In Search of the Meaning of Life

The phrase ‘meaning of life’ is hard to take seriously after its association with the Monty Python film of that name. And the motive behind it, the quest for a comprehensive explanation of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, was the subject of another celebrated send-up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where after more than seven million years of high-powered attention to the question the computer named Deep Thought produces the answer ‘42’. Both of these satirical treatments are spoken of in a more serious attempt on the subject by a former professor of English at Oxford University, Terry Eagleton. His book The Meaning of Life is published in the Oxford University Press series of ‘very short introductions’, and it is indeed short (101 pp), as well as witty and unsolemnly learned. Eagleton shows how the decay of institutionalized religion has raised the “meaning-of-life question” into urgent view, and he looks at some of the flawed or impenetrable answers given by philosophers, as well as at the less-cerebrated answers which others of us have implicitly lived by, well or badly.

Eagleton’s sympathy is with this second category of answer more than with the first. His own answer is of course partly that no answer is possible, at least no answer of the thorough-going ‘42’ kind. Instead, he “takes the meaning-of-life question out of the hands of adepts or cognoscenti and returns it to the business of everyday living”, and he says this:

The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.

Eagleton’s immediate illustration of what he means comes from Saint Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks of the ending of the world (chs 24-5). There, it turns out that the momentous business of personal salvation, to which earthly life has been directed as its final meaning, will depend on the ordinary kindness we have shown. It is, so Eagleton says, “an embarrassingly prosaic affair – a matter of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned.”

But his preferred authority is not the Bible, but our “specific kind of nature” as humans. Our “species being”, he says, makes us not just insistently gregarious, in the manner which the gospel illustrates at its essential best; it makes us also “individual beings who seek our own fulfilment.” How then to “reconcile our search for individual fulfilment with the fact that we are social animals”? The answer is to arrange life so that it is “a common or reciprocal project”, in which “the flourishing of one individual comes about through the flourishing of others”.

This human reciprocity Eagleton calls ‘love’ – in the sense of the Greek word agape, something more like fellowship – and he means it with such earnestness that, in a rare rhapsodic moment, he writes of our thus “sharing in the love which built the stars.” He then summarizes his offered answer in a more mundane but appealing image: a jazz group freely improvising, creating a music which is at the same time self-expression on the part of individual players and a “medium of relationship among the performers”. If we could only “construct this kind of community on a wider scale”, Eagleton concludes, we might indeed find the meaning of life, or at least make life meaningful.

For all the exhilarating intelligence and sagacity of this survey of the subject, it’s patently unsatisfactory. I’m reminded of what Albert Schweitzer says about Aristotle and the Nichomachean Ethics: “He brings together material for a monumental building, and runs up a wooden shack.” Because of course the vast majority of lives that there are and ever have been on earth, enduring the meaning of life or its meaninglessness, are simply absent from Eagleton’s calculation. Occasional mention of non-human animals there is, but they appear as momentary foils to the human questors in the foreground. Mainly, they seem to be chosen for humorous contrast.

The polyp, for instance, features briefly in Eagleton’s breezy dismissal of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the very few philosophers for whom the ‘meaning of life’ really did embrace all life on the same terms. Schopenhauer’s version, as Eagleton notes without taking the lesson, makes “no notable distinction between humans and polyps.” Or the warthog and the tortoise: they come in to illustrate Martin Heidegger’s observation that humans alone among all the animals are capable of asking the meaning-of-life question. The implication of this unique talent, accepted throughout Eagleton’s book, is that the answer must therefore be exclusively for and about them.

It’s a wholly unsound assumption. When Albert Schweitzer (to go back to him) was pondering this same question, “the enigma we call life”, about one hundred years ago in books, sermons, and lectures (including two at Mansfield College, Oxford), he acknowledged of course the unique situation of the human, as the one animal that can “transcend the ignorance in which the rest of creation languishes”. In fact he calls it “the great event in the development of life”, that “here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself.” But you notice the phrase “life as such”. The consciousness is not a property of man; it is the whole life-project acting in or through the human, and uncovering to itself not the peculiar nature of one species, as Heidegger and Eagleton have it, but “everything that life is”. Schweitzer uses the word “recognition”: the solidarity of life was always there, but now at last it can be noticed. “Wherever you see life”, he exclaimed in one of his sermons (he was, among other things, a Lutheran pastor), “that is you!”

This indeed is the mansion of ethics instead of the shack. The human is no longer puzzling over a private world in a private language (or just ‘language’ as philosophers and others call it with careless parochialism); the aim and the effect of life’s self-consciousness in the human is nothing less than “ethical union with Being”. Ethical because, like Eagleton, Schweitzer puts aside the metaphysics as unintelligible: we can know the situation of life in the world, and our own part in it, but we can and must do this without also “having to understand the world”, or what Eagleton calls “the value or meaning of the world as a whole”.

So what matters is not the idea but “the act”. And here, again like Eagleton, Schweitzer thinks of that passage in the Matthew gospel (25.31-46), but in his case with a larger-minded interpretation. Matthew’s Jesus, describing to his disciples the last judgement, says that those who are to be welcomed into the company of Heaven will be the ones who showed compassion to him in earthly life:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat [i.e. food]: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in. Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me. [35-6]

The favoured ones, with touching diffidence, will ask Him when it was that they did these things for him. And his answer, a most beautiful one, will be “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Note the context in Schweitzer’s discourse for this portentous moment in scripture with all its grand eschatological properties: he is illustrating his plea that we should rescue “the poor insect that has fallen into the water” or the “worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error”. For the rule of practical compassion which Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 “ought to determine what we do also to the least among living Schweitzer creatures”; all are to be counted among “these my brethren”. In fact we should make “no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives”. Or indeed, between serious and more or less comical lives. Our obligation is to life as such.

That image of the insect rescued from drowning is Schweitzer’s equivalent for Eagleton’s jazz band, summarizing his argument for the solidarity of life. And although it is from one of his sermons that the particular insect and worm are quoted here, they are not there in the sermon as one of those homely touches which preachers go in for, still less for light relief, like Eagleton’s polyp or warthog; they are essential to his case. The insect therefore appears again in Schweitzer’s great survey of Western ethics, The Philosophy of Civilization (a book which might itself have been titled In Search of the Meaning of Life): “If I save an insect from a puddle, life has devoted itself to life, and the division of life against itself has ended.”

Terry Eagleton rightly says that the meaning-of-life question became urgent not just because the great Christian explanation faltered, but also because that failure coincided with “the bloodiest epoch on historical record”, the twentieth century. The “overwhelming danger” of our own times likewise, he says (in 2007), makes the search for “common meanings” a matter of urgency. His offered solution, the communal jazz band, is a socio-political one, utopian (as he admits), moving also, in the way utopias characteristically are, but yes, a wooden shack all the same.

Schweitzer took the same view of the danger, as it presented itself in his time, but he was equally conscious of the crisis timelessly inherent in life’s situation – that “division of life against itself” which rescuing an insect symbolically and pragmatically heals. This “ghastly drama” of life pitted against life has entailed suffering for all living things always. Therefore Schweitzer’s early twentieth-century account of the meaning of life, though prompted by the special horrors of that period (more is said about this context to Schweitzer’s philosophy in this blog for 6 November 2017) is paradoxically less dated than Eagleton’s twenty-first century version. It shows us that the ‘human condition’ which philosophers like to talk about doesn’t exist separately from the condition of all other life (are we not being reminded of that truth exactly now?). And it provides us with the ethical motive which would fit us to give our lives meaning accordingly: that is, to carry all life with us in one “reciprocal project” of flourishing co-existence, or perhaps, more modestly, of mere collective survival.

