Light of the World

The premise of Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now (“My new favourite book of all time”: Bill Gates) is as follows. Humankind evolved in an essentially hostile world, set in an indifferent universe, and for millennia humans merely compounded these unfavourable conditions with their own special savagery and error. Yet within the last few centuries they have learned how to live long lives in safety, comfort, and good health, not just getting steadily more prosperous, but Pinker books.JPGhaving popular access to forms of wealth (information, communications) not available even to the Croesuses and Fuggers of former times.

All this, Pinker insists, has been the consequence of those ideas and practices thought out and championed during the ‘Enlightenment’ of the late 17th and the 18th centuries: reliance on reason, the pursuit of science, humanist ideals, confidence in the possibility of progress. “The Enlightenment,” writes Pinker, “has worked – perhaps the greatest story seldom told.” [6] It’s “seldom told” for various reasons which he gives, the chief of them being that our brains (Pinker is a cognitive psychologist) have not had time to evolve to suit these new conditions, and remain pessimistically alert for trouble, better at fearing disaster than recognising and enjoying good fortune. Modern news media exploit and confirm this “negativity bias”. Therefore Pinker takes it on himself to tell this greatest story, and the book’s title is both a statement (‘This is what we’ve gained, thanks to the Enlightenment’) and an injunction: hold fast to it because, as he says on the last page of the book, “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” [453]

“human flourishing” – the index to the book gives some hint of the range and detail of its manifestations in Pinker’s survey: freedom, equal rights, vacuum cleaners, drowning deaths [fewer of them], literacy, cooking smoke [reduced], peace, sewerage. In keeping with Enlightenment principles of reason and science, he evidences all this good news with graphs and numbers (e.g. deaths by water down by 90% over the last 115 years). It’s an impressive record, though we may doubt whether every one of these varieties of progress really does constitute flourishing. Population, for instance: Pinker argues that the growing numbers (not just proportion) of humans enjoying such benefits should be welcomed: “Every additional long-lived, healthy, well-fed, well-off person is a sentient being capable of happiness, and the world is a better place for having more of them.” [88] Then, not unconnected, there’s jet travel: counted by ‘number of arrivals’, we’ve apparently flourished from a mere 0.55 billion in 1995 to 1.2 billion in 2015, with all that implies of expansion in our “awareness of our planet and species” [259].

And there’s the key: “our planet and species”. This is the story not just of how well we’ve done for ourselves since 1700, but of how we’ve made the planet ours. Higher numbers of well-off people (to repeat) make the world itself “a better place”. Humans, then, are the world. The speciesist assumption is everywhere. When we are invited to welcome the rise of “a moral principle – Life is sacred” [213], there’s no need to specify that it’s human life that’s meant. Even when we congratulate ourselves on conservation successes, it’s for saving “many beloved species” [133] (you see what makes them worth saving).

One glaring casualty of Enlightenment-style progress, the world’s climate, Pinker acknowledges with unreserved scientific candour, but he makes this disaster part of the great adventure, rather than the delinquency, of man: “Humanity has never faced a problem like it.” [137] Solving problems is what science and reason do; he keeps saying it. In this sense, then, for all its enormity, climate change is like housework and death by drowning, a project for reason and science to get their teeth into. So it’s not surprising that when Pinker asks, towards the end of his book, what should be regarded as “the proudest accomplishment of our species”, he chooses science: not that we shouldn’t be proud of “the masterworks of art, music, and literature”, but these may after all not be cosmically estimable, reliably intelligible to “any tribunal of minds”, whereas our scientific knowledge is independent and absolute [385]. The reasoning is sound, I’m sure, and I don’t suggest that Pinker should have preferred the masterworks. I just note that he expects “our species” to look for approval to the universe, not to our real paying audience (and how they do pay!) in this world. What net good we have done to any lives but our own here on “our planet” is not a question that the book gets round to asking.

Well, Steven Pinker is a humanist. “He has been named Humanist of the Year”, says the publisher (no sniggering, please), and he defines humanism as the “goal of maximizing human flourishing.” [410] He does note, in the last chapter of the book, that humanism “doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals” but he explains that “this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” Yes, it certainly does that, and rather more: it privileges that welfare to a nearly absolute degree.

It’s true that the other animal species have been given a more spacious attention in Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Even here, however, he speaks of human flourishing as “the only value that cannot be denied” [220], and in fact the account of animals which he does give goes some way to explaining why they seem to matter so little in Enlightenment Now.

