Free as a Bird

In the European Ceramics gallery of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum there is at present a “contemporary art installation” entitled A Nice Cup of Tea? The title is a pun of sorts, and the implied answer to the more serious sense of the question – has a cup of tea always been a nice, a fastidious, thing? – is ‘no’. In fact the aim of the show is to remind viewers who enjoy this refreshment ritual that “every sip connects us to the legacy of the British Empire, global trade and transatlantic slavery”, and in particular with “the brutal exploitation of enslaved people producing sugar in the West Indies. The art-work itself is in the suspended-bits style pioneered and made famous by the artist Cornelia Parker: a tea set has been broken into pieces (analysed, in fact; it’s a sort of visual pun) and hung on strings above a pile of crockery fragments and dust. cup of tea art.JPG

A notebook to one side is made available to visitors: “Please tell us what you think”, says the label. The pages were still blank when I was there: nothing to add, it seems. Or too much for the time and space, perhaps. After all, that dazzling gallery of eating and drinking equipment “connects us” to much more than the prizes and vices of Empire: it’s an index to human life and history. And if the Ashmolean’s curators have rightly spotted the shameful connections to slavery, they have yet to remark on the much more obvious and continuing reference to the non-human objects of our compulsive imperialism. It’s not just that most of this china was designed and used for eating animal parts and products from. Much of the charm, and sometimes beauty, of its designs derives from representations of animal life. (To only a slightly lesser extent, this is true of the whole Ashmolean Museum, and indeed of any art gallery.) The animal presence simply stares at you from all sides. And although the images are often made with affectionate attention, there’s no doubt who’s serving whom. Not only the real presence of animals in flesh and work provides for us, then; their mere forms minister, as ornaments, to our pleasure.

liberty figureFor instance: just to one side of the exploded tea-set installation, a showcase contains the figure of a man reaching up to release a bird (the piece was made in the eighteenth-century at the Bow factory in London). The man’s gesture has a sort of drunken licence about it: might it represent the traditional subversive fantasy of a world turned upside down – in this case, letting the animals go at last? No: the figure is indeed intended to represent liberty, but it’s the man’s liberty; the bird is only a symbol for the human experience. At the man’s feet is a ram, also there as a symbol (of virility), and a dog (of philandering?). The whole piece is in fact called ‘Liberty’, and was designed as a pair with its complement or opposite (not represented in the gallery) called ‘Matrimony’. The wretched bird, all too aptly stuck to the man’s up-reached hand, is just there to image the husband’s day-dream of sexual licence.

One can find this ‘free as a bird’ motif throughout art and literature (yes, and pop music), part of the larger habit of making non-human animals tell us our own story back again: a use for them, in fact. Often these images are very fine. The well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Everyone Sang’ (which is generally read as a response to the contemporary 1918 armistice, though Sassoon himself denied it was written as such), thoroughly deserves its place in national memory:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

That word “must” at least shows that he allowed the birds their own mystery; he did not pretend to know them. But then of course the poem is not about them. The birds are there to illustrate a human feeling.

The release of poor Miss Flyte’s caged birds at the crisis of Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House is likewise very moving, but that too is essentially symbolic – in her case, of liberation from the false hopes and ruinous toils of Chancery law.

In short, these thought-up birds all mean what we mean them to. Meanwhile real birds, birds as themselves, are “everywhere in chains” – in cages, at least – in order to please humans or (as instanced in some previous posts of this blog) to make some possible or merely notional contribution to our understanding of human physiology. It’s surely strange that, feeling this almost visceral communion with the flight of birds as humans commonly do, we should nevertheless deny flight to so many of them. A brief and informal study was recently made by Animals Australia of this phenomenon. Showing, in a series of impromptu interviews, that randomly selected people did have this sympathy, they juxtaposed it with the wretched statistic of 8.1 million caged ‘pet’ birds in that country. The short film ends with a definition of the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’: “simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions”. It’s a human capacity or perversity which has made possible our present tragic relations not just with birds but with all the other animals.

So of course that famous opening statement of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) was about humans only: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” And how many high-minded invocations of freedom have made it special to humans in just that way! Thus President Kennedy in his fine inauguration address, a locus classicus for the theme of liberty, was talking with all his ambitious expansiveness strictly about “the freedom of man”. And when the politician and diplomat Wendell Willkie wrote grandly, in his best-selling book One World (1943), that “Freedom is an indivisible word”, he meant, of course, within reason: indivisible as between us humans. And that’s the premise also, casual and undeliberate as it may be, of the Ashmolean Museum exhibition. Freedom – the valuation of it and the right to it – is really what divides humans from the rest of nature.

There’s a scene in Axel Munthe’s memoir The Story of San Michele (a book featured in this blog last month) where both these human habits – denying animals their freedom, and yet making them symbols of our own – are satisfyingly busted. During Easter week, it was the tradition in the village of Anacapri (and elsewhere, no doubt) to capture small birds in preparation for a special ritual on the Sunday: “For days, hundreds of small birds, a string tied round their wing, had been dragged about the streets by all the boys of the village.” At the Easter service, they were to be released as images of the resurrection. But not in practice given their freedom, because when let go “they fluttered about for a while helpless and bewildered, breaking their wings against the windows, before they fell down to die on the church floor.” So one Easter at daybreak Munthe puts a ladder up against the church and smashes the windows to let the birds fly out.

Like most direct actions, this was an imperfect victory: “only a very few of the doomed birds found their way to freedom” [309]. But for those birds at least it was real freedom, not a picture of it, or an idea about it. Just so when Mr Virtue, the parson in Flora Thomson’s memoir Still Glides the Stream, attends the village show: he knows that many wild birds are cruelly kept in cages by the villagers, but at least they are no longer proudly exhibited, as are the various rabbits, cats, and canaries, “because one year Mr Virtue, who judged the pet entries, had carried outside and released a skylark, and when its owner had complained had thrown the empty cage at him, swearing with many oaths unfitting for a Flower Show, that a man who was capable of robbing a little singing bird of its liberty should be sent to gaol for six months’ hard.”

Yes, an incomplete victory, but a real freedom, so that the visceral communion I mentioned earlier itself becomes real, an authentic sympathy rather than a romantic whim. When 1500 foxes were set free from a Scottish fur farm in 1976, one of the cage-breakers recalls as much: “It was like being liberated at the same time as the foxes.” [61] It’s a beautiful saying, and here we’re beginning to see that freedom is indeed morally indivisible, or as William Hazlitt said, love of liberty is love of others (love of the others, he might have said). And in fact that quotation about the foxes comes from a book which is a great testament to that indivisibility: Keith Mann’s 600-page history of the Animal Liberation Front titled From Dusk till Dawn (2007).

This most remarkable book chronicles the efforts of groups and individuals, from the 1970s to the early years of this century, to practise that love of others by actually liberating them, and implicating their own freedom in the endeavour. The book itself was begun in a prison, and as papers or discs it followed Keith Mann from prison to prison. So it’s not just a story of captivity and freedom, but a material product of this largely invisible but altogether real strain in modern society. It relates to the Ashmolean’s artistic meditation on slavery much as an escape bid relates to wringing your hands in the comfort of home (or for that matter, I’m afraid, writing prose like this about freedom). In one vivid and exemplary scene, “the prisoner Mann” (as the police report of the incident calls him) does indeed make his own escape bid, slipping from a police escort, jumping onto and over a twelve-foot gate, cycling off on a ‘borrowed’ bicycle, and then hiding up under a railway viaduct, all the while “chuckling intermittently to myself . . . I’d liberated myself and it felt great.” He stayed free for nearly a year, which he spent (of course) at an animal sanctuary.

That impertinent glee, the chuckling, is characteristic of this folk-heroic personality, pictured grinning undefeatably on the back of the book. For Mann belongs to a kind that has been embarrassing authority, mocking its dignity and disrespecting its institutions, ever since the first official uniform was put on, but also paying for it, often far over the odds. And From Dusk till Dawn, full as it is of subversive wit and dauntlessness, is necessarily a tragi-comedy. At every story of liberation that Mann tells (and as Benjamin Zephania rightly says in his foreword, “Mann is a natural storyteller, with a hell of a story to tell”), some or most of the animals have to be left behind. Even those that are freed can have no firm property in their freedom: getting them back into confinement is at least as much part of the official response as punishing their liberators is. Keith Mann recounts the effortful rounding-up in this way of some beagles briefly rescued from Oxford University’s notorious Park Farm (at that time “a complex of windowless buildings imprisoning various species of animals awaiting the vivisector’s carving knife”), and he wonders “What is this obsession with taking these animals back to these places?”   

One consequence of the direct actions which Mann recounts has been stricter law and increased security, so that his chronicles now have a period feel about them; such low-tech raids on the prison camps of speciesism are no longer feasible. Compare, for instance, the disorderly and half-supervised Park Farm with its “comparatively minimal” security, as Mann describes it, with Oxford University’s present-day animal storage and research facility, the Biomedical Sciences Building, likewise windowless, but also fenced, front-doorless, and protected by CCTV. But of course that ‘love of others’ never goes away, so that, as Keith Mann says with his characteristically selfless buoyancy, the story of ALF “will continue to be re-written and be added to by many others over the coming years until animal liberation is finally achieved.”

