In the Media

A BBC Radio 5 visit to the Francis Crick Institute in London last November was one of the very few recent shows of interest, on the part of the broadcasting and print media, in the ethics of animal research. ‘What actually happens in an animal lab’ was the hard-headed title. However, there were no surprises in it. The research being shown to the journalist was aimed at improving treatments for lung cancer, rather than, for instance, at safety-testing herbicides, and the thesis was that this might be achieved by raising the general mental and physical health of the patient (does that really need evidencing?). Accordingly, the mice on whom the idea was being tried were enjoying even more than the usual ‘enrichment’ in their boxes. They were “extra-happy” mice, suggested the amiable journalist; “luxury mice”, the researcher agreed. True, these mice were also “doomed”, but then, as the researcher shrewdly observed, “we’re all doomed”.

So, a serious disease in question, mice provided with every amenity, and a young woman scientist who claims to “enjoy taking care of the mice”:  no need for the journalist to wonder “why you’ve asked us in” (yes, Radio 5 had been invited to make the visit). This radio piece did not just exemplify the research industry’s new ‘Concordat’ way of pro-actively making the case for vivisection; it indicated also why such journalism is becoming less frequent. The institutions themselves are managing it in advance, and taking out the sting. The Radio 5 series has the exciting title ‘Live Wires’, but there was not much electricity in this edition of it.

Last week a less complacent BBC documentary, in Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ series, looked at the larger picture of our corrupted relationship with the rest of animal life. In particular it recorded the fatal effect of our human presence in the natural world: the drastic decline across all species except our own, from insect life (estimated biomass down 75% since 1989) to our fellow-mammals (“human activity is wiping them out”). An exception was noticed in the case of rats, whom apparently we’re therefore entitled to make deliberate efforts to purge as part of our schemes to help the others. The question arising from this unhappy conspectus was “Are we heading for a mass extinction?”

Although the evidence supplied a conclusive yes to that question, there was some talk of things being done to prevent the disaster. A very brief reference was made to the idea of setting aside a part of the planet for the exclusive use of non-human animals, but mainly the programme was interested in management schemes of various sorts aimed at allowing other species (and the talk throughout was of species rather than actual beings) to survive our proximity. Knowledgeable and worthwhile schemes they clearly were, but they were very modest in comparison with the problem being addressed. Nor did they put to question our human dominion in the world, won as it has been by arrogance and force, or suggest how we might reform ourselves. The nearest we came to such diffidence was this strangely hedged-about statement of the obvious from an ecologist at the University of York: “perhaps, arguably, wild-life would be very happy to get on without us; I think we probably need it more than they need us, to be quite honest.”

Of course the prospect of mass extinction is not a sudden BBC revelation: scientific reports and news stories charting the process of destruction appear more or less every week. One such, an article by Simon Barnes which appeared in the New Statesman in 2017, was titled ‘We are heading towards a world without animals’, and told very much the same story as the radio programme – told it rather better, in fact. This was partly because it began with an individual animal (a slender-billed curlew), reminding readers that it’s a story of individual struggle and suffering, not just of species and percentages. Partly it treated human sentiment about animals with less of the semi-facetious complicity which radio journalists go in for. As to rats, for instance: the Analysis presenter jocosely conceded that it’s natural to privilege the “cuddlier creatures” in conservation decisions; Simon Barnes more bleakly observes “We have always despised species that make successful adaptations to human life.”

Barnes also made a more serious attempt than did the Analysis programme to picture the world after mass extinction. It would not in fact be a world “without animals”, of course. Travelling into this wretched future alongside humanity would be our cohorts of service-animals – including, presumably, the ones used for research. Indeed, since human distresses both mental and physical would probably (so Barnes argues) increase in this denuded world, supposing that we can survive in it at all, our medical researches would no doubt bear down upon these animals more than ever.

But vivisection has already been playing its part in this tragic story of world-usurpation. It has supported in countless research programmes, for instance, the sort of industrialized farming which the Analysis episode considered one of the leading causes of mass extinction. The leading cause is one to which this sort of farming is closely related, or which at any rate its proponents use for a justification: that is, the bloating human population. Here is a subject both crucial and morally hazardous to talk about; as Simon Barnes says, “it all comes back to population, the problem that dare not speak its name.” One of medical science’s notable achievements over the last sixty years has been to make conception possible to otherwise childless couples. How can one call such a project misguided? Even so, a sort of insanity is bound up in it. In the current edition of the journal Science, two researchers working in this field speak about ‘ICSI’ (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), a treatment for male infertility pioneered in the 1990s: “the technique has developed into a globally accepted therapy and has meanwhile led to the birth of hundreds of thousands of children.” What their parents very understandably want, then; what the globe itself emphatically does not want. It’s a horrible conundrum, and a particularly tragic instance of the way science steadily outdistances our moral and political capacities to control or even make sense of it.

