Philosophy at the Crick

The Francis Crick Institute in London (informally ‘the Crick’) is a huge research enterprise, “the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe”. Its ultra-modern building accommodates 1900 scientists collaborating across multifarious specialisms. The aim is “to make discoveries about how life works” and to turn these discoveries into medical therapies (one of its incorporated institutions is Cancer Research UK). Although so visibly and self-consciously progressive, this establishment which opened in 2016 is already the leading user of laboratory animals in the UK. It also supplies GM animals to other laboratories.

Crick facade

The Chief Executive Officer of the Crick is Sir Paul Nurse, the geneticist who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his research into the chemistry of cell division. Nurse is a most distinguished scientist, whose work has helped to explain what is more or less the essence of life: its ability both to replicate and to innovate, and therefore to turn from the first viable cell into a whole world of plants and animals, still on the go after three billion or so years. He has now written a book titled What is Life? Since he has unique authority to answer such a question, and since we may imagine that the monster Crick and its envisaged future are implicated in the answer, it must surely be a book worth studying.

What life isn’t, Nurse insists, is some peculiar force or substance distinct from the rest of the material world. Versions of that assumption, commonly termed ‘vitalism’, have dominated thinking in the past (even William Harvey, the pioneer of experimental biology, thought in that way), and they still survive here and there. But the contrary notion, that lives are “astoundingly complicated, but ultimately comprehensible, chemical and physical machines” is, so Nurse says, “now the accepted way to think about life.”

The book confirms and illustrates this thinking in the case of life’s smallest viable unit, and Nurse’s own specialism, the cell. Most of the book is in fact a lively biology lesson (though deplorably without graphic aids), likely to fascinate and educate anyone who hasn’t studied biology recently or gone past Ordinary Level and its equivalents. Still, it’s a popular summary, best interpreted as part of the Crick’s express ambition to “engage and inspire the public”. The book is well-designed to do that, and the purpose may explain why, for all the excursions into particular discoveries and how they happened, there is no mention of animal research. Anyway, What is Life? does answer its own question: to be called life, the book concludes, you must be a self-maintaining physical entity with the power and purpose to pass on your own natural form – either intact or with some unpredictable variance – to a succeeding generation.

Nothing revolutionary in that, of course, and one must look elsewhere for the book’s ideological force. If this book is the Crick’s address to the nation, what is it encouraging the nation, whether intentionally or otherwise, to feel and believe? Certainly it makes the machinery of life seem astonishing, as indeed it is, and Paul Nurse enjoys and insists on this – among other ways by using many an exclamation mark. A sense of wonder, then, but not merely contemplative wonder: it’s clearly linked to the activity of discovery. Some of the notable personalities and researches which have made the wonders known are sketched in, including those in Nurse’s own laboratories. There, for instance, it had initially seemed “slightly preposterous” to mix yeast cells and human DNA on a Petri dish, in order to determine whether the mechanism of cell-division in these far-distant life-forms might be exchangeable; however “it was worth a shot. And, amazingly, it did work!”   

So this book is partly about “the thrill of scientific discovery”. And in fact in its first edition it had the sub-title (subsequently dropped) Five Great Ideas in Biology, which clearly made the life-scene a function or aspect of the human mind. Well, of course it is that in some sense but, as Nurse concedes, life did get on without human awareness, let alone understanding, for almost all of its unimaginably long history.

Perhaps there’s only just a distinction here, between wonder at the phenomena of life, and the excitement of knowing about them. But I think that the distinction is brought out by the place which humans enjoy in the life-scene as viewed by Nurse.

He does make the point again and again that “we humans are related to every other life form on the planet”, including, of course, the yeast cells which he first worked with. He also insists that this puts upon us a responsibility “to care about it” and “to care for it”. In this can be seen how much has had to be learnt since a previous celebrated attempt on this same subject, William Beck’s Modern Science and the Nature of Life, published in 1957. That’s a book which likewise persuaded its readers against vitalism, tracing the gradual revelation of the chemico-physical basis of life, and incidentally foreseeing exactly the work for which Paul Nurse earned the Nobel Prize. Having established that there is no other-worldly motive taking care of things, Beck concluded that “Man . . . is going to have to look after himself.” And he gave it this portentous last line: “Man has already done much, but it is dawn, not midnight, and, in the gathering light, he looks magnificent.” (No smirking, please; this was 60 years ago.)

That is not Nurse’s attitude at all, but still he does take for granted that humanity is a special case. A recurring feature of the book are the short runs or lists of life-types: “towering forests, swarming colonies of ants, huge networks of underground fungi, herds of mammals on the African savannah, and very much more recently, modern humans.” In these lists, humans seem always to come at the end like that. The suggestion is irresistibly that humans are indeed the culmination, or at least the point of rest. And there is no encouragement to efface our special interest: Nurse habitually speaks of “we humans”, “ourselves”, “our own”, “us humans”, even “our world”.

what is life cover

I’m sure this is deliberate, part of the “engage and inspire” policy; and after all, his readers all are humans. Still, the net effect is not so different from William Beck’s more candid heroics. And I believe that it leads to a subtle misrepresentation of the true case. In the later part of his book, where Nurse speaks (in rather general terms) about the necessity of science as a means “to make life better”, he includes among the beneficiaries of this amelioration “the ecosystems that we are an inextricable part of”. Well, are we? Certainly we can’t do without the ecosystems, but they could surely do perfectly well – much better, in fact – without us. We are extricable. It’s strangely anthropocentric not to acknowledge or even notice this.

You may have remarked in Nurse’s definition of life as reported above the rather surprising idea that life has “purpose” – surprising not just because this seems a distinctly mental property for entities which include single cells, but also because Nurse often calls organisms “living machines”. But of course the purpose in question is a matter of action or behaviour, not thought. What we observe in these machines are “purposeful behaviours that have evolved because they improve the chances of living things achieving their fundamental purpose, which is to perpetuate themselves and their progeny.” And in his chapter about evolution (one of the ‘five great ideas’), Nurse qualifies the term, speaking more accurately of “the apparent purposefulness of living things [my italics].” Meanwhile evolution itself, the great biological machine to which all these lesser machines are subordinate, operates “without any controlling intellect, defined end goal, or ultimate driving force.”

Seemingly purposeful behaviours in the toils of a purposeless will: the tragic pathos of this situation is not remarked upon by Nurse, who doesn’t pretend to give philosophical or moral commentary (though he is fairly free with generalized phraseology of the “vast and awe-inspiring universe” sort). But looking to future research, especially research into the nature of consciousness, he does believe that it will need co-operation “between the humanities and the sciences”, and he specifies the contribution of philosophers. Certainly I was impressed, reading What is Life?, by the natural fit it would make in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer – who did believe, in his turn, that philosophy should be able to account for the natural sciences.

Contemplating the world now pictured for us in What is Life?, Schopenhauer inferred a great impersonal and impartial drive activating all lives, lending them temporary purposes which they think (in the case of humans) their own, urging them into procreation and pitilessly discarding them. He called this drive the Will, and he said this about it:

It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature which is manifested.

This Will is not itself life, it is not even evolution (which is simply one expression of its ceaseless push within life), but it’s the existential condition for all the lives which Paul Nurse writes about. And what it especially adds to Nurse’s account is the unity of all life not just as to cellular structure or basic genes (which of course Schopenhauer, writing in the early nineteenth century, didn’t know about), but as to experience: all lives are helpless vehicles of the one Will, are therefore part of the one experience. We aren’t just relatives of those ants, fungi, forests, and herds of mammals; in all but the externals we are them.

Schopenhauer is sometimes said to have ‘demoted’ humans in his thinking: no, he just didn’t start with an assumption of their special status; he didn’t promote them. Notably he didn’t give them special rights over any others. Accordingly, he hated and denounced vivisection. Paul Nurse is right: we need him and his like at the Crick.

Notes and references:

Quotations about the Crick are from its web-site at

What is Life? was first published by David Fickling Books in 2020. The quotations are from the paperback edition of 2021. It’s not a long book – 212 pp. in large well-leaded type. It’s also authoritative, informative, and pleasant to read – therefore well worth reading, though the concluding remarks about climate change, the future, etc., are unsurprising and only of interest because an influential scientist is saying them.

Modern Science and the Nature of Life, by William S. Beck, was first published in 1957. Quotations are from p.292 of the Penguin Books edition of 1961.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is quoted from the Dover Books edition of 1969, vol.1, p.110. The two-volume work was originally published in 1819 and 1844.

The Horse Misused

On Monday 19 July, the BBC documentary programme Panorama took a view of one wholly unglamorous aspect of horse-racing – the fate of the many thousands of thoroughbred horses that ‘leave’ racing each year (about 7000 in UK alone), or that never show the capacity for it. Some hundreds die on the track. Others die in training, for it’s an unnaturally demanding life, and the horses are bred for speed not strength or stamina; one such was the horse Morgan, a seven-year old whose corpse the trainer Gordon Elliot was recently photographed using as a convenient seat while making a phone call. Some horses are lucky enough to be placed by the industry’s own Retraining of Racehorses scheme, though they make problematic companion animals and nervy riding. Then there are the thousands, not publicly spoken about, that are simply destroyed.

Horses at Drurys

Much of the material for Panorama’s ‘The Dark Side of Horse Racing’ came from investigative work done by Animal Aid, including film secretly taken at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse in Swindon, which specializes in equines (destined for human or animal food). Astonishingly there were indeed race-horses finishing their lives of service there. They included three that had at one time been in Gordon Elliott’s stables in Ireland, and had raced successfully for him, now trucked over to Swindon to die. The contrast between the moneyed and showy world of racing as publicly visible, and these sordid, uncared-for and violent endings, seems especially treacherous and shameful, but the film showed all varieties of horse and pony suffering in that place. There were former pets, special breeds, and wild ponies, some being shot ‘correctly’ (muzzle of the gun against the forehead), some illegally from a distance (“as if you’re on safari”, said Panorama’s presenter). Also illegally, some horses were being shot while others stood next to them. The handling was rough and impatient, the language foul. So “Welcome to F. Drury and Sons” where “all welfare and processing are done to the highest standards”.

At the very end of Animal Aid’s newly published leaflet on the subject, Horse Slaughter in the UK, comes the moving and very proper statement, “we do not think that horses are more important than any other poor animal who enters a slaughterhouse. We campaign for all of them – including horses.” Someone who shared this point of view about the animals, but for a more or less opposite reason – in that he wished them all to share the lower standard of respect – was by chance the subject of another BBC programme a few days after ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’. Radio 4’s weekly obituary programme ‘Last Words’ reviewed the life and work of William ‘Twink’ Allen, a pioneer of research into equine reproduction. Professor Allen considered that racing was being deprived by the Home Office of the rewarding possibilities of reproductive science (for instance, it wouldn’t allow him to clone horses) for purely “political” reasons, simply “because the horse is an emotive species.”

