Earth-born Companions

When Oxford University was first required to estimate its annual usage of animals in research and teaching – this was in 1875 – the tally was about 30 frogs and smaller unspecified numbers of fish, dogs, rabbits, insects. No mice were mentioned. In 2016, the University used 226 frogs but more than 200,000 mice.

I don’t know when mice overtook frogs as the leading victims of animal research. Now, in the U.K. at least and probably everywhere, they account for well over 60% of all experiments and a much higher proportion of the GM breeding programmes. A huge industry and international trade has come into being, devoted to the creation and exchange of genetically altered mice. Two of its primary sites are the Medical Research Council’s establishment at Harwell in the U.K., and the Jackson Laboratory in the U.S.A.

As well as its own research, MRC Harwell supplies mice to other laboratories round the world, either live or as frozen sperm or embryos (see web-site for prices). In more detail, its services include (just to give an idea of the sort of thing) “Production of blastocysts and pseudo-pregnant females [a blastocyst is a cluster of cells in the very early stage of embryo development]… Uterine transfer of injected blastocysts to pseudo-pregnant foster-mothers [the foster-mother is the female into whom the foetuses extracted from the first mother are inserted. Neither mother survives the process] … Oviduct transfer of injected embryos to pseudo-pregnant foster mothers … Harvest and preparation of F0 transgenic embryos …”, and so on. The gruesome gynaecology of all this, I won’t attempt to describe: a sample guide to one of the procedures, with illustrations, is referenced below. MRC Harwell bred over 213,000 mice in 2016, but this number would not include the mice archived or traded in unborn condition, or the wastage in mothers and unviable offspring.

The Jackson Laboratory, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, does things on an even larger scale. Like Harwell, it does its own research work. In addition, more than 3 million ‘Jax’ mice, from a selection of over 7000 genetically defined varieties, are sent out to other institutions.

A brief digression now on the likely experiences of these Jax mice at their destinations. Since the Jackson Laboratory receives state funding, it has to conform to national guidance as to the care of its own animals. The same does not apply to the privately funded or commercial laboratories in the U.S.A., well over 800 of them, to which Jax mice may be sent (still less, of course, to laboratories in other countries). These establishments are regulated only by the Animal Welfare Act, whose definition of ‘animal’ does not include mice (or rats or birds). This glaring anomaly is genially described as a “quirk” by the National Academy of Sciences, but actually it was a very deliberate omission, and one which was later emphatically fixed into law by the so-called ‘Helms Amendment’ of 2002. Senator Jesse Helms pointed out to his fellow-senators during the debate that a mouse was much better off in a laboratory than being eaten by a python in the wild, and evidently they accepted this as a useful bench-mark for mouse-welfare. Certainly the research industry did; indeed it had sponsored Helms’s intervention. This is just one instance of a consistent historical record. In spite of all the claims in their publicity to be making animal welfare their special concern, research institutions and their agencies have always resisted statutory controls. If they’d had their way, laboratory animals would even now be relying for their welfare wholly on the haphazard kindness of their vivisectors.

Back to the Jackson Laboratory, and the man who founded it in the 1920s, Clarence Little. In later years he declared that his institution “has done for the mouse in science what Disney has done for it in amusement.” In fact he hoped that Walt Disney’s version of the mouse might be employed to publicize medical research of the Jackson sort – rather Mickey_-_House_of_Mouseas comic pigs advertise bacon. And certainly Micky Mouse would very expressively have represented what has happened to the mouse since it got caught up in medical research. The Disney studio ruthlessly stylized Mickey Mouse, both to make repeat drawing easier, and to make him highly visible and recognisable (the strange white gloves and bulbous shoes, for instance): this is the mouse subdued to human idea and human use. So exactly is the Jax mouse, standardized as it is, and infinitely repeatable in its 7000 varieties. And just as Mickey Mouse became the iconic cartoon animal, so the Jax mouse established its species as the essential laboratory animal.

Both of these institutions, MRC Harwell and the Jackson Laboratory, belong to the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium, an international collaboration whose aim is “to catalogue the functions of the roughly 20,000 genes that mice and humans share”. Last year the IMPC “released an analysis of the phenotypes of the first 1,751 new lines of unique “knockout mice” (mice in whom one gene has been deleted), with much more to come in the months ahead.” The National Institutes of Health, reporting this achievement, was especially interested in the genes which seem to have proven crucial to live birth in the mice. The heading to its announcement optimistically generalized the findings thus: ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes Essential for Life’.

