Starvation Street

As one considers the wonderful diversity of animal life – my Standard Natural History speaks of “an almost awe-inspiring variety of form and size and coloration” – one naturally asks how long it takes all of these different animals to die of hunger. Happily, physiologists have been gathering experimental answers to this question for some 150 years. To start at the smaller end of things, for instance, hawk moth larvae (Manduca sexta) tend to die after 3 days without food, the house cricket (Achetes domesticus) after 5 days, and the Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) after 52 days. These numbers, I should say, are measures of LT50: that is, the “lethal time” at which 50% of the individuals participating in the experiment are dead. Not that LT50 simply increases with size. Among bumble bees (Bombus impatiens), for instance, the smaller nursing bees apparently last longer than their larger foraging sisters.

Of course there is still a great deal to learn. Even the modest puzzle thrown up by the differential death-rates of those 1,432 bees that starved in the last-mentioned experiment shows that “there is a need for additional comparative studies of starvation physiology among many key groups of vertebrates and insects”. The trouble is, as the author of the multi-insect study says, there are “ethical concerns” associated with “starving vertebrate animals to death”. In general, therefore, the experiments have to be based on “sub-lethal periods of fasting”. His own study of various snakes, for instance (vipers, boa constrictors, pythons, rattlesnakes and others, a hundred in all), had them fasting for “sub-lethal periods” of 56, 112, and 168 days. Not that they survived the research – as we know, almost no animals in laboratories do – but they didn’t suffer what the author calls “starvation-induced mortality”. They died in some more “ethical” way.

The limitations imposed on research nowadays by these scruples may partly explain why the less inhibited work done in this subject a long time ago is still regularly cited: for instance, the pioneering work of Charles Chossat (published in 1843 as Recherches expérimentales sur l’inanition). Those, after all, were the days when it could safely be assumed that “no student of science would, as a student of science, do that which was not worthy of him”: so said Sir William Gull, physician to Queen Victoria, adding that cruelty laws were “made for the ignorant, and not for the best people in the country”. If a scientist was doing it, it was ipso facto ethical. And besides, as another waiting for the endmedical scientist of the period said, being starved by Chossat or by any other agency involved “very little suffering”. (Being frozen to death was even better – “the reverse of painful”, he said – so that’s evidently the way to go.)

Generations of cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, pigeons, frogs, and others went on testing this claim, and their miserable experiences are still drawn on in modern studies, now that some better reason than merely finding things out has to be produced to justify “total fasting”, at least for the larger animals. Not that such reasons can’t readily be found or at least evoked: I note, for instance, a 1975 paper on the differential fasting to death of fat and thin mice, which modestly but crucially claims for itself “the potential of applicability of [these] findings to man”.  

But it’s doubtful whether the starving of other animals has ever been of very significant ‘applicability to man’. After all, this is a branch of medical science in which there has always been plentiful human data available. Another classic of the subject, Francis Benedict’s A Study of Prolonged Fasting (1915), follows one human volunteer through a 31-day fast in minutest detail for over 400 pages. The clarity of its analysis is, of course, greatly assisted by the voluble co-operation of the volunteer. In fact the book, though replete with measurements of various kinds, reads at times like a novel, the starver himself being a distinct individual (as indeed all animals necessarily are, whether we happen to notice it or not).

In Benedict’s time, fasting was even being practised as a form of entertainment. One of the short stories of Franz Kafka describes the experiences of one such ‘hunger artist’ (‘Ein Hungerkünstler’, 1922). The most famous of these practitioners was Giovanni Succi, whom Benedict had actually considered employing (but he cost too much). Although, in his capacity as a research subject, Succi was primarily the property of a Florentine scientist, Professor Luigi Luciani, he performed internationally, and during a fast in London, so the Times reported in 1890, “he has been visited by many gentlemen of the Succimedical profession, by whom his feat is regarded with much interest … important physiological deductions may be made from the experiment.” (The illustration shows Succi being visited by scientists during an earlier American tour.)

Another performer at the same London venue (the Westminster Aquarium) was called ‘Monsieur Jaques’, and he brought along his own applied research in the form of a herbal powder. This powder, he claimed, even in tiny quantities could on its own sustain life, and had indeed done so at the town of Belfort while it was besieged during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. If there was some charlatanism mixed up in all this, then it was the business of physiologists to separate the science from the show business (as indeed some of them did), for there was knowledge to be found here of much more immediate importance “to man” than could be supplied by making pigeons or rabbits starve.

Fasting as a performance has long since gone out of fashion (though there was a reprise of sorts by the magician David Blaine in 2003). But human starvation, endured purposefully or not, has continued to provide its own data. Death by starvation in the U.K. usually entails an inquest and post-mortem: invariably so if it happens in prison – through hunger strike, in other words. There must therefore exist very many records of this sort. I notice a United Nations University report on starvation from the 1990s which makes use of just this sort of data, including information about hunger strikes of prisoners in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Such a report to the U.N. would necessarily be aiming to provide thoroughly usable conclusions. (Even here, Chossat and his disciples put in an appearance, with their species mortality lists, as some sort of comparative back-up to the human material.)

However, starvation research of the kind instanced at the start of this piece has very little reference to medical usefulness: it’s a branch of zoology, a contribution to our knowledge of nature, answering the question I started with. Conditional on the ethical restraints mentioned, it’s free to grow as it will, and it does indeed demonstrate how growth works in such academic subjects. Each study raises new questions and calls for further research. Revisions, polite controversies, and synoptic reviews accumulate (already in 2010, a review of starvation studies had hundreds of papers to encompass). In time the subject becomes a sort of profession in itself, with its own conferences, authorities, jargon, journals, and honoured history (enter Chossat again). For you’ve scarcely broken ground when you simply starve a Madagascar hissing cockroach or a rattlesnake: you must go on to complicate the scene with other types of stress, add or withhold water, make the fast sustained or intermittent, start with fat or thin subjects or both (we’ve already noticed that). As a witness before a House of Representatives committee on vivisection once remarked, “you’d be surprised what professors and some students can think up”.

But a hawk moth larva, at least, or a house cricket, these don’t feel pain? Lest the question itself should sound like an invitation to fascinating new research, I shall put it another way: do they mind starving? To this we already have the answer because, as experimenters in starvation know well, precautions have to be taken against cheating, even among such innocents: they’ll eat their own excrement, or bedding, or each other, rather than starve honourably in the cause. So yes, even these have the urge to go on living, as we humans do, as all animal life does.

