The Librarian Who Caused a Scandalous Riot

There have been several references in this blog to the man who became, in 1882, Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, but little mention has been made of the man regarded as his chief opponent during the ensuing controversy over vivisection at the university. This man, Edward Nicholson, was appointed, in that same year, chief librarian to the university (Bodley’s Librarian). It was a portentous year, for then also John Ruskin was elected to a second and hectic stint as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a stint brought to an abrupt end by the same controversy.

Nicholson’s long period in office was one of the most crucial modernizing phases in the Bodleian’s history. He turned the Bodleian from a gentleman-scholars’ club into a busy and efficient university-wide institution. But his reforms, and of course his leadership of the anti-vivisection campaign in the 1880s, made him many enemies in the university. Accordingly there was afterwards something like a conspiracy to deny him the memorials to which he was surely entitled: a commissioned portrait, for instance, such as was accorded to both his predecessor and his successor, or his name attached to the collection of papers which he bequeathed to the library (they were jumbled into other collections, such as ‘Eng. Misc.’, and remain so). But he needs and deserves remembering – here in particular for the heroic stand he made against vivisection at Oxford University in the 1880s.

Burdon Sanderson came to Oxford with an established reputation as “the arch-priest of vivisection”. Nicholson too had made himself known on the subject, in a pioneering book titled The Rights of an Animal: a new Essay in Ethics, published in 1879. And it surely was new; Nicholson himself called it “so far as I know, the first systematic attempt in our language – may be in any language – to treat the question of man’s social relations to animals as a branch of moral philosophy.” But it was not the merely intellectual treatment of the subject which its sub‐title suggests. It was purposeful and practical, as indeed that telling formulation in the title – an animal –  implies: not a generality of animals, but every particular animal was claiming its rights of us. So at the end of the book Nicholson gives advice on how to turn ethics into useful effort. And that was what Nicholson was now finding himself required to do at Oxford.  

nicholson cartoon

It was not Burdon Sanderson himself, nor even the laboratory being planned for his use, that Nicholson opposed, though the controversy came to simplify itself in that way, as the cartoon illustration indicates (more about that in the notes). What he wanted was that the university should impose two conditions upon the work done by Burdon Sanderson and by all his successors at Oxford: first, that anaesthetics would be used in all experiments which would otherwise cause pain, and second, that there would be no experiments at all using domesticated animals. You’ll notice that these are conditions which UK law has yet to catch up with even now, but to Nicholson well over a century ago they seemed “morally indispensable”.

That phrase comes from the petition which Nicholson organized and presented to the university’s governing Hebdomadal Council in 1883, requesting that a distinct motion on these conditions should be put to Convocation (at that time the university’s legislature). The petition had 143 signatures to it, for Nicholson had enlisted the support of many heads of colleges, many professors (including John Ruskin) and fellows (including Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll), and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness, to say nothing of all the Oxford graduates whose MAs entitled them to vote in Convocation. But the Council rejected the petition – “an intolerable wrong”, Nicholson thought, with typical passion. He believed that his party would have won the vote; probably the Council had thought so too.

Still, to obtain the necessary land and funds for the laboratory, the Council had to get the approval of Convocation. There had already been two sessions for this purpose, but a third and fourth would yet be needed. Nicholson therefore announced that the coming sessions would be turned into that debate on vivisection which the Council had refused, and he at once began preparing for them.

Evening after evening, after his strenuous days in the Bodleian Library, Nicholson put his talents as an organiser and publicist into the push against the laboratory. Printed letters and cards, circulars and other documents went out from his house at number 2 Canterbury Road, telling academics and graduates of the university, in Oxford and far beyond, what they needed to know about the rejected petition, about Burdon Sanderson’s record as a physiologist and as a witness at the 1875 Royal Commission on vivisection, about the coming votes in Convocation, and about what the University’s Council was doing. As to this last, the Council itself had finally felt obliged to campaign for its own policy, rather than move ahead with patrician self-sufficiency (its preferred method then as now). So by the time of the second vote in 1885, as one contemporary recalled, Oxford MAs “had been inundated with leaflets from both sides, with the names of prominent men attached, for weeks before the day of debate.”

Before taking a view of the debates themselves, which were two of the most crowded and disorderly ever to have taken place in Convocation, we should pause to notice Nicholson’s courage in thus discomposing the university. He was a new and untested presence there, by no means a unanimous choice among the library’s curators (one of them thought him “vain, egotistical, and vulgar”: not a gentleman-scholar, then). The Times newspaper, with its many Oxford connections, reported the matter with some acidity: “It would be mere affectation to deny that this appointment will be viewed by many with considerable surprise.” More immediately, Vice-Chancellor Benjamin Jowett gave Nicholson warning that his activities in the campaign might be considered damaging to the library, and by implication to Nicholson’s own career with it. As to that, there survives among Nicholson’s papers a draft letter from 1884 in which sets out his response. Here are some sentences from it:

Dear Mr Vice‐Chancellor, It will be a satisfaction to me if you will allow me to make quite clear to you my feelings and intentions in regard to the matter which you spoke of this morning . . . On the matter of principle I feel as strongly as it is possible to feel, and so I consider it a duty from which I cannot deviate for one moment to do all I can to avert the practice [of vivisection] in Oxford. If the majority on February 5th [that was the third of the four Convocations] had been able and willing to compel me to resign my office on account of my action in this matter, I should have taken that action just the same . . . if Council were to propose any further grant without allowing a vote on the principle [as we know the Council in fact did] it would be our duty to oppose the grant.

I can’t find whether Nicholson actually sent, to the man who had originally been his main ally among the Curators, this bold and uncompromising letter, but he certainly acted on it.

The Convocations, then. That debate on 5 February was rowdy enough, or became so. Jowett himself presided, and the proceedings were opened by Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The professor of medicine, Henry Acland, then spoke in praise of Burdon Sanderson’s high moral character (that familiar argument: ‘trust the professionals’). Speakers against the laboratory included Dr Pope – “who, we are credibly informed,” reported the students’ Oxford Magazine, of course relishing the commotion, “spoke with a loaded revolver in his pocket” – and Nicholson himself, characteristically “bristling with little books and papers”. Unfortunately the debate got entangled in one particular animal procedure which Burdon Sanderson had spoken of in his evidence to the Royal Commission. He had called it “a beautiful experiment” and one which he had enjoyed “great pleasure in repeating” a number of times (he’s quoted thus in the cartoon). This naturally caused some vocal indignation. But now the Waynflete Professor himself, who had hitherto “leaned against the side of the arena, gaunt, grim, notable”, came forward (“received with a storm of applause and hisses”), and explained that the animal had been a brain-dead frog. The debate proper did not recover from this anti-climax (if it really was one), and the vote went against Nicholson’s party.

But a fourth Convocation was needed, and it took place on 10 March the next year. This time the university’s Sheldonian Theatre was even more crowded and the debate even more unruly. The Times on that day had printed statements from the opposing parties, making clear that it would be a major Oxford University event. One of those present recalled years later that “hundreds of non-resident graduates had come up to vote from London and the shires . . . the Sheldonian Theatre was crammed, the upper undergraduate gallery no less than the lower.” There was “row on row of ladies interested in the scene”. Those Sheldonian galleries climb steeply up into the dome; it’s a room which can look and sound precariously crowded – or excitingly so, as seems to have been the case on that occasion.

Again, Vice-Chancellor Jowett presided and Dean Liddell opened the proceedings. That imposing and celebrated Oxford figure was given a respectful hearing, but he seems to have been the last of the speakers to enjoy the privilege. Canon Liddon, a celebrated orator, came after the Dean, spoke against vivisection, and was booed. When Bishop Mackarness started to describe some of the revolting experiments being done in France and Germany, someone (so the historian Charles Oman recalls in Memories of Victorian Oxford)

got upon a chair, and led, waving his arms, a regular chorus of the word ‘name’ or ‘shame’ – I could not quite make out which. The Bishop kept his feet and tried to proceed, but the rhythmical din continued.

Another speaker against the motion, the new Professor of Modern History, Edward Freeman, well-known for his publications against animal cruelty, “was absolutely howled down.” Those who spoke in favour of the motion were no better treated, and when a clergyman sprang up and “got in enough sentences to demonstrate that he was about to defend vivisection by the example of Christ”, this absurdity so aggravated the disorder that Benjamin Jowett brought a premature end to the debate and the matter was put to a decision. The university got its way by 412 votes to 244. (The total of votes did not represent the numbers present, of course: only graduates and fellows of colleges were entitled to vote.) Charles Oman calls the event “a scandalous riot”.

A defeat then, but also a very great achievement, as Oman’s disapproval itself suggests. For Nicholson turned a project whose first two supply votes had passed through Convocation hardly noticed into a controversy which in 1884 and 1885 generated some of the fiercest passions ever witnessed in the Sheldonian. (The much more famous debate about evolution, held in the University Museum in 1860, was really a very mild affair in comparison.) He forced the whole university to take the rights of animals seriously, and to suffer a convulsion commensurate with the importance of the decision it was taking. In doing so, he gave that Oxford generation a lesson in ethics which very few of them can altogether have missed or forgotten.

One of Nicholson’s supporters in the campaign against vivisection at Oxford, writing to console him on the evening of the 1885 defeat, said “the protest will remain a valuable one, and one which we may hope will not be forgotten in the future history of the Laboratory.” Yes, a most valuable protest, and a courageous and visionary man: there are good reasons – indeed, moral obligations – to remember both.    

Notes and references:

This post has been adapted from a longer article first published in the Oxford Magazine. The full text can be read here, including a more detailed set of footnotes:

John Ruskin’s time as Slade Professor, and its abrupt end, are recounted in this blog here:

Burdon Sanderson was called “the arch-priest” in The Oxford University Herald on 27 October 1883, about the time he took up his duties as Waynflete Professor. Nicholson’s description of The Rights of an Animal comes from contemporary publicity material for the book.

The Times’s comments on Nicholson’s appointment were published on 6 February, 1882

Quotations about the Convocation debates come from Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, London, 1941, and from two university journals of the time: the Oxford Magazine, then primarily a student paper, for 13 February 1884 and 11 March 1885, and the Oxford Review for 7 February 1884

The hostile curator was Mark Pattison, writing in his journal, as quoted in an unpublished thesis in the Bodleian Library about Nicholson’s professional career, written by K.A.Manley, 1977).

The consolatory letter was written to Nicholson by the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Driver.

The contemporary cartoon shows Burdon Sanderson ‘experimenting’ upon Edward Nicholson. The ‘Blue Book’ of the caption, on a copy of which Nicholson’s hand is resting, is the Royal Commission Report on vivisection, published in 1876. As the frog indicates, the reference there and in the speech-bubble is to the “beautiful experiment” that became a theme of the 1884 Convocation debate (though the date given for this vivisection of Nicholson at the “Sheldonian Laboratories” seems to be miswritten “5th Jan”). Unfortunately I have mislaid the source for this illustration, but I thank the archive concerned and hope that the unattributed use will be forgiven.

Putting Sentience Back into Law

Today is World Animal Day, described by its present sponsor, Naturewatch Foundation, as “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”, with the aim to “make the world a better place for all animals . . . a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings.” Today is also the feast day of St Francis of Assisi who, in legend at least, saw and addressed sentience in all of nature – a noble over-estimate, if it is one at all. He is the patron saint of sentience.