Can mouse genetics really translate so usefully into knowledge about humans? In one of this month’s issues of the journal Science, there’s a report of research into “the nature of genetic predisposition to pain”, which is said to promise “new treatments of conditions affecting tens of millions of people worldwide”. Naturally the research used mice, designed and generated for the study (though using at least some Jax mice as starters). But other research in that same area of biology – incidentally an especially malignant one for laboratory animals, with its array of ingenious pain-supplying devices – has questioned the value of mice as models for humans, even where the same genes seem to be involved. An article about it in Yale Scientific said that “there was almost no correlation between human and murine reactions to any of the experimental conditions. For example, if humans were likely to activate a certain gene following trauma, mice were almost equally as likely to activate it or suppress it.” Acknowledging that “mice models are a cornerstone of biomedical research”, the Yale article suggests that this reported research “raises the question of how similar humans and mice really are. With such different genetic responses, perhaps the biology of mice is not an accurate representation of that of humans.”

Bad news in Bar Harbor and Harwell, then, but wait! A professor interviewed for the same article points out that the study only used the one mouse variety, C57BL/6, commonly called ‘Black 6’: “until other mouse strains are studied, the authors need to be cautious in their interpretations that use of mice is irrelevant to human responses.” Get out those order books, then, and let business resume.

The Yale article was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: The Mouse as a Model for Human Disease’. The upbeat NIH piece, you’ll recall, was headed ‘Of Mice and Men: Study Pinpoints Genes … etc.’ But it’s not much of a coincidence: that phrase, with its neat alliteration and reassuring link with a vaguely remembered literary classic, has also caught the imagination of many other science writers on this subject, or has at least appealed to them as likely to catch the imagination of their readers. After all, in a poll recently organised by an educational publisher, John Steinbeck’s fine novel Of Mice and Men has been ranked fourth in the “top 100 titles for the American literature classroom … chosen by American literature teachers across the country.” (But then The Great Gatsby came top!) And perhaps, although mice are only incidentally present in it, this story of two displaced and status-less labourers in forlorn search of a home is no bad fable for the modern animal.

But in fact the novel’s title is not the origin of the phrase. Steinbeck himself was borrowing it in his turn from the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns, first published in 1786. And this certainly is an encounter of mouse and man to set beside and re-appraise the modern Disneyfied mass-mouse and the people who convert it into science.

The poem’s sub-title is ‘on turning her up in her nest with the plough’, for Burns was a farmer when he wrote the poem; he knew the situation. He was, besides, as the poem 220px-PG_1063Burns_Naysmithmakes poignantly clear, unhappy in his own ways, remorseful about the past and fearful as to the future. Accordingly there’s absolutely nothing suggestive of species-superiority in the way he speaks to the mouse, as he contemplates the ruin of her nest. He sees in detail and feels the catastrophe which the mouse has suffered, and he understands suffering as a universal burden, indifferent to species and size. Hence that phrase:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,       

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!

The poem recognizes the encounter as an aspect of the power-relation whose characteristic modern manifestation we’ve been viewing in earlier paragraphs:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

So the spoiling of the mouse’s nest is an incident in a much larger wreckage of that commonalty which Burns beautifully dignifies as “nature’s social union”. But in his poem he reasserts the union, at least between these two now present, pledging a true existential comradeship in those phrases “thy poor, earth-born companion / An’ fellow-mortal”.

And of course exactly this is “how similar humans and mice really are” (the phrase from the Yale article). They really are earth-born fellow-mortals, each in their own sphere liable to “grief an’ pain”. Unfortunately we’ve repudiated that fellowship for which Burns’s poem is a permanent model and recommendation, and have chosen instead to privilege human grief and pain, and to make of the mouse a multitudinous enslaved resource in our ruthless struggles to escape them.

 

 

Notes and references:

The numbers from 1875 were published by the Cardwell Commission in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, HMSO, 1876, Appendix III.

