What Shall Be Done for these Innocents?

[This is a revised and up-dated version of a post originally put up in January 2017.]

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 the apostle 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 justify 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 official 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 realized 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 may not 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 belonging in the ranks of “the poor”, who were peculiarly the objects of Jesus’s concern. In so far, then, 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. That’s how John Milton did see it, when he wrote that, following the delinquency 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, for we know that predation 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 similarly predated humans but have 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 the idea mainly in the ninth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the chapter called ‘Animal Pain’.

Long before humans appeared, Lewis asks, may there not have been an earlier fall, a “Satanic corruption of the beasts”, or to put it less personally a corruption of “the animal world” to which they belonged? From then on, violence and the squandering of life would characterize nature’s economy, producing the Darwinian scene which we indeed now know and which the philosopher of animal ethics Oscar Horta has justifiably 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 or deliverer) 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 declared angrily in his essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’, “Man destroys or enslaves every species he can”.

Lewis was not a professional theologian, and he 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, there’s the glorious hope that was vested in him, as the being come messianically “to restore peace to the animal world”:  glorious because surely, if all had gone right, “he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable”. On the other hand, there’s 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.)

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 in order to raise our own species above the horrors of nature: in short, to serve ourselves as well as we may. 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.

 

Notes and References:

A  fuller 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, was published in the Oxford Magazine no.363, and can be read at http://www.vero.org.uk/HortaAndLewis.pdf

There is now a sympathetic and readable book-length treatment of the place of animals in C.S.Lewis’s theology: Michael Gilmour, Animals in the Writings of C.S.Lewis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. The author says “Lewis’s great contribution to animal theology is, in the end, the permission he gives us to think theologically about animals, and to do so creatively . . . He is among the few who attempt to imagine the place of the nonhuman within Christian ethics and eschatology, and to imagine what it might be like to experience the kingdom of God in their company.”

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 (http://statues.vanderkrogt.net). 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.

Here Come the Concordat Folk

With the season of Advent comes the annual awards ceremony of the Concordat on Openness, celebrating another year of the animal-research community’s keen presence in the limelight of its own publicity. Speeches, awards, thanks, mutual congratulation, promises of even greater things in the future: there’s something of the school prize-day about it all, as I’ve commented before. But if these events, and therefore the blog-posts that have been shadowing them, do seem somewhat repetitious, it’s not because things are standing still.

The Concordat, now in its fifth year, continues to grow: there are now 122 signed-up institutions. All of them are required to make online statements of policy about the work that they do or fund others to do; they are urged, in addition, to provide figures and further details of the work, preferably with case studies, videos, virtual tours of laboratories, and so on, with the result that one could now fidget away whole hours online, viewing what animal research institutions are happy for others to know about their activities. And real-life “outreach” likewise proliferates, with open days, staff and family tours, school visits, and work placements, all tending to “embed” (this year’s favourite Concordat word) the institutions in their communities. Remember that a few years ago this sort of work was nearly invisible, except when it burst out as scandals. Now it simply comes at you with a will: advent indeed.

Nor evidently is the work itself, as supported by all this public relations effort, likely to diminish significantly any time soon. That’s by no means part of the Concordat’s purpose, although all signatories have to show commitment to the talismanic 3Rs (reduction, refinement, replacement). By way of illustration, the most recent batch of animal-research statistics – from Northern Ireland, which submits its numbers separately from Great Britain – shows a sprightly upwardness. Although its total of ‘animal procedures’ for 2018 (28,790) wouldn’t get it into the same league as the ‘Top Ten’ (that’s what Understanding Animal Research calls the ten UK universities which score the most procedures), still it represents an increase of 16.3% over the 2017 number, which itself had shown a rise of 11.4% over the year before that. Queen’s University Belfast, a Concordat signatory, accounted for over half that 2018 total. In fact, since the Concordat was formally launched in 2014, the numbers of procedures at Queen’s has risen by 48%.

Of course, I didn’t have to pry out these numbers; they’re on the university’s own web-site or on UAR’s. In fact the UAR’s news report on Northern Ireland’s numbers in 2018 was plainly and pre-emptively headed ‘Increase in Animal Research in Northern Ireland. The fact was neither hidden nor apologised for; a much more sophisticated public relations policy than that is now in use. In fact the policy was already implied in the change of name in 2008 from the old ‘Research Defence Society’ (founded exactly one hundred years earlier) to ‘Understanding Animal Research’. As the Concordat web-site tells some of its more reluctant signatories, “We need to shout about why we do what we do.”

And they might indeed learn how to shout from the example of this year’s winner of the Concordat’s ‘Website or Use of New Media’ award: Reading University. Back in July, Reading introduced its annual research statistics with a story inviting readers to “Name our life-saving baby llama”. Prudently fending off in advance unsuitable or uncooperative suggestions, the university offered the witty and topical choice “Jeremy or Boris?” (because – don’t forget – animal research is serious, but it’s also fun.) Apparently, perhaps one must now also say ironically, ‘Jeremy’ won. That result is now hidden away in university news stories of the moment (and it did take me a while to find), but the birth of the “cute baby llama” (UAR’s phrase) into its animal-research heritage still occupies a prominent page of its own: no point in wasting a good stunt.

