Two Merlins and their Tasks

The non-technical summaries of research projects accepted by the Home Office in 2016 were published just before Christmas. There are 31 categories (‘gastrointestinal: basic research’, ‘human sensory organ disorders: translational research’, ‘regulatory purposes’ [the worst, I think], and so on); they comprise a total of 530 projects. Taking part in all this will be mice, rats, voles, bats, ferrets, dogs (one toxicity-testing project proposes to use 1500 dogs), non-human primates, zebra-fishes, sticklebacks, farmed animals of all kinds: “will be”, because of course these are not, as usually with the vivisection numbers one encounters, used and deceased animals, but fated ones only, due to re-appear in the statistics as their ‘procedures’ are completed over the next few years. There’s something additionally poignant about that.

Most of the summaries are about three pages long, so that the 31 ‘volumes’ take up about 1500 pages of reading. It’s very instructive reading, but one sickens of these numbers, these casually listed menageries. It all reminds me (and I’m very glad to think of something else) of Merlyn’s outburst in T.H.White’s Book of Merlyn, when he justifies his suggested alternative name for the human species, Homo ferox:

‘Why,’ cried the old fellow suddenly, flaming out with a peculiar, ancient indignation, ‘there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory. Not a mammal … not a bird … the very fish will dart away. It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.’ [62]

This last book in T.H.White’s Arthurian sequence was written during the Second World War, and war is its main preoccupation. The time is late in the evening, and the aged King Arthur is to encounter his illegitimate son Mordred on the morrow, to settle their differences in treaty or more probably in battle. Merlyn arrives in the King’s tent, and Merlyn cover.JPGtakes him away to join the small fellowship of animals with whom Merlyn keeps company in a badger’s set in Cornwall. There, in a confusion of books, papers, charts, and specimens, they are attempting to make sense of the human addiction to war (another suggested name is Homo impoliticus, man the unruly, man the opposite of what Aristotle flatteringly called him). And since they have the education of a King to complete (“there had been some gaps in your education” [37]), the question is what sort of government will induce men to live peaceably. And the answer is to be reached by “learning from the beasts” [72]: animal research, in fact (Merlyn does call it an “experiment”), but not on the laboratory pattern where, as one practitioner has said, “the lowly rodent” serves the will of “his laboratory master”. Merlyn angrily dismisses such “condescending to the other animals” [57]:

This miserable nonentity among two hundred and forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine others [other species of animal, that is], goes drivelling along his tragic political groove, without ever lifting his eyes to the quarter million examples which surround him. What makes it still more extraordinary is that man is a parvenu among the rest, nearly all of which had already solved his problem in one way or another, many thousand years before he was created. [52-3]

And it’s in order to establish the proper modesty in King Arthur’s image of humanity, and thereby fit him to learn from these examples, that Merlyn so eloquently savages the reputation of his own species in this book (“There are a great many more worms than men, and they do a great deal more good.” [58]). He and his retinue of badger, owl, Trevor Stubleygreyhound, hedgehog and others, drive poor Arthur out of one familiar speciesist defence after another (we know them all): man’s fine material works, his intelligence, his heroism, his love. There’s nothing unique to man in any of these, Merlyn insists. (Rather quaintly, his one hesitant concession is the human affection for pet animals in spite of their “uselessness or even trouble. I cannot help thinking that any traffic in love, which is platonic and not given in exchange for other commodities, must be remarkable.” [69])

To learn more directly than by example from the beasts, King Arthur is first transformed into an ant – a cautionary lesson in totalitarianism. Then, more illuminatingly, he is turned into a goose of the species Anser albifrons, “beautiful creatures, who migrate freely over the whole surface of the globe [the King for a time goes with them] without making claim to any part of it” and who “have never fought a war”. [134] From this seemingly perfected form of loose community, passionately evoked by White, Arthur is reluctantly recalled, still clutching a feather, “his fragment of beauty”. [139]

Merlyn, always impetuously intellectual, formulates the political lessons of all this, but for Arthur, still on the eve of his momentous encounter with Mordred, it has made possible a more visionary understanding: “He suddenly felt the intense sad loveliness of being as being, apart from right or wrong: that, indeed, the mere fact of being was the ultimate right.” [144] And with this sense of the beauty and self-sufficiency of life merely as such, Arthur looks out over the moon-lit land, his own land as King, admiring and loving it “because it was”, thence loving also its plant life and animals, and finally even its people, in spite of all that Merlyn has truly said about them: “All the beauty of his humans came upon him, instead of their horribleness.” [144-5] Exactly not, then, by pre-supposing the superiority of humans, but by coming at them, as nature itself did, by way of all their animal predecessors and relations, is it perhaps possible to accept what they are.

Still, it’s a vision only. The morning  comes. Arthur and Mordred, at the head of their armies, meet and make a treaty. This leaves Arthur quite contented with half his former kingdom, in which he now has hopes of introducing “the germs of that good sense which he had learned from geese and other animals.” [167] But no: a grass-snake, like the one which forms part of Merlyn’s retinue, happens to pass in its proper element among the feet of the soldiers; with human instinct to destroy, a sword is drawn and the snake is pointlessly killed. The abrupt action is mistaken for treachery, “the tumult rose, the war-yell sounded”, and the battle is joined which takes the life, among others, of the King himself. [168]

The second Merlin, spelt thus and presented just a year or two later in the novel That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis, has lain torpid in something like that badger’s set for about fifteen centuries, and is now exhumed suddenly into the light of the twentieth. Both Merlins are in some sense voices of, or for, pre-human or at least pre-Renaissance nature, but whereas T.H.White’s Merlyn has moved as a free observing intelligence through all the possibilities of the organic world, Lewis’s Merlin is a life force hardly distinct from it: “a strangely animal appearance … full of the patient, unarguing sagacity of a beast” with “the voice of a tree”. But he too has the task of correcting somehow the stupidity of mere humanistic power (Homo stultus is another title suggested in White’s book) and of socializing delinquent humanity.

For this Merlin, however, the power-problem is not war but science, a hubristic science escaped from the restraint of humane thought and from the loyalties to nature on which much of that thought has been founded: Lewis speaks of an ideal of scientific progress premised on “the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies”. Although such science has risen out of the study of nature, its aim now, as Lewis pictures it, is to raise humanity above and away from nature, for there is, says his science administrator Lord Feverstone, “far too much of every kind of life about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet.” A caricature, no doubt, but Lewis bases it on much that is uncomfortably familiar. For instance, some of what the great and admirable Stephen Hawking says about moving humanity to a new planet would be well-received at Lewis’s National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (NICE). And, of course, entailed in NICE’s project is “an immense programme of vivisection”.

So now we’re back with the fated menageries. These NICE animals (“hundreds of pounds’ worth [1945 values] of living animality, which the Institute could afford to cut up like paper”) have been heard as muffled sounds from time to time in the book, but at last, in the crisis scene of the novel, they escape their fate – among them a tiger, a wolf, snakes, a gorilla, finally an elephant – and gate-crash NICE’s annual self-congratulatory dinner, bringing that and the whole NICE project to a violent end. But not just these animal prisoners are free; there were human ones too. And when, briefly, we learn how they all got out – “Merlin … had liberated beasts and men” – the clear implication is that the salvation of humanity, as well as of the other animals, depends on finding that right place for this “parvenu” in the ancient, imperfect commonwealth of life for which these Merlins speak: not, that is, as a tyrant numbering off the other animals to serve him, preying upon them and also upon his own kind, but as a peaceable member of the community, making it, if not better, at least not immeasurably worse.

Or is that just sentimental new-dawnism? And after all, if humanity is unsaveably ferox, there’s always the consolation which Merlyn mentions, “the suggestion which would probably be made by every other animal on the face of the earth, except man, namely that war is an inestimable boon to creation as a whole, because it does offer some faint hope of exterminating the human race.” [156] Not quite as faint now as when T.H.White wrote that, in 1941, but let’s hope for a better solution, and meanwhile very best wishes for 2018 to all who read this, and to the animals!