Not that Professor Allen didn’t like horses: “I would not have become a vet if I did not like animals”, he has said. (No doubt the vet supervising the massacre at Drury and Sons would say the same.) In one of the many obituaries published in professional journals, a colleague calls Allen “a genuine horse-lover”, illustrating the sincerity by citing his enthusiasm for hunting. Indeed, Allen was co-founder of Vets for Hunting, a lobby group since re-named with less tally-ho as the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. But whatever may have been his personal feelings for horses and other animals, the moral context for his relations with them, and in particular for his research, was severely practical, not to say rudimentary: “a domestic animal”, he told a House of Lords committee in 2002, “is man’s product, essentially for man’s use. It would not be there unless man had decided to produce it. We either eat it, have entertainment with it, ride it, use it for sport, or whatever.” That committee included the distinguished ethical philosopher Baroness Warnock, but Professor Allen was not seriously challenged on this or any other aspect of his ethics or practices.

And certainly, in the case of the horse, he had “decided to produce it” in every possible way, with or without the natural co-operation of the animals. His various obituarists seem particularly to relish the story of a two-day car journey which he made from Cambridge to Krakow in 1976, transporting six Welsh pony embryos stored in the oviducts of a pair of rabbits. On arrival the embryos were extracted again and introduced into ‘recipient mares’. As far as I can understand the account published at the time in the Journal of Reproduction and Fertility, three of the Krakow mares became normally pregnant, though what became of them or the embryos after this success (or of the rabbits, for that matter) is not stated. Who cared, after all? The point is that “the ligated rabbit oviduct would seem to provide an eminently suitable means of temporarily storing and transporting horse embryos.”

Of course ‘normally pregnant’ is not quite the right wording. The report of this research is crowded with drugs, and with surgical and other interventions, necessary to induce synchronized oestrus (sexual receptivity) and ovulation in the mares, and to effect the transfers: injections of synthetic prostaglandin, “daily teasing with a stallion”, blood sampling, “palpation of the ovaries per rectum, flushing out of the embryos with “Dulbecco’s phosphate-buffered saline”, ligating of the rabbits’ oviducts – all this before we’ve even left Cambridge. It’s not such a fun story after all, then.

A great deal has happened in horse-reproduction research since 1976, much of it carried through by Professor Allen. But the wastefulness, the gruesome interventions, and the grotesque impropriety of the Krakow project have lived on in what came after. Even the names given with bluff facetiousness to the ‘donor’ ponies at the Cambridge end – Choc-Ice, Dairy Cream, Iced Lolly, etc. – seem to have been part of a tradition: when Allen created the first-ever identical twins, by “bisection and reconstruction” of a horse embryo, the names given to them were Quickzee and Eezee – ‘man’s products’ indeed, being clearly branded as such. Incidentally, Allen’s own persisting nick-name ‘Twink’ had been conferred on him in childhood, as a corruption of Rip Van Winkle, although ‘Twink’ himself was wholly unlike the amiably indolent and laissez-aller character of that story. Professor Allen was not just highly industrious but, as the radio obituary said, and as his research career vividly evidenced, “endlessly curious”.

He was fascinated in particular by the possibilities of embryo transfer between different species. Ten years after the Krakow report, for instance, he was transferring embryos from two Przewalski’s horses (a Mongolian wild horse species) and two Grant’s zebras, kept at London Zoo, into various ponies and donkeys at Cambridge. That didn’t mean four embryos in all: eleven early-stage embryos were taken from the Przewalski’s horses (after 18 “collection attempts”) and fourteen from the zebras (after 25 attempts). Following the transfers, there were twelve pregnancies, of which six reached natural term, producing four live foals, three of which survived. That’s the maths summary. Behind it was a year-long story of drugs and surgery, forced waste, and suffering: still-births, abortions, and premature deaths of foals, involving for the recipient mares “abdominal discomfort . . . non-infective polyarthritis . . . pregnancy toxaemia syndrome . . . acute painful polyarthritis”, and so on.

This particular project was presented by Professor Allen and his co-authors as evidence that “extra-specific embryo transfer may be a useful aid to breeding exotic equids in captivity.” Well, that’s always been a declared aim of the big zoos, to breed for conservation, and a large part also of their official justification for mass-confining animals for show, though it deals with exactly the wrong end of the problem of species decline. Accordingly, the research was supported by the London Zoological Society.

More surprisingly, that same research was part-funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association. But in fact the interests which these two organisations stand for have provided the principal motive and most of the funds for all of Allen’s research into ARTs (assisted reproductive techniques). They were indeed the sponsors for Allen’s Equine Fertility Unit at Newmarket, set up in 1989 and the place where much of his work was done. And of course what they wanted and still want from such research is not conservation of zebras, not even (except incidentally) improved health in race-horses, but a better return on the money invested in horse-racing: winners, in short. For as Professor Allen told the House of Lords committee, “you are paying very large sums of money to have a particularly valuable mare covered by an even more valuable stallion, and you lose that money when the pregnancy is lost.” But it’s not just a case of ensuring pregnancies. Moving embryos between animals can free up valuable mares for racing or for further breeding; it can multiply progeny and improve the chances of raising a winner. Other ARTs, such as artificial insemination and cloning, offer similar scope for the thorough exploitation of winning genes.

But strangely, since the racing industry funded so much of Allen’s research, it still does not allow horses that have been force-bred in any of these ways to be registered for either breeding or competition. In fact, the Equine Reproduction Unit was closed down in 2007. Of course Professor Allen was exasperated by this conservatism. He often pointed out that traditional breeding is wasteful and inhumane. It certainly is inhumane, but not because copulation is inherently unpleasant for horses. The cruelty comes from hard-driving it for commercial purposes, in order to mass-produce winning potential. Allen’s researched alternatives simply shifted the burdens of this unnatural demand onto a different set of horses, with different sorts of imposed suffering. That the racing establishment has not after all accepted these alternatives, whose cruel rehearsals it has been funding for all these years, is just another variation on the industry’s habit of squandering life.

In fact the logo for horse-racing organizations should be, not the horse’s head so much favoured, but the whip, representative image of the force which characterizes the industry’s relation to its breadwinner from start to finish. It may be said that Professor Allen’s hubristic researches at the one end, and Drury and Sons’ bloody work at the other, don’t fairly summarize the whole enterprise. For many years I lived next to a National Hunt training stable, and there, far from the race-courses and breeding establishments, it was easy to admire the beauty of the horses, the skill and courage of the riders – especially of the stable lads, who do generally respect and understand their allotted horses – and in fact the whole picturesque ensemble. But it is indeed an industry, and the horses have to make it pay. Human selfishness, impatience, and cruelty are therefore not accidents but systemic to it. The whole unhappy truth has been brilliantly presented in Animal Aid’s various reports over the years. I urge you in particular to watch its new four-minute film about horse slaughter, linked below, and to sign its current parliamentary petition here:

horse corpse

Notes and references:

The title phrase comes from William Blake’s poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’: “A horse misused upon the road / Calls to Heaven for human blood.”

Animal Aid’s ‘Horse Slaughter in the UK’ can be viewed here: Warning: it’s a record of scarcely credible callousness, including scenes which the Panorama programme considered too distressing to show on television. Other reports on Animal Aid’s web-site include ‘Bred to Death’ ( and a summary of its various race-horse campaigns here:

Panorama’s ‘Dark Side of Horse Racing’ can be viewed (at time of writing, anyway) here:

The quotation promoting Drury and Sons comes from their web-site at

The account by Allen and others of the Krakow project was published in the journal Reproduction and Fertility in August 1976, and can be read online here: file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/387.pdf  The twin foals are spoken of in a brief account of his own career by Professor Allen here: Other quotations are taken from the evidence which he gave, on 5 February 2002, to the House of Lords select committee convened to examine the workings of the 1986 Act: The report on ‘extra-specific’ embryo transfer was published in the journal Reproduction in May 1987, and can be read online here:

The obituary quoted on Allen’s love of hunting was published by the British Equine Veterinary Association here:—6-June-2021

The first photograph is from Animal Aid’s film, and shows three horses arriving at Drury and Sons’ slaughterhouse. The second is the one referred to in the opening paragraph.

Killing Our Way towards Immortality

In a TEDx talk given in 2017, the neurosurgeon Sergio Carnavero asserts that the time for head transplantation “is now.” The special problems of such an operation have been solved, he says, notably by his own “head anastomosis venture” – deliberately thus named, no doubt, to produce the tasteful acronym HEAVEN. With a cowboy swagger in his movements and indeed in his talk, he informs the audience that this development will have “changed your lives forever . . . the world will never be the same again.”

Demikhove dogs, 1954

The idea of head transplantation has interested and exercised some few surgeons for over a hundred years, the exercise part being carried through, of course, upon animals. A celebrated instance was Vladimir Demikhov’s two-headed dog of 1954 – made celebrated by the Soviet Union authorities, that is, though the dogs survived wretchedly for a few days only (Demikhov went on to do more of the same). But the surgeon so far best known for this type of research is the one whom Carnavero speaks of at the beginning of his talk: Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and scientist working at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio. This man is now the subject of a biography written by the medical historian Brandy Schillace, and titled Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (page references to this book are in square brackets).

Schillace cover

Previous operations of this kind had really been upper body transplants, as the pathetic image of Demikhov’s dogs shows. Dr White, however, was aiming at a reconstituted human, and he therefore worked with severed heads and decapitated bodies. In 1965 he re-made six dogs in this way, using six donors and six recipients. The results ‘lived’ from 6 to 36 hours after the surgery. Meanwhile he had practised isolating the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys and servicing these brains from the blood supply of their detached bodies or of intact fellow-monkeys. (At this period of rehearsal, there were apparently 300 heads of monkeys, “frozen or floating in alcohol”, stored in his laboratory [104].) Then in 1970 he took the next step, completely transplanting the heads of four macaques onto the bodies of four others. One of these operations is fully described by Dr Schillace on her book. The reconstituted monkey in this case survived “for almost nine days before the body rejected the head” [126]. During that time, the monkey was completely paralyzed, because there was no way to re-connect the spinal cord.

So here is another research-scape of mutilated and short-lived animals. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice, rats, and monkeys have all been made to serve this cause. And what really has the cause been? In 1989, Ingrid Newkirk, of the recently founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, publicly debated the matter with Robert White in his home town, Cleveland. She accused him of exploiting the animals “only to prove what you have the skill and the power to do” [185]. In reply, White very reasonably instanced the patients whom his more conventional work as a neurosurgeon had saved. Characteristically, for he enjoyed showmanship, he brought one of them along to illustrate his case: “I would like to introduce a guest. Carla, could you stand?” (Sensation!) [187]. But he couldn’t bring along anyone saved by head-transplantation, because there hadn’t yet been such a person (nor has there been now). Moreover, he could not envisage an operation which would leave the head in control of its alien body; it would be using that paralyzed body only as a life-support system, just as those macaques in their brief new lives had been. But then even the fully integrated human body was properly understood, so White asserted, as “a machine for the brain” [69]. (Is this how one would like one’s doctor, or indeed anyone else, to think?)