St Francis 2

That term ‘sentient beings’ ought to be a tautology, but we know that in fact the truth in it needs constantly insisting upon, if we are indeed to re-make a world where so many human practices and interests have depended upon disregarding it. The formal recognition of animal sentience in law is therefore a most important and also a contentious achievement. That achievement is one that the UK government is now in the middle of attempting, with its Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill – part of the government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare (discussed in this blog on 1 June). The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 13 May, and first debated on 16 June. It was given more detailed attention in the committee stage on 6 July, and is now waiting to be further debated at the ‘report’ stage. When the House of Lords has finished debating and revising it, the Bill will start round again in the House of Commons.

It’s a very short document, consisting of just six clauses and essentially two themes: first, the concept or fact of sentience in animals, which was there in the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty but lost to UK law by Brexit; and second, the establishment of a permanent Animal Sentience Committee to alert the government to any effects which its policies may have on “the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings”. Still, this short bill has so far occupied the Lords for over eight hours of debate, with many more to come. It is evidently, then, a controversial proposal. Good, because that must mean that it really does imply change.

Of course most of the speakers in the House of Lords debates have expressly and willingly accepted that animals, vertebrate ones at least, are indeed sentient. They have said, what is quite true, that sentience is implicitly acknowledged in all British animal welfare law going back to the early nineteenth century. But I suspect that this emphasis on history, and its corollary that recognising sentience is nothing new, has a political sub-text: it keeps sentience within the traditional ethical context, where humans decide what duties they should feel towards animals. The Countryside Alliance, which has strong interests in the continuation of that ethical tradition, composed a ‘Briefing Note’ for their Lordships before the debates, in which the point is clearly made: “Of course, recognition of sentience and the welfare needs of animals is not the same as recognising that animals have rights, in the sense that human beings have rights.” And therefore, as Baroness Mallalieu said in the House, the introduction of the term into law, though unobjectionable, “is strictly unnecessary”. The Baroness is (as indeed she made clear) president of the Countryside Alliance and herself a farmer, representing then a complex of interests in keeping things as they have been.

So does the formal acknowledgement of sentience in law represent a threat to traditional practices? I feel sure that it does. One of the familiar features of debates like these in the House of Lords is the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ trope. Lord Benyon, the minister who introduced the bill (thank-you to him), said “I am proud, as I hope your Lordships are, of the UK’s reputation as a nation of animal-lovers.” Lord Trees spoke of “our proud history of protecting animal welfare”. It’s what we are and choose to do, you see, and what we therefore take credit for. But the focus on sentience re-locates the ethic; it becomes something in the animal that demands certain conduct from us. As the Countryside Alliance tacitly fears, it moves ethics along the welfare-rights axis in the rights direction.

Moreover, once out of our hands, there’s no telling what the revised ethic may require of us. One speaker feared, perhaps facetiously, that we might be told that worms have sentience. Others were concerned with the more immediate threat to ‘country sports’, shooting and fishing; in fact one of the amendments proposed during committee stage was to add birds and fishes to the single excepted species in the Bill’s working definition of ‘sentient animal’ (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens”).

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill foresees that the Secretary of State, so far from excepting species like fishes and birds, may probably wish to add species into its definition of sentient animal. Several speakers in the debates asked that cephalopods and decapod crustaceans be included now, rather than later. After all, the government has had an expert report on the sentience of these animals awaiting its attention since December 2020, and this seems sure to be affirmative. In this connection, some of their Lordships (‘lordships’ seems to be a collective term that includes females), fear that the sentience test, so crucial to the Bill, will undesirably turn the status of animals into an aspect of research science rather than a democratic ethical decision. For it will be scientists, not ministers or MPs, who decide how sentient particular animals are, though ministers will have to endorse or reject the science.

There’s surely some merit in that warning, but anyway sentience cannot be regarded as a complete foundation for animal or any other ethics. It confines the question to pain and pleasure, but life itself is a value, in worms as in all other cases, and also an implicit right once entered into – hence Professor Tom Regan’s philosophy that imputes rights to whatever can be said to be ‘subjects-of-a-life’. Still, we’re talking now about law, which never is or pretends to be the sum of morality.

Then there’s the Animal Sentience Committee, the primary purpose and innovation of the Bill. It will be a permanent and independent committee, free to scrutinize policy, whether extant or in preparation, right across government: “there are no policy exemptions”, says Lord Benyon, and “we want them to decide what issues they should look at.” (In this and other respects, the Bill is a good deal more demanding and more comprehensive than the Lisbon Treaty.) The committee’s duty will be to make sure that ministers have paid “all due regard” to sentient animals, to report on problematic instances, and to receive a response within a period of three months. In theory, then, this committee will at last formally incorporate the interests of animals (officially sentient animals, at least) in the political process, surviving changes of administration and developing its own values as it goes.

The Bill does not specify the membership of the committee, only that the Secretary of State will appoint it. But some of their Lordships seem to have a pretty clear idea of how it’s likely to behave. It will, as they variously picture it, go “roaring off” into government business “like a bolting horse”, “bossing everybody about”, “going round summoning ministers”, and generally “roaming about” Whitehall, until “we all have to discuss animal welfare the whole time and it becomes impermissible not to discuss it every time a Bill comes up.” The committee is not required, as the Lisbon Treaty does require its EU nations, to make allowances for religious and other traditional practices (though of course the minister in the case can and no doubt will do so). It might, some suggested, interfere in foreign relations, finding fault with the treatment of animals in countries which the UK trades with or in other ways has policies towards. It might even (widespread alarm at the idea) direct its baleful attention towards the use of animals in science, interfering in the administration of the 1986 Act which regulates that arena of exploitation.

Well, as to all that, if only! But it must be recalled that the minister referenced in any report published by the Animal Sentience Committee (which can indeed publish as it “thinks appropriate”) has only to “lay a response . . . before Parliament”; he or she will not have to take the committee’s advice. In fact the Green Party’s Baroness Jones predicted that the response of such ministers would “in practice be little more than listing the reasons why they are ignoring the committee.” The committee’s existence might even have the effect of relieving ministers of the necessity to think about such aspects of policy themselves, letting them fall out of the democratic process altogether. “This Bill”, she said, “is the Government pretending to do something about animal sentience.” She summed it up as “a disaster”.

An empty show, then? Or (as the Countryside Alliance fears) a “Trojan horse” sneaking “extreme animal rights activists and environmentalists” into the citadel of government? I believe that even as a PR enterprise the Act would be making a valuable point, but in practice the Sentience Committee would surely make certain it was much more than that. Of course the Bill may not survive its passage through Parliament. After all, one of the amendments proposed on 6 July was the deleting of its first clause, the one which creates the committee, which is as much as to say deleting of the Bill. However, we must hope for a better result.

You may have seen that the government has now published a response to the recent consultation about relaxing controls over the genetic editing of farm crops and animals (another Brexit dividend: see this blog for 14 March). The announced intention is to relax restrictions in the case of plants, but to leave the animals fully protected for the time being. Now there’s a case for the Animal Sentience Committee when the question comes round again, as it eventually will. Let’s hope that by then that troop of animal activists and environmentalists will be out of the wooden horse and ready for battle!

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill can be read here:

The second reading in the House of Lords (the first being simply the notice given of the Bill’s existence) is reported in Hansard here:  The committee stage is reported here:  Note that the committee stage is the point at which definite amendments are proposed, but some of them (like excepting birds and fishes from the category ‘animal’, or dropping clause 1) are ‘probing amendments’, aimed at highlighting a concern rather than actually making the changes specified. Although the debates brought out strong feeling on both sides of the argument, not very many members were present, even allowing for those who participated online.

The Countryside Alliance’s responses, as quoted, appear in a Briefing Note and on the web-site here:  These are actually quite measured though wary accounts of the matter.

The government’s announcement on the subject of genetically edited plants and animals is published here:  The subject was treated in this blog here:

The illustration shows St Francis preaching to the birds, a detail from the fresco of latish 13th century by the anonymous artist referred to as the Master of St Francis (in the public domain). St Francis has been spoken of in this blog here

and here

Philosophy at the Crick

The Francis Crick Institute in London (informally ‘the Crick’) is a huge research enterprise, “the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe”. Its ultra-modern building accommodates 1900 scientists collaborating across multifarious specialisms. The aim is “to make discoveries about how life works” and to turn these discoveries into medical therapies (one of its incorporated institutions is Cancer Research UK). Although so visibly and self-consciously progressive, this establishment which opened in 2016 is already the leading user of laboratory animals in the UK. It also supplies GM animals to other laboratories.

Crick facade

The Chief Executive Officer of the Crick is Sir Paul Nurse, the geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his research into the chemistry of cell division. Nurse is a most distinguished scientist, whose work has helped to explain what is more or less the essence of life: its ability both to replicate and to innovate, and therefore to turn from the first viable cell into a whole world of plants and animals, still on the go after three billion or so years. He has now written a book titled What is Life? Since he has unique authority to answer such a question, and since we may imagine that the monster Crick and its envisaged future are implicated in the answer, it must surely be a book worth studying.

What life isn’t, Nurse insists, is some peculiar force or substance distinct from the rest of the material world. Versions of that assumption, commonly termed ‘vitalism’, have dominated thinking in the past (even William Harvey, the pioneer of experimental biology, thought in that way), and they still survive here and there. But the contrary notion, that lives are “astoundingly complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, chemical and physical machines” is, so Nurse says, “now the accepted way to think about life.”

The book confirms and illustrates this thinking in the case of life’s smallest viable unit, and Nurse’s own specialism, the cell. Most of the book is in fact a lively biology lesson (though deplorably without graphic aids), likely to fascinate and educate anyone who hasn’t studied biology recently or gone past Ordinary Level and its equivalents. Still, it’s a popular summary, best interpreted as part of the Crick’s express ambition to “engage and inspire the public”. The book is well-designed to do that, and the purpose may explain why, for all the excursions into particular discoveries and how they happened, there is no mention of animal research. Anyway, What is Life? does answer its own question: to be called life, the book concludes, you must be a self-maintaining physical entity with the power and purpose to pass on your own natural form – either intact or with some unpredictable variance – to a succeeding generation.

Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, and one must look elsewhere for the book’s ideological force. If this book is the Crick’s address to the nation, what is it encouraging the nation, whether intentionally or otherwise, to feel and believe? Certainly it makes the machinery of life seem astonishing, as indeed it is, and Paul Nurse enjoys and insists on this – among other ways by using many an exclamation mark. A sense of wonder, then, but not merely contemplative wonder: it’s clearly linked to the activity of discovery. Some of the notable personalities and researches which have made the wonders known are sketched in, including those in Nurse’s own laboratories. There, for instance, it had initially seemed “slightly preposterous” to mix yeast cells and human DNA on a Petri dish, in order to determine whether the mechanism of cell-division in these far-distant life-forms might be exchangeable; however “it was worth a shot. And, amazingly, it did work!”   

So this book is partly about “the thrill of scientific discovery”. And in fact in its first edition it had the sub-title (subsequently dropped) Five Great Ideas in Biology, which clearly made the life-scene a function or aspect of the human mind. Well, of course it is that in some sense but, as Nurse concedes, life did get on without human awareness, let alone understanding, for almost all of its unimaginably long history.

Perhaps there’s only just a distinction here, between wonder at the phenomena of life, and the excitement of knowing about them. But I think that the distinction is brought out by the place which humans enjoy in the life-scene as viewed by Nurse.