Notes and references:

The non-technical summaries of animal research projects are accessible at

The Book of Merlyn was first published in 1977, some years after T.H.White’s death. It was intended as the fifth volume in his Arthurian series, the first four having been published between 1938 and 1958, and collectively in that year as The Once and Future King. The page numbers shown are from the Collins Fontana edition of 1978, which has apt and evocative illustrations by Trevor Stubley (one of which is shown), though the cover is by Stephen Lavis.

The quotation about “lowly rat” and “laboratory master” comes from The Science of Animal Behaviour by P.L.Broadhurst (Penguin Books, 1963), p.135.

That Hideous Strength was published by Bodley Head in 1945; the quotations are from the same publisher’s edition of 1969, pp. 355, 334, 249, 46, 122-3, 436





Advent, PR-style

The gathering time of year has come round again for signatories to the ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’. In the setting of the Wellcome Collection in London (the medical museum and library “that encourages everyone to reflect on what it means to be human”), it’s a time for mutual congratulation, distributing of awards, chivvying of the less motivated, and general reflection and retrospect. Among the prize-winners this year was Oxford University, sharing the Award for Public Engagement Activity with three other institutions which all now offer ‘digital tours’ of their laboratories (as reviewed in this blog on 28 August). Other awards were given for ‘Media Engagement’, ‘Use of New Media’, and ‘Outstanding Contribution to Openness in Animal Research’, this latter won by Fergus Walsh for his “balanced reporting at a time when ‘animal research’ evoked a knee-jerk response from much of the public and media”. The judges had in mind Fergus Walsh’s “exclusive” BBC tour of Oxford’s new Biomedical Sciences Building early in 2014, much admired at the time by both of the institutions concerned.

That was the year also in which the Concordat itself was officially launched, and its Annual Report for 2017, issued to coincide with the awards ceremony on 4th December, is partly a review of its career since then. Fifty pages or so, but there’s no need to read it to know that there has been a great change. The institutions which sign up to the Concordat (there are now at least 113 of them) are required to ‘show and tell’ on their web-sites, and they do, some of them at considerable length: statements of policy, disquisitions on their commitment to the 3Rs (not always remembering to mention that this is a necessity in law), accounts of research projects, slide shows, and videos of caring technicians and sapient professors. The Report recalls that the Concordat had set out to “change an endemic culture of secrecy around the use of animals that was present in UK life-sciences research” [p.5], and its success in this quite proper purpose is evident. At Oxford, for instance: here, the routine publication of statistics of animal research, including severity levels, in the University Gazette and on the OU web-site, together with a sort of school-year record of open days, 3Rs training courses, and other worthy Laboratory, South Parks Road.JPGinitiatives, makes a striking contrast with the Biomedical Sciences Building itself, planned and built in the old days (about ten years ago) and constituting an assertion of secrecy in concrete and brick: no visible way in, counterfeit windows, railings all round, security cameras.

But is this change anything more than hitching animal research to the already blazing star of modern public relations? Perhaps the Concordat is simply to be understood as one of those “unique hubs of PR excellence all round the country, all powering forward” which PR’s own professional body, the PRCA, has recently acclaimed as moving us all towards “an even larger, even more vibrant, and even more future-proofed PR industry”. Certainly much of what appears on the animal research web-sites is ordinary self-promotion, however judicious-sounding. As the Concordat acknowledges, “It is the role of all organisations and their communications teams to highlight publicly appealing aspects of their work, and to avoid more difficult topics” (a pretty good summary of PR). And even when not merely conforming to this model of communications, what the signatories do and say is necessarily one-way. The Report talks about the “development of public-facing communication tools” [11]; whatever exactly that means, it doesn’t suggest a progressive exchange of views. Even the manipulable digital tours, such as the Oxford one, only make available what the institutions choose to show; you aren’t going to stumble upon anything they didn’t mean you to see. And supposing you can find the way in to the real Oxford building, you won’t be let through the barrier without a very good reason (I know this), let alone be invited to take a look round.

An introductory video about Imperial College London’s animal research makes the situation unexpectedly clear. The Concordat Report specially praises ICL for its web-site, and certainly it’s the only one I’ve seen where animal research is mentioned and linked on the front page. The video itself touches on some of ICL’s “great biomedical research”, and showcases (to use a favourite Concordat word) the cleanness, good order, and superior welfare of its animal-management. But as well as appearing on the web-site, the video is posted on YouTube, and its immediate neighbour there under ‘Imperial animal research’, tagging along like a bad conscience, is a filmed record of squalor, cruelty, and malpractice in that same institution, part of the exposé published in 2013 by the British Union Against Vivisection. “Look here, upon this picture and upon this!” as Hamlet exclaims. Only two years separate the two representations. It’s a bewildering difference.

The Concordat earnestly advises that research should be “presented openly rather than sanitized” [36], with “balanced information, acknowledging harms as well as benefits of animal research” [10]. It admits, however, that to do so constitutes “a challenging area for signatories” [1]. In fact it unwittingly illustrates the point, since it doesn’t follow its own advice to include images of animals “undergoing research” as well as the usual stock pictures of animals enjoying rest or play. The Report does have pictures, but the nearest they come to ‘balancing’ the several at-home pigs and playful rodents is one image of a rat receiving an injection. Likewise, we can feel pretty certain that ICL will never, for all its “sector-leading” communications, showcase the table-guillotine which appears in the BUAV footage, still less the rats which we see undergoing ‘endpoints’ by that and other similar means, with mixed success (“Oh, its eyes are still moving!”, someone exclaims in the film). We must assume that ICL’s standards really have risen since then (all of four years ago), but its PR isn’t how we’ll expect to know one way or the other.

Unfortunately there’s something more to all this than the harmlessly increased clamour of self-advertisement, for corresponding to it is a decline in authentic reporting. It’s a quite reasonable principle of PR to get your client’s story in first, and leave as little as possible for more impartial commentators to make a story out of. You aim to sap their professional scope and interest. Thus, the opportunities for a journalist to base a story on things found out about animal research, perhaps merely through Freedom of Information requests, and then to quiz the practitioners and thereby keep the subject stirred, are now very much harder to come by. The information is already public, in ready-to-consume form, with follow-up comment prepared by experts (the institutions’ own “media-trained champions”, as the Report calls them). Investigations are still possible, of course, and needed, but they will demand more in time, motive, and initiative. The consequence is noted with satisfaction in the Report: “The accessibility of information about the use of animals in research has notably reduced media interest in this subject over the past three years … there have been only a handful of significant stories … Animal research per se is a non-story.” [37, 46]

It’s not just a problem in animal research, of course. That 2016 census conducted by the Public Relations Consultants Association (from which the quotation about “hubs of PR excellence” is gratefully taken) assessed the number of people working in its profession at 83,000 and bullishly rising. The equivalent number for journalism is about 64,000. Commenting on these numbers in the Guardian newspaper at the time, Roy Greenslade (a professor of Journalism) called it a “disproportionate ratio”, one which has ominous implications for public awareness in the future.

In the case of the Concordat project, this pre-empting of media curiosity and critical supervision has been achieved without any necessary alteration in the ethics or practice of animal research. But perhaps it does nevertheless entail or at least promote improvement there? I think that there are two things to say about that.

The first is that, yes, there must surely be some positive effect on animal welfare. The films may only show scenes chosen for their tonic effect, but such scenes, and the reassurances which are voiced over them, must set a noticeable standard within an institution and beyond, promoting what the Report calls “understanding of what represents current best practice” [37]. Then, because the animal care staff always co-star in these shows with the research side, the increased attention must boost the status of their contribution, to the benefit of the animals who depend on it. In fact this effect is mentioned in the Report [6].

But the second point is that an equivalent boost must be profiting animal research in general, and the departments and people that do it. Signatories are quoted in the Report as saying that the Concordat has “created increased awareness of animal research, and given it profile and standing” [45]. Profile and standing in whose eyes is not specified: perhaps only in the eyes of funding managers or other science departments, but that alone will have an important bearing on the growth or decline of animal studies. As to the general public, certainly there’s no confident assertion in the Report that opinion there has yet been affected. But of course that’s the aim. When vivisection was first given official attention, in the Royal Commission of 1875-6, the commissioners noted that “a large and very estimable portion of the public” viewed physiologists and their work with “a feeling of suspicion, and even of abhorrence” [xvii]. Has that ever not been so during the intervening years? The Concordat’s project is to liberate the profession from that odium for the first time, and to do it without ever needing to win the argument or even to continue having it.