 

Notes and references:

Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life was first published in 2007, then as part of OUP’s very short introduction series in 2008. The quotations are from p.20 (“bloodiest epoch”) and pp.94-101. The book is very well-worth reading.

Albert Schweitzer is quoted mainly from the two sermons titled ‘On Reverence for Life’, delivered in 1919, and published in A Place for Revelation, transl. David Holland, Macmillan 1988; also from Reverence for Life: the Teaching of Albert Schweitzer, transl. R. and C. Winston, Peter Owen, 1966, p.47 (“no distinction between higher and lower”) and from The Philosophy of Civilization (first published as Kulturphilosophie in 1923) transl. C.T.Campion, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp. 127 (“wooden shack”), 285 (“having to understand the world”), 309 (“ethical union with Being”), and 313 (“If I save an insect from a puddle”). The last two chapters of this latter book contain the summary of his philosophy of ‘reverence for life’ in all its bearings.

The photograph by George Rodger showing Schweitzer working at his hospital settlement in Lambaréné in 1951, with the kitten Pierrette, is from the front cover of A Place for Revelation.

 

 

 

Some Science Stories and their Animals

Coronavirus ———

The leading story in biomedical science at the moment (where not?) is COVID-19, the new variety of coronavirus – new to humans, that is – which has evidently been accompanying us as a fellow-passenger on our restless tours round the world. It’s a zoonotic disease; the animals gave it to us, and where more probably and more justly than at an animal market like the one in Wuhan, where human contempt for other creatures is at its most visibly disgusting? These markets crowd the living, dying, and dead together – farm animals, marine animals, snakes, civets, foxes, dogs, donkeys, destined for food or for traditional ‘medicine’ – in a hell such as Hieronymus Bosch might have painted.

We surely deserve whatever they can do us of harm in such a setting. Even a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology seemed to be thinking so when she was reported on the Sina.com web-site (and roughly translated) as calling the virus “a punishment for uncivilized living habits of human beings by [towards?] nature”. ‘Even’, I say, because of course the burst of scientific activity prompted by the epidemic has itself swept a CoeDeadlyViruscrowd of other animals into human un-mercy. This same laboratory in Wuhan has already, we are told, “completed the establishment of mouse and non-human primate models”. Meanwhile scientists in the USA are using data provided from China to synthesize live virus and then “study it in animals”. [Science, 17.1.20] We humans can’t be expected to suffer alone.

The Donkey Trade ———

The Chinese government has now put a stop to the trade in wildlife for food, and this most welcome ban seems set to be permanent, unlike the one introduced during the outbreak of the SARS virus a few years ago. (There’s a Care2 petition for a similar ban on wildlife markets in the neighbouring countries, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos: see the link in the notes below.) But the disfavour hasn’t so far been extended to animal-related traditional medicine. One particularly wretched instance of this, though not involving exotic animals, is the manufacture of ejiao from collagen in donkey hides. The growing popularity of this supposed blood tonic has been “spurring new studies of donkey biology”, according to the journal Science, the aim in particular being “to speed their reproduction . . . and expedite growth.” [13.12.19] Here’s the science of animal research, then, continuing to serve and promote the ruthless industrialization of farming – and the donkey trade really is ruthless from birth to death of its unhappy victims.

Science says that publications on the biology of donkeys now appear at about seven times the rate of twenty years ago. Not all of this burgeoning research is being done in Chinese institutions, but of course much of it is. In fact a rapidly increasing proportion of all internationally recognized science comes from China. Yet ejiao itself seems to have been subjected to no serious clinical assessment. There’s an ugly mismatch here: high-tech science and ancient habits of predation. Of course, something of that mismatch is present in every animal-food business and every animal research laboratory throughout the world. Besides, there’s a sound caution against censuring other ways of life (the Chinese themselves readily call such criticism colonialist or racist): alien traditions and values, even superstitions, should have our respect or at least polite acquiescence – so it is liberally said. Agreed! And therefore let’s extend the same amenity to the traditions of animals and their values, in particular their traditional attachment to staying alive.

Alcohol studies ———

One peculiarly human tradition habitually imposed upon animals in the laboratory is the drinking of alcohol. I had thought that this category of research, alongside studies in tobacco, was prohibited in Britain, but in fact only “developing or testing alcohol or tobacco products” is ruled out by the Home Office; where the research is aimed at “investigating disease or novel treatments”, permission may be given. And since alcoholism almost certainly is a disease or at any rate a ‘disorder’ (the common scientific name is Alcohol Use Disorder), and is besides, according to Science, “a component cause of more than 200 diseases” [22.6.2018], such research does indeed go on here. A report in the Independent online newspaper at the end of last year instanced some of it, including studies at Oxford University into the role of alcohol in birth abnormalities.

Alcoholism is undoubtedly a tragic condition. ‘Compelled to drink: why some cannot stop’ is the heading to a Science news story introducing some recent research; it well suggests the helplessness of people in the grip of addiction [22.11.2019]. But the words are ambiguous and misleading, perhaps knowingly so in order to make a bigger splash. The heading should be ‘Why some mice cannot stop’; it’s mice that are being “compelled to drink” in the research itself (which is fully reported later in the same issue). So the human relevance is purely speculative, but readers are encouraged by such wording to elide for themselves the species gap, and so to give this research a value it cannot expressly claim. Even the researchers themselves (Dr Cody A. Siciliano, of Vanderbilt University, and others) speak of “a binge-drinking experience in male mice”, as if the conditioned addiction suffered by the mice is identical to the human behaviour evoked by the word ‘binge’, and can therefore be an adequate surrogate for it in the laboratory. Science’s own introductory gloss on the research shows the sleight of hand concisely: “People drink to excess for a variety of reasons, but as the animal model of Siciliano et al demonstrates, not all heavy drinkers become compulsive.” Demonstrates! Human and mice minds, it seems, are simply interchangeable.

To test the strength of their compulsion, the mice in this study were given disincentives or “punishment” (a curious word to use), consisting in “increasing shock amplitudes”. The “compulsive animals”, we’re told, “showed a robust insensitivity to punishment”. There’s an unpleasantly sadistic suggestion in that euphemistic “robust”. And of course all these animals, “compulsive” and otherwise, making their choice of soft drink or alcohol from “lickometers” in the miserable ‘Skinner boxes’, were in fact drinking themselves to death, since that was the necessary end-point of their part in the research.

Defective research ———

A similar study using rats was featured in Science a few months earlier, with much the same optimism, but there was at least this concession: “The value of animal models for understanding human psychiatric disorders is increasingly criticized because preclinical studies often produce false-positive results that do not translate to the clinical situation.” [22.6.2019] Often enough in other areas of biomedical research too: this must partly explain why so much clinical research not only goes unpublished but, in the USA, is not even posted as required by law on the federal database ClinicalTrials.gov. Nor is it only translation from animals to humans that causes problems. An article in Science last month looked at the unpleasant scene of ecotoxicology, the study of new chemicals in the environment. Here, apparently, it’s “now widely accepted that a high proportion of published research is not reproducible”, so much so that there’s talk of a “reproducibility crisis” [24.1.2020]. One of the reasons given is especially wretched: the researchers have chosen unconventional animals for their test subjects, and the results don’t successfully cross to the more standard species.