He does make the point again and again that “we humans are related to every other life form on the planet”, including, of course, the yeast cells which he first worked with. He also insists that this puts upon us a responsibility “to care about it” and “to care for it”. In this can be seen how much has had to be learnt since a previous celebrated attempt on this same subject, William Beck’s Modern Science and the Nature of Life, published in 1957. That’s a book which likewise persuaded its readers against vitalism, tracing the gradual revelation of the chemico-physical basis of life, and incidentally foreseeing exactly the work for which Paul Nurse earned the Nobel Prize. Having established that there is no other-worldly motive taking care of things, Beck concluded that “Man . . . is going to have to look after himself.” And he gave it this portentous last line: “Man has already done much, but it is dawn, not midnight, and, in the gathering light, he looks magnificent.” (No smirking, please; this was 60 years ago.)

That is not Nurse’s attitude at all, but still he does take for granted that humanity is a special case. A recurring feature of the book are the short runs or lists of life-types: “towering forests, swarming colonies of ants, huge networks of underground fungi, herds of mammals on the African savannah, and very much more recently, modern humans.” In these lists, humans seem always to come at the end like that. The suggestion is irresistibly that humans are indeed the culmination, or at least the point of rest. And there is no encouragement to efface our special interest: Nurse habitually speaks of “we humans”, “ourselves”, “our own”, “us humans”, even “our world”.

what is life cover

I’m sure this is deliberate, part of the “engage and inspire” policy; and after all, his readers all are humans. Still, the net effect is not so different from William Beck’s more candid heroics. And I believe that it leads to a subtle misrepresentation of the true case. In the later part of his book, where Nurse speaks (in rather general terms) about the necessity of science as a means “to make life better”, he includes among the beneficiaries of this amelioration “the ecosystems that we are an inextricable part of”. Well, are we? Certainly we can’t do without the ecosystems, but they could surely do perfectly well – much better, in fact – without us. We are extricable. It’s strangely anthropocentric not to acknowledge or even notice this.

You may have remarked in Nurse’s definition of life as reported above the rather surprising idea that life has “purpose” – surprising not just because this seems a distinctly mental property for entities which include single cells, but also because Nurse often calls organisms “living machines”. But of course the purpose in question is a matter of action or behaviour, not thought. What we observe in these machines are “purposeful behaviours that have evolved because they improve the chances of living things achieving their fundamental purpose, which is to perpetuate themselves and their progeny.” And in his chapter about evolution (one of the ‘five great ideas’), Nurse qualifies the term, speaking more accurately of “the apparent purposefulness of living things [my italics].” Meanwhile evolution itself, the great biological machine to which all these lesser machines are subordinate, operates “without any controlling intellect, defined end goal, or ultimate driving force.”

Seemingly purposeful behaviours in the toils of a purposeless will: the tragic pathos of this situation is not remarked upon by Nurse, who doesn’t pretend to give philosophical or moral commentary (though he is fairly free with generalized phraseology of the “vast and awe-inspiring universe” sort). But looking to future research, especially research into the nature of consciousness, he does believe that it will need co-operation “between the humanities and the sciences”, and he specifies the contribution of philosophers. Certainly I was impressed, reading What is Life?, by the natural fit it would make in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer – who did believe, in his turn, that philosophy should be able to account for the natural sciences.

Contemplating the world now pictured for us in What is Life?, Schopenhauer inferred a great impersonal and impartial drive activating all lives, lending them temporary purposes which they think (in the case of humans) their own, urging them into procreation and pitilessly discarding them. He called this drive the Will, and he said this about it:

It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature which is manifested.

This Will is not itself life, it is not even evolution (which is simply one expression of its ceaseless push within life), but it’s the existential condition for all the lives which Paul Nurse writes about. And what it especially adds to Nurse’s account is the unity of all life not just as to cellular structure or basic genes (which of course Schopenhauer, writing in the early nineteenth century, didn’t know about), but as to experience: all lives are helpless vehicles of the one Will, are therefore part of the one experience. We aren’t just relatives of those ants, fungi, forests, and herds of mammals; in all but the externals we are them.

Schopenhauer is sometimes said to have ‘demoted’ humans in his thinking: no, he just didn’t start with an assumption of their special status; he didn’t promote them. Notably he didn’t give them special rights over any others. Accordingly, he hated and denounced vivisection. Paul Nurse is right: we need him and his like at the Crick.

Notes and references:

Quotations about the Crick are from its web-site at

What is Life? was first published by David Fickling Books in 2020. The quotations are from the paperback edition of 2021. It’s not a long book – 212 pp. in large well-leaded type. It’s also authoritative, informative, and pleasant to read – therefore well worth reading, though the concluding remarks about climate change, the future, etc., are unsurprising and only of interest because an influential scientist is saying them.

Modern Science and the Nature of Life, by William S. Beck, was first published in 1957. Quotations are from p.292 of the Penguin Books edition of 1961.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is quoted from the Dover Books edition of 1969, vol.1, p.110. The two-volume work was originally published in 1819 and 1844.

Marching, Speaking, and Doing

The National Animal Rights March for 2021 was organized by members of the group Animal Rebellion, and took place in London last Saturday afternoon. The starting-place was Smithfield, the UK’s largest wholesale and retail meat market. With its long history of cruelty and violence, and its setting in London’s centre of finance, the City, representing the rule of the money-interest, this was a very well-chosen venue. In fact it was here, in October last year, that Animal Rebellion set up their plant-based market alternative, beautifully picturing the one viable food-future open to us. And even the more general Extinction Rebellion campaign, radical and eloquent as that is, evidently needs this persuasion. Its current leaflet, as distributed at Smithfield, puts second-to-last, in its ‘What can I do?’ list, ”cutting down on meat”. A placard at Saturday’s march stated the case more accurately and urgently: “Go Vegan, or Go Extinct”.

Smithfield banner

The route for the march took in three stopping-points at noted counter-vegan institutions. There was Cargill, for instance, whose holdings and own operations make it the largest (in the sense most profitable) food business in the world. Despite its plant-leaf logo, tastefully topping the ‘i’ in its name, this company controls the impoverished lives and violent deaths of billions of animals every year. Animal Rebellion calls Cargill the “silent giant”, and certainly it keeps itself anonymous at its London headquarters, 77 Queen Victoria Street. Like so many companies, it prefers to boast about its work (“committed to helping the world thrive) in the nowhere-land of the internet. By the way, the italics for ‘thrive’ are Cargill’s own, so you can see how earnestly sincere it is about this aim.

Then there was the Marine Stewardship Council, round the corner at Snow Hill (the police running ahead of the march to guard the doors at each next stop). This is an organization whose “vision . . . is of the world’s oceans teeming with life”. Plunderable life, that is, for the MSC’s hope is that, by not over-fishing, we can make “seafood supplies” (sometimes known as fishes) lastingly available “for this and future generations”. Our speaker outside Cargill’s offices, Tim Bailey, had told us that the pain of slaughter, however small the animal, was “exactly the same”. This assertion was quoted in news reports, perhaps because it feels like an over-statement or at least tendentious. But we don’t have to know whether it’s true or not, for the right to live is certainly nothing to do with large or small. And therefore the speaker outside the MSC’s headquarters, Laila Kassam, quite properly re-defined ‘over-fishing’ as any fishing”.

March at MSC

One of the founding organizations for the MSC was Unilever, whose offices were the march’s first stop. This is another giant enterprise, which hoovers up successful brands, mainly cosmetics and foods, and makes their profits its own. Most of the conventional ice-creams one’s heard of, for instance, seem to belong to Unilever, for of course it’s not a vegan-friendly enterprise. It is, however, publicly committed to animal-free research (“we do not agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of our products.”), and it posts an interesting video on Youtube about modern alternatives (linked in the notes below). It’s even been commended for its research policy by PETA.

However, as Animal Rebellion says, Unilever sells its products in countries whose governments require animal tests even for cosmetics – notably China – and the enormous volume of Unilever’s international trade therefore ensures that it’s still implicated in animal testing on a large scale. Unilever claims that “Doing good sits at the heart of everything we do”, but it’s the shareholders whom it aims to do good to first of all, something which a march round the City’s money-shuffling institutions makes more than usually obvious. And I doubt that those ice-creams, beverages, shampoos, soaps, and detergents, in so many varieties of packaging but otherwise insignificantly differing within their categories, do anything like as much good for their consumers. Certainly they aren’t worth the life of a single animal.

There are two other reasons for being wary of Unilever’s claims. One is that its newer animal-friendly values come after a very unpleasant history of vivisection. Work being done in the 1970s at Unilever’s own laboratories in Bedford was instanced by Richard Ryder in his pioneering book Victims of Science (the testing of shampoos and soaps in the eyes of rabbits). The same establishment was the scene of a mass raid and exposé by activists in 1984. In the trials which followed that event, one judge called the defendants “enemies of society”, and 25 of them were sentenced to a total of 41 years of imprisonment. More recently, in 2013, Unilever was one of a number of large food businesses said to be testing foods and drinks on animals, in order to justify health-claims.

The second reason for wariness is the bumptious jargon in which the company speaks to its public. “Our philosophy is quite simple,” we’re told: “Live from the Heart!” This is the explanation of “our heart-shaped logo . . . a sign that says ‘here there’s joy!’” How could one possibly trust this sort of sickening hyperbole, or suppose that anyone actually working at Unilever takes it seriously? The similarity of style with Cargill’s gush about “helping the world thrive, or the Marine Stewardlship Council’s vision of “teeming” oceans, reminds us that addressing the public on any aspect of Unilever’s business is a specialism within the company, a profession in itself; this is not the company’s collective voice, not even the voice of the company board. The heart-on-sleeve sentiment is just the fashion of the moment in public relations. It says nothing informative about the reality behind it, and certainly doesn’t underwrite that. Therefore the ethic which first persuaded Unilever and other such businesses away from animal-testing needs to be kept clearly in their sight, and they need to be kept in ours. That was the purpose of the mass visit on Saturday.

Nobody could put the case, or represent it in person, more authentically than the speaker at that point, Mel Broughton. As he told us, he has been putting and living the case for forty years and more: “I’ve seen some terrible things in my time.” In fact he was there at the 1984 raid on Unilever’s laboratories. Not that Mel was making a personal claim for attention. It’s the mark of his commitment to non-human animals that he’s simply purged of vanity and self-interest: a remarkable lesson in personality. And anyway, Mel’s immediate theme was not the past, or even Unilever’s reformed present, but today’s front line in anti-vivisection: the beagle-breeding establishment in Cambridgeshire called MBR Acres (the initials stand for the American owner, Marshal Bio-Resources).

Mel speaking

MBR Acres looks like a factory farm, and that’s indeed what it is, holding about 2000 animals at any one time in sheds with no outdoor runs. The dogs – beagles, because they are small and biddable, indeed trusting – are kept in a germ-free environment, and trained to accept inhalation-masks and injections. Then at 16 weeks or so, they are put into crates and transported to laboratories near and far for use in research. MBR beagles must have constituted a majority of the 4340 dogs used in British research last year, mostly for ‘repeated dose toxicity’ tests. These testing regimes may last for periods of less than 28 days, or up to and beyond 90 days. Such periods represent the likely remaining life-span of the MBR dogs, though some of them survive for re-use. The ordinary life-span of a beagle is twelve years or more. Yes, this is factory farming all right; it’s just that the dogs are being force-bred to be poisoned rather than eaten.

There’s a ‘Camp Beagle’ outside MBR Acres, protesting against, and as far as possible obstructing, the operations. Mel Broughton described the scene, with police crowding at the site entrance, and police vans escorting the MBA vehicles as they carry the dogs away: “We could hear those dogs crying in the back.” There are several videos online showing all this, in one of which can be heard a human crying too, a terrible addition to the distress. Film-clips also show the animals inside the facility, being crated and stacked in the vans. It was film of MBR Acres which is said to have shocked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She has demanded a re-examination of the use of animals in research, with a view to their eventual replacement. Very probably this project will fade into oblivion, as most progressive political schemes do. And anyway, as Mel said, “We’ve waited long enough, for 40 or 50 years . . . This has to end now, and we have to be the ones to do it . . . What all these animals want is liberation, and you are the people who will deliver that liberation. Don’t give in. Believe in what you’re doing.”

