Our Ancestors the Fishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

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

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

The Animals in Science Committee references this research at p.51 of its new report Review of Harm Benefit Analysis in the Use of Animals in Research (2017). The quotation is actually from the ‘impact study’ which the Review cites as evidence of beneficial laboratory research: see http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/CaseStudy.aspx?Id=23896

The post about archer-fish, ‘Spitting in their Faces’, is at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/spitting-in-their-faces/

The 2011 report quoted is Guidance on the severity classification of scientific procedures involving fish: report of a Working Group appointed by the Norwegian Consensus-Platform for the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of animal experiments, published in the Royal Society of Medicine Press journal Laboratory Animals, Oct. 45 (4). This report does advise that the low estimation of fish relative to other animals “should be challenged within a research setting”. It’s accessible online at   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3175571/

The article by Professor Culum Brown is Fish Intelligence, Sentience and Ethics, published in the journal Animal Cognition 18 (2015), pp.1-17, and published online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10071-014-0761-0.pdf  The quotations are from p.3.

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







Unliberated Creatures of the European Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last of them that could move was gone.

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

The Report can be read here:   http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1510252227435&uri=COM:2017:631:FIN

and the Staff Working Document here:   http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1510252227435&uri=SWD:2017:353:FIN

and the EU Directive 2010/63 here:     http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2010:276:0033:0079:en:PDF

The passage from Heart and Science, a Story of the Present Time (1883) comes in Chapter 62. The novel was discussed in this blog on 21 November 2015 at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/the-real-benjulia/

The SCHEER report is reviewed in this blog at


Two Histories of Vivisection and an Essay on Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

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

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

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

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






The Vegan Animals’ Manifesto by Sue Coe

Picture 59 in Sue Coe’s new book shows a city at night, where men with clubs beat an

56. cow escapes city

Cow escapes city © Sue Coe

escaped cow, coercing it back to be slaughtered. The incident is illuminated by a stark white light, as by a flash of lightning. The buildings jerk and sway in this electric charge, their windows momentary witnesses to the savagery which belongs to the city’s way of life but which  it prefers to keep as a secret from itself. Silhouetted, another cow (or the same cow?) seems to curvet into the white distance. Perhaps it’s the cow Freddie “who escaped from a slaughterhouse twice”, and to whom, now enjoying a sanctuary in New Jersey, The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is dedicated.

This is a woodcut, like all the more than a hundred other pictures in the book. That’s the oldest form of print-making and the simplest: a piece of fruit-wood, a gouge or other sharp edge, ink and paper. (The wood in the present case is wild cherry from trees cut down to make way for the Millennium Pipeline, so the medium really is part of the message here.) The unsophisticated technology is visible in the coarse textures and stark contrasts of its results, apt for drastic events and elementary passions: for instance, war, bereavement, torment, fear, shame, and that particular composite of them all which characterises what we do to the other animals.

It helps to remember that a woodcut is a relief print, so the cutting works from black to white; the knife cuts light into the scene. These woodcuts report places and practices which are normally out of view, metaphorically in darkness. But Sue Coe has been present at them, sketching them from life. In an interview, she mentions Goya, who wrote in his sketch books of inquisition torture, “I saw this.” She has seen these modern horrors, and her woodcuts now bring them out of their darkness, and shed bright light upon them so that all may see.

The style plainly belongs to the expressionist tradition, especially as raised to its highest possibilities by the German artists of the early twentieth century (including Max Beckmann, whose terrifying Night is referenced in the previous post). Expressionism is often described as a mode of art that distorts appearances “in order to express the artist’s emotions or inner vision”: that’s how my Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists describes it, for instance. So the art is about the artist, a personality-tour, which is indeed what is very commonly looked for and talked about in art. With such aesthetics Sue Coe has nothing to do: “It’s not about me and my emotional reactions. It’s about the chick being ground up or a calf being punched and kicked.” In her woodcuts, the distortions, rough finishes, and directness of appeal express not inner vision but the true and objective urgency of the subject. That flash of light, and the lives which it shows being grasped or struck or thrown: they may last a moment only. There isn’t time for fine art. In fact Sue Coe prefers to speak of “reportage” or “propaganda”. But all the same, there is woodcut art of the very highest character in this book.