Dr Schillace reckons that White prevailed in that debate, but there is evidence in the book that supports Ingrid Newkirk’s accusation against him. White was fascinated by the surgical technology of the operation, and proud of what he and the teams of professionals he led could do (the Humble in the book’s title refers to a sobriquet he used for himself as a joke: ‘Humble Bob’). When the monkey whose operation is described in the book showed returning signs of intelligent life (intelligent enough to try to bite Professor White’s hand), we’re told that “the operating room erupted in cheers. Several team members danced; one of them screamed.” [125] But the book’s photograph of the monkey’s suffering face does not seem to warrant that triumphalism, and one of those present has more recently said of the experience, “It was just awful . . . I don’t think it should ever be done again.” [220]

Although Dr Schillace puts, in the course of her book, some of the ethical and even spiritual questions raised by Robert White’s research, he himself does not seem to have been greatly interested in them. That may partly have been because White was a comfortably orthodox Catholic, not inclined to re-think ethics. True, he was an advisor to the Pope on medical ethics, as chairman of the Vatican’s commission on the subject, but that meant strictly human-related ethics; above all it meant the rather pragmatic question, what counted as dying and what didn’t? White insisted that it was in the brain that the soul resided or at least made its earthly connection; as long as the brain worked, the soul had not departed, and so personal life continued. The heart, formerly viewed as the core of personhood, was part of the “machine” only. You can see why this way of looking at the human body, now well-established, would help to justify White’s research project. For otherwise, taking the functioning body of a vegetating person, and using it to service the head of a person whose own body had been failing, might be viewed as premature or even criminal.

I don’t know that Professor White ever more than hinted at the idea that head-transplantation might be a means to everlasting life (Carnavero does distinctly say so, and the absurd acronym HEAVEN must be taken to imply as much). That would surely involve an orthodox Christian in serious difficulties. But the nature of the operation does at least suggest a clinging to earthly life at all costs – and the costs would certainly be enormous, not just in professional resources but also in the engrossing, on behalf of one patient, of a complete set of donor organs which might individually save several lives. I don’t mean to trip up his theology in this matter – what would be the point? – but here was a man who believed that our “God-created immortality”, so Shillace tells us, was what “differentiated humans from all other animals.” [197] You’d suppose, then, that those dogs and monkeys had a lot more to lose by premature death than we humans, who will apparently be going on to much better things. And it would surely be the animal in us, rather than the immortal soul, which shrinks from death. Why devote such riches to that secular motive, then?

But for White the soul privileged us just as much in this world as in the next. He called himself “an elitist”, and his outlook was indeed elitist through and through: the natural world served humans, and the human body served the brain, and the brain served the soul, and the soul served God. For all the advanced science, it’s a ruthlessly traditional supernaturalist outlook. In such a scheme, the bulk of animated life on earth is just a serviceable context; it has no status of its own.

Even in 1990, when he’d had some experience of the animal rights argument, and some practice in responding to it, White could see nothing there: “Animal usage is not a moral or ethical issue”, he wrote in an essay for an academic journal of bio-ethics [171]. He also actively promoted this point of view (if one can call it that) to a more general audience too, as the debate with Ingrid Newkirk illustrates. In fact the simplicity of his thinking suited Reader’s Digest rather better than it did a highbrow publication like the one just quoted, the Hastings Center Report (he published in both). In Animal Liberation, Peter Singer describes White’s ethical arguments as “comparable to maintaining that the earth is flat”. It’s characteristic of those arguments that his knock-down point in that Cleveland debate, after which he felt entitled to rest his case (“I really don’t know what else to say” [187]), was to associate anti-vivisection with Adolf Hitler.

However, Professor White did not anyway consider that such questions were properly decided by argument, philosophical or not. In ethical matters, he said, “there are no navigation maps” or, as Dr Schillace paraphrases it, “The only lodestone is a man’s conscience.” [219]  One must surely respect a conscience which has been exercised or at least informed by the constant practice of life-saving surgery such as Professor White’s clinical work required of him. Or is that naïve and even sentimental? It’s one of the sad effects of Mr Humble and Dr Butcher that it seems to answer ‘yes’ to that question. An untroubled conscience surely ought to be a contradiction in terms, outside gangland anyway, but it’s the primary mark of White’s ethical simpletonism that he seemed to possess one. About those monkeys, for instance, Schillace says of him, “He had no qualms whatsoever.” [231] A producer for the film The X-Files: I Want to Believe, for which White was employed as medical consultant because the plot involved some gruesome transplanting of heads, found him “supremely untroubled by the implications of his work.” [231]

Well, perhaps he had fought his way to that serenity, through all the trials and agonies of medical practice, including a period as a trauma surgeon, as well as the gruesome demands of his chosen research? But no, serenity isn’t quite what we see in him; self-assurance certainly, impatience of scruple, a disconcerting flippancy. As to this last, we’re told that he was “well-known for practical jokes” [67]. The immediate illustration of this trait is an elaborate jape involving a road accident and the brain of a cow collected from a slaughterhouse – too elaborate to retell here, even supposing I wanted to. On another occasion, he provided a sandwich lunch for himself and some others, including a priest present on ethical business, at an operating table on which there also lay the ex-sanguinated and apparently dead body of a dog. After lunch, the professor revived the dog, thereby showing that since he had kept the brain alive (by cooling it, a technique pioneered by White himself), he could make the rest live again too: ‘Maybe like Christ?’ suggests White to the priest “with a mischievous wink”. [189]

I doubt the complete veracity of both these stories, but probably only because I’d much prefer that they weren’t true. They do fit his personality; otherwise Dr Schillace herself surely wouldn’t have believed them. That wink certainly is all too credible, and there are in the book many other instances of White’s taste for tricks and facetiousness. For Schillace, these boyish moments help to humanize her subject, and in fact she goes in for homely touches of all kinds for the same reason: brief glimpses of “unflappable” wife Patricia, of the kids (one “soon to be driving”, another “would soon be out of diapers”), of White’s pipes and cups of coffee. But such evidences that White was just as human as you or I are rather beside the point. This was a man who enjoyed being referred to as “the new Modern Prometheus” (The Modern Prometheus being the sub-title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein), and who told a symposium of transplant scientists that, with head transplantation, we had reached and crossed “the last frontier”. “We venture into the void” he grandly said, “and we will go on.” [158] It’s not practical jokes, ten children, and addiction to pipe and caffeine, that will convince us that such a man is entitled to lead us into the void (if someone must, which is altogether doubtful). Some very much larger-minded person is required: for a start, one who won’t assume it right to hustle weaker animals into it first.

And now a new man is forcing the pace into that void. Sergio Carnavero has a more unorthodox and perhaps more apt cosmology to go with it (he regards the brain as the “filter” for a world-consciousness). He has even more of the bumptious showman in him than Robert White had. He firmly believes that he and his colleagues have solved the problem of the severed spine – solved it in animals, of course, for behind his research too there’s a trail of ruined animals. It may be that head-transplantation is indeed possible, even imminent, though most neuro-scientists deny one or both. It may be that it’s a legitimate project, for all its gothically transgressive implications; just as likely, it’s a hugely expensive fantasy. Either way, it will never have justified the animal mayhem which has serviced it.

Notes and references:

A Tedx talk is one that uses the TED format but is organised independently of the TED organisation. Carnavero’s talk is actually “flagged” by TED as “speculative” and raising “practical and ethical concerns”. It can be viewed here:

Most of the information about Robert White is of course taken from the book Mr Humble and Dr Butcher (Simon and Schuster, 2021). I should add that the author is naturally much more aware of animal-related ethics than Professor White was, and in fact shows that White’s research did much to galvanize the animal rights movement of the time. ‘Dr Butcher’ was a name given to White by animal rights activists.

Other historical and technical information comes from a 2016 article in Acta Chirurgica, online here – – and from a 2019 article in Maedica: a Journal of Clinical Medicine, online here:

In Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, pp.75-6, White is quoted calling himself an elitist during a press interview; his point there is that decisions about animal research should be made by medical professionals and not by outsiders. In addressing lay audiences on the subject, he always urged them to deplore and resist federal or state regulation of the practice.

The familiar ‘Hitler argument’ is discussed in this blog here:

The photograph of the dogs shows the results of Demikhov’s 1954 operation.

Animal Research in the Year of Coronavirus

Statistics of live-animal research in Great Britain during 2020 have now been published by the Home Office. There was a total of 2,883,310 procedures, a fall of 15% from the previous year’s 3,401,517. So here too there was a Covid-boon for the animals; the notional 500,000 or so animals that might have been used in experiments, but weren’t, join the other groups of animals that found space, quiet, or simply survival as a consequence of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, because this relatively dramatic reduction to a level last seen in 2004 is candidly admitted by most of the practising institutions to be a freak of the moment. As Edinburgh University cautions on its web-site, “Please note . . . It is expected that these figures will increase in 2021 as more standard working patterns resume.” And anyway it may be that the 500,000 didn’t after all survive. It can’t be known, because numbers of animals killed without ever being used in procedures are only collected for one year in every five, and the next year to be counted will be 2022.

There is, at any rate, no reason for anyone to take credit for the reduction in numbers. In fact, rather ominously, there seems to have been no inclination to do so, or to celebrate it at all; rather, the pandemic has been seen by animal-research institutions as a boost to their confidence and reputation. The tone has been set by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), whose Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett says in her official statement,

Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments . . . The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed, and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.

UAR has indeed “worked with research institutions”, and it’s noticeable how prompt they’ve all been to declare their part in the 2020 numbers, and to use UAR’s publicity material to help them along. Even so self-sufficient an institution as Cambridge University (now exceeding Oxford University in animal numbers) presents its ‘Research news’ largely in UAR’s words and format, just adding a word or two from their own Establishment Licence Holder.

The Medical Research Council (third biggest user of animals in 2020, and financer of other users) has a special web-page providing “examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against Covid-19”. But the examples are being used to make a more general point, for we’re told that the expertise employed in this Covid research “is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.” Both past and future of animal research are being justified by today’s “fight against Covid-19”, then. Indeed, taking an even more expansive advantage of the present situation, the MRC’s page makes this grand assertion: “Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases.” Now we know why some people survived the Black Death. The case is complete.


Another important point made by the MRC about this animal research is that it has “helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against Covid-19 [my italics].That’s certainly very gratifying, even if one hadn’t formerly pictured the research as an international competition. And no doubt it explains why UAR’s table summarizing the numbers is presented against an image of the Union Jack (though properly it should be the ‘British flag’, since Northern Ireland is not included in these numbers), with a strong red and blue colour-theme carried through in the layout. You see, it’s patriotic, it’s British, to experiment on animals.

In fact, for Understanding Animal Research there’s an exciting spirit of competition even within the nation. Alongside the more or less factual presentation of the 2020 statistics, we get a page headed ‘Ten organisations account for nearly half of all animal research in Great Britain in 2020’. This so-called “Top ten list” has become a traditional feature of its annual reporting, but now it’s being taken up by the individual institutions themselves. Glasgow University, for instance, re-publishes UAR’s table, proudly highlighting its own seventh position. Since all these institutions advertise (they’re required by UAR’s Concordat to advertise) their commitment to reducing the use of animals, the word ‘top’ seems incongruous, and the whole approach has always puzzled me. But then how can a list headed by the gigantic Francis Crick Institute (“Discovery without boundaries”), the University of Cambridge, and the MRC, be anything other than a variety of medal table? So it’s a PR device: these are the high achievers, and this is what they do, so it’s a good – indeed a glamorous – thing to be doing. And that advertised commitment to the 3Rs (reduction, etc.) comes across accordingly as a sort of modesty, taking the swagger out of the boastfulness: shucks, we try not to do this, but we just can’t help doing it awfully well.

