Fun We Had in 2020

Last year was a difficult one for many animal research laboratories (as reported in this blog: see notes below), difficult also for science conferences and other such networking. However, the Concordat on Openness, to which many bio-science institutions subscribe, held its end-of-year awards ceremony and issued its annual report as usual. The ceremony, held online, lacked the familiar prize-day atmosphere, of course, but the report seems as keen and boyish as ever. In fact Covid-19 has had some benefit for the Concordat project of “public engagement”, much of which is an online matter anyway, for as the report says, “One impact of the pandemic has been to increase the perceived relevance of biomedical and health research for the public.”

It’s easily understood. Conversations between grateful patients and the specialists researching their disease have been a common feature of animal research publicity. But now the specialist can address a whole grateful population feeling immediately vulnerable to the disease in question. In fact Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the promotional organisation which runs the Concordat, took early advantage of this “time of national emergency when people are focussed on their health” and commissioned a survey of attitudes to animal research during the first lock-down of 2020. This survey found that 73% of respondents would accept the use even of dogs and monkeys in research towards a Covid vaccine. (The percentage of those accepting their use for medical research in a similar survey two years ago was around 15.) However, since 29% of the same surveyed group (of 1,027 randomized individuals) opposed the use of any species in any research, it’s reasonable to conclude, as UAR admits, that “many people feel conflicted and remain uncomfortable with the idea of animal research.” In fact that percentage of people who object absolutely has changed little over the period of systematic surveys since 2014.

Anyway, the pandemic has meant that something stronger than the ordinary PR term ‘engagement’ was involved during 2020. Accordingly, the key word in the Concordat’s annual report is ‘share’: signatory institutions “share examples of their commonly used species”; they are congratulated for “sharing issues around animal research” or for “sharing stories on this subject”; they have “wonderful web-sites that share their use of animals with the public”. It’s not just a word, either. Three of the four ‘Openness Awards’ for 2020 went to projects which promoted public participation in some version or analogue of animal research.

Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute (the place which gave us Dolly the cloned sheep) had produced a ‘toolkit’ which enables children in school or even at home to carry out experiments using garden worms. The kit is punningly titled ‘Opening a Can of Worms’, because after all this is PR and, besides, animals are fun. But respectful fun, of course, and the judges considered that “this toolkit encouraged sensitivity in working with living animals to study behaviour.” Here, for instance, is the Roslin toolkit’s sensitive account of why it’s important to understand animal behaviour: “Animals give us companionship, help us do work, provide us with food and clothes, and they help us to study diseases and to make new medicines.” It makes you wonder what animals can have found to fill the time with before humans came and put purpose into their lives.

Southampton University likewise won its award for a ‘toolkit’. This one involved creating a mouse from craft materials and devising instructions for its proper care, a rather more appealing scheme, but equally aimed at familiarizing the young to the premise of such care: i.e. the keeping of animals for research. Both of these projects were clearly aimed at children (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs, 22). The Mary Lyon Centre’s scheme of participation seems at first to be similarly directed. It’s fronted with a trio of cartoon mice (for the Centre’s business is the generating, archiving and trading of GM mice): they stand on their hind legs, one combing its hair (grooming, you see), the others eating and drinking in human style. We’re invited to “Burrow into the secret lives of mice”. But the purpose is actually a practical one: to get citizen-observers to watch and record the behaviour of mice on film. From their data, an algorithm will be created enabling mice to be supervised and assessed automatically while in their home cages. This is in fact a project for mass participation. The cartoons, puns, etc., are just, I suppose, the ordinary dermatitis of PR.

The fourth award went to Reading University for its publicity about using llamas to research therapies against Covid-19. As recorded in this blog, Reading won an award last year for its llama publicity. At that time, the highlight was an invitation to name a baby llama either ‘Boris’ or ‘Jeremy’. It’s wholly characteristic of the essential disposability of PR that there has been no further mention (or none that I can find) of that animal. The centre of attention this year is called – in much the same facetious spirit – Fifi.

Along with 2020’s emphasis on ‘sharing’, there has been the usual battery of more ex cathedra animal research publicity. The examples provided by signatories include presentations at science fairs, community festivals, schools, clinics, and other public events. Within the institutions, and aimed at staff, students, and any other associates, there have been articles in newsletters, express mentions in interviews and recruitment fairs, citations in reports and policy papers, even “public-facing TV screens across campuses”.

This saturation of publicity is aimed at taking the unpleasant surprise out of the subject, and surely it’s an astute policy and must be to some extent successful. Still, certain aspects of animal research continue to seem, even to practitioners, too unpleasant to advertise, and the Concordat report notes once again (for it candidly does note this every year) that many signatories are showing reluctance to provide “information that might show their research or institution in a negative light.” The report advises them that this is bad policy, and reminds them of “the risks of secrecy”.

