Thinking Ourselves Kings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

The 2008 Tanner Lectures can be read at

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

Nim: the Life of a Chimpanzee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecce Homo

Today, 24 April, is World Day for Animals in Laboratories. It’s impossible to know even approximately how many animals are making this claim on our attention, because most of them are unrecorded. Even where there are official counts, the rules and standards differ. The U.S.A., for instance, does not include in its published figures any rats, mice, birds, or frogs – the most commonly used lab animals. Its last official total (767,622 in 2015) is therefore likely to have been about 1% of the true number. The most recent attempt to produce a reasoned estimate of the world total (a 2014 report commissioned by Lush Cosmetics) put it at over 118 million, but conceded that this was itself very probably much less than the truth.

Here in the U.K., the main event to mark WDAIL will take place in Birmingham on Saturday 29 April. This is the link to the facebook page:

At the head of that page, there is just the one pictured animal, the monkey as shown here, to represent those WDAIL monkeyuncounted millions, but it’s the right one, as I shall say later. On Easter week-end, which is when I am writing this, the hideous contraption (I don’t know its technical name) which has been clamped to the monkey’s head appears like a stylized crown of thorns.

MantegnaThere’s unfortunately nothing far-fetched about such a comparison. In fact it was put to the congregation of the Oxford University Church long ago by one of the University’s most eloquent preachers and noblest men, John Henry Newman. At that time (early 1840s), he was vicar of that church and parish, as well as a university tutor. He was giving the Easter sermon, and he wished to persuade that congregation, largely consisting as it did (or so he was increasingly coming to feel) of over-comfortable and under-spiritual colleagues, to have a more living sense of “those awful sufferings whereby our salvation has been purchased”. He hoped to do this by inviting his listeners to recollect “how very horrible it is to read the accounts which sometimes meet us of cruelties exercised on brute animals”, and in particular those cruelties which were “the cold-blooded and calculating act of men of science, who make experiments on brute animals, perhaps merely from a sort of curiosity.” He pictured such an animal “fastened … pierced, gashed, and so left to linger out its life”. And he then asked, “Now do you not see that I have a reason for saying this, and am not using these distressing words for nothing? For what is this but the very cruelty inflicted upon our Lord?”

So it was as a sort of moral exercise that Newman first invoked those images of animal suffering, as a practice in sympathy, but also and expressly he was gripped by the images in themselves, and he used words for them as strong as a Christian could find: “there is something so very dreadful, so Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.” Satanic! This meant something shocking at that time, addressed to a congregation in which almost all must have been earnest believers, and many of the men in holy orders themselves (as college fellows commonly were). Newman was shifting the matter from the realm of personal sensibility (“horrible to read … distressing”), and into eschatology: death, judgement, heaven and hell. He could not at that time have condemned vivisection more absolutely or more permanently.

Soon after that, Newman left Oxford, exiled by his decision to be ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. And subsequently the religious preoccupations which so vitally engaged him and others during the nineteenth century have ebbed away, from Oxford University and elsewhere. The meaning which the pictured monkey holds for humanity and our self-explanation, in its character as our forebear, probably commands now a larger congregation than the meaning of Easter does, supposing that they have to be at odds. At any rate, the idea that Christ’s sufferings, real and terrible as they historically were, constituted a sacrifice ‘purchasing our salvation’ is a hard one to accommodate in science-minded western culture. Still, as the picture of the monkey shows, we’re not done with sacrificing as a principle. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw believed that a primitive trust in propitiatory sacrifice was what really persuaded the modern public of the efficacy of vivisection, in so far as it was persuaded.

But there’s more to the comparison than just that ancient habit of making others pay our debts. When we see another species of primate, we get as near as we may to looking at our own genesis. Ecce homo, in fact (the Latin version of words ascribed to Pontius Pilate: see the note below). The last lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (discussed in the post for 10 September 2015), record the narrator’s encounter with a confined chimpanzee, bullet-proof glass between them: “I recognized everything about her … As if I were looking in a mirror.” But we have heard from this woman’s brother that such recognition is only the start in finding who we really are. Referring to the absurdly over-rated ‘mirror test’ for animal self-consciousness (essentially a test of human-likeness), he has told her, “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 points for those who get all the way to insects.” So other primates are the go-betweens, who both are and show our relation to all the other animals beyond themselves, and therefore to life itself. In putting them to death in this way, we offend against life our own maker, and, as children of nature not God, we condemn ourselves with no means of forgiveness. This is the story that the monkey photograph tells.

If you can, be in Birmingham on Saturday and speak up for the equal holiness, beauty, and right to freedom of all life.


Notes and references:

World Day for Animals in Laboratories was instituted in 1979, the particular date being the birthday of Hugh Lord Dowding, whose work for animals is discussed in the post for 26 June, at

The Lush report can be read here:

Newman’s sermon ‘The Crucifixion’ was collected in volume 7 of the eight-volume Parochial and Plain Sermons (quotations from pp.134-37 of the 1868 edition).

Quotations from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are from pp.308 and 201-2 of the U.K. edition (Profile Books, 2014).

The painting is by Alberto Mantagna, dated 1500 and titled Ecce Homo. “Ecce homo!” is what Pilate exclaims when he presents Jesus to the crowd (in the Latin Vulgate translation of John 19.5). The common English version would be ‘Behold the man!’, but the Latin can equally mean ‘Behold mankind!’

I don’t know the source of the WDAIL photograph.

Poets and Vivisectors

I see mention of a recently published anthology titled Vivisection Mambo. What – a whole book of verse on the hideous subject? But the title turns out to be misleading. The word ‘vivisection’ is evidently there for metaphorical purposes, to imply that the poems inside are searching, bare-nerved, even bloody – in a word, important. ‘Mambo’ is added, I guess, to show that they’re also lively and fun, like the dance. No doubt the poems themselves are all these things, but they aren’t about vivisection. The title is just taking careless and improper advantage of the frisson that might be supposed to go with the word.

In fact it’s hard to find any poetry that is about vivisection, though heaven knows it’s a subject which needs attention of the imaginative ethical sort that poetry can provide. There’s one large and terrifying poem of early twentieth century date called The Testament of a Vivisector, written by the fine Scottish poet John Davidson (more of that some other time). Davidson was a trained scientist, and probably knew more than most about laboratory life. And I suspect that it’s lack of such immediate knowledge rather than the ugliness of the subject that keeps poets away: poetry isn’t easily made out of generalizations.

There is one poem about vivisection which makes a deliberate merit of this impersonality, as its business-like title suggests: ‘The Use of Animals in Research’ (from the collection Mrs Carmichael by Ruth Silcock, Anvil Press, 1987). “Animals are different”, says its first line with well-aimed meaninglessness, for it soon appears that the voice surveying “our work” is indeed that of a practitioner. Here in fact is a go-between like Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, knowledgeably reassuring his public of the value of animal research, though without Blakemore’s tact or sophistication:

                                    No one can doubt the
                                    of scientists. The proof: nearly
            one third of all licensed experiments
                                    are for medical re-
            search. The rest not. Nevertheless these other tests
                        could promise amelioration

                        of mankind’s lot. For instance …

Then the prosaic voice goes on to list some of the things tried out on animals. It’s not just a sketch: the poem is fourteen seven-line stanzas long. In fact, as the author says in a note, it’s a verse-rendering of material from Richard Ryder’s 1975 book, Victims of Science.