The hazardous actualities of From Dusk till Dawn, even the simple but wholly practical proto-ALF interventions of Axel Munthe and Parson Virtue, seem to belong to a different dimension from the fashionably aesthetic meditation on historical 68408684_1332946016860747_7385333270633775104_o.jpgslavery which the Ashmolean’s “contemporary art installation” provides, but in fact it’s all one unhappy and continuingly urgent subject. The placard pictured here on the right, which was being carried during August’s Official Animal Rights March in London (reported in this blog), succinctly states the case which the Ashmolean Museum might bear in mind if it wants its art to be not just modish but actually modern.




Notes and references:

The free exhibition A Nice Cup of Tea? is on show at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 22 March 2020.

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here:

Research using birds is a particular topic in this blog on 21 May 2019 (‘What are Sixty Warblers Worth?’) and 24 October 2016 (‘How to Learn about Magpies’).

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here:

Still Glides the Stream was first published in 1948, its contents looking back to the late nineteenth century. The quotation is from p.103 of the Oxford University Press edition, 1966.

The critic and essayist William Hazlitt contrasted love of liberty with love of power (which, he said, is “love of ourselves”) in the article ‘Illustrations of the Times Newspaper’ published in Political Essays (1819).

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here:

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’:

Franciscan Medicine

Today, October 4th, is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, and also World Animal Day, an “international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. Something was said in this blog last year about the World Day, and about the mind and personality of St Francis whom it commemorates. This time I shall speak about a notable latter-day disciple of his, the physician and writer Axel Munthe, who wrote one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books, published in 1929 and in print ever since: The Story of San Michele.

The book is a sort of memoir, which begins and ends with Munthe’s project to build a house among the ruins of the Emperor Tiberius’s villa at San Michele on the island of San Michele.JPGCapri – a project conceived by Munthe as a young man, and gradually completed during and after his career as a doctor to the rich, whence his social and financial success, and also to the poor, whence the fame and honours he won.

St Francis too is there at the book’s start and at its end. While Munthe was still a medical student, working in the public hospitals of Paris, he learned, in what were then religious institutions, of the “wonderful features” of St Francis, “the friend of all humble and forlorn creatures of sky and earth, who was to become my lifelong friend as well.” [28] Not that Munthe himself was persuaded by Catholicism or by any other faith, and his agnosticism shows in the very unorthodox fantasy with which he closes the book. He imagines himself before St Peter in the Hall of Judgement, unlikely to come off well. In his desperation he calls for the intercession of St Francis: “I have loved him my whole life and he knows me, he understands me.” [351] And happily the saint is indeed fetched to Munthe’s aid, not by the attendant sub-gods but by a sympathetic skylark who knows of Munthe’s past services to his species (more of those services later). In the last scene of the book, then, “there he came, the pale Umbrian saint, slowly descending the winding hill path . . . Swift-winged birds fluttered and sang round his head, others fed from his outstretched hands . . .” And so on.

Yes, you’ll be finding this a bit soppy. No doubt there is something of Ronald Searle’s “sissy” schoolboy Fotherington Thomas – with his “Hello clouds, hello sky!” – about St Francis himself, at least as recorded in legends. (In fact, of course, he was a very strong personality as religious leader and as administrator of the order he founded.) And like St Francis, Axel Munthe speaks of “my brothers and sisters from forests and fields, from skies and seas” [9]. In The Story of San Michele and his other writings he often converses with animals, imputing replies to them, as indeed he does in the case of that skylark. Accordingly, the entry for Axel Munthe in the Dictionary of National Biography (Munthe was a British, as well as a Swedish, citizen) calls him “a sentimental lover of animals”.

Munthe knew himself liable to the disparagement. When he denounces the shooting of larks for food, a friend says to him “You are an idealist, my dear doctor.” Munthe replies, “No, they call it sentimentality and only sneer at it.” But then he says, “mark my words! The time will come . . . when they will understand that the animal world was placed by the Creator under our protection, and not at our mercy; that animals have as much right to live as we have.” [73] If ‘sentimentality’ means pleasurable indulgence in the gentler emotions, then Munthe’s anger about the larks is a plain refutation of the charge. For as he exclaims later when speaking of his retirement on Capri, “The birds! The birds! How much happier would not my life on the beautiful island have been had I not loved them as I do!” [309]

And it’s not just that decisive ethic, “as much right to live as we have” (an ethic which must indeed bring unhappiness to all who know it to be right but see it everywhere violated) that gives his relation with animals unsentimental substance. No, he fought for those birds on Capri. Even literally he did so: he was fined for knocking down the man whose land on the side of the mountain was used for trapping the birds when they briefly rested there, thousands of them, on their way across the Mediterranean in spring and autumn. Munthe’s feud with that man – the local butcher, appropriately enough – and his eventual success (he finally bought the mountain-side and made it into the bird sanctuary which it remains today) is one of many practical animal narratives in the book. He knew very well the difference between ‘love of animals’ as a sentiment and as a motive for conduct. When he says in his book of essays titled Vagaries “I know well that England is the country for lovers of animals”, he is speaking sarcastically, his topic at that moment being fox-hunting.

Besides, the phrase “right to live” was one which Munthe couldn’t have used carelessly. For he spoke as a doctor, and one who was even more familiar than most in his profession with what he calls “the battle between life and death”. [125] He writes a lot about ‘Death’ (his own is being imagined in that last scene). Parts of San Michele constitute a sort of meditation on death, felt and addressed as a distinct personality. First seen “at work” in a relatively modest way (“a mere child’s play”) in the Paris hospitals, death later assumes giant proportions in Munthe’s career:

I saw Him at Naples killing more than a thousand people a day before my very eyes [i.e. during the cholera epidemic of 1884, the subject of Munthe’s book Letters from a Mourning City]. I saw Him at Messina burying over one hundred thousand men, women and children under the falling houses in a single minute [the earthquake of 1908]. Later on I saw Him at Verdun, His arms red with blood to the elbows, slaughtering four hundred thousand men, and mowing down the flower of a whole army on the plains of Flanders and of the Somme [Munthe was serving in the ambulance corps, as described in his book Red Cross, Iron Cross]. [125]

To all these places Munthe had gone voluntarily, leaving his comfortable practice in order to attend the sick and dying. His experiences during the two Italian disasters are described in San Michele. But this man who felt so much sympathy and took so much risk for humans in extremis was with equal willingness and earnestness a doctor to animals. In Rome he kept “a sort of infirmary and convalescent home” [291] for them alongside his human practice, and some of the most vivid images in the book are of suffering animals. There is the gorilla dying in the Paris zoo, who “sat up in his bed and put his two hands to his temples in a gesture of despair” [47] (Munthe hated zoos and menageries: “The cruel wild beast”, he said, “is not behind the bars of the cage, he stands in front of it.” [60]) Or there is the time when Munthe is asked to attend a monkey scalded by boiling water; the request comes from a fellow-doctor who “begged me to wait in his salon, and appeared a minute later with a monkey in his arms, a huge baboon all wrapped up in bandages.” The bandages once removed, “it was a pitiful sight, his whole body was one terrible wound.” [243]

No, there is nothing sentimental here, only careful observation, sympathy, and devoted Axel_Munthe00service. And what Munthe says about his skill as a “dog-doctor” seems to have been true with all these animals: as patients, they needed love and understanding, “the same as with us, with the difference that it is easier to understand a dog than a man, and easier to love him.” [49]

It’s in the monkeys in particular that we see how Munthe had, in his own thinking, revised the conventional Darwinian scheme. He knew and felt its general implication, of course, that we were all, as he says in the book Vagaries, “fellow-citizens in Creation’s great society”. But the idea that humans were evolution’s newest and best did not appeal to him. The zoologist Thomas Huxley had spoken in his justly famous Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’ (1893), of rising above the heritage of “ape and tiger” in man. For Munthe, however, humanity was more of a coarsening of what had come before than an ascent from it. Near the end of San Michele he combines Genesis and Darwin in a scarifying narrative of man’s emergence on the seventh day of Creation:

a huge monkey maddened by hunger set to work with his horny hands to forge himself weapons to slay the other animals . . . he grew up, a brutish Protanthropos slaying friends and foes, a fiend to all living things, a Satan among animals . . . His raucous cry of wrath and fear grew into articulate sounds and words . . . he evolved into man . . . The ferocious war began, the war which has never ceased. [349-50]

If – so Munthe suggests – the God who made this mistake ever wakens from his “haunted slumber” sufficiently to organize a second world-cleansing deluge, the next Ark will be for non-human animals only.

No sentimentalist, then, though it’s true that his excitability as a writer leads him into maudlin moments, as it does into all sorts of other carryings-away: whimsies, exaggerations, obvious fictions, over-coloured dreams and visions. The author himself confesses it, but with one beguiling reservation: in the prefaces which he wrote from time to time for new editions of San Michele, he admits that some of the scenes in the book are mixtures of “real and unreal . . . fact and fancy”, but then he says, “in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived my readers – in my love for animals.”

