The Librarian Who Caused a Scandalous Riot

There have been several references in this blog to the man who became, in 1882, Oxford University’s first Waynflete Professor of Physiology, John Scott Burdon Sanderson, but little mention has been made of the man regarded as his chief opponent during the ensuing controversy over vivisection at the university. This man, Edward Nicholson, was appointed, in that same year, chief librarian to the university (Bodley’s Librarian). It was a portentous year, for then also John Ruskin was elected to a second and hectic stint as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a stint brought to an abrupt end by the same controversy.

Nicholson’s long period in office was one of the most crucial modernizing phases in the Bodleian’s history. He turned the Bodleian from a gentleman-scholars’ club into a busy and efficient university-wide institution. But his reforms, and of course his leadership of the anti-vivisection campaign in the 1880s, made him many enemies in the university. Accordingly there was afterwards something like a conspiracy to deny him the memorials to which he was surely entitled: a commissioned portrait, for instance, such as was accorded to both his predecessor and his successor, or his name attached to the collection of papers which he bequeathed to the library (they were jumbled into other collections, such as ‘Eng. Misc.’, and remain so). But he needs and deserves remembering – here in particular for the heroic stand he made against vivisection at Oxford University in the 1880s.

Burdon Sanderson came to Oxford with an established reputation as “the arch-priest of vivisection”. Nicholson too had made himself known on the subject, in a pioneering book titled The Rights of an Animal: a new Essay in Ethics, published in 1879. And it surely was new; Nicholson himself called it “so far as I know, the first systematic attempt in our language – may be in any language – to treat the question of man’s social relations to animals as a branch of moral philosophy.” But it was not the merely intellectual treatment of the subject which its sub‐title suggests. It was purposeful and practical, as indeed that telling formulation in the title – an animal –  implies: not a generality of animals, but every particular animal was claiming its rights of us. So at the end of the book Nicholson gives advice on how to turn ethics into useful effort. And that was what Nicholson was now finding himself required to do at Oxford.  

nicholson cartoon

It was not Burdon Sanderson himself, nor even the laboratory being planned for his use, that Nicholson opposed, though the controversy came to simplify itself in that way, as the cartoon illustration indicates (more about that in the notes). What he wanted was that the university should impose two conditions upon the work done by Burdon Sanderson and by all his successors at Oxford: first, that anaesthetics would be used in all experiments which would otherwise cause pain, and second, that there would be no experiments at all using domesticated animals. You’ll notice that these are conditions which UK law has yet to catch up with even now, but to Nicholson well over a century ago they seemed “morally indispensable”.

That phrase comes from the petition which Nicholson organized and presented to the university’s governing Hebdomadal Council in 1883, requesting that a distinct motion on these conditions should be put to Convocation (at that time the university’s legislature). The petition had 143 signatures to it, for Nicholson had enlisted the support of many heads of colleges, many professors (including John Ruskin) and fellows (including Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll), and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness, to say nothing of all the Oxford graduates whose MAs entitled them to vote in Convocation. But the Council rejected the petition – “an intolerable wrong”, Nicholson thought, with typical passion. He believed that his party would have won the vote; probably the Council had thought so too.

Still, to obtain the necessary land and funds for the laboratory, the Council had to get the approval of Convocation. There had already been two sessions for this purpose, but a third and fourth would yet be needed. Nicholson therefore announced that the coming sessions would be turned into that debate on vivisection which the Council had refused, and he at once began preparing for them.

Evening after evening, after his strenuous days in the Bodleian Library, Nicholson put his talents as an organiser and publicist into the push against the laboratory. Printed letters and cards, circulars and other documents went out from his house at number 2 Canterbury Road, telling academics and graduates of the university, in Oxford and far beyond, what they needed to know about the rejected petition, about Burdon Sanderson’s record as a physiologist and as a witness at the 1875 Royal Commission on vivisection, about the coming votes in Convocation, and about what the University’s Council was doing. As to this last, the Council itself had finally felt obliged to campaign for its own policy, rather than move ahead with patrician self-sufficiency (its preferred method then as now). So by the time of the second vote in 1885, as one contemporary recalled, Oxford MAs “had been inundated with leaflets from both sides, with the names of prominent men attached, for weeks before the day of debate.”

Before taking a view of the debates themselves, which were two of the most crowded and disorderly ever to have taken place in Convocation, we should pause to notice Nicholson’s courage in thus discomposing the university. He was a new and untested presence there, by no means a unanimous choice among the library’s curators (one of them thought him “vain, egotistical, and vulgar”: not a gentleman-scholar, then). The Times newspaper, with its many Oxford connections, reported the matter with some acidity: “It would be mere affectation to deny that this appointment will be viewed by many with considerable surprise.” More immediately, Vice-Chancellor Benjamin Jowett gave Nicholson warning that his activities in the campaign might be considered damaging to the library, and by implication to Nicholson’s own career with it. As to that, there survives among Nicholson’s papers a draft letter from 1884 in which sets out his response. Here are some sentences from it:

Dear Mr Vice‐Chancellor, It will be a satisfaction to me if you will allow me to make quite clear to you my feelings and intentions in regard to the matter which you spoke of this morning . . . On the matter of principle I feel as strongly as it is possible to feel, and so I consider it a duty from which I cannot deviate for one moment to do all I can to avert the practice [of vivisection] in Oxford. If the majority on February 5th [that was the third of the four Convocations] had been able and willing to compel me to resign my office on account of my action in this matter, I should have taken that action just the same . . . if Council were to propose any further grant without allowing a vote on the principle [as we know the Council in fact did] it would be our duty to oppose the grant.

I can’t find whether Nicholson actually sent, to the man who had originally been his main ally among the Curators, this bold and uncompromising letter, but he certainly acted on it.

The Convocations, then. That debate on 5 February was rowdy enough, or became so. Jowett himself presided, and the proceedings were opened by Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church (father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The professor of medicine, Henry Acland, then spoke in praise of Burdon Sanderson’s high moral character (that familiar argument: ‘trust the professionals’). Speakers against the laboratory included Dr Pope – “who, we are credibly informed,” reported the students’ Oxford Magazine, of course relishing the commotion, “spoke with a loaded revolver in his pocket” – and Nicholson himself, characteristically “bristling with little books and papers”. Unfortunately the debate got entangled in one particular animal procedure which Burdon Sanderson had spoken of in his evidence to the Royal Commission. He had called it “a beautiful experiment” and one which he had enjoyed “great pleasure in repeating” a number of times (he’s quoted thus in the cartoon). This naturally caused some vocal indignation. But now the Waynflete Professor himself, who had hitherto “leaned against the side of the arena, gaunt, grim, notable”, came forward (“received with a storm of applause and hisses”), and explained that the animal had been a brain-dead frog. The debate proper did not recover from this anti-climax (if it really was one), and the vote went against Nicholson’s party.

But a fourth Convocation was needed, and it took place on 10 March the next year. This time the university’s Sheldonian Theatre was even more crowded and the debate even more unruly. The Times on that day had printed statements from the opposing parties, making clear that it would be a major Oxford University event. One of those present recalled years later that “hundreds of non-resident graduates had come up to vote from London and the shires . . . the Sheldonian Theatre was crammed, the upper undergraduate gallery no less than the lower.” There was “row on row of ladies interested in the scene”. Those Sheldonian galleries climb steeply up into the dome; it’s a room which can look and sound precariously crowded – or excitingly so, as seems to have been the case on that occasion.

Again, Vice-Chancellor Jowett presided and Dean Liddell opened the proceedings. That imposing and celebrated Oxford figure was given a respectful hearing, but he seems to have been the last of the speakers to enjoy the privilege. Canon Liddon, a celebrated orator, came after the Dean, spoke against vivisection, and was booed. When Bishop Mackarness started to describe some of the revolting experiments being done in France and Germany, someone (so the historian Charles Oman recalls in Memories of Victorian Oxford)

got upon a chair, and led, waving his arms, a regular chorus of the word ‘name’ or ‘shame’ – I could not quite make out which. The Bishop kept his feet and tried to proceed, but the rhythmical din continued.

Another speaker against the motion, the new Professor of Modern History, Edward Freeman, well-known for his publications against animal cruelty, “was absolutely howled down.” Those who spoke in favour of the motion were no better treated, and when a clergyman sprang up and “got in enough sentences to demonstrate that he was about to defend vivisection by the example of Christ”, this absurdity so aggravated the disorder that Benjamin Jowett brought a premature end to the debate and the matter was put to a decision. The university got its way by 412 votes to 244. (The total of votes did not represent the numbers present, of course: only graduates and fellows of colleges were entitled to vote.) Charles Oman calls the event “a scandalous riot”.

A defeat then, but also a very great achievement, as Oman’s disapproval itself suggests. For Nicholson turned a project whose first two supply votes had passed through Convocation hardly noticed into a controversy which in 1884 and 1885 generated some of the fiercest passions ever witnessed in the Sheldonian. (The much more famous debate about evolution, held in the University Museum in 1860, was really a very mild affair in comparison.) He forced the whole university to take the rights of animals seriously, and to suffer a convulsion commensurate with the importance of the decision it was taking. In doing so, he gave that Oxford generation a lesson in ethics which very few of them can altogether have missed or forgotten.

One of Nicholson’s supporters in the campaign against vivisection at Oxford, writing to console him on the evening of the 1885 defeat, said “the protest will remain a valuable one, and one which we may hope will not be forgotten in the future history of the Laboratory.” Yes, a most valuable protest, and a courageous and visionary man: there are good reasons – indeed, moral obligations – to remember both.    

Notes and references:

This post has been adapted from a longer article first published in the Oxford Magazine. The full text can be read here, including a more detailed set of footnotes: http://www.vero.org.uk/bodley.pdf

John Ruskin’s time as Slade Professor, and its abrupt end, are recounted in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/remembering-john-ruskin-rightly/

Burdon Sanderson was called “the arch-priest” in The Oxford University Herald on 27 October 1883, about the time he took up his duties as Waynflete Professor. Nicholson’s description of The Rights of an Animal comes from contemporary publicity material for the book.

The Times’s comments on Nicholson’s appointment were published on 6 February, 1882

Quotations about the Convocation debates come from Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford, London, 1941, and from two university journals of the time: the Oxford Magazine, then primarily a student paper, for 13 February 1884 and 11 March 1885, and the Oxford Review for 7 February 1884

The hostile curator was Mark Pattison, writing in his journal, as quoted in an unpublished thesis in the Bodleian Library about Nicholson’s professional career, written by K.A.Manley, 1977).

The consolatory letter was written to Nicholson by the Regius Professor of Hebrew, Samuel Driver.

The contemporary cartoon shows Burdon Sanderson ‘experimenting’ upon Edward Nicholson. The ‘Blue Book’ of the caption, on a copy of which Nicholson’s hand is resting, is the Royal Commission Report on vivisection, published in 1876. As the frog indicates, the reference there and in the speech-bubble is to the “beautiful experiment” that became a theme of the 1884 Convocation debate (though the date given for this vivisection of Nicholson at the “Sheldonian Laboratories” seems to be miswritten “5th Jan”). Unfortunately I have mislaid the source for this illustration, but I thank the archive concerned and hope that the unattributed use will be forgiven.

Harry Harlow, the Undead

Catching up with my back copies of the Journal of Neuroscience, I come across a paper with this title: ‘The Signature of Maternal Rearing in the Methylome in Rhesus Macaque Prefrontal Cortex and T Cells’. It’s a clear enough title, if hard going for amateurs, but the reference to the maternal rearing of monkeys ought to be a tautology. Is there any other sort of rearing? Yes, indeed there is, as the research protocol soon makes clear: rhesus macaque monkeys [nineteen of them] are randomly assigned at birth to differential rearing conditions by either their mother or an inanimate, cloth-covered surrogate.” Among the effects of the less natural infant upbringings, we learn, are “emotional and social disturbances . . . behavioural abnormalities . . . inadequate social skills . . . increased voluntary alcohol consumption.” The ‘signature in the methylome’ and so on are the corresponding neural evidences of these distresses. (Incidentally, that word “voluntary” has its own unhappy story to tell.)

If something seems unpleasantly familiar to you about this research, then one of its lead authors, Professor Allyson Bennett, is the very person to correct you. Writing less formally, in fact in ill-advised satirical style, she has posted a sort of mock news-story on the web-site of Speaking of Research (she’s a member of its governing committee). “Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged”, says the heading, and the text begins “The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil on Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over thirty years ago.” There follows some lumbering fun with the theme that philosophers and animal activists have relied on Harlow as a sort of bogey-man to discredit animal research. Then Professor Bennett brings in, by way of contrast, a group of “fringe” philosophers who aim at “cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues”. This sounds a bit solemn in the context, but it’s meant seriously, for their message is, again, Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought plus action.”

Professor Harlow did indeed die in 1981, and, contrary to what Bennett supposes, it would be wholly welcome news to find that he was dead also in the sense intended by her: i.e. that the research methods, values, and attitudes represented in his experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys were discredited and finished with, that his story and theirs was over. But it isn’t, and what keeps it alive is not its campaigning value, such as that might be; it’s his fellow-professionals.

Here, then, is the explanation for Harlow’s deathlessness, and that article in the Journal of Neuroscience is a good place to start. Among Professor Bennett’s co-authors (thirteen of them) is Stephen J. Suomi. Back in the 1970s, Suomi was one of Harlow’s star post-graduate students and his assistant in some of the notorious ‘pit of despair’ research into infant isolation. He has since continued that work in various forms, creating “monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption” among many other achievements, as cross-references in the article show. Indeed, those citations go right back to a paper of 1976 titled ‘Effects of maternal and peer separation on young monkeys’, which he co-authored with Harlow. And now Professor Suomi, who must be at the senior end of that line-up of co-authors in the JN article, is evidently passing on the Harlow legacy to younger practitioners. After all, the last sentence of the article is looking forward: “Future experiments need to examine . . .” I’m sure that some of those other thirteen will be keen to oblige.

Of course, to say that more research is needed is a common enough winding-up trope; it was certainly one that Harry Harlow himself favoured. See, for instance, a paper which he wrote in 1965 about causing brain-damage to six new-born macaques by feeding them too much of the amino-acid phenylalanine in the milk of their artificial mother. At the end of it, he plants suggestions of uncertainty: “probably”, “perhaps”, “one suspects”. These unresolved things are for others to pursue. Or they might, he suggests, set about over-feeding “other amino acids” to other monkeys, on the same principle. Allyson Bennett rightly calls Harlow’s work “groundbreaking”, and Harlow meant that ground to be thoroughly developed by others as well as himself. He promoted macaques as behavioural models, manipulable in ways which he pioneered. He devised specialized cage-systems and holding-equipment for them. He lent out his ‘prepared’ infant monkeys to other institutions. He spoke of his work to public as well as professional audiences. Above all, he trained a new generation of scientists in the discipline which he had created. As an obituary in the American Journal of Primatology said in 1982, Harlow was “a legendary source of inspiration”.

clear pic with sur-mother

When Harry Harlow began his studies, he had to use monkeys at Madison’s zoo; by the time he retired, the university had about 500 in its own colony. Now Wisconsin is a national focus for primate research, accounting in its various primate research laboratories for 8,782 of the total of 68,257 non-human primates used in US laboratories in 2019. The focus of the behavioural part of that research is, of course, the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, which is indeed where Professor Bennett does much of her work. And even as she insists that the eponymous Harlow himself is dead, she asserts – what is indeed patent at Madison and far beyond – that his “discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding . . . etc.”  If I understand that sentence correctly, the verb ‘cast’ must be a present tense: the Harlow light is still brightly on.

In short, Professor Bennett is a bit like Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells the crowd “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, but then shows and indeed ensures that Caesar’s name and fame are as efficacious as ever.

Perhaps recognizing some contradiction here, Bennett has a go at de-toxifying Harlow’s reputation. The really controversial research, she says, the research which has “served as a touchstone [is that the word she wants?] for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others”, was done for “a brief time at the very end of his career”, and consisted in only “a small number of studies”. The most controversial of these, “known by their colloquial name pit of despair (actually Harlow’s own name for the isolation device which he had himself designed), involved fewer than twenty monkeys, who were “placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of six weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.” In other words, it’s all been exaggerated by that “bioethics community” for political purposes.

But no. Harlow was already reporting such studies in 1965, at least ten years before he stopped work (see the 1976 article referenced above). And what he said then – in a short summary for the journal Science, titled ‘Total Social Isolation: Effects on Macaque Monkey Behaviour’ – was that sixteen macaques (plus at least two “semi-isolated” monkeys as controls) had been put into isolation chambers “at birth”, without sight of any other living being, for periods of three, six, and twelve months.

Bennett’s corrective information is wrong, then. But even if it weren’t, that isolation research was no late aberration. It was one of countless variations upon a steady theme: the producing of mental disturbance in infant monkeys. We’ve seen that this wasn’t being done with changes of circumstance only. Those monkeys overdosed with phenylalanine had likewise been taken from their mothers at birth, and their various pathetic symptoms (convulsions, hyperactivity, head-banging and self-biting, circling the cage, complete torpor) may not have been much better than those suffered by the poor isolates, who at least got unpoisoned food. Among the other material interventions tried out by Harlow were bilateral frontal lobectomy, alcohol in the diet, and radiation.

Remember that these half-ruined young animals were then being tested for mental capacity (the psychology of learning had been Harlow’s starting-point in research). Those torpid monkeys, for instance, “had to be prodded to complete a trial.” Force was indeed a common recourse in the Harlow laboratory – a curious feature in studies supposedly revealing “the fundamental building blocks of human behaviour” (as the Association for Psychological Science believes they did). When Harlow wished his mother-deprived female monkeys to try out motherhood themselves, he got round their natural refusal with what he called, colloquially, the “rape rack”, though in print he was rather more coy about it: “By methods dark, dismal, and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years” (the “we”, in this case again, were Harlow and Suomi, in 1971). Incidentally, we’re told that “several” of these forced mothers passed on the violence by killing their importunate off-spring.

I won’t assess here the claims made by Professor Bennett for the human relevance of all this research, since the subject has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (‘How Not to Treat Babies’: see link in notes). However, she also more surprisingly claims that the research was relevant and helpful to non-human animals. At a time when they were regarded by most people as “dumb machines” and “automatons”, so she says, Harlow showed how mentally complex animals really were. So he did animals good, you see, even as he tormented them.

Actually, were they commonly regarded as automatons? The first federal law to protect animals in general was passed in 1966, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been particular legislation in their interests (at slaughter, during transport) well before that, as well as state legislation, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded a hundred years back in 1866. The ASPCA’s chief mover, Henry Bergh, spoke with passionate indignation against vivisection. The truth is that Harlow’s work was controversial at the time; in fact two Congressmen tried (unsuccessfully) to block a federal research grant for it in 1962. Nor do I find that Harlow anywhere took from his research any implication that favoured the interests of non-human animals. What he told his public about was not monkeys as sentient beings with corresponding claims on our respect, but monkeys as live models or pioneers of any and every mental disaster that could be imagined. And heaven knows, Harry Harlow had a fertile imagination in that respect.

And here we come to something about Harlow which Professor Bennett doesn’t attempt to manage, perhaps doesn’t quite appreciate, but which has helped to ensure his conspicuousness in the modern history of vivisection. Even in his publications, he seems to gloat over the strange sufferings and perversions that he creates. We’re told in the obituary that he was “an unusually gifted writer”. Certainly he liked fanciful alliterative phrases. You’ll remember those “methods dark, dismal and devious”. The obituary recalls him speaking of the “bold and barren splendor” of his wire and cloth surrogate mothers. Observing his (male) monkeys on their release from isolation, and their pathetic attempts to relate to their new associates, he looks for “the ecstasies and elegances of masculine play” and “the full grandiose gifts of masculinity”. Fine writing possibly, but with a creepy relish about it. In fact a colouring of perversion affects all Harlow’s work and writing. He’s a man one wouldn’t leave alone with the children, and it’s an abiding tragedy that he spent his life freely practising upon their like, and made a legacy of the habit which is still creating work for his successors. Yes, he lives on all right, and therefore the contention over the kind of reputation he ought to have is, in spite of what Professor Bennett says, completely proper and indeed necessary to our continuing attempts to make medical science a humane pursuit.

NIH lab c.2009

Notes and references:

The Journal of Neuroscience article is in the issue for 31 October 2012, vol. 32 (44), pp. 15626-15642.

The ‘Harlow Dead’ post on Speaking of Research’s web-site can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/08/03/harlow-dead-bioethicists-outraged/

Suomi’s monkey models of depression and alcoholism are instanced in a statement by the American Psychological Association defending this “world renowned researcher” from “a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr Suomi’s laboratory by the organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” See https://speakingofresearch.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/apa-suomi-letter-01-22-15.pdf

The report on induced phenylketonuria in rhesus macaques was published in Science, 12 February 1965, pp.685-95.

The obituary of Harry Harlow, written by Stephen Suomi and Helen Leroy (Harlow’s assistant as editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology), can be read here: https://www.academia.edu/19008017/In_memoriam_Harry_F._Harlow_1905-1981_ It includes a bibliography of Harlow’s publications.

The 2019 animal research numbers in the USA, including the figure for each state, can be found here: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/annual-reports/2019/fy19-summary-report-column-B.pdf

Harlow’s report ‘Total Social Isolation’ was published in Science on 30 April 1965, p.666.

The quotation from the Association of Psychological Science, one of the many scientific institutions which have expressed unconditional approval of Harlow’s work, can be found here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html

“dark, dismal, and devious . . etc.” is quoted from a paper titled ‘Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, July 1971, vol.68, no.7, p.1535. Here Harlow was experimenting with ways to cure the monkeys of their induced psychoses.

The relevance or otherwise to human babyhood of Harlow’s experiments is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/

The photographs show baby macaques with surrogate ‘mothers’ then and now: that is, in Harlow’s laboratory, and in a National Institutes of Health laboratory a few years ago.

The Coming of King Unas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

The quoted interview was given by Bregman to npr (National Public Radio), on 30 May 2020, and can be read here: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/30/866059164/in-humankind-rutger-bregman-aims-to-convince-that-most-people-are-good

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

The detail of a cave painting shows a wild pig (the Sulawesi warty pig) and a hand-print. The whole painting, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is believed to be the oldest so far discovered, at least 45,000 years old. For a report on the discovery, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-55657257.

 

 

No Duty More Imperative upon the House

Finally a bill has come before the UK Parliament which expressly recognizes animals as “sentient beings”. The concept – or rather, fact – had been established in European Union law by the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, and therefore was a part of what was lost with Brexit. Now it’s been re-introduced in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, published earlier this month and due to be debated first in the House of Lords on 16 June.

Of course the acknowledgement of sentience in other animals has been implicit in animal welfare law from the beginning and yet apparently thought compatible with such glaring maltreatment over the years as vivisection and factory farming. Nor did putting the idea into the open in the Lisbon Treaty seem to do animals themselves much good. Still, the new proposal does (or may) take the matter a good deal further. Its long title is ‘A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. This committee is to be a permanent institution, watching for, and publishing reports on, any government policy, planned or being put into effect, which the Committee considers “might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” To any such report, the government is required to respond within three months, and then to pay “all due regard” to its recommendations “in any further formulation or implementation of the policy”.

Section 5 of the Bill, titled ‘Interpretation’, defines the word animal (“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens, though invertebrate species may subsequently be added) and also vertebrate itself, but not the word due (so we won’t know how much regard is required), nor the key word sentience. But this last word is anyway being continually enriched with meaning, and the Bill will presumably have to grow with it. For instance, since 2016 there’s been an excellent peer-reviewed journal devoted to the subject and titled Animal Sentience, and the London School of Economics recently announced a five-year project of research on ‘the Foundations of Animal Sentience’. Even the trendy habit of using the short form ‘ASent’ is probably a promising sign of growth. As the LSE says, “In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers . . . has begun to emerge.”

Although there’s something dismal about the phrase “interdisciplinary community”, the thing itself must be good in this case; I’ve yet to come across research which shows any species of animal less sentient than previously thought. And the really significant advance represented by the Bill is that the interests of these sentient animals will have to be taken into account across all government activity, whether existing law covers them or not. In conservation matters, for instance, not just net gains and losses of various animals will have to be considered, but the felt harms or benefits involved for them. There’s a genuine moral advance here, supposing it’s properly applied.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is part of the UK government’s larger Action Plan for Animal Welfare (note the cute initials: can it have been intentional?). The Plan includes various other promises, including an end to exporting of live farm animals, better labelling of animal-derived products, better protection for “sporting animals” (a curious expression), an end to the keeping of primates as pets, and many other improvements. Some of these are already in hand: higher sentences for cruelty to animals will come into effect on 29 June. Other promises are noticeably tentative. As to a ban on the importation of all and any animal furs, for instance: “we will explore potential action in this area” (I count three put-offs in that sentence). Animals in research get a bit of both, the promise essentially being to stand still, or “continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection”.

The Secretary of State responsible for the Action Plan is George Eustice, who made the Plan public on 12 May during a visit to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. He began his speech there with the inevitable words “We are a nation of animal lovers.” The familiar boast (critiqued elsewhere in this blog) is not well-evidenced by that chosen setting, a poignant asylum in South London for abandoned pets, but at least there’s more to it than patriotism on this occasion. The Action Plan expresses several times the intention to “take the rest of the world with us” in setting higher standards of animal welfare, and to make that intention felt in trade and other international dealings. I’d say that the phrase “animal lovers”, especially without a hyphen, is more likely to raise a foreign smirk than do much persuading. In a parliamentary speech which George Eustice made in 2018 during a debate on the testing of cosmetics, he spoke in similarly sentimental terms: “Animal welfare is dear to my heart, and dear to all our hearts.” Let’s hope that the UK’s “international advocacy on animal welfare” will be put across with more ethical force.

In George Eustice’s introduction to the Action Plan, the ‘nation of animal-lovers’ claim is supported with a reference to the world’s first law for the protection of animals, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822. That law was certainly a momentous achievement: as one MP said at the time, it “consecrated the principle, that animals ought to be protected by legislative interference.” But it can’t be seen as a typical product of the national character. It followed a series of thwarted attempts to persuade Parliament to do something for animals, and was itself followed by similarly defeated bills aimed at extending its protections to other domesticated animals. The Act’s sponsor, Richard Martin (incidentally an Irishman, MP for Galway), was a stubborn and pugnacious personality; he really did have ethical force. His face shows as much (see below) – the stubbornness and force at least. Without them he surely wouldn’t have been able to bring his 1822 Bill through to success.

Martin's Act trial

The primary means of opposition in the House of Commons was that most destructive of its weapons, ridicule. Reports of the debates on the Bill, and on the various amendments to widen and enforce its measures which Martin tried to introduce in the following years, are punctuated with “laughter”, “loud laughter”, “noise and laughter”. MPs would ask him why he didn’t include other species, whose mere mention they thought would tend to bring his project into contempt and ridicule: asses, hares, cats, rats, lobsters. Something of the attitude is suggested in a contemporary painting which imagines a donkey giving evidence in court of offences against the 1822 Act committed by his master (the young man to his left, cocking a snook). The title was The Trial of Bill Burn, under Martin’s Act, and it illustrated a comic song of the period on that theme: “If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go / D’ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no!” I read those repeated no’s as sarcastic, but at any rate the picture (shown here reproduced in a print) has everyone except the principals enjoying a good laugh.

Sometimes Martin spoke angrily about this hilarity and the “invidious sarcasms” thrown at his proposals: “The learned gentleman may laugh,” a parliamentary report has him saying to the Attorney General, “and no doubt he considered him and his case as a fit subject for ridicule, but he could tell him it was not a matter of ridicule elsewhere.” But he was never punctured. He was witty himself, and could turn the jokes his own way. When Martin was trying to have bull-baiting and cock-fighting prohibited, the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, argued that upper class field sports were just as ‘cruel’ (implying that nobody would think of putting them down); good, replied Martin, then they too should be banned, and “he did, therefore, call on the Home Secretary to do so, and to begin the salutary reformation by recommending to the King, whose adviser he was, to put down the royal hunt, and dismiss the royal stag-hounds.”

At other times, Martin would check the frivolity of MPs by giving them instances of the cruelty and barbarity which he had seen or been told of. One of these concerned the physiological lectures then being given in London by the French professor Francois Magendie, involving “most horrid and most wanton” experiments on dogs. This attack on a distinguished visitor caused some indignation, and Martin was told anyway that he’d got the facts wrong. His answer was reported thus: “he knew that what was spoken in that House was privileged from the action of libel; but he desired, in order to decide the real merits of the question, that such an action might be brought, and with the view of enabling professor Magendie to commence the action, and to obtain evidence to support it, he had gone down that day to St Bartholomew’s hospital, and had there repeated the statement, as nearly as possible in the terms in which he had before made it in that House.”

It was a characteristic performance. In 1824, Martin wanted to amend the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act so as to authorize members of the public actively to apprehend a person seen ill-treating an animal, rather than just reporting them. It was Martin’s own habit to do so, and that same Attorney-General spoke in the House against the proposal thus: “He knew from the zeal which the hon. Member had heretofore displayed in the cause of humanity, that not a week would elapse before he would be forced into some desperate conflict in attempting to enforce the law.”

Martin was nick-named ‘Humanity Dick’, and it needs adding that his ‘humanity’ was not solely directed towards the welfare of non-human animals. Human distresses, including slavery and the sufferings of debtors, engaged his energies too. It seems that he sometimes paid the fines of those whom he had brought into the courts under his Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. After all, the punishment of individuals was incidental; what he aimed at was a change of attitude and practice. And in fact that change, so a fellow-MP could say already in 1825, “might be seen in every market in London.”

Richard Martin

In 1826, Martin’s own debts obliged him to take refuge in France, where he remained for the last years of his life. He wasn’t a saint-like man. I can find no talk from him about loving animals or any other such touching rhetoric. But there was blatant abuse of animals in the streets and the cattle markets of Britain, and he persuaded the state that it should take notice and action. He wasn’t able to build on that success himself, but the principle was established. He encountered all those improvised objections, in their earliest vigour, that we still hear in their antiquity (being now employed, for instance, against legislating for sentience): it’s impossible to administer such laws; there are other more important laws to deal with first; they’ll hurt the poor; where will it stop (with cats, oysters, insects?); a different set of animals is more deserving (i.e. put it off); and of course ridicule. Martin faced all these down, and after those few years of harassing Parliament on this subject, his achievement is reflected in this momentous statement reported in the speech of another MP, John Maxwell: “There was no duty, he [Maxwell] conceived, more imperative upon the House than that of affording protection to animals.”

Astonishing to see that being said nearly 200 years ago! And correspondingly puzzling and dismaying that there is still so much to do. At any rate, now is a good moment (George Eustice was right in this) to recall and feel gratitude towards the man who forced a reluctant nation to make a start – not on loving animals, fine and proper as that may well be, but on treating their feelings and interests with the respect due to those of all sentient beings.

Notes and references:

The text of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill (it’s very short) can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2867  The Action Plan for Animal Welfare is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/action-plan-for-animal-welfare/action-plan-for-animal-welfare

The LSE’s sentience research project is announced here: https://www.lse.ac.uk/cpnss/research/ASENT

The 2018 cosmetics debate is reported in Hansard’s parliamentary records here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-05-01/debates/7F5EB22D-EA66-4F29-8A8E-339DDF7093BE/CosmeticsTestingOnAnimals The quotations from speeches made in debates in which Richard Martin was involved between 1821 and 1826 are reported in Hansard and linked here: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/mr-richard-martin-1/index.html

The post in this blog which discusses the phrase and notion ‘animal-lover’ is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/love-talk/

Apart from online material, there are good accounts of the life and character of Richard Martin in E.S.Turner’s excellent All Heaven in a Rage (Michael Joseph, 1964) and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004, also online), whose entry on Martin is written by Richard Ryder.

The portrait of Richard Martin is a print from a painting in the collection of the RSPCA, of which (as the SPCA) Martin himself was one of the founding members in 1824. The aquatint from a painting, Trial of Bill Burn, was apparently made in the late 1830s. More details about it, including a version of the song from which the quotation above is taken, can be found online here: https://www.georgeglazer.com/wpmain/product/history-law-animal-rights-trial-antique-print-london-mid-19th-century/

A Scholar and a Good Man

In January of 1884, just in the middle of the vivisection controversy which was then agitating Oxford University, a portrait bust of George Rolleston, late Linacre Professor of Physiology and Anatomy, was installed in the University Museum. It was made by the sculptor Henry Hope-Pinker – not from the life, because the subject had died in 1881 (aged only 51), but still it was a strong and appealing image, suggestive of an energetic and idealistic personality. And this Rolleston certainly had been. He was appointed a science lecturer in 1857 and then the first Linacre professor in 1860. That was the year the university’s Natural History Museum was opened, and Rolleston had been a vital force in the work of reviving science studies in the university, with the Museum collections as their focus.   

Hope-Pinker, Henry Richard, 1850-1927; George Rolleston (1829-1881)

Although the Museum was not yet completed (and still isn’t quite, as the façade itself shows clearly enough), the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held there in that year – a sort of benediction for the new Oxford science. Rolleston was present, of course; indeed he was one of its organizers, and was serving as president of the Physiology Section. His friend Thomas Huxley, already known as a combative champion of the scientific outlook in general and of Darwin’s just-published Origin of Species in particular, was one of his vice-presidents. It was in Rolleston’s section that a debate began over the question how much difference in form there was between the human brain and the brains of other primates. So animated and significant was the argument, that a more gladiatorial version of it was appointed for the end of the week, when Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (among others) famously disputed the matter before a packed assembly. Rolleston was already persuaded by the evolution thesis, and in fact craniometry, an aspect of comparative anatomy which formed an important part of Darwin’s argument, became a special interest of his, and a focus of the Museum’s study collection. The photograph reproduced here was taken by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), and shows Rolleston at this work.

GR by Dodgson, Museum Collection

Here then was a man right in the swim of contemporary science, at Oxford and nationally, at an exciting time of revival and progress. But he wasn’t quite the stream-lined lab-man that was characterizing the new physiology in Britain (as pictured, for instance, in Conan Doyle’s story ‘The Physiologist’s Wife’, reviewed elsewhere in this blog). He had read Classics at Pembroke College before studying for a medical qualification in London. Then he worked at the British Hospital in Smyrna just at the end of the Crimean War, and after that at the Children’s Hospital in London. During his first Oxford appointment, as Lee’s Reader in Anatomy, he continued to work as a doctor. The Linacre chair disallowed him from continued medical practice, but he was active on the city’s health board, for instance in dealing with Oxford’s share of the national smallpox epidemic of 1871. Then again, his academic interests were very broad, including ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as physiology and anatomy. Perhaps the Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, had in mind this variety of attention when he wrote that Rolleston did not quite possess “the spirit of a Scientific man” [Desmond, p.134].

At any rate, ‘my profession, right or wrong’ was never Rolleston’s habit of thought. His period as professor of physiology coincided with a national campaign against vivisection, culminating in a Royal Commission and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Unlike most of his fellow-physiologists, Rolleston did not see the rights and wrongs of vivisection as a matter for professionals only. He believed, on the contrary, that people developed “the moral sense” through “knowledge of the world at large”, and that the narrow focus of research tended to take them in the opposite direction, “every kind of original research being a gratification of self, and liable to develop selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness.” Such unscrupulousness had special scope in the practice of vivisection, which was therefore likely to be “more demoralizing than other kinds of devotion to research”. The practice was, in fact, “very liable to abuse”.

Those quotations come from the evidence which Rolleston gave to the Royal Commission in 1875. He was not – again, unlike his fellow-professionals – improvising a morality for the occasion, for he had not been taken by surprise, as they had, when vivisection became a national concern in that way. He had been putting the matter to his colleagues as a moral problem over many years.

It was something he first did formally during the British Association meeting at Newcastle in 1863, when he was serving, again, as president of the Physiology Section. The presidential addresses which prefaced the reading of papers were normally in the collective-congratulatory style, commending the year’s work in the subject. But Rolleston used a portion of his time for what the editor of the published proceedings, perhaps with slight distaste, called “some remarks upon vivisection”. The president put the anti-vivisection case to his fellow-physiologists, and then, more or less impartially, the answers to it which they might be inclined to make. By way of conclusion, he made an appeal to their pride of nation. “In a country like this,” he began, not meaning that imaginary ‘nation of animal-lovers’ still cited today, but rather, and more accurately, a country “where human life is highly prized”: in such a country, he said, all lives would naturally profit from that developed respect, and therefore “brute misery will never be wantonly produced.” It was a clever appeal, that word “will” implying as much a commitment made on his audience’s behalf as a logical deduction. And he finished, rather as a headmaster might finish cautioning his school, “in a British Association I need allude no further to the matter.”

But he did allude to it again, in 1870, when he was president of the whole Biology Section of the BA for its meeting in Liverpool. He seems now to have pressed the BA’s General Committee to take an interest. Among the special committees which it was appointing to examine such matters as luminous meteors, the Gaussian Constants, the fossil elephants of Malta, and ‘lunar objects suspected of change’, there was one deputed to formulate a statement for the British Association on “Physiological Experiments in their various bearings”. This committee was, besides, asked to consider “from time to time” (as a semi-permanent committee, then) what the BA itself might do to minimize animal suffering in “legitimate physiological inquiries” and to discourage the illegitimate kind. Professor Rolleston was to be the secretary. His committee of ten included two of the leading vivisectors of the day, Professors Foster and Burdon Sanderson.

Rolleston’s committee duly reported in 1871 (at Edinburgh now). Its members had come to a majority agreement on four modest principles: no painful experiment, where anaesthetic was possible, should be done without it; no painful experiment to be done for teaching or demonstration purposes; no painful experiment of any kind except at fully equipped laboratories “under proper regulations” (not specified); no operations to be done on animals merely in order to improve the surgical dexterity of vets. Seven members had signed these proposed principles. Ominously, Professor Foster had not. Nor was anything noted about the British Association’s endorsement of them, or about further intentions of any kind.

For most of the committee, and of the larger BA membership, this was probably understood as a convenient finish rather than a start to the theme. At any rate, the committee members showed no further interest in it, until obliged to do so as witnesses before the 1875 Royal Commission. When Burdon Sanderson and Foster, with two other physiologists, composed their Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, a compilation of methods and experiments published just three years after that Edinburgh meeting, there was no mention in it of any duty of care towards the animals. In particular, there was no advice on the use of anaesthetics. Rolleston must have felt, in 1875, that he was having to start again, and in fact he began his evidence to the Commission by referring back to that presidential address of 1863.

But now, of course, he was addressing an audience far beyond fellow-scientists. Professional solidarity in face of this public attention is a notable feature of the evidence given to that Commission by the scientists – loyalty to each other (“I do not know anywhere a kinder person than Dr Sanderson”, etc.) and to their professional discipline. Moreover, Rolleston’s friend Thomas Huxley, by now the acknowledged voice of British science, was one of the Commissioners. It must have been both painful and hazardous for Rolleston to break ranks in such a situation. He said so: “I know that I am likely to be exceedingly abused.” Still he did it. He said that there were far more animal experiments than necessary (this at a time when they numbered about 500 a year in Britain). He said that they tended to habituate practitioners to animal suffering, so that, for instance, a lecturer might easily disregard the suffering in favour of “showing what he is worth”. He agreed with the suggestion put to him that the Handbook compiled by Professor Foster et al was “a dangerous book to society”. He even suggested that the sight of animal suffering, “of a living, bleeding, and quivering organism”, was likely to awaken the “sleeping devil” of positive cruelty in those present (for the truth of which, supposing there were any doubt about it, see the previous post in this blog). It was an astonishing performance.

When the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, Rolleston welcomed it as “a great step in the history of mankind”. Animals would now have “friends to remonstrate for them”. I think also that he saw the Act as a proper recognition of what he called “the secret bond” between all animals, which Darwinism implied. No doubt he over-estimated the Act’s value, even as it stood. And after his death the law was anyway emasculated. The physiologists formed an Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, to which the Home Secretary very willingly delegated the day-to-day management of the Act’s various modest regulations. For the next thirty or more years, the profession effectively or ineffectively policed itself.

Nor did Rolleston live to witness the controversy as it re-erupted in Oxford (and there too failed of its possibilities). In fact it was his death that precipitated it, for there was then a division of the Linacre chair subjects, and Burdon Sanderson, whom the local press called “the high priest of vivisection”, was elected to the first Waynflete chair of Physiology. But Rolleston’s brave evidence was there to read, and it was read by the historian Edward Freeman (who that year was himself elected an Oxford professor) when he was debating in his own mind whether to make the journey up to Oxford from his home in Somerset in order to speak against the proposed physiological laboratory. He was feeling the same difficulty Rolleston had faced, of publicly “going against so many friends”. Then he looked again at the “the old Vivisection Blue Book” – that is, the report of the Royal Commission – and exclaimed “how different the evidence of Rolleston, a scholar and a good man, from most of the scientific cock-a-hoops”. And he concluded, “I have settled to be at Oxford tomorrow . . . ‘tis a matter of right and wrong.”

GR by Miller

George Rolleston didn’t think that vivisection ought to be prohibited; he believed that it did have value in selected medical research, and he himself practised it to some small extent for demonstration purposes: about six frogs a year, so he reported, always with anaesthetics (he is credited with ensuring that frogs were included in the Act’s protections). Rolleston belonged, after all, to the profession. But in such a context, his efforts to caution against vivisection as a morally portentous activity, “dangerous . . . to society”, are the more to be admired. When the Museum opens again, next month, I shall go there, as I often have in the past, and pay respect to that fine sculpture and its high-principled subject.

Notes and references:

Some of the material about Rolleston’s life comes from his Scientific Papers and Addresses, 2 vols, ed. William Turner, with a biographical sketch by Edward Tylor, Keeper of the University Museum, Clarendon Press, 1884.

His evidence in 1875 appears in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, pp.61-8. The reference to Dr Sanderson’s kindness comes in the evidence given by the surgeon and government health official John Simon, p.75.

The 1863 meeting of the British Association, in which Rolleston’s address appears at p.109 (second part), is published online here: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/93055#page/7/mode/1up. The later meetings can be accessed from that page by changing the year in the headline. The committee’s terms as appointed in 1870 are quoted from p.62 (first section), and its report in 1871 from p.144 (first section). The “secret bond” is a phrase used by Rolleston in his Harveian Oration, as published by Macmillan, 1873, p.29.

The phrase “high priest . . .” for Burdon Sanderson was used in the Oxford University Herald in its issue of 27 October 1883.

Edward Freeman is quoted from a letter written in February 1884, as published in The Life and Letters of Edward Augustus Freeman, ed. W.R.W.Stephens, 2 vols, Macmillan, 1895, vol.2 pp.275-6.

Illustrations: the bust of George Rolleston in the University Museum; Rolleston demonstrating craniometry (from a photograph by Charles Dodgson in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum); pencil and chalk sketch of Rolleston in 1877 by William Edwards Miller, from the collection of Merton College.

An Oxford Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Two Franciscan Texts and the Worm in a Wild Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

Living Planet Report 2020 is published online here: https://www.zsl.org/sites/default/files/LPR%202020%20Full%20report.pdf. Quotations are from pp.4 and 6. It’s a very well-presented and authoritative document, though not of course quite Franciscan in philosophy: that is, it has the conservationist mind-set of viewing by species rather than by lives.

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

Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species is published by Granta. The book Corvus is spoken of in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/how-to-learn-about-magpies/

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

A Belgian Artist Admonishes his Nation

Among the countries engaged in work on Covid-19 is the Kingdom of Belgium. “Research in Belgium uses animals to find effective treatments for Covid-19”, announces the European Animal Research Association (EARA), an organisation which promotes awareness and acceptance of vivisection in EU member states, much as UAR does in Britain. The animals in question include mice, rabbits, and llamas. Monkeys too, although the Belgian institution that has been using them in its work, VIB-UGhent (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie at the University of Ghent), manages to publicize its “important milestone in the development of a Covid-19 drug”, and specifically “the moment we observed virus neutralization in these experiments”, without mentioning animals at all.

The EARA aims to induce such organisations to be less bashful. In fact a few years ago, when it wished to counter unfavourable publicity on World Day for Animals in Laboratories, the EARA published on that day a collective declaration of intent by Belgian science institutions to be more open (or at least publicity-conscious), on the model of the UK’s Concordat on Openness. VIB was a participant, perhaps without much enthusiasm. At the time (2016), the EARA said it had chosen Belgium for the purpose because “if we could successfully carry out this project in Belgium, then it could be reproduced anywhere.” That sounds like a chauvinist jest, but the thinking was that Belgium, with its strong regional identities and three official languages, would be unusually resistant to collective action.

Perhaps also in mind was the fact that the country does not have a strong tradition of concern for animals to make sense of such distractions from the business of research. It had no dedicated animal welfare law until the 1929 Protection of Animals Act, in which vivisection occupied just one article. Yet already Belgium was notable enough for its practice of animal research to be apostrophized by one of its most famous citizens, the artist James Ensor (more of him in a moment), as a “tormenteur d’animaux”. Even now there is no dedicated anti-vivisection grouping in Belgium, though since 1992 the excellent organisation GAIA has included animal research in its campaigning. But as a practitioner of animal research Belgium is not much less active than the UK in proportion to its population. And with about 2.5 % of the EU’s population, Belgium accounts for about 5% of the animals used in EU research.

Anyway, that 1929 Act had been preceded by several years of contention, to which, as we’ve seen, James Ensor had vigorously contributed. As a highly unorthodox artist, a pioneer of expressionism, Ensor had suffered many years of rejection and neglect, but finally he had become a figure of national celebrity, had even been created a Baron by King Albert. This recognition to some extent tamed Ensor; in particular, he destroyed all the copies he could recover of his savagely satirical print featuring Albert’s predecessor Leopold II as Roi Dindon (i.e. ‘King Dolt’). But his rage against disrespect of nature, and in particular against animal research, was never mollified, or gentrified as to its expression. In an interview at that period, one of those formulaic interviews which set the celebrity to fill in their favourite this and most regretted that, Ensor’s answer to “Ce que je deteste le plus” [what I hate most] included among other things “les vivisecteurs gavés de cruauté, bouffis de suffisance et d’insensibilité profitable” [vivisectors stuffed full of cruelty, bumptiousness and lucrative insensibility.] Incidentally, that French verb gaver, when used about animals, means to force-feed; it’s borrowed into the English of the animal-research world as ‘gavage’, presumably to help camouflage a very ugly procedure.

But Ensor’s most dramatic intervention in the controversy was his painting of 1925 titled Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs (usually translated as ‘The Vile Vivisectors’, but ‘shameful’ might be more apt). He was now in his sixties, and had generally turned away from painting in favour of writing and music. His greatest works were done, and it’s an indication of his earnestness that he not only undertook this sizeable picture (62 by 80 cm), but made a second version of it four years later, eloquently unaltered by the disappointing law of 1929.

With its chinoiserie patterns, grotesque and masked figures (including skeletons), and crudities in the tradition of the satirical cartoon, Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is wholly characteristic of its artist. Even the presence of the artist himself (top right in hat) is a familiar trope: in one gruesome painting, The Dangerous Cooks (1896), Ensor’s own head is being served up to a group of critics, two of whom are spitting or perhaps being sick. But whereas these various elements often create baffling results – one modern critic has justly called Ensor’s art “always compelling and often utterly mystifying”Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs has a strong, even blatant programme.

Reading from the left, a skeleton, on whose cranium a bird is spitting, bribes a compliant priest to endorse the practice which is dramatized under their hands by the convulsed James Ensor The Vivisectorsfrogs. The priest, upon whose head the same bird seems to be defecating, is with his other hand gripping the arm of a woman, presumably one of his browbeaten flock, herself consequently being spat upon. Her other arm is held by a skeleton doctor preparing a syringe. Next comes an even more obviously unhappy woman (or is she wearing a mask?), whose wrist is being held by a second skeleton.

These five figures seem to be ranged in contemplation of something out of the picture, so perhaps the roundel at the top is being imagined as a mirror reflecting what they watch. Here, anyway, a physiologist is giving a class, showing the inner workings of a dog whom his assistant is helpfully disembowelling. Ensor was not a believer, but he frequently used the crucifix as an image of unjust suffering, sometimes putting himself there, sometimes Christ; here it’s the lab animal.

Finally, at the top right, Ensor himself and three masked heads express their indignation by spitting at the repellent scene or its mirror image. “Infâmes vivisecteurs,” Ensor is saying with characteristic vehemence; “je vous crache tout mon mépris à la face” [I spit with all my scorn into your face].

Skeletons have always been seen, naturally enough, as disagreeable reminders of mortality. They frequent Ensor’s pictures as mockers of human pretensions and comforts. They are present at the fun of carnivals, or lounge in bourgeois sitting rooms. One of them waits patiently, with scythe to hand, for some doctors to finish treating their Ensor's human herdpatient. Perhaps most eloquently of Ensor’s outlook, in Death Pursuing the Human Herd the skeletons stampede an endless crowd of panicking humanity along the narrow Belgian streets. In Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs the skeletons appear as sinister sponsors of vivisection, and at the same time reminders that medicine cannot, whatever sacrifices are imposed in its cause, save humans from death, though it may postpone death, a point that is perhaps being hinted at in the doctor’s time-piece.

Well, why not at least endeavour to postpone it, then, at any cost (to others)? Ensor’s answer is implied in the mood of shame, anxiety and defeat created in the painting. That mood is all the more poignant for the futile gaiety of the clothing, with its forlorn celebration of colour and natural forms. These are fallen people, a fallen society.

It’s an answer which, in its heroic form, was famously incorporated by Homer (if it was Homer) in the Iliad, millennia ago. Sarpedon, the king of Lycia, is urging his friend and fellow-warrior Glaucus into battle against the Greeks, and he gives two reasons for them to hazard their lives in this way. One is that to behave high-mindedly is the proper counterpart of their privileged status in the world; the one vindicates the other. They had an obligation to be, as Alexander Pope translated it, “The first in valour, as the first in place.” And the second reason is that to duck the battle doesn’t after all mean getting to live for ever; otherwise, as Sarpedon candidly admits, he himself would forgo the fame and stay safe at home. The best, the only wise, course is therefore to act reputably, “Brave though we fall, and honour’d if we live”.

A species could do worse than make that its motto. Certainly we may hope, and indeed strive, to stay alive, knowing as we do that eventually we must fail; what we mustn’t do is gain time dishonourably by making others endure the strife for us. That’s the infamy which Sarpedon exhorts Glaucus to spurn, and which Ensor angrily showed that his own contemporaries, so far from spurning, were thoroughly implicated in, as their successors still are.

Notes and references:

The EARA press release about Belgian research, which incidentally also provides a link to a map showing all such Covid-related animal research in the world, can be read here: https://www.eara.eu/post/research-in-belgium-uses-animals-to-find-effective-treatments-for-covid-19.  Its account of the World Day counter-publicity is here: https://www.nature.com/articles/laban.1025.pdf?origin=ppub. VIB’s own announcement is here: https://vib.be/news/vib-achieves-important-milestone-development-covid-19-drug

The EU Commission issued, earlier this year, comparative tables of animal research in the various member states for the period 2015-17. From those numbers I’ve made a rough estimate of Belgium’s position. See https://230099ef-af46-4cc6-b2be-415f0041b55e.usrfiles.com/ugd/230099_1c8721de340d4dee9b70acdc3c7afc8e.pdf

Quotations from Ensor himself are taken from the Les écrits de James Ensor (Brussels, 1921) p.131, and Ecrits de James Ensor de 1921 à 1926 (Ostende-Bruges, 1926) p.6. This second reference is for the interview, which may have been a device of Ensor’s own, rather than a genuine exchange. Some of the answers and indeed the questions are eccentric and fanciful, though the answer quoted is serious enough.

The quotation about Ensor’s art comes from a piece in the Royal Academy’s RA Magazine for Autumn 2016 by Michael Prodger, titled ‘James Ensor: a man of many masks’, and accessible here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/james-ensor-man-of-many-masks. Ensor’s later pictures are generally not much discussed, but Les Infâmes Vivisecteurs is reproduced and briefly spoken about in Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s Ensor (Tashcen 2016) pp.87 and 89. She also mentions the second version of the picture. But of course there are very many books about Ensor, who is now considered one of the greatest and most original of the modernists.

The Homeric episode of Sarpedon and Glaucus comes in Book 12, lines 310-28.

A Troubling and Unsavoury Contradiction

Among the reasons not to be vegan which vegans habitually encounter (Aren’t plants sentient too? What will happen to all the cows? Where do you get your protein?) is the Adolf Hitler connection: wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian? Rynn Berry, the author of Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes, says “I have yet to give a talk on vegetarianism in which the tasteless question of Hitler’s vegetarianism has not been raised”. Perhaps it’s reasonable, when notabilities of history or in modern public life are offered as models for the diet, to ask what influence in the matter a blatant counter-exemplar should have. Anyway, Berry wrote a book which provided an answer to the question even in its title: Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (2004). It’s a short, readable, and well-researched account of the matter, finally stating “that Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Tolstoy, Shaw, Gandhi, and Singer [that’s Isaac Bashevis] were vegetarians, but that Mr Hitler – who liked his pigeons stuffed and roasted – was not.”

Still, the ugly association, false as it may be, persists. It crops up, for instance, in two books reviewed elsewhere in this blog: Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat (2010: “animal activists don’t relish the idea that Adolf Hitler was a fellow traveller”) and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature (2011: “any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism.”) In both cases, the Hitler connection is thought to compromise the animal rights cause, and is accordingly used as part of a more general deprecation of the values and ambitions that go with it.

It’s not just Hitler’s diet that’s being used in evidence. As the quotation from Better Angels shows, there’s a more general contrariety to face: that the whole Nazi administration from 1933 to 1945 combined its infamous and savage repudiation of ethics in the treatment of fellow-humans with what may seem to be an enlightened concern for the welfare of other animals. A succession of laws, passed in regional and national parliaments, regulated slaughterhouses, the care of pet animals, conservation, farriery, and other practices affecting animals; they banned pâté de foie gras, hunting with dogs, the harming of animals in film-making; they even specified, and required public kitchens to employ, the least inhumane method for killing crabs and lobsters (plunging them individually into boiling water was what a civil service report had recommended, though you may think that not eating them at all would have been more in line with “vegetarianism . . . under Nazism”). As to vivisection there was, initially at least, an intention to prohibit absolutely what Hermann Göring called, in a speech broadcast on radio in 1933, “torture and suffering in animal experiments”.

Where did this apparent commitment to animal interests come from? Certainly pressure had been building over many years for animal protection laws in Germany. Therefore, much of what was now accomplished only brought Germany up to basic standards already achieved in the UK. That would explain why the legislation came so promptly with the inception of the Third Reich; it was already waiting and pushing for authorization. But in a symposium on this subject published some years ago in the journal Anthrozoos, Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax argue that “personal interest in or affection for animals by key Nazi figures” must be a large part of the explanation. What is the evidence for this?

We come back to Hitler himself. Yes, Hitler was fond of his own dogs. Hitler’s architect and then armaments minister, Albert Speer, who wrote the most intelligent and perspicacious of the contemporary portraits of the man, notes that on the short but dreary walks that were taken by Hitler and his entourage when he was at his country retreat in Bavaria, his “interest was usually focused not on his companions but on his Alsatian dog Blondi . . . he meant more to his master than the Fuehrer’s closest associates.”  Presumably there was sincere affection in this, but Speer also says, when he describes the feeding of Blondi as supervised by the Fuehrer, “Hitler knew, of course, that a dog regards the man who feeds him as his master.” Absolute loyalty of the animal, secure mastery for the man: these were what really mattered. Guests had to make sure that they didn’t encourage “any feelings of friendship in the dog”, because such signs of “disloyalty” in Blondi would put Hitler out of temper. It’s significant that Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff, the man whom Speer calls a “servile flatterer” and who was derisively nick-naked ‘Ja-Keitel’, was prized by Hitler exactly because he was, in Hitler’s own words, “loyal as a dog”.

Hermann Göring felt this same preference in favour of his own dog: “The only real friend one has in the end is the dog . . . The more I get to know the human species, the more I care for my Benno.” Well, who hasn’t felt something like this sometimes, or even at all times, whether for an individual animal or for non-human animals in general? It’s embarrassing to find oneself sharing any sentiment with that poisonous and decadent personality, but it may also be a useful prompt for us to examine the sentiment, and see what it’s worth.

When the narrator in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) complains to the local police about the shooting of a wild boar, they say to her by way of rebuke, “You have more compassion for animals than for people.” It’s another familiar charge. Her reply is “That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people.” (Well, there is at least a consensus that it’s wrong when they do.) This woman’s preoccupation with wild and domestic animals throughout the story is founded on her sense of duty to them, her desire to give them some sort of parity in the enjoyment of life; in fact what most directly drives the narrative is her wish to avenge her own pet dogs. So yes, the unconditional love shown by a dog is a beautiful thing in itself, but the whole relationship is good only if the human has deserved the loyalty, rather than got it for nothing.

Poor Benno, on the contrary, was innocently ministering to the self-regard and power-instinct of his master (it’s the right word here), much as Göring’s absurd mansions, uniforms and grand titles were also doing. Moreover, the immediate occasion for that declaration of Göring’s was the vicious intrigue of Third Reich politics, to which he himself was very largely contributing. That political scene was summarized by Speer as “a thicket of deceptions, intrigues, baseness and killing.” Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich chronicles the unpredictable and dangerous variations in the status of anyone who had a part in the administration, including himself. Neither Hitler nor Göring trusted Speer or anyone else for long at a time; nor could they inspire rational trust in others. In such a human murk, how could the innocent dog not honourably shine, misguided as his fealty might be?

Still, however selfish it was, perhaps this regard for their pet animals as preferable to humans was generalized, by Hitler, Göring, and their associates, to non-human animals at large, and therefore may account to some extent for the favourable treatment of these under the Third Reich?