Well, there’s more to Advent than the Concordat and its awards, I’m glad to say. And indeed, as a more general contribution to seasonal celebrations and portents, Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency which runs the Concordat) has posted on Facebook its own Advent calendar. With an Xmas sparkle and jingling, each door opens upon a different animal, with a short account of its ‘contribution’ to research. The doors won’t open ahead of time, so we can’t yet know what will arrive on the 25th, but at least it won’t find itself alone: these days, coming into the world to save mankind is a crowded avocation.


Notes and references:

The digital tours of laboratories are reviewed in this blog at

The Concordat Annual Report can be read at

The Imperial College video is on YouTube at  and the BUAV film, here following a few minutes of a BBC Radio 4 news report on the exposé, is at

The quotation from the PRCA Census 2016 comes from the introduction, p.4. Roy Greenslade’s comments on the rise of PR were published in the Guardian, 10 June 2016, and can be read online here:

The quotation about suspicion and abhorrence comes from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO 1876, p.xvii.



Our Ancestors the Fishes

In his brilliant introduction to the study of animal behaviour, King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz tells how the male jewel fish (one of the numerous family of cichlid fishes) gathers his offspring together for return to their nesting hole at night: “He does not coax them along [as is the mother’s way] but simply inhales them into his roomy mouth, swims to the nest, and blows them into the hollow.” [37] To make this practice possible, the baby fishes have a reflex contraction of the swim-bladder which makes them un-buoyant at the necessary times. On one occasion, Lorenz was feeding some of these fishes in his aquarium later than usual, and the descent of a piece of worm attracted the father cichlid just as he was collecting a truant baby. Impelled equally by hunger and parenthood, the fish took them both into his mouth:

It was a thrilling moment. The fish had in its mouth two different things of which one must go into his stomach and the other into the nest. What would he do? … At that moment I would not have given twopence for the life of that tiny jewel fish. But wonderful what really happened! The fish stood stock still with full cheeks, but did not chew. If ever I have seen a fish think, it was at that moment! [37]

That last sentence is best understood with the word ‘seen’ in italics: for the whole book is about watching and admiring, and learning thereby, without making or inheriting assumptions about what is possible to other life-forms. Not the thinking so much, then, but the seeing it happen, is the excitement. And from that sort of sustained attention, as Julian Huxley says in his introduction to Lorenz’s book, it emerges that “the behaviour of fish … is certainly much more extraordinary than most people have any idea of.”

That in fact is the theme of the recent popular study of fish zoology by Jonathan Balcombe, What a Fish Knows: the Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016). [I shall come back to Lorenz’s conflicted jewel fish later.] Actually Balcombe’s book is about much more than zoology. Like Lorenz, he insists upon the individual animal. “I felt for that fish” is a typical and (coming at p.5) exemplary statement. The outlook is already there in his title, fixing ‘knowledge’ within the individual rather than in the species or class. And accordingly he uses the word ‘fishes’ for the plural, not the more usual homogenizing collective ‘fish’, “in recognition of the fact that these animals are individuals with personalities and relationships”. (It’s noticeable that the many reviews of the book have conformed to this preference: ‘fishes’ does sometimes sound awkward, but that simply makes the lesson more conscious.) In fact Balcombe distinguishes his book from the “legions of books” about fish biology, ecology, even conservation, to say nothing about the possibly even greater number of books about catching fish (or, to use the miserable ellipsis, ‘fishing’), by presenting What a Fish Knows as a book on behalf of fish” [his italics]. And he dedicates it to “the anonymous trillions”.

That fishes need speaking for is obvious enough. At this early stage of his book, Balcombe merely sketches the frightful depredations to which humans subject them: over a trillion caught for commerce every year; about 47 billion more caught by way of recreation, of which perhaps one third would be killed outright, the rest returned in whatever condition. He leaves the more detailed account to his final chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, coming after the 200 or so intervening pages which have shown the astonishing variety, complexity, sensitivity and beauty of these animals. And the point, again, is not just the wastefulness, ecological havoc, and self-endangering carelessness of this predation, but rather the suffering imposed, because the fishes die as “conscious individuals” and “they do not die nicely”.

The consciousness of fishes, and in particular their ability to feel pain, is still regarded, here and there, as disputable. However, the factuality of it has been well established, at least in the case of one representative species of bony fish (i.e. belonging to the majority order teleosts, the other main order being the cartilaginous fishes or chondrichthyans). The species was the rainbow trout, the subject of a series of studies carried out in Edinburgh University during the first decade of this century, which culminated in Victoria Braithwaite’s book Do Fish Feel Pain? (2010) In fact this book has been cited as “demonstrating that fish feel pain” by the U.K.’s Animals in Science Committee, which advises the government on the welfare of animals in research.

Such studies, however they may advance the interests of fishes in general, themselves involve the killing of many individuals. The extraordinary corpus of knowledge about fish lives and physiology upon which Balcombe bases his book (still only “a tiny fraction of what they know”, he properly reminds us) has mostly been learned in the laboratory or at least in controlled waters with varying degrees of intervention (see, as another example, the study of face-recognition in archer-fish, recounted in this blog at 12 June 2016). Balcombe comments upon this from time to time, often enough unfavourably.

And of course fishes are used in laboratories for purely human interests on a very much larger scale. During the last ten years they have overtaken rats as the second most numerous lab animal in the U.K. , with over 500,000 ‘procedures’ out of the 3.9 million total at the last annual count (2016). At Oxford University, there were 3,106 such procedures in 2007, but 14,737 last year. Among other purposes, fishes are used in order to study genetic abnormalities and infectious diseases, to test drugs and industrial chemicals (infused into their water), and, at Oxford in particular, in cardiac research. The zebra-fish (Danio rerio) is especially preferred, and has been the focus of over 25,000 scientific papers to date, so Jonathan Balcombe says, adding in brackets that “many of these studies are inhumane”.

All this constitutes only a small part of the total trillions, of course, but the two users, science and the food industry, aren’t quite distinct anyway. As with land-animal farming, the research laboratory doesn’t merely serve modern fish-farming; it makes the practice possible. In the chapter ‘Fish out of Water’, Balcombe pays a visit to the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia, a research establishment dedicated to that end. In the “main warehouse”, there are about a dozen tanks. The largest of them contains perhaps 5000 young salmon, each one a foot or so in length, “layers of greenish-brown fishes gliding effortlessly in an eternal circle”.

A 2011 report on the subject of fish welfare in laboratories concluded that “There has traditionally been more tolerance of stress, disease, and mortality as an endpoint [a euphemism, I think, for leaving the animal to die of its own accord] in fish research, compared to research using mammals.” It attributes this disparity partly to the influence of “general attitudes to fish in society.” It may well be true that the low existential status allowed to the fish in western culture (perhaps in all cultures) has permitted a corresponding carelessness in the laboratory, and of course it’s this low status that Balcombe hopes to correct with What a Fish Knows. But although he mixes his science with personal anecdotes, most of his evidence does come, as I’ve mentioned, from scientific research. Evidently, then, the knowledge that would justify a higher esteem has been there (supposing that we should require knowledge of any sort in order to justify respect for fellow-lives); notably it’s been there in the universities. But the moral lesson has not been learned from it.

In an article on fish intelligence, the biologist Culum Brown blames this moral obduracy on a false and partisan concept of evolution, persistent even among scientists: “the deep-rooted notion that the evolution of fossil fishvertebrates follows a linear progression from inferior to superior forms, culminating in humans at the apex.” Since the fish is the most ancient of the animals, some 500 million years old, and since all the other vertebrates evolved from “some common fish-like ancestor around 360 million years ago”, therefore fishes are regarded as belonging to a primitive stage of mental and behavioural development, long grown out of by such as ourselves. However, Professor Brown points out that the fishes themselves have not been stationary during that time; they’ve evolved and diversified to meet or create new circumstances. In fact they “reached peak diversity around 15 million years ago”, which is just the time when the Hominidae family were evolving. “Thus most fish species are no more ‘primitive’ than we are.” That’s no doubt why Jonathan Balcombe calls fishes our “cousins”: we share ancestors with them, as contemporaries.

