Killing with Kindness

Those who like the idea of a more “welfare-friendly approach” to the annual slaughter of eight and a half million or so of the UK’s pigs in early childhood (approx. 24 weeks old), will be pleased to know that a project with just that aim in view is among those recently made public by the Home Office in its non-technical summaries of research projects licensed in 2018. The idea is to determine whether ‘low atmospheric pressure stunning’ (LAPS) might be a more acceptable method to the pigs than the more familiar carbon dioxide gas, as a preliminary to being slaughtered. The “behavioural and physiological responses” of the test animals to these alternatives will be compared: “meat quality” too, because of course the pigs aren’t being slaughtered just for their own comfort.

I was thinking that a really welfare-friendly approach worth considering would be not to kill them at all. But that just shows my sentimental amateurism, for as Project 322 (‘Physiological biomarkers of poultry welfare’) warns us in its preamble, “We should not assume that, just because humans might not like certain conditions, chickens would respond accordingly.” The scientists engaged in this project will “implant electrodes into the brains” of their chickens and then study the activity “in brain areas that are known to process emotions” while the birds are experiencing “stimuli” both positive and negative. Interestingly enough, the scientists seem to have a pretty good idea of which will be which, just as you or I might mistakenly suppose that we have, but then they and their fellow-professionals have been doing this sort of work for decades (a point I shall return to later). Meanwhile, Project 157 will be taking this line of research even further with its proposed “autonomous platform for data-collection in poultry sheds”, a device that will actually share the scene with the hens and provide information about it, including “bird condition”. With what may be intended for a touch of humour (I’m trying not to assume anything, even about how scientists think), the device is called ‘Robochick’.

Back with the pigs and Project 291: here too we mustn’t assume we know what they like (or not), even though LAPS, or at any rate the sort of fall in air pressure and oxygen that it uses, is apparently “reported as not unpleasant or painful to humans experiencing similar rates of decompression.” Therefore the pigs will be able to show their preference, having been trained “to indicate that they want to leave a situation”. Of course it will prove a somewhat pathetic accomplishment for them, since any wish they may indicate to leave their fatal situation won’t in practice be granted; all the pigs will be killed as a necessary part of the procedure. That’s 300 of them, admittedly a tiny number compared to those annual millions in slaughterhouses. The same is true of the chickens in their two cohorts of 100 and 1500. The 100 will be “humanely killed”; the 500, after their time with Robochick, will go to commercial slaughter at the usual 39 weeks old – a life-span nearer to that of the house-fly than to their own natural expectation.

Almost certainly these animals will have enjoyed better conditions than are the lot of the ordinary farm animals whose lives they are being used to mimic and supposedly to improve. In fact one of the cases of ‘non-compliance’ recorded by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) in its report on animal research in that same year (a report just now published) shows this to be so: under the heading ‘Failure to provide adequate facilities’, it notes some research during which “commercial standard facilities and transport were used for cattle regulated under ASPA [the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986].Accordingly a ‘letter of reprimand’ was sent, and re-training and re-inspection prescribed.

So they get a better deal in the laboratory than on the ordinary farm. That’s not saying much, certainly, but we can know little about what the farm deal commonly is (as opposed to what the official regulations for it are), since the system of inspection for farms is a sort of anarchy in comparison to the one which ASRU administers. At least five different branches or agencies of the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs are responsible for different aspects of agriculture. Responsibility for animal welfare is shared between APHA (the Animal and Plant Health Agency) and local authorities, both of which have many other things to worry about even on farms. It’s not even known for certain, by these authorities, how many farms there are in England. At any rate only a small fraction of the total farming activity is officially visited in a year, and when animal welfare is given special attention it’s usually in the commercial sense of that phrase (i.e. fit for food), so that the concern is with communicable diseases like TB rather than with humane treatment (another phrase whose special professional meaning differs from ordinary usage). The statistics are available for no year more recent than 2016, but in that year APHA visited only 372 of about 56,000 pig farms, and only 164 of the 27,000 broiler chicken farms.

It’s in order to boost and streamline this chaotic and inherently cruel farming ‘industry’ 45. abattoirthat research projects of the kind described above are funded. It may be better in the lab than on the farm, and certainly those submitting the projects for licence are always keen to highlight any advantages their research may have for the farmed animals in their sights. Still, the essential aim for both lab and farm is to get as many animals as possible to the point of sale in profitable condition, or as Project 44 (vol.2), ‘Nutrition of poultry’, puts it in its own vague yet steely dialect, to “reduce sub-clinical growth performance issues.”

Getting the right food through these farm animals – or rather “determining efficiency of nutrient utilization” (Project 44 again) – is indeed another noticeable theme in these project summaries; also, of course, protecting the animals from disease. Here, the farming of fish seems to be an especially promising field for study. Project 165 proposes to cultivate sea-lice on its colony of fish, in order to “supply them [the lice] into a range of research projects directed at improving salmon health.”  The long-term aims here are “to reduce the suffering of farmed salmon due to sea-lice [animal welfare, you see], and increase the supply for human consumption.” The main point is that, as another project summary (no. 253) exclaims, diseases of fish represent “an enormous threat to food production through aquaculture.” That the aquaculture itself may constitute the disease threat is not a paying research proposition, or so these research summaries seem to show.

As published by the Home Office, the non-technical summaries (NTS) are no longer grouped by subject of interest, as they used to be, but appear in two online ‘volumes’, covering a total of 2400 pages. I have picked out a few of the farm-related projects, but of course there are many other recurring themes. One of them is human obesity, and the associated condition diabetes. As one such project (no.269) explains, “There is a huge clinical need for this research because of the global epidemic of obesity and diabetes.” (“enormous threat”, “huge clinical need”: if these seem surprisingly unscientific hyperboles, remember that the writers are having to justify their use of animals). That “epidemic” is no doubt itself farm-related, like some others of the diseases featuring in these NTS, in the sense that it’s causally related to the diet being promoted in such research projects as we’ve already been viewing. Feeding mice and rats grossly unsuitable obesity-generating diets will of course produce knowledge, perhaps even publishable knowledge. If it seems unlikely to do anything actually to correct the epidemic, well, these are biomedical scientists, not epidemiologists or sociologists, still less politicians. They have their special corner in the problem, and will work it assiduously while permitted to do so.

And indeed there they always are, coasting in the slipstream of every hazardous novelty in our way of life (as well as pioneering a few of their own): late-age reproduction, nanotechnology (Project 132 welcomes nanotoxicology as “a fast-growing science discipline”), new chemicals, new medicines. Yes, even licensed medicines themselves, because these generate their own studiable problems: “self-poisoning with medicines (‘attempted suicide’) is responsible for 10% of all medical presentations to hospital in the UK. It’s a sad and shocking statistic, though its precision is somewhat illusory, depending as it does on the obscure phrase “medical presentations”. The quotation is from Project 66, which proposes to study a whole range of poisons (using anaesthetized pigs), including organophosphorus insecticides (OP). What, haven’t these already done the rounds of the laboratories? Certainly, but former research didn’t “mirror what happens in people. The OP has been given in the wrong form and by the wrong route.”

Here surely the tears come into one’s eyes. There need be no end to this fatal mass through-put of animals. Not just new ways of life, new products, new diseases, but new “forms” and new “routes” to rejuvenate research already done however many times. And as we’ve seen, animal welfare itself is a topic open to limitless research; whole departments and careers are devoted to it.

About 150 years ago, the Oxford zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester predicted that vivisection would increase geometrically, each study producing multiple new questions for yet more animals to be required to answer. The prediction proved correct for much of the intervening period. It’s no longer true, at least in the UK, largely because opposition has steadily challenged it in ways now partly incorporated in law and in such agencies as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit. But the practice isn’t shrinking, and these NTS show why.

I say that the challenge to vivisection is incorporated in ASRU and other official organisations, but abolitionism is not. The European Union directive which has provided the ideological setting as well as the regulations for animal research in member states since 2010 does indeed look on those regulations as “an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals.” UK politicians have promised to carry over, after Brexit, all the standards specified in EU law, but this larger sense of purpose is something which they may not be intending to include. At any rate, when the Green MP Caroline Lucas put it as a parliamentary question to the Home Office minister a couple of years ago, whether that aim towards full replacement would be “fully reflected in domestic law”, the answer, in so far as it yielded any information on the subject at all, seemed to be ‘no’.