The article in Science is mainly about a very recent development of ICSI, aimed at protecting fertility in pre-pubertal boys who receive chemotherapy against cancer. The research itself is reported at length elsewhere in the journal: a brilliantly skilled technique, a serious therapeutic aim, a most repulsive history of practice on rhesus macaque monkeys (and of course fertility research as a whole has this sort of history writ large), and meanwhile no comment at all on the giant problem which is the larger context of such work. The problem had in fact been considered in the previous week’s Analysis episode, as part of an investigation into the question ‘Will humans survive the century?’ One contributor to that programme said that our survival would necessitate “changing the mentality that we’re all entitled to have children.” Such a radical change of mind may simply not be possible; at any rate, it’s certain that medical science is not helping us to make it.

In the climactic scene of C.S.Lewis’s science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength, the caged animals of the Belbury scientific research institute break out and invade the institute’s annual dinner. It’s a slightly puzzling point that these are not the frogs, rats, domestic animals, or other species most commonly exploited in the contemporary research which Lewis knew about (and angrily deplored). Instead and rather improbably, into the hall burst a tiger, gorilla, wolf, snake, and finally an elephant. Of course this makes the wrecking of the institute dinner a more thrillingly frightful event, but I think that there’s also a thematic point to it. The suggestion in the novel in general, and here in particular, is that modernism, as science has made CoeTheSacrifice.jpgit, embraces all the non-human animals in a fundamental disrespect: as one of the institute’s directors says, “There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.”

That’s a caricature, no doubt, but the stripped-down humanism of the Belbury outlook really is there in the practical results of our scientific and technical mastery of the world, even if it has never been anyone’s formulated policy. It makes sense, then, that not just the commonly lab-bound animals but also their wilder and more exotic fellows take that final revenge against the Belbury institute. It makes sense too that these more exotic animals are, if only in some honorary or collegiate sense, victims of vivisection, for in the science schools of universities, animal research has been teaching by example, to generations of science students, the subjugation of other species in pursuit of our own knowledge and advantage. In fact vivisection has been a paradigm of the bad relationship which has brought us to this crisis in life’s history. And the steady continuation of it suggests that we simply aren’t morally or philosophically equal to saving anyone but ourselves – and therefore, the world’s life-forms being as interdependent as they are, probably not even ourselves either.

 

Notes and references:

‘What actually happens in an animal lab’ was broadcast on 26 November 2018. The journalist was Stephen Chittenden. ‘Are we heading for a mass extinction?’ (Radio 4, Analysis) was broadcast on Monday 23 March. The presenter was Neal Razzell.

The article by Simon Barnes appeared in the New Statesman on 5 September 2017. The quotation about ICSL is from Science, 22 March 2019, p.1283. The full report on the new research appears on pp.1314-19.

That Hideous Strength is quoted in the 1955 edition, published by Pan, at p.56.

The picture shown is one of the illustrations to Pit’s Letter by Sue Coe (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998); its title is ‘The Sacrifice’. Like the scene from That Hideous Strength, it makes vivisection the essential form or paradigm for man’s misused dominion, so that even the bear, elephant, and turtle seem to be sharing in it. The writing underneath says “They all must be sacrificed . . . God gave man dominion over all living things . . . the fear of you, the dread of you, shall be upon every beast of the earth. Genesis.”

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Eve of Destruction

One of John Ruskin’s successors as Oxford University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art (see previous post) was the distinguished architect Sir Leslie Martin. There’s some irony in the fact that at the time of Sir Leslie’s appointment to speak about art at Oxford in the mid-1960s he was working on the design of what must be the University’s most hideous structure, the giant Tinbergen Building for the Department of Zoology and Experimental Psychology in South Parks Road.  zoology building

Leslie Martin did produce some much finer buildings, including the Royal Festival Hall in London and, in Oxford, the English and Law Faculties building just along the road from the Tinbergen. But he was a keen and influential champion of architectural modernism, and the Tinbergen Building shows modernism in one of its most uncompromising phases, nick-named ‘Brutalism’ by its own practitioners. The word was intended to mean raw or unpolished rather than aggressive, still less anything to do with animals (there’s another irony tucked away here somewhere). It asserted the commitment of the style’s architects (they would have hated to hear it called a ‘style’) to designs that were plainly functional, to undisguised surfaces like the ‘shuttered’ concrete of the Tinbergen Building, and in general to the absence of all aesthetic apology. Of course, the word ‘function’ covers more than just accommodation and services, or it might do. And thinking of the building in its wider academic function, one online commentator has observed with throw-away sarcasm, “Totally looks like a place animal-lovers and empathic therapists gather”.