The earlier book is a survey of human violence, including violence towards animals. Like its successor, it claims that we have made enormous progress (“the historical decline of violence”), and it aims to demonstrate as much with graphs and statistics, for as Pinker says in Enlightenment Now, “how can we appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” [43] But although he does indeed do plenty of counting – deaths in civil war, lynchings, domestic assault, levels of political violence, even (and fascinatingly) ‘apologies by political and religious leaders’, all of which do support his case – there’s a noticeable deficit in the statistical element when he speaks about the other animals.

The slaughtering of farm animals, for instance: figures for this form of violence are easily available and surely as telling as any of his other numbers, but they don’t appear in the book. Pinker concedes, in words only, that there has been “a stealthy creeping up of the numbers”, but he explains it as a growing preference for chicken meat, which costs more individual lives per weight of food than, for instance, beef. This explanation helps him to fit the daily world-wide massacre of animals into his general thesis, because the numbers reflect “changes in economics and taste” rather than “a backsliding of moral sensibilities or an increase in callousness” [566]. That’s all right then, and by way of further reassurance, cruelties to farmed animals “are by no means a modern invention”, and factory farming itself “not a phenomenon of the 20th century” [554]. The point is illustrated not with numbers (which would hardly do it) but with some gruesome and obsolete cruelties quoted from histories of food. We can take satisfaction, then, in our increased human decency, even though the total suffering caused by its deficiencies is actually going up. It’s an argument which would not, I think, be accepted anywhere else in either book.

But then can they even be called deficiencies? Meat-eating, for instance: is its opposite, vegetarianism, really such an ethical choice? Pinker argues that vegetarianism has always been a scene of mixed motives (asceticism, health, belief in the transmigration of souls); it’s a line of argument whose summation (and one sees it coming from afar) is the vegetarianism of “Hitler and many of his henchmen” [557]. So you can feel confident that he’ll also be mentioning the fact that other animals eat each other (“nature red in tooth and claw”), which in fact he does on p.571.

So although we humans have apparently been able to half-cure our devotion to war, an achievement which Pinker very reasonably classes among “those psychological retunings … that cause violence to decline” [303], no such retuning is expected or even much missed in our eating habits. After all, as Pinker states with a fatalism quite opposite to his general thesis, killing animals for food is “part of the human condition” [550].

Very much the same technique of argument is used for vivisection. On the one hand, there has been a great improvement. Pinker describes the routine cruelties of laboratory life in the U.S.A. as recently as 1975, when he had some direct experience of it, but he is “relieved to say” that “just five years later, indifference to the welfare of animals among scientists had become unthinkable, indeed illegal.” [549] This is an assertion for which no statistics are provided. (N.B. The Silver Spring monkeys scandal dates from 1981-3. I won’t attempt to list the other abuses which PETA has exposed in laboratories over the years since then.) Then, again undocumented, not only are animals “now protected from being hurt, stressed, or killed in the conduct of science” by adults, but “in high school biology labs the venerable custom of dissecting pickled frogs has gone the way of inkwells and slide rules.” [560] If this shaky assertion is at least a welcome idea, things are even better in the U.K. Here, according to Pinker, scientists “acceded to laws banning vivisection” as long ago as the late nineteenth century [558]. No statistics are provided, in fact no details at all, and I don’t know how they could be. (Incidentally, we’re also told that all blood-sports have been illegal in the U.K. since 2005.)

On the other hand, like meat-eating, it seems that vivisection is just one of those things (perhaps there are only the two of them) about which it can’t be said that there is “no limit to the betterments which we can attain” (the phrase from Enlightenment Now). The general proposition in both books is that humans aren’t fated to any particular status quo. With the aid of reason, science, and optimism, we can change anything for the better: “Indeed, a naïve faith in stasis has repeatedly led to prophecies of environmental doomsdays that never happened.” [EN 125] And so, for instance, we needn’t fear that the world will “run out of resources” [EN 126]; we can find others, or other ways of getting the benefits which such resources gave us: “Why should the laws of nature have allowed exactly one physically possible way of satisfying a human desire, no more and no less?” [EN 127] Why indeed, but evidently that is all they’ve allowed in the case of vivisection, for we’re told that without this particular way of doing research “medicine would be frozen at its current state, and billions of living and unborn people would suffer and die for the sake of mice.” [571] Violence towards other species, it seems, is the one thing that the laws of nature, including our own human nature, simply won’t allow us to abjure.