Other reasons are of a kind which may affect any type of research. There’s bad experimental design, for instance: some of the research which actually is posted on ClinicalTrials.gov has to be removed because it fails to satisfy “basic quality-control standards” [17.1.2020]. Then there’s wishful thinking in interpretation: that is, bias in favour of the chosen hypothesis.  There’s even falsification of data. A recent paper on ‘threat learning’ in mice (another experiment based on pain aversion: i.e. electric shocks) has had to be retracted because the lead author made up some of the data [31.5. and 20.12.2019].

These varieties of flawed experimentation may, as I’ve said, affect any research, wasting work and resources and other people’s attention; but in the case of animal research lives too are being – I won’t say ‘wasted’, since it implies that good research is a proper use of them, but negligently squandered. And unfortunately even diligent and authoritative research may be negligent in the sense of being unnecessary. The ecotoxicology survey comments on this abuse with justifiable severity:

Did we need 250 papers to tell us that ethinylstradiol [a common oestrogen medication] poses a risk to fish? Everything we need to know to protect the environment was communicated in the first half a dozen papers.

Perusing the issues of even such an authoritative journal as Science, I conclude that this must be the most common animal-research flaw of all: needlessness.

Privileging the species ———

As the ecotoxicology article suggests, Science is quite willing to publish material critical of animal research as practised, though in general the methodology is taken for granted, and huge numbers of animals (most of them mice) are accounted for every week in its biomedical papers. On environmental subjects, including wild animals under threat, the journal is committed and informative. But of course it’s species-minded. Thus an editorial review of ‘What’s coming up in 2020’ speaks favourably of “efforts to rein in loss of species”, but notes with equal approval the way new gene-editing techniques are “reinvigorating the beleaguered field of xenotransplantation, which aims to surgically replace human organs or tissues with ones harvested from animals such as pigs.” [3.1.2020] I needn’t comment on the slap-dash callousness of those last six words. Even in Science’s sympathetic coverage of the wretched plight of the donkeys in China, the headline concern is with an “existential threat” and “crashing populations”, rather than with the essential wrong.

To think in this way conveniently cheapens the lives of animals that belong to durable species populations, notably the ones whose numbers we ourselves keep artificially high. But humans themselves are just such a species. We make an exception of them which is merely self-interested and has no foundation in science or even in philosophical ethics. A declaration by UNESCO in 1997 stated that it was the human genome that secured “the fundamental unity of all members of the human family as well as the recognition of their inherent dignity and diversity.” But in fact that genome overlaps extensively with other species and varies in ways that make the declaration sentimental nonsense. So much is acknowledged in a Science paper headed ‘Biotechnologies nibbling at the legal “human”’: “there is no defined ‘human genome’ that can be used as an easy way to determine humanity.” And as the title suggests, there are other developments that call our sense of separateness into question: “new research techniques, such as xenotransplantation and human/non-human chimeras, challenge the animal-human species divide.” [20.12.2019]

Here, then, is a prompt to revise our relations with other animals. Yes, distinctions of species are real and intelligible, a necessary academic ordering, but they are none of them absolute, and they should have no bearing on entitlement to life and liberty. As for the human/other-animals distinction, it’s a fiction. Once we admit as much, our ethics can start to go right. Unfortunately the authors of the ‘nibbling biotechnologies’ paper shy away from the truth they’ve uncovered. I can’t quite make sense of their final sentence, but its mixture of sentimental appeal and determination to preserve our ancient rights is patent enough: “the concept of membership in the hazily bordered human family can serve as a useful source for the delimitation of the ‘human’”. Science and other business as usual, then.

 

Notes and references:

Most of the references are to Science, an international peer-reviewed research journal which also publishes news and editorial features; dates for the issues cited are given in brackets.

The Sina.com report is published here: https://news.sina.com.cn/c/2020-02-03/doc-iimxxste8358663.shtml

The Care2 petition is available here: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/906/819/294/?z00m=32286462&redirectID=2984541248

The Home Office rules governing research into alcohol use are published in Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, HMSO 2014, p.50.

The piece about UK alcohol research published by the Independent online in December 2019 can be accessed here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/animal-experiments-test-us-uk-mice-fish-alcohol-nicotine-a9259776.html

UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights can be read here: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13177&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

The picture, Monkey Business: Deadly Virus, is by the artist Sue Coe, who is featured in this blog on 25 September 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

 

What is this Folk that here thus Loudly Singeth?

Some years ago there was an evening vigil for laboratory animals outside the Home Office, the UK government department responsible (among many other things) for ‘animals in science’, which at that time occupied a suitably grim concrete edifice at Queen Anne’s Gate. For the handful of demonstrators, inconspicuous in the cold semi-dark of that building’s portals, it was a dreary enough experience. But there was one tonic episode when three or four people sang a verse of the familiar ‘Red Flag’ anthem, with lyrics re-composed for the purpose and including some ribald advice to the “white coats”. I’ve not heard the song again since then, though there was a series of such vigils, and the song must surely have been written down somewhere.

From time to time songs are more formally composed and recorded as ‘animal rights anthems’, or at least are received as such. A recording by the rapper Gaia’s Eye is actually titled ‘Anthem for Animals’ (“eat from the garden / And not from the graveyard!”), or there’s Prince’s ‘Animal Kingdom’ (“Leave your brothers and sisters in the sea!”). In fact a whole “play-list for the animal rights revolution” is made available by the organisation PETA on its Spotify channel, with about twenty-five tracks of varying age and relevance. PETA invites supporters to submit their own “favourite animal rights anthems” to swell the number.

The more of these the better, and some are written with obviously earnest commitment. But they can only be called ‘anthems’ in the restricted sense that they set to popular music the values of a cause or party, not in the sense that they can be put to popular use – or, as the Oxford Dictionary uninvitingly expresses it, “adopted by a nation, school, or other body, and performed at ceremonies and other official occasions”. The conventions of ordinary pop music – syncopated rhythms, strongly personal vocal sound, electrically mediated instrumentals – make it hopelessly unsuited to informal collective singing. It has even to some degree made that sort of singing seem awkward and antiquated.

A “new vegan anthem” is offered on the web-site Jane Unchained which does at least have a catchy chorus – “Go vegan, go vegan, go!” – to which we’re invited to “sing along”, and perhaps we really could. The video shows plenty of people doing that (including the former Meghan Markle), and the phrase was used as a chant during last year’s Official Animal Rights March in London. But it’s a hard-driving song, well-packed with words, and just for that reason would surely come to pieces if a large crowd attempted to sing it.

Well, does animal rights need an anthem in that dictionary sense? In order to suit an unrehearsed collective voice, such pieces have to be musically and lyrically unadventurous. They’re generally either hearty or dirge-like. The typical instances mentioned in the dictionary – national anthems and school songs – are mostly stuffy and embarrassing, and tend to discredit the whole idea. But perhaps that’s mainly because those collectives aren’t the ones that really need asserting or even ought to be asserted.