Oxford University, coming fourth in this table, has not altered its animal-research pages for the occasion, except to edit the numbers themselves. However, a statement from its ‘Covid-19 vaccine team’ appears in UAR’s pages, explaining that the testing of its vaccine on rhesus macaque monkeys was done by Public Health England (at Porton Down) and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. This farming out of the tests partly explains Cambridge’s higher placing this year: that university used 41 non-human primates in 2020, compared to Oxford’s 15. Come on, Oxford!

So much for the publicity. As for the numbers themselves, it’s difficult to see any special pattern in them, aside from the temporary reduction, the Covid-dividend. As ever, the species most commonly used was the mouse, especially in procedures aimed at the production of genetically altered animals: altogether, over 2 million mice were used. These mice, with rats (notably more of these than last year), fish, and birds (mostly chickens), accounted for over 95% of all procedures. The number of horses continues to rise (to 10,790); they were mainly used for blood products. The number of cats also went up, by 11% to 146; no explanation is given, but 62 of the cats were apparently wanted for regulatory testing (i.e. tests required by national or international safety regulations).

This latter class of procedure, forming about one third of all experiments, is the worst of them for cruelty, and not by chance the one least spoken of by research apologists. Whereas about 4% of the experimental procedures are classed as causing ‘severe’ pain or distress (it’s 2% for breeding procedures), for regulatory testing in particular the rate is 9%. Six of the cats fell into that category, and 11 into the ‘moderate’. Dogs of course were there in much greater numbers: 4340 of them were used in regulatory tests, of which 9 were classed as ‘severe’, and 1013 as ‘moderate’.

Neither dogs nor cats should have been there at all, in any category or any laboratory, but then nor should any of the other animals. The whole set of statistics is a record of selfishness and cowardice; in fact the re-iterated justifications for such research – that it’s essential for human health, and the necessary condition of all medical progress – even supposing them true, are just a less embarrassing way of saying that same thing.

Notes and references:

The animal research statistics for 2020 were published on 15 July. They can be viewed here:   The tables of data are published separately, and the link to them can be found on this page,

The two presentations from Understanding Animal Research are here:  and (with the ‘top ten list’)  The animal research pages of the ten institutions are linked here, but note that both Glasgow and the MRC seem to have thought better of the ones from which I have quoted, and as far as I can see they are no longer accessible.

There’s a good oppositional response to the annual statistics from Naturewatch, which also asks what happened to the good policy intentions published in 2014/15 (for which see this blog on 8 August 2020): Naturewatch also suggests actions to take, including e-mails to government ministers, with sample text offered here:

The Coming of King Unas

The formerly accepted story of Easter Island, in the southern Pacific, saw the place as a cautionary fable of human delinquency. This remote territory was first peopled by Polynesians arriving in their canoes somewhere around the end of the first millennium AD. Over subsequent centuries, so the story went, they felled its forests in order to transport on tree-trunk rollers their strange and wonderful carved heads or moai to the chosen sites. Then, finding themselves in a created waste-land, they fought each other for what was left, even resorting to cannibalism, and were finally discovered by European explorers in the eighteenth century as a miserable remnant on an island scarcely habitable.

In his book Humankind: a Hopeful History, the historian and journalist Rutger Bregman shows how this story came about, and he corrects it from twenty-first century researches. There were no civil wars, no cannibalism. The inhabitants were found fit and well by their first visitors, but then succumbed to visitor-borne diseases and even, during the nineteenth century, to enslavement. Left to themselves, Bregman says, they would have got on perfectly well – without their trees, certainly, but even that wasn’t really their fault. It was probably the rats hitching that first ride with them centuries earlier who did the damage, as well as extirpating most of the native fauna. And anyway the space released from forest was used for successful agriculture. “The real story of Easter Island,” Bregman concludes, “is the story of a resourceful and resilient people, of persistence in the face of long odds. It’s not a tale of impending doom [i.e. a model of what we’ll soon have done to the whole planet], but a well-spring of hope.” [136]

Two aspects of that story in particular illustrate Bregman’s larger argument in the book. Humans in their original or natural condition (more about what that is later) are not delinquents and cut-throats, committed to what the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “war of all against all” [109]. The Lord of the Flies vision of human life on a desert island collapsing into savagery is a species-libel (which Bregman puts right in its turn). Rather, humans are by nature resourceful, mutually helpful, and adept at managing conflict before it becomes damaging. The trouble – aspect two – came with the change from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life (not that the Easter Island people ever quite practised that) to life lived in fixed and populous settlements, which happened progressively from about 15,000 years ago. Bregman calls it the “biggest mistake of all time” [246]. With settlement came cultivation, ownership of land, warfare to protect or enlarge property, diseases promoted by the proximity of humans and animals, and above all the pathology of rank:

The 1 per cent began oppressing the 99 per cent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. [104]

Institutionally over, that is. But the ‘hopeful’ part of Bregman’s case is that if once we stop misrepresenting ourselves as a vandal species kept in precarious order by the artifices of civilization, those values will re-arise as the ones we trust and expect in our common life, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Still, Easter Island itself isn’t any better off for the revision of its story. It remains a denuded place, with a ruined flora and fauna, whose few survivors from pre-human days (mainly insects in the case of the fauna) are under threat from the newer scourge of tourism – for the island has an airport, of course. This doesn’t seem to enter as a problem into Bregman’s thinking. He’s a humanist in the restricted sense, for whom our vis-à-vis with other animals is just a mirror, helping us to look at ourselves, rather than a test and judgement, helping us to know what we’ve been worth to the planet. Hence his remark in an interview about most people being “pretty decent”: “it’s actually the reason why we have conquered the globe; you know, human beings are just incredibly good compared to other species at cooperating on a skill that other species just can’t.”

In Bregman’s vision of things, then, we’re essentially our own audience, and likewise the winners or losers by what we think and do as a species. Still, there is a complementary history of other species caught up in what we’ve done, and it’s detectable there in the book’s shadows. After all, the coming of ownership as a concept and practice included ownership of lives. It was a radical change, as Bregman notices: “It couldn’t have been easy to convince people that land or animals – or even other human beings – could now belong to someone.” [102] He suggests at one point that the Old Testament myth of expulsion from Eden may have been telling this story of change from free nomadism to settlement and agriculture (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3.19). Certainly that change marked the primal fall in our relations with other forms of life in the world. It’s a catastrophe which we have only just started to undo; conceding ‘sentience’ to some animals (see previous post) is as far as we’ve officially got to date, even in the avant-garde countries.

Not that pre-historic humans left other animals alone; they were hunter-gatherers, after all. But they were taking their chance in the predation lottery, and it’s clear also, from the early cave-paintings, that they felt some respectful fascination for their prey and for other creatures. These animals generally appear both large and vividly present, warty pig 15 Jan 21 compared to the smallness and perfunctory representations of humans, if any. (Bregman’s point about these paintings is that there is no warfare in them.) But what exactly the human attitude was towards any of these animals (humans included) is a highly speculative subject of its own, because of course little else has been left behind by them.

It’s a point poignantly illustrated by the anthropological collections in Oxford University’s own Ashmolean Museum. There’s hardly anything to show about the lives of the hunter-gatherers: set against panoramas of open land, a few hunting weapons in a glass case or two. So lightly did they tread on the earth! Then come the civilizations, with ominous section titles like ‘New Technologies’, ‘Building an Empire’, and ‘Sumptuous Lifestyles’. A ‘pyramid text’ (tomb inscription for a pharaoh) says

King Unas comes, a spirit indestructible.
If he wishes you to die, you will die,
If he wishes you to live, you will live.

So you can see what Bregman means. Of course, he concedes that humans have now mostly freed themselves from civilization of this predatory kind. Over the last two hundred years, we’ve found that organized societies can work for the common benefit (he instances health, prosperity, human rights, even, relatively speaking, peace): “The curse of civilization can be lifted,” he says [114]. But meanwhile, as he doesn’t say, our species continues to play King Unas to all the others. That pyramid text is implicitly pinned up at every animal facility in the world – pinned on the world, in fact.

Humankind should be compared to another ambitious survey of the human career, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (2011, discussed in this blog on 25 May 2018). Bregman argues that we’re a fundamentally decent Humankind species (notice the way the title is divided on the front cover), corrupted by the pathologies of civilization; Pinker tells the story of civilization as a progressive putting right or at least mitigation of our natural savagery. But in fact these two very different interpretations produce the same net message. One reviewer of Pinker’s work called it the “glad tidings” that humans are much better than we thought and feared: it will now be “much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future.” Or as another reviewer says of Humankind, it “will give you good reason to feel better about the human race.”

It’s pleasant to feel better, of course, but whether it’s an honest state of mind in this case, I doubt. Whatever we’ve been able to make of ourselves, we’ve certainly made a latter-day Easter Island of much of the planet, driving other lives out of it, or making of them dependents to our King Unas. Bregman approvingly quotes Jan Boersema, the professor who de-bunked the old Easter Island myth, saying “not only problems but also solutions can grow exponentially.” [136] We can fix it, in short. It’s what Pinker says too. But it may be that the self-distrust which these books have supposedly cured was a truer reflection both of our real merits in the world and of the type of solution that will work. Giving ground, morally and literally, is likely to be the only remedy that helps other species as well as our own, and it demands some measure of diffidence.

The great twentieth-century poet W.H.Auden grappled in his later writings with this question of what it is that spoils our species,

who, from the moment
we first are worlded,
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to.

As these lines imply, he believed that humanity was inherently flawed, in fact the heir to original sin in the Old Testament sense. But I mention this not just because Auden was expressing a moral and spiritual diffidence on our behalf; he was also directing this confession to its proper audience, for the title of this poem written in the last year of his life was ‘Address to the Animals’. It’s true that they can’t know or profit from what we say to them (“very few of you / find us worth looking at”, is how Auden puts it), but we shall never understand ourselves, or hit upon our proper business in the world, unless we find a right relationship with the animals who were enjoying it for so long before “we upstarts”, as Auden calls us, arrived figuratively in our canoes.

Notes and references:

Humankind was first published in the Netherlands in 2019; quotations are from the English edition of 2021, published by Bloomsbury. The Better Angels of our Nature was published by Penguin Books in 2011. The quoted reviews are from extracts given in the books’ own prelims. Although the two books are dealing with the same question, and cover some of the same material (in fact Bregman expressly rejects some of Pinker’s evidence and conclusions), they differ very much in form: Better Angels is a formidable and scholarly book, two or three times a long as the other; Humankind is well but selectively evidenced, chatty and engaging in style, distinctly the work of a journalist (though an excellent one, who frequently warns his readers against daily news as “a mental health hazard”).

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here:

W.H.Auden’s poem ‘Address to the Animals’ was first published in the New Yorker, 8 October 1973. Another poem, ‘The Sabbath’, is a briefer treatment of the same subject, where the animals agree in deploring the mistakes made on the sixth day of creation.

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see



Cynics, Hucksters and Frauds: Welcome to Medical Research!