Information and quotation about the work at Harwell appears on its web-site at https://www.har.mrc.ac.uk/

A clear, though highly technical, illustrated account of how a standard procedure works can be found in the article ‘Pronuclear Injection for the Production of Transgenic Mice’ at http://www.nature.com/nprot/journal/v2/n5/full/nprot.2007.145.html

About the welfare provisions in the U.S.A.: the “quirk” reference is from https://www.nap.edu/read/10733/chapter/11; the account of Helms’s amendment is from a contemporary news report in U.S.A. Today, readable at http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2002/05/07/animal-welfare.htm

What Clarence Little said about Mickey Mouse is quoted by Karen Rayder in Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900-1955, Princeton University Press, 2004, p.5

The announcement about the work of the IMPC is on a blog run by the National Institutes of Health at https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2016/09/20/of-mice-and-men-study-pinpoints-genes-essential-for-life/

The article in Science is from 16 June 2017, pp.1124-5 and 1168-71, quotations from pp.1124-5. The Yale Scientific article is from 5 April 2013, and can be read at http://www.yalescientific.org/2013/04/of-mice-and-men-the-mouse-as-a-model-for-human-disease/

The poll of American novels was organised by Perfection Learning, and is reported on their web-site at https://www.perfectionlearning.com/top-100-american-literature-titles.

The picture of Mickey Mouse is from the TV series Disney’s House of Mouse (2001-3). The portrait of Robert Burns in 1787 is by Alexander Naysmith, and is held in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In the U.K., Animal Aid has recently started a campaign to raise awareness of the mouse, its qualities in nature, and its sufferings in laboratories: see https://www.animalaid.org.uk/animal-aid-new-campaign-mice-matter/

 

 

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What Shakespeare Would Have Said

In a few days’ time, a wreath will be placed at the the monument to Samuel Johnson in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, to mark the anniversary of his death on 13 December 1783256px-samuel_johnson_by_joseph_nollekens_1777. It’s a little ceremony that occurs every year, acknowledging Dr Johnson’s continuing authoritative presence in English literary culture. The bust used for the monument was made by Joseph Nollekens when Johnson was sixty eight. It expresses very clearly his great moral and intellectual force.

Outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square, there’s another and more recent monument, this one imaging his cat Hodge. Johnson was very fond of Hodge. James Boswell recalls, in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), watching the cat “scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend, smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying “Why, yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then, as if Hodge.JPGperceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

Boswell writes the Life as a friend, but also as a self-consciously cosmopolitan Scot, and he calls Johnson “much of a John Bull; much of a true-born Englishman”. That Englishness has been a lasting element in Johnson’s reputation: he appears, for instance, as one of the images of Englishness in Julian Barnes’s satirical novel England, England (1998). And I suppose that the monument to Hodge might be thought to record another aspect of Englishness: the love of animals. But of course the idea that England, or for that matter Britain, is or ever has been a nation of animal-lovers (it’s a cliché much-loved by journalists and politicians) is humbug – useful, I suppose, as a myth tending to obscure our actual pitiless subjugation of most of them. Nor did Boswell himself (though he had an aversion to cats) relate this fondness to Johnson’s nationality. He recounts it as evidence, along with Johnson’s considerateness to children and to his household servants, of “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”. In this respect, therefore, he modifies his biographical portrait of an otherwise extraordinarily downright and dogmatic mind, a man pugnacious in argument with his peers and impatient of anything sentimental.

So Johnson’s care for Hodge, although it must certainly have involved pure affection, was of a piece with the rooted concern he felt for all who were especially liable to maltreatment, injustice, or disregard – whether animals or people. “Upon one occasion,” says Boswell, “when in the company of some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies!’” Neither on that occasion at Oxford (his own university, from which he had his honorary doctorate), nor when he spoke playfully to Boswell over Hodge’s head, were “humanity and gentleness” strictly required of him; it was in his nature to feel them and to express them gratuitously.

And that’s why also, in his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, he suddenly breaks off from making learned notes in order to voice his disgust at vivisection. He has reached Act I, scene v, line 23 of Cymbeline. The Queen, stepmother to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, is just making plans to … but why retail this elaborate plot, which Johnson himself found tiresome? The point is that the Queen has commissioned a selection of “most poisonous compounds” from the physician Cornelius. He somewhat diffidently asks her what she wants them for. Basic research, is her reply:

                        I will try the forces
Of these thy compounds on such creatures as
We count not worth the hanging – but none human –
To try the vigour of them and apply
Allayments to their act, and by them gather
Their several virtues and effects.

To see what happens, in short, using (so Cornelius guesses) cats and dogs for the purpose. In this, the Queen speaks for a long line of future scientists. I wish that Cornelius could be said to be doing the same for his profession, when he tells her

         Your highness
Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.

