophy cover 2the awful ordeal of Brophy’s last years with multiple sclerosis. Kate Levey believes that her mother has been not so much neglected since her death, as judged unpalatable and alien to our present “huge retreat from progress”.

That’s a view which Gary Francione confirms in his contribution, titled ‘”Il faut que je vive”: Brigid Brophy and Animal Rights’. The quotation from Voltaire is one that Brophy herself used in Animal, Men and Morals, to summarise her claim for the primacy of the “right to stay alive.” In Voltaire’s story, the famously sardonic come-back is “Je n’en vois pas la necessité” (‘I don’t see the necessity of it’). But to make that reply, as our own species does to the life-wishes of all the others, is to speak as a “tyrant”. That’s a characteristically political key word in Brophy’s animal rights lexicon. It summarizes here the way we arrogate to ourselves the right to put a value, or very often no value, on lives which can only properly be evaluated from the inside, by the animals living them. And we know that these animals do indeed value their lives, that to live means (except sometimes for humans) to wish and try to go on living. The motivations of pleasure and pain are in fact there to help this primary urge succeed. Life, then, is the essential and “self-evident” right, as that 1776 Declaration acknowledged.

Francione shows that the great Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarian ethics, did likewise deplore the tyranny (he used that word) of men over animals, on account of the suffering that it entailed. But because his ethical system was a matter of counting pleasures and pains only, Bentham saw no essential wrong in killing animals, provided the pain of it was minimized, since the humans “are so much the better for it” (here one can’t help picturing this overweight man at his dinner table).

So humans do effectively own the other animals and can dispose of their lives, provided always that the animals’ “interests” in happiness, while alive, are properly recognized. This is the line of thinking that Peter Singer used in Animal Liberation and has held to ever since. It is, says Francione (with some over-statement, I think), only “a more progressive version of the welfarist position”. He calls it “neo-welfarist” or “happy exploitation”. The epithet “father of the animal rights movement”, sometimes used for Peter Singer, is therefore inapt (as Singer himself would happily acknowledge), because he does not argue in terms of rights at all. Brigid Brophy did, and Francione ends wistfully by saying that “animals would have been so much better off with a movement that had one parent – a mother – Brigid Brophy.”

The book has one other essay about Brigid Brophy as animal advocate. It’s written by the long-time activist Kim Stallwood, and its main theme is angling, that most unapproachable of animal abuses. Brophy gave the inaugural address as patron of the newly-founded Council for the Prevention of Cruelty by Angling (CPCA) in 1981. I’m glad that Stallwood quotes plentifully from this address, for it shows not just the argument but the wit and combative force of this remarkable personality. And two points in particular she insists on in this speech, as she always did. The first is that we should waste no time comparing and contrasting varieties of maltreatment. Fishing was not a special case as a ‘sport’ or tradition; it was simply one part of the “feudal, indeed fascist, fantasy” of human entitlement in the world, which had to be confronted by a “pro-animals-in-general movement”.

The second point is that we ourselves will be the better for it, as we certainly aren’t, pace Bentham, for eating animals (Brophy herself had been a vegetarian since 1954, and went vegan in 1980). Note that Brigid Brophy never spoke of animals with the sort of facetious condescension which the professor of zoology detects in that name ‘Percy’. She therefore meant it when she envisioned “a civilized country for humans and fish to live in on terms of reciprocal non-aggression”: if there’s a witty incongruity somewhere in that, it’s exactly a reminder that we are abusing lives which were never a threat to ourselves. As later published in CPCA’s newsletter, Brophy’s speech at its inauguration was given the title ‘A Felicitous Day for Fish’ (which Stallwood uses for his chapter title too). But at the end, Brophy adds that the day “is also a felicitous day for humans”. In Hackenfeller’s Ape, the liberating of Percy goes disastrously wrong, and may mean ruin for the professor, but he’s – unsentimentally, unemphatically – a better man, on better terms with himself, at the end of the story. If his “act of liberation” were indeed made general, then we too would be saved.