Still, those ancient fish of the Cambrian period are ancestors to us, and as Professor Brown says, “despite apparent differences between fish and humans [and these apparent differences, so conspicuous and yet irrelevant, no doubt account for much of ArcimboldoFourElementsour careless disesteem of them], evolution tends to be highly conservative; thus, many human traits are identical to or derived from our fishlike ancestors.” If we’re not precisely made of fish, as imagined by the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, we were certainly made possible by fishes. This alone, even without all of what Jonathan Balcombe reports of their subtle perceptions, strange and complex life-ways, and beauty of form and colour, should persuade us to honour them, with all the revolution in our behaviour towards them which that would imply.

And in this respect, Lorenz’s story sets a sort of example, even though his fishes were indeed captive ones. We left the jewel fish in a state of indecision, with both food and offspring inside his mouth:

For many seconds the father jewel fish stood riveted and one could almost see how his feelings were working. Then he solved the conflict in a way for which one was bound to feel admiration: he spat out the whole contents of his mouth: the worm fell to the bottom, and the little jewel fish, becoming heavy in the way described above, did the same. Then the father turned resolutely to the worm and ate it up, without haste but all the time with one eye on the child which ‘obediently’ lay on the bottom beneath him. When he had finished, he inhaled the baby and carried it home to its mother.

Some students, who had witnessed the whole scene, started as one man to applaud.

That would have been the highest honour available in the circumstances. Best of all would be to learn about fishes by visiting their own explanatory environments (as indeed Lorenz much preferred to do), and otherwise as far as possible to honour them by leaving them and their waters alone.


Notes and references:

Konrad Lorenz recounts the incident of the jewel fish in King Solomon’s Ring, Methuen and Co., 1952, pp.37-8 (transl. Marjorie Kerr Wilson). Incidentally, Lorenz gives good advice about creating a ‘natural’ aquarium, without for instance the need for artificial aeration, but he’s speaking about locally collected flora and fauna. I doubt that such an environment could be created for the tropical fish, whose use for interior decoration is another wretched instance of the mistreatment of these animals on a very large scale.

What a Fish Knows was first published in 2016 by Scientific American Books. Quotations here are from the 2017 edition, published in the U.K. by Oneworld Publications, pp. 6, 7. 232, and 233.

The Animals in Science Committee references this research at p.51 of its new report Review of Harm Benefit Analysis in the Use of Animals in Research (2017). The quotation is actually from the ‘impact study’ which the Review cites as evidence of beneficial laboratory research: see

The post about archer-fish, ‘Spitting in their Faces’, is at

The 2011 report quoted is Guidance on the severity classification of scientific procedures involving fish: report of a Working Group appointed by the Norwegian Consensus-Platform for the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal experiments, published in the Royal Society of Medicine Press journal Laboratory Animals, Oct. 45 (4). This report does advise that the low estimation of fish relative to other animals “should be challenged within a research setting”. It’s accessible online at

The article by Professor Culum Brown is Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics, published in the journal Animal Cognition 18 (2015), pp.1-17, and published online at  The quotations are from p.3.

The fossilized fishes pictured are Holoptychius flemingii from the Devonian period (i.e. 419 – 358 million years ago, and sometimes called ‘The Age of the Fishes’), as displayed in Oxford University’s Natural History Museum. The painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is ‘Water’, from his Four Elements, dated 1566, from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.






Unliberated Creatures of the European Union

The European Union’s Directive of 2010 “on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes” laid down the rules and standards for animal research in all the member states. Its Article 58 required a review of the Directive’s own success to be issued no later than 10 November, 2017. So here it now is, or rather they are:  the summary Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, etc., of 10 pages or so, and the rather opaquely titled Staff Working Document, containing “more detailed analysis of the different consultation activities and other information sources used”, and covering about 145 pages.

Another mighty deposit of conscientious bureaucracy, then: important, because this represents the progressive front for animals in laboratories, setting and monitoring standards which practitioners in Europe will be expected to keep and will therefore have a professional interest in persuading institutions in other countries to adopt (and this does happen, to a modest extent); not very important, on the other hand, because the review comes too soon to be useful. The Directive itself came into force back in 2013, but the last of the transpositions into national law was not completed until 2015. Besides, compliance with some important parts of the Directive (notably “common standards for accommodation and care”) was not obligatory until January 2017. In short, the Report concludes that “trends in animal use at EU level will not be known before 2019.” And the most that can be deduced from all the “consultation activities” deployed in the Staff Working Document is that the Directive “is generally considered to be a sound foundation for the regulation of animals used in scientific research.” 

So these texts make a disappointing and laborious read. There’s a great mass of comment from nations and institutions, but most of it is digested into generalities, and all of it is anonymized. Occasional details do suddenly remind the dazed reader that behind all this de-personalized discourse are real places and experiences, and real animals. See under ‘Sharing organs and tissues’, for instance: the 2010 Directive (Article 18) stated that “Member States shall facilitate, where appropriate [every bureaucrat’s get-out-of-jail-free word], the establishment of programmes for the sharing of organs and tissues of animals killed”; so now we’re told, by way of compliance, that “announcing planned animal killing in one establishment by an internal calendar assists planning. Through the fog of abstract style you can descry a strange and telling bit of laboratory life there.

Or see under ‘Re-homing’. This is a practice authorized by the Directive (Article 19) provided that “appropriate measures” have been taken to safeguard the welfare of the animals. Yet it seems that out of all the many millions of animals that have passed through Europe’s laboratories during the review period of four years or so, this one possible way of coming out alive has been granted to “only a few dogs and even fewer rabbits”.

It’s a miserable picture, and it reminds me of a poignant scene in the 1883 novel Heart and Science by Wilkie Collins which I shall quote as a digression (also as a very fine piece of writing). It comes near the end of the story, when the vivisector Dr Benjulia, defeated as a scientist and despairing as a man, has gone into his laboratory for the last time, watched at a distance by one of his servants:

The door was opened again; the flood of light streamed out on the darkness. Suddenly the yellow glow was spotted by the black figures of small swiftly-running creatures—perhaps cats, perhaps rabbits—escaping from the laboratory. The tall form of the master followed slowly, and stood revealed watching the flight of the animals. In a moment more, the last of the liberated creatures came out—a large dog, limping as if one of its legs was injured. It stopped as it passed the master, and tried to fawn on him. He threatened it with his hand. “Be off with you, like the rest!” he said. The dog slowly crossed the flow of light, and was swallowed up in darkness.

The last of them that could move was gone.

As Collins says in his preface to the novel, “I leave the picture to speak for itself.”

Returning to the report: there are positive things to find in these documents. One reason for the delays in putting the Directive into effect is that some of the member states started off far behind the new standards. In such countries there may have been “no previous requirements or formal structures for project evaluation”. For them, even partial compliance with the EU rules for training and supervision will have meant “better animal welfare, better recognition of pain, distress and suffering, and better understanding of animal behaviours and needs.” The change effected by the EU Directive may have been slight in the United Kingdom, but its effect upon the sum total of EU animal research has been very beneficial.

Good evidence is provided, too, for the report’s claim that “the level of challenge to animal studies has increased” – i.e. that research projects and the laboratories themselves really are subject to stricter assessments – even though, as the animal rights groups quoted in the report (they do get a say in it) rightly protest, there is no record of projects failing altogether to pass the test. The evidence comes in the form of complaints from some of the institutions: “delays to projects have been observed”, “scientists try to avoid doing animal experiments because of the administrative burden”, “the process [of ethical review, etc.] has limited some research at their institutes”, and “The directive has necessitated closure of some animal units as they did not comply with the requirements.” These grievances, assuming them to be sincere, are surely significant and welcome.