“Shall … but ..”: he means that the only certain result of the Queen’s studies will be to diminish her humanity (‘shall’ being used in the common Shakespearean sense of ‘must’ or ‘will necessarily’, and ‘but’ in the sense ‘only’). So Cornelius, like Boswell, puts animals into the same moral space as humans, where indeed they belong: as we treat the one, so may we be expected to treat the other. The Queen impatiently dismisses his scruples: “O, content thee!” – in other words, ‘Dry up!’ And although such a research project would be characteristic of her (she’s of the wicked step-mother class), the Queen is not really engaged in it at all. Rather than knowledge, her mind is on her career, or her son’s career. (How far she’s in this way anticipating that long line of scientists again here, I can’t say.) Her intention is to clear his path to the throne with poison.

Samuel Johnson’s notes to Shakespeare are in general aimed at clarifying obscurities in the text, or suggesting emendations, but what Cornelius says moves him so much that he puts aside the textual critic and speaks as a moralist or simply as a man:

There is in this passage nothing that much requires a note, yet I cannot forbear to push it forward into observation. The thought would probably have been more amplified, had our author lived to be shocked with such experiments as have been published in later times, by a race of men that have practised tortures without pity, and related them without shame, and are yet suffered to erect their heads among human beings.

It’s a case which he had argued more discursively in one of his weekly Idler essays (5 August, 1758), but now, in the little space proper to a textual note, he puts it with extraordinary conciseness and anger. So strongly does he believe these men to have compromised their humanity by what they do, that in his last few words he separates them from the class “human beings” altogether. It’s a strange and sinister image: the men standing upright, as amoral aliens, among gatherings of ordinarily decent people.

This, Johnson implies, is what “our author” himself would have felt, had he lived into the science-crazed eighteenth century. He brings the huge moral authority of Shakespeare as a testimonial to his case, as I do that of Samuel Johnson. Meanwhile, Cornelius spoils the Queen’s supposed researches by substituting harmless soporifics for the wished-for poisons. In this way he sets an early example of peaceable sabotage, and ensures that the story has a happy ending. All four of us can be content with that.

 

References:

The quotations from Boswell’s Life of Johnson come from the years 1783 and 1777: in the Oxford University Press edition of 1953, they’re at pp.1217 and 876.

For Dr Johnson in England, England (Vintage Books 2012), see p.142: in the ghastly simulacrum of England which Sir Jack Pitman (a vainglorious businessman of the Donald Trump variety) creates on the Isle of Wight, Dr Johnson is seen introducing visitors to “the Dining Experience at the Cheshire Cheese”.

The bust by Nollekens as shown is from the Yale Center for British Art. The statue of Hodge was made by Jon Bickley, and placed in Gough Square in 1997.

Shedding the Albatross

It’s a premise of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) that some animals matter more than others. Not only is there a requirement that “lower” rather than “higher” species shall be selected where a choice is thought to exist, but many varieties of creature fall below notice altogether, not being classed as ‘protected animals’. Only one non-vertebrate class of animal enjoys the Act’s ‘protection’: the cephalopods. For similar reasons, only one vertebrate species does not, being safely above the Act’s predatory reach: the humans. The situation very well illustrates what Albert Schweitzer said must always happen when we set about putting comparative values on other species: we shall simply end up “judging them by the greater or lesser distance at which they seem to stand from us human beings”. It may, then, be inherent not just in the Act but in human nature –  or at least in human nature as we know it in the modern West – to judge in this way. At any rate, it was presumably to this comfortable habit of mind that one Oxford scientist was appealing when, with some exasperation, he put the question to me, “Surely you don’t think that a sea-slug matters in comparison with a human?”

Anyone who reads English at Oxford (or at any other university, probably), will spend an especially worth-while portion of their time studying the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge which provides an immortal answer to that question and all that belongs with it: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The poem’s story, told to a reluctant wedding-guest, is very familiar, but I shall remind you of it and of its implications.

A ship is driven by storms out of its proper course and into ice-bound seas in the region of perched albatrossthe South Pole. An albatross takes to following the ship, and the sailors welcome it and put out food (“It ate the food it ne’er had eat”, Coleridge says, fascinated by the strangeness of this encounter). The bird in its turn seems to help the men, guiding their ship through the ice and into safer waters. Then one of the sailors, the ancient mariner himself as a young man, takes a cross-bow and shoots it.