Still, Munthe was a physician; his training had therefore implicated him in the use of animals for research, and to some extent it had even reconciled him to it. He had direct experience, as a student, of Louis Pasteur’s studies in rabies. Then in his own practice he had to deal with the worst medical scourges of that time, whose aetiologies were just then being uncovered in the laboratory: cholera, diphtheria, consumption. Rabies too he was called in to treat, and it’s while writing about rabies that he suddenly faces this subject, using the rhetorical question to which he habitually resorts in passionate moments: “When will the anti-vivisectionists realize that when they are asking for total prohibition of experiments on living animals they are asking for what is impossible to grant them?” Researchers like Pasteur, Behring (on diphtheria), and Koch (cholera), he says, “must be left to pursue their researches unhampered by restrictions and undisturbed by interference by outsiders.” [59]

True, it’s only to such directly disease-related studies that Munthe concedes this freedom, and such projects are “so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers”. For the rest he agrees to “severe restrictions . . . perhaps even total prohibition.”  Moreover, he acknowledges that differences between the physiologies of animals and men often undermine the “practical value” of vivisection. He even proposes that convicted criminals be offered remission of their sentences in exchange for service in laboratories – in the laboratory, for instance, of the then fashionable ‘rejuvenation’ specialist (or fantasist) Dr Voronoff, as “substitutes for his wretched monkeys”.

That’s a desperate alternative, which was no more practicable at that period than it is now, but it suggests something of Munthe’s restlessness of mind on this subject. And of course there did not exist in his time the many non-animal “substitutes” that have become available since.

It’s notable also that the terrifying rabies-related case to which Munthe has been called, and which prompts this single brief disquisition on animal research, is not in fact a case of rabies at all. After frightful scenes of panic, bloodshed, and attempted suicide, leaving in their wake a shot dog and a blinded and mentally unhinged patient, laboratory tests indicate that neither man nor dog had any infection. This story of false alarm, therefore, so far from illustrating the case for research (I don’t think that Munthe means it to), belongs with a much larger theme in Munthe’s career as a doctor: namely hypochondria, the resort to medical explanations and therapies for what are really moral and social ailments. We would now call it the ‘medicalization’ of unhappiness. At that time it was only for the rich, naturally enough. The poor, meanwhile (as Munthe clearly shows) were living in conditions which made even ordinary good health nearly impossible. Their poverty was what above all needed curing. Certainly disease is real enough, but much of human illness is of our own creating, and can be put right (if at all) without benefit of medicine.

The Story of San Michele is not an orderly narrative of Munthe’s life, still less is it a reasoned report on his profession. He shows the horrors of disease and suffering, the vanities of invalidism, good and bad doctoring, the comedy and tragedy of these, but offers no summing-up, except what is implied in the joy of escaping them, as he finally does escape them at San Michele. But of course there is a philosophy that takes form and persists through it all. Munthe brings with him into his San Michele way of life animals new and old (including that scalded monkey, now fit and hyper-active) and also his continuing sense of the necessity to love and defend them and all their kind. In short, the philosophy of St Francis: the one thing, as he says in the preface, that is unconditionally to be trusted in all he has written. As to vivisection, the dissonant element there, we may trust what he says or not. St Francis, his model in so much, could not guide him in that matter.


Notes and references:

Quotations from The Story of San Michele use the edition issued by John Murray in 2004, Murray having also published the first edition in 1929. Vagaries (later titled Memories and Vagaries) is a collection of short essays, many of them about animals, and was published by John Murray in 1898: quotations are from the chapters titled ‘Blackcock-Shooting‘ and ‘Zoology’.

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here:  But I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here:

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here:

The portrait in charcoal and pastel of Axel Munthe is by his contemporary, Feodora Gleichen.

Apes and Academics

In one of Franz Kafka’s short stories, titled ‘A Report to an Academy’, an ape nick-named Red Peter tells his story to an assembly of intellectual dignitaries: how he was shot and caged in West Africa, then shipped to Europe, and how he managed to find there, if not freedom, at least a “way out” of his captivity by becoming a performing animal, a human impersonator, on the vaudeville circuit. The description of Red Peter’s laborious and finally successful attempts to turn himself into a sort of human make an uncomfortably satiric fable. It’s usually understood as telling the story of Jewish assimilation into Western culture: reasonably enough, since Kafka was himself Jewish, and the story was first published in the journal Die Jude. It might also be read as the sacrifices which an artist may have to make to fit into a society made by Philistines, or more generally as the transformation of the Freudian child into the socialized adult.

But that’s not how Red Peter is understood when he turns up in a more recent address to an academy, the one given by the fictitious novelist Elizabeth Costello to the academics of Appleton College in J.M.Coetzee’s story The Lives of Animals (itself originally delivered as an address to an academy, in the form of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, 1997-8). Costello starts her discourse by telling her audience that as she stands in front of them she feels “a little like Red Peter myself”. But in case they should take this for self-deprecating good humour, “a light-hearted remark, meant to set you at ease”, she bleakly insists on its literalism: “It means what it says. I say what I mean.” And likewise she will not be interpreting Red Peter in good academic style as the artist obliged to please in order to live or, say, as the woman making her way in a world fashioned by men. For again she corrects the academic habit of abstraction: “I have a literal cast of mind . . . When Kafka writes about an ape, I take him to be talking in the first place about an ape.”

What then does Red Peter mean strictly as an ape, and an ape who, so far from standing in for a human (for the Jew, for the artist), is himself now apparently being stood in for, at Appleton College, by a distinguished old lady, Elizabeth Costello?

In the same year in which Kafka’s short story appeared, 1917, the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler had published The Mentality of Apes, an account of his work with chimpanzees at a research station on the island of Tenerife. Like Red Peter, so Costello says, Köhler’s apes “underwent a period of training intended to humanize them”, which included the setting of various problems or difficulties for the chimpanzees to solve in order to get at their food. You note that word “training”. Costello speaks of “what the apes on Tenerife learned from their master”, and of the most adept of them, named Sultan, “beginning to see how the man’s mind works”. Köhler’s research was not, then, aimed at understanding the ape-mind as it naturally is; rather the aim was to see how nearly it could be induced to work like a man’s. His title might more accurately have been The Mentality of Humans.

That, at any rate, is how Elizabeth Costello reads the book – a book which she in fact suggests Kafka himself had read before writing ‘Report to an Academy’. She analyzes Köhler’s experiments thus:  “As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts [i.e. not puzzle-solving thoughts], he is starved . . . At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought . . . he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason.” And this is indeed how Red Peter has earned his own food, his means to live comfortably: by imitating the behaviour of humans (spitting, drinking, or shaking hands, according to the models available) and deliberately relinquishing his ape heritage. “I can no longer attain,” he says, “the old apish truth.”

So Elizabeth Costello sets the story of Red Peter in the context of animal research, and of the stripped-down version of the animal which is all that is useful or even intelligible to it. (Thus Oxford’s Professor Burdon Sanderson in 1876: “The study of Science is measurementthe life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.”) For all Red Peter’s rather ghastly self-satisfaction (part of being ‘human’, perhaps), he is no more than anthropological evidence for his attentive academicians, as he is no more than a ‘turn’ for his vaudeville audiences. And for this acceptance into the human circle, “what has he had to give up?” asks Costello. A painful defeat has been involved.

But there is also a much larger context of defeat to the story. That human mentality, in favour of which Red Peter has foregone his own “apish truth”, has in fact overshadowed the whole kingdom of animals. “In the olden days,” says Costello (the fairy-tale phrase suggesting that she’s not proposing to speak the language of “reason” herself),

the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations won that war definitively . . . Animals have only their silence left to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us.

Except Red Peter, that is. And in him we can see how humans have indeed made themselves and their “reason” the measure of the world: he can only be understood, only respected and allowed out of captivity, as a quasi-human, a plucky runner-up in life’s race. That’s why in fact he admits, right at the beginning of his address, that he can tell his audience nothing about the life of an ape. All that he now knows of it, they already know: he is, after all, their creation.

So it’s the tragic character of this defeat, this loss of the animal voice and share in the world, that Elizabeth Costello means to represent to her Appleton audience when she tells them that she feels like Red Peter. For all his grotesquely humanoid manners, Red Peter is, she says, “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars.” And just so is she, “an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting, to a gathering of scholars, a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.” Red Peter’s wound (he sometimes shows it to his audiences) is the one made by the rifle which brought him down and hustled him into the human world: it’s the record or scar of his humanization. Elizabeth Costello’s is the converse of that: it is her heritage as an animal, her share in Red Peter’s wound and in all the wounds which modern life inflicts upon non-human animals.

But she has to remind her audience that it isn’t she alone who has this heritage: “we are all animals”. Accordingly she insists that we all do have (contrary to what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued), the capacity to understand other animals as they really are, and the duty therefore to compassionate them: “I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” It is not just a case of imaginative sympathy, although Costello does indeed urge the Appleton scholars to use and trust this faculty: “open your heart and listen to what your heart says.” (The scholars are “nonplussed” by this emotional appeal.) It’s also a matter of fact: there really is that “substrate of life” which we share with all living things. Without it, we could not have come into existence as a species. Red Peter himself impishly reminds his academicians of it, when he refers to “your own apehood, gentlemen, to the extent that there is anything like that in your past”.