The men at work or other exertion in these scenes of manifold predation – reaching for

45. abattoir

Abattoir © Sue Coe

the doomed calf in the dairy cow’s womb, injecting the piglet with Ractopamine, slaughtering, hunting, eating – are portrayed as such actions truly and tragically make them (the expressionist truth): that is, coarse, ill-formed, gross of prehensile hand and mouth. But these are only the instruments after all, half-victims  themselves. The directing power is glimpsed in the men in suits, the businessmen and financiers – the grinning one shown feeding a pig to a fat child while another child (African?) correspondingly starves, the ranting politicians of the ‘Humans Only Party’, the money-men on Capitol Hill standing on heaped dead animals and picking each others’ pockets. “The crime is economics,” Sue Coe says. And in fact the cost, to all except those to whom this wealth-at-all-costs accrues, is shown even in the faces of the thuggish agents, which grimace equivocally with ferocity and horror.

As Sue Coe has said, “Our unique contradiction as animal activists is that the most

53. glimpse of freedom

Glimpse of freedom © Sue Coe

oppressed are not leading their own resistance.” Art has to lend them the acts of resistance which in real life only the very few, such as the cow Freddie, can convert their passive suffering into (though we can know that all of them would). And gradually in this book, subversively, the animal-dreams of nature and freedom do turn into acts: a lobster, a cow, a goat, each in turn snips the barbed wire; a pig bursts its chains; four species co-operate to see over a prison wall. And now the light which the artist has been blazing upon scenes of violence and cruelty becomes a life-promising sunburst, glorifying the later images as the book moves towards the manifesto itself. That’s the story in the book, an expressionist story, for it acts out the inner urge of the animals, and it acts out also the sympathetic urge of all who remember (as Sue Coe makes us remember from the start) what razor wire, bars, poison gas, and systematized slaughter, have meant in our human history, and who now see that incomprehensible wrong perpetuated upon these other innocents.

Although The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto touches also on the plight of zoo and circus animals, it doesn’t picture the ones in laboratories. To those, Sue Coe has already devoted a whole remarkable book, Pit’s Letter (2000). It records the experiences of a dog adopted from the street, abandoned again, captured for laboratory use, and then tragically re-united with its human in that fright-filled setting. The illustrations are not woodcuts, but part-coloured images in (I think) charcoal, crayon, and wash. They are even more astonishing and hellish, as a collection, than those in the Manifesto, being unrelieved by any of the Manifesto’s positive and delightful images of free animal life. But like the woodcuts of the Manifesto, they show with brilliant insight what our part in the living world looks like when it appears as it truthfully is, inside and out.


Notes and references:

I apologise for oddities of layout/paragraphing in this post, which I’ve been unable to Vegan Manifestocorrect.

The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is published by OR Books, New York and London, www.orbooks.com.  The illustrations above are used by courtesy of OR Books. In the book itself, the pictures are untitled.

Images from Pit’s Letter, as well as many other art-works by Sue Coe, can be seen on the Graphic Witness web-site at http://www.graphicwitness.org/coe/enter.htm.

The quotations from Sue Coe are taken from an interview which she gave earlier this year to Animal Liberation Currents, at https://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/rendering-cruelty-art-politics/#more-1804. Other interviews which she has given are linked on the Graphic Witness page referenced above.

Brothers and Cousins

Statistics of the animal research done in Britain during 2016 have now been published. They show a decrease of about 5% or 206,000 in the annual total of ‘procedures’ (down, but not very far down, to 3.94 million). The Home Office press release announcing the statistics was headed with that notable news – notable not so much because the achievement is very great (after all, the 2015 figure had been the highest number of ‘procedures’ ever recorded), but because it represents only the second time in about fifteen years that the numbers have not gone up. And the total in 2016 is still larger than it was in 1986, when the present Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was introduced with the aim and expectation (for a time actually realised) of pushing the numbers steadily down.

Now is a good moment to recall that aim, because the European Union’s Directive 2010/63, which has been co-ordinating the laws on animal research in all 28 member states, is about to be revised. Although the U.K. will probably not belong to the Union by the time any revisions come into effect, its own practice will certainly be influenced by them. In fact, because science is an internationally collaborative business, published in international journals, the rules and standards established in the Union are certain to have some influence in all countries where animals are used in research.