That answer was very probably drafted for the minister by ASRU itself. ASRU is an impressive bureaucracy in its way, active in promoting ‘compliant’ practice and (as far as this is ever possible to know) unsecretive. But it manages things as they are, with no ideological direction. As its 2018 report says, “Unlike many government regulators ASRU does not operate for the express purpose of achieving a product to be delivered.” I only wish it did.

On the contrary, however, ASRU seems to regard abolition as an aim likely to compromise sound judgement on questions of lawfulness and cruelty in animal research. We can notice this in the occasional special reports which it issues on particular serious cases. Of the five so far published, three arose out of exposés and complaints made by animal protection organisations. None of these complaints was subsequently endorsed by ASRU investigators (though various sorts of ignorance and negligence were in fact found and dealt with), and in two of the reports the reader is told, by way of caveat, that the complainant group “is committed to ending animal experiments.” But that commitment is surely the native logic of the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), the promoting of which is part of ASRU’s brief: if saving some animals from experimentation is an agreed good, then saving all of them must be even more so. Why not admit it? They don’t have to fix a date, though after my tour of the 2018 non-technical summaries I would suggest tomorrow.


Notes and references:

A more general account of the non-technical summaries was given in this blog in a post titled ‘If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?’, here:  The summaries submitted in 2018 and discussed above can be found here:

Likewise, a more general account of ASRU was posted in this blog under the title ‘Policing the Lab’:  ASRU’s report for 2018 was published this month, and can be read here:  Quotations are from pp.37, 24, and 10.

The special ASRU reports are posted online here: The quotations are from reports A7(1) and A8(1), published March 2015 and September 2014.

As to regulation of agriculture, a thorough and well-written report on the subject, with many very good reform proposals in it, was commissioned some while ago and published in December 2018 as Farm Inspection and Regulation Review: see   The figures given above for pig and poultry inspections come from DEFRA’s publication On-farm welfare inspections 2016, online at

Edwin Ray Lankester was a student at Oxford, and at later times a tutor and, in the 1890s, professor there. His main interests were in evolutionary biology and comparative anatomy. He used vivisection in his teaching and research at Exeter College in the early 1870s, and he championed it in principle, partly because it represented for him, as it did for many of his fellow-professionals, an assertion of the authority and autonomy of science. I’m afraid that I’ve lost for the moment the reference for his statement about the future of vivisection.

The “final goal” spoken of in EU Directive 2010/63 comes in the pre-amble, at para 10:

Caroline Lucas’s written question, formally to the Secretary of State at the Home Office but answered with the signature of the minister then responsible for animals in science, Ben Wallace, was dated 18 June and the reply 26 June, 2018.

The wood-cut ‘Abattoir’ is from The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by the artist and activist Sue Coe: see

The Book of the Rally

Today is World Day for Animals in Laboratories, an occasion for calling attention to these more or less invisible animals, for reviewing their experiences during the year, and for judging what has been done and what still is to be done for their deliverance. And heaven knows there is plenty in that last category, what there still is to be done. A few weeks ago the European Union published a report on animal research in member-states for the period 2015-17. It shows that approximately 9.5 million animals were used in each of those years (the UK leading the field), and that even more of them – over 12 million in 2017 – were bred for laboratories but died unused. The 12 million or so included not just mice, whose squandering is a familiar phenomenon, but also dogs, cats, goats, pigs, horses, and monkeys.

The more detailed state-by-state numbers appear in a part of the report called the Staff Working Document, a giant cascade of statistics which would be hard to make sense of even if the online version was in working order, which it wasn’t when I attempted it. Of course it’s much better than secrecy, but these accumulations of numbers are strangely barren of meaning. Really they’re the opposite of a dramatization: millions of particular unpleasant events, in times and places across Europe and across the three years, transformed into static numbers.

World Day, by contrast, was founded in 1979 exactly to dramatize, to make repeatedly visible and audible, public concern about the plight of these animals and about the wrong of using them in this way at all. If you’re present at these occasions, or if you look at the photographs, there is one especially moving thing about them. As against what Gerald Carson (in Men, Beasts, and Gods: a History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals, 1972) calls the “fearful and self-regarding thoughts” with which medical science has hoped over the years to persuade us to accept vivisection – fear of cancer, fear of war, fear of Covid-19 – here is ocular proof of something more honourable and self-forgetful in humans. Patrick Corbett described it, in Animals, Men and Morals (I shall explain why all these quotations later), as “that model of a disinterested [i.e. unselfish], loving and respectful life which we all carry with us in our hearts.”

Certainly there are many necessary and often courageous campaigns and demonstrations every year through the world; as part of an exhibition about dissent shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014 (it was titled Disobedient Objects) there was an illuminated map showing the multiplying of them year by year, and very inspiring it was. But all of them had a human political or social interest; most sought justice for people some or all of whom were among those present to demand it for themselves. Animals must depend on others to do it for them, so that as Peter Singer has said, “Animal liberation will require greater altruism on the part of human beings than any other liberation movement.” World Day shows that such altruism is indeed available, and exemplifies it for all who look. In that way, it evokes the future with a kind of implicit promise: this version of humanity will be possible.

Then World Day has also a consolatory function which everyone who attends such events must feel. The publisher Jon Wynne-Tyson, an important personality in the revival of the animal rights movement that began in the 1970s, wrote that the “daily painful empathy with the predicament of all sentient life is not an easy burden to bear.” He saw this too as promise for the future, in that it was the motive in humanity which might drive our evolution towards a species-life in some sort of harmony with the rest of the world. But meanwhile it remains a burden, especially for those not professionally engaged in animal rights work, therefore not able to convert the distress into daily action: and such are the majority of us. Therefore, to be with a band of like-minded people from time to time is a very great consolation. In his essay on vivisection of 1893, the philosopher and social reformer Edward Carpenter contrasted life-science in its guise as mere curiosity (“lust of knowledge”) with the kind of science which teaches “that greatest and most health-giving of all knowledge – the sense of our common life and unity with all creatures.” With all non-human creatures certainly – it’s what animal rights events primarily affirm – but what about unity with our fellow-humans, from whom we may usually feel unhappily alienated? That alienation is what animal rights pioneer Henry Salt sardonically referenced when he called his 1921 autobiography Seventy Years among Savages. But World Day gatherings have that “health-giving” efficacy to rejoin us to our own species as we genuinely like it and as we want it to be.

But of course there can be no World Day rally this year. It was due to take place on Saturday in Liverpool, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible – ironically so, since the disease arises directly from human maltreatment of other animals (see the previous post on this subject). As the World Day facebook page says, “This does not mean we can’t all do something to mark World Lab animal week by taking part in some online campaigning.” In fact some political theorists writing in Monday’s Guardian claim to have identified nearly 100 distinct methods of non-violent action used or even invented during the period of the lock-down. Anyway, the very enterprising 2020 online version of World Day, with video speeches, can be watched on the facebook page, and a small selection of online actions which you can take at present for lab animals is linked below in the notes.

However, as an in-home substitute for the World Day gathering I would especially recommend the book from which I’ve taken all the quotations used above (except for the World Day facebook one): Jon Wynne-Tyson’s The Extended Circle: a Dictionary of Humane Thought (1985). This anthology is the literary equivalent of an animal rights protest rally, a diverse assemblage of like-minded and impassioned people speaking their minds on the subject. Carpenter himself, as a utopian visionary, is in there, of course, but so is his near-opposite, the sceptical churchman Dean Inge: “We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.” There are politicians, scientists, bishops, judges, actors, philosophers (of course), poets: over 500 of them in all. Some are famous names, though perhaps unfamiliar in this connection: Robert Browning, Alexander Pope, Victor Hugo (“I believe that pity is a law like justice, and that kindness is a duty like uprightness.”). Others will perhaps be discoveries. For me, re-sampling the book now, one such is the distinguished American anthropologist Loren Eiseley who, recalling “the eyes of every starved mongrel I have fed from Curacao to Cuernavaca, realizes that his preoccupation with suffering animals has made him, too, “a wanderer forever in the streets of men”.