Much has been written by way of critical comment upon the mariner’s abrupt and unexplained action, and what it might mean. Coleridge makes very clear that it’s a dreadful and portentous deed, with supra-personal implications, but we don’t have to suppose that he meant it to stand for some other thing – the crucifixion, for instance, or original sin. After all, it’s just the sort of gratuitously destructive thing that humans habitually do – as all the earth’s other denizens have good reason to know.

As to the rest of the ship’s crew, they’re angry with the mariner at first, but that’s really because they think the bird was bringing them good luck (“Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow!”). When the weather actually improves, they change their minds, and congratulate him (“ ’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, / That bring the fog and mist.”). Of course: because the important question had always been ‘what good might this animal do us?’

Anyway, that improvement in the weather doesn’t last. The ship reaches the Equator, the wind drops and the crew find themselves becalmed in fiercely hot weather on a hideous Mariner Aloneoily sea populated by strange and ugly sea-life. When there’s no more drinkable water, all the sailors die, except the mariner himself, but before they die they hang the dead albatross round the mariner’s neck. He becomes an effigy of modern man, with the corpse of the animal kingdom round his neck, indicting him.

And even in his agony the mariner (again, how familiarly human!) feels indignant at the survival of the inferior animals:

  The many men so beautiful!
  And they all dead did lie:
  And a thousand thousand slimy things
  Lived on; and so did I.

All through the poem Coleridge keeps a sort of running commentary in the margin, and at this point he says, “The mariner despiseth the creatures of the calm. And envieth that they should live, and so many lie dead.” It’s exactly the thinking behind that sea-slug question, the whole living world positioned in reference to ourselves: while humans suffer, why should lesser animals get away with it? This indeed is essentially the rationale of vivisection.

There follows, for the mariner, a dreadful period of solitude and privation. But finally one night his attention is drawn upward from the horrors of the ship’s deck to the beauty of the night skies, and especially of the moon (“he yearneth towards the journeying moon”, says the commentary). And by the moon’s light he then finds himself at last observing the sea-creatures dis-interestedly: that is, not for how they compare with humans, or for what good they can do for humans, but for what they are in themselves. Here are the impassioned lines in which Coleridge describes this moment of illumination:

   Within the shadow of the ship
   I watched their rich attire:
   Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
   They coiled and swam; and every track
   Was a flash of golden fire.

   O happy living things! No tongue
   Their beauty might declare:
   A spring of love gushed from my heart,
   And I blessed them unaware:
   Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
   And I blessed them unaware.

   The self-same moment I could pray;
   And from my neck so free
   The albatross fell off, and sank
   Like lead into the sea.

Moonlit NightThe mariner’s selfless contemplation of the sea-creatures, and his guileless delight in their life, set going his redemption in the strange and beautiful spirit-world whose part in the poem I haven’t had the space or impertinence to speak about. And when eventually the mariner reaches land, it becomes his doom, his vocation, so Coleridge says in the margin, “to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.”

all things”: not just the magnificent albatross, then, not just the individual animals or sorts of animal we agree to admire or to pet or to exempt for some other reason from exploitation, but all life, including therefore mice, fish, frogs, and on downwards below ASPA’s notice, even to sea-slugs. Except that there is no such ‘downwards’ in nature, only in the human mind. And it’s from this human-minded illusion, this anthropocentrism, that the mariner is liberated as he watches the sea-animals. His vocation, and the poem’s, is to liberate the rest of us from it too.

 

Note and references:

The EU rule on the use of ‘lower’ species (as revised on 8/6/16 and continuing for now to apply to the UK) can be found for instance at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/lab_animals/3r/alternative_en.htm.

Albert Schweitzer’s words are quoted from My Life and Thought, transl. Campion, London 1933, p.271.

The illustrations were made for an edition of 1876 by the French painter and engraver Gustave Doré, and are reproduced by courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University of Buffalo, the State University of New York.

Setting Tests or Learning Lessons

Last month a public talk was given in Oxford under the title ‘Why is a Child, but not a Chimp, a Person?’ It’s not a very promising question, and the answer to it, as the philosophy professor giving the talk rightly admitted, will simply depend on what we choose to mean by ‘person’. If we mean, as we usually do, ‘human being’, then the question hardly makes sense. But we might mean (I don’t know why: I certainly never mean this) “an animal in possession of certain specified capacities and attributes” (guess whose?). In that case, if we’re looking around for candidates beyond our own species, it’s natural to start with what seem to be our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. And this is what Professor Emma Borg of Reading University did, in a talk which, whatever unfavourable things may be said about the assumptions behind it, was a very interesting and engaging one.