When a scientist alludes to “the ethical concerns of starving vertebrate animals to death”, he makes even morality sound like a technical matter, another aspect of the laboratory scene, something checked by glancing over one’s shoulder. No doubt it usually is just that, but it ought rather to be part of his or her own mentality. It would be much more convincing if the scientist said “we wouldn’t want to do that.” They might then set themselves to thinking up ways of studying life which don’t involve destroying its denizens, even these slightest of them. That would begin to answer Tony Benn’s question “Where is your moral teaching in science?” [see blog for 21 November, 2016] Meanwhile the moral teaching, the ethical motive, have to be urged upon the life sciences in the way they always have been over the last 150 years: that is, from outside. And in this particular case, one small thing which can be done now is to sign the following petition remonstrating against the starvation studies presently conducted at St Mary’s University of San Antonio in Texas: https://www.peta.org/action/action-alerts/rats-starvation-experiment-st-marys-university/?utm_campaign=051217%20peta%20e-news&utm_source=peta%20e-mail&utm_medium=e-news

Notes and references:

The insect study: Marshall D. McCue et al, ‘How and why do insects rely on endogenous protein and lipid resources during lethal bouts of starvation? A new application for C-breath testing’, PLoS One, 2015, 10(10). The bumble-bee study: M.J.Couvillon and A.Dornhaus, ‘Small worker bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) are hardier against starvation than their larger sisters’, Insectes Soc., May 2010, 57(2). The snake study: Marshall D. McCue, ‘Fatty acid analyses may provide insight into the progression of starvation among squamate reptiles’, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A: Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Oct. 2008, 151(2) The mouse study: G.S.Cuendet et al, ‘Hormone-substrate responses to total fasting in lean and obese mice’, American Journal of Physiology, Jan.1975, 228(1). The 2010 review: Marshall D. McCue, ‘Starvation physiology: reviewing the different strategies animals use to survive a common challenge’, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A: Molecular and Integrative Physiology, May 2010, 156(1)

Sir William Gull and Dr Francis Sibson are quoted from their evidence to the Cardwell Commission in 1876: Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.265-7, and 237.

Quotation and other details about the hunger artists are taken from reports in the London Times on 24 March, 12 April, and 23 June 1890.

The UN report: M.Elia, ‘Effect of starvation and very low calorie diets on protein-energy relationships in lean and obese subjects’, published in Protein-Energy Interactions, ed. Scrimshaw and Schürch, 1992, accessible online at http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID07E/UID07E11.HTM

The evidence to the House of Representatives committee investigating the treatment of animals used in research, 1962, is quoted by John Vyvyan in The Dark Face of Science, London (Michael Joseph), 1971, p.188.

The two wood-engravings: ‘Waiting for Death’ (1832), by Thomas Bewick, shows a horse at the end of its career of usefulness to humans, turned out, as Bewick notes, “to starve of hunger and of cold”; the picture of Succi and medical company is from the Christian Herald (New York 1886), courtesy of Internet Archive.

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The Antiviv: a Hospital without Cruelty

At a biomedical research establishment in Holland shown in the BBC documentary Monkey Lab (BBC3, April 17), a veterinary assistant speaks of her affection for the animals which are used in experiments there:  “Sometimes I really have to cry a little bit … So why do I have this job?” The answer she gives is that she herself uses medicines, and to shun the work which provides them would make her “a hypocrite”.

In one form or another it’s an argument which is frequently used against those who object to vivisection. Someone prepared to benefit from the therapies which medical science produces cannot honourably object to the means used to produce them; or to put it the other way round, anyone who does object to vivisection should refuse its products. And just so that we should know what that implies, the champions of vivisection would like these products to advertise their origins in animal research: “there is a case”, said Lord Winston in a House of Lords debate, “for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.” This drug, in short, will defeat your ethics. Lord Taverne developed the idea: “it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating ‘All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals.’ ” Merely by consulting a doctor, then, someone opposed to vivisection is discrediting their principles. The aim is to freeze such people out of the health service, or rather, since they have to be a part of it, if only by paying taxes, to freeze out their ethics.

As a matter of fact, living up to their ideals is something that few humans do manage, and I can’t see that the merit of the ideals is compromised by that. As Robert Browning’s artist Andrea del Sarto says, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s Heaven for?” If we don’t aim higher than we can presently get, ethics would become merely a matter of describing how we do behave, not how we ought to. Of course, a campaigner against animal abuse who isn’t vegan is plainly contradicting themselves. But then there’s a real alternative choice there – not to eat animal products – and it’s a choice which anyone can easily make. There is no such choice in modern medicine, here in Britain at least and probably anywhere. The nation has only one health service, it’s supported involuntarily by all who pay taxes, and it’s premised on animal research.

In that sense, medicine is a service like policing, fire-fighting, or defence: you pay for it, and you get it in the one available form, whether you like that or not. If you don’t like it, you must hope and try to have it changed. Meanwhile, you may heroically shun it altogether, or at least use it as little and as judiciously as possible. But it’s as unreasonable to argue that someone who objects to animal research ought to do without the state’s medical assistance as to say that someone who campaigns for changes in the police or fire services should do without police protection or should make their own arrangements about putting their house out if it catches fire.

In fact even before the National Health Service was established in 1948, the medical profession had made animal research an inseparable part of its institutions. This is what made the controversy in Oxford in the mid-1880s so crucial. By building and endowing an animal research laboratory, to the specifications and for the use of one of the nation’s leading practitioners of vivisection (Professor Burdon Sanderson), the University was endorsing and confirming the practice as the way into the profession for its students. Prophetically, then, the man who led the opposition to this development in the University, Bodley’s Librarian E.W.B.Nicholson, warned his colleagues, as the date for the final vote on the subject approached, “If we are beaten then, we are beaten for ever.” To teach medicine as an animal-using discipline was to fix it as such for all subsequent generations of practitioners.

Here’s an illustration of how that works, from ten years previously:

Lord Cardwell (taking evidence during the 1876 Royal Commission on animals in science): Therefore any students who come there, so far as your teaching and influence are concerned, adopt, I presume, the principle that you have adopted?

Dr Klein (professor of pathology at the Brown Institute, London): Yes.

Lord Cardwell: And consider that a physiological inquirer has too much to do to think about the sufferings of the animals.

Dr Klein: Yes.

Even so, attempts have been made to break this monopoly of the vivisectors in medicine, and to provide a cruelty-free alternative. One such was the National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, established at Battersea Park, London, not far from the scene of the 1907 Brown Dog riots (see the post for 7 August 2015). In fact the hospital was itself briefly caught up in those riots when a band of medical students, driven away from the Brown Dog statue itself, made the nearby building its target. Their indignation and violence (more deliberate and destructive, incidentally, than anything that animal rights “extremists” have ever done) reflected a medical training which now committed them in practice and professional allegiance to experimentation on animals. That is, they saw anti-vivisection as a threat, or at least an insult, to their craft, prestige, and livelihood. Fortunately the hospital, like the statue, was adequately defended on that occasion, mainly by the local population.

Here are a few facts about Battersea’s National Antivivisection Hospital, also known as ‘the Antiviv’. It opened in 1903 at Lock’s Folly, 33 Prince of Wales Drive. The money for it had been raised by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, and it was subsequently kept going and expanding largely by donations and bequests from well-off sympathizers. It was located in a poor district of London, to whose people it provided a precious service (doing “great and useful work”, according to Battersea’s mayor in 1907), and these people too supported it, not only by strength of arm as mentioned, but also by fund-raising: carnivals, concerts, boxing tournaments, more poignantly by direct gifts, including free work. By the end of the 1920s, the hospital was treating 400 in-patients and 40,000 out-patients each year.