Some of the texts are substantial, the equivalents of speeches: such are the extracts, for extended circleinstance, from George Bernard Shaw, Peter Singer, and Richard Ryder. Others are stray exclamations, something more like placards or banners: “The more I see of men, the more I like dogs” [Madame de Staël]; “I wish no living thing to suffer pain” [the poet Shelley]; “I think the rapidly growing tendency to regard animals as born for nothing except slavery to so-called humanity absolutely disgusting” [the publisher Victor Gollancz]; “The awful wrongs and sufferings forced upon the innocent, helpless, faithful animal race, form the blackest chapter in the whole world’s history” [Edward Freeman, Oxford’s Professor of Modern History 1884-92].

Across the centuries these men and women have spoken for the non-human animals with passion and eloquence. To be among this great enlightened host as a reader is very moving, a powerful and convincing experience. If you have a copy, spend some time with it again; if you haven’t, try to get hold of one. As I say, it’s a protest rally on paper, a permanent demonstration. It affirms that there has never been a day on which this voice of love and remonstrance was not somewhere being raised, nor ever will be such a day, until humanity becomes either wise or extinct.


Notes and references:

The report submitted to the European Commission consists in three distinct documents. The two summarizing documents are linked here:  The Staff Working Document is published online here (it seems to be working properly now):

The Guardian article is here:

Some current campaigns with petitions you might like to sign are accessible here

and here

and here

The Extended Circle was first published in 1985 by Jon Wynne-Tyson’s own Centaur Press, but there have been other editions from other publishers since then.

Jon Wynne-Tyson was born in 1924; he died on 26 March of this year.

In Search of the Meaning of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

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

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

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




What Shall Be Done for these Innocents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and References:

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

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

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

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

Free as a Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Notes and references:

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

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here:

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

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here:

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

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

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here:

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’:

Whose World, and How We’ll Leave it

Fifty years ago this autumn, the record at the top of the UK singles chart was ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans. The song’s lyrics (by Rick Evans himself, who also wrote the music) follow humanity into distant futures, and picture with rising alarm (and rising pitch in the music) the gradual decommissioning of human functions by technology – “Some machine’s doing that for you” – until finally “man’s reign is through”. Then, the suggestion seems to be, things start again from the beginning, as the song itself does.

The ambitious and pessimistic theme made this record an unusual victor in the hit parade. It was also remarkable in looking beyond what was then the most obvious and discussed form of apocalypse, nuclear war. (That had indeed been the theme of Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ a few years earlier: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”) But of course the question whether we shall be science’s masters or science ours was hardly new: it had been a topic for debate and imaginings ever since (if not before) Mary Shelley put it into brilliantly mythical form for her story Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). And as science itself has increased its scope and powers, which it has done enormously since Zager and Evans sang about babies being selected from “the bottom of a long glass tube” (in the year 6565), so concern has grown about how those powers may variously jeopardize the world.

In 2012, a research institution devoted to the subject was set up at Cambridge: the Centre for the Study of Existentialist Risk. One of its founders, the astrophysicist Martin Rees, had published a book in 2003 plainly setting out the reasons for taking the matter seriously. The book’s title is Our Final Century: Will Civilization Survive the Twenty-First Century? It’s an expert survey by a very distinguished scientist, although, like the Zager and Evans song, it’s intended for popular or at least non-specialist consumption. Alarming it also is, like the song: reviews called it “eloquently frightening”, “provocative and unsettling”, “terrifying”. It has, as I’ve said, much more material to be alarming about than the song had, and the material is crowded into a more panicked perspective: the remainder of this century as opposed to about seven millennia. Eighty years is certainly the more plausible time-allowance, but in at least one respect the song is wiser than the book, as I hope to show.

Our Final Century does discuss the threat of nuclear war, but Rees considers that the use by terrorists of stolen or improvised nuclear materials is the less controllable and therefore more dangerous possibility. In fact, having rather more trust in the international order of treaties and institutions than might be justified today, he concentrates on terrorism and error as the most likely routes to mass disaster, with small groups or even individuals as the agents. He writes, for example, about ‘bioterror’ using either known infections (smallpox, ebola, anthrax) or newly engineered ones. Or he pictures self-replicating ‘nanomachines’, designed with the capacity to live off organic material; such creations might, by accident or design, “proliferate uncontrollably . . . until they had consumed all life.” Reviewing these and other such science-based threats, Rees says “We are entering an era when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years . . . Indeed, disaster could be caused by someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign.” After all, it was a sort of collective incompetence which got us here, wasn’t it?

Rees very reasonably concludes that we ought to subject the practice of science to some kind of “restraint”: close off some of its more sinister directions or at least keep them unpublished, and control others through international agreements. And it’s here, rather suddenly, that a few of the non-human planetary species woodboatget a rare look-in to Rees’s text (and of course they have a vital interest in this topic too; they may not know that, but we know it). He instances animal experiments as evidence that, in “many countries” at least, limits to what is allowed in scientific research can indeed be agreed upon and kept to. But, he wonders, where are we to fix those limits? He then introduces the term “yuck factor”, used by bioethicists (so he claims) for the sort of quasi-ethical squeamishness which, it seems, has no reliable relevance to welfare or morality. Rees admits feeling this sort of response himself to “invasive experiments that modify how animals behave”, but he considers his response “disproportionate”. In fact this discussion of ethics in life-science is conditioned by words like that: “exaggerated”, “perceive” (in the now common sense of ‘impute’ or ‘imagine’), “unthinking”, and indeed the childish “yuck factor” itself. The suggestion is that we shouldn’t take very much notice of our “deep-set repugnances”: that’s the phrase which C. S. Lewis uses in his science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength to identify humanity’s most fundamental ethical guides. In fact the novel is largely about that most fatal of all usurpations of human function: the supplanting of human judgement as to what is right by the mere fact of what is technically possible.

What we learn, then, from this not unfeeling but not especially interesting three-page discussion is that (as its unexamined assumption) humans are quite entitled to make such decisions about what to do to other species, and, on the other hand, that they can’t be trusted to make them wisely. And now we can get at the world-view which this book teaches us to take into the future, and indeed to make that future with – long or short as it may turn out to be. It’s a world-view not absolutely man-centred, for Rees does contemplate evolutionary advances on the human species as it now is: “intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings.” But the reader knows which species is being identified by those privileged characteristics, intelligence and complexity. We humans may possibly be improvable, therefore, but we do represent at least the “beginnings” of what really matters in nature. And although we may subsequently rise into other forms or even other planets (Rees discusses this latter possibility – an especially disgraceful one, given the book’s theme), what we apparently won’t do is feel any solidarity with varieties of life that have lagged behind us in evolution.

For all its “terrifying” material, therefore (and there’s much more of it than I have been mentioning, including of course climate change), Our Final Century is a surprisingly triumphalist text. You may recall that when Zager and Evans get to the far end of their journey into the future, they take stock like this:

In the year 9595,
I’m kind of wondering if man is gonna be alive;
He’s taken everything this whole Earth can give,
And he ain’t put back nothing

It’s a shaming summary, and surely an incontrovertible one. But its well-founded moral diffidence, its suggestion that man may not deserve to survive, is wholly absent from Our Final Century: there, the assumption is that we have only been taking what was ours. For Rees, the Earth, or at least the world, is humans. When he writes about “the world’s needs” (i.e. for energy), he means human needs. When he writes of “prospects for life beyond the Earth”, he means human life, or ultra-human life. What he hopes that his book will achieve, he says in the preface, is to show how crucial it will be to deploy “new knowledge optimally for human benefit” (still putting back nothing, then). In fact not just the world but the whole cosmos, as Rees prefers to think of it (and he’s a professional cosmologist), has this same human reference: he quotes with approval the mathematician Frank Ramsay, who wrote in 1931, “I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens . . . My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.” We don’t need to ask, then, exactly whose “existential risk” that centre in Cambridge is studying.

The assumption is that readers will share this strangely arrogant point of view. There’s a probabilistic theory put forward by Professor Richard Gott of Princeton which argues that humanity as we now find it is unlikely to be at an early stage of its career; it’s an intriguing theory, and makes a pleasant break from epidemics, meteorites, etc., but Rees calls it “far from cheerful”, since “none of us welcomes a new argument that humanity’s days may be numbered.” None of us humans, he means of course, not us earth-dwellers, for surely Gott’s idea would raise a world-wide clamour of pleasurable expectation among the other species if only they could understand it.