And there have been anthems that evidently worked as anthems should. The suffragette ‘March of the Women’ was one such. It was used with strong effect not only at those Songsheet of 'The March of the Women', 1911. Artist: Margaret Morris“ceremonies and other official occasions”, but whenever the collective spirit needed a boost. The conductor Thomas Beecham claimed to have seen Ethel Smyth, composer of the music, using a toothbrush to conduct “in almost Bacchic frenzy” a performance of the song by fellow-suffragettes in the quadrangle of Holloway Prison. The lyrics to it, by the suffragette Cicely Hamilton, aren’t very impressive. In fact they have a good deal of the school song about them (“Life, strife – these two are one, / Naught can ye win but by faith and daring./ On, on . . . etc.), and oddly enough they don’t mention women at all after the title itself. The point is that the singers meant them, or at least meant the collective event which they were part of. That’s where the frenzy came from.

The same is true but in a converse sense of ‘The Red Flag’. This socialist anthem borrowed its stirring tune – with less uplift but more heart than Ethel Smyth’s – from an old German song, ‘O Tannenbaum’. It was traditionally sung at the end of Labour Party conferences, as well as other party occasions. The lyrics no doubt seem more melodramatic now than they did at the time of writing (1889): “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer . . . Come dungeons dark or gallows grim, / This song shall be our parting hymn.” Partly for this reason perhaps, but mainly because it was impossible for New Labour assemblies to mean the song, the tradition became an embarrassment to be avoided, until revived with some conviction more recently. Again, the success of the anthem depends on the health of the cause rather than the quality of the composition. That surely makes things relatively easy for an animal rights anthem.

Still, there do have to be words and music. The music, we’ve seen, can be borrowed: better so, since it won’t need learning. What about, for instance, one of the great hymns to liberation, Giussepe Verdi’s ‘Va, pensiero’, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in his opera Nabucco (1841)? The words are a somewhat weak and sentimentalized version of the tragic and ferocious Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon . . .”). However, the power of Verdi’s music, scored for unison voices, and its theme, the longing for freedom, fixed the chorus at once as an anthem for the Italian liberation movement of the time, the Risorgimento. Given the very modest standard of lyric required for a successful anthem, it shouldn’t be hard to provide a text which enlarged the liberationist appeal of ‘Va, pensiero’ to include all sentient beings. It shouldn’t be, but I admit that I have tried without success. Something that is neither real poetry (choral singing would trample on its art) nor obvious doggerel (uninspiring and even a bit discreditable) is required, but I couldn’t hit it.

The words, then. There is, of course, a complete text already in existence for an animal rights anthem, composed by one of the great writers in English of the last century: the song ‘Beasts of England’ in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The story being an allegory, this song, taught to the other farm animals by the boar Old Major, stands in for the socialist ‘Internationale’ of 1871. (The ‘Internationale‘ is itself a fine example of the anthem genre, showing that lyrics at their best can constitute a complete manifesto). But the book wouldn’t work as brilliantly as it does if Orwell hadn’t given the animals all he had of sympathy and imagination. And ‘Beasts of England’, which might have been done as a burlesque, is in fact composed with simplicity and conviction. The only comic touch, perhaps, is the mention of mangel-wurzels:

Riches more than mind can picture  Animal Farm
Wheat and barley, oats and hay,
Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels,
Shall be ours upon that day.

But really there oughtn’t to be anything comical about what is, after all, a staple food of some farmyard animals. And in general the words are perfectly judged for an anthem – not fine poetry, but plain, metrically regular, heart-felt, and true to their situation, just waiting for the music to give them emotional force (Orwell suggests ‘O My Darling Clementine’):

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of
England
Shall be trod by beasts alone . . .

For that day we all must labour,
Though we die before it break;
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys,
All must toil for freedom’s sake.

But it’s a fairy story of course (that’s the book’s sub-title). In the ‘Internationale’ it made sense to say “Producteurs, sauvons-nous nous-mêmes!” [Workers, let us save ourselves!]. Animals might well say so too if they could, and Orwell’s fictional beasts do, but it might feel absurd to sing, on their behalf, what we know is impossible. We need an anthem which says “sauvons-les nous-mêmes”: it’s for us to save them.

Just singing anthems won’t get that done, I know, but music stores and makes at once available the collective purpose and those emotions that give it momentum. It’s therefore a valuable campaigning property. It’s also a public benefit, so that the determination and anger which must at least partly characterize any demonstration are made attractive or at least compelling rather than alienating to the people who happen to witness it.

Perhaps whoever wrote that verse for the Home Office vigil could try something more substantial and permanent? And yes, let it include not just the already ascendant and even fashionable vegan theme, but also zoos, circuses, hunting, and vivisection. Gaia’s Eye says “Don’t get me started / On experimentation”, but that’s all he does say, and other songs don’t seem to mention it. But it’s surely not dying out. An experimenter on monkeys at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics has recently announced his intention to escape EU regulations by moving his project to Shanghai, where a new International Center for Primate Brain Research will soon be making available up to 6000 non-human primates without irksome restrictions. A fellow neuroscientist remarks upon this “incredible progress” on China’s part, calling it “the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly”. Well, there always has been something totalitarian about vivisection, even in the West; it’s a one-species state for the animals, even where there are checks on its severity. “Tyrant man” in fact, and if he can’t, as a tyrant, be “o’erthrown” simply by singing, that’s at least one conspicuous way to remind ourselves and persuade others that “soon or late . . . he shall be”.

 

Notes and references:

The title is roughly modernized from the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Blickling Homilies, published by the Early English Texts Society, 1967.

PETA’s list can be found here: https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-spotify-channel/

The Jane Unchained song is performed here: https://janeunchained.com/2019/03/15/sing-along-to-the-new-vegan-anthem/

The text of ‘March of the Women’ is published at http://www.sandscapepublications.com/intouch/marchwords.html. A description of its performance in Holloway Prison is provided by Thomas Beecham in an article about Ethel Smyth for the Musical Times, no.1385, July 1958, p.364, but he is quoted here from an article in the Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2008.

The chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, as movingly performed at the New York Met in 2002, can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS6L_9xUT5E (with sub-titles in Spanish).

A report of the move from Max Planck to Shanghai’s new primate research centre appears in the journal Science, 31 January 2020, pp.496-7.

The Animal Farm illustrations are from the cartoon version commissioned by the Foreign Office in 1950 from the artist Norman Pett and writer Donald Freeman (National Archives).

A Troubling and Unsavoury Contradiction

Among the reasons not to be vegan which vegans habitually encounter (Aren’t plants sentient too? What will happen to all the cows? Where do you get your protein?), is the Adolf Hitler connection: Wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian? Rynn Berry, the author of Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes, says “I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler’s vegetarianism has not been raised”. Perhaps it’s reasonable, when notabilities of history or in modern public life are offered as models for the diet, to ask what influence in the matter a blatant counter-exemplar should have. Anyway, Berry wrote a book which provided an answer to the question even in its title: Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (2004). It’s a short, readable, and well-researched account of the matter, finally stating “that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer [that’s Isaac Bashevis] were vegetarians, but that Mr Hitler – who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted – was not.”