In the course of Otto Preminger’s film Bunny Lake is Missing, released in 1965, a mother seeking her lost child tries to escape from confinement in a big London hospital. Looking for an exit in the brick-walled basements of the building, she strays into a half-dark room which she then discovers to be full of caged monkeys. It’s a research hospital, therefore, a grotesque touch in the film but a common enough institution, then as now. Another British fiction of that period provides a more thorough, though hardly more amiable, account of such places: the novel by Colin Douglas, with the illuminating title The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime. The novel’s hero – or rather anti-hero, since his leading interests are drinking and having sex with nurses – is a young doctor (as the author had been), recently qualified and now putting in some years of research (“It’s expected behaviour.”). His topic has been selected for him by his supervisor, the keenly ambitious Dr Rosamund Fyvie; it’s ‘faecal vitamins’. Having done a few hours of half-hearted preparatory reading, Campbell provides a colleague with this sarcastic prognosis of his research career:

After a preliminary survey of the literature, I am now in a position from which I may eventually advance to prove conclusively that faecal vitamins have nothing to do with anything. I could start by proving they had nothing to do with a few important things . . . Then get some PhD students to tidy up the odd little corners, like ‘Bantu diet as reflected in faecal vitamins’ and ‘Faecal vitamins in albino coypus’. My epidemiological group would do prospective cohort studies on how faecal vitamin assay is of no use in predicting who’s going to get appendicitis. And my clinical staff would devote themselves to proving that vitamins had nothing to do with any known form of cancer. You’ve got to be in cancer. That’s where the big money is.

But the research is being paid for by a drug company, and Campbell recalls the old aphorism that “Drug companies don’t give money to pessimists” (i.e. they prefer the sort of attitude suggested in the novel’s title: more of this later). He concludes that Dr Fyvie, who secured the funds, has been able to see possibilities in faecal vitamins: “possibilities, that is, of results and hence publications, by Fyvie and somebody and somebody else and Campbell, leading to greater fame for her, and the nearer prospect of the professorial chair she coveted so much.”

Campbell’s absurd research is at least human-centred (he collects his samples from the hospital’s patients), but his reluctant labours are paralleled by the more dedicated work of an animal-research colleague, “a girl who produced endless publications on mouse prostaglandins as though by a strange compulsion”. Such diligent fixations are still a noticeable feature in the bio-science journals.

Bunny Lake is a crime thriller, The Greatest Breakthrough a comedy or farce, and both of them predate the UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. Distorted pictures of the unregenerate old days, then? Unfortunately not: the animals are almost certainly better looked after now, but an up-to-date survey of medical research and hospital life suggests that the human system to which their lives have been made subject is further than ever from justifying that subjection. It comes in a book by a former NHS doctor, Seamus O’Mahony, with the ominous title Can Medicine Be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession.

Much of Can Medicine be Cured? is about medical research and its pathologies. The book doesn’t ever focus on the part force-played by animals in that research, but their involvement is well established early on, when O’Mahony is recalling his own early research stint. The theme of that research – “whole gut lavage” – and its likely value accord well with the fictitious Dr Campbell’s work. As practised on mice, it had been his supervisor’s speciality, and O’Mahony was required to develop the technique for clinical use. His paid helpers at the Edinburgh hospital had been Dougie and Ewan, two “foul-mouthed technicians from the animal unit”, and he knew that unit and its denizens. There were the mice, of course; O’Mahony recalls the laboratory definition of ‘mouse’: “an animal which if killed in sufficient numbers produces a PhD”. There were also monkeys and, by hearsay, goats. “I managed,” says O’Mahony, “to avoid killing any of these innocent animals”, though he does witness one of the mice being “expertly dispatched” against the edge of the lab bench.


In any case, the gut lavage research and its associated publications “produced little of lasting consequence”. O’Mahony attributes his unfitness for academic medical research to the fact that “although cynical, I was not quite cynical enough.” We are on page 19 here, and the author explores the implications of that dismal explanation in the remaining 250 pages of the book.

The most conspicuous thing about the medical scene as O’Mahony presents it is that it suffers from runaway hypertrophy: drug-based medicine in general, and medical research in particular, have grossly outgrown their useful proportions. And just as what used to be called the ‘military-industrial complex’ has engaged the talents, labours, and commercial interests of countless parties, without (fortunately) requiring a war to justify it, so this “medical-industrial complex” (O’Mahony’s habitual term) is a self-sufficient monster, having no necessity to account for itself in healing:

A medical research laboratory is a factory, which produces the raw material of data. From these data, many things may be fashioned: presentations to conferences, publications in journals, doctoral degrees, successful grant applications, even air miles. What went on in the nearby wards seemed of little consequence.

Yes, publications! These are the stairway to success, and their own proliferation (output of scientific papers apparently doubles every nine years) is part of a pathological symbiosis. With a sure market in medical institutions of all kinds, and unpaid contributors (some journals even demand payment from their contributors), they can be highly profitable enterprises. They were in fact the basis of Robert Maxwell’s one-time great wealth. For their part, researchers need to appear in them as often as possible, for frequency is much easier to notice and to record than quality. Not only individual careers but also grants for further research demand this published evidence.

O’Mahony describes some of the techniques for stretching and glamorizing any given amount of work, but of course the most obvious one is fraud. The unhappy case of Dr William Summerlin shows that the temptations (‘incentives’ might be the better word) were already there in the 1970s. He was researching organ transplantation at a New York laboratory, and was found to have fabricated his evidence for the successful grafting of skin and corneas in mice and rabbits. Part of his explanation was this:

Time after time, I was called upon to publicize experimental data and to prepare applications for grants from public and private sources. There came a time in the fall of 1973 when I had no new startling discovery . . .  

O’Mahony doesn’t in fact mention the Summerlin affair, but he doesn’t have to, because fraud of one kind or another has now “become commonplace in medical research.”

Where animals are used, as in Summerlin’s case, fraud is a special kind of abuse, fatally and uselessly involving them in a lie. But there are less actionable kinds of misrepresentation, and one of the natural consequences of over-population in the research scene is what O’Mahony calls “boosterism”. “Real scientists,” he says, “tend to be reticent, self-effacing, publicity-shy and full of doubt and uncertainty, unlike the gurning hucksters [a memorable phrase] who seem to infest medical research.” He reports a calculation that there had been a 25 times increase, between 1974 and 2014, in use of the terms ‘innovative’, ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘novel’ in PubMed abstracts (these abstracts are really as much adverts for the articles as summaries of them). Perhaps even more damaging to good medicine is the sort of collective boosterism which constitutes medical fashion. Here all sorts of interests coincide in pursuit of funds and their own versions of success, including drug companies, “Gadarene researchers” (because “medical research is a conformist activity”), popular paperback writers, patients’ groups lobbying for particular diseases, and professional lobbyists themselves. It’s a matter of chance whether these appropriators of resources will really be of any help in what O’Mahony calls “the mundane business of treating the sick”.

That 25 times increase in boastful phrases (‘ground-breaking’, etc.) is quoted from an article titled ‘The natural selection of bad science’, and the badness of medical science constitutes a sort of refrain in O’Mahony’s book: “the great majority of medical research is a waste of time and money [p.13]. . . Big Science has a Big, Bad Secret: it doesn’t work [53] . . . nearly all papers in medical journals are dross. [92]

But since much of the funding for medical research (about three quarters of it in the case of drug-testing, says O’Mahony) is provided by pharmaceutical companies, wouldn’t they be making sure that most of it was sound and productive? Well yes, productive of medications at any rate. O’Mahony recalls that his own period of research included evaluating a drug to treat coeliac disease, even though there was by then a known effective cure for the condition: a gluten-free diet (which has since developed a profitable hypertrophy of its own). He found no efficacy in the drug, but when he wished to publish his results, the drug company which had financed the trials was unhelpful (remember Dr Campbell’s aphorism about pessimists), and the journal to which he nevertheless submitted his report did not even put it out for peer review.

Nobody wants to be associated with negative results. It’s part of that “natural selection of bad science” that research is sieved in this way, regardless of its quality. When, by contrast, the research behind the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx (research involving African Green monkeys and five other species of animal) was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Merck Pharmaceuticals bought one million reprints of the report for distribution to doctors. That was good for Merck (80 million prescriptions were subsequently written out for Vioxx, before it was withdrawn as unsafe in 2004), and good for the NEJM too, but not good for science or for health. How many drugs, of the very few which do translate successfully from animal-testing to clinical trials, really are good for health? Even such lasting commercial successes as statins – the ideal drug for business purposes, since it doesn’t simply put something right and then depart, like an antibiotic, but indefinitely ‘prevents’ – are of doubtful value unless funds are limitless. In fact preventative medicine, where it means medical interventions rather than sensible diet and life-habits, is helping to push forward what O’Mahony calls “healthism”: the trend towards re-classifying the whole healthy population as at-risk.

Meanwhile, the ordinary doctor in clinic or hospital (as opposed to the medical academics and managers) is caught between this vast and pushy production system on one side, and the information-maddened consumerist patient on the other, as a sort of trading agent: “the medical profession”, says O’Mahony, “has become the front-of-house sales team for the industry.” For the point of healthism is to make a sort of self-run hospital out of each one of us, sick or well: hence the rather sinister title of one of the many books that promote this patient ‘awareness’, The Patient Will See You Now. This decline in the authority of the doctor, the devaluation of his experience and expertise, is the saddest part of the whole bad story for Seamus O’Mahony. But he shows, of course, that the decline is equally a loss for the authentic patient in need of that “mundane business of treating the sick”.

And in the shadows of the book, like the monkeys in Bunny Lake is Missing, are the animals which service this medical colossus with their own health and lives. In the European Union and in Britain, the 1986 legislation has kept their numbers more or less steady, so that they form a shrinking proportion of the giant whole. But elsewhere in the world this is not so. It’s very obvious in the journals, for instance, how much of the animal research is now being done in China, which has indeed overtaken the USA as the world’s most rapacious user of animals for scientific purposes. And for the world as a whole, a meticulous estimate of animals killed for science in 2005 was published some while ago in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals: 115.2 million. When the theme was re-visited more recently, the total for 2015 was put at 192.1 million, an increase of about 65% in ten years.

We now have some idea of how worthwhile that enormous and continuing sacrifice has been.

Notes and references:

The Greatest Breakthrough Since Lunchtime was published by Canongate Publishing in 1977. Can Medicine be Cured? The Corruption of a Profession was published by Head of Zeus in 2019.

Much of O’Mahony’s case was anticipated in Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health, published in 1974 and reissued in 1976 as Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis. In fact Seamus O’Mahony has written an excellent essay about the book, its origins and relevance, in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh in 2016 (it can be read online here: But Illich was almost absolute in his opposition to modern medicine and its ideology, whereas O’Mahony argues that there was a ‘Golden Age’ of medical discovery between the 1930s and 80s. He believes, however, that the challenges and possibilities of medicine are very different now, and that failure to recognize this is what has allowed Big Science and Big Pharma to become the predators on the public health and purse that he shows them to be. 

Robert Maxwell set up the Pergamon Press as a science publisher at Headington Hill Hall, Oxford, in 1951. When it closed in 1991, it owned about 400 different journals.

The Dr Summerlin affair is discussed in Alexander Kohn’s False Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp.76-83.

‘The natural selection of bad science’, an article by Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, appeared in Royal Society Open Science 3(9), 2016, online at

The calculation of global animal numbers is published in ATLA, 24 February 2020: the authors are Katy Taylor and Laura Rego Alvarez, and it’s accessible online here: Some of the increase in numbers is attributed by the authors to shortage of information in 2005: i.e. that number was an under-estimate. Many of the countries that practise animal research do not publish numbers, so that calculations cannot be authoritative.