Even so, “none of us”? I try to keep up with the science which, as Rees says, “is surging ahead at an accelerating rate”, with its “benign applications” in one prosthesis, and “new hazards” in the other. Much of it is wholly obscure to the amateur – and of course even most scientists are amateurs in each other’s specialist areas, a fact which tends to favour the hazards – but some of it is patent enough. In the journal Science, for instance: still a few weeks behind, I’m attempting the issue of 4 October. Here there’s a report, all too easy to understand, on the international trade in wild-life, and one on the “staggering decline of bird populations”. Then among the research articles there is one about how juvenile zebra finches are taught by their parents to sing, or rather how they can be force-taught to sing without parental guidance by means of “optogenetic manipulation of a synaptic pathway connecting auditory and vocal motor circuits to implant song memories”. A link is provided to some video material, which shows these birds performing in their wretchedly alien laboratory surroundings. But not for long, evidently, because the birds were then “quickly decapitated”, after which “The brain was removed from the skull and submerged in cold (1-4˚C) oxygenated dissection buffer . . . “ etc. Meanwhile another research project has involved collecting the brains of pigs in slaughterhouses – this part of their bodies being “readily discarded by the food industry” – and attempting to show that not just cell samples but the whole brain may be kept alive even some hours after death. As the author complacently observes, “one person’s trash is another’s unexpected model.” So one way or another it all gets used; what else is it for? Read or look where you will, there is man the great world-wide plunderer, taking “everything this old Earth can give”.

“None of us”, then? As tribal members of humanity, we may indeed feel “far from cheerful” at the prospect of an early end to our species, especially if we think about its practical details. But as impartial observers, judging things as they are rather than as they suit ourselves (and isn’t that what academic scientists are supposed to aim at?), we must surely regard the fact that “humanity’s days may be numbered” as earth’s brightest hope.


Notes and references:

Our Final Century is published in the UK by Arrow Books. Since it’s a relatively short book, 228 pages of pleasantly large type, and well worth reading in full, I haven’t put page references for the quotations.

That Hideous Strength was first published in 1945 by Bodley Head; the quotation here is from p.121 of an edition slightly revised by Lewis and published by Pan in 1956. The title is itself a quotation from a text referring to the Tower of Babel; Lewis uses the phrase for the modern scientific form of that ancient act of hubris.

The woodcut ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’ (2005) is by Sue Coe. This and other remarkable woodcuts by Sue Coe can be viewed here: For a post in this blog about Sue Coe’s art, see



He that has Humanity

One of the reasons for the great increase in experiments on animals after the Second World War (five times as many in 1971 as in 1946) was the thorough-going institutionalization of the LD50 toxicity test. That disgusting method of finding what dose of a drug, or other substance of use to humans, will kill half of the test animals – a technique which merely by itself should have been enough to discredit the whole animal-research project – is not, you’ll be relieved to know, the subject of this post. But it seems that one of the assistants to Dr J.W. Trevan, the scientist who devised the method in the 1920s, subsequently celebrated the achievement by acquiring for his car the number-plate LD50. Here’s a showy instance, then, of science failing to rise to the ethical occasion, or even to notice it, and this at least fifty years after the Royal Commission of 1876 had spoken feelingly (for a government publication, anyway) of “the claim of the lower animals to be treated with humane consideration, and . . . the right of the community to be assured that this claim shall not be forgotten amid the triumphs of advancing science.”

That number-plate is mentioned in a recent history of the vivisection controversy, Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain by A.W.H. Bates. A part of the book’s theme is exactly that failure of science to rise to the ethical problem set to it by bates covervivisection – the failure of science or the science establishment rather than scientists in general, because Bates shows (what is evident also in the evidence put before the 1876 Royal Commission) that many of the opponents of vivisection in its earlier days were individual doctors. Bates himself is a medical doctor and professor of pathology, and can therefore feel, from within medical practice, the perplexity or even indignation of the healer who has to give with one hand what he’s stolen with the other.

Or if not stolen, at least been accessory to the theft of: not many doctors have themselves been vivisectors, because laboratory research was an occupation distinct from healing well before animals had become a common part of the equipment for it. But since the 1870s, vivisection has been the premise of orthodox medical science and training. Every British doctor has therefore been implicated in it. Writing of the period up to 1970 (but the situation has not noticeably changed since then), Bates says

all were taught in medical schools that it was indispensable for knowledge, and that those who opposed it were enemies of science. To speak out was disloyalty, and medical students and young researchers (as I know from experience) went along with the culture of animal experimentation because to dissent was heresy. [200]

As to those early days of vivisection in the UK, Bates does not picture a doctor’s dilemma, a painful choice between two hard positions, for he believes that the medical profession had an established ethic which ought to have made its way clear. The clue is in that word used by the Commissioners, ‘humane’. For Bates (and for the Commissioners too, I hope), it’s not a vague term of moral approval. He gets out the Oxford Dictionary and insists on the word’s proper definition: “such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man” (the medical scene at that time was indeed populated almost exclusively by men). What behaviour or disposition, then, particularly befits a doctor? If compassion and the will to heal, or at least – translating from the original Hippocratic Oath – to ‘abstain from all intentional wrong or harm’, are to be part of it, then, so it seemed to many doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, “vivisection was not something that a doctor ought to do”. More largely it was “incompatible with the humane ethos of their profession.” (These two quotations come from the first and the second-to-last pages of the book, and the whole story in between is told with reference to this conviction.)

That sort of moral thinking, based on the idea of what “befits” a human, would now be called ‘virtue ethics’. Dr Bates rightly traces it to the philosophy of Aristotle, but whether academically codified or used by a sort of informal instinct, it has always been the standard moral reference in life and in literature. “I dare do all that may become a man,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, defending himself from his wife’s accusation of cowardice; “Who dares do more is none.” And as the story of Macbeth shows, human character has this dynamic quality to it, that it is revised by its own choices, so that virtue becomes steadily less or more natural, less or more possible, to it. And likewise this was always the principal reference in the case against vivisection, until well into the twentieth century: as Samuel Johnson had said, its “horrid operations” would “tend to harden the heart and make the physician more dreadful than the gout or the stone.” [21]

And not just the medical profession would be affected; opponents argued that society as a whole would be corrupted by the practice. It was this latter conviction which, so the courts decided in 1895, entitled the anti-vivisection Victoria Street Society to its charitable status: the Society’s aim was, or at least included, the good of humanity. And the Society did indeed state that its primary inspiration was “a conviction that the spread of mercy was the great cause of civilization.” [46]

Dr Bates shows how well-established the ‘virtue’ tradition of thought was when vivisection first came to the UK in the mid-nineteenth century. He quotes the British Medical Journal itself endorsing it: “Let there be no mistake about it: the man who habituates himself to the shedding of blood, and who is insensible to the sufferings of animals, is led on into the path of baseness.” [21] And of course the proponents of vivisection attempted often enough to defend their case on that same ground. They insisted on the fine character of the practitioner in general (“the best people in the country”, said Sir William Gull) and of each other’s in particular (“I do not anywhere know a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, one of his colleagues told the Royal Commissioners, speaking of the editor of the notorious Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory of 1873). Conversely, they disparaged the characters of their opponents, notably for their want of manliness (“old ladies of both sexes” [21]). For of course what constitutes virtue is always a contestable matter, even though the consensus seems to have changed surprisingly little since Aristotle’s days.

Anyway, those attempts at virtue ethics were improvisations only. After all, animal research had come about for purely technical reasons, as a means of research; it had not been ethically argued into being, nor much questioned within the profession thereafter. In fact, as the controversy over Professor Burdon Sanderson’s Handbook showed, the professionals were wholly unprepared for the moral indignation aroused by their work: he himself admitted, “we had not in view the criticisms of people who did not belong to our craft.”