Still, the ugly association, false as it may be, persists. It crops up, for instance, in two books reviewed elsewhere in this blog: Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat (2010: “animal activists don’t relish the idea that Adolf Hitler was a fellow traveller”) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature (2011: “any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism.”) In both cases, the Hitler connection is thought to compromise the animal rights cause, and is accordingly used as part of a more general deprecation of the values and ambitions that go with it.

It’s not just Hitler’s diet that’s being used in evidence. As the quotation from Better Angels shows, there’s a more general contrariety to face: that the whole Nazi administration from 1933 to 1945 combined its infamous and savage repudiation of ethics in the treatment of fellow-humans with what may seem to be an enlightened concern for the welfare of other animals. A succession of laws, passed in regional and national parliaments, regulated slaughterhouses, the care of pet animals, conservation, farriery, and other practices affecting animals; they banned pâté de foie gras, hunting with dogs, the harming of animals in film-making; they even specified, and required public kitchens to employ, the least inhumane method for killing crabs and lobsters (plunging them individually into boiling water was what a civil service report had recommended, though you may think that not eating them at all would have been more in line with “vegetarianism . . . under Nazism”). As to vivisection there was, initially at least, an intention to prohibit absolutely what Hermann Göring called, in a speech broadcast on radio in 1933, “torture and suffering in animal experiments”.

Where did this apparent commitment to animal interests come from? Certainly pressure had been building over many years for animal protection laws in Germany. Therefore, much of what was now accomplished only brought Germany up to basic standards already achieved in the UK. That would explain why the legislation came so promptly with the inception of the Third Reich; it was already waiting and pushing for authorization. But in a symposium on this subject published some years ago in the journal Anthrozoos, Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax argue that “personal interest in or affection for animals by key Nazi figures” must be a large part of the explanation. What is the evidence for this?

We come back to Hitler himself. Yes, Hitler was fond of his own dogs. Hitler’s architect and then armaments minister, Albert Speer, who wrote the most intelligent and perspicacious of the contemporary portraits of the man, notes that on the short but dreary walks that were taken by Hitler and his entourage when he was at his country retreat in Bavaria, his “interest was usually focused not on his companions but on his Alsatian dog Blondi . . . he meant more to his master than Fuehrer’s closest associates.”  Presumably there was sincere affection in this, but Speer also says, when he describes the feeding of Blondi as supervised by the Fuehrer, “Hitler knew, of course, that a dog regards the man who feeds him as his master.” Absolute loyalty of the animal, secure mastery for the man: these were what really mattered. Guests had to make sure that they didn’t encourage “any feelings of friendship in the dog”, because such signs of “disloyalty” in Blondi would put Hitler out of temper. It’s significant that Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, the man whom Speer calls a “servile flatterer” and who was derisively nick-naked ‘Ja-Keitel’, was prized by Hitler exactly because he was, in Hitler’s own words, “loyal as a dog”.

Hermann Göring felt this same preference in favour of his own dog: “The only real friend one has in the end is the dog . . . The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno.” Well, who hasn’t felt something like this sometimes, or even at all times, whether for an individual animal or for non-human animals in general? It’s embarrassing to find oneself sharing any sentiment with that poisonous and decadent personality, but it may also be a useful prompt for us to examine the sentiment, and see what it’s worth.

When the narrator in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) complains to the local police about the shooting of a wild boar, they say to her by way of rebuke, “You have more compassion for animals than for people.” It’s another familiar charge. Her reply is “That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people.” (Well, there is at least a consensus that it’s wrong when they do.) This woman’s preoccupation with wild and domestic animals throughout the story is founded on her sense of duty to them, her desire to give them some sort of parity in the enjoyment of life; in fact what most directly drives the narrative is her wish to avenge her own pet dogs. So yes, the unconditional love shown by a dog is a beautiful thing in itself, but the whole relationship is good only if the human has deserved the loyalty, rather than got it for nothing.

Poor Benno, on the contrary, was innocently ministering to the self-regard and power-instinct of his master (it’s the right word here), much as Göring’s absurd mansions, uniforms and grand titles were also doing. Moreover, the immediate occasion for that declaration of Göring’s was the vicious intrigue of Third Reich politics, to which he himself was very largely contributing. That political scene was summarized by Speer as “a thicket of deceptions, intrigues, baseness and killing.” Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich chronicles the unpredictable and dangerous variations in the status of everyone who had a part in the administration, including himself. Neither Hitler nor Göring trusted Speer or anyone else for long at a time; nor could they inspire rational trust in others. In such a human murk, how could the innocent dog not honourably shine, misguided as his fealty might be?

Still, however selfish it was, perhaps this regard for their pet animals as preferable to humans was generalized, by Hitler, Göring, and their associates, to non-human animals at large, and therefore may account to some extent for the favourable treatment of these under the Third Reich?

That there was indeed some deliberate moral re-ordering as between humans and other animals is notoriously evident in Third Reich propaganda. As to the humans, whole classes and races of them were relegated to the status of “Untermenschen . . . mentally and emotionally on a far lower level than any animals” (the quotation is from a Nazi text). In fact Arluke and Sax, in that Anthrozoos symposium, make this their essential explanation of the “troubling and unsavoury contradiction”. Their premise is the anthropological one, that all peoples or cultures “seek to protect what is perceived to be pure from that which is seen to be dangerous and polluting”, and they draw their moral lines accordingly. Whereas the Western tradition has always drawn its most emphatic line at the supposed species border, the Nazis, being devoted to the protection of nation and race, allied themselves with at least some other species of animal, especially the ‘nobler’ animals, and put the condemned classes of human outside that pale.

There is something too neat and academical about this scheme, given the ethical chaos of the political scene it aims to interpret, and the evidence for it is sometimes far-fetched: in fact one of the contributors to the symposium calls it “a collection of contradictions, surmises, and innuendoes”. That there was a purposeful policy as against the “untermenschen”, with horrifying practical consequences, is painfully well-known. Whether the non-human animals really benefited is much less clear. Their importance was publicly asserted, and deliberately implicated in the racial polemics: “You will find this respect for animals”, said Himmler, “in all Indo-Germanic peoples.” In a public text of 1933, Göring spoke of “the spirit of close contact, which all Aryan people possess, with the animals”. Himmler’s part in directing animal research will be illustrated shortly. Göring’s “close contact” with animals included shooting them, for he was a keen hunter; among the grandiose titles which he collected was Reich Marshal of the Hunt. These animals which were raised in order to be experimented upon or shot cannot be regarded as having enjoyed any very meaningful moral promotion.

It’s very difficult to know, in fact, how sincere the Nazi administration was about animal protection, just because the propaganda on the subject had a life of its own. (It was said at the time, only partly in jest, that the Third Reich was really just a department of its own Ministry of Propaganda.) Speer shows how much even of Hitler’s private life, such of that as there was, had for its aim the creation of a particular image of Germany’s leader. Thus although he very much enjoyed caviare, he felt that he had to abjure it, believing that it contradicted this image; he wanted “simplicity” in his diet, because, so Speer says, he “could count on its being talked about in Germany.” But of course what he ate was certain to be noticed. In other instances, such as the taking of elaborate therapeutic concoctions, including some “obtained from the testicles and intestines of animals”, he could rely on medical confidentiality to keep the matter quiet.