Article 58 of the Directive requires the European Commission (the E.U.’s executive) to “review” its contents no later than 10 November 2017. In doing so, the Commission must take into account “advancements in the development of alternative methods not entailing the use of animals, in particular of non-human primates”. Specifying OU primateprimates in this way, the Directive’s authors no doubt had in mind a ‘declaration’ which the European Parliament had adopted back in 2007, urging the Commission “to establish a timetable for replacing the use of all primates in scientific experiments with alternatives”. Anyway, by way of limbering up for the review, the Commission asked one of its advisory committees, the Science Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER), to set up a Working Group to study and report on “the need for non-human primates in biomedical research, production and testing of products and devices”. Under this same title, with its ready-made implication that such a need really does exist, SCHEER accordingly published its conclusions (formally an ‘Opinion’) a few weeks ago. These conclusions, on such an especially controversial aspect of animal research, may be taken as indicative of what animals have to hope for from the coming review.

We’re deep inside the E.U. machine here: a working group reporting to a standing committee commissioned to advise the executive on the revision of a parliamentary directive setting the parameters for (and here we at last come out into the open) actual laws in the 28 member states. And the advice itself frequently does have a machine-generated feel to it, of truth made out of words rather than real things, and all the more conveniently incontrovertible for that. “It is indeed important to consider the limitations of the NHP when choosing which species to use in a drug-safety test: the use of an appropriate species or combination of species/models is essential to obtaining the most reliable and translatable information.”[p.63] Has anything been said here that isn’t necessarily true? Is anyone arguing, for instance, that an inappropriate species would produce more reliable information? This key word ‘appropriate’, with its built-in wisdom, is much used in the authors’ proposals: “appropriate training”“appropriate standards”, and of course “appropriate use of NHPs”.

Another such passe-partout word is ‘robust’: the authors variously recommend “robust scrutiny”, “robust peer review procedures”, “robust study design”, and so on. One wonders why scientists hadn’t thought of the great merits of robustness before. Anyway, everything will surely be better in this robust and appropriate new world.

But not very much better. Distinctly this is a technical account of the subject: how to make things as they are work properly (the machine again). There are some good suggestions to that end, certainly. For instance the authors recognize, as one of the barriers to progress in animal-free research, the weight of professional habit and institutionalized practice; they advise that training courses for animal researchers should include “non-animal technologies”, so that transition is easier and more acceptable [p.64]. Also I must concede that, for all the tautologies and self-evident truths, there’s a 12-page bibliography to back up what the committee says. But the rationale for all this attention, why it matters whether there’s a ‘need’ for NHPs in science or not – in short, the morality of it – is almost untouched. Two pages (out of 66 in the main text) make a hurried tour of the topic, though it is of course alluded to from time to time elsewhere. But then all members of the Working Group were scientists. Accordingly, the page headed ‘Minority Opinion’, which looks rather promising with the whole of page 23 to itself in the table of contents, proves, when one reaches it, to be blank, apart from the word “None”.

The committee recognises, as a political fact, that “polls of the European public repeatedly show low levels of acceptance of the use of NHPs in research” [p.24]. Approval for the use of NHPs in the U.K., for instance, was about 17% when last canvassed (see, in this blog, ‘Animal Pains and Human Attitudes: the new Ipsos Mori survey’, 26 September 2016). However, there is at least “greater acceptance of animal research where animal use and suffering are minimised in line with the 3Rs principle” [i.e. Replacement, Reduction, Refinement: p.25]. This is no doubt true, although it’s a somewhat disingenuous way of putting things: where acceptance has not been ‘great’ in the first place, it shouldn’t really be said to become “greater”. And I suspect that approval would actually have been even lower if the respondents had known, as this SCHEER report records, that nearly three quarters of ‘procedures’ conducted on NHPs in the E.U. are for “regulatory use and routine production” [p.15].

What these quotations illustrate is how the “3Rs principle” is seen by scientists as a sort of ethical machine labouring away to turn expediency into good conduct, rather as the “invisible hand” of the free market was supposed by Adam Smith to convert self-interested actions into social good. In this capacity, it’s expected to satisfy or at least placate opponents of animal research. That it does not do so, and that the whole managerial attitude to “ethical considerations” understates their seriousness, is evident in the consultation document which is published alongside the SCHEER report (but which came before it in time, of course).

