On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.


Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.


The Romance of Vivisection

The artist Emile-Edouard Mouchy painted La leçon de physiologie sur un chien in 1832. The picture now lurks somewhere in the Wellcome Collection, that huge archive and museum of medical science assembled by the pharmacist and businessman Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), and visitable at the Wellcome Trust headquarters on the Euston Road in London. There haven’t been many serious Mouchy painting.jpgartistic attempts at the subject of vivisection, for very obvious reasons. Fewer still are those that treat the subject without express distaste, but that is what Mouchy seems to be doing in his leçon. For that reason, no doubt, the picture is sometimes used for illustration in neutral or defensive accounts of animal research, though never, so far as I have seen, with any further comment. Some further comment is therefore what I shall attempt to provide now.

Everything about La leçon shows physiology as a new and as yet un-institutionalized subject. The setting seems to be a private room, perhaps an attic. The furniture is unscientific and inadequate: seats for a lucky few only (which makes for a fine artistic composition). But it’s evidently a rising subject, too: the scientist is a young man, addressing youths. The whole scene looks to the future; even that second dog implies a miserable succession of animals ahead. And those dusty-looking skeletons relegated to a shelf at the back: they hint that physiology is taking over from anatomy as the key biological discipline and new foundation for medical studies (though anatomy remained indispensable, of course). And that was indeed a fact, unhappily illustrated by the recent appointment, to the chair of medicine at the Collège de France, of the notorious pioneer of vivisection François Magendie.

As for Mouchy’s vivisector himself, there in the centre of the picture, he glows with light, patently a luminary. The picture makes a romantic hero of him, much as the artist was about to do more plausibly for his chosen subject in La Mort de Thomas Becket (1834). In fact Mouchy seems to be raising him beyond even that. Surely there’s something familiar about the scene in that upper room, with the young acolytes grouped around their teacher in various postures of earnest attention or whispered comment, six on either side? It’s a version of the last supper, as described in the Christian gospels and in many works of art subsequently – so many as to constitute a genre of its own, and one which was certainly well-known to Mouchy.

The vivisector, then, is to be imagined as investing a great and universal truth in these young students, who will take it out into the future. And something more than that must be implied in this re-casting of the last supper: this new truth, the world as revealed by the uninhibited practise of experimental science, is to supplant the old Christian one as the governing authority in human (Western, at least) minds. Certainly that’s what did happen during the nineteenth century, and vivisection was the crucial setting for the contest of values which it involved. Hence the title which the novelist Ouida (real name Maria Louise Ramé) gave to her brilliant attack of 1893 on vivisection: ‘The New Priesthood’. By then it was a familiar enough idea, and indeed had constituted a deliberate policy for science’s promoters (for Thomas Huxley, for instance, of whom more below). But it took many years of struggle and habituation before this shift of cultural authority could be accepted. To represent that triumph as Mouchy did in 1832 must have seemed a shocking and blasphemous hyperbole. At any rate, the painting was apparently refused exhibition at the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris expressly because of its subject-matter.

Let’s consider the dogs themselves now, something that the students are plainly not doing. Their eyes follow the master’s knife as it points at the wound and the exposed interior of the subject dog. Their postures and expressions of rapt attention suggest that they hardly hear the dog’s howls, certainly are unmoved by them. The barking of the second dog is the only indication of sympathetic interest anywhere in the picture. In this case, then, the necessary silence of a painting is itself expressive: you can choose to hear that noise or merely to register it. For a modern audience, in fact, the scene may be more reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experimental study of obedience to authority than of the last supper (see note below): under the direction of a master, these malleable young men, with their sensitive faces and cultured modishness, are learning indifference to animal suffering, a terrible and portentous lesson.

Does the artist have that moral dimension of the lesson in mind? I feel sure that he doesn’t, however plainly present in the picture it is. He knew his duty as an artist to the animal form, and he represents the distressed movements of the dogs with vivid accuracy. But he seems to draw no conclusion. There is one hint of dissonance just behind the vivisector, where a student puts his hand on another’s arm and points to the door. He might be saying (should be saying) ‘I’m having no part in this!’, but that’s simply imputation. He might even be intended for the one dissonant element present in all representations of the last supper – the uneasy and disloyal Judas – but that seems too literal-minded. It’s true that the making public by dissidents of supposed intra-professional scenes like this one was soon to become a vital part of the moral challenge to vivisection, but for all his foresight the artist was not in tune with that part of the future. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

Anyway, Mouchy does indeed in this picture seem to foresee that physiology would become, as Thomas Huxley called it in 1854, “the experimental science par excellence”, and in becoming so would help in what Huxley called “the destruction of things that have been holy”, and the rise of a new god, “the God of science”. It’s another vulnerable god, however. As the Christian sense of what nature meant gave ground (and one can’t pretend that it had ever served the other animals well), newer ways of understanding and valuing life were prompted into being, notably by the indignation which scenes of the sort pictured by Mouchy aroused. The absolute right of mankind to make the rest of the world its servant was put to critical and creative question.