The difficulty has very recently been illustrated in the case of Bath University, one of the fourteen ‘Leaders in Openness’ chosen as offering examples of openness to the others (there were 122 Concordat signatories in 2020). For some years scientists in Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology have been researching new chemical compounds for use in the treatment of depression. A news story issued by the university itself in 2017, and up-dated in 2019, spoke of “potential new anti-depressant and anti-anxiety treatment with a unique mechanism of action”, whose “promise” was being excitingly confirmed by its “anti-depressant like effects in mice”. The story ends with a reference to the Concordat and Bath’s own commitment to openness on the subject of animals in its research. So yes, it has been open about the involvement of mice, but much less explicit about how they’re being used – that is, in the so-called ‘forced-swim test’.

Forced-swimming_test

This ‘model’ of depression involves putting mice (or, less commonly, rats) into cylinders half-full of water from which they can’t escape, and leaving them to swim or float as they will for a test period of six minutes. The idea is that they swim when they’re feeling optimistic about finding a way out, but they merely float when they aren’t (they don’t sink). A ‘promising’ medication is something that induces the mice to spend a larger portion of the six minutes swimming hopefully. The protocol for this experimental device, first put forward in the journal Nature in 1977, has been fully described and filmed by researchers at the University of Maryland for the Journal of Visualized Experiments. It’s all posted online, so there’s no secrecy about it. Still, it makes unpleasant viewing (despite the curious good humour of the young presenters: “Good luck with your future experiments!” they cheerfully wish us at the end.)

For that reason, no doubt, Bath University seems to have been disconcerted by a complaint about the test from PETA, which included a request to provide material from its own video recordings. The university’s first official ‘Response to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ justified “the research highlighted” without even specifying what it was. After further complaint, it seems that the university must have discussed the matter with UAR and been persuaded to provide a more complete reply, including the requested film clip. There are now, therefore, two ‘fact-sheets’ on the matter offered to public attention: Bath’s own account and, linked from that, a more extended general account, also with illustrative film, provided by UAR.

This is just the sort of defensive flurry that the Concordat report urges its signatories to avoid by arranging for their own material to be “proactively placed in the public domain”. And of course the advantage of being ahead in that way is that the material has a favourable colouring when it first appears; in particular there’s no suggestion of secrecy or embarrassment about it. It’s what the Concordat calls ‘owning the story’. By contrast, the successive responses of Bath University to PETA’s challenge have necessarily seemed defensive and palliative. We’re told, in a video featuring one of the university’s researchers, that those six minutes of struggle or helplessness are “mildly stressful” for the mice (though in fact the procedure is classed by the Home Office’s as having ‘moderate’ not ‘mild’ severity). The pathetic efforts of the mice to escape up the sides of the cylinder are described as “climbing activities”. The intervals of helplessness are called “periods of immobility”, as if a welcome rest is being taken. The inventor of the forced-swim test, R.D. Porsolt, more frankly referred to the immobile phase in 1977 as “a state of despair”.

That’s not a phrase the Concordat managers would recommend these days, I’m sure, but animal research scientists had fewer inhibitions in the 1970s. To publicize the UAR survey in March last year, the organisation’s director, Wendy Jarrett, gave an interview to an online science news service in the course of which she referred to that period as “the bad old days”. She spoke in general with un-strident reasonableness, and claimed that UAR’s aim was (as its name suggests) only to promote understanding of animal research, looking forward to “a time when everyone understands”, not to insist or expect that everyone should “like” it. But by ‘understanding’ she also meant acceptance, and in line with that she quoted the survey in which “some people said ‘just because I accept something doesn’t mean I like it’.” The main thing, then, is to dislike it permissively, or at least quietly. Accordingly, what Wendy Jarrett meant by “the bad old days” of the 1970s was not the uninhibited cruelty and profligacy of the animal research at that time, but the “animal rights extremism”.

That indeed fitted her account of the succeeding decades, which presented the science as a more or less autonomously progressive enterprise: relinquishing the more contentious uses for animals (cosmetics testing, or alcohol research, for instance), commitment to the 3Rs, showing and telling as much as possible to the public. It may be true as a mere narrative, but the plot is missing. What she didn’t make clear was that the explanatory force behind it all has been the dissent. If there hadn’t been active and adversarial ‘dislike’, who can say how little ethical progress would have been made, or what fraction of the UK’s supervising bureaucracy, or of the systematic apparatus of ingratiation such as UAR and its Concordat, would have come into existence? Despite all the tonic publicity now coming out of animal research, it must be remembered that the practitioners do not in fact ‘own’ the subject: it’s in public ownership, and what happens to it will go on depending on how much dislike of it the public feels, and what the public does with that dislike.