Pinker does not himself see the animal question as an exception to his argument. At any rate he presents it in such a way as to show that we have indeed improved even here, in the hardest of all tests of our moral progress, and he waves genial goodbye to it with a fittingly unconvincing assurance: “it is certain that the lives of animals will continue to improve.” [572]

These two big books (more than 1500 pages between them) demand respect and attention: they are mighty in scope, they’re written with wit and lucidity, and mostly they’re telling good if often disputable news. You’d have to call them ‘important’ books, influential books at least (“The most inspiring book I’ve ever read”: Bill Gates again, on Better Angels this time). That makes their rigid anthropocentrism both significant and deplorable.

There’s a chapter in Enlightenment Now titled ‘Progressophobia’, in which Pinker reviews some of the objections and objectors to the case he presents. Among these latter is the political philosopher John Gray “an avowed progressophobe” [EN 191]. Certainly Gray himself is no teller of good news, but at least he reminds us that there is more light shining in the world than that one beam of human mind which Pinker urges us to see by:

Humanism is a doctrine of salvation – the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny … But for anyone whose hopes are not centred on their own species, the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd … What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.


Notes and References:

Quotations are from Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane, 2018) and The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin Books, 2012, first published 2002), page numbers as given in square brackets. The testimonials from Bill Gates appear on the two covers. John Gray is quoted from Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, 2003 (first published 2002), pp.16-17.

For the Silver Spring exposé, see



Policing the Lab

By way of putting its readers into the right mood to read about animals, the London Times heads a news item about misconduct in laboratories with the comic sci-fi title ‘Eek! Errant scientists breed city of rogue mice’ [26 March, p.3]. After a sentence of two in similarly facetious style, however, the item turns into a perfectly serious account (mainly a re-hash of a piece in the Sunday Telegraph the day before) of a research project which was licensed by the Home Office two or more years ago to breed up to 127,600 mice, but which by 2016 had accidentally bred well over twice that number. The unauthorised excess amounted to approximately the population of the City of York: hence the phrase “city of rogue mice”. But ‘rogue’ is hardly the right word, since the extra mice were neither wandering nor solitary; they were put to mass use in experiments just like the others, the difference being that their experiments were unlicensed, a sort of uncovenanted extra.

The Sunday Telegraph calls this “blunder” (if such it was) “the most alarming of dozens of non-compliance cases by labs across Britain, though the punishment for it was relatively slight: “a letter of written reprimand” sent to the establishment licence holder.

All of this information, as well as that last quoted phrase, comes from the Annual Report for 2016 just published by the Home Office’s Animals in Science Regulation Unit (with the admittedly rather sci-fi acronym ASRU). The report shows how British law on animal research has been administered and enforced, as well as other ways in which ASRU has been promoting what it regards as good practice in laboratories. We’re told, for instance, that ASRU “piloted a framework” to reduce waste of life in the breeding of genetically altered mice. That mixed metaphor, with its comical image of trammelled endeavour, is rather well suited to ASRU’s work as a whole. With its steadily shrinking inspectorate (‘full-time equivalent’ numbers of staff were 22.3 in 2009, 14.7 in 2016) having to supervise a rising number of ‘procedures’ (a few hundred thousand more in 2016 than in 2009) and even an increasing number of establishments doing them, ASRU must have a hard job keeping its framework airborne or afloat.

Accordingly it relies heavily on the scientists themselves to police their own scenery, and this upbeat report expresses confidence in their willingness and competence to do that. Their willingness isn’t easily estimated by an outsider. However, I see that a group of research scientists and animal-research institutions in the U.S.A., where regulation is very much slighter than in the U.K., has recently published proposals aimed at cutting down even that ”administrative burden on investigators”, and I suppose that many British scientists, with their greater “burden”, would be in sympathy.

As to competence, the report’s case-studies in non-compliance (45 of them) naturally give quite an unfavourable impression. Many of the cases are instances of absent-mindedness, confused responsibilities, carelessness in record-keeping, hurried work on a Friday evening, duties neglected over the week-end – the sorts of thing which are likely to occur in any office or institution, and are only remarkable in this context because non-human animals have to pay for them in suffering or lives.

