To Boldly Make Them Go

“The International Space Station (ISS) is about to get some new crew members – 20 mousetronauts!” announced the Science Explorer web-site recently. Motherboard, a more general news site, likewise found the episode appealing, or tried to make it so: “Once they arrive on station, the all-female rodent crew will get to work … etc. etc.” I suppose that humanizing the mice in this way (a version of dressing animals up to entertain) is part of a journalist’s duty: turning inert material into a recognizable story – in this case, the ‘smart animals’ story. After all, the sort of research which the mice are in fact to be used for is not really news at all; it’s simply a routine of life on the ISS. But this spinning of the facts is also a variety of euphemism, because of course there’s nothing cute in practice about the “work” the mice will be doing. Such mice don’t always “arrive on station” alive; certainly they never survive their stay. Their status on the ISS is a lot more accurately expressed by NASA’s own dispassionate term “biological payload”.

The particular mice in the story were additions to on-going research into the effects and possible mitigations of micro-gravity. Health benefits to humans in general are sketchily promised from this sort of space research, but its essential purpose has of course always been to understand and treat the special stresses and ailments arising from space travel. And, so far from being news, it has been part of ‘man’s conquest of space’ from the earliest days. The U.S.A. was testing g-force and microgravity stresses on non-human primates (including chimpanzees) on the ground, and subsequently sending such animals into space, from the 1940s up until the 1990s. The U.S.S.R. sent up dogs from 1951, and is laikaeven now preparing four rhesus macaques for a journey to Mars in 2017. Other countries have had similar programmes of animal research, and many other animal species have been involved, including mice, rabbits, insects, and at least one cat. These animals have been the real ‘pioneers’ in space. The majority of them (of the larger ones, at least) have not survived the experience.

There’s something peculiarly base and cowardly about using animals in this way, especially as the heroism of the human crews – real enough, no doubt – has been so much trumpeted by the media and by their own institutions. (I notice that popular fictions on the subject of space exploration generally prefer not to take the shine off their heroes by showing them trying it all out on their inferiors first.) And what makes it especially shameful is that whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity (to ourselves, if to nobody else we know of). The professionals themselves evidently feel this. Two of their space-craft – Voyagers 1 and 2 – are even now traversing outer space equipped not only to send information back to earth, but also to present mankind and his planet to such other life forms as they may conceivably find beyond our solar system.

These Voyagers were launched by NASA in 1977. Their predecessors in deep space, Pioneers 10 and 11, had contented themselves by way of self-introduction with plaques showing a man and a woman, the man’s hand said to be “raised in a gesture of good will” (no laughter, please). The Voyagers make a much more extensive trawl into that mixture of hubris and sentimentality which seems to infect humans once they start thinking about ‘mankind’. The general motto chosen for their presentation to strangers was the “inspirational message” Per Aspera ad Astra (‘through hardships to the stars’): a touch of humbug already, given how the hardships were distributed, and rather ominously it’s a motto also used by a number of national air forces. Jimmy Carter’s presidential greeting was more wisely tentative, as well as characteristically wistful: “We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilization.”

Meanwhile, the sounds and images that form the main content of the archive, called the Golden Record, attempt a summary of our world and its occupants, including the non-human animals. Here and there the humans are shown cooking and eating the others: rather tactless, perhaps, but then it must have been assumed that whoever finally studies this archive will be highly sophisticated, which to us of course implies predator rather than prey. They might therefore be expected to be permissive about such things. Too much so, perhaps:  I notice that under one Youtube video of the Golden Record someone has wittily commented “mmm … these earthlings look DELICIOUS!”

One of the images is titled ‘English City’, and shows Oxford High Street. The photograph comes from a pictorial biography of C.S.Lewis published in 1973, but it shows the High Street as Lewis would have known it, in about 1950. I don’t know why this Lewis connection was so deliberately made, though of course he has always been very popular in America, especially as a writer on Christianity. He also wrote novels and essays about space travel. However, I can’t think that, if the selectors had read any of these, they would have wished Lewis to feature, even as obliquely as this, in their Golden Record. For Lewis felt none of the species-pride suggested in the motto Per Aspera ad Astra. He contemplated with dread the human arrival upon other planets, and pictured it in his fiction as essentially baleful. “We know what our race does to strangers”, he writes in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’. “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps.” So the testing of enslaved animals in preparation for inter-planetary travel is indicative of the sort of beings who will be organising and making these visits, and accordingly ominous for whomever their hosts may turn out to be: hardly the message which the Voyagers had wanted to haul through space for countless millenia.