Mel Broughton is a most forceful public speaker, using no notes, prompted only by conviction and purposefulness. But as another notable speaker, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, said, “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” Can speaking, or even marching, get things done? Well, they do get things noticed, get things minded, and get things intended. Without those preliminaries, nothing collective gets done; with them, liberations have indeed been achieved in the past, and this of the animals surely can be too. But as Animal Rebellion says, “We must act now, before it is too late. It’s time to rebel for all life.”

Notes and references:

Animal Rebellion describes its 2020 occupation of Smithfield Market, and its thinking generally, in an excellent post here:

Animal Rebellion has published an open letter to Cargill here:

The Marine Stewardship Council’s policies are described on its web-site here:

Unilever’s policy on safety-testing is presented here:  and the video showing the modern alternatives is here:  Its earlier work is mentioned in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science, Davis-Poynter, 1975, pp.48-9, and a description of the 1984 raid and subsequent trials is given in Keith Mann’s From Dusk ‘til Dawn, Puppy Pincher Press, 2007, pp.87-91. The BUAV’s exposé of Unilever and others in 2013 was published in the Daily Mail, as archived here:

MBR Acres is shown at work in a video made by Free the MBR Beagles here:  Other material about it, and about Camp Beagle and the campaign, can be seen here:

Lloyd George is quoted from a speech given at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and reported in the Times for 20 January. The quotation has been used before in this blog on 26 August 2019 for the post ‘March of a Nation’.

The final quotation from Animal Rebellion comes from a general account of its 2021 actions here:

The photographs show the march setting out from Smithfield Market, the stop outside the Marine Stewardship Council (with police and pink octopus at the entrance), and Mel Broughton speaking outside Unilever’s headquarters.

The Horse Misused

On Monday 19 July, the BBC documentary programme Panorama took a view of one wholly unglamorous aspect of horse-racing – the fate of the many thousands of thoroughbred horses that ‘leave’ racing each year (about 7000 in UK alone), or that never show the capacity for it. Some hundreds die on the track. Others die in training, for it’s an unnaturally demanding life, and the horses are bred for speed not strength or stamina; one such was the horse Morgan, a seven-year old whose corpse the trainer Gordon Elliot was recently photographed using as a convenient seat while making a phone call. Some horses are lucky enough to be placed by the industry’s own Retraining of Racehorses scheme, though they make problematic companion animals and nervy riding. Then there are the thousands, not publicly spoken about, that are simply destroyed.

Horses at Drurys

Much of the material for Panorama’s ‘The Dark Side of Horse Racing’ came from investigative work done by Animal Aid, including film secretly taken at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse in Swindon, which specializes in equines (destined for human or animal food). Astonishingly there were indeed race-horses finishing their lives of service there. They included three that had at one time been in Gordon Elliott’s stables in Ireland, and had raced successfully for him, now trucked over to Swindon to die. The contrast between the moneyed and showy world of racing as publicly visible, and these sordid, uncared-for and violent endings, seems especially treacherous and shameful, but the film showed all varieties of horse and pony suffering in that place. There were former pets, special breeds, and wild ponies, some being shot ‘correctly’ (muzzle of the gun against the forehead), some illegally from a distance (“as if you’re on safari”, said Panorama’s presenter). Also illegally, some horses were being shot while others stood next to them. The handling was rough and impatient, the language foul. So “Welcome to F. Drury and Sons” where “all welfare and processing are done to the highest standards”.

At the very end of Animal Aid’s newly published leaflet on the subject, Horse Slaughter in the UK, comes the moving and very proper statement, “we do not think that horses are more important than any other poor animal who enters a slaughterhouse. We campaign for all of them – including horses.” Someone who shared this point of view about the animals, but for a more or less opposite reason – in that he wished them all to share the lower standard of respect – was by chance the subject of another BBC programme a few days after ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’. Radio 4’s weekly obituary programme ‘Last Words’ reviewed the life and work of William ‘Twink’ Allen, a pioneer of research into equine reproduction. Professor Allen considered that racing was being deprived by the Home Office of the rewarding possibilities of reproductive science (for instance, it wouldn’t allow him to clone horses) for purely “political” reasons, simply “because the horse is an emotive species.”

Not that Professor Allen didn’t like horses: “I would not have become a vet if I did not like animals”, he has said. (No doubt the vet supervising the massacre at Drury and Sons would say the same.) In one of the many obituaries published in professional journals, a colleague calls Allen “a genuine horse-lover”, illustrating the sincerity by citing his enthusiasm for hunting. Indeed, Allen was co-founder of Vets for Hunting, a lobby group since re-named with less tally-ho as the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. But whatever may have been his personal feelings for horses and other animals, the moral context for his relations with them, and in particular for his research, was severely practical, not to say rudimentary: “a domestic animal”, he told a House of Lords committee in 2002, “is man’s product, essentially for man’s use. It would not be there unless man had decided to produce it. We either eat it, have entertainment with it, ride it, use it for sport, or whatever.” That committee included the distinguished ethical philosopher Baroness Warnock, but Professor Allen was not seriously challenged on this or any other aspect of his ethics or practices.

And certainly, in the case of the horse, he had “decided to produce it” in every possible way, with or without the natural co-operation of the animals. His various obituarists seem particularly to relish the story of a two-day car journey which he made from Cambridge to Krakow in 1976, transporting six Welsh pony embryos stored in the oviducts of a pair of rabbits. On arrival the embryos were extracted again and introduced into ‘recipient mares’. As far as I can understand the account published at the time in the Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, three of the Krakow mares became normally pregnant, though what became of them or the embryos after this success (or of the rabbits, for that matter) is not stated. Who cared, after all? The point is that “the ligated rabbit oviduct would seem to provide an eminently suitable means of temporarily storing and transporting horse embryos.”

Of course ‘normally pregnant’ is not quite the right wording. The report of this research is crowded with drugs, and with surgical and other interventions, necessary to induce synchronized oestrus (sexual receptivity) and ovulation in the mares, and to effect the transfers: injections of synthetic prostaglandin, “daily teasing with a stallion”, blood sampling, “palpation of the ovaries per rectum, flushing out of the embryos with “Dulbecco’s phosphate-buffered saline”, ligating of the rabbits’ oviducts – all this before we’ve even left Cambridge. It’s not such a fun story after all, then.

A great deal has happened in horse-reproduction research since 1976, much of it carried through by Professor Allen. But the wastefulness, the gruesome interventions, and the grotesque impropriety of the Krakow project have lived on in what came after. Even the names given with bluff facetiousness to the ‘donor’ ponies at the Cambridge end – Choc-Ice, Dairy Cream, Iced Lolly, etc. – seem to have been part of a tradition: when Allen created the first-ever identical twins, by “bisection and reconstruction” of a horse embryo, the names given to them were Quickzee and Eezee – ‘man’s products’ indeed, being clearly branded as such. Incidentally, Allen’s own persisting nick-name ‘Twink’ had been conferred on him in childhood, as a corruption of Rip Van Winkle, although ‘Twink’ himself was wholly unlike the amiably indolent and laissez-aller character of that story. Professor Allen was not just highly industrious but, as the radio obituary said, and as his research career vividly evidenced, “endlessly curious”.

He was fascinated in particular by the possibilities of embryo transfer between different species. Ten years after the Krakow report, for instance, he was transferring embryos from two Przewalski’s horses (a Mongolian wild horse species) and two Grant’s zebras, kept at London Zoo, into various ponies and donkeys at Cambridge. That didn’t mean four embryos in all: eleven early-stage embryos were taken from the Przewalski’s horses (after 18 “collection attempts”) and fourteen from the zebras (after 25 attempts). Following the transfers, there were twelve pregnancies, of which six reached natural term, producing four live foals, three of which survived. That’s the maths summary. Behind it was a year-long story of drugs and surgery, forced waste, and suffering: still-births, abortions, and premature deaths of foals, involving for the recipient mares “abdominal discomfort . . . non-infective polyarthritis . . . pregnancy toxaemia syndrome . . . acute painful polyarthritis”, and so on.

This particular project was presented by Professor Allen and his co-authors as evidence that “extra-specific embryo transfer may be a useful aid to breeding exotic equids in captivity.” Well, that’s always been a declared aim of the big zoos, to breed for conservation, and a large part also of their official justification for mass-confining animals for show, though it deals with exactly the wrong end of the problem of species decline. Accordingly, the research was supported by the London Zoological Society.

More surprisingly, that same research was part-funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association. But in fact the interests which these two organisations stand for have provided the principal motive and most of the funds for all of Allen’s research into ARTs (assisted reproductive techniques). They were indeed the sponsors for Allen’s Equine Fertility Unit at Newmarket, set up in 1989 and the place where much of his work was done. And of course what they wanted and still want from such research is not conservation of zebras, not even (except incidentally) improved health in race-horses, but a better return on the money invested in horse-racing: winners, in short. For as Professor Allen told the House of Lords committee, “you are paying very large sums of money to have a particularly valuable mare covered by an even more valuable stallion, and you lose that money when the pregnancy is lost.” But it’s not just a case of ensuring pregnancies. Moving embryos between animals can free up valuable mares for racing or for further breeding; it can multiply progeny and improve the chances of raising a winner. Other ARTs, such as artificial insemination and cloning, offer similar scope for the thorough exploitation of winning genes.

But strangely, since the racing industry funded so much of Allen’s research, it still does not allow horses that have been force-bred in any of these ways to be registered for either breeding or competition. In fact, the Equine Reproduction Unit was closed down in 2007. Of course Professor Allen was exasperated by this conservatism. He often pointed out that traditional breeding is wasteful and inhumane. It certainly is inhumane, but not because copulation is inherently unpleasant for horses. The cruelty comes from hard-driving it for commercial purposes, in order to mass-produce winning potential. Allen’s researched alternatives simply shifted the burdens of this unnatural demand onto a different set of horses, with different sorts of imposed suffering. That the racing establishment has not after all accepted these alternatives, whose cruel rehearsals it has been funding for all these years, is just another variation on the industry’s habit of squandering life.

In fact the logo for horse-racing organizations should be, not the horse’s head so much favoured, but the whip, representative image of the force which characterizes the industry’s relation to its breadwinner from start to finish. It may be said that Professor Allen’s hubristic researches at the one end, and Drury and Sons’ bloody work at the other, don’t fairly summarize the whole enterprise. For many years I lived next to a National Hunt training stable, and there, far from the race-courses and breeding establishments, it was easy to admire the beauty of the horses, the skill and courage of the riders – especially of the stable lads, who do generally respect and understand their allotted horses – and in fact the whole picturesque ensemble. But it is indeed an industry, and the horses have to make it pay. Human selfishness, impatience, and cruelty are therefore not accidents but systemic to it. The whole unhappy truth has been brilliantly presented in Animal Aid’s various reports over the years. I urge you in particular to watch its new four-minute film about horse slaughter, linked below, and to sign its current parliamentary petition here:

horse corpse

Notes and references:

The title phrase comes from William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’: “A horse misused upon the road / Calls to Heaven for human blood.”