During all this time the hospital was, in the words of its own board of directors, “a standing protest against cruel experiments on animals, and a concrete demonstration that these are not necessary for the succour of the maimed or the healing of the sick.” Nor was this “protest” merely implicit: there was a notice-board outside which declared the hospital’s principles. The principles were that no experimentation on animals or humans (this last a common and not unfounded fear among working people at the time) would occur on its premises, by way of training or research; there would be no treatments derived from live animals; and its staff would all have signed a declaration against vivisection. It was the opposite, then, of the doctor’s surgery as proposed by Lord Taverne.

Of course the Antiviv had difficulty paying its way. This was a difficulty for all the ‘voluntary’ hospitals (meaning those not owned and funded by local authorities or the state, i.e. most of them). It was exactly in acknowledgement of this general problem that the Prince of Wales ‘s (later King Edward’s) Hospital Fund for London had been set up in 1897. Through this agency, funds were to be raised in a systematic way and distributed to the voluntary hospitals – those of them, at least, which were assessed as efficiently run. Naturally the Battersea Hospital frequently applied for funds from this source, but although the Fund never seems to have found fault with the running of the hospital, it consistently withheld its support. The Fund’s reasoning was variously expressed at different times and by different individuals, but the essential reason was clear: its General Council did not wish to encourage a venture which, as one hospital fund-raiser put it, “casts a great slur upon the profession generally”. Sir Henry Burdett, a leading member of the Council, argued that an anti-vivisection hospital was impossible anyway, because there was no modern medicine or medical treatment which had not at some point involved animal research. To take a stand against it was therefore “humbug”.  Already in 1909, then, the hypocrisy charge was being used to discredit and subvert any effort to make medicine cruelty-free.

The Antiviv closed down in 1935. Its last chair of the board of governors, Lord Ernest Hamilton, blamed the failure on “this ceaseless hostility of King Edward’s Hospital Fund administrators who refused to help us. If they had helped us, we should now be financially solvent, but they have refused to give us a penny.” (It’s an unhappy irony that the Fund had been set up in the first place “to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign” – in tribute, that is, to a monarch who was passionately opposed to what she called “this horrible, brutalising, unchristian-like vivisection … a disgrace to a civilized country”.) That the Antiviv had been working well as a hospital is sufficiently indicated by the fact that, having simply changed its name to the Battersea General Hospital and dropped its anti-vivisection rules, it continued to function as before, in fact went on serving South London until 1972. The building was demolished in 1974, and its address no longer exists: a huge block of modernistic flats now squats on the historied site.

The Antiviv was not the only attempt to set up a cruelty-free health service, but it was the latest to survive. What Burdett said about it, that it couldn’t actually free itself of the products of animal research, was probably true. In fact, that was always a controversial question among its own people, how strict to try to be. In this matter, there can be no innocence any more, and already there could not be then: the medical profession itself had made sure of it. But the “reach” was absolutely right, towards a health service in which the great talents, skills, and practical compassion of the professionals would not be dishonoured by a background in animal exploitation. That the “grasp” failed, for that time, was a tragedy – one that, as we’ve seen, need not have happened. It says nothing about the validity of the ambition, only about the wretched history of its deliberate defeat, that those who champion it are still obliged, if they’re to accept scientific help in time of need, to participate in that dishonour.

 

 

Notes and references:

The Lords Winston and Taverne were speaking in the House of Lords debate on the transposition of EU Directive 2010/63 on 31 October, 2011. The subject was debated again in similar terms in that House on 25 October, 2013, with reference to the Medicinal Labelling Bill.

E.W.B.Nicholson’s words come from a letter which he sent to all signatories to the Oxford campaign on 6 March, 1885 (Bodleian Library 1516d.4).

The Cardwell/Klein exchange is from Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, p.185.

Information and quotations about the Battersea Hospital come mainly from ‘Boycotted Hospital: The National Anti-Vivisection Hospital, London, 1903-1935’, A.W.H.Bates, Journal of Animal Ethics, vol.6, no.2 (Fall 2016), pp.177-87; also from Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, especially chapter 1 (the “great slur” quotation is from p.19); and from reports in the Times newspaper for 1 October, 1907, and 31 May, 1935 (on the maintenance and then closure of the hospital), and 6 February, 1897 (on the founding of the Prince of Wales’s Hospital Fund).

The words of Queen Victoria are taken from letters written to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Home Secretary William Harcourt in the early 1880s (see The Extended Circle, ed. Jon Wynne-Tyson, 1985, p.386).

Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

Among the various attempts to persuade chimpanzees or other great apes to use a human language, the most famous or notorious, certainly the most written-about, has been ‘Project Nim’ – the attempt, from 1973 to 1977, by Herbert Terrace at the University of Columbia, to teach the animal whom he originally named Neam Chimpsky to use American Sign Language (ASL).

That name itself was ominous. True, it wasn’t a senseless joke. Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, wished to test Noam Chomsky’s claim that language, as humans used it, was a unique and innate capacity of the human brain. If a chimpanzee, brought up in human society, could learn to converse in some way with humans, that much language at least would be shown to be the product of culture, a learned behaviour. So Terrace named the chimpanzee to show that the project was a challenge to Noam Chomsky. But unfortunately the name also expresses an estimate of value. Like the name ‘Dolly’ for the cloned sheep (see the VERO blog on 29 August, 2016), it makes a joke of the animal’s participation in human affairs. In fact it belongs with the mock-dignity of a chimpanzees’ tea-party. An animal not to be much respected in itself, then, but made over to a human purpose: that was the implication of the name.

Accordingly, it was Neam Chimpsky’s fate to be snatched with unceremonious violence from his captive mother (a ‘breeding’ chimpanzee at Dr William Lemmon’s Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma), pitched into a more or less unprepared human family in New York, and wholly subject for the next four years to the chaotic professional and private interests of whatever people Terrace could find to run the Nim_Chimpskychimpanzee’s education and home life. Most of those people proved devoted and loyal to Nim (as he came to be called) while they stayed with him. It was not so much the difficulties of looking after Nim, though these were great enough, as the instability of the human relationships that caused what Terrace himself calls “the necessity of introducing more and more teachers into his life … The revolving-door manner in which caretakers cycled through Project Nim”. Nim’s so-called “socialization” in fact consisted in a succession of broken homes: a training in delinquency.

Yet during this time Nim rose above his slighting name and its moral implications, and re-characterized it in his own true image, as vital things do (poor Dolly was too unassertive to discredit the joky etymology of her name, as it deserved). The ‘Chimpsky’ disappeared from ordinary use, and the ‘Noam’ reference was forgotten. In fact, discovering Nim as a real and enduring being is the most interesting lesson that Herbert Terrace can be seen to learn during his own account of the project, the 1979 book Nim. Accustomed to pigeons and rats as subjects, creatures which he could with impunity put away in cages and forget when not in use, he found that Nim was a 24-hour phenomenon: “Even more than a human infant [of which Terrace had no experience either], Nim needed constant contact and attention.” More urgently, chimpanzees mature quickly, so that any “unseized opportunity to teach Nim to sign seemed to be an opportunity lost forever.” In practice, Terrace mostly delegated these demands, but even delegating them required time and understanding.