You’ll have noticed the poem’s strange metre and rhyme scheme, blatantly at odds with the syntax, even severing individual words:

                       To be brief, and not bore you:
                                    zoologists, psych-
                        ologists, neu-
                                    rologists, in pure research, like
            to transplant animals’ heads, deprive young
                                    monkeys of mothers, spike
            electrodes into brains, blind cats, stop food, punish
                        pigeons (it’s shown on television too).

The vivisector’s voice – with its didactic love of numbers and lists, and its banal equanimity – seems to be ignorantly stumbling through the poetic form. He wrecks the aesthetics, and for their part they mangle his discourse. It’s mainly through this contradiction or irony that the poet herself comments on what she has him saying. And her principal comment seems to be that the vivisector – by turns patronizing, populist, and defensive – cannot rise to the ethical seriousness of what he speaks about.

‘The Use of Animals in Research’ appears in the Mrs Carmichael collection under the heading ‘Two Animal Poems’, paired with ‘William Cowper’s Hares’. In this other poem, Ruth Silcock describes the eighteenth-century poet’s relations with the three hares which at one time he had living in his house. And this history of Cowper and his pets, which he himself also wrote about, makes an illuminating corrective to the vivisection poem.

For instance, so far from extenuating human cruelty, Cowper was painfully sensitive to it, and wished, above all, to protect his hares. It’s true, that he therefore had to keepCowper's hares them from their natural life; the word “prisoner” is used in Ruth Silcock’s poem, though the hares were more or less tame, and seem to have had the run of the house and garden. But their natural life, so Cowper feared with good reason, would entail being hunted by humans. In his own long poem The Task, he had spoken of this in the case of the first of his hares (a doe):

            Well – one at least is safe. One shelter’d hare
            Has never heard the sanguinary yell
            Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.

And then, addressing the hare herself,

             I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d
            All that is human in me to protect
            Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.

It’s an ambitious phrase, “All that is human in me”, and a helpful reminder of what’s missing from the glib voice and perfunctory philosophy of the vivisector in ‘Use of Animals’.

Then there’s the question of numbers and the attitudes that go with them. “In one year in Britain”, says the vivisector (referring to the early 1970s),

                                    perform over five
                        million, three
                                    hundred thousand trials on live
            animals: seventeen thousand dogs, twelve
                                    thousand cats (I arrive
            at forty-seven dogs, thirty-five cats a day),
                        four hundred horses (eight a week, roughly).

That last and telling word, “roughly”, summarizes the sweeping indifference of all such Home Office maths to the individual animal, in whom alone life and its possibilities of pleasure and suffering exist. In this sense the numbers are an abrogation or at least a suspension of morality. And it’s not just that Cowper’s hares are three only, and have been distinguished and dignified by names. Yes, their individualities have been nurtured in that domestic setting, but it’s clear that they were not created by it:

            Tiney would not be tamed. Puss, much
            gentle usage made tame.
            Bess was born brave and tame …

            As the shepherd knows each sheep,
            Cowper distinguished each hare:
            among a thousand,
            no two are alike.

Every animal has a life peculiar to itself by title of nature, whether humans think they recognize and understand its inwardness or not. The names and other recorded distinctions are for human benefit, and add nothing to that original fact, though they may evidence kindness, as they clearly did in Cowper’s household.

It all comes down to that word “usage” (“Puss, much / gentle usage made tame”), here meaning ‘treatment’. In treating other animals humanely (with ‘all that is human in us’), we make way for their particular beings, as we would wish our own to be made way for. In merely putting them to “use”, we insult nature in them and in ourselves. These are existential truths which poetry is peculiarly fitted to communicate. I don’t say that either of the ‘Two Animal Poems’ is brilliant – they don’t aim to be – but both are plain-spoken, aesthetically distinctive, unsentimentally truthful. Together they leave their own modest but permanent memorial to what is possible of good and bad in the human sensibility, and what that may mean for the other animals.



Notes and references:

Vivisection Mambo is edited by Lolita Lark and published by Mho & Mho Works (San Diego, CA), 2015.

Ruth Silcock was a psychiatric social worker, and many of her poems are about institutions, authorities, and the pathos of dependence.

The quotation from William Cowper’s poem The Task (published 1785) is found in Book III, sub-titled ‘The Garden’.

The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at


For We Are Many

Here are the 2016 animal-research numbers submitted by Oxford University to the Home Office. The selection and arrangement is by VERO, with some earlier numbers for comparison, and some notes and comments to follow:

Totals of animals used in research, by species:

Species Number used in 2015 Number used in 2016
Mice 207,216 200,157
Zebrafish   16,061  14,737
Rats    2,363    2,174
Junglefowl         53       291
Frogs       322       226
Guinea Pigs         81        81
Badgers        66        60
Pigs        10         0
Ferrets        38       29
Non-Human Primates          4         8
Rabbits          2         2
Total: 226,216 217,765
  1. Direction of travel: You’ll notice that there has been a fall of 3 or 4% (8,451 animals) from the 2015 total: a welcome reduction, but although these annual numbers do sometimes show a fall, the consistent trend is still upwards – by about 45% over the last ten years (while the all-U.K. numbers rose by about 33%).
  1. The 3Rs: The annual report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee talks a lot about the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, and replacement) as obligations imposed on researchers by law and by the University’s own Animal Use Policy. There’s now, for instance, an annual ‘3Rs Research Day’ in the University. Good! Yet the numbers continue to rise. No doubt research in the life sciences as a whole has increased during the same period, at Oxford and nationally, and animal research may be a shrinking proportion of the total. It’s certainly not shrinking in any other sense. Back in 2014, the one minister responsible for animal research who has ever shown a strong interest in making the numbers shrink, Norman Baker, set up a review of Section 24 – the ‘secrecy clause’ in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. He gave as one of the reasons for removing it the hope that doing so might “increase awareness among the scientific community of current research … minimising the potential for duplication of animal experiments”. And he said “I am fully committed to making a change.” Two and a half years on, that review, and the consultation with “stakeholders” which was part of it, is still being mulled over by the government. According to the present minister, the horse-racing enthusiast Ben Wallace, “a response will be published in due course.”
  1. Ethics by numbers: When I was a child, I had a book about a duck who periodically counted up her offspring using the formula “one, two, three, a lot.” The story showed the hazards of her arithmetic, but recognized also its psychological truth. What can one feel about these giant numbers, year after year? They seem expressive in inverse proportion to their size. Those two rabbits, for instance: two each year (in fact two also in 2014). One wonders at once what kept happening to these couples. (Answer: two rabbits, plus the 81 guinea pigs, have been used each year for training in animal-research skills, a sort of target practice.) But putting aside the psychology of the matter, it’s undoubtedly true that, because the basic unit, the ‘procedure’, is itself so nebulous, our ignorance must actually increase with the numbers. (This problem is aired in a former post, at Conversely, we will only know for certain what’s happening when the numbers fall to nought, which by happy coincidence is also the unique ethical number in this matter.