Here, for instance, are the experiences of some mice which were being used as ‘models’ of diabetes. This case helpfully concentrates in one place, to an almost farcical degree, many of the characteristic errors and slapdash procedures shown in the others:

Two mice died unexpectedly. Appropriate action was not taken when three other mice showed adverse effects, which exceeded the severity controls specified in the project licence. A drug was also administered to eight mice without the appropriate project licence authority. The same licence holders performed unauthorised surgery on nine mice … They did not keep any contemporaneous records of the regulated procedures performed, and failed to label correctly the cages in which the animals were kept … The project licence holder failed to ensure that the project licence was available and its content made known to those personal licensees working under its authority. The project licence holder also agreed with them that they did not need to monitor the animals at the weekend. [Case 2]

Of course the mice in question have been lucky to receive this much of an inquest. In countries outside the European Union, mice in similarly wretched plight enjoy neither the public attention provided by ASRU’s reports, nor even the protective standards for their exploiters to fall so absurdly short of. It’s not in fact possible to know how much in this kind happens without being noticed or reported even in the U.K., but at least there’s a deterrent. All the licences involved in this particular case were revoked by ASRU, except the one held by the unnamed institution itself. The ‘establishment licence holder’ (referred to with scrupulous anonymity as “they”) received a letter of reprimand, the basic and commonest penalty in these cases.

Note how we’ve moved from thinking of a “city” of erroneous mice to concern for mice numbered in twos and threes. In other cases we read of “three rats”, “a mouse”, “one rat”, “18 chickens” and, in the previous year’s report, “a litter of ten mouse pups” (whom we’ll encounter again below). This very proper concern that ASRU has for individual animals must feel anomalous to the practitioners, when a research project may be counting animals in their tens of thousands, and a slip in record-keeping can let over 100,000 pass unnoticed. In such a setting, the animals must surely be regarded more as products than as individual lives, by the researchers if not by the animal care staff. Something of that is indeed suggested in the ASRU report. We hear of a registered dealer in dogs, who provides “high quality animals to meet their clients’ requirements”, of staff “unpacking a delivery of mice”, of other mice “surgically prepared with cranial windows and then exported to a collaborator in Germany”. “high quality animals” is a particularly miserable phrase.

There’s a comparable incongruity in the way ASRU thinks about death (also known by the sinister euphemism “endpoint”, but ASRU generally and honourably prefers the plain word ‘killing’). The omnipresence of death in the laboratory is clearly enough announced in the annual research statistics, since nearly all those millions of animals must have been killed during the year, to say nothing (and nothing is said) of others not used in ‘procedures’. Oxford University, for instance, must be dispatching over 600 ‘protected’ animals a day. To keep up with this work, more staff than just the licensees themselves have to be active in it, which may be partly why killing is not ordinarily counted as a licensed ‘procedure’. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act does, however, specify, in its Schedule 1, how the different animals should be dispatched. And a laboratory has to have a “Schedule 1 killing register” listing the personnel competent to perform executions, rather as offices, schools, etc., have lists of trained first-aid people with exactly the opposite function.

This is where those baby mice had their moment in the public light. An untrained person had

attempted to kill the mouse pups using a rising concentration of carbon dioxide, which is not an appropriate method of Schedule 1 killing … The pups were not properly killed and the following morning a number were found to be still alive in the waste disposal bag.

It’s a familiar enough discovery (“two rats were found alive inside a cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsclinical waste bin”, “a mouse that was supposed to have been killed by Schedule 1 killing … was observed to be breathing while the procedure was taking place”, and so on ), and again it reflects the very large numbers being continually hurried through into oblivion. Those pups, incidentally, will not re-appear in the 2017 statistics, because their breeding was not licensed, nor were they used for any procedure: they were simply another ‘accident’.

But although ASRU is rightly strict about ‘Schedule 1 killing’, it can hardly, in the circumstances, view death itself as a wrong. Suffering is ASRU’s concern; death, putting an end to that, is a sort of therapy, and many an offence is apparently mitigated by the delinquent’s swift resort to it. “After taking the blood samples [this by a Schedule 1 killer, not licensed to take blood], the birds were immediately humanely killed [that’s better].” “The second mouse had lost weight due to lack of feed and was immediately euthanased.” As the German poet Detlev von Liliencron writes at the end of a poem set among the graves in a churchyard, “Genesen” – they’ve made a complete recovery.