A theme for a comedy, perhaps: harassed scientist taught to live and love by warm-hearted monkey. But in fact the story of Nim was a tragedy. There came a time, unprepared-for like most of what happened during the project, when Nim’s growing strength started to make his vagarious moods a physical danger to his carers (there were several trips to hospital). Both man-hours and funds for the research were becoming scarce, and anyway Terrace now had plentiful results in notes and film of Nim’s communications during nearly four years on which to base his research conclusions. So Nim was indeed put back in his cage: that is, he was sedated, as his mother had been when he was stolen from her, and taken to the place which one writer about Nim (Elizabeth Hess) describes as “a dreary, crowded, woefully inadequate cement prison” – the Institute for Primate Studies from which he had come. Having been taught to regard himself as a human (when asked to sort photographs of chimpanzees and humans, he had put his own picture among the humans), he was thrown back among his own kind and left to start again.

Terrace himself, a more sympathetic man than Dr Lemmon, devoted a chapter of his book to this miserable event. The chapter is somewhat disingenuously titled ‘Nim Leaves’, but it doesn’t shirk the pain and violence involved. After all, such ASL as Nim had learned did not encompass explanations or persuasions. The parting had to be done with a trick:

Nim didn’t realize what had happened until I got up and padlocked the door. He then began to scream and tried to force the door open … Without further ceremony we all walked out of the building. I will never forget Nim’s incessant ear-piercing screams and his look of fear and anger when I abandoned him in his cage.

In the recent documentary film Project Nim (2011) one of Nim’s household who had been present on that occasion still seems tearful when she remembers it: “a nasty thing to do … We coaxed him down there because he trusted us … We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.”

But Terrace had in preparation what many of his co-adjutors regarded as a further betrayal, this one strictly as a scientist. In his report on the research published in the journal Science in 1979, he argued that Nim had not been using ASL as a proper language at all. Nim had learnt to use many individual word-signs (125 of them by the end), and could use them in combinations of up to four, but there was no good evidence that he was using a syntax to make variable sense of them, still less that he was generating altogether new meanings in such a way. Not just Nim, either. Terrace rejected also the more positive conclusions of previous studies (for instance, the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner with the chimpanzee Washoe). The title of the article was ‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ The answer which Terrace gave was this: “Apes can learn many isolated symbols (as can dogs, horses, and other non-human species), but they show no unequivocal evidence of mastering the conversational, semantic, or syntactic organization of language.” In short, no.

Terrace did not altogether abjure the romantic possibilities of inter-species communication which his own research seemed thus to have closed off. At the very end of his book, he writes that such communication would be “as exhilarating as receiving a message from outer space”, while to introduce language into the culture of a group of chimpanzees “might provide a priceless glimpse of what life was like at the dawn of human civilization.” But this may have been the licensed rhetoric of a book’s last lines. The question with which he starts the book, whether “humans could take comfort in the assurance that our language made us unique”, had been emphatically answered. Terrace told the New York Times, “Language still stands as an important definition of the human species.”

So it turns out that Nim was not teaching humans to understand a different animal; he was just helping us to take another admiring look at ourselves in the mirror: as Terrace more recently said of Nim, with familiar speciesist condescension, “he should be greatly respected for sharing himself and his abilities in the pursuit of what it means to be human.” No surprise that this last quotation comes from a piece published on a pro-vivisection web-site.

Terrace’s much-publicized conclusions from his research certainly had a baleful effect on other such projects and their chances of getting funds. We may not regret that in itself, but more importantly his conclusions have also helped to keep chimpanzees and the other great apes, and in a queue behind them all the other animals, for that much longer outside the circle of our moral fellowship. And thus a quarter of a century later Oxford’s Professor Colin Blakemore could still be defending the use of great apes in experiments on the grounds that “there is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.” Nim’s return to prison was, in this sense, wholly emblematic.

As I said, there have been many tellings of the Nim story. The most thorough, apart Nim books copyfrom Terrace’s own account, would be Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp who would be Human (2008), the book on which James Marsh’s film Project Nim was based. One of the briefest and most poignant versions was published in the New Yorker in 1976, while Nim was still in ‘education’ at Columbia. The author, Mark Helprin, doesn’t in fact mention Nim by name; it’s possible he had no knowledge of him (though Terrace was good at generating publicity for his research in the media). Rather, Helprin tells the larger story of which poor Nim’s career is an illustration. The title is ‘Letters from the Samantha’.

The captain of “an iron-hulled sailing ship” is reporting to his superiors a typhoon and its troublesome consequences. From that sudden violence in nature, the ship has come into possession of “a large monkey”. The presence of an animal on board is a serious breach of regulations, but unlike lesser creatures, which the captain has from time to time found on the ship and promptly dispatched, this one makes special claims, being “like a man”. Indeed, it was the captain himself who had him rescued. And once he has been fed, the monkey becomes biddable, even friendly. A special “throne” is made for him. But his presence produces disciplinary problems among the crew, and the captain feels that he’s losing his own authority on the ship. Still, he cannot bring himself to order the monkey to be thrown back into the sea: “I brought him on board in the first place.” More than that: the monkey’s personality has had a powerful effect upon the captain: so far from his dominating the animal, “it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know.” But finally, disregarding the various opinions of his crew (just as Terrace suddenly announced to his staff the end of ‘Project Nim’), and more significantly violating what he himself has learnt, the captain grasps the monkey, subdues his struggles, and throws him overboard to drown. And now he must restore a proper attitude on board the ship. Accordingly, he addresses the crew on the subject of the ape thus:

He is not a symbol. He stands neither for innocence nor for evil. There is no parable and no lesson in his coming and going … He does not stand for a man or men. He stands for nothing. He was an ape, simian and lean, half sensible. He came on board, and now he is gone.

 

 

Notes and references:

The book written by Terrace himself is Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (Knopf 1979). Quotations are from the U.K. edition (Eyre Methuen, 1980) pp.97, 108, 5, 127, 202, 226-7, 4.

Quotations from Nim Chimpsky, the Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess (Bantam, 2008), are from the 2009 paperback edition, pp.46 and 242 (which quotes Terrace speaking to the New York Times).

‘Can an Ape Create a Sentence?’ appeared in Science, 23 November 1979, vol.206, no.4421, pp.891-902. The full authorship was H.S.Terrace, L.A.Petitto, R.J.Sanders, and T.G.Bever. The recent comment from Terrace (“… what it means to be human”) appeared on the website Speaking of Research, in a ‘guest’ post, 15 August 2011.

Colin Blakemore was quoted in the Independent, 2 June 2006, introducing a Medical Research Council publication which promoted the benefits of experimentation on non-human primates – including, when “necessary”, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos).