As Kim Stallwood shows, the CPCA and its successors have had little success, so that his chapter, like Francione’s, involves some sense of disappointment. But that’s not the effect of the two chapters as a whole, still less of the whole book, which puts together a portrait of a brilliant creative force and intellectual warrior (she tells daughter Kate that she has “fought all my life for one thing or another”), a woman undefeated except finally by the cruel disease. And although her animal advocacy is here timetabled into the two chapters, it was never merely one topic among others to her. It was as much part of her awareness as animals are part of the world.

By way of illustration, one especially diverting chapter of the book gives an account of the art form that she and the poet Maureen Duffy invented (a distinctly 60s thing to do): they called it Prop Art, they wrote a ‘[Woman]ifesto’ for it, and in 1969 they held an exhibition of 55 works which they had created to demonstrate it. Prop Art used ready-made objects to form novel and persuasive images. One of the exhibits (it’s pictured in the book) consisted of a polystyrene head, from Peter Jones’s department store, set on a dinner plate with an onion in its mouth, a carrot on its crown, and other vegetable trimmings, all on a plate with carving knife and other utensils at the ready. The title was ‘Tête d’Homme Garnie’. As the exhibition’s press release noted, it may be a “horrific” image, but then “if you think liking the taste of meat justifies killing and eating animals, why not humans too?”

Or finally there’s the essay (not actually discussed in the book) which Brophy was invited to write for a volume published in 1988 by the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. It was Goldfinchone of the latest things which she wrote, an account of the painting by Carel Fabritius of a goldfinch. The painting was not then quite as celebrated as it has since become; the gallery’s own website now rather absurdly calls it “the most famous little bird in the history of art”. The suggestion is that the picture was done as a trompe l’oeil, so that, hung high on a wall, “it must have looked like a real little bird.” And indeed such birds “were often kept as pets in the seventeenth century” (the painting is dated 1654). Brigid Brophy provides her own scholarly reconstruction of the setting and purpose of this “deeply enigmatic” painting. She does not use, for the bird, that pet-minded word ‘little’; she says “small”, or “about the size of a goldfinch in real life”. And she argues that there was indeed a real-life goldfinch being imaged. Therefore the painting ought to be called a ‘portrait’, just as Titian’s painting of an unknown man in a similar or equivalent pose, part of the collection in London’s National Gallery (to whose director, Michael Levey, Brigid Brophy was married), is called a portrait. This is, then, a portrait of an unknown bird. It makes a difference to call it that. And then Brophy writes,

About the status of the bird that Fabritius depicted there is no puzzle. He is a captive and a slave. Probably some human claims to own him.

Thereafter, as she makes her art-historical study of the picture, she keeps this essential truth before us: she speaks of the “slave bird”, the “solitary captive goldfinch”, the “abused bird”. Finally the art-object itself seems to be conspiring in the careless cruelty which has been the theme of her essay, and we are left pondering “the existence, once, of a captive bird and the existence, now, of the image of the bird looking out from the picture that imprisons it.”

This was a woman who detested and fought arbitrary captivities of all kinds all her life, but especially those that have characterized human relations with the other animals. It’s time indeed to recall what we owe to her, and to enjoy and celebrate her creative intelligence and pioneering courage.

 

Notes and references:

Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist is edited by Richard Canning and Gerri Kimber, and was published in May 2020 by Edinburgh University Press (264 pp., £80). The book arises from a conference held at the University of Northampton on that anniversary date October 2015.

Quotations from Hackenfeller’s Ape, first published in 1953, are taken from the 1979 edition published by Alison and Busby, including the title of this post, which comes from p.81. There is also a Virago edition, 1991.

‘The Rights of Animals’ was first published in the Sunday Times in October 1965; the 50th anniversary of its publication is observed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/brigid-brophy/  The essay was re-printed, with some additional observations, in Reads (Sphere Books, 1989). Reads also includes the piece ‘Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius’. There are other collections of the essays and reviews, and they’re well worth finding. Brophy’s reviews were highlights in the arts journals of her time.

