Whose World, and How We’ll Leave it

Fifty years ago this autumn, the record at the top of the UK singles chart was ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans. The song’s lyrics (by Rick Evans himself, who also wrote the music) follow humanity into distant futures, and picture with rising alarm (and rising pitch in the music) the gradual decommissioning of human functions by technology – “Some machine’s doing that for you” – until finally “man’s reign is through”. Then, the suggestion seems to be, things start again from the beginning, as the song itself does.

The ambitious and pessimistic theme made this record an unusual victor in the hit parade. It was also remarkable in looking beyond what was then the most obvious and discussed form of apocalypse, nuclear war. (That had indeed been the theme of Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ a few years earlier: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”) But of course the question whether we shall be science’s masters or science ours was hardly new: it had been a topic for debate and imaginings ever since (if not before) Mary Shelley put it into brilliantly mythical form for her story Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). And as science itself has increased its scope and powers, which it has done enormously since Zager and Evans sang about babies being selected from “the bottom of a long glass tube” (in the year 6565), so concern has grown about how those powers may variously jeopardize the world.

In 2012, a research institution devoted to the subject was set up at Cambridge: the Centre for the Study of Existentialist Risk. One of its founders, the astrophysicist Martin Rees, had published a book in 2003 plainly setting out the reasons for taking the matter seriously. The book’s title is Our Final Century: Will Civilization Survive the Twenty-First Century? It’s an expert survey by a very distinguished scientist, although, like the Zager and Evans song, it’s intended for popular or at least non-specialist consumption. Alarming it also is, like the song: reviews called it “eloquently frightening”, “provocative and unsettling”, “terrifying”. It has, as I’ve said, much more material to be alarming about than the song had, and the material is crowded into a more panicked perspective: the remainder of this century as opposed to about seven millennia. Eighty years is certainly the more plausible time-allowance, but in at least one respect the song is wiser than the book, as I hope to show.

Our Final Century does discuss the threat of nuclear war, but Rees considers that the use by terrorists of stolen or improvised nuclear materials is the less controllable and therefore more dangerous possibility. In fact, having rather more trust in the international order of treaties and institutions than might be justified today, he concentrates on terrorism and error as the most likely routes to mass disaster, with small groups or even individuals as the agents. He writes, for example, about ‘bioterror’ using either known infections (smallpox, ebola, anthrax) or newly engineered ones. Or he pictures self-replicating ‘nanomachines’, designed with the capacity to live off organic material; such creations might, by accident or design, “proliferate uncontrollably . . . until they had consumed all life.” Reviewing these and other such science-based threats, Rees says “We are entering an era when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years . . . Indeed, disaster could be caused by someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign.” After all, it was a sort of collective incompetence which got us here, wasn’t it?

Rees very reasonably concludes that we ought to subject the practice of science to some kind of “restraint”: close off some of its more sinister directions or at least keep them unpublished, and control others through international agreements. And it’s here, rather suddenly, that a few of the non-human planetary species woodboatget a rare look-in to Rees’s text (and of course they have a vital interest in this topic too; they may not know that, but we know it). He instances animal experiments as evidence that, in “many countries” at least, limits to what is allowed in scientific research can indeed be agreed upon and kept to. But, he wonders, where are we to fix those limits? He then introduces the term “yuck factor”, used by bioethicists (so he claims) for the sort of quasi-ethical squeamishness which, it seems, has no reliable relevance to welfare or morality. Rees admits feeling this sort of response himself to “invasive experiments that modify how animals behave”, but he considers his response “disproportionate”. In fact this discussion of ethics in life-science is conditioned by words like that: “exaggerated”, “perceive” (in the now common sense of ‘impute’ or ‘imagine’), “unthinking”, and indeed the childish “yuck factor” itself. The suggestion is that we shouldn’t take very much notice of our “deep-set repugnances”: that’s the phrase which C. S. Lewis uses in his science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength to identify humanity’s most fundamental ethical guides. In fact the novel is largely about that most fatal of all usurpations of human function: the supplanting of human judgement as to what is right by the mere fact of what is technically possible.

What we learn, then, from this not unfeeling but not especially interesting three-page discussion is that (as its unexamined assumption) humans are quite entitled to make such decisions about what to do to other species, and, on the other hand, that they can’t be trusted to make them wisely. And now we can get at the world-view which this book teaches us to take into the future, and indeed to make that future with – long or short as it may turn out to be. It’s a world-view not absolutely man-centred, for Rees does contemplate evolutionary advances on the human species as it now is: “intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings.” But the reader knows which species is being identified by those privileged characteristics, intelligence and complexity. We humans may possibly be improvable, therefore, but we do represent at least the “beginnings” of what really matters in nature. And although we may subsequently rise into other forms or even other planets (Rees discusses this latter possibility – an especially disgraceful one, given the book’s theme), what we apparently won’t do is feel any solidarity with varieties of life that have lagged behind us in evolution.