Animal Aid’s ‘Horse Slaughter in the UK’ can be viewed here: Warning: it’s a record of scarcely credible callousness, including scenes which the Panorama programme considered too distressing to show on television. Other reports on Animal Aid’s web-site include ‘Bred to Death’ ( and a summary of its various race-horse campaigns here:

Panorama’s ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’ can be viewed (at time of writing, anyway) here:

The quotation promoting Drury and Sons comes from their web-site at

The account by Allen and others of the Krakow project was published in the journal Reproduction and Fertility in August 1976, and can be read online here: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/387.pdf  The twin foals are spoken of in a brief account of his own career by Professor Allen here: Other quotations are taken from the evidence which he gave, on 5 February 2002, to the House of Lords select committee convened to examine the workings of the 1986 Act: The report on ‘extra-specific’ embryo transfer was published in the journal Reproduction in May 1987, and can be read online here:

The obituary quoted on Allen’s love of hunting was published by the British Equine Veterinary Association here:—6-June-2021

The first photograph is from Animal Aid’s film, and shows three horses arriving at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse. The second is the one referred to in the opening paragraph.

Killing Our Way towards Immortality

In a TEDx talk given in 2017, the neurosurgeon Sergio Carnavero asserts that the time for head transplantation “is now.” The special problems of such an operation have been solved, he says, notably by his own “head anastomosis venture” – deliberately thus named, no doubt, to produce the tasteful acronym HEAVEN. With a cowboy swagger in his movements and indeed in his talk, he informs the audience that this development will have “changed your lives forever . . . the world will never be the same again.”

Demikhove dogs, 1954

The idea of head transplantation has interested and exercised some few surgeons for over a hundred years, the exercise part being carried through, of course, upon animals. A celebrated instance was Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dog of 1954 – made celebrated by the Soviet Union authorities, that is, though the dogs survived wretchedly for a few days only (Demikhov went on to do more of the same). But the surgeon so far best known for this type of research is the one whom Carnavero speaks of at the beginning of his talk: Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and scientist working at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio. This man is now the subject of a biography written by the medical historian Brandy Schillace, and titled Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (page references to this book are in square brackets).

Schillace cover

Previous operations of this kind had really been upper body transplants, as the pathetic image of Demikhov’s dogs shows. Dr White, however, was aiming at a reconstituted human, and he therefore worked with severed heads and decapitated bodies. In 1965 he re-made six dogs in this way, using six donors and six recipients. The results ‘lived’ from 6 to 36 hours after the surgery. Meanwhile he had practised isolating the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys and servicing these brains from the blood supply of their detached bodies or of intact fellow-monkeys. (At this period of rehearsal, there were apparently 300 heads of monkeys, “frozen or floating in alcohol”, stored in his laboratory [104].) Then in 1970 he took the next step, completely transplanting the heads of four macaques onto the bodies of four others. One of these operations is fully described by Dr Schillace on her book. The reconstituted monkey in this case survived “for almost nine days before the body rejected the head” [126]. During that time, the monkey was completely paralyzed, because there was no way to re-connect the spinal cord.

So here is another research-scape of mutilated and short-lived animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and monkeys have all been made to serve this cause. And what really has the cause been? In 1989, Ingrid Newkirk, of the recently founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, publicly debated the matter with Robert White in his home town, Cleveland. She accused him of exploiting the animals “only to prove what you have the skill and the power to do” [185]. In reply, White very reasonably instanced the patients whom his more conventional work as a neurosurgeon had saved. Characteristically, for he enjoyed showmanship, he brought one of them along to illustrate his case: “I would like to introduce a guest. Carla, could you stand?” (Sensation!) [187]. But he couldn’t bring along anyone saved by head-transplantation, because there hadn’t yet been such a person (nor has there been now). Moreover, he could not envisage an operation which would leave the head in control of its alien body; it would be using that paralyzed body only as a life-support system, just as those macaques in their brief new lives had been. But then even the fully integrated human body was properly understood, so White asserted, as “a machine for the brain” [69]. (Is this how one would like one’s doctor, or indeed anyone else, to think?)

Dr Schillace reckons that White prevailed in that debate, but there is evidence in the book that supports Ingrid Newkirk’s accusation against him. White was fascinated by the surgical technology of the operation, and proud of what he and the teams of professionals he led could do (the Humble in the book’s title refers to a sobriquet he used for himself as a joke: ‘Humble Bob’). When the monkey whose operation is described in the book showed returning signs of intelligent life (intelligent enough to try to bite Professor White’s hand), we’re told that “the operating room erupted in cheers. Several team members danced; one of them screamed.” [125] But the book’s photograph of the monkey’s suffering face does not seem to warrant that triumphalism, and one of those present has more recently said of the experience, “It was just awful . . . I don’t think it should ever be done again.” [220]

Although Dr Schillace puts, in the course of her book, some of the ethical and even spiritual questions raised by Robert White’s research, he himself does not seem to have been greatly interested in them. That may partly have been because White was a comfortably orthodox Catholic, not inclined to re-think ethics. True, he was an advisor to the Pope on medical ethics, as chairman of the Vatican’s commission on the subject, but that meant strictly human-related ethics; above all it meant the rather pragmatic question, what counted as dying and what didn’t? White insisted that it was in the brain that the soul resided or at least made its earthly connection; as long as the brain worked, the soul had not departed, and so personal life continued. The heart, formerly viewed as the core of personhood, was part of the “machine” only. You can see why this way of looking at the human body, now well-established, would help to justify White’s research project. For otherwise, taking the functioning body of a vegetating person, and using it to service the head of a person whose own body had been failing, might be viewed as premature or even criminal.

I don’t know that Professor White ever more than hinted at the idea that head-transplantation might be a means to everlasting life (Carnavero does distinctly say so, and the absurd acronym HEAVEN must be taken to imply as much). That would surely involve an orthodox Christian in serious difficulties. But the nature of the operation does at least suggest a clinging to earthly life at all costs – and the costs would certainly be enormous, not just in professional resources but also in the engrossing, on behalf of one patient, of a complete set of donor organs which might individually save several lives. I don’t mean to trip up his theology in this matter – what would be the point? – but here was a man who believed that our “God-created immortality”, so Shillace tells us, was what “differentiated humans from all other animals.” [197] You’d suppose, then, that those dogs and monkeys had a lot more to lose by premature death than we humans, who will apparently be going on to much better things. And it would surely be the animal in us, rather than the immortal soul, which shrinks from death. Why devote such riches to that secular motive, then?

But for White the soul privileged us just as much in this world as in the next. He called himself “an elitist”, and his outlook was indeed elitist through and through: the natural world served humans, and the human body served the brain, and the brain served the soul, and the soul served God. For all the advanced science, it’s a ruthlessly traditional supernaturalist outlook. In such a scheme, the bulk of animated life on earth is just a serviceable context; it has no status of its own.

Even in 1990, when he’d had some experience of the animal rights argument, and some practice in responding to it, White could see nothing there: “Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue”, he wrote in an essay for an academic journal of bio-ethics [171]. He also actively promoted this point of view (if one can call it that) to a more general audience too, as the debate with Ingrid Newkirk illustrates. In fact the simplicity of his thinking suited Reader’s Digest rather better than it did a highbrow publication like the one just quoted, the Hastings Center Report (he published in both). In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer describes White’s ethical arguments as “comparable to maintaining that the earth is flat”. It’s characteristic of those arguments that his knock-down point in that Cleveland debate, after which he felt entitled to rest his case (“I really don’t know what else to say” [187]), was to associate anti-vivisection with Adolf Hitler.

However, Professor White did not anyway consider that such questions were properly decided by argument, philosophical or not. In ethical matters, he said, “there are no navigation maps” or, as Dr Schillace paraphrases it, “The only lodestone is a man’s conscience.” [219]  One must surely respect a conscience which has been exercised or at least informed by the constant practice of life-saving surgery such as Professor White’s clinical work required of him. Or is that naïve and even sentimental? It’s one of the sad effects of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher that it seems to answer ‘yes’ to that question. An untroubled conscience surely ought to be a contradiction in terms, outside gangland anyway, but it’s the primary mark of White’s ethical simpletonism that he seemed to possess one. About those monkeys, for instance, Schillace says of him, “He had no qualms whatsoever.” [231] A producer for the film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, for which White was employed as medical consultant because the plot involved some gruesome transplanting of heads, found him “supremely untroubled by the implications of his work.” [231]

Well, perhaps he had fought his way to that serenity, through all the trials and agonies of medical practice, including a period as a trauma surgeon, as well as the gruesome demands of his chosen research? But no, serenity isn’t quite what we see in him; self-assurance certainly, impatience of scruple, a disconcerting flippancy. As to this last, we’re told that he was “well-known for practical jokes” [67]. The immediate illustration of this trait is an elaborate jape involving a road accident and the brain of a cow collected from a slaughterhouse – too elaborate to retell here, even supposing I wanted to. On another occasion, he provided a sandwich lunch for himself and some others, including a priest present on ethical business, at an operating table on which there also lay the ex-sanguinated and apparently dead body of a dog. After lunch, the professor revived the dog, thereby showing that since he had kept the brain alive (by cooling it, a technique pioneered by White himself), he could make the rest live again too: ‘Maybe like Christ?’ suggests White to the priest “with a mischievous wink”. [189]

I doubt the complete veracity of both these stories, but probably only because I’d much prefer that they weren’t true. They do fit his personality; otherwise Dr Schillace herself surely wouldn’t have believed them. That wink certainly is all too credible, and there are in the book many other instances of White’s taste for tricks and facetiousness. For Schillace, these boyish moments help to humanize her subject, and in fact she goes in for homely touches of all kinds for the same reason: brief glimpses of “unflappable” wife Patricia, of the kids (one “soon to be driving”, another “would soon be out of diapers”), of White’s pipes and cups of coffee. But such evidences that White was just as human as you or I are rather beside the point. This was a man who enjoyed being referred to as “the new Modern Prometheus” (The Modern Prometheus being the sub-title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein), and who told a symposium of transplant scientists that, with head transplantation, we had reached and crossed “the last frontier”. “We venture into the void” he grandly said, “and we will go on.” [158] It’s not practical jokes, ten children, and addiction to pipe and caffeine, that will convince us that such a man is entitled to lead us into the void (if someone must, which is altogether doubtful). Some very much larger-minded person is required: for a start, one who won’t assume it right to hustle weaker animals into it first.

And now a new man is forcing the pace into that void. Sergio Carnavero has a more unorthodox and perhaps more apt cosmology to go with it (he regards the brain as the “filter” for a world-consciousness). He has even more of the bumptious showman in him than Robert White had. He firmly believes that he and his colleagues have solved the problem of the severed spine – solved it in animals, of course, for behind his research too there’s a trail of ruined animals. It may be that head-transplantation is indeed possible, even imminent, though most neuro-scientists deny one or both. It may be that it’s a legitimate project, for all its gothically transgressive implications; just as likely, it’s a hugely expensive fantasy. Either way, it will never have justified the animal mayhem which has serviced it.

Notes and references:

A Tedx talk is one that uses the TED format but is organised independently of the TED organisation. Carnavero’s talk is actually “flagged” by TED as “speculative” and raising “practical and ethical concerns”. It can be viewed here:

Most of the information about Robert White is of course taken from the book Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (Simon and Schuster, 2021). I should add that the author is naturally much more aware of animal-related ethics than Professor White was, and in fact shows that White’s research did much to galvanize the animal rights movement of the time. ‘Dr Butcher’ was a name given to White by animal rights activists.

Other historical and technical information comes from a 2016 article in Acta Chirurgica, online here – – and from a 2019 article in Maedica: a Journal of Clinical Medicine, online here:

In Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, pp.75-6, White is quoted calling himself an elitist during a press interview; his point there is that decisions about animal research should be made by medical professionals and not by outsiders. In addressing lay audiences on the subject, he always urged them to deplore and resist federal or state regulation of the practice.