Notes and references:

Some of the effects of the pandemic on animal research laboratories were discussed in this blog last April: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/which-crisis/

A fuller account of the Concordat and its influence was given in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/12/13/here-come-the-concordat-folk/.  The 2020 report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research is online here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/files/8516/0733/9083/Concordat_on_Openness_Annual_Report_2020.pdf,   and the four awards are reported here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/2020-openness-awards/

PETA’s account of the Bath University affair, dated 1 December, is reported (with a link to a letter of protest) here: https://www.peta.org.uk/blog/bath-university-swim-test/?utm_source=PETA%20UK::E-Mail&utm_medium=E-News&utm_campaign=1220::viv::PETA%20UK::E-Mail::Bath%20Forced%20Swim%20Test%20Blog::::peta%20e-news

An abstract of Porsolt et al’s original paper in Nature putting forward the forced-swim test, and using the phrase “state of despair”, can be seen here: https://www.nature.com/articles/266730a0

Bath University’s initial response to the PETA complaint is posted here: https://www.bath.ac.uk/publications/open-response-to-peta-enquiry/attachments/response-to-peta-19-july.pdf

UAR’s post about the forced-swim test is here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/factsheet-on-the-forced-swim-test/.  The University of Maryland account and presentation can be viewed here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3353513/

An Oxford Story

Fifty years ago Oxford, like many other universities, was going through a phase of political restlessness and dissent, at least among its students and younger dons. National and local controversies made themselves felt on Oxford’s walls in graffiti of an anti-establishment kind. ‘F– Franks’ was painted in giant letters on the wall of Keble College, in reference to the recent Franks Report on the University’s governance. Balliol’s west wall was used as a lively social medium for opinions and protests. World peace, socialism, anarchism, and other noble futures were declared imminent with priggish self-confidence in countless rooms and halls: “the revolution’s here”, as the hit song said in the summer of 1969.

In all this, of course, the animal theme had almost no part. There was a University Vegetarian Society, but then there was a society for almost every strange interest. College kitchens would provide an omelette as the all-purpose meat-alternative for the very few who wanted it. As for veganism: the Oxford Dictionary addenda of new words for 1969 was recognizing hippy, fuzz, and drop-out, but not vegan, though that word had been in use since 1944. Academically too, the theme was invisible. The study of philosophy at Oxford was mainly devoted to linguistic analysis, ‘talk about talk’. Moral Philosophy involved discussion of key concepts such as ‘good’, and ‘duty’ in the abstract, or there was ‘meta-ethics’, which questioned whether our moral judgements had any communicable validity or were merely expressions of personal feeling, the consensus being in favour of the latter interpretation. Of applied ethics, a staple of philosophy departments nowadays, there was no official teaching at all.

As to the life-sciences, this was almost certainly the most profligate period so far in the University’s hundred-year history of vivisection (but no numbers were published, or even perhaps kept). The back parts of the physiology building smelled of distressed animals, and experiments using cats and monkeys in careless quantities were routine. After all, Oxford was a centre of vivisection in a nation which was at this time using about five million animals a year in its laboratories. To supervise all this, the Home Office was providing eleven inspectors.

Then in the Hilary Term of 1970 those same numbers were advertised in a remarkable leaflet composed by Richard Ryder and distributed by him round Oxford’s churches, schools, shops, and colleges. The witty and prodding text introduced the concept and word ‘speciesism’ (Ryder’s invention). Readers were told something about the practice and ethics of vivisection, and urged to contact “MPs, professors, editors about this increasingly important moral issue.” It was a heroic individual effort by someone who, as a psychiatrist working at Oxford’s Warneford Hospital, was taking a professional risk with it. And the University, in the person of Professor of Pharmacology William Paton, did indeed complain to the Warneford authorities about Ryder’s campaigning.

But there was by now a small band of people at Oxford, mostly post-graduate students, who shared Ryder’s concerns. Their thinking and their discussions were genuinely counter-cultural, as opposed to the ubiquitous bolshevism of student fashion, and together with Ryder they would soon produce an even more notable publication, the collection of essays titled Animals, Men and Morals (1971). This daring and momentous book would revive animal rights as a serious public controversy after a long period of disuse, and show also, by example, that the claims of animals deserved the attention of academic philosophers.

This ‘Oxford Group’ (again, Ryder’s coinage) numbered ten people – three married couples and four others – though for their book they had help and contributions from several other people from outside Oxford who were already involved in animal protection. How these ten met, and how they collectively created in that inhospitable Oxford environment (even today it’s not an animal-friendly scene) a corpus of thought which still reads with subversive power, is now the subject of a full-length book, The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye. This book Ox Group coverrecords, mainly through interviews with former members of the Group, the key relationships and influences, the discussions and the shared meals, through which their moral convictions took considered form. It’s oral history, then, and there is vivid and extensive quotation, with many telling moments recorded: the ethical ‘epiphanies’; the dietary adventures (“Peter and Renata for dinner. Protoveg stroganoff, noodles, peas, olives, white wine. Nice visit.” says a diary entry); the slightly bashful demonstrations outside St Michael’s Church in central Oxford (Richard Ryder was the only natural activist among them at that time); the intellectual walks, including the one that took two of them past the body of a bird, killed by traffic (“If that were a dead person . . . they wouldn’t just leave the body beside the road”).

That last quotation is from the recollections of Peter Singer, but the speaker and acting moral tutor at the time was Stanley Godlovitch, who had been already a convinced vegetarian when he came to Oxford from Canada in 1968, and was accordingly a key persuader. But yes, Singer naturally has a leading part in the book. He arrived slightly later than the others. Animals, Men and Morals was already in the making, and he did not contribute, but his review of it later on for the New York Review of Books led to his own Animal Liberation (1975), a more compelling title and in time a much more successful book. Accordingly Singer rose professionally with the subject more than any of the others, going their own various ways as they did.