Next, some records of the levels of suffering implied in those figures above:

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

Species Severe Moderate Mild Sub-threshold Non-recovery
Mice 1,420  39,015 61,382          94,617       3,723
Zebrafish   560   1,076   3,154            9,890           57
Rats    42      531      465              479         657
Ferrets      0        18         0                 0           11
Non-Human Primates      0          8         0                 0            0

Severity of procedures by category in the years 2014

Year Severe Moderate Mild Sub-Threshold Non-Recovery
2014 1,533 31,494 110,429      76,083 7,146
2015 2,325 30,683 120,323      66,808 6,077
2016 2,022 40,648   65,591     104,988 4,516
  1. Defining the terms: These numbers do have a more reliable meaning, since the severity categories are quite carefully defined in Home Office guidance, as to both intensity and duration. ‘Moderate’, for instance: into this category would come “chronic low-level pain or discomfort or dysfunction”, signalled by “significant weight-loss or other indicators of poor welfare”, or pain of “significant intensity, but … of no more than a few hours duration”. Even cases where the animal shows “signs of obvious illness” (“piloerection, huddled posture, reluctance to move, isolation from the group”) may be classed as ‘moderate’, provided that “this is promptly detected and animals are killed immediately”, by which is meant within 24 hours. The ‘severe’ category “would include any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate, or disease where clinical signs have progressed to such an extent that it threatens the life of an animals”, or “any situation where animals are in extremis. Ah, happy days in the lab!
  1. The primates: The proportion of procedures which come into the two categories so evocatively described above has increased at Oxford University from about 14.5% in 2014 and 2015 to about 19.5% in 2016. That may be chance fluctuation, but you’ll OU primatenotice that all the experiments with non-human primates appear in this group. I don’t think that one would have deduced that from the account provided on the University’s web-site of the merry lives of games and conviviality which these close relatives of ours enjoy in their “world class facilities”. But then even their deaths are presented as a sort of kindly intervention, by means of the prize euphemism and philosophical conundrum already noted elsewhere in this blog: “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.”
  1. A few other numbers: During the year as covered by the report of the University’s Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee, 1318 members of the University held animal-research licences and there were 156 research projects using animals. In both cases, the numbers have gone up slightly on the previous year. Home Office inspectors made 24 unannounced visits. They found no fault with the facilities, but “there were non-compliance issues in relation to three project licences”. These were dealt with “administratively”, which I suppose means put right without further penalty.


Notes and references:

The University’s animal-research web pages can be found at The latest numbers haven’t yet been posted there at time of writing, but no doubt soon will be, alongside much other information – the whole presentation having been greatly improved as to information and frequency of updating. VERO has the numbers now by courtesy of the secretary to the Animal Care and Ethical Review Committee. The reports of that Committee are published in the Oxford University Gazette, the 2015-16 report in issue no. 5153, 8 December 2016.

The quotation from Norman Baker appears in the foreword which he wrote to the consultation document, which can be read at quotation from Ben Wallace is from correspondence in October 2016.

The details of severity banding come from Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, published by the Home Office, 1 Jan 2014, pp.12-13.

The photograph is of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building, and is used here by courtesy of the University’s Public Affairs Office. Rather puzzlingly, this mournful picture appears as an illustration to the favourable account of life in the South Parks Road monkey community given on the University’s own News and Events web-pages.



Life on Mars

The four rhesus macaque monkeys mentioned in this blog a few months ago, as in training to make the journey to Mars (‘To Boldly Make Them Go’, 25 July), are due to be launched some time this year. Or were due: I can find no publicity about the matter since the Sochi Institute of Medical Primatology made its proud announcement to the world’s press back in 2015. Perhaps the response on that occasion was not as favourable as expected. However, a petition of objection set up by PETA is still in effect (there’s a link to it in the notes below), so I guess that the work itself continues.

Meanwhile, research goes forward into the viability on Mars of simpler terrestrial Hubble's Sharpest View Of Marsorganisms: lichens at the Mars Simulation Facility at Berlin, potatoes at NASA. And at the other end of the journey, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Orbiter, a co-operative venture with Russia’s Roscosmos agency, continues its observations, looking (among other things) for signs of life, at least of life at some time in the planet’s past. (The ‘Exo-‘ part of the name refers to ‘exobiology’, or life beyond earth.)

Those are only a few of the schemes of Martian research at present under way. All of them, I think it can be said, have the question of viability somewhere in mind: that is, could Mars be made habitable to humans? So it’s reassuring to know that agreements already exist as to our good behaviour should we ever get there. In fact the basic legal instrument governing activities in space, generally called the Outer Space Treaty, is now exactly fifty years old. This is a fascinating document, high-minded and even utopian. The aim seems to have been to learn from worldly history, and to secure something better than that for outer space (a term which includes “the moon and other celestial bodies”, as the text reiterates every time, with a strange mixture of the lawyer and the poet).

“Outer space,” the Treaty announces in Article I, “including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.” I’m glad to note that it goes on to confirm something suggested in that earlier VERO post about space travel (“whatever humans do in space they do in some sense before the universe, representing humanity”): “States Parties to the Treaty,” says Article V, “shall regard astronauts as envoys of mankind in outer space.” The original “States Parties” were the U.S.A, U.S.S.R., and Britain, but there are now 105 governments signed up to that model of conduct.

However, it’s doubtful what sort of impression four bewildered monkeys – if it’s not four dead monkeys – might make, as envoys, upon alien minds. Such minds might wonder how the brilliantly sophisticated science which had brought the space-vehicle their way had got mixed up with the physical and moral squalor of forcing weaker lives to take the risks of the journey. And even as a set of principles, the Outer Space Treaty may not read as well at a distance as it does on earth. The airy munificence with which it makes a common human property of the whole universe is hardly good envoyism; in fact it’s species-arrogance on a comically grand scale.

You may feel confident (as perhaps the people who framed the Treaty did) that there won’t be any aliens to do the reading. But then we’re told by Article V of the Treaty at least to behave as if there are. And certainly there’s already a whole lot of reading matter provided for them on Mars, courtesy of the 2008 Phoenix Lander’s DVD, a “multi-media” collection titled Visions of Mars. Among the texts selected for it, in this case with a curious tactlessness, is the 1897 novel by H.G.Wells, The War of the Worlds.

There’s a familiar challenge sometimes put to proponents of vivisection, ‘What would you say if aliens (typically, Martians) were to arrive here and set about experimenting on humans?’ It may be rather a worn-out trope these days; I recall that Professor Colin Blakemore said as much when someone put it to him during a talk he gave in Oxford University a few years ago. That doesn’t make it any easier to answer; nor was the Professor’s own answer very convincing. In fact I’ve yet to hear a convincing one. (“Show me a Martian!” one scientist said by way of knock-down answer on a television programme.) Anyway, this question, in a more inclusive formulation, was very much on H.G.Wells’ mind when he wrote War of the Worlds.

Accordingly he begins, “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s … that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water … Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

As we are to the other animals on earth, so these Martians are to ourselves: it’s a point which Wells makes over and over again. At first, the humans view the arriving Martians Alvim-correa12with the same complacent curiosity that the dodo must have felt at the arrival on Mauritius of “that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food”. The Martian fighting-contraptions seem as mysterious to the people of Surrey as “an ironclad or a steam-engine would seem to an intelligent lower animal.” When their destructive power shows itself, the humans are scattered like ants, smoked out like wasps, have their homes casually destroyed as a rabbit’s burrow might be destroyed for the making of a human dwelling. These are experiences “that the poor brutes we dominate know all too well”. In fact from now on “With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide.” A panicked young clergyman exclaims “Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? … What are these Martians?” To which the narrator answers, concisely summing Wells’ argument, “What are we?” [I’ve added the italics.]

The novel briefly imagines a time when the Martians will have settled the human question, by domesticating some (“picking the best and storing us in cages and things”) and hunting the feral remainder, but in fact they don’t have time to get that far. Their unresistant bodies abruptly succumb to earth’s bacteria. What their own medical science might have been, had it had time to work, is not discussed, but it’s sufficiently implied in the mentality pictured in that opening paragraph, especially in the chilling word “unsympathetic”.