The familiar ‘Hitler argument’ is discussed in this blog here:

The photograph of the dogs shows the results of Demikhov’s 1954 operation.

Animal Research in the Year of Coronavirus

Statistics of live-animal research in Great Britain during 2020 have now been published by the Home Office. There was a total of 2,883,310 procedures, a fall of 15% from the previous year’s 3,401,517. So here too there was a Covid-boon for the animals; the notional 500,000 or so animals that might have been used in experiments, but weren’t, join the other groups of animals that found space, quiet, or simply survival as a consequence of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, because this relatively dramatic reduction to a level last seen in 2004 is candidly admitted by most of the practising institutions to be a freak of the moment. As Edinburgh University cautions on its web-site, “Please note . . . It is expected that these figures will increase in 2021 as more standard working patterns resume.” And anyway it may be that the 500,000 didn’t after all survive. It can’t be known, because numbers of animals killed without ever being used in procedures are only collected for one year in every five, and the next year to be counted will be 2022.

There is, at any rate, no reason for anyone to take credit for the reduction in numbers. In fact, rather ominously, there seems to have been no inclination to do so, or to celebrate it at all; rather, the pandemic has been seen by animal-research institutions as a boost to their confidence and reputation. The tone has been set by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), whose Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett says in her official statement,

Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments . . . The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed, and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.

UAR has indeed “worked with research institutions”, and it’s noticeable how prompt they’ve all been to declare their part in the 2020 numbers, and to use UAR’s publicity material to help them along. Even so self-sufficient an institution as Cambridge University (now exceeding Oxford University in animal numbers) presents its ‘Research news’ largely in UAR’s words and format, just adding a word or two from their own Establishment Licence Holder.

The Medical Research Council (third biggest user of animals in 2020, and financer of other users) has a special web-page providing “examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against Covid-19”. But the examples are being used to make a more general point, for we’re told that the expertise employed in this Covid research “is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.” Both past and future of animal research are being justified by today’s “fight against Covid-19”, then. Indeed, taking an even more expansive advantage of the present situation, the MRC’s page makes this grand assertion: “Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases.” Now we know why some people survived the Black Death. The case is complete.


Another important point made by the MRC about this animal research is that it has “helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against Covid-19 [my italics].That’s certainly very gratifying, even if one hadn’t formerly pictured the research as an international competition. And no doubt it explains why UAR’s table summarizing the numbers is presented against an image of the Union Jack (though properly it should be the ‘British flag’, since Northern Ireland is not included in these numbers), with a strong red and blue colour-theme carried through in the layout. You see, it’s patriotic, it’s British, to experiment on animals.

In fact, for Understanding Animal Research there’s an exciting spirit of competition even within the nation. Alongside the more or less factual presentation of the 2020 statistics, we get a page headed ‘Ten organisations account for nearly half of all animal research in Great Britain in 2020’. This so-called “Top ten list” has become a traditional feature of its annual reporting, but now it’s being taken up by the individual institutions themselves. Glasgow University, for instance, re-publishes UAR’s table, proudly highlighting its own seventh position. Since all these institutions advertise (they’re required by UAR’s Concordat to advertise) their commitment to reducing the use of animals, the word ‘top’ seems incongruous, and the whole approach has always puzzled me. But then how can a list headed by the gigantic Francis Crick Institute (“Discovery without boundaries”), the University of Cambridge, and the MRC, be anything other than a variety of medal table? So it’s a PR device: these are the high achievers, and this is what they do, so it’s a good – indeed a glamorous – thing to be doing. And that advertised commitment to the 3Rs (reduction, etc.) comes across accordingly as a sort of modesty, taking the swagger out of the boastfulness: shucks, we try not to do this, but we just can’t help doing it awfully well.

Oxford University, coming fourth in this table, has not altered its animal-research pages for the occasion, except to edit the numbers themselves. However, a statement from its ‘Covid-19 vaccine team’ appears in UAR’s pages, explaining that the testing of its vaccine on rhesus macaque monkeys was done by Public Health England (at Porton Down) and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. This farming out of the tests partly explains Cambridge’s higher placing this year: that university used 41 non-human primates in 2020, compared to Oxford’s 15. Come on, Oxford!

So much for the publicity. As for the numbers themselves, it’s difficult to see any special pattern in them, aside from the temporary reduction, the Covid-dividend. As ever, the species most commonly used was the mouse, especially in procedures aimed at the production of genetically altered animals: altogether, over 2 million mice were used. These mice, with rats (notably more of these than last year), fish, and birds (mostly chickens), accounted for over 95% of all procedures. The number of horses continues to rise (to 10,790); they were mainly used for blood products. The number of cats also went up, by 11% to 146; no explanation is given, but 62 of the cats were apparently wanted for regulatory testing (i.e. tests required by national or international safety regulations).

This latter class of procedure, forming about one third of all experiments, is the worst of them for cruelty, and not by chance the one least spoken of by research apologists. Whereas about 4% of the experimental procedures are classed as causing ‘severe’ pain or distress (it’s 2% for breeding procedures), for regulatory testing in particular the rate is 9%. Six of the cats fell into that category, and 11 into the ‘moderate’. Dogs of course were there in much greater numbers: 4340 of them were used in regulatory tests, of which 9 were classed as ‘severe’, and 1013 as ‘moderate’.

Neither dogs nor cats should have been there at all, in any category or any laboratory, but then nor should any of the other animals. The whole set of statistics is a record of selfishness and cowardice; in fact the re-iterated justifications for such research – that it’s essential for human health, and the necessary condition of all medical progress – even supposing them true, are just a less embarrassing way of saying that same thing.

Notes and references:

The animal research statistics for 2020 were published on 15 July. They can be viewed here:   The tables of data are published separately, and the link to them can be found on this page,

The two presentations from Understanding Animal Research are here:  and (with the ‘top ten list’)  The animal research pages of the ten institutions are linked here, but note that both Glasgow and the MRC seem to have thought better of the ones from which I have quoted, and as far as I can see they are no longer accessible.

There’s a good oppositional response to the annual statistics from Naturewatch, which also asks what happened to the good policy intentions published in 2014/15 (for which see this blog on 8 August 2020): Naturewatch also suggests actions to take, including e-mails to government ministers, with sample text offered here:

Harry Harlow, the Undead

Catching up with my back copies of the Journal of Neuroscience, I come across a paper with this title: ‘The Signature of Maternal Rearing in the Methylome in Rhesus Macaque Prefrontal Cortex and T Cells’. It’s a clear enough title, if hard going for amateurs, but the reference to the maternal rearing of monkeys ought to be a tautology. Is there any other sort of rearing? Yes, indeed there is, as the research protocol soon makes clear: rhesus macaque monkeys [nineteen of them] are randomly assigned at birth to differential rearing conditions by either their mother or an inanimate, cloth-covered surrogate.” Among the effects of the less natural infant upbringings, we learn, are “emotional and social disturbances . . . behavioural abnormalities . . . inadequate social skills . . . increased voluntary alcohol consumption.” The ‘signature in the methylome’ and so on are the corresponding neural evidences of these distresses. (Incidentally, that word “voluntary” has its own unhappy story to tell.)

If something seems unpleasantly familiar to you about this research, then one of its lead authors, Professor Allyson Bennett, is the very person to correct you. Writing less formally, in fact in ill-advised satirical style, she has posted a sort of mock news-story on the web-site of Speaking of Research (she’s a member of its governing committee). “Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged”, says the heading, and the text begins “The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil on Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over thirty years ago.” There follows some lumbering fun with the theme that philosophers and animal activists have relied on Harlow as a sort of bogey-man to discredit animal research. Then Professor Bennett brings in, by way of contrast, a group of “fringe” philosophers who aim at “cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues”. This sounds a bit solemn in the context, but it’s meant seriously, for their message is, again, Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought plus action.”

Professor Harlow did indeed die in 1981, and, contrary to what Bennett supposes, it would be wholly welcome news to find that he was dead also in the sense intended by her: i.e. that the research methods, values, and attitudes represented in his experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys were discredited and finished with, that his story and theirs was over. But it isn’t, and what keeps it alive is not its campaigning value, such as that might be; it’s his fellow-professionals.

Here, then, is the explanation for Harlow’s deathlessness, and that article in the Journal of Neuroscience is a good place to start. Among Professor Bennett’s co-authors (thirteen of them) is Stephen J. Suomi. Back in the 1970s, Suomi was one of Harlow’s star post-graduate students and his assistant in some of the notorious ‘pit of despair’ research into infant isolation. He has since continued that work in various forms, creating “monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption” among many other achievements, as cross-references in the article show. Indeed, those citations go right back to a paper of 1976 titled ‘Effects of maternal and peer separation on young monkeys’, which he co-authored with Harlow. And now Professor Suomi, who must be at the senior end of that line-up of co-authors in the JN article, is evidently passing on the Harlow legacy to younger practitioners. After all, the last sentence of the article is looking forward: “Future experiments need to examine . . .” I’m sure that some of those other thirteen will be keen to oblige.

Of course, to say that more research is needed is a common enough winding-up trope; it was certainly one that Harry Harlow himself favoured. See, for instance, a paper which he wrote in 1965 about causing brain-damage to six new-born macaques by feeding them too much of the amino-acid phenylalanine in the milk of their artificial mother. At the end of it, he plants suggestions of uncertainty: “probably”, “perhaps”, “one suspects”. These unresolved things are for others to pursue. Or they might, he suggests, set about over-feeding “other amino acids” to other monkeys, on the same principle. Allyson Bennett rightly calls Harlow’s work “groundbreaking”, and Harlow meant that ground to be thoroughly developed by others as well as himself. He promoted macaques as behavioural models, manipulable in ways which he pioneered. He devised specialized cage-systems and holding-equipment for them. He lent out his ‘prepared’ infant monkeys to other institutions. He spoke of his work to public as well as professional audiences. Above all, he trained a new generation of scientists in the discipline which he had created. As an obituary in the American Journal of Primatology said in 1982, Harlow was “a legendary source of inspiration”.

clear pic with sur-mother

When Harry Harlow began his studies, he had to use monkeys at Madison’s zoo; by the time he retired, the university had about 500 in its own colony. Now Wisconsin is a national focus for primate research, accounting in its various primate research laboratories for 8,782 of the total of 68,257 non-human primates used in US laboratories in 2019. The focus of the behavioural part of that research is, of course, the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, which is indeed where Professor Bennett does much of her work. And even as she insists that the eponymous Harlow himself is dead, she asserts – what is indeed patent at Madison and far beyond – that his “discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding . . . etc.”  If I understand that sentence correctly, the verb ‘cast’ must be a present tense: the Harlow light is still brightly on.

In short, Professor Bennett is a bit like Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells the crowd “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, but then shows and indeed ensures that Caesar’s name and fame are as efficacious as ever.

Perhaps recognizing some contradiction here, Bennett has a go at de-toxifying Harlow’s reputation. The really controversial research, she says, the research which has “served as a touchstone [is that the word she wants?] for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others”, was done for “a brief time at the very end of his career”, and consisted in only “a small number of studies”. The most controversial of these, “known by their colloquial name pit of despair (actually Harlow’s own name for the isolation device which he had himself designed), involved fewer than twenty monkeys, who were “placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of six weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.” In other words, it’s all been exaggerated by that “bioethics community” for political purposes.