Lewis elaborates the message in his fiction. Although the trio of men journeying to ‘Malacandra’ in Out of the Silent Planet includes one humane character, Edwin Ransom, who learns to love and admire the strange beings they find there, this man does not travel voluntarily. He has stumbled upon the secretive preparations for the voyage mainly because the dog who should have been keeping strangers away has been destroyed during preliminary experiments. Ransom is then drugged and taken into the space-craft as “payload” (they hope to trade him). The point Lewis makes is that people like Ransom “are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassadors to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert.” Just such men are Ransom’s abductors. And their treatment of the dog presages their attitude to the non-human creatures – the Sorns, Hrossa, and Pfifltriggs – whom they meet on Malacandra.

But Lewis shows elsewhere that there’s more to it than that. Misusing non-human animals actually corrupts our perceptions of them and their like. Another space-scientist and vivisector, Uncle Matthew in the Narnia books, has used guinea-pigs, and even the girl Polly, to effect landings in other worlds: “you’ve behaved like a coward, sending a girl to a place you’re afraid to go to yourself”, his nephew Diggory priggishly but quite rightly tells him. (Note that Laika, the Russian dog pictured above who died in orbit, was female, as indeed were the ISS mice, and perhaps most of the other ‘space’ animals. Or is that beside the point?) When Uncle Matthew finds himself in Narnia, he is unreasonably afraid of the innocent creatures there; Lewis explains that the man had never much liked animals, but that “years of doing cruel experiments on animals had made him hate and fear them far more.” So the suggestion is that humans will come to new worlds expecting ill-will, partly as having habitually dealt in it themselves, partly as knowing that they merit it.

No wonder Lewis wrote in his preface to the novel Perelandra (the sequel to Out of the Silent Planet) that inter-planetary travel would “open a new chapter of misery for the 3.24am DSC_0180Universe”. In ‘Religion and Rocketry’, he forsees a time when “the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt.” Already now, with those starry heavens littered by discarded junk, the beauty of the moon insulted by national flags, the ether resounding to the chatter of our telecommunications, and implicit in it all a history of pitilessly forcing upon non-human animals the greatest share of the cost in flesh and blood for all this astonishing accomplishment, only Lewis’s “ruthless technical expert” could look upward with much satisfaction in what we’ve done.


[References: Photograph of the moon by Paul Freestone. For a fuller account of C.S.Lewis and animals, see The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ was first published in 1958, and is re-printed in Fern-seed and Elephants (Fontana, 1975), pp.69-77, and in various other Lewis collections. The character called Uncle Matthew appears in The Magician’s Nephew (Bodley Head, 1955). For an account of Laika’s suffering and death in space, see  The story of the Golden Record is recounted in Murmurs of Earth (Random House, 1978) by Carl Sagan, the astronomer who led the committee appointed to select its contents, and there are many Youtube clips showing the contents. The Science Explorer report is dated April 7, and the Motherboard one April 4.]




Shedding the Albatross

It’s a premise of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) that some animals matter more than others. Not only is there a requirement that “lower” rather than “higher” species shall be selected where a choice is thought to exist, but many varieties of creature fall below notice altogether, not being classed as ‘protected animals’. Only one non-vertebrate class of animal enjoys the Act’s ‘protection’: the cephalopods. For similar reasons, only one vertebrate species does not, being safely above the Act’s predatory reach: the humans. The situation very well illustrates what Albert Schweitzer said must always happen when we set about putting comparative values on other species: we shall simply end up “judging them by the greater or lesser distance at which they seem to stand from us human beings”. It may, then, be inherent not just in the Act but in human nature –  or at least in human nature as we know it in the modern West – to judge in this way. At any rate, it was presumably to this comfortable habit of mind that one Oxford scientist was appealing when, with some exasperation, he put the question to me, “Surely you don’t think that a sea-slug matters in comparison with a human?”

Anyone who reads English at Oxford (or at any other university, probably), will spend an especially worth-while portion of their time studying the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which provides an immortal answer to that question and all that belongs with it: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The poem’s story, told to a reluctant wedding-guest, is very familiar, but I shall remind you of it and of its implications.