Mus Homunculus in the USA

The variety of mouse commonly used in scientific research is Mus musculus, meaning ‘mouse (little mouse)’. A more accurate name would be Mus homunculus, ‘mouse (little man)’, since this has become the preferred model or manikin for almost every aspect of the human condition supposed capable of study in laboratories. The American journal Science, a peer-review publication which also reports on research published elsewhere, shows the mouse ceaselessly passing by in all its myriad human substitutions: to take this past month alone, Mus homunculusMouse in Bosch 'Garden' has been modelling fungal infections, cancers of all kinds, effects of gender on immune responses, Alzheimer’s disease, the role of glutamine in aging, neuro-developmental disorders, obesity, botulism, progeria, dengue fever, and even empathy (that well-known human virtue).

In the USA the numbers of mice being used in these ways cannot be known, since no systematic count is published or even kept. The Animal Welfare Act, which has supervised lab animals (among others) since 1966, amended its “definition of animal” in 2002 expressly to exclude “birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research”. Some external oversight of the management of these animals there is, when federal funds are involved in the research, or if the laboratory in question has volunteered to be on the lists of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. This latter organisation may even count the rodents used in its accredited laboratories, but it keeps the numbers confidential, and they’re not collected into any national total. Nor is there any national record of the severity of experiments using the excepted animals.

Incidentally, one common method of counting the mice used at any particular laboratory, should a number be required, is to count the cages, and then to apply some sort of occupancy or turnover rate (for which there’s no generally agreed formula) in order to produce a yearly total. This hit-and-miss method pathetically reflects the existential flimsiness of the American mouse, defined by its transience.

That practitioners favour the present state of more or less ignorance is sufficiently evidenced by their National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), which vigorously lobbied for it when the 2002 amendment was under discussion, and which continues to defend it. Accordingly, there has been some surprise and indignation on their part at the publication this month of a paper, written by a former laboratory vet, that offers a reasoned estimate of the numbers they did in fact get through in 2017-18. The objections have been partly to the idea of advertising the numbers at all: a “narrow, decontextualized focus on counting animals”, says Speaking of Research, another advocacy grouping, “is a disservice to thoughtful consideration of animal welfare, science, and public health.” But the count itself has also been disputed (why is this somehow familiar?). Speaking of Research makes its own estimate, appropriately un-narrow: “11-23 million” (these are numbers for all animals, so deduct about 0.75 million to get at the excepted ones). That illustrates at least the level of uncertainty on the subject, since this is an organisation of professionals with easy access to whatever information there is. The NABR puts the number at “just under 15 million”, convincingly precise, but no evidence is provided to support it.

The author of the paper that has caused this controversy, Dr Larry Carbone, believes the true number to be very much greater. He has aimed at something more serious than what Americans call a ball-park figure, such as the others are evidently content with; he has worked it out and shown his working. Collecting his information from a sample of laboratories, either by direct questioning or by means of Freedom of Information requests, he has used it to establish a standard or at least common relation between the number of animals reported as required under the Animal Welfare Act, and the number of rodents used in the same places. For the sake of clarity, Carbone refers to the former as ‘animals’, in inverted commas, highlighting the absurdity of the AWA’s counter-scientific definition. The rats and mice, he calculates, have normally comprised about 99.3% of the total. The national figure for reportable ‘animals’ in 2017-18 was 780,070. Applying that percentage, he concludes that the number of rats and mice consumed in the USA’s laboratories in that year was 111.5 million.

Of this astonishing quantity of mice and rats, Carbone estimates that 44 million were used in “painful or distressful experiments”: that is, in experiments which the United States Department of Agriculture, responsible for administering the AWA, would put in its class D (“with pain, with drugs” or ‘WPWD’) or class E (“with pain, no drugs” or ‘WPND’). Classes D and E correspond more or less to ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ in UK terminology. As you’ll notice, however, the USDA classification doesn’t assess the pain or distress itself; it treats that as a simple yes or no matter, and then classifies according to whether anaesthetics or analgesics have been used, something which may have to do with the animal’s pain but may also reflect the requirements of the experiment. It’s not a very informative arrangement.

And that’s the first good reason for regarding Carbone’s “focus on counting animals” as indeed a service to “thoughtful consideration of animal welfare”. This veterinary surgeon with years of experience in the research laboratory summarizes it thus:

Rodents’ capacity to experience significant pain and distress in experiments is no longer contested. With over 100 million of these sentient animals born per year for American science, it is time to revisit the adequacy of their welfare protections.

Another good reason is that a calculation like Dr Carbone’s will in time show whether the use of animals in American science is going up or down. He believes that although the direction for the AWA’s ‘animals’is gradually downwards, the rodent numbers are “likely increasing”. Of course the two areMouse image from space research closely connected. The special protections given by law to ‘animals’ make the unprotected species  commensurately attractive to researchers, as allowing a freer hand. For as the Animal Welfare Institute (based in Washington D.C.) says,

Basic standards for their housing and care are not overseen by USDA veterinary inspectors . . . There is no legal mandate to consider alternatives to the use of these animals, or to devise means to alleviate or reduce pain and distress.

But there has been no way of evidencing the increase in their use until now – or until next year, rather. And even if the 111 million number is inaccurate as charged (and let’s hope that, however carefully arrived at, it is indeed an over-estimate), any series of numbers arrived at by a standardized calculation in successive years should provide reliable comparisons.

They would show, for instance, whether the 3Rs principles, notionally accepted by the profession in the USA, are being taken seriously in practice. The NABR refers to them in a conveniently distancing way as a “philosophy” (like Creationism, perhaps, or Swedenborgianism), and at present is urging its membership to lobby against a proposal to establish a National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research which would promote them. In fact this proposal is one part of a momentous reform bill presently before Congress (and objected to in toto by the NABR): the Humane Research and Testing Act. This most welcome and promising Act would, among other things, “require NIH [National Institutes of Health] to track and disclose all vertebrate animals used, including rats, mice, birds and fish . . . and demonstrate its progress [i.e. in reducing numbers] through bi-annual reports.”

Dr Carbone’s calculation comes, then, at an apt and critical moment. Perhaps laborious detective mathematics such as he has had to use in order to stir up attention to what’s happening in American laboratories will soon be unnecessary, and researchers will be taking proper public responsibility for all the animals – all the vertebrate animals, at least – which they use and destroy in their work.

Notes and references:

The amendment which in just a few words excised birds, rats and mice from the Animal Welfare Act can be seen here:

I haven’t tried to cover all the different ways in which the work of a research laboratory in the USA may be overseen as to animal welfare and ethics. For instance, I haven’t mentioned the important Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, which all institutions that receive federal funds have to appoint, and which do roughly the work that Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies do in the UK (though in a much more permissive environment, made notably more so during the years of the Trump administration).

Speaking of Research’s unfavourable review of Dr Carbone’s paper, including the quoted statement, can be read here: Its own estimate of numbers, as part of a comparative table of numbers in various countries, is offered here NABR’s estimate is quoted in a New York Post article (described as a “best guess”, and I assume elicited by the journalist), dated 18 January 2021, here:

Dr Carbone’s paper ‘Estimating mouse and rat use in American laboratories by extrapolation from Animal Welfare Act-regulated species’ was published in the journal Scientific Reports, 12 January 2021: see

 The Animal Welfare Institute is quoted from its good summary of the situation titled ‘Rats, Mice, and Birds’, here:

A brief account of the proposed Humane Research and Testing Act can be read here:

The first illustration is a detail from the late 15th century painting by Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, in the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The roundel illustration shows the ‘mission patch’ for Rodent Research-IV, one of many research projects using rodents on the International Space Station. It’s aimed at understanding the effects of prolonged space flight on health, and more largely the processes of aging.

Fun We Had in 2020

Last year was a difficult one for many animal research laboratories (as reported in this blog: see notes below), difficult also for science conferences and other such networking. However, the Concordat on Openness, to which many bio-science institutions subscribe, held its end-of-year awards ceremony and issued its annual report as usual. The ceremony, held online, lacked the familiar prize-day atmosphere, of course, but the report seems as keen and boyish as ever. In fact Covid-19 has had some benefit for the Concordat project of “public engagement”, much of which is an online matter anyway, for as the report says, “One impact of the pandemic has been to increase the perceived relevance of biomedical and health research for the public.”

It’s easily understood. Conversations between grateful patients and the specialists researching their disease have been a common feature of animal research publicity. But now the specialist can address a whole grateful population feeling immediately vulnerable to the disease in question. In fact Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the promotional organisation which runs the Concordat, took early advantage of this “time of national emergency when people are focussed on their health” and commissioned a survey of attitudes to animal research during the first lock-down of 2020. This survey found that 73% of respondents would accept the use even of dogs and monkeys in research towards a Covid vaccine. (The percentage of those accepting their use for medical research in a similar survey two years ago was around 15.) However, since 29% of the same surveyed group (of 1,027 randomized individuals) opposed the use of any species in any research, it’s reasonable to conclude, as UAR admits, that “many people feel conflicted and remain uncomfortable with the idea of animal research.” In fact that percentage of people who object absolutely has changed little over the period of systematic surveys since 2014.

Anyway, the pandemic has meant that something stronger than the ordinary PR term ‘engagement’ was involved during 2020. Accordingly, the key word in the Concordat’s annual report is ‘share’: signatory institutions “share examples of their commonly used species”; they are congratulated for “sharing issues around animal research” or for “sharing stories on this subject”; they have “wonderful web-sites that share their use of animals with the public”. It’s not just a word, either. Three of the four ‘Openness Awards’ for 2020 went to projects which promoted public participation in some version or analogue of animal research.

Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute (the place which gave us Dolly the cloned sheep) had produced a ‘toolkit’ which enables children in school or even at home to carry out experiments using garden worms. The kit is punningly titled ‘Opening a Can of Worms’, because after all this is PR and, besides, animals are fun. But respectful fun, of course, and the judges considered that “this toolkit encouraged sensitivity in working with living animals to study behaviour.” Here, for instance, is the Roslin toolkit’s sensitive account of why it’s important to understand animal behaviour: “Animals give us companionship, help us do work, provide us with food and clothes, and they help us to study diseases and to make new medicines.” It makes you wonder what animals can have found to fill the time with before humans came and put purpose into their lives.

Southampton University likewise won its award for a ‘toolkit’. This one involved creating a mouse from craft materials and devising instructions for its proper care, a rather more appealing scheme, but equally aimed at familiarizing the young to the premise of such care: i.e. the keeping of animals for research. Both of these projects were clearly aimed at children (“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs, 22). The Mary Lyon Centre’s scheme of participation seems at first to be similarly directed. It’s fronted with a trio of cartoon mice (for the Centre’s business is the generating, archiving and trading of GM mice): they stand on their hind legs, one combing its hair (grooming, you see), the others eating and drinking in human style. We’re invited to “Burrow into the secret lives of mice”. But the purpose is actually a practical one: to get citizen-observers to watch and record the behaviour of mice on film. From their data, an algorithm will be created enabling mice to be supervised and assessed automatically while in their home cages. This is in fact a project for mass participation. The cartoons, puns, etc., are just, I suppose, the ordinary dermatitis of PR.

The fourth award went to Reading University for its publicity about using llamas to research therapies against Covid-19. As recorded in this blog, Reading won an award last year for its llama publicity. At that time, the highlight was an invitation to name a baby llama either ‘Boris’ or ‘Jeremy’. It’s wholly characteristic of the essential disposability of PR that there has been no further mention (or none that I can find) of that animal. The centre of attention this year is called – in much the same facetious spirit – Fifi.