I don’t know what therapists, empathic or other, have come out of that building, or what cruelties have taken place there, though certainly the practice of Experimental Psychology has involved some of the most savage misuses of animals in modern science. Nor do I know whether being an ‘animal-lover’ has ever constituted a recommendation for candidates seeking to study life-sciences in that building. But the architecture itself is indeed suggestive of the worst, and the sad thing is that the man after whom the building is named, Nikolaas Tinbergen, would himself have been a proper focus for just such a gathering as the comment pictures, or rather can’t picture.

Tinbergen was a pioneer of ethology, the study and interpretation of animal behaviour as it occurs in nature rather than in the laboratory. He worked originally at the University of Leiden, but he came to Oxford in 1949, and was appointed Professor of Animal Behaviour at about the same time that Leslie Martin became Professor of Fine Art. In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, sharing it with two other notable ethologists, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. The lecture which Tinbergen gave on that occasion was thoroughly characteristic. He noted the novelty of three “mere animal-watchers” receiving the prize, and then, instead of speaking about the area of research in which he had been so brilliantly successful, he deferred to the prize’s title, and set out to show how the disciplines of ‘animal-watching’ could indeed contribute to both knowledge and therapy in human health. The two examples he discussed were autism and the ‘Alexander technique’ of posture and movement. In both of these he had personal experience, but no academic reputation to lean on. In both, also, he was arguing for changes in behavioural practice rather than for medication – ‘empathic therapy’ in fact, before it had that name.

As for ‘animal-lovers’, I don’t suppose that Tinbergen ever expressly put himself in that category (anyway a dubious one, as this blog has argued elsewhere). But that he felt for animals, and admired them, is very obvious in his writings. Speaking of research into the nesting habits of two species of the Ammophila wasp, he writes,

It is hard to believe that these two Ammophilas should be so much more interesting than other digger wasps. I prefer to think that each of the others will be found to be just as rewarding once it is studied with as much care and love as was Ammophila.

Again characteristically, he was not talking here about his own research; he was describing and admiring the work of his students. But his own work showed just those same qualities. Tinbergen

Of course there was more to the work than sympathetic observation: it was the purpose of ethology to learn both the immediate function of animal behaviour and its origins in evolutionary selection. It was here that Tinbergen’s genius lay, but he believed that to analyse the conduct of animals in this way did not, or should not, diminish our respect for them: “So long as one does not, during analysis, lose sight of the animal as a whole, then beauty increases with increasing awareness of detail.” “the animal as a whole”: possibly he was glancing here at so-called ‘behaviourism’, which was then the much more fashionable way of researching and interpreting animal behaviour – that is, as a small repertoire of more or less mechanical responses to stimuli, simple and autonomous enough to be studied in the laboratory. No doubt much was being shown about the structures of behaviour in that way, as well as much cruelty being practised, but its relevance to zoology as Tinbergen understood it was doubtful: “there is an enormous amount of scattered and often unrelated evidence, acquired under such special laboratory conditions that it is at present impossible to say how it is related to the normal life of the species concerned.”

Tinbergen’s work, though it mainly took place in the field, did also involve experimental intervention. For instance, when studying the way of life of black-headed gulls on the Norfolk coast, he wished to learn how the colouring and patterning of their eggs helped to protect them from predation; in pursuit of the answer, he moved, re-coloured, or otherwise doomed some of these eggs. But he didn’t regard science as justifying every convenient transgression against animal life. The gulls’ new-born chicks are likewise camouflaged against predatory eyes; at least, Tinbergen believed that their dotted patterns must have this same effect, but he writes that “although we were quite prepared . . . to sacrifice a number of eggs for our tests, we drew the line at chicks, and so we cannot prove it.” It’s instructive to see how that word ‘cannot’ turns a moral inhibition into an actual impossibility. Whether it has since been ‘proved’ by someone with a less scrupulous respect for these animal subjects, I don’t know.

Tinbergen’s consideration for the animals he studied seems to have derived partly from a certain diffidence about the character and role of the scientist. That phrase in the Nobel speech, “mere animal-watchers”, belongs to a habit of professional self-awareness, even self-deprecation, in his work. As he himself wrote, “it is always worth observing oneself as well as the animals, and to do it as critically and as detachedly as possible.” One may thereby discover, for instance, that learning about animals is not quite as dis-interested a procedure as we flatteringly assume; proving things about them may be felt, discreditably, as a kind of triumph: “people enjoy, they relish, the satisfaction of their desire for power.”