Brigid Brophy’s chapter in Animals, Men and Morals (Gollancz, 1971) was titled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’.

Jeremy Bentham is quoted from his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Justice, 1780, footnote to p.309 (but I’m not positive that this is accurate; it may be the 1789 edition).

Where Oxford’s At: News from the Forefront

Oxford University has posted its animal research statistics for 2019, showing a total of 229,163 ‘procedures’. Most of these animals were mice (222,206), but there were also rats, ferrets, fish, guinea pigs, junglefowl (7 of these), and non-human primates (8). This 2019 total shows a rise of 4% over last year’s, and is the second highest at Oxford in the period since numbers became available in 2007. The highest was recorded in 2017 (236,429). Some UK universities that use animals in research have not yet posted their equivalent numbers, but Oxford will certainly head the list for quantity, with Edinburgh (198,517) probably second, and University College London (186,424) third.

As to the PSDLH (it’s a new Home Office abbreviation for “pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm”), only about 0.5% of the procedures at Oxford came into the ‘severe’ category. However, three out of the eight monkeys did. That comes as something of a surprise, since a paragraph on this same page headed ‘What is done to primates?’ gives a quite attractive account of their admittedly brief lives. Many of them apparently find the OU primatecomputer games which test their learning and memory powers “stimulating”. After surgery to remove “a very small amount of brain tissue”, the monkeys are “up and about again within hours” – a nice suggestion of bustle and purpose. The brain damage itself is “minor and unnoticeable in normal behaviour”. And so on. The photograph which is used to illustrate this tonic account (as reproduced here) seems likewise to discredit it, but perhaps the image is intended to represent active curiosity rather than despondency.

In previous years, the VERO blog has presented in tabular form much of the year’s statistical information, but there seems little point to that (a link to the page is provided in the notes below). These tables of numbers are always subtly misleading, since the larger numbers seem actually to depreciate the lives being counted: the seven chickens are more conceivable than the hundreds of thousands of mice. Then the numbers are misleading also in the appearance they give of dealing with an intelligible and consistent unit, the ‘procedure’. To some extent the university’s account gets round this problem by making clear that the number of procedures in 2019 was exactly the same as the number of animals: so animals are the real unit, and of course we know what they are. The fact remains that although a procedure may be something as slight as an injection, a point habitually made in animal research PR, it may also be a whole course of injections, yet still count as one unit. Oxford’s vaccine trials, for instance, take blood monthly from rhesus macaque monkeys. And of course there are procedures very much more gruelling than an injection. Counting by animals does nothing to clarify the haze over what really happens.

The severity categories do provide some guidance, since the Home Office requires that judgements as to category must “relate to both the duration and intensity of pain, suffering or distress.” Thus “prolonged suffering at a mild level should be considered [i.e. classified as] moderate, and prolonged suffering at moderate should be considered severe”, unless there is adequate time for recovery “between procedures”, or even for “habituation” on the part of the animal. The Home Office does, you see, grapple with this problem, but note the plural ‘procedures’, referring as it does to the experience of one animal and therefore to one countable procedure. So much for the procedure as a unit. It’s not a unit; it’s an undeclared collective.

The Oxford University numbers, then, are only modestly informative. Moreover, they necessarily leave uncounted the animal research which is implied in the university’s work but is done at other institutions, perhaps by private UK companies, or perhaps – science being an international collaborative enterprise – at laboratories elsewhere in the world. See, for instance, the university’s recent research on Covid-19. A New York Times news story about that research on 27 April, under the characteristically excitable heading ‘In Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, an Oxford Group Leaps Ahead’, told how a vaccine prepared at Oxford was being tested at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana, an establishment belonging to America’s National Institutes of Health. Scientists there, the New York Times said,

inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys with single doses of the Oxford vaccine. The animals were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus that is causing the pandemic – exposure that had consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab. But more than 28 days later, all six were healthy, said Vincent Munster [no relation], the researcher who conducted the test.