Among other discussions of the Nim story, these two are especially interesting: (1) Peter Singer’s review of the film Project Nim, and the unfriendly exchange between Singer and Terrace which followed it, in the New York Review of Books for 13 October and 24 November 2011; (2) another review of the film, this one a really fine and impassioned piece of writing (it starts with an attack on the name Nim Chimpsky) in the journal Dissent, 17 August 2011, by Benjamin Hale. The Dissent article can be read here:  https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-sad-story-of-nim-chimpsky.

The short story ‘Letters from the Samantha’, by Mark Helprin, was first published in the New Yorker, 5 January 1976. It has been re-published in Helprin’s Ellis Island and Other Stories (Dell, 1981), and also in the excellent American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Dell, 1987), pp.271-82.

The illustrations show Nim washing up, and two book covers: the front of Hess’s book, and the back cover of Terrace’s book Nim, picturing the author and the chimpanzee.

As to Nim’s later life: he stayed at the IPS until 1982, when it began to fail as a paying concern. He was then sold on to somewhere very much worse, New York University’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, with its grotesquely inappropriate acronym LEMSIP. After a very public controversy, in which Terrace took a part arguing for special treatment in Nim’s case (other chimpanzees were sold to LEMSIP at the same time and stayed), Nim was taken back to the IPS. In 1983, Nim was sold again, this time to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, property of the animal activist Cleveland Amory. This was a wholly benevolent animal sanctuary, but it was primarily for equines, and for a year or so Nim lived a wretched life alone in a cage, a period vividly recorded in the film Project Nim. Then other chimpanzees were brought to Black Beauty, and we can hope that Nim lived a reasonably contented life until his premature death at 26 years of age in 2000.

 

 

 

Ecce Homo

Today, 24 April, is World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s impossible to know even approximately how many animals are making this claim on our attention, because most of them are unrecorded. Even where there are official counts, the rules and standards differ. The U.S.A., for instance, does not include in its published figures any rats, mice, birds, or frogs – the most commonly used lab animals. Its last official total (767,622 in 2015) is therefore likely to have been about 1% of the true number. The most recent attempt to produce a reasoned estimate of the world total (a 2014 report commissioned by Lush Cosmetics) put it at over 118 million, but conceded that this was itself very probably much less than the truth.

Here in the U.K., the main event to mark WDAIL will take place in Birmingham on Saturday 29 April. This is the link to the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/440619619606340

At the head of that page, there is just the one pictured animal, the monkey as shown here, to represent those WDAIL monkeyuncounted millions, but it’s the right one, as I shall say later. On Easter week-end, which is when I am writing this, the hideous contraption (I don’t know its technical name) which has been clamped to the monkey’s head appears like a stylized crown of thorns.

MantegnaThere’s unfortunately nothing far-fetched about such a comparison. In fact it was put to the congregation of the Oxford University Church long ago by one of the University’s most eloquent preachers and noblest men, John Henry Newman. At that time (early 1840s), he was vicar of that church and parish, as well as a university tutor. He was giving the Easter sermon, and he wished to persuade that congregation, largely consisting as it did (or so he was increasingly coming to feel) of over-comfortable and under-spiritual colleagues, to have a more living sense of “those awful sufferings whereby our salvation has been purchased”. He hoped to do this by inviting his listeners to recollect “how very horrible it is to read the accounts which sometimes meet us of cruelties exercised on brute animals”, and in particular those cruelties which were “the cold-blooded and calculating act of men of science, who make experiments on brute animals, perhaps merely from a sort of curiosity.” He pictured such an animal “fastened … pierced, gashed, and so left to linger out its life”. And he then asked, “Now do you not see that I have a reason for saying this, and am not using these distressing words for nothing? For what is this but the very cruelty inflicted upon our Lord?”

So it was as a sort of moral exercise that Newman first invoked those images of animal suffering, as a practice in sympathy, but also and expressly he was gripped by the images in themselves, and he used words for them as strong as a Christian could find: “there is something so very dreadful, so Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.” Satanic! This meant something shocking at that time, addressed to a congregation in which almost all must have been earnest believers, and many of the men in holy orders themselves (as college fellows commonly were). Newman was shifting the matter from the realm of personal sensibility (“horrible to read … distressing”), and into eschatology: death, judgement, heaven and hell. He could not at that time have condemned vivisection more absolutely or more permanently.

Soon after that, Newman left Oxford, exiled by his decision to be ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. And subsequently the religious preoccupations which so vitally engaged him and others during the nineteenth century have ebbed away, from Oxford University and elsewhere. The meaning which the pictured monkey holds for humanity and our self-explanation, in its character as our forebear, probably commands now a larger congregation than the meaning of Easter does, supposing that they have to be at odds. At any rate, the idea that Christ’s sufferings, real and terrible as they historically were, constituted a sacrifice ‘purchasing our salvation’ is a hard one to accommodate in science-minded western culture. Still, as the picture of the monkey shows, we’re not done with sacrificing as a principle. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw believed that a primitive trust in propitiatory sacrifice was what really persuaded the modern public of the efficacy of vivisection, in so far as it was persuaded.

But there’s more to the comparison than just that ancient habit of making others pay our debts. When we see another species of primate, we get as near as we may to looking at our own genesis. Ecce homo, in fact (the Latin version of words ascribed to Pontius Pilate: see the note below). The last lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (discussed in the post for 10 September 2015), record the narrator’s encounter with a confined chimpanzee, bullet-proof glass between them: “I recognized everything about her … As if I were looking in a mirror.” But we have heard from this woman’s brother that such recognition is only the start in finding who we really are. Referring to the absurdly over-rated ‘mirror test’ for animal self-consciousness (essentially a test of human-likeness), he has told her, “We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double points for those who get all the way to insects.” So other primates are the go-betweens, who both are and show our relation to all the other animals beyond themselves, and therefore to life itself. In putting them to death in this way, we offend against life our own maker, and, as children of nature not God, we condemn ourselves with no means of forgiveness. This is the story that the monkey photograph tells.

If you can, be in Birmingham on Saturday and speak up for the equal holiness, beauty, and right to freedom of all life.

 

Notes and references:

World Day for Animals in Laboratories was instituted in 1979, the particular date being the birthday of Hugh Lord Dowding, whose work for animals is discussed in the post for 26 June, at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/a-servant-of-the-state-of-nature/

The Lush report can be read here: http://lushprize.org/wp-content/uploads/Global_View_of-Animal_Experiments_2014.pdf

Newman’s sermon ‘The Crucifixion’ was collected in volume 7 of the eight-volume Parochial and Plain Sermons (quotations from pp.134-37 of the 1868 edition).

Quotations from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are from pp.308 and 201-2 of the U.K. edition (Profile Books, 2014).

The painting is by Alberto Mantagna, dated 1500 and titled Ecce Homo. “Ecce homo!” is what Pilate exclaims when he presents Jesus to the crowd (in the Latin Vulgate translation of John 19.5). The common English version would be ‘Behold the man!’, but the Latin can equally mean ‘Behold mankind!’

I don’t know the source of the WDAIL photograph.