Not that Wells himself was in any way hostile to the science project. He was even a keen defender of vivisection, though he wrote a frightening fantasy of its temptations and pathologies in The Island of Dr Moreau. (The perverted Moreau himself is surely based on the celebrated French vivisector Claude Bernard: see the previous post, ‘Meditation on a Stick’.) Nor, for that matter, was Wells a vegetarian, despite all that he says and shows in War of the Worlds of the fundamental wrong of human predation, or in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, whose narrator “can still remember, as a boy, the rejoicings over the closing of the last slaughter-house.” But then these stories are indeed told by particular narrators, not in Wells’s own voice. And the narrator of War of the Worlds is a writer on philosophical subjects, whose current project is “a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed”. Wells himself is merely of the present (1897, that is), but this is a man of the near future looking onward, as an ethicist, into a future beyond that, and he believes (as Wells himself also did) that moral ideas may, perhaps must, develop. In particular he says, “Surely, if we have learnt nothing else, this war has taught us pity – pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.” The implication of the book is that if we don’t improve our “moral ideas”, we shall fully deserve, in one shape or another, the coming of an enemy no better than ourselves.

Of course we now know, as Wells could not, that there is no such enemy, or for that matter any friend, on Mars. But that doesn’t affect his warning, for he makes quite clear in his own way what Ray Bradbury was later to say in his Martian Chronicles: We are the Martians.” It has become evident, certainly since 1945, that we don’t have to hypothesize or search space for that ‘enemy no better than ourselves’ which will destroy us if we don’t learn peaceable manners. The Space Treaty, perhaps despairing of the prospects on earth, hopes we may at least adopt such manners on our way to other worlds. But we’ve seen the attitude towards those worlds which even the Treaty takes for granted. Humans seem to be incurably supremacist. I conclude that the Director of the Mars Simulation Facility spoke a greater truth than he knew when he said, “We must be extremely careful not to transport any terrestrial life forms to Mars. Otherwise they might contaminate the planet.”

Perhaps, therefore, we might develop a new moral idea from a much more recent science fiction story, ‘Homo Floresiensis’ by Ken Liu. Here, a young researcher of bird life on one of the Spice Islands comes across a hitherto unreported tribe of hominids. Fearing for their future, he looks for something in their way of life which might qualify them as humans and thereby enlist on their behalf the “moral prohibition against treating them as inferior”. He knows well, as a zoologist, what such ‘inferiority’ would entail. Finding nothing reliable, he and his associate make what for such scientists would be a heroic decision: they leave the tribe alone. “We often celebrate the discoverers,” says one of the two, as they quietly abandon the island; “But maybe it’s the undiscoverers that we should be proud of.”

Notes and references:

The earlier post about space travel can be viewed here:

PETA’s petition can be signed at

The studies of lichen at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin are reported at , from where also the quotation about contamination of Mars is taken. The NASA potato studies are reported in the Times, 10 March, p.11.

For the text of the Outer Space Treaty see

Quotations from War of the Worlds are in the Penguin 2012 edition, pp. 3, 32, 51, 151, 70, 161, 8, 156. The quotation from A Modern Utopia is taken from an essay ‘H.G.Wells and Animals: a Troubling Legacy’, which can be read on the excellent web-site of the Animal People Forum at

Ray Bradbury was quoted during a BBC Radio 4 programme Seeing is Believing, on 6 March – part of its current ‘Mars Season’, which has included a dramatization of War of the Worlds. ‘Homo Floresiensis’ appears in the anthology Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates and published by the Oxford firm Rebellion Publishing in 2014: quotations from pp.57 and 60.

The photograph of Mars is from NASA’s online gallery of images, where it’s titled ‘Hubble’s Sharpest View of Mars’. The illustration from a French edition of War of the Worlds (Brussels, 1906) is by Henrique Correa.

Meditation on a Stick

At St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, in June of 1877, a physiologist called W. Bruce Clark was planning to carry out “some experiments as to the nature of shock”. Since he wanted to use animals for the purpose, he now, under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, had to apply for a licence to do so.

“Injuries”, Bruce Clark accordingly proposed, would be “inflicted by means of blows on the abdomen, and on other parts of the body with a view to determine as far as possible which portion of the body is most susceptible to shock.” He must have been asked for further particulars, because he wrote again to say, with a vagueness which can’t have done much for his cause, “I have thought of using a stick for the purpose”. But he added, reassuringly, “I do not imagine that the animal would suffer much if any pain in most cases.” The records of his application are not complete, and it’s not clear what species of animal Bruce Clark had chosen for his project. However, his supervisor in the Barts laboratory was Thomas Lauder Brunton, designer of the ‘Brunton Holder’ for restraining rabbits and dogs, and I think it likely that Bruce Clark meant to use dogs.

This application was forwarded to Henry Acland who, as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, was a ‘certifier’ under the 1876 Act. It won’t have been a welcome duty for Acland. Although the revival of science studies at Oxford during the 1850s and 60s had been very largely his own personal achievement, he felt unhappy about the direction they were now taking. He saw the university’s medical students becoming “a professional class or clique by themselves”, separated from the arts studies which might be doing something to humanize or proportion their knowledge. Medicine itself was separating, as a laboratory science, from the practice of healing, so that Acland himself now seemed old-fashioned because, though a university academic, he still worked as a doctor in Oxford. And vivisection was especially portentous: Acland uneasily called it “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”. He himself had never practised vivisection, but he had been required to watch, in his own student days, “experiments of a revolting and grave nature”. Yet he believed that its part in medical progress had been established, and he therefore accepted it, however reluctantly. So here he was, inspecting Bruce Clark’s application, no doubt with some aversion.

There was now a correspondence about the case between Acland and Sir Prescott Hewett, who as President of the Royal College of Surgeons was a fellow certifier. Sir Prescott pointed out that cases of shock were common in such hospitals as St Bartholomew’s, where, therefore, “better and truer results are to be got out of careful clinical researches.” He also argued that “in experiments upon animals, the most interesting cases nowadays, of shock, and the most perplexing, taking them in all their phases railway accidents would be altogether left out.” So he was taking seriously the requirement of the 1876 Act that animal research should be permitted only if its purpose was to provide “knowledge useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering”. It’s true that you could apply for a special certificate to escape that condition, as you could for most of the Act’s other requirements. That was the Act’s essential absurdity and betrayal. But these particular papers do suggest that the 1876 Act, for all its weaknesses, did some good. A year before, Bruce Clark might have experimented away with that stick, or with whatever else he “thought of”, without superior restraint of any sort, perhaps indeed had been doing so.

As I’ve said, the papers are incomplete, and I don’t know if he got his licence. But of course those were merely the early and improvising days of such studies. And just as Lauder Brunton’s ‘holder’ and all the other devices for restraining reluctant animals are evidence of the rise and systematization of animal research in general, so the study of shock, as it progressed, sophisticated upon Bruce Clark’s stick.

One later student of shock was the Canadian physiologist James Collip, working at McGill University. Collip, so far from being policed at Oxford University, received an honorary degree there (mainly for his earlier work on diabetes and insulin). In the laboratories of his Institute of Endocrinology during the 1930s and 40s – so reported his colleague R.L.Noble – the “bizarre combination of topics” under review included “traumatic shock, motion sickness, exercise, blood preservation” and “chemical lung irritants”, and for these various purposes there were “many odd pieces of apparatus”. I think that by “odd” Noble meant ‘curious, ingenious’ rather than stray or jumbled. Certainly the apparatus for studying motion sickness had that merit if absolutely no other.

Among the rest was one product of a collaboration between James Collip and Noble himself: the Noble-Collip Drum. This was something like a washing machine, the drum part being 16’’ in diameter and 7’’ deep, with shelves having much the same function as those in a washing machine, and revolving at up to 50 revolutions per minute. According to data published by Noble and Collip, 300 revolutions produced 8% mortality in rats of approximately 150 grams weight, working upward by degrees to the 800 revolutions which killed them all. But apparently it’s all right: a more thorough follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ reported, as an aside, that (much as Bruce Clark had airily predicted for his own animals) “the rats gave no sign of pain.”

At about this same time, a device for producing shock specifically in dogs was devised by the pioneer cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock. The story of this man’s collaboration with his assistant Vivien Thomas was made famous in an article by Katie McCabe published in the Washingtonian (August 1989), and subsequently by a film based on that article and titled Something the Lord Made (2004). Thomas, for all his brilliance and originality as a surgeon, was for a long time classified and paid as a hospital janitor, since no other recognition was available to him as a black man in the U.S.A. of the time. Blalock himself had a rather mixed part in this injustice, but in time the skill and indispensability of Thomas produced a more or less happy end to the story. Meanwhile both men pursued their research in their so-called “dog lab”, no doubt putting the ‘Blalock Press’ to good use (I’ll refrain from describing this savage device). Thomas also ran an informal veterinary surgery for the Johns Hopkins faculty staff’s pets, especially their dogs, which is where his research expertise lay. Katie McCabe saw nothing gruesome in this situation, nor did she comment on the way the human caste system was thus passed on into the animal kingdom.

Both the Noble-Collip Drum and the Blalock Press were devised in the early 1940s. It was a time when the study of trauma had special urgency throughout the world. Desperate measures might well be countenanced. That, of course, was a defence offered at the Nuremberg Medical Trials a few years later, and certainly if you wish to fast-track medical research, human subjects provide by far the most efficient scientific evidence. Some of those who were acquitted at Nuremberg, or who escaped trial altogether, subsequently brought exactly that sort of scientific evidence with them into American universities and other research institutions. And that rather spoils the ‘war-time exigencies’ justification. For the truth is that ever since 1945 the alternative to war has in practice been not peace but fear of war and preparations for war. The contribution which the ex-Nazi scientists were uniquely qualified to make to those preparations is very largely what they were valued for in post-war U.S.A.

A British instance of this same outlook has been cited elsewhere in this blog. When, in 2002, a House of Lords Committee was examining the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, some account was given of the work being done by the weapons research facility at Porton Down. Contemplating the possibility that pneumonic plague might be used as an infective agent against us in war, a minister for Defence said, “For an agent like that, there is virtually no price not worth paying to get an effective antidote.”

I guess that it’s partly in order to take advantage of this attitude that medical research itself has so often been represented in military imagery. President Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’ of 1971 is one instance. The old Research Defence Society’s name may hint at the same thinking; certainly its journal did more than hint, with the name Conquest. But then the French pioneer and evangelist of vivisection Claude Bernard had established the warlike self-image of the practice nearly from the first: “Le souffle de la science moderne, qui anime la physiologie, est éminemment conquérant et dominateur.” [The spirit of modern science, which inspires Physiology, is above all one of conquest and domination.]

So we don’t need war or even fear of war to justify desperate measures. If we choose to see and practise it so, research itself is already a war – and we’ve just now been taking a glance at an item or two in its armoury. I don’t know about the Blalock Press, but certainly the Noble-Collip Drum is still in use, alongside countless other such contrivances. For this barbarous tradition of attitude and practice in the science of healing, Bruce Clark, armed with his stick, makes a very proper icon.

Notes and references:

The correspondence about Bruce Clark’s application is in the Bodleian Library, MS Acland d.98. Acland’s observations on professionalism come from his 1890 book Oxford and Modern Medicine, and on vivisection from the evidence which he gave to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes (HMSO 1876).

R.L.Noble’s account of Collip’s laboratory comes from the Canadian Medical Association Journal vol.93 (26), December 1965, pp.1356-64. The follow-up study of the effects of ‘drumming’ was reported in the American Journal of Physiology vol.139, May 1943, pp.123-28.

The article about Blalock and Thomas in the Washingtonian is made available online at

For the Nuremberg Trials, see P.J.Weindling, Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). The story of former Nazi scientists in the U.S.A. is told by Annie Jacobsen in Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Co., 2014).

Evidence to the House of Lords Committee as quoted was given by Dr Lewis Moonie, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, on Tuesday 30 April, 2002. Something more is said about his evidence in this blog at 6 November, 2016: see

Claude Bernard’s Introduction à l’étude de la medicine expérimentale was published in 1865. His laboratory in Paris was the European model for experimental physiology at the time. Many British students spent study-time there, including John Scott Burdon Sanderson, subsequently Oxford’s first professor of Physiology. The particular quotation appears as epigraph to John Vyvyan’s account of vivisection in the twentieth century, The Dark Face of Science (Michael Joseph, 1971).  

Experimenting with Mother

I have a constantly growing collection of ‘They’re smarter than you think’ news stories. Here, for instance, is one from the Washington Post a few months ago. It’s headlined “Make Way for Ducklings; they’re smarter … [etc.]” Make Way for Ducklings is a classic children’s book, published in the U.S.A. in 1941 and often re-printed since then. It would therefore be familiar to most Washington Post readers, and the reference is a sub-editor’s way of sweetening the science. But the main theme of that book is the trouble which Mrs Mallard takes to be a good mother to her brood, whereas in the research reported in the news story, which was done in Oxford University’s Zoology Department (of hideous aspect: see post for 12 June 2016), there was no mother duck: the experiment involved creating substitute mothers out of assorted coloured shapes. I shall make a 2-paragraph summary of it, which can be skipped (a more complete non-technical report, illustrated with a video, can be found at

Newly hatched ducklings (in common with chicks and other baby fowl that quit their nest straight away) have to learn very promptly to identify, and to go on recognizing, their mother. The phenomenon is termed ‘imprinting’. It might seem a very basic act of perception, to know one’s own mother and recognise her anew on each sighting, but imprinting is by no means infallible. These young birds will very readily imprint on anything which stands in for the mother at the crucial time. It’s possible, therefore, to take advantage of this pathetic gullibility in order to discover exactly what faculties of perception and cognition the baby birds are using. Certainly they must rely on such indications as colour and shape, but can they detect and use the more abstract properties in what they see? After all, the apparent colour and shape of the mother must vary with changing light and movement.

The abstract properties or relations which the Oxford research tested were sameness and difference. The newly-hatched mallard ducklings (154 of them) were each given time to imprint on a linked pair of coloured shapes – to call them ‘mother’, in short. They were then presented with two variations of these pairs, one of which preserved an essential relation from the first – sameness or difference of shape or of colour – and one of which did not. The ducklings did indeed seem to use these relations in order to fix upon the right or original ‘mother’. Very much needing a mother, they apparently searched for and found one even in such abstract qualities; or in case that sounds anthropomorphic, here’s how the research summarizes it: “For a duckling critically dependent on proximity to its mother and siblings, defining the attachment stimulus configuration as a library of sensory inputs and logical rules increases the likelihood that the mother and sibling group will be identified with high fidelity in spite of considerable variations in how they are perceived.” You see? Yet such a capacity for conceptualization has hitherto “only been demonstrated … in species with advanced intelligence”. In short, they’re smarter than you think, or used to think.

