An Oxford Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

How to Imagine Mice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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