But an ethic of sorts, or a substitute for it, was at hand, and was soon fixed into law by the Cruelty to Animals Act, passed immediately after the Royal Commission had reported. What looked like cruelty would be all right provided it produced or might produce some commensurate benefit: the more “horrid” the operation (vivisection of dogs, for instance, or absence of anaesthesia), the more attention had to be paid to this notional benefit (that is, special certificates would be required). So the problem of what people ought to do, as doctors, as Christians, as humans, which was how the anti-vivisectionists put the matter, was countered with a sort of calculus: indeed, utilitarianism has sometimes been called ‘the felicific calculus’ (counting happiness). Of course, only the scientist can say what the benefit will or may be: he or she owns the crucial half of the computation. So when the Oxford professor and champion of vivisection Ray Lankester promised in a public lecture of 1905 that eventually, through bioscience, “man can get rid of pain and unhappiness”, such an enormous and alluring benefit made almost any cost acceptable, and nobody could say that it wasn’t possible.

Utilitarianism remains the core ethical principle in modern medicine: “Bioethics as currently taught in British medical schools is unlikely to stress the importance of the physician’s humane character; as anyone who works in a teaching hospital will know, medical students and junior doctors are trained to seek the greatest benefit for the largest number; and to their utilitarian hammer, everything looks like a nail.” [2] By that last image, I think Dr Bates means that there is nothing that has to be regarded as falling outside the calculus, no absolute yes or no in conduct. The implications of this had been noticed by C.S. Lewis when he was writing on the subject in 1947: “the victory of vivisection marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as the animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements.” 1947 was the year, incidentally, in which the courts, conforming to the spirit of the age, revised their 1895 decision, and took charitable status away from the anti-vivisection organisations.

Dr Bates shows how thoroughly this “materialistic utilitarianism” did indeed represent “an ethical break with the past” [199]. In fact he argues that the term ‘anti-vivisection’ is an unfortunate misnomer. It implies “protest, negativity and perhaps even rejection of progress”, whereas the movement was really a defence of positive human values against a sudden and novel assault. And it wasn’t the voice of a non-conformist minority: There was never a time in Britain when there were more people active in support of vivisection than against it, and in the nineteenth century the antis raised petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures, more than for any other cause of the time.” [14]

Nor were they simply appealing to an old moral orthodoxy. Against the obduracy, even bumptiousness, of the utilitarian, with his LD50 number-plate, they brought a flourishing moral idealism. They not only made sure of a continual argument (repetitive certainly, but philosophically fertile too); they also showed, as many of their successors have since discovered for themselves, that thinking or being made to think about our proper relations to other animals is the best, perhaps the only, way to make sense of our own place in the world. Dr Bates shows it happening: for instance in the thought of Josiah Oldfield, founder of anti-vivisection hospitals and other like-minded projects, who wrote rhapsodically in 1898, “The higher the man, . . . the more reverence he has for his fellow traveller – a true brother in the eyes of science – on the same spiral pathway of vitality, towards a perfection of evolution.” [86] All of us animals “on the same spiral pathway of vitality”! It’s a dream, perhaps, but an inspiring guide also, and there’s certainly nothing ‘anti’ about it.

Bates’s history shows, in fact, that anti-vivisection continually won the argument, but that the science establishment, working in particular through the British Medical Association and the Research Defence Society, had the influence and therefore won the politics. But he ends his account in 1970, just before the argument re-blossomed in the most astonishing way, with the publication of Animals, Men and Morals, and all that came after it. The subsequent ascendancy of the ‘rights’ idea, supported by the new science of animal sentience, has given anti-vivisection very great additional authority, if not much additional success.

However, Bates believes that the ‘virtue’ argument shouldn’t be let go. He points out that the five decisive objections to vivisection put forward by the Animals’ Friends Society (set up in 1833 by the saintly Lewis Gompertz) “did not mention animals at all.” [197] It was enough, even for that pioneering vegan who refused to travel in horse-drawn vehicles, to insist that the practice was bad for humans. And Dr Bates concludes that “For ethicists, the most important lesson from history is that it is possible to construct a coherent and effective case against vivisection in which neither utilitarianism nor animal rights needs feature prominently!” [200]

It’s an unconventional, perhaps perverse, conclusion but, as I’ve mentioned, this is a practising doctor speaking, with an ideal of the healer in mind. And we might all agree with him to this extent, that a line of moral thinking which has kept human savagery intermittently in check for millennia should indeed be held on to for the animals’ sake as well as our own. “I would not enter on my list of friends,” says William Cowper in his long meditative poem The Task (1785, Book VI, l.560),

                                                . . . the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush a snail,
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarn’d,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.

We don’t need, then, to argue whether worms or snails (‘reptiles’ for Cowper, from the Latin repere, meaning ‘to creep’) can feel pain, nor to set up experiments to find out for sure. All those researches into the intelligence or sentience of our fellow-animals are beside the point. An ideal of ‘humanity’ will by itself teach us how to treat them – better still (a point on which utilitarianism is silent) why to want to treat them well, supposing we need a reason for that.


Notes and references:

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the magnificent Animal Ethics series edited by Andrew Linzey. There are 37 titles in the series to date, but this volume is only the second of them to deal just with vivisection. Note also that the book is free to read online at

Quotations from the book here, including instances where the author is quoting others, are given page numbers in square brackets. Other quotations are referenced below.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO, 1876) is quoted at pp. xxi, 266 (Gull), 75 (character of Dr Sanderson), 118 (lay criticism of the Handbook).

Ray Lankester is quoted in E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern Biology, Joe Lester, British Society for the History of Science, 1995, p.175.

The essay Vivisection by C.S. Lewis was first published as a pamphlet by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in 1947, but can be found re-printed in various selections of his essays and lectures.

The interesting cover illustration is credited to “Peter Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo”. Evidently it wasn’t commissioned for this book, and it has its own take on vivisection in the early twentieth century, noticeably different from the author’s.


Counting the Animals again

The Home Office has now published its Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain for 2018. Here is VERO’s selective summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2017 (which seem to have been slightly revised since they were published last year), with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2018  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,568,197    2,781,685
 Fish   454,340    514,059
 Rats   177,904    241,544
 Domestic fowl   141,069    125,280
 Sheep    53,672    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    6,445    22,560
 Horses    10,424    10,600
 Rabbits    11,159    10,362
 Dogs    4,481     3,847
 Non-human primates    3,127     2,962
 Other species    89,099     28,975
 Total:   3,519,917   3,789,373

Direction of travel: You may notice that there has been a fall of about 7% in the numbers since last year. You certainly will notice it if you read the Home Office report itself, since the point is made twice in the first four pages, as is also the fact that this is the lowest number since 2007 (a fact highlighted in attractive purple each time). There has been a fall in each of the last three years, so perhaps it is now possible to detect a real and very welcome downwards trend after years of more or less steady increase. Still, there is a long way to go (to go back), for even this 2018 number is about 34% greater than the number recorded in 2001.

Particular species: There has been a fall in numbers for most species, but you’ll see that two of those which have special protection under the 1986 Act have not enjoyed a share in it: dogs and non-human primates. The sad thing is that these animals are mainly used in so-called ‘regulatory testing’, the most patently unpleasant category of research, and one which has always had the worst severity ratings: this year, 12.5% of the procedures were classified as ‘severe’ (i.e. the top pain rating), compared to about 2% of the procedures for ‘basic’ research. Dogs (which mercifully don’t appear in the ‘severe’ category this year) and primates are used primarily for the testing of human and veterinary ‘medical products’, by the method called ‘repeated dose toxicity’. Other animals in this category of research may be required to test industrial chemicals, biocides, animal feeds (this, we’re told, is “for the safety of target animals, workers and environment”, so God knows what these feeds contain), and an unspecified ‘other’, in which again both dogs and primates feature.

The testing methods used on the less-protected animals still include the notorious LD50 and LC50 tests, as well as unspecified ‘other lethal methods’. That word ‘other’ acquires a sinister character in these records, but “other lethal” is an illogical category anyway, since all or nearly all this laboriously counted work is lethal in the not-so-long run for the animals, even when they are not killed by the product itself.

The 10,000 or so procedures on horses recorded in this Home Office report (up 19% since 2009) appear likewise mainly in this ‘regulatory’ category, although in fact the horses are being used not for testing but for the routine production of blood derivatives. You can see some of the uses to which this blood is put being advertised on the web-site of TCS Biosciences (“your partner: For Life”). In the USA, these uses include the keeping of farmed sows regularly in heat, by means of ‘Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotropin’. I mention this as one stray and disgusting instance of the way that animal research serves and therefore promotes high-tech animal farming. Scientists often compare the animal costs of their work favourably with the suffering and death-rate in agriculture; it’s a defence they have been using ever since they discovered that vivisection required defending. But the distinction is altogether disingenuous: farming as now practised would not have been possible, let alone profitable, without the steady support of laboratory science.