You’ll notice that this one brief testing project used at least as many monkeys as Oxford University have declared for the whole of 2019, and under a much laxer ethical regime. Whether Oxford actually requested this research or even repudiated it is not stated; either way it will have formed part of the research history of the vaccine.

Oxford’s own numbers haven’t changed much over the last five years – a few percentage up or down each year, with no discernible direction of travel. Contrary to the university’s assurances at the time, the new Biomedical Sciences Building did boost animal research after 2008, and was no doubt intended to, but now the numbers seem to have steadied. But of course there’s nothing stationary in Oxford’s science scene otherwise. Two very recent news stories illustrate the point.

Just last month the university announced a gift of funds from the firm Bulgari, purveyor of “perfumes that exude elegance” and other necessaries to the exceedingly rich. This money will fund two research positions and some scientific equipment, all related to the study and creation of vaccines. Another donation very recently announced was £80 million from the Reuben Foundation, which will support the founding of a whole new graduate college. It will be called Reuben College and will specialize in the sciences, including artificial intelligence.

These two windfalls are just the newsworthier moments in a general story of constant enlargement of science at Oxford, whose cityscape is characterized as much  by cranes as by spires these days, neither of them doing much dreaming. It means – to take the good news first – that animal research at Oxford is, proportionately, diminishing. Diminishing at present, that is: because – the more ominous implication – this boom in science might easily (would certainly, if controls and opposition were relaxed) come back round to animal research.

At the moment most of Oxford’s science news is naturally enough about Covid-19, and we’re told in the web-pages dedicated to it that “Researchers across the University are at the forefront of global efforts to understand the coronavirus”. These ‘Coronavirus Research’ pages include, somewhat incongruously, an interview with a professor of English, perhaps mainly to justify that phrase “across the University” (with its pleasant echo of a Beatles song). The piece is titled ‘Catastrophe, not war stories: how the Covid-19 crisis will be written?’ It’s good to see the humanities playing their part in keeping Oxford at the forefront of global efforts but, not surprisingly, the professor couldn’t really say what sort of fiction will be written about the pandemic, or indeed anything else very enlightening. She did suggest that, using war stories as our model, we should expect a “lag” before any such fiction appeared. Not too much of a lag, let’s hope, or the Covid pandemic may have been superseded, if there’s truth in a news story from China a week ago:

A new flu virus found in Chinese pigs has become more infectious to humans and needs to be watched closely in case it becomes a potential ‘pandemic virus’ . . . although experts said there is no imminent threat.

Well, well! Perhaps the university should send its experimental psychologists to that Covid forefront, and set them to understanding, not coronavirus itself, but this strange refusal of the species Homo sapiens to live up to the name it chose for itself.

 

Notes and references:

The main page for information about animal research at Oxford University, from which the above numbers and quotations are taken, is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

The quoted Home Office guidance on severity categories appears in ‘Advisory notes’ published on 1 January 2014, and can be accessed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276014/NotesActualSeverityReporting.pdf

The New York Times report is online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/world/europe/coronavirus-vaccine-update-oxford.html

For its brand-name, Bulgari uses a spelling which only makes sense in Roman capitals, Bvlgari, a pretentious device which the university’s press release religiously follows. The quotation is from Bulgari’s web-site, of course.

The news of Oxford’s work on Covid-19, including the quoted interview, is featured online here: https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Area/coronavirus-research

The quotation about a new flu virus comes from France 24’s online news serve here: https://www.france24.com/en/20200630-chinese-researchers-warn-of-new-flu-virus-in-pigs-with-human-pandemic-risk

The 2018 numbers at Oxford University were reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/oxfords-annual-numbers-with-added-mistakes/

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building is reproduced with permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office.