For all its “terrifying” material, therefore (and there’s much more of it than I have been mentioning, including of course climate change), Our Final Century is a surprisingly triumphalist text. You may recall that when Zager and Evans get to the far end of their journey into the future, they take stock like this:

In the year 9595,
I’m kind of wondering if man is gonna be alive;
He’s taken everything this whole Earth can give,
And he ain’t put back nothing

It’s a shaming summary, and surely an incontrovertible one. But its well-founded moral diffidence, its suggestion that man may not deserve to survive, is wholly absent from Our Final Century: there, the assumption is that we have only been taking what was ours. For Rees, the Earth, or at least the world, is humans. When he writes about “the world’s needs” (i.e. for energy), he means human needs. When he writes of “prospects for life beyond the Earth”, he means human life, or ultra-human life. What he hopes that his book will achieve, he says in the preface, is to show how crucial it will be to deploy “new knowledge optimally for human benefit” (still putting back nothing, then). In fact not just the world but the whole cosmos, as Rees prefers to think of it (and he’s a professional cosmologist), has this same human reference: he quotes with approval the mathematician Frank Ramsay, who wrote in 1931, “I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens . . . My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.” We don’t need to ask, then, exactly whose “existential risk” that centre in Cambridge is studying.

The assumption is that readers will share this strangely arrogant point of view. There’s a probabilistic theory put forward by Professor Richard Gott of Princeton which argues that humanity as we now find it is unlikely to be at an early stage of its career; it’s an intriguing theory, and makes a pleasant break from epidemics, meteorites, etc., but Rees calls it “far from cheerful”, since “none of us welcomes a new argument that humanity’s days may be numbered.” None of us humans, he means of course, not us earth-dwellers, for surely Gott’s idea would raise a world-wide clamour of pleasurable expectation among the other species if only they could understand it.

Even so, “none of us”? I try to keep up with the science which, as Rees says, “is surging ahead at an accelerating rate”, with its “benign applications” in one prosthesis, and “new hazards” in the other. Much of it is wholly obscure to the amateur – and of course even most scientists are amateurs in each other’s specialist areas, a fact which tends to favour the hazards – but some of it is patent enough. In the journal Science, for instance: still a few weeks behind, I’m attempting the issue of 4 October. Here there’s a report, all too easy to understand, on the international trade in wild-life, and one on the “staggering decline of bird populations”. Then among the research articles there is one about how juvenile zebra finches are taught by their parents to sing, or rather how they can be force-taught to sing without parental guidance by means of “optogenetic manipulation of a synaptic pathway connecting auditory and vocal motor circuits to implant song memories”. A link is provided to some video material, which shows these birds performing in their wretchedly alien laboratory surroundings. But not for long, evidently, because the birds were then “quickly decapitated”, after which “The brain was removed from the skull and submerged in cold (1-4˚C) oxygenated dissection buffer . . . “ etc. Meanwhile another research project has involved collecting the brains of pigs in slaughterhouses – this part of their bodies being “readily discarded by the food industry” – and attempting to show that not just cell samples but the whole brain may be kept alive even some hours after death. As the author complacently observes, “one person’s trash is another’s unexpected model.” So one way or another it all gets used; what else is it for? Read or look where you will, there is man the great world-wide plunderer, taking “everything this old Earth can give”.

“None of us”, then? As tribal members of humanity, we may indeed feel “far from cheerful” at the prospect of an early end to our species, especially if we think about its practical details. But as impartial observers, judging things as they are rather than as they suit ourselves (and isn’t that what academic scientists are supposed to aim at?), we must surely regard the fact that “humanity’s days may be numbered” as earth’s brightest hope.


Notes and references:

Our Final Century is published in the UK by Arrow Books. Since it’s a relatively short book, 228 pages of pleasantly large type, and well worth reading in full, I haven’t put page references for the quotations.

That Hideous Strength was first published in 1945 by Bodley Head; the quotation here is from p.121 of an edition slightly revised by Lewis and published by Pan in 1956. The title is itself a quotation from a text referring to the Tower of Babel; Lewis uses the phrase for the modern scientific form of that ancient act of hubris.

The woodcut ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’ (2005) is by Sue Coe. This and other remarkable woodcuts by Sue Coe can be viewed here: https://graphicwitness.org/coe/wood.htm. For a post in this blog about Sue Coe’s art, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/



Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.


Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/why-testing-on-prisoners-is-a-bad-idea/  But I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.