This phenomenon of imprinting has been a subject of study for many years. One of its pioneers was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in the 1930s famously induced greylag goslings to fix upon him as their mother. In his popular and excellent book King Solomon’s Ring (first English publication 1952), he describes the same accomplishment with mallard ducklings, the species used in the Oxford research, although Lorenz’s ducklings seemed to demand vocal identification as well:

If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Quahg, gegegegeg, Quahg, gegegegeg”, the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to ‘long faces’ in human children – and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew. As soon as I was silent, they seemed to think that I had died, or perhaps that I loved them no more: cause enough for crying! [42]

This scene – Lorenz quacking and waddling along in a squatting posture (for the ducklings ‘lost’ him when he stood up) – is worlds and minds away from the blank cubicle with suspended geometrical shapes in which, each one alone, the Oxford ducklings made their decisions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as science, no doubt.

The original German title of King Solomon’s Ring was Er Redete mit dem Vieh, dem Vogeln und den Fischen (he spoke with animals, birds and fish), for it was a legend about King Solomon king-solomons-ringthat he had a magic ring which gave him this communicative power. And much of Lorenz’s research, as well as his home life, was indeed conducted in that style: “It is only by living with animals”, he said, “that one can attain a real understanding of their ways” [147]. Of course he was often charged with imputing, to the animals, strictly human thoughts and emotions. He defended himself in this way:

You think I humanize the animal? … Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous amount of animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.” [152]

I mention this because the question  of “assigning human properties” is a controversial one in all research into animal minds. One academic psychologist, Jennifer Vonk, by way of comment on a study of reasoning power in crows, has summarized the two parties to the controversy thus: on the one side are those who too readily grant “abilities to animals that are interesting largely because they potentially break down the human-erected divide between humans and other animals”; on the other are those who insist on “Morgan’s canon” – that is, the rule pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century by the experimental psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, that animal behaviour ought never to be interpreted as showing a ‘higher’ human-like faculty, if it can be adequately explained by a faculty “which stands lower in the psychological scale”.

No doubt it’s a matter of emphasis rather than incompatibility: one side looking for Darwinian continuities, the other preferring strictly behaviourist interpretations. We could happily leave them to work out their differences in the specialist journals, except that there are ethical consequences involved. I notice, for instance, that one of Jennifer Vonk’s references for the Lloyd Morgan side is an article from the journal Behavioural Brain Research declaratively titled ‘Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and non-human minds’. Included among its authors is Daniel J. Povinelli. This is the psychologist whose work with chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana) is indignantly dispraised by Steven Wise in his book Rattling the Cage (1999). The point which Wise makes against Povinelli is that he treated the chimpanzee mentality with such Lloyd Morganish scepticism (for instance, in the providing of a carelessly bleak physical and social environment for the animals to grow up in), that he had pre-stunted the minds which he then studied and found wanting.

Not that the more Darwinian perspective guarantees a raised status for animals. It’s noticeable that when research of this ‘smarter than you think’ kind gets into the more popular media, it at once becomes affected by the sort of quips and puns which count for merry sparkle in that world. In the case of birds, there’s many a play on ‘bird-brained’, ‘free-range thinkers’, and so on. (Even Dr Vonk gets caught up in it: her comment piece in Current Biology [vol.25.2, 19 Jan 2015] is facetiously titled ‘Corvid Cognition: something to crow about?’) Such jokes are harmless fun, no doubt, if they are fun, but they tag these animal stories as light relief. Essentially the jokes invite a speciesist smirk at our inferiors and their primitive efforts to be more like us. That scene with the ducklings in King Solomon’s Ring comes in a chapter headed ‘Laughing at Animals’. The book itself is very entertaining, but Lorenz won’t countenance laughter at animals: he calls it “deriding things which, to me, are holy” [39]. He tells the story of the ducklings, for instance, as a joke against his own undignified antics as a searcher for the truth, and not because it’s a good laugh to put babies through their paces: in that scene, after all, they know, and he’s only the tyro trying to know, what it is they want.

I needn’t say that the Oxford research is presented wholly seriously, and was indeed an ingenious piece of work, if hardly conclusive. It seems not to have required a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), though as Lorenz’s experiment shows, imprinting on the wrong thing surely may involve “distress” of the sort which ASPA is meant to supervise. Anyway, the research did have the approval of its departmental ethics committee, and the ducklings were returned to the Oxford University Farm afterwards (with what mothering prospects there, we don’t know).

All the same, these imprinting experiments make one uneasy for good reason. It’s not just that experimental psychology, essentially the taking apart of behaviour, has often enough entailed taking apart the brain itself (just follow the subject of imprinting into the neuroscience journals). More largely, the theme itself is disquieting. Even Nature (if I may personify it for a moment) with all its frivolous indifference to individual welfare and its short way with weakness, seems to have made an exception in the case of the maternal bond. The mildest of animals is lent anomalous courage during motherhood so that she’ll protect her offspring with selfless bravado. Here, if nowhere else, Nature itself seems to call something in its bloody free-for-all “holy” (to use Lorenz’s word). Or at least we can say factually that it’s in this one bond that the strongest and most absolute passions in animal life – of attachment and of bereavement – are to be found.

And now see how this unique complex of love, fear, and defiance has fared in the laboratory. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed … but just how important?” – so asked Professor P. L. Broadhurst, introducing animal studies to a new generation in his popular  work The Science of Animal Behaviour (1963). It’s an ominous question coming from an experimental psychologist. In this case, it was preliminary to commending the work of Professor Harry Harlow, the man who had recently set about answering the question, in his Wisconsin laboratory, by depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their real mothers, and tempting them with various inorganic and savagely inadequate alternatives. Harlow’s experiments, metaphorically taking a blunt surgical knife to the principle of motherhood, cast a shadow of real iniquity over the whole of animal research – so much so, that a formal repudiation of them ought to be a condition of getting a licence under ASPA. But especially they have tainted and dishonoured the experimental study of imprinting and all its allotropes. The steady and unapologetic continuation of such study is a reminder, if one needed it, that in bio-science some things may at different times be illegal, but nothing is sacred.

Incidentally, it seems that there was a habit of jocularity in Harlow’s lab. I just mention it.


Notes and references:

The Oxford University research is reported in Science, 15 July 2016, vol.353, pp.286-88. The abstract is available online at

The illustration on the title-page of King Solomon’s Ring is by Konrad Lorenz, and shows a greylag goose with neck “outstretched in that gesture which, in geese, means the same as tail-wagging in a dog”.

The comment piece by Jennifer Vonk appeared in Current Biology, 19 Jan 2015, vol.25, pp.69-71, the research itself being reported in the same issue.

Steven Wise discusses Povinelli’s work with chimpanzees in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, U.K. edition by Profile Books, 2000, pp.230-34.

For more about Professor Harlow, see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How not to Treat Babies’.




The Plague Dogs

The author Richard Adams, who wrote a series of highly original novels with non-human animals as their leading characters, died on Christmas Eve of 2016. Watership Down was his most successful book, both commercially and as literature, but The Plague Dogs, his novel about vivisection, is in its way just as remarkable.

It opens with a scene from experimental psychology: “survival expectation conditioning (water immersion)” – in plain words, seeing how long a dog will go on trying not to drown. Adams states in his preface that he has not made up any of the experiments which he instances: unfortunately, he had no need to. And this particular sordid performance hints at what we already know, that such experiments say as much about the species which devises them as they do about the animals who endure them. The setting of the experiment is an imagined government institution at Lawson Park in Cumbria. Its official name, ‘Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental’ (A.R.S.E.), concisely suggests the importance of well-judged politics and PR to make such enterprises acceptable, and Adams sketches in, for Lawson Park, just such a background of human negotiation and legerdemain.

So much for the human activity. Then we’re taken inside the accommodation sheds as night falls, and from now on the story is told primarily in the voices and experiences of two dogs, the half-drowned mongrel Rowf and the brain-tampered fox-terrier Snitter. It’s  the story of their escape from Lawson Park, and of their subsequent attempt to hide and plague-dogs-coverto survive in the inhospitable autumn landscape of the Lake District.

In their search for these missing dogs, the humans are variously clumsy, dishonest, and ruthless, with rare moments of kindness. The ‘plague’ element itself is a hysterical absurdity, a press-promoted chimera which the title continuingly satirizes: there are no such plague-carrying dogs. And yet Rowf and Snitter, in their struggles to avoid capture, and bearing as they do the injuries of mind and body which are their Lawson Park heritage, remain fundamentally loyal to these unworthy and unpredictable beings that claim mastery over them.

It’s true that the dogs have escaped human authority, and human care such as it was, and accordingly have had to make a resolution to “change … into wild animals!” [62]. It’s true also that they have with them for a time, as their guide and exemplar, a fox whose uncompromisingly feral nature Adams makes brilliantly convincing. And indeed Rowf comes to declare with profound good reason “I hate all humans: I hate them!” [241]. Even so, they find they cannot abrogate the human lordship written into their breeds: “he was no wild animal”, Rowf has to recognize, “nor, after all, had it proved possible for him to become one.” [231] It’s a fact in their making, lyrically re-iterated from time to time in the poignant refrain of a song heard in Snitter’s mangled brain: “A lost dog seeks a vanished man.”

And that’s the immediate tragedy of The Plague Dogs, a tragedy of betrayal. The dogs are loyal by breeding, so that even Rowf, who has never known a proper master, feels ashamed that he has disappointed the expectations of the ‘whitecoats’: “I really wanted to be a good dog. I’d have done anything for them.” But as Snitter devastatingly replies, “They didn’t particularly want you to be a good dog. They didn’t care what sort of dog you were.” [355] This is the moral context of all the experiments which we glimpse from time to time at Lawson Park – rabbits testing hairspray, a monkey in sensory deprivation, sheep in battlefield trauma trials, and the rest. The animals are domesticated exactly in order that fatal advantage may be taken of their trust. And of course that’s the moral context of all vivisection, well-illustrated as it is in those pitiful images that research institutions publish (by way of reassurance) of animals enjoying the attentions of lab staff. The struggle has been bred out of them. Otherwise every laboratory would be the bedlam scene which its adversarial set-up properly implies.

In fact there is, in The Plague Dogs, a recollection of something like such a scene, “when they took Kiff away, and we all barked the place down singing his song” [116].  Kiff the dog’s song, suitably unpolished and anarchic, is sung again as they shelter now among the rocks:

When I’ve gone up in smoke don’t grieve for me,
(Taboo, taboo)
For a little pink cloud I’m going to be.
(Taboo, taboo, taboo)
I’ll lift my leg as I’m drifting by
And pee right into a whitecoat’s eye.
(Taboo, tabye, ta-bollocky-ay, we’re all for up the chimney.)  …

But such moments of defiance are rare: more characteristic is a painful sense of homesickness in the unintelligible landscape: “an hour later the two got up and wandered away together, refugees without destination or purpose.”

Not that the book is only concerned with domesticated animals. There’s a much wider tragedy involved. This is where the fox, a finely imagined animal personality, comes in. Given no proper name or even known gender, simply spoken of as ‘the tod’, it’s a sort of folk hero with mere survival as its skill and wisdom. Being a “wanderer” from further north in Upper Tyneside it speaks in broad Geordie dialect, but it speaks for all wild life: “Ca’ canny, else yer fer th’ Dark” (Be watchful, or you’ve had it.) The tod itself doesn’t survive, however; it’s hunted down. And near the end of the book, Snitter has a vision or hallucination of the world, seen as if he were spiralling down towards it from the aether and observing all animal life on earth (the more slowly you read the passage, the better: it’s beautifully written):

The world, he now perceived, was in fact a great, flat wheel with a myriad spokes of water, trees and grass, for ever turning and turning beneath the sun and moon. At each spoke was an animal – all the animals and birds he had ever known – horses, dogs, chaffinches, mice, hedgehogs, rabbits, cows, sheep, rooks and many more which he did not recognize – a huge, striped cat, and a monstrous fish spurting water in a fountain to the sky. At the centre, on the axle itself, stood a man, who ceaselessly lashed and lashed the creatures with a whip to make them drive the wheel round. Some shrieked aloud as they bled and struggled, others silently toppled and were trodden down beneath their comrades’ stumbling feet. [382-3]

Falling towards this terrifying scene, Snitter feels himself called “to fellowship with the dead”. And the ending to the novel, as Richard Adams originally wrote it, did indeed have the dogs swimming despairingly out into the Irish Sea, as if headed to that fellowship. A less sombre but perhaps also less convincing end was urged upon Adams by his editors, and that’s the one which survives (though the 1982 film of the novel restored the original one).

And of course the humans too are victims of this tragedy they’ve made. Richard Adams uses as the epigraph to The Plague Dogs that passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline which was the subject for this blog on 6 December (‘What Shakespeare Would Have Said’). It’s the moment when the doctor warns the Queen about her proposed animal researches: “Your Highness / Shall from this practice but make hard your heart.”  One very familiar extenuation of animal research is that it benefits animals as well as humans; Dr Boycott, the Chief Scientist at Lawson Park, routinely uses it. What is more certainly true is that it harms both parties, though in the case of humans the harm is both less immediately painful and more far-reaching.

The point is implied in one particularly hair-raising episode involving the gents’ outfitter Mr Ephraim, who has organised a shooting party to destroy the dogs. It starts to go wrong (ending in his own violent death) when he sights the pathetically injured Snitter (“to his own surprise he found the lenses of his binoculars blurred by tears”), and his family memory is turned back to the “night and fog” of the European holocaust [140-43]. Who can doubt that there is such a connection? But the point is more simply put by Dr Boycott’s assistant, Stephen Powell. He’s a man who trusts the science of Lawson Park, or at least science of that sort. He believes, in particular, that there is promise in it for his sick daughter. Yet he finally realises that he cannot be part of it, cannot even let it be. He steals the monkey whose days in the sensory deprivation tank he has been professionally ticking off as the story goes by, and he takes it home. When his wife remonstrates (“it’s only one animal, dear, out of thousands. I mean, what’s the good?”), he tells her “It’s not for the monkey’s good, it’s for my good.” [343]

The Plague Dogs isn’t always easy to read, being written in a strange mixed mood of anger, satirical sarcasm, and jocularity. Adams was a lover of English literature, and has a rather pedantic habit of working in quotations from the classics at every opportunity. But he knew animals, and he writes with love and accuracy about them. In the risky enterprise of giving them language he succeeds because we know, with his help, that animals must indeed have the life of mind and feeling out of which he has them speak. He writes beautifully and unsentimentally also about natural scenery. As for the humans, he isn’t in general favourable towards them, but then it’s a story told with keen attention to factual detail of all sorts, and the facts themselves aren’t very complimentary either. And anyway, as Ronald Lockley says (he’s one of the two real-life naturalists who step into the story right at the end, the other being Peter Scott): “in the total, real world we and our intellects are superficial. The birds and animals are the real world, actually, tens of thousands of years of instinctive living, in the past; and in the future they’ll outlive our artificial civilization.” [376]

The book makes us content to think so.


Notes and references:

The Plague Dogs was first published by Allen Lane in 1977, when vivisection was at approximately its high-point in the U.K. (over 5 million animals used in that year), though the numbers have been steadily re-approaching that figure in recent years. The page references given above are to the Ballantine Books edition (New York 2007), only because I happened to have that edition to hand.