But no. Harlow was already reporting such studies in 1965, at least ten years before he stopped work (see the 1976 article referenced above). And what he said then – in a short summary for the journal Science, titled ‘Total Social Isolation: Effects on Macaque Monkey Behaviour’ – was that sixteen macaques (plus at least two “semi-isolated” monkeys as controls) had been put into isolation chambers “at birth”, without sight of any other living being, for periods of three, six, and twelve months.

Bennett’s corrective information is wrong, then. But even if it weren’t, that isolation research was no late aberration. It was one of countless variations upon a steady theme: the producing of mental disturbance in infant monkeys. We’ve seen that this wasn’t being done with changes of circumstance only. Those monkeys overdosed with phenylalanine had likewise been taken from their mothers at birth, and their various pathetic symptoms (convulsions, hyperactivity, head-banging and self-biting, circling the cage, complete torpor) may not have been much better than those suffered by the poor isolates, who at least got unpoisoned food. Among the other material interventions tried out by Harlow were bilateral frontal lobectomy, alcohol in the diet, and radiation.

Remember that these half-ruined young animals were then being tested for mental capacity (the psychology of learning had been Harlow’s starting-point in research). Those torpid monkeys, for instance, “had to be prodded to complete a trial.” Force was indeed a common recourse in the Harlow laboratory – a curious feature in studies supposedly revealing “the fundamental building blocks of human behaviour” (as the Association for Psychological Science believes they did). When Harlow wished his mother-deprived female monkeys to try out motherhood themselves, he got round their natural refusal with what he called, colloquially, the “rape rack”, though in print he was rather more coy about it: “By methods dark, dismal, and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years” (the “we”, in this case again, were Harlow and Suomi, in 1971). Incidentally, we’re told that “several” of these forced mothers passed on the violence by killing their importunate off-spring.

I won’t assess here the claims made by Professor Bennett for the human relevance of all this research, since the subject has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (‘How Not to Treat Babies’: see link in notes). However, she also more surprisingly claims that the research was relevant and helpful to non-human animals. At a time when they were regarded by most people as “dumb machines” and “automatons”, so she says, Harlow showed how mentally complex animals really were. So he did animals good, you see, even as he tormented them.

Actually, were they commonly regarded as automatons? The first federal law to protect animals in general was passed in 1966, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been particular legislation in their interests (at slaughter, during transport) well before that, as well as state legislation, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded a hundred years back in 1866. The ASPCA’s chief mover, Henry Bergh, spoke with passionate indignation against vivisection. The truth is that Harlow’s work was controversial at the time; in fact two Congressmen tried (unsuccessfully) to block a federal research grant for it in 1962. Nor do I find that Harlow anywhere took from his research any implication that favoured the interests of non-human animals. What he told his public about was not monkeys as sentient beings with corresponding claims on our respect, but monkeys as live models or pioneers of any and every mental disaster that could be imagined. And heaven knows, Harry Harlow had a fertile imagination in that respect.

And here we come to something about Harlow which Professor Bennett doesn’t attempt to manage, perhaps doesn’t quite appreciate, but which has helped to ensure his conspicuousness in the modern history of vivisection. Even in his publications, he seems to gloat over the strange sufferings and perversions that he creates. We’re told in the obituary that he was “an unusually gifted writer”. Certainly he liked fanciful alliterative phrases. You’ll remember those “methods dark, dismal and devious”. The obituary recalls him speaking of the “bold and barren splendor” of his wire and cloth surrogate mothers. Observing his (male) monkeys on their release from isolation, and their pathetic attempts to relate to their new associates, he looks for “the ecstasies and elegances of masculine play” and “the full grandiose gifts of masculinity”. Fine writing possibly, but with a creepy relish about it. In fact a colouring of perversion affects all Harlow’s work and writing. He’s a man one wouldn’t leave alone with the children, and it’s an abiding tragedy that he spent his life freely practising upon their like, and made a legacy of the habit which is still creating work for his successors. Yes, he lives on all right, and therefore the contention over the kind of reputation he ought to have is, in spite of what Professor Bennett says, completely proper and indeed necessary to our continuing attempts to make medical science a humane pursuit.

NIH lab c.2009

Notes and references:

The Journal of Neuroscience article is in the issue for 31 October 2012, vol. 32 (44), pp. 15626-15642.

The ‘Harlow Dead’ post on Speaking of Research’s web-site can be read here:

Suomi’s monkey models of depression and alcoholism are instanced in a statement by the American Psychological Association defending this “world renowned researcher” from “a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr Suomi’s laboratory by the organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” See

The report on induced phenylketonuria in rhesus macaques was published in Science, 12 February 1965, pp.685-95.

The obituary of Harry Harlow, written by Stephen Suomi and Helen Leroy (Harlow’s assistant as editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology), can be read here: It includes a bibliography of Harlow’s publications.

The 2019 animal research numbers in the USA, including the figure for each state, can be found here:

Harlow’s report ‘Total Social Isolation’ was published in Science on 30 April 1965, p.666.

The quotation from the Association of Psychological Science, one of the many scientific institutions which have expressed unconditional approval of Harlow’s work, can be found here:

“dark, dismal, and devious . . etc.” is quoted from a paper titled ‘Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, July 1971, vol.68, no.7, p.1535. Here Harlow was experimenting with ways to cure the monkeys of their induced psychoses.

The relevance or otherwise to human babyhood of Harlow’s experiments is discussed in this blog here:

The photographs show baby macaques with surrogate ‘mothers’ then and now: that is, in Harlow’s laboratory, and in a National Institutes of Health laboratory a few years ago.

The Coming of King Unas

The formerly accepted story of Easter Island, in the southern Pacific, saw the place as a cautionary fable of human delinquency. This remote territory was first peopled by Polynesians arriving in their canoes somewhere around the end of the first millennium AD. Over subsequent centuries, so the story went, they felled its forests in order to transport on tree-trunk rollers their strange and wonderful carved heads or moai to the chosen sites. Then, finding themselves in a created waste-land, they fought each other for what was left, even resorting to cannibalism, and were finally discovered by European explorers in the eighteenth century as a miserable remnant on an island scarcely habitable.

In his book Humankind: a Hopeful History, the historian and journalist Rutger Bregman shows how this story came about, and he corrects it from twenty-first century researches. There were no civil wars, no cannibalism. The inhabitants were found fit and well by their first visitors, but then succumbed to visitor-borne diseases and even, during the nineteenth century, to enslavement. Left to themselves, Bregman says, they would have got on perfectly well – without their trees, certainly, but even that wasn’t really their fault. It was probably the rats hitching that first ride with them centuries earlier who did the damage, as well as extirpating most of the native fauna. And anyway the space released from forest was used for successful agriculture. “The real story of Easter Island,” Bregman concludes, “is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom [i.e. a model of what we’ll soon have done to the whole planet], but a well-spring of hope.” [136]

Two aspects of that story in particular illustrate Bregman’s larger argument in the book. Humans in their original or natural condition (more about what that is later) are not delinquents and cut-throats, committed to what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “war of all against all” [109]. The Lord of the Flies vision of human life on a desert island collapsing into savagery is a species-libel (which Bregman puts right in its turn). Rather, humans are by nature resourceful, mutually helpful, and adept at managing conflict before it becomes damaging. The trouble – aspect two – came with the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life (not that the Easter Island people ever quite practised that) to life lived in fixed and populous settlements, which happened progressively from about 15,000 years ago. Bregman calls it the “biggest mistake of all time” [246]. With settlement came cultivation, ownership of land, warfare to protect or enlarge property, diseases promoted by the proximity of humans and animals, and above all the pathology of rank:

The 1 per cent began oppressing the 99 per cent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. [104]

Institutionally over, that is. But the ‘hopeful’ part of Bregman’s case is that if once we stop misrepresenting ourselves as a vandal species kept in precarious order by the artifices of civilization, those values will re-arise as the ones we trust and expect in our common life, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Still, Easter Island itself isn’t any better off for the revision of its story. It remains a denuded place, with a ruined flora and fauna, whose few survivors from pre-human days (mainly insects in the case of the fauna) are under threat from the newer scourge of tourism – for the island has an airport, of course. This doesn’t seem to enter as a problem into Bregman’s thinking. He’s a humanist in the restricted sense, for whom our vis-à-vis with other animals is just a mirror, helping us to look at ourselves, rather than a test and judgement, helping us to know what we’ve been worth to the planet. Hence his remark in an interview about most people being “pretty decent”: “it’s actually the reason why we have conquered the globe; you know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can’t.”

In Bregman’s vision of things, then, we’re essentially our own audience, and likewise the winners or losers by what we think and do as a species. Still, there is a complementary history of other species caught up in what we’ve done, and it’s detectable there in the book’s shadows. After all, the coming of ownership as a concept and practice included ownership of lives. It was a radical change, as Bregman notices: “It couldn’t have been easy to convince people that land or animals – or even other human beings – could now belong to someone.” [102] He suggests at one point that the Old Testament myth of expulsion from Eden may have been telling this story of change from free nomadism to settlement and agriculture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3.19). Certainly that change marked the primal fall in our relations with other forms of life in the world. It’s a catastrophe which we have only just started to undo; conceding ‘sentience’ to some animals (see previous post) is as far as we’ve officially got to date, even in the avant-garde countries.

Not that pre-historic humans left other animals alone; they were hunter-gatherers, after all. But they were taking their chance in the predation lottery, and it’s clear also, from the early cave-paintings, that they felt some respectful fascination for their prey and for other creatures. These animals generally appear both large and vividly present, warty pig 15 Jan 21 compared to the smallness and perfunctory representations of humans, if any. (Bregman’s point about these paintings is that there is no warfare in them.) But what exactly the human attitude was towards any of these animals (humans included) is a highly speculative subject of its own, because of course little else has been left behind by them.

It’s a point poignantly illustrated by the anthropological collections in Oxford University’s own Ashmolean Museum. There’s hardly anything to show about the lives of the hunter-gatherers: set against panoramas of open land, a few hunting weapons in a glass case or two. So lightly did they tread on the earth! Then come the civilizations, with ominous section titles like ‘New Technologies’, ‘Building an Empire’, and ‘Sumptuous Lifestyles’. A ‘pyramid text’ (tomb inscription for a pharaoh) says

King Unas comes, a spirit indestructible.
If he wishes you to die, you will die,
If he wishes you to live, you will live.

So you can see what Bregman means. Of course, he concedes that humans have now mostly freed themselves from civilization of this predatory kind. Over the last two hundred years, we’ve found that organized societies can work for the common benefit (he instances health, prosperity, human rights, even, relatively speaking, peace): “The curse of civilization can be lifted,” he says [114]. But meanwhile, as he doesn’t say, our species continues to play King Unas to all the others. That pyramid text is implicitly pinned up at every animal facility in the world – pinned on the world, in fact.

Humankind should be compared to another ambitious survey of the human career, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011, discussed in this blog on 25 May 2018). Bregman argues that we’re a fundamentally decent Humankind species (notice the way the title is divided on the front cover), corrupted by the pathologies of civilization; Pinker tells the story of civilization as a progressive putting right or at least mitigation of our natural savagery. But in fact these two very different interpretations produce the same net message. One reviewer of Pinker’s work called it the “glad tidings” that humans are much better than we thought and feared: it will now be “much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future.” Or as another reviewer says of Humankind, it “will give you good reason to feel better about the human race.”