And now we can appreciate better the story that Kafka’s Red Peter, understood not as a Jew or an artist but literally as an ape, is telling: it’s the story of human evolution, and of our misuse of it. Red Peter is both the first and the last man: the first as, struggling out of his former species, he becomes human; the latest, as he pulls up the ladder, forgetting his ape-life, speaking scornfully of his former species, keeping a miserable “half-trained chimpanzee” as a sort of concubine but shunning her during the day. Just so has humanity pulled up the ladder connecting it to all that “substrate of life” from which it emerged. What impoverishment has been involved is suggested in the superficial tricks and manners which constitute Red Peter’s humanity. In Coetzee’s story, it is suggested also in the discomfort of the Appleton minds, their awkward inadequacy in facing Elizabeth Costello’s unhappy passion, her “wound”.

But of course there is a worse impoverishment entailed for the animals themselves. Lives of Animals.JPGThat wound, metaphorical in her case, is horribly factual in the case of the real animals whose lives, “all around us as I speak”, are circulating in the modern world’s “enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing . . . an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them”. Their story, implicit in Kafka’s sardonic fable, is presented to the academy by Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in plain light as the human and animal tragedy it is.


Notes and references:

Quotations from ‘A Report to an Academy’ are as translated by Stanley Applebaum in The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Dover Publications 1996, pp.81-88.

J.M.Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals later became ‘Lesson 4’ in the novel Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, which is the text from which the quotations above are taken (Vintage Books 2004, pp.91-115). There’s more about Coetzee and Lives of Animals on the VERO web-site here:

Professor Burdon Sanderson is quoted from a lecture published in the journal Nature, 1876, vol.14, pp.117. The painting Science is Measurement (1879) by Henry Stacy Marks is said (by Terrie Romano in Making Medicine Scientific Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p.127) to have been inspired, at least as to its title, by Burdon Sanderson’s lecture. It belongs in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

What Are Sixty Warblers Worth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes and references:

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

Quotations about Dr Mysore’s research are from his own pages on the Johns Hopkins web-site at and from the NPR transcript of the relevant broadcast here: (notice the word “kids” for children, to suggest how down-to-earth and relevant the research is).

The article in Science about the Lattin controversy appeared in the issue for 15 September 2017, at p.1087. Other quotations about Dr Lattin’s research come from her own web-site: The defence of her research put up by Speaking of Research is here:

The article proposing the ARROW guidelines can be read here:

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


Oxford’s Annual Numbers, with Added Mistakes

The statistics for Oxford University’s animal research in 2018 have now been made public on the University’s web-site. Here is VERO’s summary, showing the numbers for each species (with 2017 for comparison), and then the severity of the ‘procedures’ involved. A few comments follow the two tables.

Total number of experimental procedures, by species:

 Species  Number in 2017  Number in 2018
 Mice      229,640        208,057
 Fishes          3,852            8002
 Rats          2,599           2,913
 Junglefowl               21              291
 Frogs            155                89
 Guinea Pigs              80                81
 Badgers              39                64
 Pigs                5                20
 Ferrets              29                24
 Non-Human Primates                7                10
 Rabbits                2                  0
 Total:     236,429       219,551


Severity of procedures (for those species where moderate or above was recorded):

Species  Severe  Moderate  Mild  Sub-threshold  Non-recovery
 Mice   1,889    35,903   49,730       117,743       2,792
 Fishes      298      1,236    5,127           1,211          130
 Rats        37         622       427           1,150          677
 Ferrets          0             9         0                  0            15
Non-Human Primates          0             9         1                  0              0


The total number: 219,551 represents a fall of just over 7% on last year’s total. This is welcome, of course, but unfortunately it can’t be taken as part of a trend. Last year’s number had shown a rise of 8.5% on 2016. Like the value of investments (and one might pursue other similarities), these numbers may go down as well as up, but the clear trend since the completion of the new laboratory has been upward. The number for 2007, which was the last complete year before the laboratory opened for business, was 155,901.

Animals killed without experiments: No number has yet been published for these animals in 2018. Perhaps it won’t ever be given, since a number was provided for 2017 last year, and for some reason the law only requires such animals to be counted in every fifth year. But it’s a very important number, and ought always to be included in the returns. That’s partly because the number is to some extent an index to the efficiency of a laboratory, unpleasant as that word ‘efficiency’ is in this context. But also, the need to do and publish this count is a helpful corrective to the assumption, which the 1986 Act otherwise makes and therefore encourages, that killing an animal is not in itself a significant wrong. That assumption has been frequently noticed in other parts of this blog. It’s not one we humans make for ourselves; I can’t think of any sound reason for making it in the case of other animals.

Science or PR: Last year’s commentary in this blog on the annual Oxford numbers included a critical appreciation of the University’s animal-research web-pages, or at least of the main page, which is titled ‘Research Using Animals: an Overview’. Very little on that page has changed since then, except the just-published numbers. However, the sentence which introduces numbers is new, and here it is:

Figures for 2018 show numbers of animals ‘on procedure’, as declared to the Home Office using their five categories for the severity of the procedure.

This short and functional statement manages to fit in two plain errors. The first error is to speak of numbers of animals rather than numbers of ‘procedures’. The statistics submitted to the Home Office, or separately published as here, are always a count-up of procedures and not of animals. True, this makes very little difference in practice (although the two numbers can differ if, for instance, an animal is re-used in a new research project); it may therefore seem a pedantic distinction, especially since neither way of counting really tells us very much, as this blog has often enough shown. But the point is that nobody who has had anything to do with conducting or reporting the research would make such a mistake. When Cruelty Free International rather carelessly made a similar mistake a few years back, Speaking of Research (a scientists’ pressure-group promoting animal research) called it “a rookie mistake for an organisation which claims to be an authority on the issue”. Oxford University surely is an authority on its own research. How then does it let through a mistake like this?

The second error shows a similar confusion. The animals in the count are said to be “on procedure”, a professional-sounding term perhaps borrowed from lower down on the ‘Overview’ page where it refers to non-human primates undergoing brain research. But the term means ‘research unfinished’, whereas the annual count is precisely of completed research. It used once to be a count of proposed and accepted procedures (the change, a sensible one, came in 2014), but it was never a count of procedures under way at time of counting.

Again, it may not seem to matter much, though in this case it would be a very awkward way of doing things. But the confusion in both cases makes clear that these annual numbers are being introduced by someone who knows only the jargon of the subject, and also that nobody with better knowledge is being asked to check what’s written, or cares to do so on their own initiative. In short, it’s simply a PR job, and not a very good one.

Last year’s commentary showed that the whole ‘Overview’ text evidences the same sort of amateur authorship. Presumably we can treat the annual numbers themselves as reliable, but there’s no reason to accept as true or authoritative anything else said on the animal research web-pages. This isn’t university science speaking (or even bothering to have read). We needn’t spend any more time on it ourselves, then.


Notes and references:

Oxford University’s main animal-research web-page, including the annual numbers, is this one:

Last year’s Oxford numbers were reviewed in this blog here:   See also

The comment made by Speaking of Research appeared as part of a rather bumptious but not inaccurate critique of Cruelty Free International’s own publicity. It was posted in April 2017, and can be read here:

Remembering John Ruskin Rightly, part 2

Here’s a characteristically Ruskinian scene, recorded by his friend and secretary William Collingwood during a summer excursion which they were making in Switzerland in 1883, just before Ruskin went back to his work at Oxford. They had stopped for a meal at a wayside inn, and were eating at a table outdoors:

To this lunch there came a little dog, two cats, and a pet sheep, and shared our wine, bread, and Savoy sponge-cakes. The sheep at last got to putting its feet on the table, and the landlady rushed out and carried him off in her arms into the house; but Ruskin, I think, would as soon have let the creature stay.

It’s not that animals needed to petition charmingly, as they happened to do here, in order to engage Ruskin’s attention. In fact Collingwood specifically says that Ruskin felt “a sympathy with them which goes much deeper than benevolent sentiment”. But the scene is typical of the way animals thronged Ruskin’s life: they turn up in his conversation, lectures, and writing, in his dreams, in his own paintings and in his art criticism. And, as we know, they were the occasion of that crisis in his working life, the resignation from Oxford University.

The scene at the Swiss inn may be taken, besides, as a sort of emblem of the animal kingdom (the whole of it, humans included) as Ruskin envisioned it. In one of his early Oxford lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a lecture in which he was typically combining a study in natural history with his ideas about the point of university education (the formal subject of the lecture was the halcyon or kingfisher), he put to his audience “my main theorem – that reading and writing are in no sense education, unless they contribute to this end of making us feel kindly towards all creatures”. And again, not ‘kindly’ in a merely cerebral or sentimental sense: rather, in the etymological sense of feeling kinship. He wanted the future landowners in his audience (many of the undergraduates would indeed have been from the landed gentry and aristocracy) to be educated out of their corrupt taste for hunting and shooting animals. He wanted them to devote themselves instead to maintaining their land in its “native wildness”, so as “to let every animal live upon it in peace that chose to come there.” A lot of meaning is bound up in that word ‘chose’.