In its preamble, paragraph 10, the Directive calls itself “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so”. But as the Staff Working Document admits, so far during the period of the Directive’s authority there has been “no apparent reduction in animal use”. (And perhaps even that phrase is really a euphemism for ‘increase’, such as there has indeed been in the U.K.) Nor, even in the case of non-human primates, the most officially controversial of the animal research victims, does a reduction seem likely in the near future, for the report accepts the advice of the SCHEER ‘Opinion’ (reported in this blog on 17 July), and accordingly states that “no phasing-out timetable for the use of non-human primates is proposed.” So the Directive’s paragraph 10 optimism reappears now with a subtle re-direction: “The scientific community need to continue and improve efforts to explain why at this stage the use of animals in scientific procedures is still necessary.” Settle it with PR, then, and indeed one of the respondents (from the U.K. I would guess) mentions “significant progress in this area” on the part of the U.K.’s ‘Concordat on Openness’. Britain showing the way in modern vivisection, as usual; that it’s not yet the way forward is what one evidently has to learn from this 2017 review.


Notes and references:

The Report can be read here:

and the Staff Working Document here:

and the EU Directive 2010/63 here:

The passage from Heart and Science, a Story of the Present Time (1883) comes in Chapter 62. The novel was discussed in this blog on 21 November 2015 at

The SCHEER report is reviewed in this blog at

Albert Schweitzer in Time of War

One hundred years ago this week, the slaughterous battle of Passchendaele, on the Western Front in Flanders, was coming to its end. In Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’, one of the men whose “gilded” names are cut into this imagined memorial says

                        I died in hell –         1024px-Douglas_W._Culham_-_Mud_Road_to_Passchendaele
(They called it Passchendaele)

And of course they took the animals to hell with them, as Douglas Culham’s stygian painting very well shows. Then and since, however, we’ve always done our best to send the animals there ahead of ourselves, by using them in preparatory research. The British military science establishment at Porton Down was established in the year before Passchendaele. It has been using animals ever since, to test the known and the merely feared resources of modern warfare. In 2016, its own centenary, it got through 2,745 of them, including 116 monkeys.

Well, but as the Ministry of Defence habitually says, “Our armed forces could not be provided with safe and effective protective measures without this research.” And an official account of Porton Down speaks of “the constantly evolving threat posed by chemical and biological weapons”, reminding us that not just our armed forces are in danger; evidently we should all be afraid. In such an alarming context, how are we to give our minds to the welfare of mice, pigs, or even monkeys?

To go backwards in war yet further, this was a question which the German pioneer of animal rights Christian Dann felt that he had to answer when he published his book Bitte der armen Thiere [petition of the poor animals] shortly after the Napoleonic Wars in which, as usual, the peoples of Europe had caused each other so much death and destruction. He said, “if men have brought themselves so to destroy each other, that is because they have not been trained in compassion from their youth onwards.” In fact times of war are really, he said, the exactly right time to review our obligations to other animals, as the premise for a recuperation of our ethics in general.

Or rather, that’s what Albert Schweitzer reports Dann as saying (I haven’t read Dann’s book). It was also what Schweitzer himself was doing, speaking out about our relation with animals boldly and conspicuously amid the ruins of war. For the allusion to Dann comes in the series of sermons which, as a Lutheran pastor, Schweitzer gave in the church of St Nicolai, Strasbourg, immediately after the First World War.

The province of Alsace, of which Strasbourg is the chief city, had been under German rule when Schweitzer had departed from there some years earlier to set up a hospital in the jungle of Gabon, part of the French colony of Equatorial Africa. So when war broke out, he had been arrested by the French, and then deported and interned as an enemy alien. Eventually he was released back to his home village of Günsbach, situated more or less on the Western front and accordingly itself a victim of war:

Everywhere there were brick emplacements for machine guns! Houses ruined by gun-fire! Hills which I remembered covered with woods now stood bare. The shell-fire had left only a few stumps here and there. In the villages one saw posted up the order that everyone must always carry a gas-mark about with him.

From what was left of Günsbach, Schweitzer had moved to Strasbourg to work in the hospital there, and to act as pastor at St Nicolai. By now Alsace was part of France again, with all the human turbulence which that reversion of nationality entailed (including the departure of St Nicolai’s former anti-French pastor). And even now the slaughter was not over: the ‘Spanish’ flu was killing more people than the war itself had achieved. “the time of great misery that we face”, as Schweitzer summarized it in one of his sermons. [64]

Convinced that the war was not just a catastrophe in itself, but evidence of a general collapse of values, Schweitzer wanted to propose a “true, proper, inalienable ethic” [12] to replace the one which, when it came to the test, proved insubstantial and “fell away from us” with such disastrous consequences [11]. It was a theme he was preparing to argue in his great book The Philosophy of Civilization (1923). But here in Strasbourg he presents it already complete, from the pulpit of St Nicolai.

He begins with that précis of the commandments which, in the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus is said to have provided for a questioner: to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. What do these instructions really mean? Evidently we cannot love God as we might a human; rather, because “God is everlasting life” [8], what we should feel is “reverence for the incomprehensible, infinite, and living One”, for which ‘God’ is our chosen name. And loving our neighbour is an implication of this: our neighbour is a part of that One, just as we are. In fact, since all lives are part of it, all lives are neighbours to us. “In sum, therefore, the commandment of love means this: For you there are no strangers.” [8]

The first two examples of this “removal of the strangeness” between separated lives, which Schweitzer offers in his very first sermon, must surely have very much surprised his congregation: a snowflake (it was February 1919) and, first, a dead beetle. “The beetle that lies dead in your path – it was something that lived, that struggled for its existence like you, that rejoiced in the sun like you, that knew anxiety and pain like you.” [10] His listeners may well have smiled uneasily at this bold, almost tactless positioning of the beetle’s body among the countless war-dead gradually being memorialized all over Europe. But about the snowflake, Schweitzer spoke to them even more absolutely: “The snowflake, which fell upon your hand from boundless space, which glistened there, trembled, and died – that is you. Wherever you see life – that is you!”

To name this ethic that he was introducing, Schweitzer carried over the word which he had used to re-formulate the idea of love of God: ehrfurcht, which is usually (though not quite adequately) translated ‘reverence’. So in English the name was to be ‘reverence for life’: not the life only of our own side, as must have been the natural temptation at that time of “prejudice and nationalist passion”; nor only the life of our own kind; but every life, “no matter how externally dissimilar to our own” [11]. Life “radically viewed” is the phrase he uses in a later sermon. The beetle and the snowflake, then, as far away in kind as possible from humans, and in fact not even alive: these he must have chosen in order to jolt his congregation into recognizing the ambition of his ethic.

But I think he must also have chosen them to establish from the start the tragic setting for his essentially hopeful philosophy. For all the earnestness of the beetle’s struggle, or Schweitzerthe beauty of the snowflake, nature itself is indifferent to their continuation. It creates and sacrifices impartially. It teaches to each individual “cruel egoism” [16], and pits life against life in helpless ignorance: a “ghastly drama”, Schweitzer elsewhere calls it. And this puzzle of contradictory interests becomes even more mystifying if we suppose God to be directing it. “Why is the God who reveals himself in nature the negation of all that we experience as ethical?” It’s a problem which Schweitzer considers insoluble: there can be no “harmonious philosophy of life”. This is the tragic setting.

However, in the coming of the human species Schweitzer sees “the great event in the development of life … Here, in one existence, life as such comes to consciousness of itself. Isolated individual existence ceases. Outside existence floods into ours.”  To know and to feel the true solidarity of all living things, as humans may, was a revolutionary novelty in the world, and for Schweitzer it is the foundation of ethics: to act upon this awareness is “our great mysterious duty in the world”. [23] And it’s in his third sermon that he sketches out the relations with other forms of life which it involves. Schweitzer wasn’t, of course, a vegan, not even a vegetarian (though he did abjure meat later in life), but he speaks with unhappiness even of those exploitations of other animals which he regarded (rather too readily, no doubt) as inevitable: “that in order to live we must offer the lower form of life to the higher is terrible”. [32] Unhappiness, but not resignation, for there are two things we can do about it. Firstly, he says, we should indeed do things. He speaks of horses, chickens, cats, fish: “We must consider our responsibility in every individual case.” And again he outfaces the charge of sentimentality (“Do not be afraid to be ridiculous, but act!”) with examples taken from the farthest reaches from the human:

Keep your eyes open so that you do not miss any opportunity where you can be a redeemer! Do not go carelessly past the poor insect that has fallen into the water, for instance, but imagine what it means to struggle with a watery death. Help it to get out with a hook or a piece of wood … The worm on the hard street, onto which he has strayed by error, languishes because he cannot bore into it. Put him on soft earth or in the grass!