That there was indeed some deliberate moral re-ordering as between humans and other animals is notoriously evident in Third Reich propaganda. As to the humans, whole classes and races of them were relegated to the status of “Untermenschen . . . mentally and emotionally on a far lower level than any animals” (the quotation is from a Nazi text). In fact Arluke and Sax, in that Anthrozoos symposium, make this their essential explanation of the “troubling and unsavoury contradiction”. Their premise is the anthropological one, that all peoples or cultures “seek to protect what is perceived to be pure from that which is seen to be dangerous and polluting”, and draw their moral lines accordingly. Whereas the Western tradition has always drawn its most emphatic line at the supposed species border, the Nazis, being devoted to the protection of nation and race, allied themselves with at least some other species of animal, especially the ‘nobler’ animals, and put the condemned classes of human outside that pale.

There is something too neat and academical about this scheme, given the ethical chaos of the political scene it aims to interpret, and the evidence for it is sometimes far-fetched: in fact one of the contributors to the symposium calls it “a collection of contradictions, surmises, and innuendoes”. That there was a purposeful policy as against the “untermenschen”, with horrifying practical consequences, is painfully well-known. Whether the non-human animals really benefited is much less clear. Their importance was publicly asserted, and deliberately implicated in the racial polemics: “You will find this respect for animals”, said Himmler, “in all Indo-Germanic peoples.” In a public text of 1933, Göring spoke of “the spirit of close contact, which all Aryan people possess, with the animals”. Himmler’s part in directing animal research will be illustrated shortly. Göring’s “close contact” with animals included shooting them, for he was a keen hunter; among the grandiose titles which he collected was Reich Marshal of the Hunt. These animals which were raised in order to be experimented upon or shot cannot be regarded as having enjoyed any very meaningful moral promotion.

It’s very difficult to know, in fact, how sincere the Nazi administration was about animal protection, just because the propaganda on the subject had a life of its own. (It was said at the time, only partly in jest, that the Third Reich was really just a department of its own Ministry of Propaganda.) Speer shows how much even of Hitler’s private life, such of that as there was, had for its aim the creation of a particular image of Germany’s leader. Thus although he very much enjoyed caviare, he felt that he had to abjure it, believing that it contradicted this image; he wanted “simplicity” in his diet, because, so Speer says, he “could count on its being talked about in Germany.” But of course what he ate was certain to be noticed. In other instances, such as the taking of elaborate therapeutic concoctions, including some “obtained from the testicles and intestines of animals”, he could rely on medical confidentiality to keep the matter quiet.

On a much larger scale, the practice of vivisection followed suit. Even in that public speech of 1933, Göring had conceded that animals might be used when considered “necessary . . . to advance the knowledge of disease in humans, to produce medicines, and generally to further scientific knowledge”.  In fact their exploitation in science went well beyond even such generous limits, particularly once the regime was at war. An experimental pesticide code-named 9/91, which proved so violently poisonous that it was subsequently manufactured as a biological weapon (called ‘Tabun’, but never in fact used) had been tested on non-human primates during 1936-7. Another proposed weapon was cattle plague, the idea being to destroy the enemy’s supply of meat: under the direction of Himmler (“respect for animals” Himmler) the rinderpest virus was accordingly tested on German cows in 1944.

Even the notorious experiments on human subjects in the concentration camps were not intended as replacements for animal research. Trials of a typhoid vaccine at Buchenwald, and of resuscitation after time spent in freezing water at Dachau, had both begun with animal studies. At Dachau, Dr Rascher applied for Himmler’s permission to use prisoners for his studies into survival at low air-pressures, explaining that he had done the work with monkeys, but that they “react altogether differently”. Such experiments on humans were kept secret even in the camps themselves, perhaps an indication that some notion of morality yet endured. On the other hand, part of the concealment consisted in disguising them, in the records, as experiments on cattle and pigs; little, then, had survived of the official disapproval of vivisection, if indeed it had ever been more than a political stunt.

How indeed can it well be known that any of the measures taken to improve the status of animals were not stunts of some kind, or that serious values of any sort lay behind them? As Alan Bullock says in his classic biography Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, falsehood was itself a policy with the Nazis: “Hitler and Ribbentrop deceived their allies, even when there was no need.” In one of his last speeches, as heard by Albert Speer, Hitler summed up what he had learnt from his political career: “There can be only one single rule, and this rule, put succinctly, is: That is correct which is useful in itself.” Therefore to speak of “the Nazi animal protection movement”, as Hal Herzog does in the Anthrozoos discussion, is surely to impose order and direction upon it which it never did possess.

In so far as Nazism itself was a “movement”, its aim was to revive Germany’s confidence as a people, and to use that confidence to enforce the nation’s claim to supreme power in Europe and beyond. It was, obviously enough, a nationalist movement, and the sense of national identity necessary to it was created partly by rejecting the cosmopolitan, industrialized, and urbanized civilization which Germany had hitherto shared with other Western democracies. A contributor to the Anthrozoos discussion quotes Göring, one of the principal spokesmen for this “tribal mentality”, as saying “we are barbarians, and we think with our blood.” The malign absurdities and perils of the project are all too familiar, but it has to be conceded that some sensible and positive ideas were involved as well. There was, for instance, a determined campaign to improve the nation’s health. This included measures to promote better diet (using fewer processed foods) and to discourage drinking of alcohol, improvements to health and safety at work (including protections for those working with asbestos, years ahead of anything similar in the UK), and, most notably, public campaigns against tobacco, with bans on smoking in public places, restrictions on advertising, and other such measures that have been profitably taken up elsewhere in more recent times. One historian of health policy in the Third Reich has said that the “it was actually in Nazi Germany that the link [between tobacco and cancer] was originally established. German tobacco epidemiology was, in fact, for a time, the most advanced in the world.”

The efforts to protect public health from the more baleful consequences of industrialization and from other life-style illnesses show that even in that vicious political regime some wise and even pioneering values could arise and become active. All the health measures just mentioned have long afterwards been taken up in the UK; it’s obvious in their case that they were only accidentally the product of a corrupt anti-democratic politics. The measures to improve respect for non-human animals, where they had any reality apart from propaganda, had a less pragmatic character, and so remain more of a mystery. But some of them were already in force in the UK, and this fact, as well as their adoption (however gradual) in other countries in later times, shows likewise that they had no necessary connection with that one notorious time and place; they can and should be judged and approved on their own merits. Yes, they were once unhappily caught up in a nexus of moral horrors, but that no more discredits the case for animal rights than it makes smoking or building with asbestos sensible things to do.

Notes and references:

Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover (with a very good introduction by the publisher Martin Rowe) is published by Pythagorean Publishers, 2004; quotations from pp. 29 and 73-4.

The books by Hal Herzog and Steven Pinker are reviewed in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/out-and-about-with-anthrozoology/  and https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/25/light-of-the-world/

Texts of the Third Reich animal protection laws of 1933 can be found here: http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/Nazianimalrights.htm#Experiments_on_Living_Animals

‘Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust’ by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax was published in Anthrozoos, January 1992, vol.V, pp.6-31. The follow-up discussion was published in vol.VI, pp.72-114. Where not otherwise attributed, historical quotations come from the Arluke and Sax article. The discussion is quoted at pp. 86 (Roberta Kalechofsky), 82 (Hal Herzog), and 75 (Paul Bookbinder). The whole symposium is accessible online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233691703_Understanding_Nazi_Animal_Protection_and_the_Holocaust

Boria Sax has studied the subject at much greater length in Animals in the Third Reich, Continuum Books, 2000.

Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, was first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1970; quotations are from their 1995 edition, pp. 409-12 and 339 (about Blondi), 575 (Nazi politics), 179 (Hitler’s diet), 161 (Hitler’s medicines) and 486 (the “single rule”).

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk was published in the Polish in 2009; as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, it is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018.

The ‘joke’ about propaganda is noted in Louis Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p.273.

The experiments on prisoners at concentration camps are discussed by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, pp. 128 (the secrecy), 147 (Tabun), and 163 (rinderpest). Other instances are recounted by Paul Hoedman in Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical Experiments and Euthanasia in the Third Reich, English edition published by the Book Guild, 1991, pp. 125 and 152 (the request to Himmler).

Hitler: a Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock was first published in 1952. The quotation is from the 1990 edition by Penguin Books, p. 630.

The quotation about cancer epidemiology is from Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, 1999), here quoted from John Cornwell, Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War and the Devil’s Pact, Viking, 2003, p. 171. Other public health measures are discussed by Cornwell at pp. 167-73.