Democracy at work, or not: The 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act requires the Home Office to “publish and lay before Parliament” these annual statistics in order that the people, acting through their representatives, can knowingly assent to them. In practice this assent is assumed rather than annually petitioned for. Some challenges there are, of course. ‘Early Day Motions’ may be tabled, in which MPs express their dissent: at present there is one such (EDM 66), signed by 63 MPs and calling for “a thorough, properly moderated public scientific debate on the misleading and costly practice of trying to apply results from animal experiments to human patients.” Or questions may be put to ministers; for instance, on 3 September 2018, the excellent (and vegan) MP Kerry McCarthy asked about the increased use of horses for blood collection, as mentioned above. Much more rarely there are dedicated debates, the most recent of them on 5 February 2013, held in Westminster Hall and simply titled ‘Animal Experiments’.

But the lack of a proper departmental home and a dedicated minister for all animal subjects means that no great momentum is ever created out of these haphazard initiatives. Animal research alone is dealt with in fragments by at least three major departments: the Home Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department of Health and Social Care. It’s a situation tragi-comically reflected in the name of the Home Office agency responsible for putting out these annual statistics: the Fire, Licensing and Public Order Analysis Unit.

In the absence of sustained parliamentary fuss, these statistics and the exploitation of animals which they dimly shadow have come to seem like a sort of natural or at least sociological phenomenon, rather than a deliberate moral choice. The Home Office report itself sets the style for that way of viewing them. Surveying the variations in numbers over the years since 1987, it provides this helpful explanation: “The number of procedures carried out on living animals is determined by several factors, including the focus of scientific and medical endeavours, the economic climate and global trends in new technologies or fields of research.” No one’s really in charge, then; we’re all just bystanders. And it then becomes reasonable to take the view noted in this blog when last year’s statistics were published: that is, that big numbers are actually an indication that all’s well in UK life-science research – or, as one promotional organisation has said this time round, “Year-to-year numbers are thus best seen as a reflection of the current health of UK bioscience investment and will fluctuate year-on-year.”

Fluctuate! We’re a very long way here not just from the pains of the animals whom these statistics are nominally about, but also from the moral purpose clearly though imperfectly put into political effect in the 1986 Act and the 2010 European Directive. For them, downward was the desired and proper direction, not an accident of economics.

Well, it’s true that counting animals is not the essence of animal rights, but falling numbers are emphatically better than rising numbers, and if the present trend in that direction is to be kept going we need to remind our political representatives (even at this least propitious of political times) to keep the subject controversial. Many MPs really do mind about animals, and even more of them know that their constituents do. To illustrate as much, here is an MP speaking about animal research back in 1971, at the high point of vivisection numbers in the UK, just preceding the long fall towards 2001: “I know that the object is to preserve human life; but it does make me wonder whether a human race that can take such morally degrading practices in its stride is really worth preserving.”  OU primate

Yes, that’s the proper context in which to view and debate these annual statistics.




Notes and references:

The Annual Statistics can be found here (the quotation comes from p.5):

The tables of data are now published separately, and are linked here:

Information about the farming of horses for blood comes from this web-site:

A transcript of the Westminster Hall debate can be read here:

The parliamentary briefing document, titled Animal Experiment Statistics, was published on 25 April: a summary of it is available here, with a link to the full pdf version provided at the end:

The quotation about “year-to-year numbers” is from the Speaking of Research web-site here:

Unfortunately I don’t know who the last-mentioned MP was: he or she is quoted without name or reference by Desmond Morris in his book Intimate Behaviour (Jonathan Cape, 1971), p.183.

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, probably himself long since an annual statistic, is used by courtesy of the university’s Public Affairs Office.


Your Christmas Reading Done for You

By way of confirmation that Christmas approaches, the facebook page of Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is counting down the days with a festive sequence based on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: “On the nth day of Christmas researchers sent to me …” It’s true that the well-worn carol really refers to the days after the 25th, but this is light-hearted entertainment after all, and it helps to show that animal research can be fun – or promoting it can be, anyway! So with much jingling and stardust, a rat in a lab coat stands by a Christmas tree and gratefully receives such amusingly pertinent things as “approval by ethics committee” (the “partridge in a pear tree” equivalent) or “six knockout mice”.

Tearing oneself away from this merriment, there are more straight-faced things happening in the profession at this time of year. There’s the annual awards ceremony associated with UAR’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, and although that’s a sort of school prize-day that interests only the school itself, the Concordat’s annual report is published to coincide with it, and this document genuinely is a sign of the times worth attending to. Then, in the wider world of animal research, there’s the annual report from the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU), the organisation responsible for licensing, inspecting, and policing such work. This report too has just been published, though it actually reviews 2017. And more portentous still, a parliamentary ‘statutory instrument’ has now been issued which will disjoin the UK’s law – the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 – from that of the EU, with which it has been harmonized since 2012.

VERO has perused all these and some other newly published texts, and here is a view of what they amount to. Do your best to attend: this jungle of words is where millions of animals have to live, however briefly.

First, a stray and very specific publication from the Home Office, short-titled Additional Statistics. Here, we are finally told how many animals die in labs without ever appearing in the statistics of ‘procedures’. These are the animals (mostly mice, but also rats and fish, plus an undeclared 2% “other”) who have been bred but found unnecessary or unsuitable and therefore killed, or been used for tissue collection only, or been kept as ‘sentinels’ to test for infections circulating in the neighbourhood. Or they have simply died by mistake (i.e. human mistake: see the ASRU report below). The total of these animals in 2017 was 1,810,091. Therefore the total of all animals used in Great Britain’s laboratories last year, as the Home Office now declares, was about 5.53 million.

This is surely a very important addition to the statistics hitherto provided. The law, and accordingly perhaps the scientists themselves, don’t rate death very highly as a harm, compared to suffering. Death is therefore not classified as a ‘procedure’ even when (as is usually the case) it’s deliberately inflicted, nor does it require a licensed person to effect it, and it hasn’t until now been made part of any official count. But a public survey carried out by Ipsos MORI in 2013 showed very clearly that non-professionals think differently: “they saw death as the most serious harm which could be done to an animal . . . participants felt the public should know more about how many animals are killed.” That now they do know more is the result of the European Directive 2010/63 which governs animal research in all member states, and which requires this information to be issued once very five years. (The Directive was transposed into UK law in 2012, so 2017 is the first result of this provision). Why every five years, I don’t know. Nor does anyone seem to know (a more important uncertainty) whether the requirement will lapse in the UK after Brexit, assuming that Brexit occurs.

That brings us to another recent publication, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which specifies the alterations to UK law which will become necessary “on exit day”. Despite the resoundingly bureaucratic title, these alterations are surprisingly few; they take up hardly half a page of detailed adjustments. And indeed the much longer Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies them states emphatically that the changes “are the minimum necessary”. A convincing illustration: under the heading ‘Matters of special interest to the Committees on the UK’s exit from the European Union’ (a warning of difficulty or controversy) is the statement “None”.

Of course, nothing is said in the Memorandum, or can be said yet, about the pressures which may come when UK bioscience has to make a more solitary effort to “retain competitiveness in global markets” (as the Head of ASRU dismally expresses it). But in the course of emphasizing that all existing standards of welfare and supervision will be maintained, the Explanatory Memorandum does provide one very specific and most important reassurance: “Implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) will contribute to 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, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.”

Admittedly the ambition thus re-stated commits nobody to anything, and it leaves to scientists the decision as to when full replacement has become possible, but as far as I have seen it’s the first time that this goal has been formally re-stated, perhaps even been mentioned anywhere in animal research circles, since its original declaration in the Directive. Yet it’s what really makes sense of the 3Rs. They’re not there just to discourage waste of life and pain, important as that purpose is. Still less are they a sort of passport or alibi for research which might otherwise be suspected of moral frivolity or negligence. The 3Rs should act as a constant and uncomfortable reminder that this sort of work is due to end.