He had the same scheme in mind for Oxford itself. The authorities, he hoped (or dreamed), would “so far recognize what education means as to surround this university with the loveliest park in England, twenty miles square”, within which “every English wild flower that can bloom in lowland will be suffered to grow in luxuriance, and every living creature that haunts wood and stream know that it has a happy refuge.” And it was much more than a conservation scheme. Ruskin believed that the essential relation between humans and other animals could be transformed – restored to innocence, perhaps – if only the humans themselves would change: “There is peacable kingdom.JPGscarcely any conception left of the character which animals and birds might have if kindly treated in a wild state.” He was teaching, in fact, the way towards the peaceable kingdom.

Nor was this just a picturesque ideal for Ruskin. It was founded on his absolute conviction of nature’s entirety: that in fact was a key word in his vocabulary. Wisdom itself, he told his Oxford students, was “the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life, in the entire sum of life that we know, bestial and human”. There could therefore be nothing narrow or pedestrian about drawing a small bird, or for that matter a stone or twig, as he often directed his students in the art school to do (and as he himself did with brilliant fidelity and feeling), for “the system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” Writing about Venice, Ruskin improvised a special function here for the patron saint of that city, St Theodore. He should represent “Divine life in nature; Divine life in the flesh of the animal, and in the substance of the wood and of the stone, contending with poison and death in the animal, with rottenness in the tree and in the stone.” [C&W 29.62] This St Theodore champions the life-wish, and Ruskin sensed that wish far into areas of nature conventionally regarded as inanimate or at least as involuntary. In another Oxford lecture, he spoke of crystals as “living stones”. He used to get the girls at Winnington School, where he was a sort of visiting professor, to get their own sense of that stone-life by acting out the different crystal formations.

But there was nothing mild and consolatory about this notion of a ubiquitous shared life, for Ruskin had also an acute feeling for the perils faced by the life-urge in all its variety. We’ve seen these perils contended with in the labour of St Theodore. Ruskin himself was viscerally affected by the sight or even idea of disease, of physical suffering and harm. The dreams show it: “a green leaf which was an animal, and was drowning in a basin of water, and putting its green point up, trying to get out”; “I had a nice black dog with me, and trod on it, and half broke its leg; then it gradually got better and limped after us about the town”; “a fit of great distress and self-reproach because I Ruskin_Self_Portrait_1875.jpghad starved a hermit crab whom I had packed away in his shell … looking at the starved creature and wondering if I could revive it.” This sense of life’s ordeal – and his intense sympathy for it, as suffered by animals especially – amounted to a personal engagement, which the dreams cruelly dramatize by making him the cause of harm. The sympathy was always vivid in his imagination and directive of his thought. “There is no wealth but life” he wrote, by way of summarizing his economics in Unto This Last (1860), but it summarizes his thinking in all of its many directions.

And it was here that science came to seem in Ruskin’s mind essentially hostile. That was a tragic estrangement, for Ruskin loved and never did cease to study the natural sciences. He had a strong talent for it. In that same black dog dream, he observes a tourist “staring” at his surroundings, and the two men agree that “to stare was the right thing; to look only was no use.” The scientific skill of concentrated and selfless attention Ruskin had to a very high degree, and the practice of art as he taught it at Oxford was a means into that discipline; in fact he insisted that art was itself a science, “the science of aspects”. He even, during that inaugural lecture of 1870, proposed that art and “our now authoritative science of physiology” should collaborate in making a complete record of the world’s animal life. (“now authoritative”! It was an ominous misconception; Ruskin didn’t then realize that British physiology was only just starting to discover itself and its characteristic techniques as a science.)

But always the art depended on moral engagement and sympathy; the artist was to feel “rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part. He told his Oxford students during that kingfisher lecture, “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature, you can see it: no otherwise.” It was this sympathetic delight which, during the 1870s, Ruskin came to think had been cut out of modern science, of biology in particular. This part of science was now consciously shaking off its amateurish past as ‘natural history’, so much associated as that had been with personal observation in the field and with anecdotes of particular living animals. This was the tradition to which Ruskin himself belonged (something of it has since been recovered and re-valued as ethology).

Oxford’s future Physiology professor, the one who would be sharing the University Museum with Ruskin during his last two years as Slade Professor, was a leader in this modernization of biology. At just about the same time that Ruskin was telling his audience about delight as a condition of seeing anything at all, John Scott Burdon Sanderson had been telling a different audience that “the study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.” In other words, biology was to be incorporated into the world as defined by physics and chemistry – the world of “mechanism”, as Ruskin called it. And the organic part of that world, like the rest of it, was to be explored primarily through experimentation, conducted by scientists acting as disengaged technicians. For these modern pioneers, so different from the ones Ruskin had pictured in that inaugural lecture lovingly recording the world’s wild-life, he used a harsh and sinister image: they were, he said, “mostly blind, and proud of finding their way always with a stick.”

For two more immediate reasons Ruskin felt driven to contest this innovation. One was the glaring importance of science. Its rapid growth in prestige was everywhere obvious, not least in Oxford, where the Museum itself was built evidence of it. In fact one of the critical moments in this cultural triumph of science had recently taken place there: the famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, on the subject of evolution. If science was to replace religion as the primary force in British culture, and thus perhaps become the conditioning sub-text of the British mind, which Huxley himself frequently argued that it should do and Ruskin feared it already had, then it mattered very much what sort of mind and culture that entailed. And for Ruskin, modern science, and the technology which was its most conspicuous product, entailed a maiming alienation of mankind from the rest of the world. Years earlier he had defined what he regarded as man’s “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things”: it was to “know them all and love them, as made for him, and he for them.” And he had warned against that alienation: “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation.” And now “fatalest ruin” was what he believed he was seeing in the 1870s. Speaking of the spoliation of land and wild-life in Europe, he told Oxford students in 1872, “we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth.”

And here, as the second reason for Ruskin’s preoccupation with the character of modern science, was the Museum’s own collection encircling him as he lectured. For he found that the building which he had hoped would be a celebration of the beauty and unity of life was filled with the stuffed skins and bottled parts of multitudes of imported corpses. Ruskin angrily called it “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”, and he told his (no doubt astonished) audience, “I could fill all this Museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.” More useful because these un-showy and familiar birds were animals whose lives students could in some sense share, whereas the dead animals in the Museum were an object lesson in selfish ambition and violence. And the Victorian collecting mania which had assembled them was itself a part of a larger corrupt and dangerous notion that man had triumphed over nature, and should consequently enjoy rights of ownership there.

I’ve said here only a part of what I wanted to say about Ruskin and animals: nothing, for instance, about his wonderful descriptions of their behaviour, his enactments of bird flight in lectures, his love and respect for the individual animals which he encountered (even ants and shrimps); perhaps most importantly I’ve said nothing about his sense of the mystery of animal consciousness, and the poignancy of the clouded understanding on both sides which thus conditioned all such encounters. I think that it was this mystery which he had in mind when, in one of his later lectures of the 1880s, he spoke of modern animal research as “depriving the animal under investigation first of its soul within, and secondly of its skin without.” Ruskin had no conventionally Christian faith, but he regarded as a kind of blasphemy this crude objectification of an inaccessibly mysterious individual life.

Anyway, during those last two years of his professorship, while the newly appointed Physiology professor, Burdon Sanderson, was moving equipment into his temporary quarters in the University Museum just downstairs from where Ruskin lectured, the contest of values reached a crisis. I’ve mentioned in the previous post the University’s plan to build a new laboratory for Burdon Sanderson, and the campaign which was mounted against it, or at least against its use for vivisection. Ruskin signed up to that campaign, but he also conducted his own personal campaign in lectures and beyond. “The scientists slink out of my way as if I were a mad dog”, he said in a letter written at this time (there are many shadowy arcades and showcases to slink behind in that neo-Gothic Museum). He planned to end the Michaelmas term of 1884 with a lecture entitled ‘Mechanism: the Pleasures of Nonsense’, which would be a passionate and last-ditch statement of his case against the new biology in general, and vivisection in particular. What a text that might have been, and what an event! But it didn’t occur; Ruskin was persuaded to postpone the lecture, and when the Michaelmas term ended and Ruskin left town for the Lake District where he had his home, it was to be a permanent departure.

Without that mechanism lecture, without in fact any single organised statement of his thinking about animals (he said in a letter that he wanted to write one, but hadn’t enough time), it has no doubt been easier than it would otherwise have been to treat Ruskin’s given reason for resigning his post – the decision to fund the new laboratory – as an excuse only. The real reason, it was commonly said at the time and frequently has been said since, was his mental ill-health. He certainly was unwell (the stress of those last Oxford weeks played a large part in that), but he, at any rate, believed in the reason which he gave, and indeed insisted upon it, as the previous post in this blog has recorded. I hope that this brief account of his thinking about animals has at least shown that there was quite enough strength of feeling and expressed commitment there to account for his action. We can and should remember that action, then, as Ruskin himself experienced it and as he wished it to be remembered.


Notes and references:

Instead of a long list of citations, these are the main texts quoted or referenced above:

William Collingwood’s Life and Works of John Ruskin, 2 vols, Methuen, 1893, is a fine and sympathetic account by someone who had been a student of Ruskin, and became his friend and helper.