It’s pleasant to feel better, of course, but whether it’s an honest state of mind in this case, I doubt. Whatever we’ve been able to make of ourselves, we’ve certainly made a latter-day Easter Island of much of the planet, driving other lives out of it, or making of them dependents to our King Unas. Bregman approvingly quotes Jan Boersema, the professor who de-bunked the old Easter Island myth, saying “not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially.” [136] We can fix it, in short. It’s what Pinker says too. But it may be that the self-distrust which these books have supposedly cured was a truer reflection both of our real merits in the world and of the type of solution that will work. Giving ground, morally and literally, is likely to be the only remedy that helps other species as well as our own, and it demands some measure of diffidence.

The great twentieth-century poet W.H.Auden grappled in his later writings with this question of what it is that spoils our species,

who, from the moment
we first are worlded,
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to.

As these lines imply, he believed that humanity was inherently flawed, in fact the heir to original sin in the Old Testament sense. But I mention this not just because Auden was expressing a moral and spiritual diffidence on our behalf; he was also directing this confession to its proper audience, for the title of this poem written in the last year of his life was ‘Address to the Animals’. It’s true that they can’t know or profit from what we say to them (“very few of you / find us worth looking at”, is how Auden puts it), but we shall never understand ourselves, or hit upon our proper business in the world, unless we find a right relationship with the animals who were enjoying it for so long before “we upstarts”, as Auden calls us, arrived figuratively in our canoes.

Notes and references:

Humankind was first published in the Netherlands in 2019; quotations are from the English edition of 2021, published by Bloomsbury. The Better Angels of our Nature was published by Penguin Books in 2011. The quoted reviews are from extracts given in the books’ own prelims. Although the two books are dealing with the same question, and cover some of the same material (in fact Bregman expressly rejects some of Pinker’s evidence and conclusions), they differ very much in form: Better Angels is a formidable and scholarly book, two or three times a long as the other; Humankind is well but selectively evidenced, chatty and engaging in style, distinctly the work of a journalist (though an excellent one, who frequently warns his readers against daily news as “a mental health hazard”).

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here:

W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Address to the Animals’ was first published in the New Yorker, 8 October 1973. Another poem, ‘The Sabbath’, is a briefer treatment of the same subject, where the animals agree in deploring the mistakes made on the sixth day of creation.

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see



No Duty More Imperative upon the House

Finally a bill has come before the UK Parliament which expressly recognizes animals as “sentient beings”. The concept – or rather, fact – had been established in European Union law by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and therefore was a part of what was lost with Brexit. Now it’s been re-introduced in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, published earlier this month and due to be debated first in the House of Lords on 16 June.

Of course the acknowledgement of sentience in other animals has been implicit in animal welfare law from the beginning and yet apparently thought compatible with such glaring maltreatment over the years as vivisection and factory farming. Nor did putting the idea into the open in the Lisbon Treaty seem to do animals themselves much good. Still, the new proposal does (or may) take the matter a good deal further. Its long title is ‘A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. This committee is to be a permanent institution, watching for, and publishing reports on, any government policy, planned or being put into effect, which the Committee considers “might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” To any such report, the government is required to respond within three months, and then to pay “all due regard” to its recommendations “in any further formulation or implementation of the policy”.

Section 5 of the Bill, titled ‘Interpretation’, defines the word animal (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens, though invertebrate species may subsequently be added) and also vertebrate itself, but not the word due (so we won’t know how much regard is required), nor the key word sentience. But this last word is anyway being continually enriched with meaning, and the Bill will presumably have to grow with it. For instance, since 2016 there’s been an excellent peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject and titled Animal Sentience, and the London School of Economics recently announced a five-year project of research on ‘the Foundations of Animal Sentience’. Even the trendy habit of using the short form ‘ASent’ is probably a promising sign of growth. As the LSE says, “In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers . . . has begun to emerge.”

Although there’s something dismal about the phrase “interdisciplinary community”, the thing itself must be good in this case; I’ve yet to come across research which shows any species of animal less sentient than previously thought. And the really significant advance represented by the Bill is that the interests of these sentient animals will have to be taken into account across all government activity, whether existing law covers them or not. In conservation matters, for instance, not just net gains and losses of various animals will have to be considered, but the felt harms or benefits involved for them. There’s a genuine moral advance here, supposing it’s properly applied.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is part of the UK government’s larger Action Plan for Animal Welfare (note the cute initials: can it have been intentional?). The Plan includes various other promises, including an end to exporting of live farm animals, better labelling of animal-derived products, better protection for “sporting animals” (a curious expression), an end to the keeping of primates as pets, and many other improvements. Some of these are already in hand: higher sentences for cruelty to animals will come into effect on 29 June. Other promises are noticeably tentative. As to a ban on the importation of all and any animal furs, for instance: “we will explore potential action in this area” (I count three put-offs in that sentence). Animals in research get a bit of both, the promise essentially being to stand still, or “continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection”.

The Secretary of State responsible for the Action Plan is George Eustice, who made the Plan public on 12 May during a visit to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He began his speech there with the inevitable words “We are a nation of animal lovers.” The familiar boast (critiqued elsewhere in this blog) is not well-evidenced by that chosen setting, a poignant asylum in South London for abandoned pets, but at least there’s more to it than patriotism on this occasion. The Action Plan expresses several times the intention to “take the rest of the world with us” in setting higher standards of animal welfare, and to make that intention felt in trade and other international dealings. I’d say that the phrase “animal lovers”, especially without a hyphen, is more likely to raise a foreign smirk than do much persuading. In a parliamentary speech which George Eustice made in 2018 during a debate on the testing of cosmetics, he spoke in similarly sentimental terms: “Animal welfare is dear to my heart, and dear to all our hearts.” Let’s hope that the UK’s “international advocacy on animal welfare” will be put across with more ethical force.

In George Eustice’s introduction to the Action Plan, the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ claim is supported with a reference to the world’s first law for the protection of animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822. That law was certainly a momentous achievement: as one MP said at the time, it “consecrated the principle, that animals ought to be protected by legislative interference.” But it can’t be seen as a typical product of the national character. It followed a series of thwarted attempts to persuade Parliament to do something for animals, and was itself followed by similarly defeated bills aimed at extending its protections to other domesticated animals. The Act’s sponsor, Richard Martin (incidentally an Irishman, MP for Galway), was a stubborn and pugnacious personality; he really did have ethical force. His face shows as much (see below) – the stubbornness and force at least. Without them he surely wouldn’t have been able to bring his 1822 Bill through to success.

Martin's Act trial

The primary means of opposition in the House of Commons was that most destructive of its weapons, ridicule. Reports of the debates on the Bill, and on the various amendments to widen and enforce its measures which Martin tried to introduce in the following years, are punctuated with “laughter”, “loud laughter”, “noise and laughter”. MPs would ask him why he didn’t include other species, whose mere mention they thought would tend to bring his project into contempt and ridicule: asses, hares, cats, rats, lobsters. Something of the attitude is suggested in a contemporary painting which imagines a donkey giving evidence in court of offences against the 1822 Act committed by his master (the young man to his left, cocking a snook). The title was The Trial of Bill Burn, under Martin’s Act, and it illustrated a comic song of the period on that theme: “If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go / D’ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no!” I read those repeated no’s as sarcastic, but at any rate the picture (shown here reproduced in a print) has everyone except the principals enjoying a good laugh.

Sometimes Martin spoke angrily about this hilarity and the “invidious sarcasms” thrown at his proposals: “The learned gentleman may laugh,” a parliamentary report has him saying to the Attorney General, “and no doubt he considered him and his case as a fit subject for ridicule, but he could tell him it was not a matter of ridicule elsewhere.” But he was never punctured. He was witty himself, and could turn the jokes his own way. When Martin was trying to have bull-baiting and cock-fighting prohibited, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, argued that upper class field sports were just as ‘cruel’ (implying that nobody would think of putting them down); good, replied Martin, then they too should be banned, and “he did, therefore, call on the Home Secretary to do so, and to begin the salutary reformation by recommending to the King, whose adviser he was, to put down the royal hunt, and dismiss the royal stag-hounds.”

At other times, Martin would check the frivolity of MPs by giving them instances of the cruelty and barbarity which he had seen or been told of. One of these concerned the physiological lectures then being given in London by the French professor Francois Magendie, involving “most horrid and most wanton” experiments on dogs. This attack on a distinguished visitor caused some indignation, and Martin was told anyway that he’d got the facts wrong. His answer was reported thus: “he knew that what was spoken in that House was privileged from the action of libel; but he desired, in order to decide the real merits of the question, that such an action might be brought, and with the view of enabling professor Magendie to commence the action, and to obtain evidence to support it, he had gone down that day to St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had there repeated the statement, as nearly as possible in the terms in which he had before made it in that House.”

It was a characteristic performance. In 1824, Martin wanted to amend the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act so as to authorize members of the public actively to apprehend a person seen ill-treating an animal, rather than just reporting them. It was Martin’s own habit to do so, and that same Attorney-General spoke in the House against the proposal thus: “He knew from the zeal which the hon. Member had heretofore displayed in the cause of humanity, that not a week would elapse before he would be forced into some desperate conflict in attempting to enforce the law.”

Martin was nick-named ‘Humanity Dick’, and it needs adding that his ‘humanity’ was not solely directed towards the welfare of non-human animals. Human distresses, including slavery and the sufferings of debtors, engaged his energies too. It seems that he sometimes paid the fines of those whom he had brought into the courts under his Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. After all, the punishment of individuals was incidental; what he aimed at was a change of attitude and practice. And in fact that change, so a fellow-MP could say already in 1825, “might be seen in every market in London.”

Richard Martin

In 1826, Martin’s own debts obliged him to take refuge in France, where he remained for the last years of his life. He wasn’t a saint-like man. I can find no talk from him about loving animals or any other such touching rhetoric. But there was blatant abuse of animals in the streets and the cattle markets of Britain, and he persuaded the state that it should take notice and action. He wasn’t able to build on that success himself, but the principle was established. He encountered all those improvised objections, in their earliest vigour, that we still hear in their antiquity (being now employed, for instance, against legislating for sentience): it’s impossible to administer such laws; there are other more important laws to deal with first; they’ll hurt the poor; where will it stop (with cats, oysters, insects?); a different set of animals is more deserving (i.e. put it off); and of course ridicule. Martin faced all these down, and after those few years of harassing Parliament on this subject, his achievement is reflected in this momentous statement reported in the speech of another MP, John Maxwell: “There was no duty, he [Maxwell] conceived, more imperative upon the House than that of affording protection to animals.”

Astonishing to see that being said nearly 200 years ago! And correspondingly puzzling and dismaying that there is still so much to do. At any rate, now is a good moment (George Eustice was right in this) to recall and feel gratitude towards the man who forced a reluctant nation to make a start – not on loving animals, fine and proper as that may well be, but on treating their feelings and interests with the respect due to those of all sentient beings.

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill (it’s very short) can be found here:  The Action Plan for Animal Welfare is here:

The LSE’s sentience research project is announced here:

The 2018 cosmetics debate is reported in Hansard’s parliamentary records here: The quotations from speeches made in debates in which Richard Martin was involved between 1821 and 1826 are reported in Hansard and linked here:

The post in this blog which discusses the phrase and notion ‘animal-lover’ is here:

Apart from online material, there are good accounts of the life and character of Richard Martin in E.S.Turner’s excellent All Heaven in a Rage (Michael Joseph, 1964) and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, also online), whose entry on Martin is written by Richard Ryder.

The portrait of Richard Martin is a print from a painting in the collection of the RSPCA, of which (as the SPCA) Martin himself was one of the founding members in 1824. The aquatint from a painting, Trial of Bill Burn, was apparently made in the late 1830s. More details about it, including a version of the song from which the quotation above is taken, can be found online here: