Made Wise by More Than Pity

In the last, and some say greatest, of Richard Wagner’s operas, Parsifal, the story is set going by the shooting of a swan. It’s a portentous transgression in much the same way that the shooting of the albatross is in Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner, and it’s done in the same spirit of casual ignorance. When Parsifal is asked, by the indignant keepers of the Holy Grail at Monsalvat (onto whose ground he has strayed with his bow and arrows), whether he is the person responsible, his answer is bumptiously unequal to the situation: “Gewiss! Im fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!” Roughly translated, ‘Absolutely! If it flies, I shoot it!’ So speaks the jolly hunter.

The leader among the knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz, sets about making Parsifal feel the wrong that he’s done. That swan, he says (or rather, sings), “was dear to us; what is he now to you? Go on, look at him! This is where you struck him . . . etc.” The earnestness of this address, and of course the power of the music which carries it, move Parsifal to acknowledge the “great guilt” that Gurnemanz imputes to him: “Ich wusste sie nicht.” [I didn’t realise]. He breaks his bow and flings the arrows aside. The dead swan is then carried away on a funeral nest of branches – “reverently”, as both the stage directions and the music itself dictate.

And yet it’s this apparent simpleton Parsifal that will rescue Monsalvat and its Grail brotherhood from the disaster intoHerheimParsifal11a545px which it has fallen. Its king, Amfortas, has yielded the sacred spear, the one that wounded Christ, to his enemy and tempter Klingsor, and has himself been wounded with it. That unhealing wound memorializes his fall from the rule of chastity governing his own community, for that is the form that Klingsor’s temptation takes, seduction by beautiful women. Even this, which is dramatized in Act II when Parsifal finds himself in Klingsor’s “Zaubergarten” [magic garden] surrounded by lightly dressed “schöne Mädchen”, is really a synecdoche (a part representing the whole); it stands for any or all yielding to the motives and passions of secular material life. However, Amfortas has been promised in a holy vision that deliverance will come to Monsalvat through just such a simpleton as Parsifal, “durch Mitleid wissend” [that is, ‘once he has been made wise by compassion’]. In fact that promise is being remembered by the company just as the wounded swan makes its startling appearance, followed by Parsifal himself with his bow and arrow.

Can that wounded swan – which, say the stage directions, appears in “laboured flight”, then “falls to the ground exhausted” – ever be staged successfully? If it looks too plainly like a long-serving stage prop, the distress of the Grail knights, crying “Alas! Alas!” over it, can seem dangerously comical. But if it looks too real, that will raise the alienating concern that it may indeed have once or even recently been alive. And Wagner didn’t go in for abstractions on stage: the settings for his operas at Bayreuth were vividly naturalistic under his own direction (and long afterwards). That he was prepared to take this risk with the swan is an indication of how seriously he felt about the particular form in which Parsifal is to be inducted into the ordeal of “Mitleid”: that is, through sympathy with the suffering of an animal.

Richard-Wagner-painting-Franz-von-Lenbach-Germany-1882Wagner did indeed take the sufferings of animals seriously. While he was completing the score for Parsifal, in 1879, he put some of his ideas on the subject into a long essay with the title (as translated a few years later) ‘Against Vivisection’. There too, Mitleid is the key word and experience, as providing the crucial insight into the nature of things. It is “the only true foundation for morality”, for it enacts a fundamental truth about the world, namely that “the same thing breathes in animals that lends us life ourselves”. This, he says, was part of “the teachings of primeval wisdom” (he’s thinking of Hindu and Buddhist teachings, which he knew). But now it had also been evidenced “past all doubt”, and in a form adapted to “our unbelieving century”, by the work of Charles Darwin. Wagner suggests, in fact, that Darwin’s science “may prove our surest guide to a correct estimate of our relation to the animals; and perhaps it is on this road alone, that we may again arrive at a real religion” – at something like Monsalvat, perhaps.

So Mitleid is as important for humans as for other animals. For it’s not just the only “true” but also “the only ennobling reason for kindness toward dumb animals” [my italics here and throughout]. It’s what, accordingly, starts Parsifal on his journey towards his own ‘ennoblement’, fitting him to be the saviour promised to Monsalvat, the man ‘through pity made wise’.

A short digression about words here, because ‘pity’ certainly isn’t the right one, and in fact we have to recognise that there’s no English word adequate to Mitleid (a fact that must have helped to obstruct the coming of a right relation with animals in English-speaking countries). The translator of ‘Against Vivisection’, William Ashton Ellis, sometimes puts ‘pity’, sometimes ‘compassion’, even on one occasion ‘pure humanity’, which fits Wagner’s argument but strays some way from the dictionary (and Ellis has to admit as much in a footnote). ‘Pity’ is a status word; you feel pity, however kindly, for inferiors – hence its corruption in ‘pitiful’ and ‘pitiable’, both of which words can imply contempt (or try the withering put-down ‘I pity you!’). ‘Compassion’ has less of that condescension in it, but is too abstract; ‘sympathy’ feels less abstract (though both of them feel, and are, classics words by etymology), but is too slight. ‘Empathy’, a twentieth-century word taken from psychology and since become fashionable, has always been more about the personality that boasts it, than about the suffering that needs it: accordingly, the Oxford Dictionary’s most recent illustrative example quotes it in the phrase “showing empathy”.

What Wagner had in mind when he made Mitleid the key word in Parsifal, and the source of wisdom in its hero, was not kindness or protective emotion, good things as these are: he meant a sense of one’s identity with all other life, as equally products of one creating source. That’s the “real religion” which he speaks of in ‘Against Vivisection’. So again in his essay ‘Religion and Art’ (written in 1880), he speaks of “the unity of all that lives” as against “the illusion of our physical senses which dress this unity in guise of infinitely complex multitude and absolute diversity”. Of animals he says, “the beasts are only distinguished from man by the grade of their mental faculties . . . what precedes all intellectual equipment, what desires and suffers, is the same Will-to-live in them as in the most reason-gifted man.” Therefore when we ate meat, which Wagner called “a nutriment against nature” (he did his best to practise vegetarianism), we “mangled and devoured ourselves.

Although Wagner traces these ideas to Eastern thought (“how superb are Buddha’s teachings”, he says in a letter), his immediate source was Arthur Schopenhauer. Biographers of Wagner all record the supreme importance of that philosopher to his thought and art, as indeed Wagner himself does in his autobiography (“a radical influence on my whole life”). Since Schopenhauer is discussed elsewhere in this blog, I shall only say here that the “Will-to-live” (understood as the unseen and impersonal force driving the world as we experience it) had for him a wholly tragic character, urging life purposelessly onward at frightful expense in worldly suffering (Wagner called it “the Will’s tumultuous storm”). Escape, as Schopenhauer sees it, is only possible to us for moments in the purely contemplative (and therefore will-free) experience of art, or more lastingly in the rare selfless lives of saints. It was the special pathos of animal life that it permitted no such escapes, nor any consolatory insight into the mystery.

Wagner felt this same pathos acutely: “the beast can only look upon pain, so absolute and useless to it, with dread and agonised rebellion”; for that reason, as he confessed in a letter, he felt “less fellow-suffering for people than for animals.” (‘fellow-suffering’: perhaps that’s the one! No, too cumbersome.) But the opera Parsifal is not a tragedy. When the hero returns toParsifal 3 in 1882 Monsalvat in Act III, we’re reminded by Gurnemanz that this is the man “der einst den Schwan erlegt” [who once killed the swan], but now, taught by his own sufferings, he has become “Mitleidvoll Duldender, heiltatvol Wissender!” [a fellow-sufferer and enlightened healer]. The suffering that has thus ‘ennobled’ Parsifal has, in so far as we’ve witnessed it, consisted in the ordeal of resisting Klingsor’s seductive women (notably the strange half-vamp, half-handmaid, Kundry). But as I’ve said, for all the sensuous passion of that second act, it has been only one part of all the “dangers, battles and conflicts” that Parsifal is now said to have endured since his dismissal from Monsalvat as “nur ein Tor” [just a fool]. And having defeated Klingsor, he has taken back the sacred spear, symbol now of the “redemption” of the Grail community, a point made very plain by the news that this day of Parsifal’s return is also Good Friday.

So the last moments of Parsifal speak of “salvation”, and with the healing of King Amfortas they have the visionary quality of Christian redemption achieved. But Wagner was not conventionally (if at all) a Christian. He was looking for what he called “the inmost essence of the Christian religion”, by which he seems to mean awareness that the world as we know it is permanently in the condition of needing to be saved. The opera expresses mythically, as if satisfied, then, what Wagner calls, in the essay ‘Religion and Art’, “the Need of Redemption”. Our real and persisting condition is that “even in the insect, in the worm we tread upon unheeding, we shall ever feel the awful tragedy of this World-being, and daily have to lift our eyes to the Redeemer on the cross.”

As we’ve seen, he did indeed feel this tragedy on behalf especially of the animals. Writing about vivisection, then, he wistfully viewed that too in the visionary terms of Parsifal’s progress: “might our very indignation at the shocking sufferings inflicted wilfully on animals point out to us the pathway to the kingdom of pity toward all that lives, the Paradise once lost and now to be regained with consciousness?” And Parsifal, being a kind of everyman in his passage from untaught simplicity of mind to enlightenment, shows that humans have a duty beyond just noticing that need of redemption: humanity should become “conscious of its own high office of Redemption for the whole of like-suffering Nature”, and purposefully take that “pathway . . . to the Paradise once lost”. Monsalvat, as redeemed, pictures that Paradise for us. It is, among other things, a place where the animals, so we’re told and shown, are regarded as sacred. We should be making our way there, even if we can never arrive.

*                       *                       *                       *

This brief account of Parsifal, highlighting the zoophile content which most commentaries seem to understate or ignore, has itself left out, among other things, the following two very important aspects. The libretto which I’ve quoted from, which was Wagner’s own composition, is dwarfed in performance by the music, both in quantity and in power of expression: the composer Claude Debussy called Parsifal “one of the finest monuments in sound ever to have been raised to the everlasting glory of music.” Then there’s something which, though it’s not even cryptically present anywhere in the opera (so most Wagner scholars agree), is yet bound to shadow everything Wagner wrote and composed: his anti-Semitism. This is shocking and mystifying enough in his own writings (notably in ‘Judaism in Music’), but horribly aggravated for us since then by the cult of Wagner as promoted by Hitler in the 1930s. It seems especially perverse because music in and after Wagner’s time has so much depended on Jewish brilliance. In fact the first performance of Parsifal itself was conducted by a Jew, Hermann Levi. I’ve referenced a few discussions of the subject below. Here I can only say that the world-view proposed by Schopenhauer, and beautifully dramatized through Wagner’s genius, is wholly at odds with racist (or for that matter speciesist) thinking. I hope therefore that the idea in particular of humanity as having the “office of Redemption” for all the world’s life will be understood and unconditionally prized whenever Parsifal is performed.swam with vet's life

Notes and references:

The libretto to Parsifal can be viewed with parallel translation here: http://www.operafolio.com/libretto.asp?n=Parsifal&translation=UK . I’ve slightly adjusted some of the translations.

Both of the essays ‘Against Vivisection’ (October 1879) and ‘Religion and Art’ (October 1880) appeared first in the monthly Bayreuther Blätter, a journal primarily for those who came to Bayreuth in order to attend Wagner’s operas in the Festspielhaus which he designed for them there. They can be found now in Vol.VI of Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, transl. William Ashton Ellis, Kegan Paul, 1897. Wagner’s exclamation about “Buddha’s teachings” is quoted in Ellis’s preface to this volume, at p.xxx. Other quotations, if not from the libretto, come from the two essays, except that the letter about fellow-suffering with animals is quoted from the online source https://www.monsalvat.no/wagner-schopenhauer-parsifal.htm#Mitleid , and the phrase from Wagner’s autobiography is taken from The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Bryan Magee, 1987, p.336.

About Wagner’s anti-Semitism, there’s an illuminating chapter in Bryan Magee’s fine study of the composer, Aspects of Wagner, OUP, revised edition 1988. Then there’s an interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Can We forgive Him?’, online here: https://www.theguardian.com/friday_review/story/0,3605,345459,00.html  Finally, the connection with Parsifal is very fully discussed here: https://www.monsalvat.no/banned.htm#Nazism

Coleridge’s poem is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/shedding-the-albatross/ . The world-view of Schopenhauer, and the place of animals in it, are discussed here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/schopenhauer-and-the-chained-dog/

The illustrations show a scene from Act I in a 2010 production at Bayreuth, with the wounded Amfortas at the front; a portrait of Wagner in 1882, painted by Franz von Lenbach; a scene from Act III in the first production of Parsifal, Bayreuth 1882, with Kundry, Gurnemanz, and Parsifal; and a rescued swan in the arms of a vet.

Minks, Fishes, Macaques: New Wrongs and Re-newed Remedies

The sudden ‘culling’ of millions of minks in Denmark and other European countries has variously been called, by practitioners in this branch of animal exploitation, “dramatic”, “incredibly sad and shocking”, and “devastating”. It surely is all of these things (except that a scientist shouldn’t be using the nonsense word ‘incredibly’), especially for the minks themselves, but hardly more so this year than any other. Most of the minks will have been losing their lives just a very short time before the allotted span, since only the breeding females are allowed to live for more than a season. The real difference this year is a commercial one. The animals are being destroyed not for profit, but because their crowded indoors life provides ideal conditions for the Covid-19 virus. With so many back-up hosts immediately available, the virus isn’t even penalized for killing its present billet: hence the fear that it may be mutating into something even more virulent.

In fact the word ‘cull’, suggesting a judicious selection, perhaps taken out for the sake of the remaining population, is quite disingenuous here. This is a wholesale slaughter, whose start-to-end wrongfulness is only redeemed minkby the declared intention of some of the countries – Netherlands, Ireland, perhaps others – to prohibit this variety of animal-farming in future. (A current petition on the subject is linked in the notes below.)

To the slaughter on the farms themselves is added a sort of collateral population of minks: the ones being used to trial new and more effective ways of farming and breeding. It’s safe to say that every commercial exploitation of animals has this back-room population serving it. The ‘sad and shocked’ speaker quoted above was in fact thinking of his own team of 6000 or so ‘research’ minks at Aarhus University in Denmark. His work there has been, on the face of it, beneficial to the animals. He studies “the behaviour and welfare of farmed mink, with the aim of giving them a better life as they are raised for fur.” Even so, it’s difficult to think very well of this research. I can’t see that it does more than provide statistical backing for what ought to be the very platitudes of practical husbandry: for instance, that ‘enriched’ cages and gentle handling tend to give the animals confidence, whereas unpleasant events (such as brief confinement in a “small trap”) have the reverse effect, making them nervous and fearful. The conclusions of one Aarhus paper earlier this year were that “we would recommend farmers to (1) avoid negative handling, and (2) if [it’s] necessary to handle mink, to adopt the best possible handling methods.”

Perhaps there’s a bit more to the research than that – more promise of a “better life” for the minks, that is – but there’s also a good deal less. Such research is necessarily good PR for mink-farming, since it allows farmers to use these minimum decencies and claim, as the research itself does, that by doing so they “enhance mink welfare”. ‘Enhance’! So the minks are already doing well; giving them a tube to hide in, and not handling them roughly, constitute a bonus (I can find no mention of the water which these semi-aquatic animals have to do without). It’s not a surprise, then, that the funds for this research at Aarhus University come from sources that include the Danish Pelt Levy Foundation and the trade collective called Kopenhagen Fur (“ensuring the highest standards of animal welfare”).

Then there’s this emphasis on relieving the animals of the sense of fear. It’s a laudable aim, in so far as there’s general agreement that fear is the worst of the common distresses of captive animals. The cattle-slaughter specialist Temple Grandin says, “Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” But of course there’s a swindle involved here, for these animals have good reason to be afraid. Their docility, which makes them much easier to handle (and easier also to show in promotional films), is really a trick being played upon them, the wolf dressing up as grandma. The only honourable way to relieve them of fear in this case is to stop being the cause of it.

But of course the history of animal welfarism has largely consisted in managing the symptoms and leaving the essential wrong intact. This is partly what has prompted Dr Gill Langley, a dedicated specialist in non-animal research technologies, to propose in the latest issue of the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals that the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement), a classic welfare initiative, have “had their day”.

These three “principles of humane experimental technique” were first put forward in a book of that title written by William Russell and Rex Burch and published in 1959. They have been part of British and EU law since 1986. Their consequences in reduced animal suffering can’t well be measured, but must surely have been very great. The book was re-issued in 2009, slightly revised in order to make it easier for non-English readers rather than because it needed up-dating. In fact the European Union’s “final goal of full replacement”, a commitment of 2010, is already implicit in the book, whose authors say with clear emphasis that “absolute replacement may be regarded as the absolute ideal”. They also, incidentally, devote six pages to research into fear and anxiety – still one of the most ingeniously nasty branches of animal research, and continually renewed in the search for effective, or at least different, tranquillizers and anti-depressants. Russell and Burch showed how such research might be conducted “without at any stage of the process inflicting any fear on the animal.”

But yes, the aim of the 3Rs has always been to minimize the harms of animal research, rather than to put what practitioners would regard as a premature end to the practice. Accordingly the 3Rs address only the welfare of animals, not their rights. And Dr Langley argues that many scientists have little interest even in animal welfare, except as a bureaucratic complication of their work. Outside Europe, in countries where the 3Rs have less or no authority, there’s not even much of a bureaucratic complication for them to bother about. (I notice that a Chinese scientist who studies bats and other animals as disease-carriers is quoted as saying “I don’t like animals”.) To engage the interest and commitment of such people, she proposes that the case should be put in its more positive form: “not replacement methods, but advanced techniques: no longer alternative or humane research . . . but human-relevant and human-specific: not 20th century, but 21st century toxicology.” In short, the 3Rs have “had their day” because animal research itself has: it’s out of date.

If only this were so! But, taking the human relevance first, there’s a whole corpus of research which can’t be human-specific, because, as we’ve just seen, it’s mink-specific or otherwise bat-specific or specific to any of the other species which may catch the scientific or commercial eye.

There’s fish-specific research, for instance, a mushrooming category already reviewed elsewhere in this blog. Unlike the research at Aarhus, very little of this has to do with welfare, and it supports a class of farming, ‘aquaculture’, that is briskly growing rather than, like mink-farming, in decline. Thus a report in last week’s issue of the journal Science, titled ‘Tomorrow’s Catch’, speaks of “dramatic gains for aquaculture” coming from new research. The writer seems dazzled by the numbers and superlatives: whether of fishes, farm sizes, dollars, prospects, they’re all cause for astonishment and congratulation. “Everybody in the field is excited”, says a scientist from Rutgers University. Someone from Hendrix Genetics (“Better breeding today for a brighter life tomorrow”), admiring the newly accelerated growth-rates of farmed salmon, says “My colleagues in poultry can only dream of these kinds of percentages.” And you can be certain they are dreaming of them, and fully intending to make the dreams real at the earliest opportunity.

The point is that there’s nothing in the least ‘20th century’ about the animal research which is hustling fish-farming into its future. An account of the industry recently published in the journal Trends in Genetics makes this clear: already you can throw away your notes on such last-year technologies as ‘transcription activator-like nucleases (TALENS) or ‘zinc finger nucleases’ (ZFN), because they’ve been “largely superseded by the advent of the re-purposed CRISPR /Cas9 system”. The development of the gene-editing technique CRISPR (a.k.a. clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) was the theme of 2020’s Nobel Prize for chemistry. It’s this year’s science. Some of the things about fishes which it will enable silver-pacific-salmonaquaculturists to control are growth rate, colouring, resistance to disease and infestation (crucial, as we’ve seen, in grossly overcrowded populations), sterility (more cost-effective and eases control of the patent), boniness (the aim being to eliminate the little bones that inconvenience consumers), and, to summarize, cash-value. And that last objective, of course, never dates.

But the animal research aimed at illuminating and correcting human physiology is keenly go-ahead in just the same way – using CRISPR itself of course, but many other new technologies too. Optogenetics, for instance: this technology was voted ‘Method of the Year’ by the journal Nature Methods as long ago as 2010, but has been briskly developing ever since. It involves injecting into the brains of mammals (usually mice or monkeys) a virus carrying light-sensitive proteins, so that scientists can then use an implanted light-source to activate particular nerve-cells, and thereby modify animal capacity or behaviour. The final aim is correction of human brain disorders, and there are now more than 66 neurological laboratories in the world that are using monkeys in this sort of experimentation. There will surely be many more soon: one participant in Canada is quoted in Science exclaiming that she “can’t wait to test” some of the newer techniques in optogenetics, and looks forward to “a boom in studies to influence and understand the brain circuits of some of our closest animal relatives.” You’ll notice that the word ‘closest’ is used there for its strictly scientific relevance, free of ethical content: the closer, the more useful.

macaqueThe Science article in question, titled ‘Efforts to control monkey brains get a boost’, is headed with a photograph of a macaque monkey in the wild. I’ve pondered that for a while. Why advertise the contrast? Can some sub-editor be making an ethical point (for the ethics of animal research do sometimes get a mention in this journal)? No, I conclude that the picture simply represents generic ‘macaque’, much as the term ‘mink’ is used as a sort of collective noun, all minks really being fur, whether temporarily on foot or ready-to-wear. Likewise, whether kitted with the optogenetic prosthetics or innocently looking about them in nature, macaques are uniformly brain-carriers, and we’ve set ourselves to get at it: a human-centred predatory project for the 21st century.

In such a setting, the 3Rs can’t be said to have had their day. Outside Europe their day has scarcely arrived. When it does arrive – that is, if ever they form part of the law governing research in all countries – even then there’ll be more for them to do. For there is nothing peculiarly science-specific about the 3Rs; they would apply equally well to any other scene of animal exploitation. Remember in particular that any adequate alternative to animal-use becomes a mandatory ‘replacement’ under 3Rs regulations. The 3Rs would therefore put an end to meat and dairy farming (replacement technology: veganism), to zoos (replaced by nature documentaries), and of course to animal-fur, for which replacements have been available since well before Russell and Burch first published their principles of humane research. When the 3Rs really have done all they usefully can, we shall indeed have a truly human-relevant science, and more largely a fully animal-relevant ethics: in short a humane way of life at last.

Notes and references:

The petition, mentioned above and addressed to the Prime Minister of Denmark, may have come too late now, but it’s here: https://animalpetitions.org/933352/death-is-not-disease-prevention-no-more-culling-of-innocent-animals/

Articles in Science about mink-farming, aquaculture, and optogenetics are in the issues for 13 and 20 November, and 30 October of 2020 respectively. The research paper on mink-welfare, titled ‘Barren housing and negative handling decrease the exploratory approach in farmed mink’, is published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, January 2020, and online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159119301637?via%3Dihub

An example of a promotional film about mink-farming can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwPsStvktks

The quotation from Temple Grandin comes in her book Animals in Translation, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.189. There is more about Dr Grandin’s work in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/fitting-them-for-slaughter-the-work-of-temple-grandin-and-others/

Dr Langley’s article appears in the journal ATLA, vol.48 issue 1 supplement, November 2020. It’s a version of an address originally given at the Lush Prize Conference of 2018, and titled ‘The Times They are A-Changin’. The quotation is from p.145. The article can be viewed here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0261192920911340

The 2009 edition of Russell and Burch’s book is edited by Michael Balls and re-titled The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion (publisher, Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments). Quotations are from pp.36 and 98.

The EU’s “final goal” is thus stated in the Directive 2010/63, part of the preamble at para 10: see
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32010L0063

“I don’t like animals” is quoted from an article titled ‘The bat-man tackles Covid-19’ in Science, 2 October 2020.

The article in Trends in Genetics appeared in September 2019, and was titled ‘Potential of Genome Editing to Improve Aquaculture Breeding and Production’. It’s accessible online here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251930126X

Fish and fish-farming are the subject of a post in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/our-ancestors-the-fishes/

Cutting out a Path to Knowledge: a Poet’s Vivisector

The poet John Davidson, who enjoyed a period of literary success in the 1890s but then fell out of fashion, is still sometimes to be found in anthologies. Most usually it’s with his fine poem ‘The Last Journey’ – actually the epilogue to a much longer piece – in which the speaker sets out on a walk toward his death (for Davidson believed in rightly timed suicide, and showed that he did in 1909):

I knew it in my heart my days were done.
I took my staff in hand; I took the road,
And wandered out to seek my last abode.

Or sometimes it’ll be ‘A Runnable Stag’. This is the ballad of a hunt on the North Somerset coast, starting with the hunters and their thrills, but gradually preferring the experience of the animal, who finally takes to the “sheltering ocean”, so that his disappointed pursuers

Beheld him escape on the evening tide,
Far out till he sank in the
Severn Sea.

Incidentally, that phrase ‘runnable stag’, meaning an animal of the right ageDavidson photo and size to make a good hunt out of, belongs with ‘research monkey’, ‘ornamental fish’, ‘heritage cattle’, and a myriad other fictitious species in the un-Linnaean system of classifying animals by their usefulness to ourselves. Davidson’s poem movingly corrects that way of thinking.

A much harder poem of his to enjoy – indeed to read at all, so harrowing is it – has the title The Testament of a Vivisector. It’s about 230 lines long, and was published as a volume of its own in 1901. This is the story of a single ruthless vivisection, told as a dramatic monologue by the practitioner himself. As we’ll see, it’s as much about his world-view as it is about his chosen work, but his work is the foreground of it.

Here is a man gripped by the “zest of inquisition”waiting_for_death (the unpleasant historical associations of that word are deliberate). The victim of his research is a broken-down horse just reaching the cat’s-meat end of his downward spiral of servitude to humans. The vivisector rescues this animal from “a raw-faced knacker”, and upon the horse’s living body he then starts “cutting out / A path to knowledge”, apparently in solitude and on his own premises. The whole thing would have been a completely illegal procedure, of course, even in 1901, but then Davidson exactly wished to picture an antinomian, a rebel against the pressures of conscience or of conventional decencies. In short, this is a man who “reveres / Himself, and with superb [i.e. proud] despite / Maltreats the loving-kindnesses of men.

I suppose that such a man might be called ‘Nietzschean’, and certainly Davidson was impressed by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he called “the most powerful mind of recent times”.

To dramatize such a man with such an outlook, Davidson thought vivisection an appropriate activity – with very good reason. For although there is histrionic exaggeration here, this man’s attitude is essentially the same one actually boasted of by the pioneers of modern vivisection a few decades before (they mostly learned to be more discreet about it after the outcries of the 1870s and 80s). Thus Davidson’s vivisector, driven as he is by “headstrong passion and austerity”, and “purged”, so he says,

Of vulgar tenderness in diligent
Delighted tormentry of bird and beast,

is echoing the words of the practitioner Claude Bernard, in his standard introduction to experimental physiology:

The physiologist is not a common man (‘vulgar’ is Davidson’s word), he’s a man seized and engrossed by the scientific idea which he pursues; he hears no more the cries of the animals, he sees no more the blood which flows, he sees only his idea and is aware only that these organisms are hiding the secret workings which he wishes to uncover. [from Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale, Paris, 1865, p.180: for the original French, see the notes below.]

Claude Bernard’s wife and daughters were repelled by this demonic single-mindedness, and apparently deserted him (they became campaigners against vivisection). Just so is it for Davidson’s vivisector:

I live alone: my wife
Forsook me, and my daughters.

Going further into the dark of his profession, this man’s specialism in physiology is one of the most unpleasant and most productive of ingenious cruelty in the vivisector’s catalogue: pain itself.

I study pain – pain only: I broach and tap
The agony of Matter.

The topic, we know, is perennial and boundless, or limited only by the ingenuity of researchers (a paper in the journal Science Advances last month describes how mice respond to the neurotoxic venom of the Australian stinging tree Dendrocnide excelsa). And here, for all his unsavoury hermitism, Davidson’s vivisector knows that he has “compeers”. There are, for instance, “those / Who tortured fourscore solipeds to carve / A scale of feeling on the spinal cord.” This must be a reference to actual research, but I can’t identify it: perhaps, since so many horses or other ‘solipeds’ were available there, it was part of the work being done at the notorious Alfort Veterinary College near Paris.

It’s to such “compeers”, then, that this vivisector feels related, not at all to society as a whole. The trajectory of his work reflects this professional self-commitment. We’re told that when he first practised his craft (“began to hew the living flesh”), his aim was “mitigation of disease”. Others like him were perhaps initially doing it “shrewdly as a livelihood, / Or to delight or help mankind, or make a name”. However,

                 in the end, to know –
Merely to know was the consuming fire
Of these strong minds, delivered and elect.
(a very Nietzschean company)

The vivisector seems then to travel beyond even that stage of merely inquisitive research. In his isolation, or rather his wretched partnership with the suffering horse, his own specialism loses human reference altogether, and becomes for him a model or instance of the way the universe works. The horse comes to stand for all material things, living or inert: “It may be matter in itself is pain”, he speculates, and that

                 systems, constellations, galaxies
That strew the ethereal waste are whirling there
In agony unutterable
.

He himself, meanwhile, is simply an instrument used by the universe to come to an understanding of itself – “In me accomplishing its useless aim.”

One often hears the phrase ‘what it means to be human’ as the claimed insight from some neuro-scientific investigation, or indeed from all sorts of intellectual and artistic endeavour. In this poem, what it means to be the universe pushes that anthropocentric will-o’-the wisp aside: preoccupied as we may be only with ourselves, we’re in fact steadily working for the equally unfeeling and selfish purpose of the universe,

          the infinite vanity
Of the Universe, being evermore
Self-knowledge.

Such are the last lines of the poem.

The Testament of a Vivisector was published during a period of very active controversy. The newly founded British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was running a vigorous campaign against the Brown Institution, a place founded and endowed fifty years back as an infirmary for sick animals but transformed by the University of London into what BUAV’s Frances Power Cobbe called “the headquarters of vivisection in England. In that same publication year, 1901, Stephen Coleridge, secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, publicly identified the London hospitals that ran vivisection laboratories (in his pamphlet The Metropolitan Hospitals and Vivisection). A dedicated alternative hospital, ‘the Antiviv’, was about to open in Battersea (as described elsewhere in this blog). These and other protests, projects, and scandals were to culminate in the second Royal Commission on the subject in 1906.

John Davidson warned his readers in a preliminary note to the poem that it would not please either side in this controversy. Certainly the story of the vivisector marking down the weary horse and putting it to pitiless use (without anaesthetics, of course) would be horrible for zoophiles to read. But after all, that was and is the main objection to the practice – that it causes pain to helpless animals. Davidson therefore puts a strong case against it as his very premise and story-line.

The case for it, at least as it is shown practised in the poem, depends upon our accepting the remarkable world-view proposed by the vivisector, that the story of the universe – or of ‘Matter’, as he sometimes calls it, for he doesn’t attribute mind of any sort to it, except via mankind – has been one of gradual and strenuous self-discovery, in which scientific humanity is the final and successful means. As to the pain caused, why should the universe mind? And isn’t he suffering too: “Have I no pain?” he rhetorically appeals. He even wonders, as we’ve seen, whether pain is not the universal condition, constituting indeed the grand discovery now being made through human agency.

If this seems an almost pathological condition of mind, a perilous mixture of self-mortification and human-supremacism, it may be taken as a fair caricature of the state of mind in which vivisection has made its case and found its justification. As I’ve already said, the vivisector fits naturally into it, and dramatizes it for us. It wasn’t, however, a mere fiction for Davidson himself. In his last substantial poem, titled The Testament of John Davidson, he presents the idea again more plainly: “Men are the Universe / Aware at last.” And then he takes it a step further into a terrifying simplicity:

It may be that the Universe attains
Self-knowledge only once; and when I cease
To see and hear, imagine, think and feel,
The end may come, and Matter, satisfied,
Devolve once more . . .
Back to ethereal oblivion
.

Here the idea emerges in all its megalomania, and the wilful alienation entailed in it leads naturally and tragically on to that last expedition taken by the poet in the epilogue quoted at the start of this post.

Megalomania, alienation, self-destruction: who could say that Davidson doesn’t carry his whole species with him on that ruinous journey? Often one feels that only a complex madness of that kind can explain mankind’s treatment of fellow-creatures and the world-habitat shared with them. I’ve said that Davidson admired the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (though with some reservations). It’s plainly recognisable in his portrait of the vivisector: the rejection of conventional (or any) morality, the trust in an “elect”, the proud willingness to take and to cause pain, the hubristic over-estimate of the human, the vaunting of solitude. In fact The Testament of a Vivisector may be read as a cautionary fable for that philosophy.

Nietzsche himself suffered, in his middle age, a mental collapse from which he didn’t recover, though he lived for another ten years. Leading up to it there had been a period of increasing megalomania; one biographer calls it “self-infatuation” [541]. But the immediate occasion of his collapse, the so-called ‘incident in Turin’, was the sight of a worn-out horse much like the vivisector’s being beaten and goaded by its master. It seems that Nietzsche intervened and tearfully embraced the animal, before being detached from it and led away by friends.

It may be impertinent, even in some way impious, to look for meanings in something done in a state of derangement. Not indeed that there’s anything obviously deranged about pitying a distressed horse (rather a sign of mental health, one would say); it’s the contrast of that tender-hearted action with Nietzsche’s declared philosophy that makes a puzzle of it – and it has indeed been puzzled over by critics and biographers. In the next post, I hope to say more about it and suggest a meaning to it which will help to make sense also of John Davidson’s poem.

Notes and references:

The poem was originally published by Grant Richards. I don’t know of any more recent edition, but the text is available in the Internet Archive, at https://archive.org/details/testamentsno100daviuoft/page/26/mode/2up

Davidson’s description of Nietzsche comes in his preface to The Testament of John Davidson, Grant Richards, 1908, p.18. The later quotations from that remarkable poem are at pp. 47 and 142.

The original French of Claude Bernard’s remarks is this: “Le physiologiste n’est pas un homme du monde . . . c’est un homme qui est saisi et absorbé par une idée scientifique qu’il poursuit; il n’entend plus les cris des animaux, il ne voit plus le sang qui coule, il ne voit que son idée et n’aperçoit que des organismes qui lui cachent des problèmes qu’il veut découvrir.”

The paper in Science Advances is titled ‘Neurotoxic peptides from the venom of the giant Australian stinging tree’, and was published on 16 September 2020. I don’t mean to imply that therapies against the very painful results of a sting from this source aren’t worth devising; let’s indeed avoid pain, but not by making other animals suffer it for us.

The story of the ‘Antiviv’ is told in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/the-antiviv-a-hospital-without-cruelty/

The term “self-infatuation” is used about Nietzsche at that time in Curtis Cate’s biography Friedrich Nietzsche, Hutchinson, 2002, p. 546.

John Davidson is shown from a photograph of 1896. The wood-engraving is a detail from Waiting for Death by Thomas Bewick; it was published in 1832.

Animal Research in China

The Chinese government does not like or accept the orthodox view that the Covid-19 virus first infected humans at an animal market in Wuhan. Even a much vaguer formulation, referring to “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, was notoriously excised by the China Daily newspaper from an otherwise cordial article signed by the European ambassadors in Beijing. Still less does China officially countenance the suggestion that the virus was an escapee from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology.

This last is not an explanation that convinces many scientists outside that country either, but for China it’s especially objectionable. A recent announcement by Beijing’s Science and Technology Commission, taking a quick survey of modern history, noted that “Nations that led the most revolutionary scientific advancements . . . became global leaders in industry, commerce, and culture.” Global leadership in these and other areas of international life is patently China’s aim, so naturally the country “strives to be a superpower in innovation.” Biomedical research is an important part of this project,

CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS

and the laboratory at Wuhan has been one of its early manifestations. The National Bio-Safety Laboratory there is the first of an intended series of institutions working at the highest internationally agreed level of bio-safety, BSL-4. When the lab was completed, in 2017, a report in the journal Nature reflected in its style something of the heroic swagger of the project: “Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats.” A leading Chinese microbiologist was quoted: “The world is facing more new emerging viruses, and we need more contribution from China.” Irony and coincidence: we shouldn’t be surprised that China is doing what it can to keep them from spoiling the shine on its research facility at Wuhan, and on the larger science project which it represents.

It’s not simply a matter of national pride. That announcement quoted above was part of a closely-printed 4-page ‘advertorial’ in the American journal Science on 1 May; another one, with a different text, appeared in the next issue. Both were positioned immediately after the journal’s own editorial: that is, not among the adverts at beginning and end, but as part of the reading matter. Their express purpose, thus lavishly funded, is to attract “foreign experts” either to collaborate in the research or to set up their own research establishments – in this case in the Beijing area, but other cities and provinces are equally eager. It’s being made as easy and attractive as possible for the experts to do so, with special visas, plentiful research grants, even suitable schools “public or private”. And the high-powered welcome is very acceptable to Western scientists. “This place just makes things happen quickly”, says an MIT neuroscientist whose work is becoming trans-Pacific accordingly. A fellow-professional in that discipline is making a complete re-location to the city of Hangzhou in order direct a laboratory built to her specifications, and feels likewise liberated from impediments: “Once the decision is made, you can start writing cheques.” Cheques, that is, for staff, for equipment, and, of course, because it’s neuroscience, for animals.

So it’s not just the grants which come easily; it’s the animals, and particularly the large animals. One of the planned BSL-4 laboratories, to be built near Kunming in Yunnan province, south-western China, will be specifically for primate research, but already that province is a noted centre for such work. The Yunnan Key Laboratory, which the journal Nature calls “a Mecca for cutting-edge primate research”, specializes in editing the genes of monkeys (of which it has a colony of something over 4000) to produce models of human neural diseases. The “dream” of its director, apparently, is “to have an animal like a tool” for making biomedical discoveries with. Then there’s the Kunming Institute of Zoology, whose director of primate research hopes to develop a colony of 5000 monkeys; his dream is to run the place “like a hospital, with separate departments for surgery, genetics and imaging.”

These are dreams that many researchers in Europe and the USA evidently share, but difficulties with funds and ethics tend to prevent them from realizing the dreams in their own countries. One such, Professor Nikos Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for cloned monkeysBiological Cybernetics in Tübingen, was recently in the news announcing his intention to move to a centre for primate brain research in Shanghai. (The centre is part of a biomedical research complex which has recently produced the five monkeys pictured here on the right, gene-edited and cloned to suffer sleep-disorders. To produce these five survivors, 325 embryos were planted into 65 surrogate mothers.) Characteristically, the Shanghai centre is in process of being built; China’s science, vast as it may already be, is dwarfed by its own future. There will be 6000 or so non-human primates available there. “Scientifically it’s incredible”, Logothetis told a journalist (with that imprecise fulsomeness that scientists use for journalists, or perhaps it’s just that journalists impute it to them), but he means ethically “incredible” as well. Having had trouble with animal activists and with animal-protection law in Germany, he looks forward to a more liberal regime in Shanghai. So, presumably, do the other members of his department, about half of the total, who mean to move with him.

That’s just one well-reported example. Some Western scientists seem to run a sort of second home in China. One specialist in spinal-cord injury based in Lausanne, we’re told, “travels almost monthly to China to pursue his monkey research . . . He has even flown to Beijing, done a couple of operations on his experimental monkeys, then returned that night.” Incidentally, it costs less than half as much to buy and keep a monkey in a laboratory in China as it does in Europe or the USA, although the chances are that the monkey will have come from a breeder in China in all three cases (China provides about 70% of the primates used in the USA). That should help pay for the flights, then.

In short, primate research is one of those things in which China has the firm intention, and every likelihood, of becoming a “global leader”. There are no general animal-cruelty laws in that country, and it’s reasonable to ask whether the animals which Westerners think it worth hurrying across the globe to experiment on have any ethical protection at all. And not just primates, of course, for these are part of a huge annual cohort of lab animals. It numbers about 20 million at present, but seems likely to grow rapidly, for the present moves past at speed in China: this whole hyper-active animal-research scene in China is hardly more than fifty years old.

In fact hustle has marked the modern history of China. The people have often enough suffered as dreadfully as the animals, although they have at least been the notional last sparrowbeneficiaries. Mao Zedong’s great ‘Eliminate the Sparrows’ campaign of 1958 was one typical illustration of the place of non-human animals in communist China. In its unthought-out assault upon these birds as crop-predators, the campaign boosted the populations of the insects which the sparrows also used to eat, and helped cause the ‘Great Famine’. It did also wipe out the sparrows, apparently with the keen support of the Chinese people. Later, a sparrow population had to be imported. Something of this same hubris and hurry is evident in what has been called China’s “animal-editing binge”.

However, the hustle today has Western interests in mind, as we’ve seen. In the case of laboratory animal welfare, policy therefore pulls in opposite directions. Whilst moral permissiveness in the laboratory will appeal to many individual researchers like Logothetis, it makes collaboration with Western institutions awkward or even impractical, and as publicity it would compromise the international standing of Chinese biomedical science. It’s certainly not one of the inducements offered in that Beijing ‘advertorial’ or in any other publicity that I’ve seen. And happily there is indeed a system of ethical regulation in China’s animal research laboratories, or at least the paperwork for it.

Some reference to animal welfare even appeared in the very first Ministry of Science and Technology rules of 1988, the publication of which really marked the institutionalizing of animal research in the country. Those rules mainly concerned hygiene, record-keeping, and other aspects of lab management, but animal welfare was more expressly the subject of the Ministry’s Guidelines for the Humane Treatment of Laboratory Animals, issued in 2006. Here, something approximating to the EU’s system – with licensing, training, ethical review committees, ‘humane end-points’, and application of the 3R principles – was introduced. The stated purpose was to ensure that “animals will not suffer from unnecessary harm, hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear, torture, disease and pain”, and that “animals can achieve their natural behaviour.”

No doubt every country has its own history of malpractice in laboratories, mostly unrevealed, occasionally illuminated in scandals: helplessness of the sort imposed on the animals by these alien circumstances will always bring out the sadist or bully in some humans, whatever their nationality. Therefore there need be nothing xenophobic in deducing from the Guidelines something very unpleasant in the situation which they proposed to correct. For instance, these are some of the actions which, except when done “for the need of testing”, are specified as violations: “teasing, irritating, beating, using electric shock or hurting laboratory animals by using food with offending taste, chemical drugs and poisonous materials . . . intentionally harming the organs of laboratory animals.” 

Whether the Guidelines have been able to correct such things is another matter. They do not have the status of law, and there is little evidence that the sanctions which they do make available (warnings, suspension of license, ‘re-assignment’) have been enforced. The official policy, and habit, of secrecy would tend to hide any such evidence, of course, but also to hide the violations in the first place, and to discourage their reporting. Occasionally, papers by Chinese researchers have appeared in science journals discussing the subject in general terms, and they aren’t reassuring. Mention is made of ignorance, negligence, blunders, and deliberate abuse. One account in 2008 found that little or no provision for the welfare of animals in laboratories, beyond their basic survival needs, was then being made: “As a result, many such animals have a very high incidence of abnormal behaviour.” A survey of Chinese medical students, published in 2015, found that only 25% of them recognised animal welfare as a concept, the others not having encountered or at any rate noticed it at all.

In 2016 a new set of proposed national standards for the treatment of laboratory animals was published. These were described in China Daily as “tougher regulations . . . to bring the nation into line with developed countries”. That this was indeed at least part of the purpose, or of the purposed impression, was indicated by the choice of time and place for the announcement: a conference involving Chinese research groups and the British NC3Rs (National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research). I can’t find any reports since then of the introduction or effect of these new standards. However, we know that more and more Chinese laboratories and training programmes are applying for endorsement from the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, suggesting that they believe themselves to be indeed getting “into line with developed countries”.

It may be more significant in the long run that China has an animal rights movement of its own, or at least a growing debate on the subject. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was translated into Mandarin Chinese in the mid-1990s, and Chinese writers and campaign groups have taken up the ideology and developed it in their own setting (against greater odds, no doubt, than we have known in the West). The Chinese Animal Protection Network is an especially enterprising group, which stresses the scientific reasoning for animal rights – in evolution and in our growing awareness of the sentient capacities of non-human animals. In 2008, CAPN organised the first World Day for Animals in Laboratories in that country. And it wisely reminds its constituency of a national tradition older than communism in this matter. The last of the “six keys of our philosophy” is this: “The term animal rights may be quoted from the West, but the essence of the idea is not imported. The essence of its ideas has been widely and profoundly expressed in Chinese traditional ideas: Buddha, Taoism, and Confucianism.”

Western scientists sometimes say that tightening the rules which govern their animal research, or even maintaining them as they are, will simply drive the work away to more permissive regimes. We see that happen, but it’s not a good reason to make things more permissive here. For all its proud nationalism, China needs Western collaboration in biomedical science. Many of its own leading scientists have trained in the USA, and many of their successors will still wish to study and work in Western laboratories. They like to publish in English-language journals, as do the Western scientists who re-locate there. These journals, the better ones at any rate, demand that the welfare implications of the research they publish should be part of what’s reported (as specified in the international ARRIVE guidelines noted below). The ethical standards of the West, such as they are (and they certainly fall pitifully short of those prescriptions in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), will continue to be the international model, however crude or insincere the approximations to it may be. The stricter Westerns standards are, the better the prospects for those millions of primates, dogs, pigs, and other species doomed to live and die in Chinese laboratories.

Even so, as the foregoing sketch may have shown, their prospects are pretty frightening.

 

Notes and references:

The quotations from Chinese and Western scientists are mainly from two articles by David Cyranoski published in Nature:

https://www.nature.com/news/monkey-kingdom-1.19762

https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487

A report on the Logothetis affair can be found in the journal Science here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/animal-rights-conflict-prompts-leading-researcher-leave-germany-china

The five cloned monkeys, with an extended account of gene-editing in Chinese laboratories which includes the “binge” quotation, can be found in Science, 2 August 2019, pp.426-9. The article is ominously titled ‘The CRISPR Animal Kingdom’, CRISPR being the gene-editing technology which has now made possible rapid and accurate work of the sort described.

Much of the information about animal-research regulation and ethics as practised in laboratories, including quotations from the official texts, is taken from Deborah Cao, ‘Ethical Questions for Research Ethics: Animal Research in China’, Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol.8, no.2, 2018, pp.138-49.  Also, Bryan Ogden et al, ‘Laboratory Animals Laws, Regulations, Guidelines and Standards in China Mainland, Japan, and Korea’, ILAR Journal, published online on 4 May 2017 here: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/57/3/301/3796588

China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-01/18/content_23124464.htm

CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing: https://capn-online.info/en.php

The ARRIVE guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting In Vivo Experiments) were devised by NC3Rs in 2010 and revised in 2019 as a means “to improve the reporting of research using animals”: see https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/arrive-guidelines

Illustrations show the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the five cloned monkeys in a publicity shot (note the ‘enrichments’), and a 1959 poster titled ‘Eliminating the Last Sparrow’.

 

In Search of the Meaning of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

 

 

 

He that has Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan in the magnificent Animal Ethics series edited by Andrew Linzey. There are 37 titles in the series to date, but this volume is only the second of them to deal just with vivisection. Note also that the book is free to read online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2F978-1-137-55697-4.pdf.

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

Most of the animals used in laboratories are of the commonly domesticated species, or at least ones that will submit to domestication. No doubt that has been partly or wholly the reason for selecting them in the first place. There’s a peculiar treachery involved here: lethal advantage is being taken of just that trust which domestication has deliberately created. It’s a treachery poignantly dramatized by Richard Adams in his novel The Plague Dogs (see this blog at 15 January 2017). The case of wild animals in research is different, but has its own special unpleasantness. Against them, mere force is used rather than guile, but reading reports of research using wild animals one has a strong sense of something worse than treachery: an insult against nature, perhaps against life itself.

A current example is the brain research conducted by Dr Sheesh Mysore, using barn owls. Mysore and his coadjutors study, among other things, “the neural mechanisms of selection”: that is, how the mind of an owl chooses what to pay attention to and what to ignore or defer. A journalist from the USA’s National Public Radio recently paid a visit to the “basement laboratory” at Johns Hopkins University where this work is being done. Uncritically impressed by what he has seen, in the familiar way of such science reporters, he describes the “team’s long-term goal” as “to figure out what goes wrong in the brains of people with attention problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”. In fact Dr Mysore, no doubt intellectually easing off in this complaisant company, tells his visitor that there’s hardly a limit to the mind-ailments likely to be served by his sort of work (“Pretty much name a psychiatric disorder . . .”). He is rather more cautious on his own web-site, where also it is very clear that a large part of what drives this research is pure curiosity about “interesting neuroscientific questions”.

Curiosity is a necessary element in this as in any line of science, but making barn owls suffer for it, or indeed suffer for any other human reason, is not. And suffer they undoubtedly do. These owls are studied by means of “in vivo electrophysiology”: that is, they are immobilized in tubes or clamps (this is the only point at which anaesthesia is briefly used, so that the animals can be easily handled), and then testing probes of some kind are inserted into their heads. Sights and sounds of a challenging kind are then projected at them (“bursts of noise . . . an object approaching quickly”), and their “neural mechanisms”, helplessly confronting these insults, are recorded. When not Bewick's owlbeing thus investigated or subsequently killed and anatomized, these beautiful birds – in nature solitary and shy, with their acute sight and hearing, and their habit of sudden vigorous flight – are lodged in the wretchedly minimalist conditions of Dr Mysore’s laboratory, up to six of them in a cage. If the cages pictured on NPR’s web-site are a fair sample, then these animals, even when off-duty, are being given a pathetic fraction of what they need for an undistressed life, short as that will evidently be.

Owls are so unsuited to captivity that it’s illegal to keep them as pets in the USA without special licence. Yet nothing is said in the NPR broadcast about their welfare, though the journalist notices that the particular owl being handled by Mysore at the time is “distraught” (it can be heard screeching). In the laboratory’s most recent publication on this research – ‘Combinatorial neural inhibition for stimulus selection across space’ (Cell Reports, 25, 1158-70, Oct.30 2018) – information on the ethics and welfare implications of the work takes up less than 100 words in an article of 23 mostly two-column pages. From it we learn that these owls were “shared across several studies” (as one might share equipment), and were treated “in accordance with NIH guidelines”, whatever that implies. The National Institutes of Health is the major provider of funds for animal research in the USA – by no means a dis-interested party.

Crude and unpleasant as is this raid on wild nature, it is at least frankly predatory. There’s no pretence that it will do owls any good. Indeed, the whole tragic point is that such birds are completely free of “attention problems” of any kind: unlike humans, they are beautifully adapted to the way of life which, over countless millennia, they have made for themselves. They don’t need human help, and certainly nobody at Johns Hopkins is pretending to give it, even to the extent of providing decent living conditions for them.

However, there’s a line of research which does claim to be doing nature good by pillaging it in these ways: that is, research which has nature conservation among its aims. One presently controversial instance of this is the work of Christine Lattin at Louisiana State University. Her subject, as reported in the journal Science, is “how stress affects hormones, neurotransmitters, and other indicators in living birds”: “living” while they’re being stressed, that is, but soon afterwards “she euthanizes the birds she works with” (note the disingenuous ‘with’). The birds are mainly “wild caught house-sparrows”, and the stress to which they’re subjected in Dr Lattin’s laboratory has included mixing small amounts of oil into their feed (specifically, ‘Gulf of Mexico Sweet Louisiana crude oil’), confinement in a cloth bag for periods of 30 minutes, injection of adrenocorticotrophic hormone, ‘biopsy punching’ of the legs (under temporary anaesthesia), shaking.

Because all animals, vertebrate animals at least, experience stress, this research is claimed (on Lattin’s web-site) to be of some use in the understanding and treatment of human ills. But the immediate gain expected from it is a better understanding of “stress in wild populations”, populations of the sort the test birds used to belong to. The kinds of stress which Lattin specifies are “habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions”. Also there are the oil spills. The better understanding of how animals respond to these assaults “may allow us to save some species that might otherwise go extinct.” For, as Science tells us, Dr Lattin is “a self-professed animal-lover”. But it would be more accurate to call her a species-lover. She sacrifices some birds in order to benefit, at some uncertain time in the future, many more of them and their like: ethics by numbers, in short. But note that those environmental stresses which she hopes to teach us to understand better, even the “species invasions”, are caused by humans (the prime invader, after all). Dr Lattin’s research work may reasonably be seen, then, not as a means to putting things right (we already know how to put those stresses right; it’s the willingness to do so that we lack), but simply as one more way in which humans in pursuit of their own interests make other animals suffer and prematurely die.

I’ve said that Dr Lattin’s research is controversial, but within her profession there seems to be no unease about it. The promotional organisation Speaking of Research claims that the publications arising from it have been “cited hundreds of times by other scientists”. This, intended as a thorough justification, is in fact a sad reminder that whenever you encounter what looks like a peculiarly nasty piece of research, it will almost certainly turn out to have a whole dynasty behind it, and very probably ahead of it as well. The research that Dr Mysore is doing on owls, for instance, can be traced at least as far back as 1978, when just the same clamping and brain-rummaging of barn owls was going on at CalTech (he cites that work, and any amount of the like in between). In that same Speaking of Research text, incidentally, the notorious work of Harry Harlow on maternal deprivation in monkeys is held to be likewise vindicated by the fact that it provided “an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work”. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Man hands on misery to man”: not just his own misery, either.

The house-sparrow research reflects a more general failure of ethics in conservation work and thought. The conservation movement has habitually been simple-mindedly anthropocentric. (The title of one of the UK’s most active countryside lobbying organisations, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, provides a cartoon version of the outlook.) And although Dr Lattin’s work goes forward primarily in the lab, similarly invasive research of various kinds does take place also in the field. Here there’s even less ethical oversight, but the same general principle of ends justifying means routinely sacrifices the individual to the species, the real life to the notional category. Not just any species, though: some of them, being more rare or more appealingly ‘native’, are preferred over others. (In fact Dr Lattin’s sparrows themselves are regarded as invasive, and are accordingly being used with an easier conscience.) Those who have read in this blog about the fine ethologist Niko Tinbergen (see ‘Eve of Destruction’, 8 March 2019), will recollect his suggestion that scientists should observe themselves as well as the animals, and should do it “as critically and as detachedly as possible”. The confused goodwill and actual arrogance of much conservation work needs just that sort of critical attention.

However, it seems that some progress is being made. Editors who publish laboratory research in life-science journals already have the so-called  ‘ARRIVE’ guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting on In Vivo Experiments) to show them what information they should require of their authors as to the treatment of the animals involved and the quality of the experiment to which those animals have been subjected. Now a similar set of rules has been proposed for the publication of research done in the field. The authors of ‘Publication reform to safeguard wildlife from researcher harm’ (PLOS Biology, 11 April 2019) argue that “employing invasive and lethal research methods in the name of conservation [the old ‘shooting and conservation’ attitude] has raised important considerations about the welfare of individuals.” Yet they find that conservation journals show little or no interest in animal welfare. Some scientists in that line of work even consider that “animal welfare and conservation are incompatible”. No doubt what they really mean is that they’d rather not have to bother about the welfare, but editors may increasingly require their authors to show that they have bothered. The proposed guidelines are titled Animals in Research: Reporting on Wildlife (or ARROW, to match ARRIVE). We can hope that they will at least force academic conservationists to recognize, as laboratory scientists have been gradually forced to do, that high-minded objectives are not a licence to kill.

It’s not much, perhaps, but then the ARROW authors see their proposal as only one part of a wider movement to moralize conservation. That there really is such a movement is well-evidenced in their bibliography, where one can find such expressive titles as ‘Why we need an ecological ethics’ (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol.3, August 2005) and ‘What are 60 warblers worth? Killing in the name of conservation’ (Oikos, vol.116, August 2007). In fact the movement has a name, ‘Compassionate Conservation’. Of course that phrase ought to be simply a tautology, and the fact that it’s not, that it needs arguing, shows the crazed condition of the human mind. No wonder the owl has a reputation for wisdom, if we’re the competition.

 

Notes and references:

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) provide e-mail templates to use for objecting to both the owl and the sparrow research projects:

https://support.peta.org/page/7677/action/1?locale=en-US

https://support.peta.org/page/1068/action/1?locale=en-US

Quotations about Dr Mysore’s research are from his own pages on the Johns Hopkins web-site at https://mysorelab.johnshopkins.edu/research.html and from the NPR transcript of the relevant broadcast here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/09/11/644992109/can-a-barn-owl-s-brain-explain-why-kids-with-adhd-can-t-stay-focused?t=1557825875601 (notice the word “kids” for children, to suggest how down-to-earth and relevant the research is).

The article in Science about the Lattin controversy appeared in the issue for 15 September 2017, at p.1087. Other quotations about Dr Lattin’s research come from her own web-site: https://www.christinelattin.com/. The defence of her research put up by Speaking of Research is here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2017/09/19/the-fact-check-peta-vs-christine-lattin/

The article proposing the ARROW guidelines can be read here: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3000193

The portrait of a barn owl is from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds (1847 edition).

 

Advice to Scientists: Contract the Human Enterprise

If you’re looking for “cutting-edge research, incisive scientific commentary, and insights on what’s important to the scientific world”, the journal Science is where you’ll find them; at least so says the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes it. The AAAS also publishes five specialist journals, but this one covers all areas of science. Because the research in Science is indeed “cutting-edge”, it must often be opaque to readers not working in the particular area of study being reported on, and some articles make almost no sense at all to a layperson, from the title downwards. But these reports of specialist research are always accompanied by separate ‘research article summaries’ which present the findings and their implications in a less technical way. And since Science also contains news articles, book reviews, editorials, and other staples of intelligent journalism, the journal provides a valuable running commentary on practices and attitudes, for scientists and for outsiders. In fact the AAAS may really be justified in calling it “the premier global science weekly”.

Sometimes an issue of Science will have a special theme connecting science coverat least some of the contents: the nature of Saturn, perhaps, or immunotherapy. Last month there was an issue which took the human brain for its theme: the cover title was ‘Illuminating the Brain’. Among the seven or so titles on the subject (by way of illustrating what I said in the first paragraph) were ‘Transcriptome and epigenome landscape of human cortical development modelled in organoids’ and ‘Neuron-specific signatures in the chromosomal connectome associated with schizophrenia risk’. Mainly this research seems to have been looking for genetic origins to mental disorders hitherto understood and treated, if at all, only in their chemical or behavioural phenomena. Such research must or at least may be very valuable. Only a select readership would be in a strong position to decide about that, but then Science, as a peer-reviewed journal, will already have consulted such readers. (Apparently only about 7% of the research submitted is accepted for publication.)

As to what are called the research ‘materials’ for these particular studies, most of the work seems to have exclusively used post-mortem human brains. One project very obviously did not, the title of its report being ‘Spatiotemporal transcriptomic divergence across human and macaque brain development’. But then, as one of the other articles pointed out, “The brain is responsible for cognition, behaviour, and much of what makes us uniquely human”, and how can we appreciate that uniqueness if not by comparing it with examples from the great mass of undistinguished non-human brains? In this case, twenty-six brains from Rhesus macaque monkeys were used for study, at stages of development ranging from 60 days to maturity. No details are provided as to how these brains became available, but the sinister phrase “collected post-mortem” clearly implies that the macaques were killed for the purpose.

Now, Science does take a serious interest from time to time in the ethics of animal research. Last November, for instance, there was a news piece under the heading ‘animal welfare’, which reported as a serious matter “an all-time high” in the number of non-human primates being used in U.S. laboratories: “The uptick – to nearly 76,000 non-human primates in 2017 – appears to reflect growing demand from scientists who believe non-human primates are more useful than other animals, such as mice or dogs, for testing drugs and studying diseases that also strike humans.” The author, a science journalist, indicates the part which the National Institutes of Health takes in funding this research, and he quotes practitioners apparently excited by the trend (“non-human primate facilities . . . are simply struggling to meet demand”) or defending it (“The public wants more cures but fewer animals . . . They can’t have it both ways.”). But he shows that a large part of the public believes that we can have it both ways: a 2018 survey has 52% of the American public opposing animal research altogether. And he also cites opposition both within science (monkey research is just “repeating the mistakes of the past”), and among politicians (“Federal agencies are still not doing enough to curb this appalling practice”.)

I would say that despite the intentional ‘balance’ of this report, the opponents of animal research get the better share of the writer’s sympathy, but the limitations of even this more or less sympathetic foray into ethics are clearly enough indicated by that heading ‘animal welfare’ (no talk of ‘rights’ here). And meanwhile the biomedical research published in Science routinely and without apology makes prodigal use of animals.

Perhaps one can’t expect, or even want, a generalist journal like Science to co-ordinate attitudes and ethics across all its contents. Still, there’s something perverse about a journal which publishes important zoological and conservation research but also accepts elsewhere a view of animals which simply subordinates that same knowledge about them to human advantage. It shows up, for instance, in another recent news report headed ‘U.S. labs clamor for marmosets’. Here we’re told that this species of monkey was apparently unfamiliar to medical researchers until recently (someone says, “They were like, ‘Is it those chipmunks that were in the Rocky Mountains?’“). But now that its zoology is better known, the wretched marmoset’s “small size, fast growth, and sophisticated social life” turn out to be of importance to others than itself: they exactly fit it to “catch the eye of neuroscientists”.

If there is something perverse about this, it’s a very orthodox perversity, one that’s summarized, I suppose, in the absurdly unscientific emphasis of that phrase quoted above: “what makes us uniquely human”. All species are, presumably by definition, in some respects unique: it ought therefore to be enough to say ‘what makes us human’. The marmosets, for instance, are just as unique, but they don’t get to be called unique. No, the word is there to reassure us of our privileged place in nature, monarch of all we survey and study – an object of study ourselves also, of course, but flattered by our own attention. It won’t have been by chance that the phrase was placed in the first sentence of the research article summary.

However, in this same ‘Illuminating the Brain’ issue of Science (and here at last comes the real point of this post) there is one strikingly unorthodox article, with the promising title ‘Reimagining the human’. The premise of it is balefully familiar: “Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event and climate change upheaval, risking a planetary shift into conditions that will be extremely challenging, if not catastrophic, for complex life.” This indeed is a theme which Science frequently and most valuably airs in its pages, in both research and news articles. But the author of ‘Reimagining the human’, Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, while accepting the usefulness of the sort of “technological and management solutions” usually proposed for these problems, puts the case for a much more ambitious response: she calls it “contracting the human enterprise”.

It’s a startling phrase to find in a journal which is essentially devoted to enlarging the human enterprise, in both its knowledge and its reach, and which to this end publishes research into everything from viability on Mars to genetic manipulation of life on earth (such as that of the marmosets, incidentally). But Dr Crist provides a savage critique of the irrationally arrogant worldview which backs this enterprise. It’s a worldview which, consciously or not, supposes the human “a distinguished entity that is superior to all other life forms and is entitled to use them and the places they live.” It’s a “belief system of superiority and entitlement” which invests humanity “with powers of life and death over all other beings and with the prerogative to control and manage all geographical space”. The whole eco-sphere becomes simply a “container of resources”. True, humans cannot now ignore the vandalous consequences of this outlook, but there’s such a rooted trust in the “special distinction of the human” that we suppose ourselves “resourceful, intelligent, and resilient enough to face any challenges that may come”. In short, it’s in our culture to take things on, intervene, manage, put things right, change the effects and not ourselves; anything less enterprising would be “unworthy of humanity’s stature”.

But changing ourselves, or at least our ways, is exactly what Dr Crist proposes: “The rational response to the present-day ecological emergency would be to pursue actions that will downscale the human factor and contract our presence in the realm of nature . . . withdrawing it from large portions of land and sea.” Some of what she specifies in this direction is already implicit in conservation projects, but she always has in mind the intrinsic rather than merely human-related (‘for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren’) interest of the things saved. So when she mentions the disappearing phenomenon of migration, she has in mind not just a loss to the world but also “the suffering of the animals involved”. Essentially she invites humanity to re-make itself as just one member of “an all-species commonwealth”, and this demotion is reflected in a nexus of words and phrases spread across the text: “scaling down”, “pulling back”, “reducing”, “shrink”, “less busy” (you heard), “contracting humanity’s scale and scope”. And she concludes, “Learning to inhabit earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.”

Certainly these are large generalizations, and the article is not as persuasive in its few definite proposals as it is in its ethical critique, but then the article is only a summary of a much longer account: Eileen Crist’s recent book Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. And particular judgements and courses of action would anyway arise naturally from the sound premise, just as our present crisis has arisen from an unsound one. The important point is that ‘Reimagining the human’ is not as merely visionary a project as the title makes it sound; at least Dr Crist doesn’t think so. She argues that the supremacist model of the human is an accident of time and place, not an absolute:  it’s “neither culturally nor individually universal, nor is it derived in any straightforward way from human nature.” May this be true!

But whether the human is accordingly as alterable as Dr Crist claims or not, that it urgently needs altering, and in just the direction she proposes, is a certainty. And since science more than any other institution (in the rich countries at least, the ones which largely determine the forms which “the human enterprise” will take) is what now formulates the meaning of ‘human’, and therefore how humans are to behave and survive as a species, we should be very glad to hear this prophetic voice speaking to the scientific world from one of its chief pulpits.

 

Notes and references:

The issues of Science cited here are 14 December, pp.1242-44 (‘Reimagining the human’), 9 November, p.630 (non-human primate research), and 26 October, pp.383-4 (marmosets), all from 2018. The 52% figure comes from a survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2018, accessible here: http://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/08/16/most-americans-accept-genetic-engineering-of-animals-that-benefits-human-health-but-many-oppose-other-uses/

The AAAS descriptions of Science come from its web-site, www.aaas.org/journals.

Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization is published by University of Chicago Press (2018).

 

In Defence of Frances Power Cobbe

On the web-site of Understanding Animal Research (the promotional agency for animal research in the U.K.), an article has recently been posted under the heading ‘Why the anti-vivisection movement took an absolutist view’. It’s written by UAR’s Head of Policy and Media, Chris Magee, and his subject is Frances Power Cobbe, who was the person most responsible for bringing vivisection into the reach of a dedicated law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.

That Act, momentous as it was, in fact painfully disappointed Frances Cobbe, because the promising bill which had started out in the House of Lords a few weeks earlier had been “mutilated” (her word) during its passage, in order to make it acceptable to the medical profession.  One of Miss Cobbe’s fellow-campaigners, the social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, hoped to reassure her by describing the Act as “a foundation on which to build amendments hereafter as evidence and opportunity shall be offered to us”. But in fact it never was amended, and for 110 years it inadequately oversaw the expansion of animal research in the U.K., from the few hundreds of animals used annually at the time of its introduction, to peaks of five million and more in the 1970s.

Chris Magee brings Frances Cobbe’s legacy right up to date, and blames the “140 years of astonishingly little progress towards her aims” on her decision, as leader of the anti-vivisection movement and of its first collective, the Victoria Street Society, to campaign in future for nothing short of abolition. He declares that “there are two things which push progress on – messy compromises and technological innovation”. These, he says, have brought whatever relief to laboratory animals they’ve enjoyed since the days of Frances Cobbe, and she must have realised this would be so: “She knew that by her approach, more animals would suffer.”

So why did Frances Cobbe take, as the UAR title has it, “an absolutist view”? Magee quotes from Cobbe’s autobiography some of her “tenuous reasons”, and finds them unconvincing. His preferred explanation refers the matter more simply to her own psyche. She “didn’t get her way” and chose, for the sake of “her personal narrative” to characterize the half-success, which the Act in fact represented, as “a great betrayal”. She, at least, would remain untainted by compromise. In fact she wanted to be high-minded more than she wanted to help animals: choosing “her soul over their wellbeing”, Magee calls it. More generally – for his account is also a critique of the abolitionist ideal, whoever holds it – he uses the phrase “burnishing one’s halo”.

I don’t think that Frances Cobbe did use that word ‘betrayal’ in anything she wrote about the 1876 Act, and I’d be surprised to find it in the thinking of so disciplined and unself-pitying a personality. Still, that episode did very reasonably come as a hideous shock and disillusionment to her.

It’s not that she was unused to failures or to deferred results in such matters. She was already an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, notably on women’s legal rights and women’s suffrage. Her active strife against vivisection had begun in Florence in 1863, where she had organised a ‘memorial’ or petition against the ruthless vivisections being conducted by Professor Schiff. He, of course, was unmoved by the list of important names: ‘a pile of aristocrats’ the republican professor called it, or words to that effect. But Frances Cobbe only concedes that  “The memorial, as often happens, did no direct good.” [FPC’s italics here and throughout] The implication is clear enough, and when more than ten years later she put together a petition urging the R.S.P.C.A. to sponsor a bill restricting vivisection in the U.K., the failure of that proposal didn’t demoralize her either. Supported by the public attention which she had raised, she took up the management of the project herself. After some parliamentary false starts, the government was pushed by the controversy into setting up the 1875 Royal Commission. The Commission found that vivisection was indeed “from its very nature, liable to great abuse, and … ought to be subjected to due regulation and control.” Accordingly the government agreed to support a bill sketched out by Frances Cobbe and fellow-members of her Victoria Street Society, and it was introduced in the House of Lords by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon.

This bill didn’t propose to prohibit vivisection, but it was an abolitionist bill all the same, for it put dogs, cats, and horses out of bounds altogether. Other animals were to be used in experiments only if anaesthetized. Having government support, the bill seemed certain to pass successfully through Parliament. But there was a delay, during which the medical profession vigorously lobbied the Home Secretary, Richard Cross. The bill was revised accordingly, finished its passage through Parliament, and received royal assent in August of 1876 – surely with reluctance on the part of the Queen, who was as keenly opposed to vivisection as Frances Cobbe herself.

So dogs, cats, and horses were back in the laboratory. They could even be experimented on without anaesthetics, if the licensee applied for and received a special certificate. The Act did introduce inspections of laboratories, licensing of practitioners, and special protections for the dogs, cats, and horses (the certificates). Yet the alterations to Carnarvon’s bill seemed to Frances Cobbe so thorough as “even to make me fear that I had done harm instead of good.” Could the 1876 Act really have made things worse?

The answer, for Cobbe, was premised on the fact that all the controlling – the licensing, certifying, and inspecting – would necessarily be in the hands of fellow-professionals (only unconditional prohibitions escape this fundamental defect). True, the Home Secretary would be in overall charge, but who could depend on the moral sympathies of every successive tenant of that office? Richard Cross had seemed fairly sympathetic, or at least willing to do something to pacify the public concern. His successor, William (‘Buffalo Bill’) Harcourt, was something more than unsympathetic. He was one of the members of Parliament who talked out (i.e. prevented a vote upon) a later anti-vivisection bill sponsored in 1881 by the Victoria Street Society. More drastically, he formally delegated the administration of the Act to the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, as the appropriate experts in the matter. This organisation had been set up in 1882, and had as one of its declared objects to ensure that the Act would be “harmlessly administered”. In this it largely succeeded until the subject of animal research came before another Royal Commission in 1906.

And if the Home Secretary was undependable, the inspectors might be supposed even more reluctant to intervene. After all, it was (so one eminent physiologist had said in 1875) “absurd” to ask an official, however keen he might be to serve the animal interest, “to inspect half a dozen others of at least equal status with himself”. And as to the keen-ness, Frances Cobbe quotes one inspector of the time calling the anti-vivisection campaign which had produced the 1876 Act “a senseless and mischievous agitation”. Meanwhile the licences and certificates would be in the bestowal of the profession, whose agents would of course have sympathy with the aims and practices of the applicants.

But perhaps that sympathy would not anyway be necessary to the success of the applications. Those aims and practices had been given an extraordinary public showing during the Royal Commission: one after another, the new breed of physiologist had justified itself under detailed questioning. Frances Cobbe had not herself given evidence, but “I heard constantly all that went on at the Commission.” When she was later explaining her rejection of half-way measures, she remembered all that. Writing in her pamphlet The Fallacy of Restriction Applied to Vivisection, she argued that once anti-vivisectionists conceded the utilitarian principle, it would mean entering into “inextricable difficulties to determine, next, the point where a little pain, or a greater pain, to one animal or to a thousand animals, ought to be sanctioned to obtain benefit for mankind; and how great or direct that benefit ought to be, and how far be likely of attainment. We fight the battle, in short, thenceforth on our enemy’s ground; and must infallibly be pushed back and back, till all the excesses of scientific cruelty be justified, just as they were by the different witnesses before the Royal Commission.” Among the experiments thus “justified” before the Commission had been the baking and starving of dogs to death, from which indeed something must certainly have been learned. Surely those who could speak confidently of such things in the lay setting of a commission would have little difficulty in convincing less shockable fellow-professionals of their good faith.

What in particular made Frances Cobbe fear that she had “done harm instead of good” was that all these supposed controls over what was done in research had a quid pro quo in the formal entitlement to do that research, which the Act now provided for the first time. Strictly speaking the 1876 Act was an amendment to a more general Cruelty to Animals Act of 1849. Among other things, this earlier law made it an offence to “cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture … any animal”. Admittedly the only prosecution of a vivisector under that Act had failed, in 1874, but the Act itself had not been found unable in the matter. Now it was made so by the 1876 amendment, which established vivisection as a specially protected case. So, Frances Cobbe writes in her autobiography, “we found that the compromise that we proposed had failed, and that our bill providing the minimum of protection for animals at all acceptable by their friends was twisted into a bill protecting their tormentors”. And it’s at this point that, as she records, “we were driven to raise our demands to the total prohibition of the practice, and to determine to work upon that basis for any number of years till public opinion be ripe for our measure.”

Looking back in the early 1890s, as she wrote her autobiography, over “the heart-breaking delays and disappointments of this weary movement” (“this”, because she never ceased in her active commitment to it), Frances Cobbe came to believe that it was just as well that Carnarvon’s bill had failed. If it had become law, then it would have answered and allayed the concern and indignation aroused during the earlier 1870s. There it would then have endured, whether authoritative or, more probably, ineffectual, in either case steadily mis-educating generations as to the proper relations between humans and other animals. Now, instead, the Act and the practice would be constantly under challenge.

In fact the whole human/animal relation would thereby come under challenge. It’s true that vivisection was a special case, a portentous innovation in the misuse of animals, because it was the practice not of poor men, drunkards, vicious criminals and other such unexemplary types, but of “men who hope to found the Religion of the Future, and to leave the impress of their minds upon their age, and upon generations yet to be born”. Still it was related to all such cruelty, as the title of the 1876 Act made clear. To campaign against vivisection, then, was also to draw continual attention to “the whole department of ethics dealing with man’s relation to the lower animals”. And therefore Frances Cobbe concludes her account of the subject in her autobiography by expressing “my supreme hope that when, with God’s help, our Anti-vivisection controversy ends in years to come, long after I have passed away, mankind will have attained through it a recognition of our duties towards the lower animals far in advance of that which we now commonly hold.” That controversy hasn’t yet ended, but she was surely right in imagining that a much larger conception of animal rights would eventually arise out of the pioneering anti-vivisection movement, if it only kept its nerve and principles.

Chris Magee speaks approvingly of Frances Cobbe as a personality, though in a slightly patronizing way: “I like to think I’d have got on with Frances Power Cobbeher writing style makes it feel a bit like you’ve been hanging out with an educated, thoughtful, and caring and personable individual.” This, I suggest, understates her remarkable force of character. When Cobbe set up the Society offices in Victoria Street in 1876, she made sure that one of the rooms was homely and comfortable – not for her own sake, but to sustain the morale of other women faced with “the frightful character of our work”. Anyone who has looked through her own multitudinous campaigning publications, with their long extracts from reports of experiments, and their illustrations, will feel the force cobbe possible.JPGof that phrase, and admire her accordingly.

And we must remember that she led this campaign against a medical establishment hardly less absolutely masculine in fact and mind-set than the armed services. Magee calls her decision (subsequently incorporated in the rules of the British Union Against Vivisection, which she founded in 1898) not to co-operate in any measure short of prohibition, “a 140 year hissy fit” (= ‘fit of hysterics’?). His mock is not directly aimed at Frances Cobbe herself, but it surely implicates her, and it’s a reminder of some of the things said about her and such as her by contemporary opponents. In private letters, Charles Darwin jeeringly confused the genders of Cobbe and her colleague George Hoggan, and Thomas Huxley referred to her as “that foolish fat scullion”. More publicly, the physiologist and champion of vivisection Elie de Cyon wrote in the Contemporary Review about “hysterical old maids … whose tenderness, despised by man, has flung itself in despair at the feet of cats and parrots.” Portraits of Frances Cobbe, who was indeed unmarried, suggest both how vulnerable she was to such mockery, and also what strength of character she possessed to endure and to rightly estimate it.

Late in her life, Frances Cobbe was left money by a fellow campaigner, so that she who had had to make her own way in the world, and who had never been paid for her long years of campaigning work, was able finally to live in a rather grand house in rural Wales with the woman-friend she loved. I feel glad to picture them there.

 

Notes and references:

The article by Chris Magee can be read on the UAR web-site at http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/antivivisection-extremism/why-the-anti-vivisection-movement-took-an-absolutist-view/

Wishing to be fair to both parties, I have used the same number of words in my response as Magee uses. I haven’t dealt with the subsequent remarkable achievements in medicine which, Magee rightly says, Cobbe could not have foreseen. He believes that they have subverted her case against vivisection, but her plainly stated view was that “the Elixir Vitae itself would be too dearly purchased” by such means. Nor have I dealt with that part of the anti-vivisection movement which was willing to go on pursuing a gradualist policy, notably the National Anti-Vivisection Society, but it needs saying that after 1898 Frances Cobbe wasn’t making decisions on behalf of the whole movement.

Quotations from Frances Power Cobbe come mainly from the chapter titled ‘The Claims of Brutes’ in Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, which in the American edition published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894, is in vol.2 at pp.556-634. Other quotations are from the pamphlets Four Reasons for Total Prohibition of Vivisection and The Fallacy of Restriction applied to Vivisection, which are collected with many others written by Frances Cobbe in the volume The Modern Rack, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1889. Both of these books can be read online. Some other information comes from Emma Hopley, Campaigning Against Cruelty: the Hundred Year History of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, BUAV, 1998.

The quotation from the report of the Royal Commission is at p.xvii, in Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876.

Quotation and other information about the aims of the AAMR can be found in John Vyvyan, The Dark Face of Science, Michael Joseph 1971, pp.70-77.

The absurdity of expecting a man to supervise his equals in status is argued in a letter written to Charles Darwin by John Scott Burdon Sanderson in April 1875, quoted in R.D.French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society, Princeton University Press, 1975, p.77.

Huxley’s phrase is quoted in Adrian Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, 1997, p.76; de Cyon’s article on the “hysterical old maids” was published in the Contemporary Review, no.43, 1883, pp.498-511.

The photograph is of the portrait plaque of Frances Power Cobbe in Manchester College, Oxford.

The Antiviv: a Hospital without Cruelty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Klein: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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