These detailed and unsensational actions are typical: not fine sentiment but “activist ethics” (Schweitzer’s phrase), and not morally calibrated by size, number, and relative importance, but unconditional. In this sermon, he even deplores the picking or cutting of flowers.

But secondly, because reverence for life was, in this way, an absolute, every falling short of it was provisional only, something that we would be restlessly trying to grow up and away from. He stresses the sorrow in our relations to other life, just because it’s this sorrow that will urge us on to “be a redeemer”, of ourselves and of nature more generally. But he also does speak with especial warmth about the shared delight in other lives which is the counterpart of the compassion with which we must share their pains – as with that insect helped from the water: “when it cleans its wings, you know you have experienced something wonderful: the happiness of having saved life.”  Indeed these sermons at St Nicolai must have been astonishing and moving events. Soon afterwards, Schweitzer gave some lectures in other countries on his ethic of ‘reverence for life’. In one such lecture, he later recalled, “I was so moved that I found it difficult to speak.”

That lecture tour included Oxford University (which later awarded Schweitzer an honorary degree): he gave the Dale lectures at Mansfield College in Hilary Term of 1922. At that time, memorials like the one in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem were going up in college chapels, churches, and other places throughout the city. In Schweitzer’s audiences there must have been many former soldiers, and many who had lost family, friends and colleagues in the War. It may be that some of these listeners didn’t like to hear this man with his German accent setting them right about the failed ethic which had allowed European civilization to fall into world war, or advising them about the suffering of insects. Nor, of course, can it now be said that we ever have cured ourselves of the habit of making wars. But as, yet again, the occasion comes round for communally recalling what these wars have cost, so again it’s exactly the right time to recall Schweitzer’s beautiful and saving ethic, and especially the rightly famous formulation of it, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”


Notes and references:

There will be a service of remembrance at the Animals in War memorial, in Park Lane, London, on Sunday 12 November, starting at 3 p.m. The memorial and its implications have been discussed in this blog at

The numbers of animals used at Porton Down, and the explanation from the Ministry of Defence, is quoted on the Forces Network web-site at The quoted official account of Porton Down is at

Bitte der armen Thiere, by Christian Adam Dann, was published in Tübingen in 1822.

A translation of Schweitzer’s sermons of 1919 is published by Macmillan as A Place for Revelation (1988). Quotations are from that edition, and mostly from the first three sermons, the finest of them. In a few cases I have altered the translation. Schweitzer’s account of Günsbach after the war comes from My Life and Thought, Allen and Unwin, 1933, (pp.210-11), as also does his recollection of his lecture tour. The phrases “ghastly drama” and “activist ethics” come from The Philosophy of Civilization, Prometheus Books, 1987, pp.312 and 315. The last quotation is referenced in Jon Wynne-Tyson’s The Extended Circle to The Philosophy of Civilization; I haven’t found it there, and only know it from Wynne-Tyson’s anthology.

Douglas Culham’s 1917 painting is titled Mud Road to Passchendaele, and is in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. The reproduction is in the public domain.



Two Histories of Vivisection and an Essay on Hamlet

“This is the only field in which sadism can be practised within the law”: so wrote John Vyvyan, in bitter jest, as he reviewed the writings of Elie de Cyon and Claude Bernard, two leading champions of vivisection in the mid-nineteenth century. De Cyon, he believed, genuinely was a sadist; Claude Bernard he thought merely callous, a “subman … a mutilated being”. But subman as he may have been, Bernard commanded the new profession of medical research, and cClaude_Bernard_and_pupils_Wellcome_L0019301rucially he sited it in the animal laboratory. The practical and moral consequences of that choice constitute the story which Vyvyan told in his 1969 book In Pity and in Anger.

To Bernard’s own laboratory in Paris came all the ambitious young medical researchers, including the man who would later become Oxford University’s first professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson. Once settled back in Britain, Burdon Sanderson kept a bust of Claude Bernard upon his study mantelpiece. So, no doubt, did many others in the profession. Conan Doyle put one on the mantelpiece of his fictitious professor in the story ‘A Physiologist’s Wife’ (first published in 1890). And along with Bernard’s authority came, as Vyvyan shows, “a new set of values”, licensing and indeed enforcing “the pitiless exploitation of the rest of nature for the physical benefit of man.” [19]

Of course there was some passionate objection to these new “values” [see the post about Frances Power Cobbe, 1 August 2017]. As the book’s title suggests, much of its story is about the personalities and politics of the anti-vivisection movement. Vyvyan was writing a polemic as well as a thoroughly researched history, and he had a great admiration and sympathy for these people. The frightfulness of contemporary animal research he conveys as much through their shock as by direct account. Anna Kingsford, who put herself through medical studies at the Paris Faculté de Médicine during the 1870s in order to speak for the animals with knowledge and authority, called the experience “descending into Hell” [108]. And these opponents did have this much success in Britain, the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, which in theory if not in fact took the values out of the hands of the scientists and gave them to the general public and their elected representatives to decide upon. For all the Act’s faults, and its failures in practice, Vyvyan himself thought well of it: “millions of animals and thousands of students have been spared by this Act, which owes its existence to the early activities of the anti-vivisection movement.”

That last quotation actually comes from the sequel which Vyvyan wrote to In Pity and in Anger, covering the twentieth century to date and titled The Dark Face of Science (1971). Claude Bernard was now in the past; he had died at about the time the British Act was passed. Even so, this next book has for an epigraph, casting its long shadow forward over all the succeeding pages, Bernard’s notorious brag: “le souffle de la science modern, qui anime la physiologie, est eminémment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

Involved in the darkness of that epigraph’s shadow can be found, of course, the medical trials at Nuremberg in 1946-7, when the world heard for the first time what had been done by way of vivisection in the concentration camps: “these incredible events”, the prosecutor Telford Taylor called them, but Vyvyan shows that so far from being incredible they had always been an implication of animal research, and had accordingly been predicted long before. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, had said in 1900, speaking of the possible usefulness of animal research, “you cannot bring a thing of this kind to a utilitarian test at all. If you once begin that particular line of argument, you will find yourself landed in horrors of which you can have no conception.” [29] But quite apart from the awful human dimension, Nuremberg showed how much the practice of vivisection had been boosted and liberated by the urgencies of war, as indeed it had been in both the world wars, on both sides.

So far from meriting special moral licence on account of its service to human well-being, then, vivisection had become part of the century’s psychopathology of violence – had indeed been a crucial preparative for it, so Vyvyan believed. He put Bernard’s words there at the front of his book to indicate as much. And there had, after all, been no shortage of disciples to carry Bernard’s ethic forward into the new century. Vyvyan quotes Edwin Slosson, the American chemistry professor and celebrated popularizer of science in the early twentieth century: “If cats and guinea pigs can be put to any higher use than to advance science, we do not know what it is.” More inclusively, “the aim of science is the advancement of human knowledge at any sacrifice of human life”. [20]

John Vyvyan was an archaeologist by profession, but having retired from that work (through ill health, I think), he took to writing. He wrote three books about the plays of Shakespeare, on the face of it a strange subject to combine with vivisection, or the other way round. But there is a connection.