Richard Adams (Worcester College 1938) was one of VERO’s patrons. We feel very grateful to him for what he achieved for animals, both by his writing and in his campaigning work on their behalf.


What Shall be Done for these Innocents?

A common feature of the nativity scenes which have been heralding Christmas in churches and elsewhere, and which, now the feast is more or less over, are looking (but perhaps this is just a secular view) touchingly forlorn and ineffectual, is the small audience of animals. These animals aren’t scriptural. That is, they aren’t mentioned in the gospels, although the talk of a “manger” implies them, and the subsequent long journey suggests the presence of a beast of burden. It’s understandable that the gospels don’t mention them, because Christ came into the world, so Paul says in his letter to Timothy, in order to save sinners, and there’s no suggestion in the Bible, or in reason, that animals are capable of sin. Rather, they are in a necessary state of grace or, in secular terms, of propriety: absolutely dutiful to their species patterns, in a way that we don’t know how to be to ours, if there even is one. Perhaps this is in fact why the animals are there, dignifying all those cribs: in their calm sagacity they instance the redeemed state which the nativity of Jesus is said to promise to humans.

I’ve often felt as much when looking at the painting of that scene by Veronese, which hangs in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It’s a beautiful picture, full of animation and portent. veroneseThe composition surges down from left to lower right, from the lamb in a shepherd’s arms down to the dog keeping the doorway. And this sweep of life is anchored by the great ox in the foreground, watching the child and tolerating the shepherd who half-reclines upon him as if this ox was a sofa. Right in front, a recumbent lamb lifts its head in acknowledgement of all this activity.

Veronese had a particular feeling for animals. He liked to have them in his pictures; especially he liked to have dogs there, whether it was their proper place or not. One of the reasons why the Inquisition summoned him, in 1573, to explain his painting The Last Supper was that he’d put a dog right in the foreground. Rather than remove the dog, Veronese changed the picture’s ostensible subject to Feast in the House of Levi. And so in the great stonework frieze of artists, composers and writers which surrounds the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London, Veronese is shown, among his busy fellow-professionals, looking downwards at a dog, upon whose upraised head his hand affectionately rests.gblo102D1

But recently I’ve realised that the lamb in the foreground of Veronese’s painting must in fact be trussed, and the one at the back too. In fact one can just make out the cord. Their presence must therefore be of the sort suggested in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ (now familiar as a carol): “What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.” These lambs are sacrificial gifts, then; pastoral care is at an end for them. No doubt their presence in the picture is partly a reference to the sacrifice Jesus is to make of himself as the ‘Lamb of God’. At any rate, the Peaceable Kingdom element of this and other such nativity scenes is illusory. Rather, we’re reminded that although animals don’t need saving from sins of their own, they do need saving all the same. And who is to do it for them? Or as C.S.Lewis asks in his book The Problem of Pain (1940), “what shall be done for these innocents?”

No doubt it’s legitimate to see animals (in the way some Christian writers now do) as implicated in the ranks of the poor who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. And in so far as Jesus urged the powerful not to abuse their power over such people, or not to use it at all (“go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor!” Matthew 19:21), he did all vulnerable subjects good, including the animals. So the animals round the crib might indeed have been looking to him in some hope, even if his help were to come collaterally, a by-product only of his given mission to humans as described by Paul.

The trouble is that a sizeable part of animal suffering has nothing to do with humans, and cannot therefore be put right merely by human forbearance. As C.S.Lewis says in that same book, “The intrinsic [i.e. as opposed to gratuitously added] evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other.” It’s true that in pre-scientific times this evil could be seen as part of the human Fall. So John Milton wrote that, following the lapse of Adam and Eve,

Beast now with beast ‘gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish. To graze the herb all leaving
Devoured each other … 
[Paradise Lost, X.710-12]

But we can hardly take that view now, knowing that strife was a characteristic of the natural world long before humans came onto the scene and made it worse. (This is to say nothing of the sufferings arising from the struggle for limited food and space, which have similarly predated humans but been immeasurably aggravated by them.)

Like Veronese, C.S.Lewis had a strong feeling for animals (he was especially vocal against vivisection). He could not be satisfied with any picture of the world which did not accommodate them. This is obvious enough in all his fiction, but it was true also of his theology. And therefore he proposed a most moving and ambitious extension to the orthodox Christian theology of the human Fall and Redemption. He presents it mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis says, there must have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or at least a corruption of “the animal world” in which the beasts had to live. From then on, violence and the squandering of life characterized nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has called “natural hell”. When humanity first came into this scene, suggests Lewis, it had “a redemptive function to perform”: that is, part of its special commission in the world was to be the “Christ” (= messiah) to these earlier animals, and to rescue them from their fall and its consequences, just as the Christ whom the animals made room for in their stable was sent to do for humans. But so far from redeeming nature, of course, humanity itself fell, and has subsequently taken a clear lead in predation, so that now, as Lewis wrote in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis could not be dogmatic about this improvised theology. He offers it as “guesswork … a reasonable supposition” – “reasonable” in that he himself accepted the scriptural story upon which he builds it, at least as having the sort of provisional truth that mythology provides. But if we accept it for the moment in that spirit, see what an extraordinary flood of light it casts upon both the promise and the delinquency of man: on one hand, the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”, for surely if all had gone right “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”; on the other hand, the treachery of one who must now be understood not simply to have casually misused and exploited the fellow-creatures he found himself among, but in doing so to have broken a divine trust and made a holocaust out of the civil dissension which he was sent to remedy. (You can see Lewis telling this same story, and putting right the tragedy, in his Narnia stories, with – not by chance – a lion for his divinity.)

But you don’t need to accept the Christian setting in order to recognize this picture. It’s there as fact in the world’s history. That “corruption of the beasts”, when the carnivorous short-cut to protein was first taken, is certainly somewhere there in the record. The palaeontologist Richard Fortey, in his Life: an Unauthorised History, dates it “a geological second” into the Cambrian era, and sees it (like Milton and Lewis in their different schemes) as the loss of the world’s innocence: “The era of … peaceful coexistence among bacteria and algae had passed from the Earth, and the hierarchy of power has never subsequently been forgotten.” And whatever we may think the Bible means by giving man “dominion” over the other animals [Genesis 1.26], it’s certain that we do have dominion in fact. We have both the mind and the power to know and to do better than fallen nature. Our history, especially in the last four hundred years or so of technical progress, shows us energetically using these faculties to serve our private interest as a species. Meanwhile all the other denizens of the living world, except the few we choose to pet or admire, wait for help which doesn’t come.

This is the true poignancy of those animal onlookers round the crib.


Notes and References:

A  more elaborate account of these ideas, as they appear in the poetry and fiction of C.S.Lewis, and in the present-day ethical philosophy of Oscar Horta, is published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read on VERO’s web-site at

Quotations from The Problem of Pain are taken from the 1996 edition (Touchstone, New York), pp. 120-21 and 69, and the one from Life: an Unauthorised Biography (Harper Collins, 1998) is at p.104. The essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, well worth reading, is reprinted in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. Walter Hooper (Fount, 1998): the quotation is from p.74.

The photograph of the Frieze of Parnassus is used by permission of René and Peter van der Krogt ( The sculptor of that part of the frieze was Henry Hugh Armstead. No image of Veronese’s Adoration of the Shepherds is available at the Ashmolean, and I have therefore used my own, which probably breaks copyright – for which I apologize.