On a much larger scale, the practice of vivisection followed suit. Even in that public speech of 1933, Göring had conceded that animals might be used when considered “necessary . . . to advance the knowledge of disease in humans, to produce medicines, and generally to further scientific knowledge”.  In fact their exploitation in science went well beyond even such generous limits, particularly once the regime was at war. An experimental pesticide code-named 9/91, which proved so violently poisonous that it was subsequently manufactured as a biological weapon (called ‘Tabun’, but never in fact used) had been tested on non-human primates during 1936-7. Another proposed weapon was cattle plague, the idea being to destroy the enemy’s supply of meat: under the direction of Himmler (“respect for animals” Himmler) the rinderpest virus was accordingly tested on German cows in 1944.

Even the notorious experiments on human subjects in the concentration camps were not intended as replacements for animal research. Trials of a typhoid vaccine at Buchenwald, and of resuscitation after time spent in freezing water at Dachau, had both begun with animal studies. At Dachau, Dr Rascher applied for Himmler’s permission to use prisoners for his studies into survival at low air-pressures, explaining that he had done the work with monkeys, but that they “react altogether differently”. Such experiments on humans were kept secret even in the camps themselves, perhaps an indication that some notion of morality yet endured. On the other hand, part of the concealment consisted in disguising them, in the records, as experiments on cattle and pigs; little, then, had survived of the official disapproval of vivisection, if indeed it had ever been more than a political stunt.

How indeed can it well be known that any of the measures taken to improve the status of animals were not stunts of some kind, or that serious values of any sort lay behind them? As Alan Bullock says in his classic biography Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, falsehood was itself a policy with the Nazis: “Hitler and Ribbentrop deceived their allies, even when there was no need.” In one of his last speeches, as heard by Albert Speer, Hitler summed up what he had learnt from his political career: “There can be only one single rule, and this rule, put succinctly, is: That is correct which is useful in itself.” Therefore to speak of “the Nazi animal protection movement”, as Hal Herzog does in the Anthrozoos discussion, is surely to impose order and direction upon it which it never did possess.

In so far as Nazism itself was a “movement”, its aim was to revive Germany’s confidence as a people, and to use that confidence to enforce the nation’s claim to supreme power in Europe and beyond. It was, obviously enough, a nationalist movement, and the sense of national identity necessary to it was created partly by rejecting the cosmopolitan, industrialized, and urbanized civilization which Germany had hitherto shared with other Western democracies. A contributor to the Anthrozoos discussion quotes Göring, one of the principal spokesmen for this “tribal mentality”, as saying “we are barbarians, and we think with our blood.” The malign absurdities and perils of the project are all too familiar, but it has to be conceded that some sensible and positive ideas were involved as well. There was, for instance, a determined campaign to improve the nation’s health. This included measures to promote better diet (using fewer processed foods) and to discourage drinking of alcohol, improvements to health and safety at work (including protections for those working with asbestos, years ahead of anything similar in the UK), and, most notably, public campaigns against tobacco, with bans on smoking in public places, restrictions on advertising, and other such measures that have been profitably taken up elsewhere in more recent times. One historian of health policy in the Third Reich has said that the “it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link [between tobacco and cancer] was originally established. German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world.”

The efforts to protect public health from the more baleful consequences of industrialization and from other life-style illnesses show that even in that vicious political regime some wise and even pioneering values could arise and become active. All the health measures just mentioned have long afterwards been taken up in the UK; it’s obvious in their case that they were only accidentally the product of a corrupt anti-democratic politics. The measures to improve respect for non-human animals, where they had any reality apart from propaganda, had a less pragmatic character, and so remain more of a mystery. But some of them were already in force in the UK, and this fact, as well as their adoption (however gradual) in other countries in later times, shows likewise that they had no necessary connection with that one notorious time and place; they can and should be judged and approved on their own merits. Yes, they were once unhappily caught up in a nexus of moral horrors, but that no more discredits the case for animal rights than it makes smoking or building with asbestos sensible things to do.

 

Notes and references:

Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a very good introduction by the publisher Martin Rowe) is published by Pythagorean Publishers, 2004; quotations from pp. 29 and 73-4.

The books by Hal Herzog and Steven Pinker are reviewed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/out-and-about-with-anthrozoology/  and https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/25/light-of-the-world/

Texts of the Third Reich animal protection laws of 1933 can be found here: http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/Nazianimalrights.htm#Experiments_on_Living_Animals

‘Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust’ by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax was published in Anthrozoos, January 1992, vol.V, pp.6-31. The follow-up discussion was published in vol.VI, pp.72-114. Where not otherwise attributed, historical quotations come from the Arluke and Sax article. The discussion is quoted at pp. 86 (Roberta Kalechofsky), 82 (Hal Herzog), and 75 (Paul Bookbinder). The whole symposium is accessible online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233691703_Understanding_Nazi_Animal_Protection_and_the_Holocaust

Boria Sax has studied the subject at much greater length in Animals in the Third Reich, Continuum Books, 2000.

Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, was first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1970; quotations are from their 1995 edition, pp. 409-12 and 339 (about Blondi), 575 (Nazi politics), 179 (Hitler’s diet), 161 (Hitler’s medicines) and 486 (the “single rule”).

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk was published in the Polish in 2009; as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.

The ‘joke’ about propaganda is noted in Louis Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p.273.

The experiments on prisoners at concentration camps are discussed by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, pp. 128 (the secrecy), 147 (Tabun), and 163 (rinderpest). Other instances are recounted by Paul Hoedman in Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich, English edition published by the Book Guild, 1991, pp. 125 and 152 (the request to Himmler).

Hitler: a Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock was first published in 1952. The quotation is from the 1990 edition by Penguin Books, p. 630.

The quotation about cancer epidemiology is from Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, 1999), here quoted from John Cornwell, Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War and the Devil’s Pact, Viking, 2003, p. 171. Other public health measures are discussed by Cornwell at pp. 167-73.

 

What Shall Be Done for these Innocents?

[This is a revised and up-dated version of a post originally put up in January 2017.]

A common feature of the nativity scenes which have been heralding Christmas in churches and elsewhere, and which, now the feast is more or less over, are looking (but perhaps this is just a secular view) touchingly forlorn and ineffectual, is the small audience of animals. These animals aren’t scriptural. That is, they aren’t mentioned in the gospels, although the talk of a “manger” implies them, and the subsequent long journey suggests the presence of a beast of burden. It’s understandable that the gospels don’t mention them, because Christ came into the world, so the apostle Paul says in his letter to Timothy, in order to save sinners, and there’s no suggestion in the Bible, or in reason, that animals are capable of sin. Rather, they are in a necessary state of grace or, in secular terms, of propriety: absolutely dutiful to their species patterns, in a way that we don’t know how to be to ours, if there even is one. Perhaps this is in fact why the animals are there, dignifying all those cribs: in their calm sagacity they instance the redeemed state which the nativity of Jesus is said to promise to humans.

I’ve often felt as much when looking at the painting of that scene by Veronese, which hangs in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It’s a beautiful picture, full of animation and portent. veroneseThe composition surges down from left to lower right, from the lamb in a shepherd’s arms down to the dog keeping the doorway. And this sweep of life is anchored by the great ox in the foreground, watching the child and tolerating the shepherd who half-reclines upon him as if this ox was a sofa. Right in front, a recumbent lamb lifts its head in acknowledgement of all this activity.