‘The Story of the Halcyon’ was the ninth lecture in the series delivered by Ruskin in the Lent term of 1872, and published by George Allen in the same year under the title The Eagle’s Nest. Several of the quotations here come from that series, in which Ruskin was at his most well-organized and optimistic. His comments on the Museum collection come from a much more improvised and therefore exciting series delivered before very large audiences in the Michaelmas term of 1877, and titled ‘Readings in Modern Painters’. These were published from Ruskin’s notes in vol. 22 of Cook and Wedderburn’s great ‘Library Edition’ of Ruskin’s writings (39 vols, George Allen and Unwin, 1903-12). The last series of lectures, delivered in Michaelmas term of 1884, were titled ‘The Pleasures of England’ (the intended ‘mechanism’ lecture would have been the final one), and it’s from the first of these that he spoke of scientific research depriving the animal of its soul. The letter about scientists slinking out of Ruskin’s way is re-printed in Cook and Wedderburn, vol.37, p.501.

The quotation about “the system of the world” comes from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, where also he wrote about our “due relation to other creatures”. Here too, he uses the phrase “science of aspects” – in connection with the works of J.M.Turner (whose reputation was the originating subject of this great book), but the idea was one which he subsequently insisted on in his Oxford lectures.

Ruskin wrote about St Theodore in one of his ‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ titled Fors Clavigera and published in the 1870s, while he was also working at Oxford. This particular issue was numbered 75. The image of the blind scientist comes from that same letter. Ruskin’s dreams are recorded in his diaries: they were edited by Joan Evans and J.H.Whitehouse, and published by Oxford University Press in 3 vols, 1956-9.

The quotation about “rational and disciplined delight” comes from the first sentence of Ruskin’s book of instruction in the principles of drawing and painting, The Laws of Fésole, published in parts from 1877-79.

On the study of biology: Professor Burdon Sanderson was addressing an audience at a professional event, and his speech was published in the journal Nature, 1 June, 1876.

Th illustrations show a detail from one of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ series painted by the American artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 1820s to 1840s, and a self-portrait in water-colour by John Ruskin, painted in 1875. Both images are in the public domain.




It’s a crisis, but nothing to do with them . . .

It’s frequently asserted that the global pharmaceutical industry is in deep trouble. Owing to the staggering cost of producing a new drug, ‘big pharma’ needs blockbusters (bestsellers that will generate vast amounts of money). These are few and far between these days, and some observers have concluded that they’ve ‘picked all the low hanging fruit’. However, the American medical culture is unique. The USA is one of only two countries (the other is New Zealand) that allow drug companies to advertise on TV. Consequently the USA is swamped with medication, and ‘big pharma’ spends billions on direct advertising to doctors, and on ensuring that regulators and politicians don’t interfere with their activities.

Since 1999, prescription pain medication has killed about 350,000 Americans, and it’s the leading cause of death among the under 50s in the USA. This is ‘the opioid epidemic’, and it’s a monumental human catastrophe. Opium-based treatments for pain were restricted until the early 1980s, when a single paper (later revealed to be based on weak data) and a short 101 word letter to a leading journal established a whopping lie: “Less than 1% of patients treated with opioids become addicted.” Drug companies now produced a range of synthetic versions of opioids, and the marketing aimed at regulators and doctors was explicit. The message was simple and very successful: “It’s irresponsible not to treat pain.”  

Several brands were involved in the crisis, but there’s a general consensus that OxyContin is a major culprit. It became available in 1996, and was issued by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin used a proprietary coating designed to offer “continuous release” (hence the “Contin”) and it was disingenuously claimed to be “less addictive”. In fact, the release mechanism made it more addictive, and anyway the coating could easily be removed. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin for “moderate to severe pain”, and Purdue launched an unprecedented marketing campaign. They employed almost 1,000 reps, and specifically targeted locations where two crucial factors were firmly established; there were high levels of opioid prescription and dependency was already an issue. A typical example is the destitute rural towns of Appalachia, and in one of these (population only 3,000) a single clinic legally prescribed more drugs than the whole of West Virginia’s University Hospital. Unsurprisingly some prescribers were making a fortune, and one enthusiastic doctor crammed some of his $7 million in cash into a safe deposit box.

By 2009 sales of OxyContin hit a staggering $3 billion a year, the same year that drug overdose deaths exceeded road accident fatalities in the USA. This grubby saga of corporate greed relied on blatant misrepresentation (via funded reports) to ensure that the FDA and legislative bodies didn’t interrupt the gravy train or the appalling death toll. Purdue insist that they always follow FDA rules, and they blame doctors for over-prescribing and patients for misuse. Earlier this year (2018) Purdue stopped marketing OxyContin, but 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids and heroin use has accelerated (with opioids identified as the gateway drug to heroin).

Obviously, all prescribed opioids in the US and the UK had to go through the legally required animal testing before they were approved. There are multiple causes of the epidemic, but all the deficiencies and immorality of vivisection are exposed by this tragedy. Negative animal results (in this case, pinpointing the highly addictive nature of opioids) can be ignored and then ‘manipulated’ or simply removed before data is supplied to the FDA (see notes below). The cosy relationship between the FDA and pharma companies – the revolving door syndrome – is another and not unconnected scandal.

In the USA Purdue are facing an avalanche of lawsuits, and they will (almost certainly) have to make huge compensation payments. However, these losses will be fairly insignificant against the billions generated by OxyContin. The final irony is that a new treatment for opioid addiction was recently patented in the USA, and the patent was granted to (wait for it) none other than Purdue Pharma.

Paul Freestone



For a full account of the opioid epidemic, see Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, Little, Brown and Co., 2018; also Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

A recent article in the journal Science discusses the “incredibly alarming” practice of cherry-picking data from pre-clinical (i.e. animal) trials of drugs, and the flawed reporting of these trials to the FDA: see ‘Study questions animal efficacy data behind trials’, Science, 13 April 2018 (vol.360, p.142), accessible here:  It’s an especially shameful part of a wider problem – the failure of truly dis-interested research – which is the special theme of the journal’s issue for 21 September of this year.

Remembering and Preferring to Forget

This is a revised and updated version of a post first published on 4 November 2015. 

On Sunday, November 11th, after the remembrance services have ended in London’s Whitehall and elsewhere, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane (at 3 p.m.). The memorial itself was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making were a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

In letters cut into its white Portland stone, the memorial declares “This monument blog memorialis dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and Allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” Officially, therefore, it remembers only the animals who sided with ‘us’, rather than all the animals who have anywhere been forced, tricked, or otherwise induced to risk their lives in war-efforts. In this respect, perhaps disappointingly, it’s a very traditional war memorial. Unlike the Brown Dog memorial to vivisected animals, located a few miles away in Battersea Park, it is not a statement of dissent.

However, at least it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize its subject. The suffering of the animals, and their preference for freedom, are plainly shown. Burdened, crowded, unnaturally jumbled as to species like the ruin of Noah’s Ark which war indeed makes of them, they press towards a gap in the curving stone stockade and the freedom of the grass and trees beyond – a freedom actually reached and enjoyed by war_horse_bannera great bronze horse and dog. And any disingenuousness in that word “served” is properly corrected by the brief but eloquent sentence cut into the stone by itself at the far right: “They had no choice.”

Better still would have been ‘They have no choice’, reminding the visitor to this monument that ‘they’ are not simply history, but have a countless posterity today and to come. Perhaps in fact this memorial does have too much of a historical – specifically a First World War – feel about it. But then that was the war in which animals were most visibly used: not just the ubiquitous horses but, as the memorial shows, mules, camels, dogs, cats, pigeons, even elephants. But yes, horses most visibly and numerously of all. Hence that cry of distress in a letter written by the composer Edward Elgar as early as 25 August 1914: “Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals . . . Oh, my horses.” About 1 million of the horses used by Britain and its allies on the Western Front are said to have lost their lives. Some of these horses belonged to cavalry regiments, but most had been requisitioned from farms, haulage companies, livery stables, and private owners. They knew, therefore, even less of war than the conscripted men whom they “served and died alongside”. Across the whole war, perhaps 8 million horses lost their lives.

But despite this profligate use of horses, the First World War was the one which set the style for modernity in battle, where humans and animals would be only the perishable element in a contest largely to be characterized and determined by science and machinery. And here the setting of the memorial is uncomfortably apt: not a pastoral or even a tolerably quiet scene, but Park Lane’s contribution to carmageddon, vehicles hustling past on either side (the memorial is in between the two carriage-ways), suggesting in their roar and stink that peace, in a consumerist society, is only the continuation of war in other forms and with other sorts of casualty.

There is one aspect of that war, however, about which the memorial says nothing. It was the First World War, specifically its science front, which enlisted animals into a wholly new variety of war work: weapons research. For the UK, this began in 1916 at the government’s research station on Porton Down, with the study of poison gas.

Such research is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of war service for animals to participate and die in. It offers no scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the memorial. It won’t earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal: “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason to give it this much recognition: a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys by which to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, as described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, or their continuing service at Porton Down, testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”) Nor are any pigs shown on the memorial, to record the use of their deliberately injured bodies in the training of British military surgeons.