A ship is driven by storms out of its proper course and into ice-bound seas in the region of perched albatrossthe South Pole. An albatross takes to following the ship, and the sailors welcome it and put out food (“It ate the food it ne’er had eat”, Coleridge says, fascinated by the strangeness of this encounter). The bird in its turn seems to help the men, guiding their ship through the ice and into safer waters. Then one of the sailors, the ancient mariner himself as a young man, takes a cross-bow and shoots it.

Much has been written by way of critical comment upon the mariner’s abrupt and unexplained action, and what it might mean. Coleridge makes very clear that it’s a dreadful and portentous deed, with supra-personal implications, but we don’t have to suppose that he meant it to stand for some other thing – the crucifixion, for instance, or original sin. After all, it’s just the sort of gratuitously destructive thing that humans habitually do – as all the earth’s other denizens have good reason to know.

As to the rest of the ship’s crew, they’re angry with the mariner at first, but that’s really because they think the bird was bringing them good luck (“Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow!”). When the weather actually improves, they change their minds, and congratulate him (“ ’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, / That bring the fog and mist.”). Of course: because the important question had always been ‘what good might this animal do us?’

Anyway, that improvement in the weather doesn’t last. The ship reaches the Equator, the wind drops and the crew find themselves becalmed in fiercely hot weather on a hideous Mariner Aloneoily sea populated by strange and ugly sea-life. When there’s no more drinkable water, all the sailors die, except the mariner himself, but before they die they hang the dead albatross round the mariner’s neck. He becomes an effigy of modern man, with the corpse of the animal kingdom round his neck, indicting him.

And even in his agony the mariner (again, how familiarly human!) feels indignant at the survival of the inferior animals:

  The many men so beautiful!
  And they all dead did lie:
  And a thousand thousand slimy things
  Lived on; and so did I.

All through the poem Coleridge keeps a sort of running commentary in the margin, and at this point he says, “The mariner despiseth the creatures of the calm. And envieth that they should live, and so many lie dead.” It’s exactly the thinking behind that sea-slug question, the whole living world positioned in reference to ourselves: while humans suffer, why should lesser animals get away with it? This indeed is essentially the rationale of vivisection.

There follows, for the mariner, a dreadful period of solitude and privation. But finally one night his attention is drawn upward from the horrors of the ship’s deck to the beauty of the night skies, and especially of the moon (“he yearneth towards the journeying moon”, says the commentary). And by the moon’s light he then finds himself at last observing the sea-creatures dis-interestedly: that is, not for how they compare with humans, or for what good they can do for humans, but for what they are in themselves. Here are the impassioned lines in which Coleridge describes this moment of illumination:

   Within the shadow of the ship
   I watched their rich attire:
   Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
   They coiled and swam; and every track
   Was a flash of golden fire.

   O happy living things! No tongue
   Their beauty might declare:
   A spring of love gushed from my heart,
   And I blessed them unaware:
   Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
   And I blessed them unaware.

   The self-same moment I could pray;
   And from my neck so free
   The albatross fell off, and sank
   Like lead into the sea.

Moonlit NightThe mariner’s selfless contemplation of the sea-creatures, and his guileless delight in their life, set going his redemption in the strange and beautiful spirit-world whose part in the poem I haven’t had the space or impertinence to speak about. And when eventually the mariner reaches land, it becomes his doom, his vocation, so Coleridge says in the margin, “to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.”

all things”: not just the magnificent albatross, then, not just the individual animals or sorts of animal we agree to admire or to pet or to exempt for some other reason from exploitation, but all life, including therefore mice, fish, frogs, and on downwards below ASPA’s notice, even to sea-slugs. Except that there is no such ‘downwards’ in nature, only in the human mind. And it’s from this human-minded illusion, this anthropocentrism, that the mariner is liberated as he watches the sea-animals. His vocation, and the poem’s, is to liberate the rest of us from it too.


[References:   The EU rule on the use of ‘lower’ species (as revised on 8/6/16 and continuing for now to apply to the UK) can be found for instance at Albert Schweitzer’s words are quoted from My Life and Thought, transl. Campion, London 1933, p.271. The illustrations were made for an edition of 1876 by the French painter and engraver Gustave Doré, and are reproduced by courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University of Buffalo, the State University of New York.]