I must say that this 234-page consultation document is conspicuous proof at least of the diligence and fair-mindedness of the committee, which here records in the left-hand column, and replies to in the right, hundreds of queries and comments. It wasn’t in the committee’s remit to deal with ethics except as a general premise, but at least the moral passion is now allowed printed expression in raw, ungentrified form: “cruel”, “inhuman”, “abhorrent”, “nearest cousins”, “brothers”, “freedom”. True, the committee makes little attempt to address this sort of complaint (there being plenty of other more strictly scientific representations). “Stop this insane abuse!!” says one contribution (well yes, two exclamation marks, but then, as the great Aneurin Bevan used to say, “In public life, those who would change things must shout to be heard”). To such, the committee can only reply with a slightly pompous set formula: “This is a personal opinion. The comment does not provide any suggestions for improvements of the scientific basis of the SCHEER preliminary Opinion and/or any scientific evidence.” Still, such remonstrations, earnest and unscientific, are at least recorded here. Thank you to those who did speak up with this authentic human indignation.

When it issued its previous ‘opinion’ on animal research, just prior to the making of the 2010 Directive, this same science committee was called SCHER. The second ‘E’, recently added, stands for ‘emerging’, and refers to novel or reappearing infectious diseases. It’s an ominous alteration for NHPs, because this is one of the areas of research in which the committee, so far from sketching out a diminution in their use, foresees an increase. NHPs, so SCHEER claims, “provide essential models for understanding and combatting (re)emerging infectious pathogens.” Thus, for recent research into whooping cough, “a new baboon model was developed” [p.47]. That rather euphemistic phrase actually means that research was conducted, for the first time, on juvenile baboons (from two to six months old): the opposite of the 3Rs, then. SCHEER justifies such retrogressions by speaking of “realistic dangers” [p.47]. Danger, which might properly be seen as a test and validation of our ethics, is evidently expected to frighten them away. And after all, even the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos), whom the E.U. Directive in principle protects absolutely from scientific exploitation, may be used “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” [Article 55.2].

So, shall a timetable be drawn up for ending the use of NHPs in European research, as the E.U. Parliament was dreaming ten years ago? SCHEER’s 12,000 word answer resembles the one being given in a famous Saul Steinberg cartoon from 1961. A well-fed manager of some sort, comfortably leaning back at his desk, addresses a petitioner with a mass of words, illegible but obviously full of patronizing civilities and bureaucratic reassurances. The words coalesce, above the petitioner’s head, into a giant ‘NO’.


Notes and references:

The 2016 statistics can be viewed here:


These new statistics record about 3,600 procedures using NHPs. The SCHEER report uses the all-E.U. figure of 8898, which was the total in 2014. Note that the Home Office numbers don’t include Northern Ireland: i.e. they cover animal research in Great Britain rather than the U.K.

The 2007 Declaration of the European Parliament on primates in scientific experiments is published online at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/pdf/fische_suite.pdf

The SCHEER report is at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/scheer_o_004.pdf

The results of the public consultation are published at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/scheer/docs/followup_cons_primates_en.pdf

Aneurin Bevan is quoted in Michael Foot, Loyalists and Loners, Collins, 1987, p.36. Among other political achievements, Bevan was the Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, therefore the man responsible for establishing the U.K.’s National Health Service.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by permission of the University’s Public Affairs Office.





Thinking Ourselves Kings

In Frans de Waal’s most recent book about animal cognition – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) – he introduces to a general public many animal talents and capacities hitherto supposed unique to humans. His own specialism being primatology, he talks particularly about the social and political acumen of chimpanzees, forward planning among bonobos, reciprocal favours between capuchin monkeys, gorillas using tools, and so on. But he discusses also the skills of birds, cetaceans, octopuses, and many others.