Professor Borg spoke about various experimental researches into the thinking and behaviour of chimpanzees, but it wasn’t essentially a scientific talk. Indeed, I doubt that the approach implied in her title is a scientific one at all: it seems to belong to the tradition of dressing chimpanzees up for our amusement (‘How like humans they are!’) rather than with disinterested research into what they’re like in themselves and in their own setting. But it wasn’t really a philosophical talk either. At any rate, the ethical implication was all along assumed rather than quizzed: i.e. that ‘personhood’ was the right and proper qualification for a set of rights which those presently recognised as persons, by each other, have agreed to allow themselves. But the allowing in this present case, so the professor began by saying, meant what the courts would or wouldn’t allow: so the question was really, ‘do chimpanzees deserve recognition as persons in law?’ – a question, then, in jurisprudence: an important one, in so far as it would make a lot of difference to some chimpanzees, but also a negligible one, since it can do nothing for any of the other billions of animals urgently needing to be helped or to be left alone. Anyway, the professor didn’t claim to have answered it in the end, only to have shown the difficulties arising from it.

When the question was opened to the floor, someone said that perhaps the great difference between ourselves and these near relatives was that humans “loved” – or did he say “laughed”? I couldn’t tell from where I was, or from what Professor Borg politely answered. I don’t see that either would be right, anyway, but as to laughing, it did seem a very proper object for monkey hilarity, this spectacle of humans solemnly ruminating over the question how like themselves their near relatives might be rewarded for being. [See the September post ‘How to be Human’ for Karen Fowler’s fine novel on this subject.] And it’s more than speciesism making the thing ridiculous, because it’s all really premised on the assumption that nature itself takes the same view: that evolution has been a great billion-year trek to arrive at us. Back in 1931, the Cambridge professor Herbert Butterfield wrote a book entitled The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he warned his fellow-historians not to read previous centuries as if their essential inner drive must have been towards achieving the present. But this “Whig interpretation” is what we habitually use to understand the whole history of life on earth.

I suspect that this way of looking at things, so far from being corrected as it ought to be in the universities, is at least partly their fault (a possibility the professor’s talk itself seemed to illustrate). Peopled as they are by those who have been habituated from an early age to competing successfully in exams, and later to setting and marking them, their model of life, and the one which after all suits them best, is the competitive test. The tests given to chimpanzees by way of assessing their capacities, some of which tests were described by the professor, are pathetic instances of this outlook: ‘can you show skill in this or that thing which we, your betters, have proved so good at, and get marks for it?’ However, no doubt there are also some larger cultural determinants of our patronizing attitude to other animals, and perhaps even some innate ones.

It’s to be hoped, anyway, that we can finally be reasoned out of this absurd anthropomorphism. That is indeed the aim of the modern animal rights movement, as a philosophical and political project. Meanwhile, it’s certain that through the imagination we have always had the means to free ourselves at a bound from our blinkering self-importance, at least in momentary epiphanies. I’ve been looking again at the Penguin Book of Animal Verse edited by George MacBeth in 1965, and finding many such epiphanies, in a book whose contents all preceded even Brigid Brophy’s originating ‘Rights of Animals’ article in the Sunday Times [see the August post about her], let alone Animal Liberation and the rest. MacBeth himself sets the attitude in his introduction, explaining why he decided against arranging the poems by species, genera, etc.: “arrangement by kind is faintly hierarchic. One feels that the plan is designed to bring out Man (or God) at the top. The arrangement alphabetically [which is what he uses] has the great merit of being democratic. All entries are equal and there is no pressure to relate or prefer one to another.” In fact this is exactly the message of the book’s cover, too: a detail from one of the lovely Peaceable Kingdom pictures by the nineteenth-century painter Edward Hicks.Animal Verse 2

Two poems in particular have impressed me this time. In Zoë Bailey’s ‘Calyptorhynchus Funereus’, the poet stands at an aviary of exotic birds, puzzling over a seemingly despondent Funereal Cockatoo, who grips the bars in front of her:

Without words I can do nothing he wants me to do. Useless, I stroke his claw
Unwilling to go …

His hieroglyph my mind cannot resolve, nor read,
Only a finger through the mesh
Can brush his head

To caress the body of his grave incomprehension
With amity, with amity,
Again and again.