However, it’s one of the merits of The Oxford Group that it shows the collectivity of the ideas at that time and re-distributes their ownership (as Singer himself, least arrogant of celebrated thinkers, very willingly does in his interviews for the book). In particular it highlights the importance of Richard Ryder, less famous now than Singer but in fact a hero of the animal rights movement, who in any other sphere of the UK’s public life would surely have been honoured in some way by the state for his services.

Then there was Roslind Godlovitch. Like her husband Stanley, Roslind was a strong persuasive influence on Singer and the others. She had already published a pioneering article in the journal Philosophy, which she adapted for her chapter in Animals, Men and Morals. This is a witty and polemical piece, still illuminating and authoritative now. She contemplates the contemporary ethical notion that, although animals should be protected from suffering when possible, their lives in themselves have no moral value, and she subjects it to a contemptuous reductio ad absurdum, showing that our logical course should therefore be “to exterminate all animal life.” She then suggests, much as Jonathan Swift might have done, how governments and charities could collaborate to achieve this end. But in fact, as she says with moving absoluteness, “there is nothing to indicate that an animal values its life any less than a human being values his” (the ‘his’ is perhaps of its period; the statement itself is surely for all time). Roslind Godlovitch, who discontinued her post-graduate research and wrote nothing further about animal ethics, is one of the five members of the Oxford Group to whom Singer dedicated Animal Liberation.

Richard Garner, the lead author of The Oxford Group, is a notable and well-published proponent of animal rights. In particular he has argued, as a political scientist, for the incorporation of animal interests in the political system. But for this study of ideas he has expressly chosen to be impartial as to the quality of the arguments involved: “agnostic” is the term he uses. That seems wise for a historian and interviewer, and the arguments speak adequately and indeed passionately for themselves, or rather for the personalities who are recorded as proposing them. But Garner has gone further and cast the whole story as a sociological study, illustrating “the social construction of knowledge”, or how humans collaborate to create ideas and give them currency.

It makes for a clear organizing principle, certainly, but I would say also an unfortunate one. It’s not just that the dead hand of sociological jargonizing lies heavily upon some parts of the text, but I shall take that first. It especially affects the opening chapter, which lays out the theoretical machinery and will surely tend to alienate the common reader and doom the book to the shelves of university libraries (though the price may do that anyway). For instance this, by way of providing some theory for the interviews: “The dynamics of an oral history interview is usually centred around the intersubjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee.” I choose this sentence partly as a sample of sociology’s habit of disguising the patently obvious in nebulous abstracts, and partly to illustrate the baleful influence which this habit of abstract diction has on ordinary nearby English: “dynamics is”? “”centred around”?

But perhaps more unfortunate is the incongruity between this study-bound theory and the energy, urgency, and sense of revelation which (as the book clearly shows us) animated the members of the Oxford Group. That encounter with the dead bird, for instance, so immediate and also so emblematic (Albert Schweitzer saw a dead insect as both a lesson and a real presence in just the same way), is part of a section intended to illustrate “the Role of the Gatekeepers”. That’s “in Farrell’s terminology”, Professor Michael Farrell being the chief supplier of sociological theory to the book – and the reader comes to dread his name, academically distinguished as it no doubt is.

I would finally add that, as David Wood argues in his chapter of Animals, Men and Morals, jargon is a notorious enemy of clear moral awareness. He titles the chapter ‘Strategies’ (i.e. strategies to conceal what’s really happening to animals) and shows how “a huge pattern of jargon” has been deployed with great success to obscure the realities of meat and dairy production. Again, therefore, the use of this sort of abstract and distancing language in The Oxford Group is painfully incongruous.

Still, the story easily escapes this theoretical cage, and it’s a fascinating, exciting, and moving story, whose importance is growing all the time. In his ‘Postscript’ to Animals, Men and Morals, Patrick Corbett (of Balliol, but by 1970 a professor at Sussex) says “we want to change the world.” How many of the restless spirits at Oxford in the late 1960s were thinking and saying that! So many of their projects came to nothing, and often enough it’s just as well they did. But here was one that most fortunately did not. Sadness we must feel that it continues to be relevant and urgent fifty years on, but profound gratitude too for the originality and fervour of that band of ten – and of course gratitude also, despite my carping, towards the authors who have now given the Oxford Group its proper history.

Notes and references:

The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye, is published by Oxford University Press, price £47.99. Please note that the date of publication was 17 December 2020, and this review of it uses a proof copy only. There will have been changes, and accordingly I don’t give page references.

The song quoted is Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which was top of the hit parade for a while in July 1969, but Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are a-Changin’, with its stern advice to “mothers and fathers . . . don’t criticize what you don’t understand”, would summarize the outlook just as well.

The new words are listed in the ‘Addenda’ to the 4th edition of the Little Oxford Dictionary, OUP, 1969.

The text of Richard Ryder’s 1970 leaflet is provided at pp. 44-5. Professor Paton later wrote a defence of animal research, Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research, OUP, 1984.

Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, was published by Victor Gollancz. Quotations are from pp. 168 and 164 (Godlovitch chapter), 199 (David Wood), and 232 (Patrick Corbett). Contributors from outside the Oxford Group included Ruth Harrison, Brigid Brophy (who partly organised the project), Muriel Lady Dowding, and Maureen Duffy.

How to Imagine Mice

The Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, is known for its research into the domesticating of animal species, in particular of the silver-black fox. The argument behind this research, which has been going on at the Institute since its foundation in the 1950s, is that there’s a characteristic ‘domestication syndrome’ of permanent behavioural and physiological changes which equips a species to live alongside humans.

But of course most of the animals used in the Institute’s research are rodents, particularly mice. Accordingly a second claim to attention – of a more popular kind – is the monument which has been erected in the grounds of the Institute to celebrate another conveniently domesticated animal, the mouse monument clearerlaboratory mouse. A bronze sculpture about two foot six inches tall rests on a plinth of about twice that height, the whole monument set in a small enclave or garden in the grounds of the Institute. The mouse is shown knitting the DNA double helix, a discovery which has been the premise of much of the Institute’s subsequent work. To show that this work has been a cross-species partnership between man and mouse, the human element is suggested in the much-modelled eyes and manly forearms and hands. As the artist himself (Andrei Kharkevich) has said, the mouse and the scientist “are interconnected and serve the same cause.”

You may wonder what contribution the pince-nez are supposed to be making to this ensemble. I suspect that they were inspired by the well-known picture on the cover of Beatrix Potter’s book The Tailor of Gloucester. Although the spectacles in that case are not strictly speaking pince-nez, the arms are scarcely visible among the whiskers and are not in use, so that the lenses rest on the mouse’s snout in pince-nez style, permitting him to read a newspaper as he relaxes from work seated on a cotton-reel. But then the look matches the The_Tailor_of_Gloucester_first_edition_coverhistorical setting of the story, which is the eighteenth century. At the Institute, the pince-nez seem wholly incongruous, a sentimental flourish.

Even if I’m wrong about their inspiration, or perhaps completely missing the point about these pince-nez, I would say that the artist should have avoided evoking that earlier image (of which he must surely have been aware). It’s true that Beatrix Potter’s mice and other animals act out human-like stories and are to that extent anthropomorphic. But allowing for that, the pictures are diligently true to nature, the result of careful observation and affection, to say nothing of their beauty as watercolours. By comparison, the Institute’s mouse, with its Mickey Mouse ears and lumpish form, is a clownish stylization.

But then it’s consoling to think that a lie doesn’t readily make for good art, and this monument is certainly a lie. It’s not just that the notion of the mouse ‘serving a cause’ is cant for exploitation. Even the basic idea that the monument is dedicated ‘to’ the lab mouse, or that (as one journalist has said) it ‘honours’ the species, is a sad hypocrisy. For the Institute of Cytology and Genetics is one of those establishments that not only use mice plentifully in research but also trade in them as products, and I can find no courtesies of that kind in either its science or its commerce.

For instance, one of the advertised specialities is a “new experimental model of depression and anxiety in mice”, prepared for use by means of “Chronic, emotional, social stress caused by daily aggressive confrontations, constant contact with a strong aggressive rival” leading to “complete indifference . . . anxiety, phobia, helplessness.” (If you wish to buy quantities of this model, the price will be “determined during negotiations.”) Or again, a ‘rat model’ of schizophrenia is offered, with guaranteed “prolonged maintenance of motionless cataleptic vertical position” and “shorter time of active swimming in Porsolt forced swimming test” (thank you, Roger D. Porsolt, for this ingenious 1970s innovation). The image used to illustrate this last product, of a rat in the “cataleptic freezing” position, upright in bewilderment and expressive of a life at the limit of its natural resources, would have made a much more honest and instructive monument.

In fact even that domestication research, which is generally reported on as a study in evolutionary processes, has a sound basis in commercial exploitation. There has always been an experimental fur-farm associated with the Institute, and the domesticated foxes, so it claims, take to confinement and human interaction – to being farmed, that is – more readily and conveniently than standard fur-animals. Apparently they also breed more numerously. No doubt these animals have an easier experience on the farm than their semi-wild relations, but their purpose and terminus are the same. (Prices, again, are by negotiation.)

Back with the monument. Journalists have willingly fallen in with its homely Disney-familiar imagery and have reported on it with their own moth-eaten repertoire of half-facetious, half-sentimental appellations: “unsung hero of science”, “furry lab model”, “the humble lab mouse”. That epithet ‘humble’, habitual in popular reporting of animal research, is an especially arrogant and self-regarding imputation. Really it means small (compared to us) and not inclined to bite (us): in short, defenceless (against us).

A brilliant riposte to this whole routine of condescension was made by C. S. Lewis in his character Reepicheep, a mouse who appears in three of the Chronicles of Narnia. The opposite of timid (“no one had ever known Reepicheep to be afraid of anything”) and of humble (“If anyone present wishes to make me the subject of his wit, I am very much at his service – with my sword – whenever he has leisure”), this fiery personality pushes to the front of every opportunity for “honour and adventure”, his dominant ambitions. In short he appoints himself a continuing challenge and refutation to those who, as he indignantly puts it, “weigh worth by inches”.