Poets and Vivisectors

I see mention of a recently published anthology titled Vivisection Mambo. What – a whole book of verse on the hideous subject? But the title turns out to be misleading. The word ‘vivisection’ is evidently there for metaphorical purposes, to imply that the poems inside are searching, bare-nerved, even bloody – in a word, important. ‘Mambo’ is added, I guess, to show that they’re also lively and fun, like the dance. No doubt the poems themselves are all these things, but they aren’t about vivisection. The title is just taking careless and improper advantage of the frisson that might be supposed to go with the word.

In fact it’s hard to find any poetry that is about vivisection, though heaven knows it’s a subject which needs attention of the imaginative ethical sort that poetry can provide. There’s one large and terrifying poem of early twentieth century date called The Testament of a Vivisector, written by the fine Scottish poet John Davidson (more of that some other time). Davidson was a trained scientist, and probably knew more than most about laboratory life. And I suspect that it’s lack of such immediate knowledge rather than the ugliness of the subject that keeps poets away: poetry isn’t easily made out of generalizations.

There is one poem about vivisection which makes a deliberate merit of this impersonality, as its business-like title suggests: ‘The Use of Animals in Research’ (from the collection Mrs Carmichael by Ruth Silcock, Anvil Press, 1987). “Animals are different”, says its first line with well-aimed meaninglessness, for it soon appears that the voice surveying “our work” is indeed that of a practitioner. Here in fact is a go-between like Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, knowledgeably reassuring his public of the value of animal research, though without Blakemore’s tact or sophistication:

                                    No one can doubt the
                        dedication
                                    of scientists. The proof: nearly
            one third of all licensed experiments
                                    are for medical re-
            search. The rest not. Nevertheless these other tests
                        could promise amelioration

                        of mankind’s lot. For instance …

Then the prosaic voice goes on to list some of the things tried out on animals. It’s not just a sketch: the poem is fourteen seven-line stanzas long. In fact, as the author says in a note, it’s a verse-rendering of material from Richard Ryder’s 1975 book, Victims of Science.

You’ll have noticed the poem’s strange metre and rhyme scheme, blatantly at odds with the syntax, even severing individual words:

                       To be brief, and not bore you:
                                    zoologists, psych-
                        ologists, neu-
                                    rologists, in pure research, like
            to transplant animals’ heads, deprive young
                                    monkeys of mothers, spike
            electrodes into brains, blind cats, stop food, punish
                        pigeons (it’s shown on television too).

The vivisector’s voice – with its didactic love of numbers and lists, and its banal equanimity – seems to be ignorantly stumbling through the poetic form. He wrecks the aesthetics, and for their part they mangle his discourse. It’s mainly through this contradiction or irony that the poet herself comments on what she has him saying. And her principal comment seems to be that the vivisector – by turns patronizing, populist, and defensive – cannot rise to the ethical seriousness of what he speaks about.

‘The Use of Animals in Research’ appears in the Mrs Carmichael collection under the heading ‘Two Animal Poems’, paired with ‘William Cowper’s Hares’. In this other poem, Ruth Silcock describes the eighteenth-century poet’s relations with the three hares which at one time he had living in his house. And this history of Cowper and his pets, which he himself also wrote about, makes an illuminating corrective to the vivisection poem.

For instance, so far from extenuating human cruelty, Cowper was painfully sensitive to it, and wished, above all, to protect his hares. It’s true, that he therefore had to keepCowper's hares them from their natural life; the word “prisoner” is used in Ruth Silcock’s poem, though the hares were more or less tame, and seem to have had the run of the house and garden. But their natural life, so Cowper feared with good reason, would entail being hunted by humans. In his own long poem The Task, he had spoken of this in the case of the first of his hares (a doe):

            Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
            Has never heard the sanguinary yell
            Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.

And then, addressing the hare herself,

             I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d
            All that is human in me to protect
            Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.

It’s an ambitious phrase, “All that is human in me”, and a helpful reminder of what’s missing from the glib voice and perfunctory philosophy of the vivisector in ‘Use of Animals’.

Then there’s the question of numbers and the attitudes that go with them. “In one year in Britain”, says the vivisector (referring to the early 1970s),

                                                     we
                                    perform over five
                        million, three
                                    hundred thousand trials on live
            animals: seventeen thousand dogs, twelve
                                    thousand cats (I arrive
            at forty-seven dogs, thirty-five cats a day),
                        four hundred horses (eight a week, roughly).

That last and telling word, “roughly”, summarizes the sweeping indifference of all such Home Office maths to the individual animal, in whom alone life and its possibilities of pleasure and suffering exist. In this sense the numbers are an abrogation or at least a suspension of morality. And it’s not just that Cowper’s hares are three only, and have been distinguished and dignified by names. Yes, their individualities have been nurtured in that domestic setting, but it’s clear that they were not created by it:

            Tiney would not be tamed. Puss, much
            gentle usage made tame.
            Bess was born brave and tame …

            As the shepherd knows each sheep,
            Cowper distinguished each hare:
            among a thousand,
            no two are alike.

Every animal has a life peculiar to itself by title of nature, whether humans think they recognize and understand its inwardness or not. The names and other recorded distinctions are for human benefit, and add nothing to that original fact, though they may evidence kindness, as they clearly did in Cowper’s household.

It all comes down to that word “usage” (“Puss, much / gentle usage made tame”), here meaning ‘treatment’. In treating other animals humanely (with ‘all that is human in us’), we make way for their particular beings, as we would wish our own to be made way for. In merely putting them to “use”, we insult nature in them and in ourselves. These are existential truths which poetry is peculiarly fitted to communicate. I don’t say that either of the ‘Two Animal Poems’ is brilliant – they don’t aim to be – but both are plain-spoken, aesthetically distinctive, unsentimentally truthful. Together they leave their own modest but permanent memorial to what is possible of good and bad in the human sensibility, and what that may mean for the other animals.

 

 

Notes and references:

Vivisection Mambo is edited by Lolita Lark and published by Mho & Mho Works (San Diego, CA), 2015.

Ruth Silcock was a psychiatric social worker, and many of her poems are about institutions, authorities, and the pathos of dependence.

The quotation from William Cowper’s poem The Task (published 1785) is found in Book III, sub-titled ‘The Garden’.

The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/derehamnicholas/images/dscf6948.jpg.