Veronese had a particular feeling for animals. He liked to have them in his pictures; especially he liked to have dogs there, whether it was their proper place or not. One of the reasons why the Inquisition summoned him, in 1573, to justify his painting The Last Supper was that he’d put a dog right in the foreground. Rather than remove the dog, Veronese changed the picture’s official subject to Feast in the House of Levi. And so in the great stonework frieze of artists, composers and writers which surrounds the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London, Veronese is shown, among his busy fellow-professionals, looking downwards at a dog, upon whose upraised head his hand affectionately rests.gblo102D1

But recently I’ve realized that the lamb in the foreground of Veronese’s painting must in fact be trussed, and the one at the back too. In fact one can just make out the cord. Their presence must therefore be of the sort suggested in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (now familiar as a carol): “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.” These lambs are sacrificial gifts, then; pastoral care is at an end for them. No doubt their presence in the picture is partly a reference to the sacrifice Jesus is to make of himself as the ‘Lamb of God’. At any rate, the Peaceable Kingdom element of this and other such nativity scenes is illusory. Rather, we’re reminded that although animals may not need saving from sins of their own, they do need saving all the same. And who is to do it for them? Or as C.S.Lewis asks in his book The Problem of Pain (1940), “what shall be done for these innocents?”

No doubt it’s legitimate to see animals (in the way some Christian writers now do) as belonging in the ranks of “the poor”, who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. In so far, then, as Jesus urged the powerful not to abuse their power over such people, or not to use it at all (“go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor!” Matthew 19:21), he did all vulnerable subjects good, including the animals. So the animals round the crib might indeed have been looking to him in some hope, even if his help were to come collaterally, a by-product only of his given mission to humans as described by Paul.

The trouble is that a sizeable part of animal suffering has nothing to do with humans, and cannot therefore be put right merely by human forbearance. As C.S.Lewis says in that same book, “The intrinsic [i.e. as opposed to gratuitously added] evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other.” It’s true that in pre-scientific times this evil could be seen as part of the human Fall. That’s how John Milton did see it, when he wrote that, following the delinquency of Adam and Eve,

Beast now with beast ‘gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish. To graze the herb all leaving
Devoured each other . . . 
[Paradise Lost, X.710-12]

But we can hardly take that view now, for we know that predation was a characteristic of the natural world long before humans came onto the scene and made it worse. This is to say nothing of the sufferings arising from the struggle for limited food and space, which similarly predated humans but have been immeasurably aggravated by them.

Like Veronese, C.S.Lewis had a strong feeling for animals (he was especially vocal against vivisection). He could not be satisfied with any picture of the world which did not accommodate them. This is obvious enough in all his fiction, but it was true also of his theology. And therefore he proposed a most moving and ambitious extension to the orthodox Christian theology of the human fall and redemption. He presents the idea mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis asks, may there not have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or to put it less personally a corruption of “the animal world” to which they belonged? From then on, violence and the squandering of life would characterize nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we indeed now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has justifiably called “natural hell”. When humanity first came into this scene, suggests Lewis, it had “a redemptive function to perform”: that is, part of its special commission in the world was to be the “Christ” (= messiah or deliverer) to these earlier animals, and to rescue them from their fall and its consequences, just as the Christ whom the animals made room for in their stable was sent to do for humans. But so far from redeeming nature, of course, humanity itself fell, and has subsequently taken a clear lead in predation, so that now, as Lewis declared angrily in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis was not a professional theologian, and he could not be dogmatic about this improvised theology. He offers it as “guesswork . . . a reasonable supposition”: “reasonable” in that he himself accepted the scriptural story upon which he builds it, at least as having the sort of provisional truth that mythology provides. But if we accept it for the moment in that spirit, see what an extraordinary flood of light it casts upon both the promise and the delinquency of man! On one hand, there’s the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”:  glorious because surely, if all had gone right, “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”. On the other hand, there’s the treachery of one who must now be understood not simply to have casually misused and exploited the fellow-creatures he found himself among, but in doing so to have broken a divine trust and made a holocaust out of the civil dissension which he was sent to remedy. (You can see Lewis telling this same story, and putting right the tragedy, in his Narnia stories.)

But you don’t need to accept the Christian setting in order to recognize this picture. It’s there as fact in the world’s history. That “corruption of the beasts”, when the carnivorous short-cut to protein was first taken, is certainly somewhere there in the record. The palaeontologist Richard Fortey, in his Life: an Unauthorised History, dates it “a geological second” into the Cambrian era, and sees it (like Milton and Lewis in their different schemes) as the loss of the world’s innocence: “The era of . . . peaceful coexistence among bacteria and algae had passed from the Earth, and the hierarchy of power has never subsequently been forgotten.” And whatever we may think the Bible means by giving man “dominion” over the other animals [Genesis 1.26], it’s certain that we do have dominion in fact. We have both the mind and the power to know and to do better than fallen nature. Our history, especially in the last four hundred years or so of technical progress, shows us energetically using these faculties in order to raise our own species above the horrors of nature: in short, to serve ourselves as well as we may. Meanwhile all the other denizens of the living world, except the few we choose to pet or admire, wait for help which doesn’t come.

 

Notes and References:

A  fuller account of these ideas, as they appear in the poetry and fiction of C.S.Lewis, and in the present-day ethical philosophy of Oscar Horta, was published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read at http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf

There is now a sympathetic and readable book-length treatment of the place of animals in C.S.Lewis’s theology: Michael Gilmour, Animals in the Writings of C.S.Lewis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. The author says “Lewis’s great contribution to animal theology is, in the end, the permission he gives us to think theologically about animals, and to do so creatively . . . He is among the few who attempt to imagine the place of the nonhuman within Christian ethics and eschatology, and to imagine what it might be like to experience the kingdom of God in their company.”

Quotations from The Problem of Pain are taken from the 1996 edition (Touchstone, New York), pp. 120-21 and 69, and the one from Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Harper Collins, 1998) is at p.104. The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, well worth reading, is reprinted in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. Walter Hooper (Fount, 1998): the quotation is from p.74.

The photograph of the Frieze of Parnassus is used by permission of René and Peter van der Krogt (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net). The sculptor of that part of the frieze was Henry Hugh Armstead. No image of Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds is available at the Ashmolean, and I have therefore used my own, which probably breaks copyright – for which I apologize.

Here Come the Concordat Folk

With the season of Advent comes the annual awards ceremony of the Concordat on Openness, celebrating another year of the animal-research community’s keen presence in the limelight of its own publicity. Speeches, awards, thanks, mutual congratulation, promises of even greater things in the future: there’s something of the school prize-day about it all, as I’ve commented before. But if these events, and therefore the blog-posts that have been shadowing them, do seem somewhat repetitious, it’s not because things are standing still.

The Concordat, now in its fifth year, continues to grow: there are now 122 signed-up institutions. All of them are required to make online statements of policy about the work that they do or fund others to do; they are urged, in addition, to provide figures and further details of the work, preferably with case studies, videos, virtual tours of laboratories, and so on, with the result that one could now fidget away whole hours online, viewing what animal research institutions are happy for others to know about their activities. And real-life “outreach” likewise proliferates, with open days, staff and family tours, school visits, and work placements, all tending to “embed” (this year’s favourite Concordat word) the institutions in their communities. Remember that a few years ago this sort of work was nearly invisible, except when it burst out as scandals. Now it simply comes at you with a will: advent indeed.