It’s a comical fantasy, of course, in books written for children (for adults too, no doubt), but it’s also a compelling and unforgettable statement. This is partly because, as with Beatrix Potter’s animals, there’s much in Reepicheep that is true mouse: the sensitivity, the quickness of apprehension and movement, the having to live alongside much bigger animals. And then Lewis was very fond of mice; he was pleased that there were mice in his college rooms at Magdalen, and speaks of them in his letters. He gives to Dr Ransom, the Christ-like hero of his sci-fi novel That Hideous Strength, a similar valued company in his rooms. Accordingly Reepicheep is much more than a comic turn. Lewis makes of him a convincing spiritual pilgrim. Near the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when that volume’s particular quest requires that one of the ship’s crew take the journey beyond “the utter East” and over the edge of “the Last Sea”, it is the mouse, paddling his coracle, who sets off into the current:

The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave’s side. For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep’s on the very top. Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. 

But they do see him again, because when the children and all the Talking Animals arrive at the golden gates of “the real Narnia”, at the Chronicles’ end, the mouse is already there inside, opening the gates to usher them in.

On the face of it, this mouse like an Arthurian knight in glory is even further from natural history than the Institute’s laboratory collaborator. But the fantastical consistency and beauty of the fiction acts as what Lewis himself called “mouthwash for the imagination”, cleansing it of stale habits of thought or rather thoughtlessness. And it forms part of a much larger corrective which the Chronicles of Narnia apply to human/animal relations. After all, the god-like judge and redeemer in the stories is a lion, and persistently in the course of the narrative the routine lordship of humans in the world is quizzed and routed – except, that is, in its proper form as a duty of care and rescue. The mouse Reepicheep is part of that revision or revolution, freeing the species from the character that humans – with whatever mixture of accuracy, levity, and self-interest – have imputed to it, or more radically freeing it from human entitlement to decide upon the nature and function of those or any other animals in the world.

In this light one can see better the meaning of that un-mouse-like dead weight of resistant bronze on its plinth at the Institute, laboriously fixing the mouse in the character that best suits the human. It’s not the image of a mouse at all, or even the composite one intended by the artist; it’s just another unflattering image of the mind of modern man.

Notes and references:

The Institute’s own brief account of the domestication research can be read here: http://www.bionet.nsc.ru/en/science/applied-research/domestication-of-foxes-and-problems-of-modern-animal-breeding.html. Other researches and commercial offers, including those quoted above involving mice and rats, are linked in the margin to the right of this account. The monument is pictured and described (with the quotation from Andrei Kharkevich), as part of a tour of the Institute, here: https://izi.travel/ru/94ab-avtorskie-ekskursii-po-novosibirskomu-akademgorodku-institut-citologii-i-genetiki-so-ran-s-sergeem/ru#0a8255f0-6b4e-408d-b293-5ab3f0d0aa53. Andrei Kharkevich is the artist who provided a design for the monument; the sculptor was Alexei Agricolyansky.

An example of journalism on the subject is this piece from the Smithsonian Magazine (generally sensible and informative, of course), which has the quoted word ‘honours’ in its title: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/russian-statue-honoring-laboratory-mice-gains-renewed-popularity-180964570/

The quotations from Chronicles of Narnia appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Collins edition, 1980) pp.112, 37, 159, 178, and 185. Reepicheep appears at the gates of the ‘Real Narnia’ at the end of the volume called The Last Battle. He is first introduced into the stories in Prince Caspian. The series was originally published in 1950-56. The phrase “mouthwash for the imagination”, from a letter, is quoted by Rowan Williams in The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia, SPCK, 2012, p.28

Minks, Fishes, Macaques: New Wrongs and Re-newed Remedies

The sudden ‘culling’ of millions of minks in Denmark and other European countries has variously been called, by practitioners in this branch of animal exploitation, “dramatic”, “incredibly sad and shocking”, and “devastating”. It surely is all of these things (except that a scientist shouldn’t be using the nonsense word ‘incredibly’), especially for the minks themselves, but hardly more so this year than any other. Most of the minks will have been losing their lives just a very short time before the allotted span, since only the breeding females are allowed to live for more than a season. The real difference this year is a commercial one. The animals are being destroyed not for profit, but because their crowded indoors life provides ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus. With so many back-up hosts immediately available, the virus isn’t even penalized for killing its present billet: hence the fear that it may be mutating into something even more virulent.

In fact the word ‘cull’, suggesting a judicious selection, perhaps taken out for the sake of the remaining population, is quite disingenuous here. This is a wholesale slaughter, whose start-to-end wrongfulness is only redeemed minkby the declared intention of some of the countries – Netherlands, Ireland, perhaps others – to prohibit this variety of animal-farming in future. (A current petition on the subject is linked in the notes below.)