 

For We Are Many

Here are the 2016 animal-research numbers submitted by Oxford University to the Home Office. The selection and arrangement is by VERO, with some earlier numbers for comparison, and some notes and comments to follow:

Totals of animals used in research, by species:

Species Number used in 2015 Number used in 2016
Mice 207,216 200,157
Zebrafish   16,061  14,737
Rats    2,363    2,174
Junglefowl         53       291
Frogs       322       226
Guinea Pigs         81        81
Badgers        66        60
Pigs        10         0
Ferrets        38       29
Non-Human Primates          4         8
Rabbits          2         2
Total: 226,216 217,765
  1. Direction of travel: You’ll notice that there has been a fall of 3 or 4% (8,451 animals) from the 2015 total: a welcome reduction, but although these annual numbers do sometimes show a fall, the consistent trend is still upwards – by about 45% over the last ten years (while the all-U.K. numbers rose by about 33%).
  1. The 3Rs: The annual report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee talks a lot about the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, and replacement) as obligations imposed on researchers by law and by the University’s own Animal Use Policy. There’s now, for instance, an annual ‘3Rs Research Day’ in the University. Good! Yet the numbers continue to rise. No doubt research in the life sciences as a whole has increased during the same period, at Oxford and nationally, and animal research may be a shrinking proportion of the total. It’s certainly not shrinking in any other sense. Back in 2014, the one minister responsible for animal research who has ever shown a strong interest in making the numbers shrink, Norman Baker, set up a review of Section 24 – the ‘secrecy clause’ in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. He gave as one of the reasons for removing it the hope that doing so might “increase awareness among the scientific community of current research … minimising the potential for duplication of animal experiments”. And he said “I am fully committed to making a change.” Two and a half years on, that review, and the consultation with “stakeholders” which was part of it, is still being mulled over by the government. According to the present minister, the horse-racing enthusiast Ben Wallace, “a response will be published in due course.”
  1. Ethics by numbers: When I was a child, I had a book about a duck who periodically counted up her offspring using the formula “one, two, three, a lot.” The story showed the hazards of her arithmetic, but recognized also its psychological truth. What can one feel about these giant numbers, year after year? They seem expressive in inverse proportion to their size. Those two rabbits, for instance: two each year (in fact two also in 2014). One wonders at once what kept happening to these couples. (Answer: two rabbits, plus the 81 guinea pigs, have been used each year for training in animal-research skills, a sort of target practice.) But putting aside the psychology of the matter, it’s undoubtedly true that, because the basic unit, the ‘procedure’, is itself so nebulous, our ignorance must actually increase with the numbers. (This problem is aired in a former post, at  https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/home-office-statistics-numbers-words-and-euphemisms/). Conversely, we will only know for certain what’s happening when the numbers fall to nought, which by happy coincidence is also the unique ethical number in this matter.

Next, some records of the levels of suffering implied in those figures above:

Severity of procedures by species (where moderate or above was recorded):

Species Severe Moderate Mild Sub-threshold Non-recovery
Mice 1,420  39,015 61,382          94,617       3,723
Zebrafish   560   1,076   3,154            9,890           57
Rats    42      531      465              479         657
Ferrets      0        18         0                 0           11
Non-Human Primates      0          8         0                 0            0


Severity of procedures by category in the years 2014
16:

Year Severe Moderate Mild Sub-Threshold Non-Recovery
2014 1,533 31,494 110,429      76,083 7,146
2015 2,325 30,683 120,323      66,808 6,077
2016 2,022 40,648   65,591     104,988 4,516
  1. Defining the terms: These numbers do have a more reliable meaning, since the severity categories are quite carefully defined in Home Office guidance, as to both intensity and duration. ‘Moderate’, for instance: into this category would come “chronic low-level pain or discomfort or dysfunction”, signalled by “significant weight-loss or other indicators of poor welfare”, or pain of “significant intensity, but … of no more than a few hours duration”. Even cases where the animal shows “signs of obvious illness” (“piloerection, huddled posture, reluctance to move, isolation from the group”) may be classed as ‘moderate’, provided that “this is promptly detected and animals are killed immediately”, by which is meant within 24 hours. The ‘severe’ category “would include any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate, or disease where clinical signs have progressed to such an extent that it threatens the life of an animals”, or “any situation where animals are in extremis. Ah, happy days in the lab!
  1. The primates: The proportion of procedures which come into the two categories so evocatively described above has increased at Oxford University from about 14.5% in 2014 and 2015 to about 19.5% in 2016. That may be chance fluctuation, but you’ll OU primatenotice that all the experiments with non-human primates appear in this group. I don’t think that one would have deduced that from the account provided on the University’s web-site of the merry lives of games and conviviality which these close relatives of ours enjoy in their “world class facilities”. But then even their deaths are presented as a sort of kindly intervention, by means of the prize euphemism and philosophical conundrum already noted elsewhere in this blog: “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.”
  1. A few other numbers: During the year as covered by the report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, 1318 members of the University held animal-research licences and there were 156 research projects using animals. In both cases, the numbers have gone up slightly on the previous year. Home Office inspectors made 24 unannounced visits. They found no fault with the facilities, but “there were non-compliance issues in relation to three project licences”. These were dealt with “administratively”, which I suppose means put right without further penalty.

 

Notes and references:

The University’s animal-research web pages can be found at http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research. The latest numbers haven’t yet been posted there at time of writing, but no doubt soon will be, alongside much other information – the whole presentation having been greatly improved as to information and frequency of updating. VERO has the numbers now by courtesy of the secretary to the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee. The reports of that Committee are published in the Oxford University Gazette, the 2015-16 report in issue no. 5153, 8 December 2016.

The quotation from Norman Baker appears in the foreword which he wrote to the consultation document, which can be read at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/313410/Consultation_on_the_review_of_Section_24_of_ASPA.pdf.The quotation from Ben Wallace is from correspondence in October 2016.

The details of severity banding come from Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, published by the Home Office, 1 Jan 2014, pp.12-13.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by courtesy of the University’s Public Affairs Office. Rather puzzlingly, this mournful picture appears as an illustration to the favourable account of life in the South Parks Road monkey community given on the University’s own News and Events web-pages.

 

 

Life on Mars

The four rhesus macaque monkeys mentioned in this blog a few months ago, as in training to make the journey to Mars (‘To Boldly Make Them Go’, 25 July), are due to be launched some time this year. Or were due: I can find no publicity about the matter since the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology made its proud announcement to the world’s press back in 2015. Perhaps the response on that occasion was not as favourable as expected. However, a petition of objection set up by PETA is still in effect (there’s a link to it in the notes below), so I guess that the work itself continues.

Meanwhile, research goes forward into the viability on Mars of simpler terrestrial Hubble's Sharpest View Of Marsorganisms: lichens at the Mars Simulation Facility at Berlin, potatoes at NASA. And at the other end of the journey, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Orbiter, a co-operative venture with Russia’s Roscosmos agency, continues its observations, looking (among other things) for signs of life, at least of life at some time in the planet’s past. (The ‘Exo-‘ part of the name refers to ‘exobiology’, or life beyond earth.)

Those are only a few of the schemes of Martian research at present under way. All of them, I think it can be said, have the question of viability somewhere in mind: that is, could Mars be made habitable to humans? So it’s reassuring to know that agreements already exist as to our good behaviour should we ever get there. In fact the basic legal instrument governing activities in space, generally called the Outer Space Treaty, is now exactly fifty years old. This is a fascinating document, high-minded and even utopian. The aim seems to have been to learn from worldly history, and to secure something better than that for outer space (a term which includes “the moon and other celestial bodies”, as the text reiterates every time, with a strange mixture of the lawyer and the poet).