It was part of Vyvyan’s argument in his two vivisection histories that science could have nothing to say about ethics, except as to its own professional ethic of loyalty to the facts. In ethics and mental life generally science was, or ought to be, itself governed by “the whole human inheritance that the arts (by which he meant all creative making and thinking) have built up over thousands of years.” [Dark Face, 111] And in both the histories this “inheritance” is extensively used in evidence against vivisection, for as Vyvyan says, “virtually all the great creative artists, in whatever medium they worked, have condemned the cruelty of science.” [Pity and Anger, 25] True, there was Gill's Shakespeare.JPGnot much contemporary science for Shakespeare to comment on (though he does touch on vivisection in the play Cymbeline, as described in this blog at 6 December 2016). However, his poetry is a notable part of the “human inheritance”, and accordingly a proper reference for moral thought. And the line of moral thought which Vyvyan studies in his book The Shakespearean Ethic (1959) does indeed prevision the thesis of The Dark Face of Science, most plainly in its remarkable chapter on Hamlet. A digression on the Vyvyan Hamlet, then (skip the next five paragraphs if you’re not as interested in that as I am).

There have been countless interpretations of this supreme and puzzling play, but the lastingly orthodox one, the one on which most actual productions are based, sees the sensitive hero face the terrible duty of avenging his murdered father, then put it off in doubts and hesitations, then rouse himself to the task with self-destructive courage, and finally depart the stage to a funeral drum, as the royal hero he has proved himself to be. Vyvyan up-ends this story. For him, the enlightened student Hamlet is corruptly persuaded by his murdered father’s lurid appeal from the region of “sulphurous and tormenting flames” (punishment for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature”) to revert, against his own better nature and education, to a primitive, pre-Christian ethic, according to which he, not the human or divine laws, must judge and punish the usurper Claudius. In acting thus, he has to betray all that’s noblest in himself, and by the end he has impartially destroyed the best along with the worst in the Danish court.

We know that Claudius is not in fact free of punishment either now or in futurity. He is Hamlet by Delacroixtormented by remorse (“O heavy burden!”), and expecting to have to answer in time for his “rank” offence before a divine, if not a human, tribunal. He says so, kneeling hopelessly in prayer, where Hamlet comes upon him with sword drawn in that moment of astonishing theatrical effect. But Hamlet, unlike Claudius himself, believes that mercy may be available in heaven for the praying king; that’s the reason he gives to himself for leaving Claudius unkilled at this moment. So, in the role of avenger, he means to outwit divine authority.

That it is a role, rather than a course of action native to his character, is suggested not only in the imitatively lurid and unsophisticated language he uses to drive himself on (“now could I drink hot blood”, etc.) but also, most tellingly for Vyvyan, in the cruel repudiation of his love for Ophelia. It is Ophelia who most feelingly witnesses to Hamlet’s natural fineness of character and to his tragic transformation (“O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown …!”). In fact Vyvyan argues that the rejection and death of Ophelia are an allegory of Hamlet’s repudiation of love and beauty in his own nature, “the slow killing of the higher qualities of his soul” (56).

Looking outside himself for a model of right action, Hamlet lights upon Fortinbras, the absurd soldier whom he encounters tramping across the stage with his army on the way to waste “two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” in a dispute about a “straw”. Accordingly it’s Fortinbras who, in the last scene, speaks a militarist’s epitaph for Hamlet, and orders his men to take up the body of this student and philosopher “like a soldier”, though the deaths by accident, deceit, and poisoning that strew the stage have in fact been anything but soldierly. They carry Hamlet from this shambles, the visible cost of his rough justice, to the sound of a dead march and the firing of guns, symbols of conquest and domination. Vyvyan sums up this tragic conclusion as “the defeat of humanity and the perpetuation of genocide”. (60)

So Hamlet is, like the other Shakespearean tragic heroes Othello and Macbeth, a noble character corruptly induced to his own moral ruin, and Vyvyan ends his chapter with a quotation from Goethe’s Faust, the hero-scholar’s cry of despair: “Das ist deine Welt! Das heist eine Welt!” [That is your world! That is called a world!]

Back to The Dark Face of Science. That Vyvyan was picturing something analogous to Hamlet’s story (as he interpreted it) when he came to write the later book is suggested at its start, for below the ominous words of Claude Bernard in the epigraph is another quotation from Faust:

Weh! Weh!
Du hast sie zerstört,
Die schöne Welt
Mit mächtiger Faust …

[Alas! Alas! You have destroyed the beautiful world with your mighty fist.]

What is the “beautiful world” that Bernard, like Faust, has destroyed? Partly it’s pre-Bernardian science, the delight of knowledge honourably pursued. For Vyvyan assures his readers in a preliminary ‘Note’, “I love science. I owe to it a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence.” And partly the “beautiful world” is the one which Charles Darwin had revealed and bequeathed to the twentieth century, whose implicit ethic of life-fellowship did indeed make possible “a new understanding of the world, and a deeper satisfaction in existence”. For it’s with this prospect of life-fellowship, this “new fact, which makes it necessary to re-think our ethics” as Vyvyan calls it [20], that he opens his story of the twentieth century. It’s the equivalent of that “inclination … to light” [36] which he has imputed to the Hamlet of Act 1. And in both cases, as he says of the play, a “tremendous spiritual battle must ensue” to secure or to lose it [36].

That the vivisection contest has indeed been this tremendous battle rather than just a series of political rows is what the book keeps in the reader’s mind always. “This is something to set to the credit of mankind”, Vyvyan says of the great 1909 London Congress against vivisection [95]. But more pessimistically, and echoing at large the story he has told about Hamlet, “the disciples of Claude Bernard have been able to conquer the human mind. It has been a barbarous conquest. It has debased our humanity, made a mockery of our spiritual pretensions, and devalued life itself.” [46] Hamlet’s is a finished story, but ours is not; until we redeem it, supposing we have the time and will to do so, “the human race,” so John Vyvyan says near the end of his book, “has no right to happiness.”


Notes and references:

Both vivisection titles by John Vyvyan are still in print, published by Micah Publications Inc., Marblehead, MA, U.S.A. The Shakespearean Ethic has been re-published by Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2011. The quotations and page references above are from the 1988 Micah edition of In Pity and in Anger, but the 1971 edition of The Dark Face of Science, published by Michael Joseph, and the 1959 edition of The Shakespearean Ethic, published by Chato and Windus.

The painting of Bernard in his laboratory is by Leon-Augustin l’Hermitte. The image is part of the Wellcome Collection online, and has been made freely available. Bernard is the one standing at the ‘trough’, of course.

The wood-engraved portrait of Shakespeare is by Eric Gill in 1936.

The lithograph of Hamlet and the praying Claudius was made by Eugène Delacroix in 1843.






Keeping Them in their Places

At the top of Time Out’s list of recommended museum destinations in London this autumn is University College’s Grant Museum of Zoology and its exhibition ‘The Museum of Ordinary Animals’. The theme of the exhibition is “the mundane creatures in our everyday lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice”, and how these animals have, through their relationship with humans, “changed the world”: a very important theme, especially at the start of an academic year, when it may help to advise a new body of zoology students how to view their subject. Whether the advice implied in the exhibition is altogether good advice is another matter.

The Museum itself comprises one fine galleried room in the enormous 1920s Rockefeller Building, part of University College London’s medical school in Gower Street. Most of the room is taken up by a permanent collection: skeletons, whole and partial animals showcase 3 preserved in jars, and other remnants of the world’s zoology, themselves part of a much larger collection made by former administrations but still in use for teaching purposes. Being mostly (and very wisely) unmodernized, the room is a period piece. It looks, on its smaller scale, much as Oxford University’s Museum must have looked in the 1870s when John Ruskin gave his lectures there and angrily spoke against that collection as “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”. Ruskin hated its emphasis on the exotic and the dead, and he told the students “I could fill all this museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.”

So the Grant Museum’s current exhibition, fitted in among these more traditional exhibits, may be thought of as making, at least temporarily, just the correction that Ruskin had proposed. There’s a showcase about chickens (illustrated with a stuffed hen) and other farmed animals. Another one follows the human-related migrations of feral rats. There’s a sad account of the imported domestic cat and its destruction of Australia’s wild-life. And two or three videos, as well as a display of snails inhabiting a log, show animals in the live state.