Likewise absent is any word or image to recall the hecatombs of animals put to use during and after the Second World War in research for the newly developed atomic weaponry. Even before the first test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the scientists preparing for it had enjoyed the use of “an animal farm” – mice, dogs, goats – for research into radiation. When two atomic bombs were tested at Bikini Atoll immediately after the war, a number of the so-called “ghost ships”, placed in the target area to evidence the effects of the bombs, had animals on board: pigs, goats, rats, mice. Some of the animals were shaved “so that the effects of heat and radiation on their skins could be observed.”  All of them died as a result, either at once or soon after. By the 1960s, about 5 million animals were being used every year just in research sponsored by the USA’s Atomic Energy Commission. And of course such research didn’t stop when the habit of testing bombs did. In the year before the Park Lane memorial was completed, an article in the journal Radiation Research had confirmed the continuing usefulness of such research; it was titled ‘Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors Predicted from Laboratory Animals’.

The exigencies of battle itself may impose cruel demands upon the animals innocently induced to take part. The Park Lane memorial records something of those demands with proper sadness and respect, if without explicit protest. But fear of war, which is what has driven the atomic research and other research into weapons of mass destruction, is an even more pitiless taskmaster. At a House of Lords committee hearing on animal research a few years ago, one witness (backing the work being done at Porton Down) spoke of the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war: “For an agent like that there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.” He meant, of course, ‘not worth their paying’. The familiar mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness in that attitude – qualities so antithetical to the conduct of war as we prefer to remember it in our memorials – perhaps explains why this aspect of the war-work of non-human animals was omitted in Park Lane. It’s simply too ignoble to be willingly remembered.


Notes and references:

An account of the Brown Dog memorial and its significance can be found in this blog at

For a short but excellent and well-illustrated account of the part horses were made to take in the First War, see Simon Butler, The War Horses: the Tragic Fate of a Million Horses Sacrificed in the First World War, Halsgrove, 2011. The numbers given above are from Butler’s book, pp.48 and 118.

Edward Elgar’s letter is quoted by Andrew Neill in ‘The Great War: Elgar and the Creative challenge’, The Elgar Journal, vol.11 no.1, March 1999, pp.9-41 (at p.12).

The Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 by the founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Maria Dickin. The first recipients of it were three pigeons.

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995; first published 1975) pp.25-29; those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975), pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted. Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date information is not easily available, but examples of work being done for military purposes at Porton Down and also at British universities can be seen on the Animal Justice Project web-site at

As to the nuclear research: The “animal farm” is recalled by a scientist who worked at the University of Chicago (where some of the preparatory research for the first atomic bomb was carried out), as quoted on the web-site of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, at . The preparing of the animals on the ships (it’s not clear how many of the ships held animals) is briefly shown and described in a documentary film made for the US Department of Energy in 1946, and titled Project Crossroads – Operation Crossroads being the name given to these first post-war atomic tests. The number 5 million is an estimate made in the 1969 pamphlet ‘Animals in Atomic Research’, published by the US atomic Energy Commission. The article in Radiation Research was published in August 2003 in vol.160, no.2, pp.159-67.

The quotation “For an agent like that …” comes from evidence given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to the Lords’ Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures, April 2002.

Not mentioned in the above text is research being carried forward now, sponsored by the US Department for Veterans Affairs, in which dogs are used as models for the study of paralyzing injuries sustained in battle. These ruthless experiments are the subject of a ForceChange petition which you can sign here:

The Romance of Vivisection

The artist Emile-Edouard Mouchy painted La leçon de physiologie sur un chien in 1832. The picture now lurks somewhere in the Wellcome Collection, that huge archive and museum of medical science assembled by the pharmacist and businessman Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), and visitable at the Wellcome Trust headquarters on the Euston Road in London. There haven’t been many serious Mouchy painting.jpgartistic attempts at the subject of vivisection, for very obvious reasons. Fewer still are those that treat the subject without express distaste, but that is what Mouchy seems to be doing in his leçon. For that reason, no doubt, the picture is sometimes used for illustration in neutral or defensive accounts of animal research, though never, so far as I have seen, with any further comment. Some further comment is therefore what I shall attempt to provide now.

Everything about La leçon shows physiology as a new and as yet un-institutionalized subject. The setting seems to be a private room, perhaps an attic. The furniture is unscientific and inadequate: seats for a lucky few only (which makes for a fine artistic composition). But it’s evidently a rising subject, too: the scientist is a young man, addressing youths. The whole scene looks to the future; even that second dog implies a miserable succession of animals ahead. And those dusty-looking skeletons relegated to a shelf at the back: they hint that physiology is taking over from anatomy as the key biological discipline and new foundation for medical studies (though anatomy remained indispensable, of course). And that was indeed a fact, unhappily illustrated by the recent appointment, to the chair of medicine at the Collège de France, of the notorious pioneer of vivisection François Magendie.

As for Mouchy’s vivisector himself, there in the centre of the picture, he glows with light, patently a luminary. The picture makes a romantic hero of him, much as the artist was about to do more plausibly for his chosen subject in La Mort de Thomas Becket (1834). In fact Mouchy seems to be raising him beyond even that. Surely there’s something familiar about the scene in that upper room, with the young acolytes grouped around their teacher in various postures of earnest attention or whispered comment, six on either side? It’s a version of the last supper, as described in the Christian gospels and in many works of art subsequently – so many as to constitute a genre of its own, and one which was certainly well-known to Mouchy.

The vivisector, then, is to be imagined as investing a great and universal truth in these young students, who will take it out into the future. And something more than that must be implied in this re-casting of the last supper: this new truth, the world as revealed by the uninhibited practise of experimental science, is to supplant the old Christian one as the governing authority in human (Western, at least) minds. Certainly that’s what did happen during the nineteenth century, and vivisection was the crucial setting for the contest of values which it involved. Hence the title which the novelist Ouida (real name Maria Louise Ramé) gave to her brilliant attack of 1893 on vivisection: ‘The New Priesthood’. By then it was a familiar enough idea, and indeed had constituted a deliberate policy for science’s promoters (for Thomas Huxley, for instance, of whom more below). But it took many years of struggle and habituation before this shift of cultural authority could be accepted. To represent that triumph as Mouchy did in 1832 must have seemed a shocking and blasphemous hyperbole. At any rate, the painting was apparently refused exhibition at the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris expressly because of its subject-matter.

Let’s consider the dogs themselves now. It’s something that the students are plainly not doing. Their eyes follow the master’s knife as it points at the wound and the exposed interior of the subject dog. Their postures and expressions of rapt attention suggest that they hardly hear the dog’s howls, certainly are unmoved by them. So the barking of the second dog is the only indication of sympathetic interest anywhere in the picture. In this case, then, the necessary silence of a painting is itself expressive: you can choose to hear that noise or merely to register it. For a modern audience, in fact, the scene may be more reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experimental study of obedience to authority than of the last supper (see note below): under the direction of a master, these malleable young men, with their sensitive faces and cultured modishness, are learning indifference to animal suffering, a terrible and portentous lesson.

Does the artist have that moral dimension of the lesson in mind? I feel sure that he doesn’t, however plainly present in the picture it is. He knew his duty as an artist to the animal form, and he represents the distressed movements of the dogs with vivid accuracy. But he seems to draw no conclusion. There is one hint of dissonance just behind the vivisector, where a student puts his hand on another’s arm and points to the door. He might be saying (should be saying) ‘I’m having no part in this!’, but that’s simply imputation. He might even be intended for the one dissonant element present in all representations of the last supper – the uneasy and disloyal Judas – but that seems too literal-minded. It’s true that the making public by dissidents of supposed intra-professional scenes like this one was soon to become a vital part of the moral challenge to vivisection, but for all his foresight the artist was not in tune with that part of the future. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

Anyway, Mouchy does indeed in this picture seem to foresee that physiology would become, as Thomas Huxley called it in 1854, “the experimental science par excellence”, and in becoming so would help in what Huxley called “the destruction of things that have been holy”, and the rise of a new god, “the God of science”. It’s another vulnerable god, however. As the Christian sense of what nature meant gave ground (and one can’t pretend that it had ever served the other animals well), newer ways of understanding and valuing life were prompted into being, notably by the indignation which scenes of the sort pictured by Mouchy aroused. The absolute right of mankind to make the rest of the world its servant was put to critical and creative question.

The Wellcome Collection has no special interest in that ethical dimension, but it has some items which do illustrate it. As a corrective to Mouchy’s romantic humanism, vivisection cartoon.jpgthen, here’s a cartoon from seventy-five or so years later, as published in the Berlin satirical paper Lustige Blätter. “Now, no sentimental nonsense, please!” says this vivisector, mocking the habit of his profession: “The principle of unrestricted research demands the vivisection of this human in the interests of the health of the whole animal kingdom.”



Notes and references:

The image of Mouchy’s leçon is made publicly available on the Wellcome Collection’s web-site, with a few further details, including the Salon’s rejection of the picture, here:

The cartoon image is likewise available here, dated c. 1910, artist not named:

The “upper room” is specified in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, though they also say that it’s a large room, which indeed it would have to be to accommodate twelve at table.

Ouida’s ‘New Priesthood’ article was published in The New Review, vol.VII, pp.151-164.