The Wellcome Collection has no special interest in that ethical dimension, but it has some items which do illustrate it. As a corrective to Mouchy’s romantic humanism, vivisection cartoon.jpgthen, here’s a cartoon from seventy-five or so years later, as published in the Berlin satirical paper Lustige Blätter. “Now, no sentimental nonsense, please!” says this vivisector, mocking the habit of his profession: “The principle of unrestricted research demands the vivisection of this human in the interests of the health of the whole animal kingdom.”



Notes and references:

The image of Mouchy’s leçon is made publicly available on the Wellcome Collection’s web-site, with a few further details, including the Salon’s rejection of the picture, here: http://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1202391?lang=eng

The cartoon image is likewise available here, dated c. 1910, artist not named: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/xm8wtpm4?query=vivisection%20cartoon&page=1

The “upper room” is specified in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, though they also say that it’s a large room, which indeed it would have to be to accommodate twelve at table.

Ouida’s ‘New Priesthood’ article was published in The New Review, vol.VII, pp.151-164.

Stanley Milgram was a professor in social psychology. In his classic series of experiments, the human subjects believed that they were assisting in a study of how humans learn. They were required to use incremental electric shocks upon their unseen but clearly heard students as a way of enforcing memory (the ‘students’ were actors). In reality the point of interest was how far these subjects were willing to go with the supposed shocks in their acceptance of professional authority. See his book Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row, 1974).

The Huxley quotations appear in Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp.56, 104, and 106.

Two Anniversaries, One Lesson

Today is International Day of Non-Violence; Thursday 4th October is World Animal Day.

To take today’s anniversary first: it was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, as a day which UN members and associated organisations are invited to celebrate in “an appropriate manner” with a view to encouraging “a culture of peace, tolerance, understanding and non-violence”. I can’t find in the publicity for this most worth-while venture any suggestion that refraining from violating the bodies and rights of animals, even just for the day, might constitute an “appropriate manner”. However, amongst the online support for the Day of Non-Violence there is a selection of quotations where, tailing along after Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, and other champions of peace, the inventor and businessman Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages.”

This was certainly the model of non-violence promoted and practised by the man whose birthday in 1869 the UN day commemorates: that is, Mohandas Gandhi, commonly titled (but not pleasingly to him) ‘Mahatma’, meaning great or perfected soul. The word for non-violence which Gandhi himself commonly used was the Hindu ahimsa, and just as Edison spoke of “the goal”, so Gandhi saw ahimsa as something to be continually yearned towards, against the resistance of worldly impossibility:

Man cannot for a moment live without consciously or unconsciously committing outward himsa. The very fact of his living – eating, drinking and moving about – necessarily involves some himsa, destruction of life, be it ever so minute. A votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it, and thus incessantly strives to be free from the deadly coil of himsa.

“incessantly strives”: this strenuous reaching for the just life is evident in Gandhi’s earliest adult days as a law student in London. A vow made to his mother not to eat meat or even eggs (that is, as a violation of Hindu teaching) was the origin of his vegetarianism, but he soon came to decide for this diet on its own ethical merits, and then, characteristically, to regard promoting it as “my mission”. Starting a vegetarian society in Bayswater was his first public action. But to pursue, in the London of the late nineteenth century, what in his case was a nearly vegan diet (he reluctantly continued to use milk) was an almost comically difficult project, especially for one living in lodgings and hotels, to whom every menu was written in a foreign language. Later on, much more demanding trials came to test his convictions. When members of his family, or he himself, fell ill, doctors would indignantly decry his dietary rule. When, for instance, his young son Manilal had typhoid, the doctor urged Gandhi to let him prescribe meat and eggs, saying “Your son’s life is in danger.” But Gandhi, “haunted” by this responsibility, nevertheless insisted that “Even for life itself we may not do certain things.” All this is DSC05074.JPGrecorded in his autobiography, where also he says “To my mind the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

The doctrine of ahimsa governed also, of course, his attitude to the use of animals in medical research. Although Gandhi led the campaign to free India of British rule, he admired many things about Western life and culture, including its “scientific spirit”. He titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth, characterizing his life, in that title and in his introduction to the book, as a series of essays towards his moral and spiritual ideals, never completed or absolute. So he took his crucial image of growth and struggle from the “scientific spirit” of the West. But he also said

I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. I detest the unpardonable slaughter of innocent life in the name of science and humanity so-called, and all the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood I count as of no consequence.

How indeed can a proponent of non-violence say otherwise, or is there, somewhere in the UN’s documentation for the day, a list of permissible exceptions?

But even ahimsa, still there as Gandhi’s preoccupation in the last lines of his autobiography (“the only means for the realization of truth is ahimsa), was itself part of a larger vision of a more literal life-sympathy. This vision is most poetically expressed in Gandhi’s praise of the cow and its sanctity in the Hindu faith:

The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives … Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world.