“Outer space,” the Treaty announces in Article I, “including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.” I’m glad to note that it goes on to confirm something suggested in that earlier VERO post about space travel (“whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity”): “States Parties to the Treaty,” says Article V, “shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space.” The original “States Parties” were the U.S.A, U.S.S.R., and Britain, but there are now 105 governments signed up to that model of conduct.

However, it’s doubtful what sort of impression four bewildered monkeys – if it’s not four dead monkeys – might make, as envoys, upon alien minds. Such minds might wonder how the brilliantly sophisticated science which had brought the space-vehicle their way had got mixed up with the physical and moral squalor of forcing weaker lives to take the risks of the journey. And even as a set of principles, the Outer Space Treaty may not read as well at a distance as it does on earth. The airy munificence with which it makes a common human property of the whole universe is hardly good envoyism; in fact it’s species-arrogance on a comically grand scale.

You may feel confident (as perhaps the people who framed the Treaty did) that there won’t be any aliens to do the reading. But then we’re told by Article V of the Treaty at least to behave as if there are. And certainly there’s already a whole lot of reading matter provided for them on Mars, courtesy of the 2008 Phoenix Lander’s DVD, a “multi-media” collection titled Visions of Mars. Among the texts selected for it, in this case with a curious tactlessness, is the 1897 novel by H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds.

There’s a familiar challenge sometimes put to proponents of vivisection, ‘What would you say if aliens (typically, Martians) were to arrive here and set about experimenting on humans?’ It may be rather a worn-out trope these days; I recall that Professor Colin Blakemore said as much when someone put it to him during a talk he gave in Oxford University a few years ago. That doesn’t make it any easier to answer; nor was the Professor’s own answer very convincing. In fact I’ve yet to hear a convincing one. (“Show me a Martian!” one scientist said by way of knock-down answer on a television programme.) Anyway, this question, in a more inclusive formulation, was very much on H.G.Wells’ mind when he wrote War of the Worlds.

Accordingly he begins, “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s … that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water … Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

As we are to the other animals on earth, so these Martians are to ourselves: it’s a point which Wells makes over and over again. At first, the humans view the arriving Martians Alvim-correa12with the same complacent curiosity that the dodo must have felt at the arrival on Mauritius of “that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food”. The Martian fighting-contraptions seem as mysterious to the people of Surrey as “an ironclad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.” When their destructive power shows itself, the humans are scattered like ants, smoked out like wasps, have their homes casually destroyed as a rabbit’s burrow might be destroyed for the making of a human dwelling. These are experiences “that the poor brutes we dominate know all too well”. In fact from now on “With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide.” A panicked young clergyman exclaims “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? … What are these Martians?” To which the narrator answers, concisely summing Wells’ argument, “What are we?” [I’ve added the italics.]

Although the novel imagines a time when the Martians will have settled the human question, by domesticating some (“picking the best and storing us in cages and things”) and hunting the feral remainder, in fact they don’t have time to get that far. Their unresistant bodies abruptly succumb to earth’s bacteria. What their own medical science might have been, had it had time to work, is not discussed, but it’s sufficiently implied in the mentality pictured in that opening paragraph, especially in the chilling word “unsympathetic”.

Not that Wells himself was in any way hostile to the science project. He was even a keen defender of vivisection, though he wrote a frightening fantasy of its temptations and pathologies in The Island of Dr Moreau. (The perverted Moreau himself is surely based on the celebrated French vivisector Claude Bernard: see the previous post, ‘Meditation on a Stick’.) Nor, for that matter, was Wells a vegetarian, despite all that he says and shows in War of the Worlds of the fundamental wrong of human predation, or in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, whose narrator “can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house.” But then these stories are indeed told by particular narrators, not in Wells’s own voice. And the narrator of War of the Worlds is a writer on philosophical subjects, whose current project is “a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed”. Wells himself is merely of the present (1897, that is), but this is a man of the near future looking onward, as an ethicist, into a future beyond that, and he believes (as Wells himself also did) that moral ideas may, perhaps must, develop. In particular he says, “Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.” The implication of the book is that if we don’t improve our “moral ideas”, we shall fully deserve, in one shape or another, the coming of an enemy no better than ourselves.

Of course we now know, as Wells could not, that there is no such enemy, or for that matter any friend, on Mars. But that doesn’t affect his warning, for he makes quite clear in his own way what Ray Bradbury was later to say in his Martian Chronicles: We are the Martians.” It has become evident, certainly since 1945, that we don’t have to hypothesize or search space for that ‘enemy no better than ourselves’ which will destroy us if we don’t learn peaceable manners. The Space Treaty, perhaps despairing of the prospects on earth, hopes we may at least adopt such manners on our way to other worlds. But we’ve seen the attitude towards those worlds which even the Treaty takes for granted. Humans seem to be incurably supremacist. I conclude that the Director of the Mars Simulation Facility spoke a greater truth than he knew when he said, “We must be extremely careful not to transport any terrestrial life forms to Mars. Otherwise they might contaminate the planet.”

Perhaps, therefore, we might develop a new moral idea from a much more recent science fiction story, ‘Homo Floresiensis’ by Ken Liu. Here, a young researcher of bird life on one of the Spice Islands comes across a hitherto unreported tribe of hominids. Fearing for their future, he looks for something in their way of life which might qualify them as humans and thereby enlist on their behalf the “moral prohibition against treating them as inferior”. He knows well, as a zoologist, what such ‘inferiority’ would entail. Finding nothing reliable, he and his associate make what for such scientists would be a heroic decision: they leave the tribe alone. “We often celebrate the discoverers,” says one of the two, as they quietly abandon the island; “But maybe it’s the undiscoverers that we should be proud of.”

 

Notes and references:

The earlier post about space travel can be viewed here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/

PETA’s petition can be signed at http://www.peta.org/action/action-alerts/russia-plans-send-monkeys-mars/

The studies of lichen at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin are reported at http://www.dlr.de/dlr/en/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-10081/151_read-3409/#/gallery/5671 , from where also the quotation about contamination of Mars is taken. The NASA potato studies are reported in the Times, 10 March, p.11.

For the text of the Outer Space Treaty see https://www.state.gov/t/isn/5181.htm

Quotations from War of the Worlds are in the Penguin 2012 edition, pp. 3, 32, 51, 151, 70, 161, 8, 156. The quotation from A Modern Utopia is taken from an essay ‘H.G.Wells and Animals: a Troubling Legacy’, which can be read on the excellent web-site of the Animal People Forum at http://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/01/24/h-g-wells-and-animals-a-troubling-legacy/

Ray Bradbury was quoted during a BBC Radio 4 programme Seeing is Believing, on 6 March – part of its current ‘Mars Season’, which has included a dramatization of War of the Worlds. ‘Homo Floresiensis’ appears in the anthology Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates and published by the Oxford firm Rebellion Publishing in 2014: quotations from pp.57 and 60.

The photograph of Mars is from NASA’s online gallery of images, where it’s titled ‘Hubble’s Sharpest View of Mars’. The illustration from a French edition of War of the Worlds (Brussels, 1906) is by Henrique Correa.