Stanley Milgram was a professor in social psychology. In his classic series of experiments, the human subjects believed that they were assisting in a study of how humans learn. They were required to use incremental electric shocks upon their unseen but clearly heard students as a way of enforcing memory (the ‘students’ were actors). In reality the point of interest was how far these subjects were willing to go with the supposed shocks in their acceptance of professional authority. See his book Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row, 1974).

The Huxley quotations appear in Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp.56, 104, and 106.

The Mirror Test

An article published in August by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, in its online journal bioRXiv, is headed ‘Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test’. The story was picked up in various more popular science publications and in the general media, for this is a much-loved line of research with them – the line in question being clearly announced in the heading which the Daily Mail gave its own account: “Tiny fish is the first to pass the self-awareness test by recognizing its reflection in a mirror.” Or to sum up, in a twitter comment, the sudden claims now being made on behalf of this fish, “Cleaner fish are AWESOME! They show self-awareness.”

The research itself was somewhat less conclusive. Ten of these cleaner wrasse fishes (Labroides dimidiatus) were put into a tank which contained a mirror. At XRF-Labroides_dimidiatusfirst they treated their own reflections as intruders into their territory and acted accordingly. Then, becoming used to the mirror, they behaved in a more improvised manner, apparently testing out the mirror with “idiosyncratic postures and actions”. Finally they seemed to use the mirror more as humans might, showing “self-directed behaviour”. This behaviour most specifically included scraping off marks (hence the ‘mark test’) which had been applied to their skin under anaesthetic and were designed to be undetectable to the fishes except in their own reflections.

The conclusion which the authors reach in their report is that the fishes did indeed show responses of the sort recorded for previously ‘successful’ species, notably chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. Therefore, if those former experiments are to be regarded as having demonstrated self-awareness in the animals concerned, so must these be: cleaner wrasse, then, must be “self-conscious and have a true theory of mind” (i.e. awareness of their own mind and motives, and of those which others may have). However, faced with this ambitious imputation, the authors very reasonably prefer to argue that the test itself is unsound, or at least has been over-interpreted in the past. The test shows, they suggest, no more than an animal’s awareness of its own body (surely a necessity for survival) and the ability to learn that a mirror can enhance this awareness. And indeed other research has shown that pigeons and even ants (please accept the ‘even’ for now) can put a mirror to such use. To claim self-awareness for all these creatures would be to make it an ordinary condition of life – which perhaps it is, but nobody so far does assert this; on the other hand, to claim it for apes and dolphins who ‘pass’ the test, but not for these other less prestigious creatures, would be (I’m delighted to find these scientists saying) “taxonomically chauvinistic” – i.e. speciesist.

The authors of the article end by suggesting that “many more species may be able to pass the test when it is applied in a manner that is sympathetic to their natural biology.” This is surely true, and in fact the ethologists Mark Bekoff and Roberto Gatti have adapted the test for dogs by using the scent of the dogs’ own urine as the ‘reflection’. For of course making it a test of vision, the primary sense for humans but not for every animal, inevitably ties it to what humans do, makes it in fact a set of comparisons with ourselves.

And indeed that is just what it always has been. The hidden or (in more popular versions) expressed question has always been not just ‘How like us is this animal?’ but ‘How nearly as clever as us is this animal?’ Hence the strangely unscientific terminology which has been characteristic of this line of research, and which we’ve already seen instances of. Thus, elephants who seemed to recognize themselves in a mirror, as we were told in the leading professional journal Science a few years ago, “have joined the elite group”. The same journal more recently reported on a similar capacity in some magpies: only two out of the group of birds “passed the test”, but this is apparently “similar to the success rate in chimpanzees.” To sum up: passing the mirror test, so this article says,

is regarded as evidence of knowing who you are – a higher neural skill underlying human abilities such as self-consciousness and self-reflection. Researchers have given the test to a wide variety of species. Most fail.

Fail! It’s a wonder (I know the point has already been made elsewhere in this blog) that these second-string animals manage at all. You’d have to feel sorry for them.

This new research with cleaner wrasse, and its revision of the standard interpretation of such research, ought to help correct the absurd anthropocentrism of the mirror-test tradition, and is accordingly welcome. Even so, it’s sad to see these strange and fascinating animals (already demeaned and abused as decorative fishes for aquaria) emerge into the light of intellectual attention for this irrelevant reason, that they may ‘know who they are’ or at any rate be able to learn how to use a mirror. The beauty and complexity of their niche in coral reefs, where they eat the parasites and other unwanted material off ‘client’ fish, and indeed help to keep the whole coral system clean, make this mirror test crude and reductive. It’s really a part of the ‘smarter than we thought’ genre of research, which itself has some relation to the amusement of dressing animals in human clothes. It all amounts to preening ourselves in the rest of nature: in short, making a mirror of it, for of course we are, as a species, mirror-addicts.

As to the ethics, the testing of the cleaner wrasse had the blessing of the Animal Care and Use Committee of Osaka City University, where the research was done, and we must suppose that the Committee meant what it said. But these mirror experiments are necessarily tainted with the cruelty of the behavioural psychology tradition, and their earlier versions, at least, show as much. The originator of the MSR test (mirror self-recognition) was Gordon Gallup, from Tulane University’s Psychology Department – always an ominous location for research animals. Gallup published his first report on the subject in 1970. His subjects were four “pre-adolescent” chimpanzees, born in the wild (a happily mirror-free environment, ensuring that they’d had no practice). Here’s what happened to them:

Each animal [the report goes] was placed by itself in a small cage situated in the corner of an otherwise empty room. [Remember that a sense of self is what’s being looked for in the animals who are being treated thus.] After two days of isolation in this situation a full-length mirror was positioned 3.5 metres in front of the cage to provide enforced self-confrontation. Observations of the animal’s behaviour were made by watching his reflection in the mirror through a small hole in an adjacent wall. After 2 days (8 hours each) of exposure to the reflected image, the mirror was moved to within 0.6 m of the cage and left in that position for 8 days … etc.

It’s a miserable performance, with its bleak and meaningless setting, cruel isolation of the juvenile animals, and “enforced self-confrontation”, all tending to rule out natural behaviour, and then the scientists squinting at it all through a hole, like Peeping Toms. (For more on this last particularly unpleasant dimension in animal research, see the petition set up earlier this month by Peta under the heading ‘Sex, Violence, and Vivisection; Are Some Animal Experimenters Psychopaths?’, noted below. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Gallup or his assistants were of this kind.) And although these unpleasant proceedings were offered as “the first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a sub-human form”, the experiments with cleaner wrasse, to say nothing of pigeons and ants, have since suggested that very little was really being discovered.

Reports on MSR in the more popular science press and other media (which, as I say, love all this kind of ‘smarter than we thought’ research) are frequently headed ‘Mirror, Mirror’, to give the science a brightening connection to a familiar saying, the wicked stepmother’s refrain in the folk story of Snow mirror, mirrorWhite. Evidently it’s not done with any serious thought, because that story, so far from representing as an evolutionary boon the sort of self-awareness dramatized by correct use of the mirror, shows it as a source of neurotic restlessness and self-doubt. And that indeed is the mirror’s habitual character in the fictions where it appears. Here’s a trio of the finest of these, with the dominant sentiment in each case: Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘I look into my glass’ (self-pity), Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ (helpless protest against ageing), Shakespeare’s Richard II  (the king calls for a mirror, trying unsuccessfully to authenticate himself). These instances, with their sadly alienated mirror-gazers, don’t prove anything of course, but they represent a tradition of intelligent distrust of the kind of self-awareness that the mirror represents, and the “self-directed” mind and life which go with it.

No doubt this capacity to see and think we know ourselves, as individuals, groups, nations, and even species, has been essential to the rise of humanity, for good or ill. But we should admire the talent cautiously, cease to regard it as one of nature’s top prizes, and cease to teach it (or think we’re teaching it) to other animals. It’s not, after all, what is most needed by us now, or by them at all. The animal-activist son of a professor of psychology in Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts it thus:

We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identify those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects. [my italics]

Or as Albert Schweitzer said in one of his Sermons on Reverence for Life, “Wherever you see life – that is you!”


Notes and references:

The full article from bioRXiv, posted 21 August 2018, is linked here:  The twitter comment was posted alongside the short version of that article.

The Daily Mail online reported the research on 31 August.

An article on self-awareness in dogs, as tested with urine samples, can be seen at

The Science article about elephants (‘Jumbo Reflections’) appeared in the issue for 30 October 2006, and about magpies (‘The Magpie in the Mirror’) on 19 August 2008. The report by Gordon G. Gallup Jr on his chimpanzee experiments (‘Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition’) appeared in Science on 2 January 1970.

The Peta report and petition can be found at

The quotation from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is at pp.201-2 of the edition published by Profile Books, 2014. Albert Schweitzer is quoted from A Place for Revelation: Sermons on Reverence for Life (Macmillan, 1998), p.10, translation by David Larrimore Holland. The sermons were originally preached in 1919, in the Church of St Nicolai, Günsbach. The saying is not Schweitzer’s own, of course, but is at least as old as the Hindu Upanishad from which he borrows it.

The sketch of Labroides dimidiatus is by Xavier Romero-Frias, and the illustration of the Snow White story comes from a 1916 re-telling in Europa’s Fairy Book.