The research which has revealed these accomplishments has often been picked up in media stories of the ‘smarter than we thought!’ genre. It’s a pity that the word ‘smart’, which in American English means simply ‘bright’ or ‘intelligent’, has in British English a suggestion of showiness or sophistication about it. For de Waal’s essential argument is that these various species have exactly the sort of intelligence which their situation in nature demands – intelligence developed for and within that situation, in fact. That’s what is implied in the term which he prefers for his branch of biology: evolutionary cognition. De Waal’s account of the ‘Kluger Hans’ story makes the point very well. Hans was famous in the early 20th century as a horse that could do sums, until a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst studied the performance and found that Hans was getting his cues for the answers from his unwitting trainer. The showy maths meant nothing to Hans, but understanding the body language of his trainer was a vital skill in which he had surpassed both his trainer and all their audiences.

The study which Pfungst then published did much to improve the techniques of experimental psychology. However, the Hans story was commonly understood as a caution against anthropomorphism, and therefore had the effect also, so de Waal says, of sanctioning a more sceptical and reductivist account of animal intelligence. At any rate there did follow what he calls the “this bleak period” for most of the 20th century, when (with the notable exception of Konrad Lorenz and his school of ethologists) the idea of intelligence or emotion in animals was dismissed as unscientific romance. In its place came the animal as mechanism: “the two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.” [4]

But in the case of behaviourism – the stimulus-response school led by B.F.Skinner – at least the reductivism went right to the top: the pigeons learning their behaviour from the rewards and punishments administered in the ‘Skinner box’ were the models, however inadequate, for all animal mind, including the human. Hence Skinner’s foray into human politics in his books Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He did not believe that humans were a special case, but applied to them the lessons he believed that he’d learnt from his animals. Here, at least, was impartial science.

But as de Waal shows again and again, studies in animal cognition have habitually been quite unscientifically partisan. Humans have been taken as the standard, and the intelligence of other animals has been judged according as they clumsily approximate to it. (One of de Waal’s chapters is titled ‘The Measure of All Things’.) The whole Nim project, for instance (as recounted in this blog for 8 May 2017), was essentially anthropocentric in this way: it asked how like a human a chimpanzee could be induced to behave.

De Waal shows that the very methodology of many studies has been carelessly biased.de Wall 2 Apes in sterile environments, behind bars or wire, take tests devised and presented by a different species (humans), and the results are compared to those achieved by human children in supportive human settings: the miserable contrast is well pictured in one of de Waal’s own illustrations. Earlier in the book he has aptly quoted the physicist Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” [7]

“What a bizarre animal we are,” de Waal exclaims, “that the only question we can ask in relation to our place in nature is Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?[157] It’s a well-chosen image, because the mirror test for self-awareness is an especially plain instance of the exam-bound mentality behind much comparative psychology. At this point we need to recall that nearly every research scientist is the triumphant product of almost two decades of successful test-taking. How could a mind be unaffected by this habituation? (Jane Goodall said in a recent BBC interview that she thought herself fortunate to have delayed formal scientific study until her late twenties. She never did study for an undergraduate degree.) Accordingly a conference report in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, “Dolphins, it turns out, are pretty darn smart. Panelist Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean neuroanatomy at Emory University in Atlanta [incidentally, the same university in which de Waal is a professor of psychology] said they may be Earth’s second smartest creature, after humans, of course.” For instance, “They can recognise themselves in a mirror (a feat most animals fail at).” Fail! One wonders how such animals get on in later life. Nature, it seems, is seated at a giant exam, where the top mark is reserved for the examiners’ own relations (for of course that question we put to the mirror on the wall is a confidently rhetorical one: we know who).

De Waal is keenly alert to all the manifestations of this attitude. He speaks, for instance, of a research project in which sheep were shown to recognise and remember the pictured faces of other sheep (touchingly, “they actually called out to these pictures as if the individuals were present”). But he balks at the sub-title given to the published report, ‘sheep are not so stupid after all’: it’s “a title to which I object, since I don’t believe in stupid animals.” [72] Later he writes of the “patience and restraint” shown by apes and others, as much in the wild as in domestication: “self-control is an age-old feature of animal societies.” [221] And yet it’s often said of humans who fail to show these qualities that they’re behaving ‘like animals’. De Waal illustrates our senseless prejudice in this respect with a story told by the zoologist Desmond Morris. In the days when London Zoo (where Morris then worked) held chimpanzee tea parties, these apes, being quite capable of using tools, became too orderly and polished in their manners to please the public: in order to conform to expectations, they had to be trained to misbehave. The point is that science, supposedly the home of positivism, has been prejudiced in the same way. Summarising this whole comparative or rather competitive tradition in cognitive science, de Waal says with characteristic decisiveness, “I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.” [12]