Nor evidently is the work itself, as supported by all this public relations effort, likely to diminish significantly any time soon. That’s by no means part of the Concordat’s purpose, although all signatories have to show commitment to the talismanic 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement). By way of illustration, the most recent batch of animal-research statistics – from Northern Ireland, which submits its numbers separately from Great Britain – shows a sprightly upwardness. Although its total of ‘animal procedures’ for 2018 (28,790) wouldn’t get it into the same league as the ‘Top Ten’ (that’s what Understanding Animal Research calls the ten UK universities which score the most procedures), still it represents an increase of 16.3% over the 2017 number, which itself had shown a rise of 11.4% over the year before that. Queen’s University Belfast, a Concordat signatory, accounted for over half that 2018 total. In fact, since the Concordat was formally launched in 2014, the numbers of procedures at Queen’s has risen by 48%.

Of course, I didn’t have to pry out these numbers; they’re on the university’s own web-site or on UAR’s. In fact the UAR’s news report on Northern Ireland’s numbers in 2018 was plainly and pre-emptively headed ‘Increase in Animal Research in Northern Ireland. The fact was neither hidden nor apologised for; a much more sophisticated public relations policy than that is now in use. In fact the policy was already implied in the change of name in 2008 from the old ‘Research Defence Society’ (founded exactly one hundred years earlier) to ‘Understanding Animal Research’. As the Concordat web-site tells some of its more reluctant signatories, “We need to shout about why we do what we do.”

And they might indeed learn how to shout from the example of this year’s winner of the Concordat’s ‘Website or Use of New Media’ award: Reading University. Back in July, Reading introduced its annual research statistics with a story inviting readers to “Name our life-saving baby llama”. Prudently fending off in advance unsuitable or uncooperative suggestions, the university offered the witty and topical choice “Jeremy or Boris?” (because – don’t forget – animal research is serious, but it’s also fun.) Apparently, perhaps one must now also say ironically, ‘Jeremy’ won. That result is now hidden away in university news stories of the moment (and it did take me a while to find), but the birth of the “cute baby llama” (UAR’s phrase) into its animal-research heritage still occupies a prominent page of its own: no point in wasting a good stunt.

Meanwhile elsewhere in its animal research pages, under the heading ‘Further Improvements’, Reading University announces progress on “a new state-of-the-art Health and Life Sciences Building”, with a “high-specification biological resource unit” for its animal accommodation and research. Liberated by the Concordat spirit of show-and-tell from the secretive knots which poor Oxford University tied itself in when it was planning its equivalent facility less than fifteen years ago, Reading makes its own proud news story of the project. Yes, a very great change is occurring.

And all this is not exactly boasting; it’s just confidently making known. Back in 2015 the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics published a report on vivisection titled Normalizing the Unthinkable. Perhaps ‘unthinkable’ was a curious word to select for a practice which has been institutionalized in the UK for well over 150 years (and the phrase was in fact borrowed from a 1980s article about atomic weaponry), but yes, ‘normalizing’ is the word we want. The Oxford Centre’s report didn’t have the Concordat in mind: the project was hardly underway at that time, and is not mentioned. But that’s what the Concordat is doing: making animal research familiar and accepted, emptying it of surprises, in short making a “non-story” of it (the phrase was used in last year’s Concordat Annual Report) – except of course where the story is about a ‘medical break-through’.

That’s surely why the Concordat authorities habitually urge signatories to include in their publicity some account of the real ‘costs’ to animals of their research. Every year, the Concordat issues a report of the year’s progress, and every year this matter of declaring costs in animal suffering is noted as a point of difficulty, one that’s “challenging for many signatories”. It’s understandable (so this year’s report concedes) that they should be chary of “providing any information that might show their research or institution in a negative light” [p.17]. But failing to do so not only makes all the talk about openness fraudulent, it also tucks away exactly the sort of information which can subsequently be found and embarrassingly sensationalized by undercover reporters, whistle-blowers, or other dissenting parties.

The Concordat does not anywhere imply, as a way of dealing with this problem, that research which is likely to entail severe suffering to the animals might simply be abjured. And after all, one doesn’t have to show it in pictures or videos, because fortunately it was discovered during the ‘Public Dialogue’ which preceded and guided the devising of the Concordat that lay people “did not want to see graphic or shocking images” [17]. One just has to get the news out first, and thereby own it; the key word always is “proactive”. Members of the Concordat sign up to this principle of pre-emptive publicity as one of their promises, and the happy result is noted in the report: “Fewer reactive communications on the use of animals in research, due to more information proactively in the public domain.” [2]

So the “lasting change” which the Concordat urges upon its signatories is not in the animal research itself: the aim is “to change the way that everyone thinks about animal research” [my italics]. Nor is this just a way of keeping things as they are. It is that, certainly, and Reading University’s case study of research on dairy cattle is wholly characteristic in that respect: noting that “emissions from the dairy industry . . . have a significant negative impact on the environment”, the university is apparently “leading the way in understanding how our dairy industry can play its part in tackling climate change.” “our”, you see; we’ve got the industry, whether you like it or not, so let’s see how its breeding and feeding practices, already the product of decades of pitiless research, can be improved so that a bit less damage is caused by it.

But in fact the Concordat must, if successful, provide a positive boost for animal research. And it has already been remarkably successful: not perhaps so far in persuading the public – “signatories do not feel that there is evidence of impacts beyond the research sector at this time”, the report says – but certainly in raising the status of animal research professionally. Signatories report “increased profile of animal facilities within their establishments, leading to greater investment . . . [2] That new building at Reading University, with its “high-specification biological resource unit”, is one such investment. There will surely be more. Queen’s Belfast has got to put all those extra animals somewhere, for instance, and these days it can be somewhere in plain view. That’s where it’s going to be least conspicuous.

 

Notes and references:

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Awards event on 3 December can be viewed here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/openness-awards-2019.  Or there’s a text of the programme here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Openness-Awards-2019-Programme.pdf.

Page numbers in square brackets refer to the 2019 Annual Report, which can be read here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Concordat-Report-2019.pdf.

Other quotations, numbers, etc., come from the web-sites of the Concordat, UAR, or Reading University. The quotation about changing the way that “everyone thinks about animal research” is part of an introduction to a new category of exemplary Concordat signatory: ‘Leaders in Openness’.

Accounts of Concordat public relations in previous years appeared in this blog on 11 December 2018, 18 December 2017, and 18 December 2016.

The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics report Normalizing the Unthinkable was re-published, together with essays by various hands, as The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, ed. Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, University of Illinois Press, 2018. The original report was reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/the-complete-vivisector/

 

 

Free as a Bird

In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust. cup of tea art.JPG

A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.

liberty figureFor instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.

One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.

The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.

In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.

So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.

There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.

Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” [309]. But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”

Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.” [61] It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).

This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.

That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”   

One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”

The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical 68408684_1332946016860747_7385333270633775104_o.jpgslavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.

 

 

 

Notes and references:

The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/caged_birds.php

Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/

Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.

The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/shop/

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/march-of-a-nation/

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/