One showcase is labelled ‘Ordinary animals and medicine: the Brown Dog Affair’, and tells that story, illustrated with a picture of the original “very contentious statue” [see post for 7 August 2015]. Inside the case is a respirator for keeping such dogs alive “during vivisection”. It’s an ugly exhibit, or perhaps just an ugly idea; at any rate, here and elsewhere, the exhibition strives to be candid and impartial, positivist in the scientific sense, neither giving nor taking ground on the subject of what we’re entitled to do to these “ordinary” animals. Thus a case showing examples of dissection acknowledges that the practice is becoming less popular in schools “because of changing perceptions by many students and teachers about whether dissection is right”, but the word perceptions (being nowadays used to mean thinking rather than seeing) indicates that it’s a sociological rather than a moral point that’s being made.

All the same, illuminating as it is, the exhibition doesn’t really present a dis-interested account of the subject. In details, and in more general ways, its world-view is plainly and conservatively anthropocentric. That stuffed henstuffed hen, for instance (incidentally a modern piece of work), is glowingly clean and alert-looking, with a roomy glass case to itself. The plinth is simply labelled ‘chicken’, as if this glossy hen stands for all her kind, but the theme of the case is given as ‘The genetics of battery farming’. It amounts to a consoling lie. No battery-farmed chicken could look like this. A single photograph of ‘battery farming’ would have shown what in practice it means to a chicken’s health and appearance to “yield” (that’s the verb used in the exhibition) eggs or meat on the scale required.

And there’s a larger and stranger misrepresentation. Of these species that we “encounter every day on our plates, on our laps and on our streets”, by far the most familiar and ubiquitous, on our streets at any rate, is simply omitted, except as the reference-point for everything else. Anyone visiting the exhibition must feel this anomaly, having just been part of the herds of humans surging this way and that between UCL’s different buildings, and hunted off the roads by competing surges of the motorized sub-species. What the cat has done to Australia is a little thing compared to what humans have done there and everywhere else in the world. But I could find no confirmation in the exhibition that humans are even animals at all. In this room where the names of UCL life-science worthies are inscribed in gold on the ceiling brackets, the exhibition discourses as if the evolution of species has yet to be accepted in the university.

Then there’s the humour. Time Out’s review of the Grant Museum show is predictably flippant: “They’re playing a cat-and-mouse game with a show dedicated to all creatures ‘mundane’.” That’s how some journalists like to write. More dismaying is that the several curators of the show, some or all of whom are academic scientists, are infected with the same waggishness. “Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not”, they announce on the more or less scholarly web-site ‘The Conversation’. And it’s there in the exhibition too. The text about cats in Australia is headed ‘CATastrophe’. The one about rats following human settlements is headed ‘Rat race’. Professor Steve Jones enlivens his display of Cepaea snails with a quip about the science of genetics having until recently moved at a snail’s pace.

This is fun science, I suppose (one of the associated events is a ‘comedy night’), but it’s instructive to compare the ‘Ordinary Animals’ show with another UCL exhibition a short distance away in the main building, entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL’. This is a straight and wholly unjocular review of its subject, which is human attitudes and practices in relation to human death and the dead human body. It includes the preserved head of Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of UCL. Bentham Benthamfirst bequeathed his own body to medical study in a will made when he was aged 21. Later he specified that it should afterwards be preserved and set up as an ‘auto-icon’ in the college – where indeed it may still be seen, in a cabinet stationed a few yards from this exhibition, though with a wax model for the head. Partly, Bentham wished to support scientific education, but he also, as a secularist, wished to de-mystify the human body, to rank it thus with the thousands of deserted casings of other species later to be kept in the college and visible in the Grant Museum. (For the ethical dimension to this egalitarianism, see the quotation from Bentham on the banner shown at the top of this page.) But evidently UCL hasn’t yet caught up with Bentham’s serene impartiality: the quite properly respectful, even wary, tone in the wordage to this exhibition is very different from the jauntiness at the Grant Museum. This, after all, is about us; over the road, it’s only about them.

UCL isn’t alone in this, of course. When the Oxford University Museum hosted a conference earlier this year with a similar theme, ‘Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future’, it did have a definite ideological aim: to consider “the consequences of our consumer demands [i.e. for “cheap protein”] on global human and animal health”. It hoped also to recover or at least recall, on the chickens’ behalf, something of the prestige which the species enjoyed in pre-modern times as one of the “special animals”. Even so, the event was presented with the same familiar winks and puns. “Why did the chicken cross the globe?” asked the University’s News and Events web-page, introducing the conference. The running narrative of the event on twitter was tirelessly joky: “Registration table ready!” “Flocking to take seats at the chicken conference.” “Cracking!” Someone tweeted a sign which they’d noticed outside an Oxford fast-food restaurant, advertising “our latest special Cluckosaurus Rex: it’s a clucking beast of a burger!” Noticed it with indignation and sorrow? Not at all, for in fact a highlight of the conference scene was a giant model chicken, placed alongside the Museum’s skeleton-cast of Tyrannosaurus rex and itself named ‘Dinnersaurus rex’. As the University’s web-site explains, “With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.” It’s true that this model was part of a school project linked to the conference, and led by an official artist/comedian (wearing, hilariously, a papier-mâché chicken head), but that just makes the remorseless jocularity authoritative and prescribed. It would have been more in accord with the expressed purpose of the conference to teach or show children how to take animals seriously. I feel sure that most children would naturally prefer to do so.

The question is whether these adults take animals seriously. Perhaps they can’t really afford to, except as academic raw material; it would make using them for that or any other purpose so much more problematic. In her novel Hackenfeller’s Ape [see post for 11 October 2015], Brigid Brophy writes about a research monkey called Percy, and “the facetious spirit which had given the animal its name”. Mocking animals in this way, however mildly, has a function; it keeps them at a distance, makes their status more malleable. For after all, at the same time as boosting the chicken’s proper dignity with this conference, or proposing to do so, Oxford University had been conducting ‘procedures’ on real chickens as part of an extended study of their mating and reproductive characteristics (using red junglefowl or Gallus gallus, chief ancestor of the farmed chicken). This was partly a study in evolution, but it also aimed to illuminate “reductions in performance amongst domestic chickens and resultant impact on the poultry industry”. Such work presupposes and accepts the complete subjugation of the species, and supports it. I won’t detail the devices and techniques used to intervene in the animals’ sex acts, but neither they nor their commercial reference will have done anything to advance the status of this wretchedly abused species.

Like Oxford, UCL is always somewhere in the top three or four consumers of research animals among British universities. The uncertainty of attitude characterizing the events  at these two institutions, their unscientific speciesism, the habitual smirk with which the non-human animals are patronized, all these are symptoms of a divided mentality. As humans, we know that these animals are fellow-creatures, homogeneous with us in origin and mode of being, but so long as in practice we exploit them as objects, we cannot think and speak of them with the rationality of a good conscience, and it shows.


Notes and references:

The Grant Museum exhibition (on until 22 December) is introduced online at

Quotations about it are from the online text, or from the booklet issued at the Museum, unless otherwise stated. The exhibition is free, and the place is hospitable and well worth visiting anyway. The photograph of the hen is made available on the Grant Museum web-site. I should add that the taxidermist in this instance, Jazmine Miles-Long, quite reasonably calls her taxidermy “ethical”, in that she does not accept work upon animals which have been killed for that purpose.

The piece in Time Out, selecting London’s top ten museum exhibitions, was posted on 25 September here:

The exhibition ‘What Does it Mean to be Human?’ (on until 28 February 2018) is in the Octagon of the main Wilkins Building of UCL.

John Ruskin’s words come from lecture 4 in the series ‘Readings in Modern Painters’, delivered in the University Museum in Michaelmas Term 1877 (see Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, vol.22, p.520).

The Oxford conference took place on 27-8 January 2017, as presented on the University’s web-site here: and as variously reported on @Chicken_project.

The particular junglefowl study quoted is Borziac, K., et al, ‘The seminal fluid proteome of the polyandrous Red junglefowl offers insights into the molecular basis of fertility, reproductive ageing and domestication’, published in Scientific Reports 6, 2016. This was one of several publications arising from a research project at the University’s John Krebs Field Station.