No doubt there’s logic and ethics of a sort in this. A mouse that was “at the scientific endpoint of a metastatic bone cancer study and was not immediately killed at the end of the study” would indeed have experienced “unnecessary pain, suffering or distress” [Case 32]. And accordingly, letting an animal die, as opposed to killing it, is one of the most serious of wrongs that ASRU recognises. It’s the theme of the one case in this report regarded as so serious that a separate write-up of it was published on ASRU’s web-pages as soon as the investigation was completed (in October 2017). The case concerned an animal (species for some reason kept anonymous) that had been taken from the wild for research but was subsequently found dead in its captivity. Even though this animal had been “assessed as very old” (for all the anonymities, these case-studies are often poignantly evocative), its death from natural causes, probably failure to eat, must have meant “avoidable suffering”: avoidable in the sense that the animal could have been killed earlier if its deteriorating condition had been noticed.

Nothing in utilitarianism, the ethical system on which British animal-research law is largely based, necessarily makes death a non-interest, as it seems to be viewed in the laboratory. On the contrary, some of utilitarianism’s earliest practical endeavours were aimed at putting a price on loss of life (admittedly human life). Anyway, that’s too big a question to attempt here. I would only insist that premature destruction is indeed a patent wrong against any animal life, even if not the greatest of possible wrongs, and that ASRU ought to recognise this more frankly in the case of the animals whom it oversees. It might make an easy start by ruling that their dead bodies should be described exactly as such, rather than as “carcases” (see, for instance, the Schedule 1 Code of Practice: “carcases should be disposed of on site by incineration or through a macerator.”) It’s a speciesist term which brings a habit of wrong attitude with it, and should be disused everywhere.

The next step would be to classify killing as a ‘procedure’ under the Act. This would probably make no difference to its frequency, but it would raise the acknowledged seriousness of the action. It would also bring into annual notice, if only as numbers, all those unused animals whose only part in the laboratory scene, or indeed in the world, is to be born and killed, like the pathetic ten mouse pups.

Published in the same week as the ASRU report was a research article in the American journal Science which described a study of circadian rhythms in the baboon, “a primate closely related to humans”. Over a 24-hour period, detailed changes of physiology were recorded every 2 hours. The study used 12 baboons (juvenile males imported from Kenya), and killed one at each interval in order to collect and study “64 different tissues and brain regions”. It’s all right, though, because baboons are “listed by the IUCN as a species of Least Concern.

On further thought, let’s not bother with those intermediate steps; let’s simply stop using and killing animals in laboratories. It’s a filthy business, not redeemable by regulations however humanely intended.


Notes and references:

The Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2016 (a 53-page document) was published online by the Home Office on 12 March, and can be read here:  The case-studies appear as Annex 1, pp.36-48. The case of the mouse pups is Case 2 from the previous year’s report, to which there’s a link on the same web-page.

The case of the wild animal (briefly cited as Case 1 in the 2016 report) is described in the 11-page Report of ASRU Investigation into Compliance, published online here:

The proposals to reduce the “burden” of regulation in the U.S.A. were published in October 2017 as Reforming Animal Research Regulations: Workshop Recommendations to Reduce Regulatory Burden, and can be accessed here:

The Schedule 1 Code of Practice is from 1997, but I notice that it was withdrawn in 2016. It has not been specifically replaced, but the newer advice seems to use the word ‘cadaver’, a half-way improvement, so perhaps there has been a deliberate change here.

The poem by Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909) is titled ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’.

The baboon study, by Ludovic S. Mure et al, is titled ‘Diurnal transcriptome atlas of a primate across major neural and peripheral tissues’, and appears in the 16 March issue of Science at p.1232, then with its own pagination 1-9. Quotation is from p.1232 and from the ‘Supplementary Materials’ appendix to the article.

The photograph is by Brian Gunn.

Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came of course the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here:


If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?

In the previous post, I began to speak about the recently published ‘non-technical summaries’ (NTS): accounts of the animal research projects proposed and granted in 2016. These texts, 530 of them in their 31 research categories amounting to a thousand or more pages of reading, are instructive, painful, and boring, an unusual combination, and I quickly steered off and spoke instead about the sorcerer Merlin as re-imagined by two twentieth-century authors, a much more rewarding subject all round. However, the NTS are such a crucial feature of the thinking and practice of EU law since the Directive of 2010 (‘on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes’, which still, for a time, governs UK law) that I feel obliged to make a second attempt at them.