I shall return to that vision in a moment. Meanwhile, that second anniversary: World Animal Day on 4th October. This observance, a more highly organized and practical occasion than the non-violence day, was initiated in 1925 by Heinrich Zimmermann, editor of the Berlin journal Mensch und Hund, and is now sponsored by the Naturewatch Foundation. The date which Zimmermann chose for it was, naturally enough, the feast day of the late twelfth-century saint Francis of Assisi.

Here was a Gandhi of his own time: similarly a devotee of poverty and humility, wearing the simplest peasant clothing; a forceful organizer, travelling and exhorting on behalf of his ideals (formalized in the Franciscan Order); strict with himself and others, but wholly kind-hearted; evidently a powerfully attractive personality; and of course a man persuaded of the kinship of all the created world.

The stories which record Francis’s feeling for non-human animals, as told for instance in the early biography by St Bonaventura, are no doubt many of them legends rather than sound recollections: his preaching to an attentive congregation of birds; the mutual affection of Francis and a “sister cicada”; the returning of a “fine, live fish”, presented as a gift to him, back into the lake, where the fish “played in the water nigh the man of  God, and, as though drawn by love of him, would in no wise leave the boat-side until it had received his blessing.” But even as embellishments rather than facts, these stories do certainly express the mind of Francis as known from his attested life and writing.

Perhaps more significantly the stories express a tradition of broad sympathy in Christian and pre-Christian minds, which disposed them gladly to imagine and believe in such free communications. In the introduction to his book of animal-friendly liturgies, Animal Rites, the theologian Andrew Linzey sees this tradition as having reached “its fullest flowering in the life of St Francis of Assisi”: fullest, because it was subsequently  pushed out by a type of spirituality “whose primary impulse is to gain knowledge through the exercise of analytical intelligence”. This newer line of theology did not just distrust the intuitive character of the old sense of kinship, but turned against nature itself as binding humanity to the flesh and the world. It’s a hopeful sign of recovery, then, that Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Francis when he became Pope in 2013.

And, like Gandhi again, Saint Francis did not feel for animals merely a sentiment of friendliness and sympathy, as for other but alien lives. St Bonaventura says of Francis

When he bethought him of the first beginning of all things, he was filled with a yet more overflowing charity, and would call the dumb animals, howsoever small, by the names of brother and sister, forasmuch as he recognised in them the same origin as in himself.

You remember Gandhi’s phrase “identity with all that lives”. Accidents of place and period fall away, for it’s a truth perennially visible: to the eye of faith in these two men, to the eye of science in Charles Darwin, to the political eye in Richard Ryder’s term for its opposite, ‘speciesism’. At all times, in all mentalities, there’s a way to see it, because it’s really there.

There’s a scene near the end of Iris Murdoch’s fine philosophical novel The Nice and the Good (1968) which draws together the concerns of these two October anniversaries in a kind of parable. Willy Kost, a survivor of the concentration camp at Dachau, has hitherto been unable to speak of his terrible experience, complicated as it was by a fatal lapse of courage on his own part. Very near the end of the book, he at last does speak of it to Theo, a disgraced monk tormented by his own moral troubles. Theo encourages him to tell, but is reluctant to hear, perhaps can’t bear to. Instead, he thinks about an injured seagull recently brought to him by two sorrowing children. Theo had assured them that the bird could not survive, and must be freed from its slow death. He must drown the bird in the sea: “It was the kindest thing, the only thing.” The children run off, crying. Theo does not remove his shoes or roll up his trousers, as he might do for his own comfort, but walks as he is, holding “the soft grey parcel of life”, into the sea. When the bird is dead, he brings it out with him:

He mounted the shingle and walked with wet clinging trouser legs along to the far end of the beach where he knelt and dug with his hands as deep a hole as he could in the loose falling pebbles. He put the dead bird into the hole and covered it up carefully. Then he moved a little away and lay face downward on the stones.

Back in the present, as Willy’s voice continues to tell the story of Dachau, Theo, half listening, “pressed the thought of the seagull against his heart.”

I find myself unequal to explicating this moving episode, and shall leave it to mean what it will.


Notes and references:

The United Nations non-violence day is presented online here: http://www.un.org/en/events/nonviolenceday/.   The related quotations appear on a World Economic forum page here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/09/non-violence-day-inspiring-quotes/.

An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth was originally published serially in Gandhi’s weekly journal Young India, during the 1920s. It was first published as a book in two volumes, 1927 and 1929. Quotations here are from the Penguin Books edition of 1982, translated from Gandhi’s original Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, pp. 318, 59, 230, 222. The statement on vivisection came in Young India 17 December 1925, p. 440, and the praise of the cow in Young India 6 October 1921, p. 36, both of them quoted in The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, ed. Prabhu and Rao, Jitendra Desai 1967, pp. 426 and 388.

Quotations from the life of St Francis by St Bonaventura are from the text published by J.M.Dent, 1904, pp. 90, 88-9, and 85.

Animal Rites, by Andrew Linzey, was published by SCM Press, 1999. Quotations are from pp. 6 and 8.

Quotations from The Nice and the Good are from the Penguin Books 1969 edition, pp. 355.