Along with 2020’s emphasis on ‘sharing’, there has been the usual battery of more ex cathedra animal research publicity. The examples provided by signatories include presentations at science fairs, community festivals, schools, clinics, and other public events. Within the institutions, and aimed at staff, students, and any other associates, there have been articles in newsletters, express mentions in interviews and recruitment fairs, citations in reports and policy papers, even “public-facing TV screens across campuses”.

This saturation of publicity is aimed at taking the unpleasant surprise out of the subject, and surely it’s an astute policy and must be to some extent successful. Still, certain aspects of animal research continue to seem, even to practitioners, too unpleasant to advertise, and the Concordat report notes once again (for it candidly does note this every year) that many signatories are showing reluctance to provide “information that might show their research or institution in a negative light.” The report advises them that this is bad policy, and reminds them of “the risks of secrecy”.

The difficulty has very recently been illustrated in the case of Bath University, one of the fourteen ‘Leaders in Openness’ chosen as offering examples of openness to the others (there were 122 Concordat signatories in 2020). For some years scientists in Bath’s Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology have been researching new chemical compounds for use in the treatment of depression. A news story issued by the university itself in 2017, and up-dated in 2019, spoke of “potential new anti-depressant and anti-anxiety treatment with a unique mechanism of action”, whose “promise” was being excitingly confirmed by its “anti-depressant like effects in mice”. The story ends with a reference to the Concordat and Bath’s own commitment to openness on the subject of animals in its research. So yes, it has been open about the involvement of mice, but much less explicit about how they’re being used – that is, in the so-called ‘forced-swim test’.


This ‘model’ of depression involves putting mice (or, less commonly, rats) into cylinders half-full of water from which they can’t escape, and leaving them to swim or float as they will for a test period of six minutes. The idea is that they swim when they’re feeling optimistic about finding a way out, but they merely float when they aren’t (they don’t sink). A ‘promising’ medication is something that induces the mice to spend a larger portion of the six minutes swimming hopefully. The protocol for this experimental device, first put forward in the journal Nature in 1977, has been fully described and filmed by researchers at the University of Maryland for the Journal of Visualized Experiments. It’s all posted online, so there’s no secrecy about it. Still, it makes unpleasant viewing (despite the curious good humour of the young presenters: “Good luck with your future experiments!” they cheerfully wish us at the end.)

For that reason, no doubt, Bath University seems to have been disconcerted by a complaint about the test from PETA, which included a request to provide material from its own video recordings. The university’s first official ‘Response to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ justified “the research highlighted” without even specifying what it was. After further complaint, it seems that the university must have discussed the matter with UAR and been persuaded to provide a more complete reply, including the requested film clip. There are now, therefore, two ‘fact-sheets’ on the matter offered to public attention: Bath’s own account and, linked from that, a more extended general account, also with illustrative film, provided by UAR.

This is just the sort of defensive flurry that the Concordat report urges its signatories to avoid by arranging for their own material to be “proactively placed in the public domain”. And of course the advantage of being ahead in that way is that the material has a favourable colouring when it first appears; in particular there’s no suggestion of secrecy or embarrassment about it. It’s what the Concordat calls ‘owning the story’. By contrast, the successive responses of Bath University to PETA’s challenge have necessarily seemed defensive and palliative. We’re told, in a video featuring one of the university’s researchers, that those six minutes of struggle or helplessness are “mildly stressful” for the mice (though in fact the procedure is classed by the Home Office’s as having ‘moderate’ not ‘mild’ severity). The pathetic efforts of the mice to escape up the sides of the cylinder are described as “climbing activities”. The intervals of helplessness are called “periods of immobility”, as if a welcome rest is being taken. The inventor of the forced-swim test, R.D. Porsolt, more frankly referred to the immobile phase in 1977 as “a state of despair”.

That’s not a phrase the Concordat managers would recommend these days, I’m sure, but animal research scientists had fewer inhibitions in the 1970s. To publicize the UAR survey in March last year, the organisation’s director, Wendy Jarrett, gave an interview to an online science news service in the course of which she referred to that period as “the bad old days”. She spoke in general with un-strident reasonableness, and claimed that UAR’s aim was (as its name suggests) only to promote understanding of animal research, looking forward to “a time when everyone understands”, not to insist or expect that everyone should “like” it. But by ‘understanding’ she also meant acceptance, and in line with that she quoted the survey in which “some people said ‘just because I accept something doesn’t mean I like it’.” The main thing, then, is to dislike it permissively, or at least quietly. Accordingly, what Wendy Jarrett meant by “the bad old days” of the 1970s was not the uninhibited cruelty and profligacy of the animal research at that time, but the “animal rights extremism”.

That indeed fitted her account of the succeeding decades, which presented the science as a more or less autonomously progressive enterprise: relinquishing the more contentious uses for animals (cosmetics testing, or alcohol research, for instance), commitment to the 3Rs, showing and telling as much as possible to the public. It may be true as a mere narrative, but the plot is missing. What she didn’t make clear was that the explanatory force behind it all has been the dissent. If there hadn’t been active and adversarial ‘dislike’, who can say how little ethical progress would have been made, or what fraction of the UK’s supervising bureaucracy, or of the systematic apparatus of ingratiation such as UAR and its Concordat, would have come into existence? Despite all the tonic publicity now coming out of animal research, it must be remembered that the practitioners do not in fact ‘own’ the subject: it’s in public ownership, and what happens to it will go on depending on how much dislike of it the public feels, and what the public does with that dislike.

Notes and references:

Some of the effects of the pandemic on animal research laboratories were discussed in this blog last April:

A fuller account of the Concordat and its influence was given in this blog here:  The 2020 report of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research is online here:,   and the four awards are reported here:

PETA’s account of the Bath University affair, dated 1 December, is reported (with a link to a letter of protest) here:

An abstract of Porsolt et al’s original paper in Nature putting forward the forced-swim test, and using the phrase “state of despair”, can be seen here:

Bath University’s initial response to the PETA complaint is posted here:

UAR’s post about the forced-swim test is here:  The University of Maryland account and presentation can be viewed here:

An Oxford Story

Fifty years ago Oxford, like many other universities, was going through a phase of political restlessness and dissent, at least among its students and younger dons. National and local controversies made themselves felt on Oxford’s walls in graffiti of an anti-establishment kind. ‘F– Franks’ was painted in giant letters on the wall of Keble College, in reference to the recent Franks Report on the University’s governance. Balliol’s west wall was used as a lively social medium for opinions and protests. World peace, socialism, anarchism, and other noble futures were declared imminent with priggish self-confidence in countless rooms and halls: “the revolution’s here”, as the hit song said in the summer of 1969.

In all this, of course, the animal theme had almost no part. There was a University Vegetarian Society, but then there was a society for almost every strange interest. College kitchens would provide an omelette as the all-purpose meat-alternative for the very few who wanted it. As for veganism: the 1969 Oxford Dictionary addenda of new words was recognizing hippy, fuzz, and drop-out, but still not including vegan, though that word had been in use since 1944. Academically too, the theme was invisible. The study of philosophy at Oxford was mainly devoted to linguistic analysis, ‘talk about talk’. Moral Philosophy involved discussion of key concepts such as ‘good’, and ‘duty’ in the abstract, or there was ‘meta-ethics’, which questioned whether our moral judgements had any communicable validity or were merely expressions of personal feeling, the consensus being in favour of the latter interpretation. Of applied ethics, a staple of philosophy departments nowadays, there was no official teaching at all.

As to the life-sciences, this was almost certainly the most profligate period so far in the University’s hundred-year history of vivisection (but no numbers were published, or even perhaps kept). The back parts of the physiology building smelled of distressed animals, and experiments using cats and monkeys in careless quantities were routine. After all, Oxford was a centre of vivisection in a nation which was at this time using about five million animals a year in its laboratories. To supervise all this, the Home Office was providing eleven inspectors.

Then in the Hilary Term of 1970 those same numbers were advertised in a remarkable leaflet composed by Richard Ryder and distributed by him round Oxford’s churches, schools, shops, and colleges. The witty and prodding text introduced the concept and word ‘speciesism’ (Ryder’s invention). Readers were told something about the practice and ethics of vivisection, and urged to contact “MPs, professors, editors about this increasingly important moral issue.” It was a heroic individual effort by someone who, as a psychiatrist working at Oxford’s Warneford Hospital, was taking a professional risk with it. And the University, in the person of Professor of Pharmacology William Paton, did indeed complain to the Warneford authorities about Ryder’s campaigning.

But there was by now a small band of people at Oxford, mostly post-graduate students, who shared Ryder’s concerns. Their thinking and their discussions were genuinely counter-cultural, as opposed to the ubiquitous bolshevism of student fashion, and together with Ryder they would soon produce an even more notable publication, the collection of essays titled Animals, Men and Morals (1971). This daring and momentous book would revive animal rights as a serious public controversy after a long period of disuse, and show also, by example, that the claims of animals deserved the attention of academic philosophers.

This ‘Oxford Group’ (again, Ryder’s coinage) numbered ten people – three married couples and four others – though for their book they had help and contributions from several other people from outside Oxford who were already involved in animal protection. How these ten met, and how they collectively created in that inhospitable Oxford environment (even today it’s not an animal-friendly scene) a corpus of thought which still reads with subversive power, is now the subject of a full-length book, The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye. This book Ox Group coverrecords, mainly through interviews with former members of the Group, the key relationships and influences, the discussions and the shared meals, through which their moral convictions took considered form. It’s oral history, then, and there is vivid and extensive quotation, with many telling moments recorded: the ethical ‘epiphanies’; the dietary adventures (“Peter and Renata for dinner. Protoveg stroganoff, noodles, peas, olives, white wine. Nice visit.” says a diary entry); the slightly bashful demonstrations outside St Michael’s Church in central Oxford (Richard Ryder was the only natural activist among them at that time); the intellectual walks, including the one that took two of them past the body of a bird, killed by traffic (“If that were a dead person . . . they wouldn’t just leave the body beside the road”).

That last quotation is from the recollections of Peter Singer, but the speaker and acting moral tutor at the time was Stanley Godlovitch, who had been already a convinced vegetarian when he came to Oxford from Canada in 1968, and was accordingly a key persuader. But yes, Singer naturally has a leading part in the book. He arrived slightly later than the others. Animals, Men and Morals was already in the making, and he did not contribute, but his review of it later on for the New York Review of Books led to his own Animal Liberation (1975), a more compelling title and in time a much more successful book. Accordingly Singer rose professionally with the subject more than any of the others, going their own various ways as they did.

However, it’s one of the merits of The Oxford Group that it shows the collectivity of the ideas at that time and re-distributes their ownership (as Singer himself, least arrogant of celebrated thinkers, very willingly does in his interviews for the book). In particular it highlights the importance of Richard Ryder, less famous now than Singer but in fact a hero of the animal rights movement, who in any other sphere of the UK’s public life would surely have been honoured in some way by the state for his services.