As designed (there is a standard form which sets the various questions to be answered), these NTS are intended to satisfy three fundamental aims of the 2010 Directive: to make as much information as possible available to the public about what happens to animals in laboratories, and why; to have all research projects expressly subjected to cost/benefit assessment; and to make sure that every proper effort has been made to minimize the use of animals and the pain which they suffer (the 3Rs, in fact: replacement, reduction, refinement).

So on come these great annual pageants of proposed (and accepted) research, with their retinues of animals (mostly mice and rats, but also dogs, monkeys, ferrets, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, birds, rabbits, fishes, and others), their promises (the hoped-for benefits section), and acknowledgements of harm (the expected costs to animals section), and their obeisances to the 3Rs. And on they pass into the future for their (mostly) 5-year labours. All across Europe they happen. They’re impressive as a huge bureaucratic exercise in ethics, or propitiation of ethics. They’re exhausting, boring (as I said), unhappy. They show no sign of diminution. I don’t know who else is watching, but I am anyway, and here are a few of the things which I notice about this year’s NTS for the U.K..

Each of the NTS is what rhetoricians call an apologia: a speech justifying something. Although their writers are meant to be factual about what’s proposed and expected, and no doubt are factual as to numbers, species, and procedures (in so far as these are specified), they can’t be supposed impartial. Accordingly, many of the less definite claims made in the summaries have no reliable meaning: “optimal experimental designs”, “careful monitoring”, “best possible welfare”, such phrases are only informative if used by dis-interested parties. It’s slightly suprising, in fact, to find scientists, trained in the habit of exact measurement, using them at all. I suppose that they have in mind suspicious non-technical readers and wish to reassure them, but in doing so they tend instead to cast doubt on other matters which ought to have definite meanings.

Of these, the suffering caused to animals (officially classified ‘sub-threshold’, ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, and ‘severe’) is the most important. Yet, sensing the apologist, we’re bound to wonder, for instance, about a project which proposes to test a great range of pharmaceutical, agrichemical, and other products on a positive menagerie of animals – hamsters, dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys (500 of these) – but which promises “little or no adverse effects”. Perhaps it’s right; on the other hand, perhaps some at least of these animals will re-appear anonymously in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ categories of the annual statistics years later.

Testing of that sort mostly appears in the category ‘Regulatory Purposes’, which contains a high proportion of the more unpleasant proposals. Here, the cost/benefit assessment – never in fact much more than a juxtaposition of proposed good to humans and harm to animals, without further adjudication, but then what adjudication could there sincerely be? – is simplified by reference to legal requirements, some of them presumably part of Europe’s huge REACH project of chemical testing: these things have to be done, so don’t blame us.  The applicants, un-named of course, must be mainly contract testing organisations, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences (now part of the absurdly named Envigo company: “helps you secure the potential of life-enhancing research”). Such organisations necessarily have rolling programmes of work, routinely renewed.

There’s a foul history behind all this. The notorious LD50 test, classifying toxicity according to the dose required to kill 50% of a given group of animals, was introduced ninety years ago in a paper for Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences section) titled ‘The Error of Determination of Toxicity’ and written by J.W.Trevan of the Wellcome Laboratories. Trevan wanted to establish a standard method for batch-testing therapeutic drugs, and in particular to show by statistical analysis how many animals should be used to produce reliable enough results (about 60 per batch, he seems to have concluded). But his method has been used to estimate, with a numerical precision which is both unnecessary and misleading, the toxicity of almost every ingestible or injectable substance open to misuse or accident. Published tables can be found which provide LD50 measures (ratio of substance to body-weight) for anything from arsenic to water. A terrible record of suffering is implied in them.

Fortunately the ‘classic’ LD50 test by mouth has been discontinued in many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S.A. More accurate methods, not so profligate with life (but profligate all the same), are now being specified in the NTS. I don’t suppose that the writers of these summaries are finer humans than Dr Trevan was. That they accept it as an important aim to poison as few animals as possible, whereas he seems to have attached no explicit life-value at all to the animals caught up in his graphs and charts, shows what progress in enlightenment, or at least in rules, has been made. The NTS, for all their faults, are part of this progress. Even those research scientists who still think that animal lives don’t amount to much in comparison with human ones (we know there are such scientists) have to write these summaries as if they do. And if this means that they’re writing in much the same spirit as schoolchildren write out lines set as punishment – well, teachers think it works, and I expect it does.