The poet wishes, but knows that she is unable, to understand the meaning urged at her by  this strange black and yellow bird (the phrase “as though” appears three times in the short poem, qualifying her surmises as to the bird’s state of mind). Nor, of course, can the bird understand her. She reaches across this mutual “incomprehension” with the beautifully diffident word “amity”, earnestly repeated. Here, then, is a mental and moral scene of a different order of maturity and promise from the one where humans make nick-named monkeys do IQ tests for bananas.

Patricia Beer’s poem ‘The Gorilla’ deals more exactly with our subject. Here again, the poet qualifies as “human fantasy” anything she may suppose about the gorilla’s inner life, but her argument is really about human attitudes anyway. By such, the gorilla is regarded as “left behind. / He cannot talk, feel shame or make / Comparisons”. Here, then, is exactly the pre-human as seen by the person-mongers. And defining him thus by what’s missing, they will necessarily fail to “understand his wholeness”:

                through all his future
People would talk before his cage
Clothed and upright, would turn and pass
Saying how like a man he was.                              

Very nearly a ‘person’, in fact (but not quite, or we’d have to let him out).

This Penguin Book of Animal Verse, because it wisely avoids extracts, does not include the famous passage from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (1855), beginning “I think I could turn and live with animals”. However, it’s well worth quoting here, because it satisfyingly up-ends the personhood attitude. Even that first line, you’ll notice, puts the human among the animals (he means wild animals), instead of the usual converse as represented in the research mentioned above, and incidentally also in both of the previous poems, set as they are in zoos. And the lines which follow, for all their characteristically Whitmanesque preoccupations, are a strong corrective reminder that if other animals do lack some of our human talents, the opposite is just as true:

      I stand and look at them long and long.
      They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
      They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
      They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
      Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
      Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
      Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Many other animal lessons could certainly be added to this list, but the principle is well established: humans only come top when they set the tests.

Perhaps VERO should invite Professor Borg back to speak next time about why a child, as well as a chimp and for that matter a mouse or a snail, is an animal, and what we ought to make of that unquestionable fact.

Revenges of the Animals

There’s a showy funeral in chapter 19 of Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, expressive of the selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy which drive the plot of that gloomy book. The centre-piece, naturally enough, is the hearse itself and its fine team of horses, and here for a most surprising moment Dickens takes a view past the individual human vices on parade, towards a great collective wrong:

The four hearse-horses especially, reared and pranced, and showed their highest action, as if they knew a man was dead, and triumphed in it. “They break us, drive us, ride us; ill-treat, abuse and maim us for their pleasure – But they die: Hurrah, they die!”

It’s an astonishingly eloquent passage, readable as poetry in the way many of Dickens’s most passionate utterances are. The moral challenge in it was of course far more immediate at the time of writing (1840s), when horses were essential to the nation’s daily life, and accordingly ubiquitous. But even now, who could read it without a shock or thrill?

Of course it’s only fantasy: a rhetorician would call it personification, a scientist anthropomorphism. Still, it’s a way of telling the truth. And that charge of anthropomorphism, belittling our native capacity to understand the world beyond humans, is anyway a dangerous and suspect taboo. For, as the historian Jason Hribal has said, if we have to distrust our reading of animal minds, then sympathy is a delusion, and science and industry will be able to “continue their exploitation of other animals in a completely unquestioned and unmolested fashion.” The quotation comes from his book Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch, 2010), which is exactly an attempt upon that taboo. It’s a collection of evidences – mainly from zoos and circuses – to the effect that animals do feel rational resentment, of the sort imputed by Dickens to the hearse-horses, and that they do act upon it. For instance, he tells the story of the elephant Sue, a performer for the Jordan Circus in North America, who turned upon her two handlers in 1994 (both of whom survived the experience). Having “beaten up” one of them, she “turned her attention to the other employee. Sue ran down the woman and kicked the crap out of her.”