Happily, evolutionary cognition is now a well-established and rapidly growing discipline in science, with a large body of authoritative research already to its credit. Much of the success has no doubt been due to de Waal himself. Nowadays, who would think of saying, as a popular introduction did in the 1960s, that “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour, and that is to learn more about man himself”? However, the subject still does face resistance; in particular its egalitarian premise does. I don’t mean the sort of particular challenges which all science needs in order to remain healthy, but something more like an ideological antagonism.

A recent book title (cited by de Waal) makes the point: The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (2013). But at least here we are pictured in the same kingdom as our evolutionary fellow-products, the ‘other animals’. The more absolute case has been summarised in the ugly coinage ‘humaniqueness’, a word aimed at fixing into being this strange intellectual hybrid of science and ideology. The case was put in the 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University, titled ‘The Seeds of Humanity’ and delivered by the man who coined that absurd term. The two lectures by Marc Hauser, then a professor of pscyhology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, are densely argued texts, but their ideological theme is clearly established in the introductory paragraphs. Here is a taste of it, starting with the first sentence of all:

Humans create plays, operas, sculptures, computers, equations, laws, religions, guns, and soufflés. This is only a partial list of our achievements. In the history of life on earth, we are the only species to have created such creations … These observations suggest the first radical proposition I will make: we are not animals … If the fact that we share some 98 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees is meaningful, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones, or working on quantum computing, or adjudicating over a legal case, or making me a soufflé? … Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee – a cultural non-starter.

This is the prospectus, familiarly bumptious in its formulation, for the extreme form of what de Waal calls “an us-versus-them world”. That’s indeed the world which has been made for us in the West over the centuries, and which has been costing “them” ever more and more in pains and lives. And there’s surely still a persuasible audience for such thinking as this, even or perhaps especially among scientists, for it leaves us with nothing to apologise for or, more crucially, to change our ways for, and of course it makes us proud to be human.

De Waal’s book is a detailed critique of the ‘humaniqueness’ outlook. It is part of his own case that apes do indeed have cultures and other “creative” accomplishments, but that these are themselves pointers toward farther (not lower, but less immediately accessible) reaches of intelligence among animals more distant from humans in the evolutionary complex:

After the apes break down the dam between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species. Cognitive ripples spread from apes to monkeys to dolphins, elephants, and dogs, followed by birds, reptiles, fish, and sometimes invertebrates … an ever-expanding pool of possibilities in which the cognition of, say, the octopus may be no less astonishing than that of any given mammal or bird. [69-70]

So what are we: a lonely self-congratulating elite, scorning and battening upon the rest of nature, or fellow-swimmers in the waters of cognition? It’s a choice not just for cognitive science, but also for the moral and spiritual faculties which Hauser thinks so well of humans for having. I shall end with one tragi-comic utterance on the question Rouaultfrom those latter regions of the human mind, by the great French artist Georges Rouault: the print titled Nous nous croyons rois (‘We think ourselves kings’). It was made during the First World War. Its eloquence makes further comment superfluous.







Notes and references:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) is published in the UK by Granta Books, and in the USA by Norton and Co. The Desmond Morris story appears on p.223, and is referenced to R. and D. Morris, Men and Apes, McGraw-Hill, 1966. Page numbers for quotations are given in the brackets.

Jane Goodall was being interviewed on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 14 May for the programme Private Passions.

The popular introduction from the 1960s is P. L. Broadhurst’s The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963: quotation from p.12. There is more about this book and its times in the post for 10 October 2016.

The conference report in Science (an excellent journal) appears in the issue for 26 February 2010.

The 2008 Tanner Lectures can be read at http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/h/Hauser_08.pdf

Georges Rouault’s Nous nous croyons rois is number 7 in his print series entitled Miserere, first published in part in 1927, and published complete as Miserere et Guerre in 1948. Unfortunately I can’t recall where I have the image from, but I hope the source will forgive its use here.


Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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