But it remains a horrible scene. Here’s a prognosis of needs for a project which will test drugs, food and drink additives, and “other substances administered to Man” (the phrase makes humanity sound like one great baby, which in many respects we still are): “Over a five year period, it is expected that the following number of animals will be used on this project: 30,000 rats, 30,000 mice, 3500 hamsters, 2500 rabbits, 1500 dogs, 1500 pigs.” The proposed severity level here is ‘mild’ rising to ‘moderate’ (for an indication of what this implies, see the post for 27 March 2017, linked in the notes below); all the animals will be killed as the ‘end-point’. Another project, aiming “to identify hazardous properties of chemical preparations with respect to acute toxicity (including primary irritancy and skin sensitization)”, shows that some version of the Draize test, allied in notoriety to LD50, does persist: as well as 38,000 rodents for various purposes, 2,350 rabbits are to be used in this research for “skin, eye-irritation and dermal toxicity studies”.

Of course there is very great talent wrapped up in these NTS, especially in the more pioneering medical projects. But putting aside for a moment the tragedy of its entanglement in the misuse and suffering of animals, we may also ask how well directed it is. Some of the human problems which recur in the NTS are largely the consequence of wholly voluntary habits of life and their natural penalties. I’m not just thinking of the many references to obesity and diabetes, for which strenuous preventative measures would surely be, if not a complete alternative to this ruthless search for cures, then at least an honourable preliminary to it. There are also (pathetically listed under the heading ‘Animal Welfare’) studies in animal disease which are essentially aimed at making the brutal practice of factory-farming, with all its associated ills, sustainable by medical force.

These farmed-animal studies aren’t notably harsh in themselves: in many, the animals will be treated quite a lot better than they would be on ordinary farms, to which they’re often in fact returned unharmed. And as the category title implies, the ostensible aim is commonly to improve welfare: to enhance nutrition, prevent disease, make detection of injury or other harm easier, kill animals with less hit and miss. This last is quite a research type in itself. There are projects to develop “new stunners/electrode types for turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens”, for instance, or “to evaluate the electrical field strength required for an effective electrical stun in fish”. One project is titled ‘Validating humane killing of small ungulates’. Apparently, newly-born animals that have to be killed as sick or surplus are generally dispatched by “swinging the young animal against the floor or a wall” (ah, the pastoral life!). The research aims to perfect a “non-penetrating percussive device” which will do the killing more “humanely”. Well, that would indeed be more humane than the old swinging method, a desirable improvement therefore. At the same time, such research supports and streamlines a savage and wasteful farming economy. And that’s what most or all of these farm-animal projects do, whether they’re welfare-minded or frankly directed at increasing “performance” (a vile but much-used word for the profitability of an animal).

This is just to evidence yet again what the biologist Lewis Wolpert says in the introduction to his book The Unnatural Nature of Science: “Science … doesn’t tell us how to live”. It only, as translated into technology, eases and reinforces however we do choose to live. In time, if there is time, it will no doubt willingly devise for us the means to leave our responsibilities behind and set about ruining some other planet. But the particular efforts of science which are illuminated a year at a time in these non-technical summaries have gone a bit further in amorality, not simply sharing but also pioneering our wretchedly corrupted relations with other forms and ways of life.


Notes and references:

The Non-technical summaries of projects granted in 2016 can be viewed here:

The particular research projects quoted in this post are projects 21, 14, and 15 in the category ‘Projects with a primary purpose of: Regulatory Purposes’ (vol.14), and projects 4, 10, and 2 in the category ‘Translational and Applied Research – Animal Welfare’ (vol.29).

A clear account of the LD50 test and why it needed to be jettisoned, ‘The LD50 – the Beginning of the End’, was written by Andrew Rowan in 1983: it’s still worth reading, and is accessible here:

J.W.Trevan’s original paper can be read here:

Some definitions of the meanings of ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ are provided in the post titled ‘For We Are Many’:

The quotation from The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert (one-time Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London), published by Faber and Faber, 1993, is at p.xiv. Incidentally, he also says, at the other end of the book (p.178), “It is to science and technology that we shall have to look for help to get us out of some of the mess in which we now all find ourselves.”

The title of this post comes from The Merchant of Venice, part of Shylock’s claim for the equal humanity of his race with that of the Christians around him. But of course there is an even larger collective than he has in mind of all those affected by pain and death, and accordingly a much larger than human claim upon our moral consideration. We come back to Jeremy Bentham’s rhetorical question, featured on the banner at the top of this page, “Can they suffer?”

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