The impassioned language there recalls the “Hurrah” of the hearse-horses: equally the writer’s rather than the animal’s – of course, since the language is ours. But Hribal reports the incident in enough detail to justify insisting that the attack was not an irrational frenzy (Jordan Circus claimed that Sue had simply been “spooked” by a nearby horse) but a targeted resentment such as humans might feel. And this he does likewise for any number of escapes and retaliations, whose circumstances show them to have been (so he believes) not the unmeaning struggles of instinct, as habitually characterised afterwards by their ‘owners’, but purposeful efforts at freedom and redress. As the introduction (by Jeffrey St. Clair) says, this is “the story of liberation from the animals’ points-of-view … history written from the end of the chain, from inside the cage, from the depths of the tank.”

Hribal cites an African proverb: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.” And Hribal himself has wished to be such a historian. But history of that kind is hard to research and authenticate; the lion keeps no records of the hunt, and most or all of the people who do keep them are partisans of the hunter. We should therefore be especially grateful for those more speculative or notional forms of history which artists and writers practise, and in which, like Dickens in the passage above, they have long been honouring the lion and the lion’s maltreated kind, and reprobating the hunter and all his kind. So much so, that it really constitutes a genre of its own, a genre which I would entitle ‘Man’s Come-Uppance’. Perhaps there is already a proper anthology of the genre; if not, there ought to be. I shall mention five or six instances chosen more or less at random, but I would be very glad to be reminded of or introduced to others, and to talk further about them all later.

Tipu’s Tiger: This life-size model was made on the instructions of Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, in the late 18th century. Although it primarily expressed Tipu’s hatred of the British East India Company, it probably records more particularly the unfortunate death in the manner shown of a member of the Company who had been out hunting. An organ within the model makes roaring and groaning sounds appropriate to the shocking incident. Tipu’s Tiger is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Struwwelpeter: Heinrich Hoffmann’s picture of the hare getting her (note that it is a female) own back on the hunter comes from his remarkable book for children which was first published under the title Lustige Geschichten (= Merry Stories) in 1844, the year after Martin Chuzzlewit. In this particular story, the hunter takes a nap, during which the hare steals his gun. The man’s spectacles, worn in mockery by the hare, show up his reliance on prosthetics – gun and glasses – to assert his mastery. Without these, he ceases to be a hero even to himself. The hare’s aim is inaccurate, and the chase ends with the hunter falling down a well. The picture will stand as an image for this whole subject. 

The Terror: The novelist Arthur Machen wrote this story during the First World War, when humanity seemed to be turning upon and disgracing its own species. It’s a mystery-cum-horror story, in which a succession of strange and violent deaths across Britain, at first attributed to some secret weaponry or fifth column of the German enemy, is finally seen to be the work of insurrectionary animals, including even moths (there! I’ve given away the mystery, but the story is rather wearisomely told, I’m afraid, and is really more interesting without it). At the end, the narrator suggests that humanity was nearly deposed (the insurrection comes to nothing in the end) because, no longer respecting itself, it had forfeited the respect of its fellow-creatures. Accordingly his last words are “They have risen once – they may rise again.”

The Birds: Daphne du Maurier’s famous story of bird turning upon man, published in 1952, is set just after the Second World War, and it may likewise have been partly the product of unease and diffidence about the human species prompted by that second lapse into mass self-destruction. But I would suggest that both these stories have their effect because, knowing as we do the long history of wrong done by humans to other animals, we must feel that such a retaliation, whether possible or not, is our due.

I’ll end for now with a writer who gave the subject much more sustained and coherent attention than either Arthur Machen or Daphne du Maurier did: that is, C. S. Lewis. His poem ‘Pan’s Purge’  imagines a time when “peremptory humanity” seems to have defeated the natural world; then gradually the animals (C. S. Lewis enjoys listing them) realise their remaining strength and turn upon their oppressor:  Towering and cloven-hoofed, the power of Pan came over us, / Stamped, bit, tore, broke. It was the end of Man. (But note that “saints and savages” are exempted from retribution, and optimistically allowed to make a new and better start.) It’s a short poem only, but there’s space in it for a gathering tragic relish in the spectacle of right being vindicated. That same sentiment gathers strength likewise in the novels of Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, and culminates, towards the end of That Hideous Strength, in a similar catastrophic revenge of the animals. This time it’s a mass break-out from a large-scale vivisection laboratory, and the animals burst in upon a showy and hubristic dinner intended to celebrate the achievements of a science institution. Certainly there’s plenty of “Hurrah, they die!” again here. (For more about this element in the trilogy, see http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf )

As I said, I’d be glad to hear of any other such ‘come-uppance’ stories, episodes, pictures, poetry, etc.