That is not at all the impression of them which one gets from the Concordat’s literature or activities. There they seem to be regarded more as a sort of correct dress for scientists when appearing before the public – for instance, on web-sites. Nowhere there or in any UAR material (but of course I haven’t seen it all) can I find any endorsement of that statement from the Directive. Rather the contrary, because the purpose of UAR, and in particular of its Concordat project, is to make a secure and welcoming place in the modern UK for vivisection: to entrench it, in short. The primary aim of the Concordat, as twice stated in the Annual Report just published, is to “support confidence and trust in the life-sciences sector.” The progress which is aimed at, then, is not a change in scientific practice or in momentum towards animal-free research, but a change in public attitudes to the thing as it is.

The Concordat’s awards event and its annual report have both been fully featured in this blog on earlier occasions (see notes below). I don’t find any substantial differences this year, except in the scale of the public ‘engagement’ organised by its signatories: open days, virtual tours of laboratories, science fairs, links with schools, and so on. Always there has been one essential PR principle driving these things: to gain control of the public’s awareness. The principle is implied in the 2018 Report thus: “There is now more information about the use of animals in research in the public domain than ever and, crucially, it is owned and presented by more and more of the organisations who are responsible for funding, staffing and carrying out the research.”

Owned and presented” most immediately by professionals in PR, of course, rather than by scientists themselves, who have other things to do. One signed-up university is quoted in the Report praising its own progress in this direction, and showing how it works: “Members of the marketing and communications team have been invited to tour facilities and to take pictures and prepare videos for dissemination to the public.” We saw one symptom of this way of managing things on Oxford University’s web-site earlier in the year, where a gross mis-statement can only have been allowed to get in and endure because the scientists themselves were not even reading it. Incidentally, that web-site is the first of the four examples of web-sites chosen in the Report “to illustrate good practice”. We’re told that “UAR periodically checks statements [the ones made by signatories on their web-sites] throughout the year to make sure they are active” (i.e. up to date), but it’s evidently looking for show rather than substance.

As habitually, this year’s Concordat Report acknowledges that being honest about “harms done to animals in research” is “an area of challenge” for most signatories, and they continue to shy away from it, in their texts and even more obviously in their pictures and videos. The Report itself makes a first very modest attempt to set an example in its own illustrations (a brain scan on rats, a pig lying on an operating table), though since there are no explanatory captions, these images are hardly more illuminating than the ubiquitous ‘library pictures’ which the report deprecates. And even the Concordat does not expect anyone to go public about the sort of lab-blunders which account for some of those Additional Statistics discussed above. For these we must turn to the Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2017 (i.e. covering 2017).

ASRU’s report is an inclusive account of all its work during that year, including its licensing and inspection regime. The cases of ‘non-compliance’ which it had to discipline during the year are reviewed near the end, forty of them (compared to 45 last year, 55 in 2015: a promising sequence?). It’s a familiar record of failed communications, forgetfulness, under-staffing, lapsed attention, and occasionally real incompetence. The equivalent record for last year was treated in this blog at some length, and again there does not seem to have been any notable change. Mostly, of course, the victims of these errors were rodents: forgotten about at the week-end, overproduced in their thousands, cack-handedly half-killed. However, at least one possible contributor to that “other” category in the Additional Statistics (the 2% group) gets individual notice here:

A non-human primate . . . died when it became trapped between a restraint mechanism and a cage wall. Attempts by the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer and other staff to resuscitate the animal were unsuccessful.

Here would indeed be an eloquent illustration to the relevant institution’s web-site. Even the brief text vividly evokes the unhappy scene.

But although one can learn a lot about laboratory life from the ASRU report – about the ordinary routines as well as the accidents – it shares with the Concordat’s more obviously  partisan survey the premise that animal research should be made to work acceptably in its given (= its best possible) form. No “final goal” is mentioned or even hinted at in the introductory blessing to ASRU’s account given by the relevant Home Office minister, Baroness Williams. (Her official title, just so we know how near the front of her mind animal welfare must be, is Minister of State for Countering Extremism.) Baroness Williams places animal research firmly in its commercial context: “The UK’s life science strategy is based on a vision of how the UK may exploit its current strengths to support strong economic growth in this sector.” However, strict regulation is important as well, and the minister’s prose takes a sort of zig-zag course between these two purposes: “As a regulator, the Home Office has an important role in balancing the need to enable innovation and research in the life sciences whilst maintaining public trust [the Concordat’s aim, remember] through a strong framework that has the necessary checks and balances.” And so on.

Proponents of animal research like to talk about a ‘middle ground’ between the two extremes, which is where moderate and realistic persons can discuss and manage the practice. This is indeed where most of the texts discussed above would be supposed by their writers to be located. But there is no such ground: at least, not as they imagine it. For although abolition exists as a real possibility at one end, the other ‘extreme’, a free for all, cannot exist in the UK (or the EU) except as criminality. The real far limit in that direction is simply present practice, which should, as the “final goal” of the Directive makes clear, always be closing up towards abolition. All the texts reviewed here are concerned in one way or another to present animal research to the public. In so far as they fail to acknowledge and promote its character as a practice in required motion towards oblivion, they misrepresent its true legal status and help to protract its wrongs. Perhaps that’s their purpose. At any rate, I’ve saved you from the ordeal of reading them.


Notes and references:

The Home Office’s Additional Statistics, published 8 November, can be read here:

The Ipsos MORI survey of 2013, Openness in Animal Research, was commissioned as part of the Concordat preliminaries, and can be found on their web-site at The quotation is from pp.34-5.

The Brexit regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum which goes with them, were first published on 1 October and are on the government’s web-site here: The “final goal” is spoken of in paragraph 7.4.

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Annual Report 2018, ed. A.J.Williams and H.Hobson, is online here: Quotations are from pp. 48, 3, 22, 32-3, and 9. Last year’s Concordat report was featured in this blog on 18 December 2017: See also, from 18 December 2016,

The mis-statement on Oxford University’s web-site is discussed in this blog on 8 June 2018 here:

ASRU’s Annual Report 2017, published on 3 December, can be read here: .  Quotations are taken from the Ministerial Foreword and the Foreword by the Head of ASRU, William Reynolds. The quotation about the non-human primate is from non-compliance case 2, on p.30. ASRU’s previous report is featured in this blog on 30 March 2018:

Out and About with Anthrozoology

John Bradshaw’s book The Animals Among Us (2017) ends with a scene at his five-year-old grand-daughter’s school, where the children are delighted to find that what they had left the previous day as a clutch of hen’s eggs has turned into eight live chicks. The author says “a fascination with animals was kindled in Beatrice’s mind that day”, and goes on to draw the moral, which is implicitly the moral of the whole book:

Her generation will have to stabilize the ecology of the planet for their own survival. Why would they want to do this without knowing the reality of animals, both pets and wild?”

Actually the chicks have been hatched in the school’s incubator, so perhaps “reality” isn’t the right word. But then the book is mainly a history and anthropology of pet-keeping, and although the title of this last chapter is ‘Animals Maketh Man’, the story it finishes has been mainly about what humans have made of animals, for good and ill (predominantly good, so Bradshaw believes, and one review of the book quite accurately calls it a “celebration of pets”). Anthro.JPG

You can see that it’s a book with a personal touch to it, a popular book then, but popular science: in fact its sub-title is The New Science of Anthrozoology. As the book (and its cover) make obvious, Bradshaw regards this new science as essentially about our “personal relationships” with animals, therefore about why and how we keep pets. And he ought to know, because he was one of the coiners of the name and founders of the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) in 1991. However, even ISAZ doesn’t quite agree with him, defining the science more broadly as “the interactions between human and non-human animals”. And it’s a version of that definition which the Oxford English Dictionary prefers: “The multidisciplinary study of the interaction between humans and other animals”. By way of illustration, the Dictionary quotes another popular introduction to the subject, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some we Hate, Some We Eat (2010): “Anthrozoology is a big tent. It includes the study of nearly all aspects of our interactions with other species.”