This was and is especially a danger in the laboratory, and a predecessor of Tinbergen’s at Oxford had once spoken of it with memorable force: “every kind of original research [is] a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness”, so Professor George Rolleston had told the Royal Commission into vivisection in 1875, and the risk was particularly acute where the subject was “the lower animals, who have no friends to remonstrate for them.” When such animals were subjected to experimentation before a student audience, he went on to say, “the sight of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism” made an involuntary but powerful appeal to the instinct of cruelty. Rolleston quoted something that had recently been written about audiences at Roman gladiatorial shows: “then burst forth the sleeping devils in their hearts.”

This powerful warning from the nineteenth century isn’t just a historical digression here. As that Nobel speech showed, Tinbergen believed in the importance of ethology in the understanding of humans as well as other animals. Not, of course, by crudely extrapolating things discovered in those others in order to explain human conduct, for indeed Tinbergen knew that humans, “our own unfortunate species”, were uniquely problematic. While animal behaviour in general showed or implied a gradual adjustment to fit slowly changing ecologies, the human species was creating dizzily changing environments for itself, in which it had nevertheless to get along with roughly the same evolutionary design as had served Cro-magnon man. In fact man had become “a misfit in his own society”. And belonging as he did to “the only species that is a mass-murderer”, this “unhinged killer”, now with access to atomic weaponry, needed understanding and putting right as a matter of urgency.

Tinbergen discussed all this in an essay of 1968 titled ‘On War and Peace in Animals and Man’. Speculating upon the possibilities of sublimating or usefully re-directing human aggression, he proposes a solution which his fellow-ethologist Konrad Lorenz had also considered. Science itself, in particular as a project of self-discovery and self-healing, “would seem to offer the best opportunities for deflecting and sublimating our aggression”, especially if “the whole population” could somehow “be made to feel that it participates in the struggle”. If this seems a rather professionally grandiose concept for Tinbergen to subscribe to, it at least shows his engaging idealism. But he was not naïve: he knew well the intractable irrationality of the human (in the Second World War he had been a prisoner of the Nazis). Therefore this project of self-understanding, so he concedes at the end of the essay, might only mean that, when the final self-destruction came, we “could at least go down with some dignity, by using our brain for one of its supreme tasks, by exploring to the end.”

Anyway, the Tinbergen Building is itself about to be destroyed, as many other brutalist monuments have been. In this case, a refurbishment scheme revealed that asbestos had been used throughout the structure. That wasn’t Sir Leslie’s fault – asbestos was very commonly used in buildings at that time – though one may more readily blame him for not foreseeing how badly his concrete would weather, or how poorly it would insulate the interior. Now waiting to occupy the vacated space is an world-class.JPGeven larger structure, intended to house Zoology, Experimental Psychology, and Plant Sciences. Will this new building inherit the dedication to Tinbergen? Nothing official has been said about that. More importantly, might the building reflect, in its form and in its academic functions inside, the sort of humane science for which Tinbergen’s name might well stand? There’s a big notice on the hoarding, promising that whatever comes next will be “world-class”. This banal and wholly un-Tinbergen-like brag is not a good omen.

 

Notes and references:

The online comment appears on the Reddit web-site, which briefly notices the Tinbergen Building here: https://www.reddit.com/r/brutalism/comments/7q05hv/tinbergen_building_zoology_and_psychology/

Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize lecture can be read here:  https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/tinbergen-lecture.pdf

Tinbergen describes some of the research conducted by himself and his students in his book Curious Naturalists, Penguin Books, 1974: quotations here are from pp. 29, 85, 119, and 194. His other writings quoted here are Social Behaviour in Animals, Methuen, 1965, p.vi (on laboratory studies), and his essay ‘On War and Peace’, originally published in the journal Science, and re-printed in The Sociobiology Debate, ed. Arthur Caplan, Harper and Row, 1978 (quoted at pp. 80, 86, 89-90, and 97-8).

The term and concept ‘animal-lover’ is discussed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Konrad Lorenz discusses the idea of science and scientific education as a corrective to tribal aggression in all its forms in the final chapter of his book On Aggression (1966).

George Rolleston’s evidence to the Royal Commission is published in Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, 1876, pp.43-5. In it, he quotes (“sleeping devils”) from Charles Kingsley’s 1853 novel Hypatia.

The detail from a photograph of Nikolaas Tinbergen is from the archive of the Max Planck Gesellschaft.