To the slaughter on the farms themselves is added a sort of collateral population of minks: the ones being used to trial new and more effective ways of farming and breeding. It’s safe to say that every commercial exploitation of animals has this back-room population serving it. The ‘sad and shocked’ speaker quoted above was in fact thinking of his own team of 6000 or so ‘research’ minks at Aarhus University in Denmark. His work there has been, on the face of it, beneficial to the animals. He studies “the behaviour and welfare of farmed mink, with the aim of giving them a better life as they are raised for fur.” Even so, it’s difficult to think very well of this research. I can’t see that it does more than provide statistical backing for what ought to be the very platitudes of practical husbandry: for instance, that ‘enriched’ cages and gentle handling tend to give the animals confidence, whereas unpleasant events (such as brief confinement in a “small trap”) have the reverse effect, making them nervous and fearful. The conclusions of one Aarhus paper earlier this year were that “we would recommend farmers to (1) avoid negative handling, and (2) if [it’s] necessary to handle mink, to adopt the best possible handling methods.”

Perhaps there’s a bit more to the research than that – more promise of a “better life” for the minks, that is – but there’s also a good deal less. Such research is necessarily good PR for mink-farming, since it allows farmers to use these minimum decencies and claim, as the research itself does, that by doing so they “enhance mink welfare”. ‘Enhance’! So the minks are already doing well; giving them a tube to hide in, and not handling them roughly, constitute a bonus (I can find no mention of the water which these semi-aquatic animals have to do without). It’s not a surprise, then, that the funds for this research at Aarhus University come from sources that include the Danish Pelt Levy Foundation and the trade collective called Kopenhagen Fur (“ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare”).

Then there’s this emphasis on relieving the animals of the sense of fear. It’s a laudable aim, in so far as there’s general agreement that fear is the worst of the common distresses of captive animals. The cattle-slaughter specialist Temple Grandin says, “Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” But of course there’s a swindle involved here, for these animals have good reason to be afraid. Their docility, which makes them much easier to handle (and easier also to show in promotional films), is really a trick being played upon them, the wolf dressing up as grandma. The only honourable way to relieve them of fear in this case is to stop being the cause of it.

But of course the history of animal welfarism has largely consisted in managing the symptoms and leaving the essential wrong intact. This is partly what has prompted Dr Gill Langley, a dedicated specialist in non-animal research technologies, to propose in the latest issue of the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals that the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), a classic welfare initiative, have “had their day”.

These three “principles of humane experimental technique” were first put forward in a book of that title written by William Russell and Rex Burch and published in 1959. They have been part of British and EU law since 1986. Their consequences in reduced animal suffering can’t well be measured, but must surely have been very great. The book was re-issued in 2009, slightly revised in order to make it easier for non-English readers rather than because it needed up-dating. In fact the European Union’s “final goal of full replacement”, a commitment of 2010, is already implicit in the book, whose authors say with clear emphasis that “absolute replacement may be regarded as the absolute ideal”. They also, incidentally, devote six pages to research into fear and anxiety – still one of the most ingeniously nasty branches of animal research, and continually renewed in the search for effective, or at least different, tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Russell and Burch showed how such research might be conducted “without at any stage of the process inflicting any fear on the animal.”

But yes, the aim of the 3Rs has always been to minimize the harms of animal research, rather than to put what practitioners would regard as a premature end to the practice. Accordingly the 3Rs address only the welfare of animals, not their rights. And Dr Langley argues that many scientists have little interest even in animal welfare, except as a bureaucratic complication of their work. Outside Europe, in countries where the 3Rs have less or no authority, there’s not even much of a bureaucratic complication for them to bother about. (I notice that a Chinese scientist who studies bats and other animals as disease-carriers is quoted as saying “I don’t like animals”.) To engage the interest and commitment of such people, she proposes that the case should be put in its more positive form: “not replacement methods, but advanced techniques: no longer alternative or humane research . . . but human-relevant and human-specific: not 20th century, but 21st century toxicology.” In short, the 3Rs have “had their day” because animal research itself has: it’s out of date.

If only this were so! But, taking the human relevance first, there’s a whole corpus of research which can’t be human-specific, because, as we’ve just seen, it’s mink-specific or otherwise bat-specific or specific to any of the other species which may catch the scientific or commercial eye.

There’s fish-specific research, for instance, a mushrooming category already reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Unlike the research at Aarhus, very little of this has to do with welfare, and it supports a class of farming, ‘aquaculture’, that is briskly growing rather than, like mink-farming, in decline. Thus a report in last week’s issue of the journal Science, titled ‘Tomorrow’s Catch’, speaks of “dramatic gains for aquaculture” coming from new research. The writer seems dazzled by the numbers and superlatives: whether of fishes, farm sizes, dollars, prospects, they’re all cause for astonishment and congratulation. “Everybody in the field is excited”, says a scientist from Rutgers University. Someone from Hendrix Genetics (“Better breeding today for a brighter life tomorrow”), admiring the newly accelerated growth-rates of farmed salmon, says “My colleagues in poultry can only dream of these kinds of percentages.” And you can be certain they are dreaming of them, and fully intending to make the dreams real at the earliest opportunity.