The wider the scope of this new academic discipline, if that’s what it is, the more its attitudes matter. Herzog not only gives it a very large scope, but goes some way to fix its attitudes, for his book has been a notable success, enthusiastically reviewed (“Read this book, read it again, and share it widely. It is that important.” – Mark Bekoff), and also much cited. Steven Pinker’s discussion on animal welfare in The Better Angels of Our Nature (reviewed in this blog on 25 May) has Herzog in 14 of its 64 footnotes. John Bradshaw himself calls the book “seminal”, and his own has clearly been influenced by it.

Herzog is an academic psychologist, but he writes his book as a genial guide and roving interviewer. The book is full of journeys to meet people, of drinks, meals, and chats, but yes, people: Carolyn, Staci (“forty-one but looks ten years younger”), Sam, Becky (“she loves animals. She really does.”), Bobo, Pam, Fabe (“a legend among western North Carolina cockfighters”). There are animals too, of course, some of them with names, but mostly too numerous and out of focus for that, and interesting not for themselves but as dramatizing these human personalities. Well, Herzog.JPGit’s there in the title of the book: the animals are the vaguely specified point of reference, but it’s the people, “we” (the key word in the book, perhaps in the science), who govern those intriguingly contradictory verbs: we’re the mystery, then. And the publisher’s summary makes the same point: “this enlightening and provocative book will forever change the way we look at our relationships with other creatures and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.”

So when anthrozoologists have us looking at animals and our treatment of them, we’re really looking into the mirror yet again, getting, as Herzog says, “an unusual glimpse into human nature” [35]. It’s a point likewise implied throughout John Bradshaw’s book (even though he’s a biologist by training), and often enough made explicit: pet-keeping “provides insight into what makes us human”, and “is one way of expressing what it means to be human.”

For Bradshaw it’s really an anthropological point: modern pet-keeping is the latter end of a long history of dealings with animals which have helped to make human communities successful. For Herzog, naturally enough, it’s the human psyche which makes it all so interesting. And not just the variety of attitudes between Carolyn, Bobo, Fabe, and the rest, but the variety within any one person’s attitudes. Hence his sub-title: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals.

It’s true that he occasionally suggests that we’re on our way somewhere: “our beliefs about how we should treat other species are changing.” He even says that anthrozoologists “hope that our research might make the lives of animals better.” [17] But mainly it’s the inconsistency that fascinates him. For instance, there’s “the moral ambiguity of the human-meat relationship”. He finds this ambiguity well identified by Staci, with whom he shares a meal of raw home-raised steak (“I ask for seconds.”). Staci says “It’s amazing how complex our psyches must be in order to nurture creatures every day for seven months, only to have them sent away and then come home in little freezer packages.” [203]

Herzog looks for complexity of this sort wherever he goes – and finds it, of course, or seems to. He sees it, for instance, in a research laboratory, where the mice being used in experiments are “cared for by a competent and fully certified staff” [220] but, if they should escape, at once join the category ‘pest’ and are ruthlessly trapped and killed. (Is there really any contradiction or even paradox here?) And still on the theme of research animals – to whom he devotes a chapter, ‘The Moral Status of Mice’ – Herzog quizzes animal advocates like Jonathan Balcombe and Marc Bekoff on their willingness to use, when making their claims for the sensibilities of animals, evidence derived from the sort of animal research which they would like to prohibit. He concludes that “reason can be elusive in the debate over animal research.” [234]

In fact that’s his conclusion on all the varieties of human/animal relations which he views in the book. His last chapter is titled ‘The Carnivorous Yahoo within Ourselves’. It’s a quotation from J.M.Coetzee’s fiction The Lives of Animals (1999), which describes the experiences of a novelist, Elizabeth Costello, as visiting lecturer at a university, her chosen subject the animal holocaust (her term for it). Shouldn’t we accept ourselves as we are, one questioner asks her: “Is it not more human [there it is again] to accept our own humanity – even if it means embracing the carnivorous yahoo within ourselves?” Implicitly, Herzog’s answer is yes. “What the new science of anthrozoology reveals”, he says on his last page, “is that our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships with the animals in our lives . . . are more complicated than we thought.” But the confusions needn’t be deplored or apologised for: “they are inevitable. And they show we are human.” As you were, then; or rather, as you are, for by the end of Herzog’s book, the habitual present tense (even at such moments as “I ask for seconds”) carries a momentum of acceptance and validation. It’s what humans just are like and how interesting with it!

Hal Herzog is a good-humoured observer, with a sympathetic and knowledgeable interest in non-human animals, though a much greater one in humans. His book is full of information as well as chat, and although it doesn’t ever quite answer that set question, why it’s so hard to think straight about animals, he at least shows clearly enough that most people don’t succeed. Still, he may have been unwise to evoke the ghost of Elizabeth Costello in his last chapter. It’s not just that her answer to the Yahoo question is so much more searching than his own (there isn’t space here to talk about that). As Coetzee presents her, Elizabeth Costello doesn’t just lecture on, she publicly suffers, this subject. She calls it a “wound” and speaks accordingly, without jokes or flourishes, without geniality. She refuses almost discourteously to be made a personality of (a Becky or a Fabe) by the assembled academics, and thereby to turn the problem into an intriguing aspect of herself and take it away with her when she goes. In short, she makes Herzog’s treatment of the subject, and anthrozoology itself, seem jaunty and superficial, a human self-indulgence.

Nevertheless, Anthrozoology lives and grows. In particular it’s a rising subject in universities, where likewise it seems to be essentially anthropocentric. Here are a few of the inducements offered to potential students:

“At its core, the field of anthrozoology is about helping people live better lives.”

 “Welcome to Anthrozoology! Are you interested in learning more about the significance of animals in our lives?”

 “The MA in Anthrozoology will be of interest to anyone who would like to investigate the many and varied ways in which humans perceive, engage, compete and co-exist with non-human animals in a range of cultural contexts.”

It seems that the ISAZ journal Anthrozoös takes the same point of view, habitually concerned with human attitudes or more generally with the human part in the relationship. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the journal recently made available online its “top 30” articles (ranked by downloads and citations). Of these, sixteen have to do with the therapeutic possibilities of animals; at least six are about human attitudes and ‘perceptions’; only three show interest in the experiences of the animals themselves.

So? Other journals, other academic disciplines, are free to study whatever’s missing from this new ‘science’, and have of course been steadily doing so: philosophy, for instance, women’s studies, literature. But the name ‘anthrozoology’ makes a claim which either misrepresents what it does or misrepresents the subject itself. As promoted and practised, it’s simply a branch of anthropology or perhaps sociology, the study of man by an interested party, and should be called by its right name.

Meanwhile, a study of “human-wildlife interactions”, featured recently in the journal Science, indicates how much there is to learn about the animal part in the relationship. Under the heading ‘Animals feel safer from humans in the dark’, the journal reports that the human presence is obliging other animals not only to give up land, but also to give way temporally and live by night rather than by day: “nocturnality is a universal behavioral adaptation of wildlife in response to humans.” This change in behaviour entails abandoning “natural patterns of activity, with consequences for fitness, population persistence, community interactions, and evolution.” We may miss the affable style of Bradshaw and Herzog, but that’s what I call anthrozoology: not just humans looking at themselves anew in the animals they happen to keep, use or eat, but the whole world of animal life (zoology) and what the human element (‘anthro-‘, or properly ‘anthropo-‘) shunts it into doing.


Notes and references:

The Animals Among Us: the New Science of Anthrozoology is published in USA by Basic Books (2017) and in the UK by Allen Lane (2017) and Penguin Books (2018). The quotations come from this latter edition, pp. 310, xii, ix, and 21.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals is published by Harper, 2010 (p/b 2011). Page numbers for quotations are given in the text.

Coetzee’s short fiction The Lives of Animals was subsequently incorporated as chapters 3 and 4 of the novel Elizabeth Costello (2003) and the quotation is from pp.100-101 of the edition of that novel published by Vintage in 2004.

The advertised courses in anthrozoology are at Carrol College (Montana), Exeter University (UK), and the University of Windsor in Canada.

The journal Anthrozoös was started in 1987, before ISAZ was founded, but was subsequently taken over by ISAZ. The anniversary issue can be seen here:

The article ‘The Influence of Human Disturbance on Wildlife Nocturnality’ is published in Science, 15 June 2018, vol.360, pp.1232-35. A brief report about it by a staff writer under the quoted title appears on pp.1185-86. Quotations are from both texts.