Then there was Roslind Godlovitch. Like her husband Stanley, Roslind was a strong persuasive influence on Singer and the others. She had already published a pioneering article in the journal Philosophy, which she adapted for her chapter in Animals, Men and Morals. This is a witty and polemical piece, still illuminating and authoritative now. She contemplates the contemporary ethical notion that, although animals should be protected from suffering when possible, their lives in themselves have no moral value, and she subjects it to a contemptuous reductio ad absurdum, showing that our logical course should therefore be “to exterminate all animal life.” She then suggests, much as Jonathan Swift might have done, how governments and charities could collaborate to achieve this end. But in fact, as she says with moving absoluteness, “there is nothing to indicate that an animal values its life any less than a human being values his” (the ‘his’ is perhaps of its period; the statement itself is surely for all time). Roslind Godlovitch, who discontinued her post-graduate research and wrote nothing further about animal ethics, is one of the five members of the Oxford Group to whom Singer dedicated Animal Liberation.

Richard Garner, the lead author of The Oxford Group, is a notable and well-published proponent of animal rights. In particular he has argued, as a political scientist, for the incorporation of animal interests in the political system. But for this study of ideas he has expressly chosen to be impartial as to the quality of the arguments involved: “agnostic” is the term he uses. That seems wise for a historian and interviewer, and the arguments speak adequately and indeed passionately for themselves, or rather for the personalities who are recorded as proposing them. But Garner has gone further and cast the whole story as a sociological study, illustrating “the social construction of knowledge”, or how humans collaborate to create ideas and give them currency.

It makes for a clear organizing principle, certainly, but I would say also an unfortunate one. It’s not just that the dead hand of sociological jargonizing lies heavily upon some parts of the text, but I shall take that first. It especially affects the opening chapter, which lays out the theoretical machinery and will surely tend to alienate the common reader and doom the book to the shelves of university libraries (though the price may do that anyway). For instance this, by way of providing some theory for the interviews: “The dynamics of an oral history interview is usually centred around the intersubjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee.” I choose this sentence partly as a sample of sociology’s habit of disguising the patently obvious in nebulous abstracts, and partly to illustrate the baleful influence which this habit of abstract diction has on ordinary nearby English: “dynamics is”? “”centred around”?

But perhaps more unfortunate is the incongruity between this study-bound theory and the energy, urgency, and sense of revelation which (as the book clearly shows us) animated the members of the Oxford Group. That encounter with the dead bird, for instance, so immediate and also so emblematic (Albert Schweitzer saw a dead insect as both a lesson and a real presence in just the same way), is part of a section intended to illustrate “the Role of the Gatekeepers”. That’s “in Farrell’s terminology”, Professor Michael Farrell being the chief supplier of sociological theory to the book – and the reader comes to dread his name, academically distinguished as it no doubt is.

I would finally add that, as David Wood argues in his chapter of Animals, Men and Morals, jargon is a notorious enemy of clear moral awareness. He titles the chapter ‘Strategies’ (i.e. strategies to conceal what’s really happening to animals) and shows how “a huge pattern of jargon” has been deployed with great success to obscure the realities of meat and dairy production. Again, therefore, the use of this sort of abstract and distancing language in The Oxford Group is painfully incongruous.

Still, the story easily escapes this theoretical cage, and it’s a fascinating, exciting, and moving story, whose importance is growing all the time. In his ‘Postscript’ to Animals, Men and Morals, Patrick Corbett (of Balliol, but by 1970 a professor at Sussex) says “we want to change the world.” How many of the restless spirits at Oxford in the late 1960s were thinking and saying that! So many of their projects came to nothing, and often enough it’s just as well they did. But here was one that most fortunately did not. Sadness we must feel that it continues to be relevant and urgent fifty years on, but profound gratitude too for the originality and fervour of that band of ten – and of course gratitude also, despite my carping, towards the authors who have now given the Oxford Group its proper history.

Notes and references:

The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye, is published by Oxford University Press, price £47.99. Please note that the date of publication was 17 December 2020, and this review of it uses a proof copy only. There will have been changes, and accordingly I don’t give page references.

The song quoted is Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which was top of the hit parade for a while in July 1969, but Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are a-Changin’, with its stern advice to “mothers and fathers . . . don’t criticize what you don’t understand”, would summarize the outlook just as well.

The new words are listed in the ‘Addenda’ to the 4th edition of the Little Oxford Dictionary, OUP, 1969.

The text of Richard Ryder’s 1970 leaflet is provided at pp. 44-5. Professor Paton later wrote a defence of animal research, Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research, OUP, 1984.

Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, was published by Victor Gollancz. Quotations are from pp. 168 and 164 (Godlovitch chapter), 199 (David Wood), and 232 (Patrick Corbett). Contributors from outside the Oxford Group included Ruth Harrison, Brigid Brophy (who partly organised the project), Muriel Lady Dowding, and Maureen Duffy.

Two Franciscan Texts and the Worm in a Wild Apple

Today is World Animal Day, an event currently sponsored by Naturewatch Foundation as a contribution towards making the world “a fairer place for all animals”. This year it has more or less coincided with the publication of a survey showing exactly how fair the world has been, at least for undomesticated animals, over the last fifty years. According to Living Planet Report 2020, published by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, there has been “an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016”. This makes the World Day emblem, high-WAD_logo_2016_RGBmindedly aimed as it rightly is at promoting a sense of human responsibility, seem more than ever a wistful phantasm.

The date for World Day, chosen by its founder Heinrich Zimmermann in the 1920s, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Even in his time, the early thirteenth century, St Francis was preaching the need, as Living Planet Report puts it, “to heal our relationship with nature”. Centuries later, just as humans were beginning to use the world up at a faster rate than it could regenerate itself (the Report makes 1970 the tipping-point), a latter-day disciple of his was telling an audience of scientists that we would not escape ecological ruin unless we took St Francis for our guide to sustainable living. Lynn White, a history professor at UCLA and a committed Christian, was addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science at a gathering in Washington on the day after Christmas, 1966 (his talk was published soon afterwards in their journal Science). He spoke of St Francis as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”, in that “he tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” In order to fit humans to give up that fantasy of cosmic favouritism enjoyed by them under orthodox Christianity (“the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”), St Francis had preached “the virtue of humility not merely for the individual but for man as a species”. In fact St Francis would surely have had that World Day emblem with the hand of God underneath, and man himself a silhouette among the others.

It was this heretical saint’s most remarkable miracle, Professor White said, that he didn’t “end at the stake”. All the same, “He failed.” Christianity held on to its conception of man as world-monarch. And that same conception, so White argued, was therefore inherited by Western science, which was, until at least the middle of the nineteenth century, practised as a branch of Christian thinking called ‘natural theology’, or the study of God’s mind in nature. Christianity declined, but that convenient self-image did not decline with it. Science and technology, “so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature”, have indeed been able to turn the image into a matter of blatant fact. White therefore concluded that “More science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis . . . We must re-think and re-feel our nature and destiny.”

Professor White’s paper is quoted by Esther Woolfson in her book published last month, Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species. The book is a comprehensive tour of our history and present days of divine-right monarchizing over the other animals: hunting them, eating them, showing them off, experimenting upon them, dressing in them, compulsively trading in them and in their images, corrupting them as fancy pets, and theologizing to keep them in their places (where Professor White comes in).

In short, the familiar pageant of misery and wrong: need we see it going by again? Of course, because the real thing itself is going round in an everlasting circuit, and besides, there are always new things to be made to see in it. And Esther Woolfson has a sharp eye for the humanly or psycho-pathologically expressive instance, being both an anthropologist and a person of imagination and sensibility. Her account of taxidermy and its grotesque byways (“a badly stuffed mouse in spectacles”, “birds and squirrels acting out faux-human weddings”) is a notably horrid example woolfson bookof her acuteness in this respect (I can’t believe that she was happy to see one of taxidermy’s “sorry memorials” used to illustrate her book’s cover). So also is her study of the hideous vanity-culture of hunting. She quotes Ortega y Gasset from a greetings card intended for the hunting man in your life: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted”. For she’s clever with vivid quotations; in his own words she pins down the crooked human nature of Harry Harlow (he of the maternal deprivation experiments). That comes in the chapter titled ‘Rights’, which is mainly devoted to the subject of vivisection, a word she does use in the text and the index. It’s a word that rarely appears in indexes these days (they prefer the polite ‘animal research’). When it does, I take it for a sign of candour, and this is indeed a candid, un-euphemistic book.

Esther Woolfson is also the author of Corvus, a vivid and fascinating history of her relationships with a number of crows living en famille at her house in Aberdeen (Corvus is discussed elsewhere in this blog). Perhaps by preference, perhaps on the advice of her publishers, she has used a similarly personal style in Between Light and Storm. The book is therefore as much a memoir of her encounters with places, books, and ideas, as an account of these things in themselves: “beautifully observed experiences”, as one testimonial on the back cover calls them (quite accurately). This format worked in Corvus brilliantly well, but then that was a book about her bird-companions and what she learned from them over the years. In face of the great disaster of human misuse of other species, which is her subject in this new book, the personal element ought surely to be purged away. Instead, it’s very much in the foreground, and produces a meditative, even whimsical, effect:

Questions stay with me – what can be inferred about us from what we choose to eat? [she asks in the chapter titled ‘Blood’] Do vegetarianism and veganism necessarily indicate anything about our propensities for virtue? If they do, which and what and how? They may, but then again, they may not.

Moments like this need the kindly editor’s blue pencil through them, but as I have said, I suspect that the publishers felt that this book would be more attractive to the general reader, its horrors more willingly beheld, if presented in this ‘innocent abroad’ style. Good, if they’re right, because while nobody can tell the whole wretched story, a large part of it really is well and unflinchingly told here.

The worst part of the story, namely that humans have in no essential way changed, is made clear throughout. The author writes on page 4 that the complex of beliefs which supports our assumption and practice of “dominion over everyone else on earth” has endured for three thousand or so years “like some lost-cause corpse hovering in cryonic vitrification”.  Two hundred and seventy pages later, having thoroughly illustrated the assertion, she says it again: “The ancient religious-philosophical arguments about human supremacy on which our lives and economies are founded seem as entrenched as they ever were, as damaging and expedient.” The book’s sub-title should really have been ‘How We Still Live with Other Species’.

World Day for Animals is an occasion for optimistic and purposeful actions in the manner of St Francis, and for the celebration of animal-friendly projects round the globe. All the same, reading Esther Woolfson’s book, and looking back at what we’ve failed to do in the fifty years since Lynn White made that address to America’s scientists, it’s hard not to feel restless in one’s own human skin. Here again, one of Esther Woolfson’s quotations fits the case very well. It comes from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, published in a collection of 1948 and titled ‘Original Sin’. Jeffers pictures the human species in its earliest days:

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world.

These pioneering humans discover how to trap a mammoth in a pit and cook it alive in situ. Around them, as they enjoy their disgusting triumph, is “the intense colour and nobility of sunrise”. Contemplating this paradox of beauty and delinquency, the poet says

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.


Notes and references:

Living Planet Report 2020 is published online here: Quotations are from pp.4 and 6. It’s a very well-presented and authoritative document, though not of course quite Franciscan in philosophy: that is, it has the conservationist mind-set of viewing by species rather than by lives.

Professor Lynn White’s paper, titled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, was published in Science, 10 March 1967 (vol.155, pp.1203-7).

Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species is published by Granta. The book Corvus is spoken of in this blog here:

The poem ‘Original Sin’ appeared in the collection The Double Axe (Random House, 1948).