The point is that there’s nothing in the least ‘20th century’ about the animal research which is hustling fish-farming into its future. An account of the industry recently published in the journal Trends in Genetics makes this clear: already you can throw away your notes on such last-year technologies as ‘transcription activator-like nucleases (TALENS) or ‘zinc finger nucleases’ (ZFN), because they’ve been “largely superseded by the advent of the re-purposed CRISPR /Cas9 system”. The development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR (a.k.a. clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) was the theme of 2020’s Nobel Prize for chemistry. It’s this year’s science. Some of the things about fishes which it will enable silver-pacific-salmonaquaculturists to control are growth rate, colouring, resistance to disease and infestation (crucial, as we’ve seen, in grossly overcrowded populations), sterility (more cost-effective and eases control of the patent), boniness (the aim being to eliminate the little bones that inconvenience consumers), and, to summarize, cash-value. And that last objective, of course, never dates.

But the animal research aimed at illuminating and correcting human physiology is keenly go-ahead in just the same way – using CRISPR itself of course, but many other new technologies too. Optogenetics, for instance: this technology was voted ‘Method of the Year’ by the journal Nature Methods as long ago as 2010, but has been briskly developing ever since. It involves injecting into the brains of mammals (usually mice or monkeys) a virus carrying light-sensitive proteins, so that scientists can then use an implanted light-source to activate particular nerve-cells, and thereby modify animal capacity or behaviour. The final aim is correction of human brain disorders, and there are now more than 66 neurological laboratories in the world that are using monkeys in this sort of experimentation. There will surely be many more soon: one participant in Canada is quoted in Science exclaiming that she “can’t wait to test” some of the newer techniques in optogenetics, and looks forward to “a boom in studies to influence and understand the brain circuits of some of our closest animal relatives.” You’ll notice that the word ‘closest’ is used there for its strictly scientific relevance, free of ethical content: the closer, the more useful.

macaqueThe Science article in question, titled ‘Efforts to control monkey brains get a boost’, is headed with a photograph of a macaque monkey in the wild. I’ve pondered that for a while. Why advertise the contrast? Can some sub-editor be making an ethical point (for the ethics of animal research do sometimes get a mention in this journal)? No, I conclude that the picture simply represents generic ‘macaque’, much as the term ‘mink’ is used as a sort of collective noun, all minks really being fur, whether temporarily on foot or ready-to-wear. Likewise, whether kitted with the optogenetic prosthetics or innocently looking about them in nature, macaques are uniformly brain-carriers, and we’ve set ourselves to get at it: a human-centred predatory project for the 21st century.

In such a setting, the 3Rs can’t be said to have had their day. Outside Europe their day has scarcely arrived. When it does arrive – that is, if ever they form part of the law governing research in all countries – even then there’ll be more for them to do. For there is nothing peculiarly science-specific about the 3Rs; they would apply equally well to any other scene of animal exploitation. Remember in particular that any adequate alternative to animal-use becomes a mandatory ‘replacement’ under 3Rs regulations. The 3Rs would therefore put an end to meat and dairy farming (replacement technology: veganism), to zoos (replaced by nature documentaries), and of course to animal-fur, for which replacements have been available since well before Russell and Burch first published their principles of humane research. When the 3Rs really have done all they usefully can, we shall indeed have a truly human-relevant science, and more largely a fully animal-relevant ethics: in short a humane way of life at last.

Notes and references:

The petition, mentioned above and addressed to the Prime Minister of Denmark, may have come too late now, but it’s here: https://animalpetitions.org/933352/death-is-not-disease-prevention-no-more-culling-of-innocent-animals/

Articles in Science about mink-farming, aquaculture, and optogenetics are in the issues for 13 and 20 November, and 30 October of 2020 respectively. The research paper on mink-welfare, titled ‘Barren housing and negative handling decrease the exploratory approach in farmed mink’, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, January 2020, and online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159119301637?via%3Dihub

An example of a promotional film about mink-farming can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPsStvktks

The quotation from Temple Grandin comes in her book Animals in Translation, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.189. There is more about Dr Grandin’s work in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/fitting-them-for-slaughter-the-work-of-temple-grandin-and-others/

Dr Langley’s article appears in the journal ATLA, vol.48 issue 1 supplement, November 2020. It’s a version of an address originally given at the Lush Prize Conference of 2018, and titled ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. The quotation is from p.145. The article can be viewed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192920911340

The 2009 edition of Russell and Burch’s book is edited by Michael Balls and re-titled The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion (publisher, Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Quotations are from pp.36 and 98.

The EU’s “final goal” is thus stated in the Directive 2010/63, part of the preamble at para 10: see
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

“I don’t like animals” is quoted from an article titled ‘The bat-man tackles Covid-19’ in Science, 2 October 2020.

The article in Trends in Genetics appeared in September 2019, and was titled ‘Potential of Genome Editing to Improve Aquaculture Breeding and Production’. It’s accessible online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251930126X

Fish and fish-farming are the subject of a post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/our-ancestors-the-fishes/

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.