Meanwhile elsewhere in its animal research pages, under the heading ‘Further Improvements’, Reading University announces progress on “a new state-of-the-art Health and Life Sciences Building”, with a “high-specification biological resource unit” for its animal accommodation and research. Liberated by the Concordat spirit of show-and-tell from the secretive knots which poor Oxford University tied itself in when it was planning its equivalent facility less than fifteen years ago, Reading makes its own proud news story of the project. Yes, a very great change is occurring.

And all this is not exactly boasting; it’s just confidently making known. Back in 2015 the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics published a report on vivisection titled Normalizing the Unthinkable. Perhaps ‘unthinkable’ was a curious word to select for a practice which has been institutionalized in the UK for well over 150 years (and the phrase was in fact borrowed from a 1980s article about atomic weaponry), but yes, ‘normalizing’ is the word we want. The Oxford Centre’s report didn’t have the Concordat in mind: the project was hardly underway at that time, and is not mentioned. But that’s what the Concordat is doing: making animal research familiar and accepted, emptying it of surprises, in short making a “non-story” of it (the phrase was used in last year’s Concordat Annual Report) – except of course where the story is about a ‘medical break-through’.

That’s surely why the Concordat authorities habitually urge signatories to include in their publicity some account of the real ‘costs’ to animals of their research. Every year, the Concordat issues a report of the year’s progress, and every year this matter of declaring costs in animal suffering is noted as a point of difficulty, one that’s “challenging for many signatories”. It’s understandable (so this year’s report concedes) that they should be chary of “providing any information that might show their research or institution in a negative light” [p.17]. But failing to do so not only makes all the talk about openness fraudulent, it also tucks away exactly the sort of information which can subsequently be found and embarrassingly sensationalized by undercover reporters, whistle-blowers, or other dissenting parties.

The Concordat does not anywhere imply, as a way of dealing with this problem, that research which is likely to entail severe suffering to the animals might simply be abjured. And after all, one doesn’t have to show it in pictures or videos, because fortunately it was discovered during the ‘Public Dialogue’ which preceded and guided the devising of the Concordat that lay people “did not want to see graphic or shocking images” [17]. One just has to get the news out first, and thereby own it; the key word always is “proactive”. Members of the Concordat sign up to this principle of pre-emptive publicity as one of their promises, and the happy result is noted in the report: “Fewer reactive communications on the use of animals in research, due to more information proactively in the public domain.” [2]

So the “lasting change” which the Concordat urges upon its signatories is not in the animal research itself: the aim is “to change the way that everyone thinks about animal research” [my italics]. Nor is this just a way of keeping things as they are. It is that, certainly, and Reading University’s case study of research on dairy cattle is wholly characteristic in that respect: noting that “emissions from the dairy industry . . . have a significant negative impact on the environment”, the university is apparently “leading the way in understanding how our dairy industry can play its part in tackling climate change.” “our”, you see; we’ve got the industry, whether you like it or not, so let’s see how its breeding and feeding practices, already the product of decades of pitiless research, can be improved so that a bit less damage is caused by it.

But in fact the Concordat must, if successful, provide a positive boost for animal research. And it has already been remarkably successful: not perhaps so far in persuading the public – “signatories do not feel that there is evidence of impacts beyond the research sector at this time”, the report says – but certainly in raising the status of animal research professionally. Signatories report “increased profile of animal facilities within their establishments, leading to greater investment . . . [2] That new building at Reading University, with its “high-specification biological resource unit”, is one such investment. There will surely be more. Queen’s Belfast has got to put all those extra animals somewhere, for instance, and these days it can be somewhere in plain view. That’s where it’s going to be least conspicuous.

 

Notes and references:

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Awards event on 3 December can be viewed here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/openness-awards-2019.  Or there’s a text of the programme here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Openness-Awards-2019-Programme.pdf.

Page numbers in square brackets refer to the 2019 Annual Report, which can be read here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Concordat-Report-2019.pdf.

Other quotations, numbers, etc., come from the web-sites of the Concordat, UAR, or Reading University. The quotation about changing the way that “everyone thinks about animal research” is part of an introduction to a new category of exemplary Concordat signatory: ‘Leaders in Openness’.

Accounts of Concordat public relations in previous years appeared in this blog on 11 December 2018, 18 December 2017, and 18 December 2016.

The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics report Normalizing the Unthinkable was re-published, together with essays by various hands, as The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, ed. Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, University of Illinois Press, 2018. The original report was reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/the-complete-vivisector/

 

 

Free as a Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Notes and references:

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

The Animals Australia video can be viewed here: https://www.animalsaustralia.org/issues/caged_birds.php

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

The post in this blog about Axel Munthe’s book The Story of San Michele can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/franciscan-medicine/

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

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

From Dusk till Dawn was published by Puppy Pincher Press in 2007. The book is available to buy online at http://www.fromdusktildawn.org.uk/shop/

This year’s Official Animal Rights March was reported in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/08/26/march-of-a-nation/

See also, on this subject of direct action, the post ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/in-prison-and-you-visited-me/

We Will Remember Some of Them

This is a revised and updated version of a post first published on 4 November 2015. Nothing much has changed, you see.

On Sunday, November 10th, after the remembrance services have ended in London’s Whitehall and elsewhere, a service for the other war-dead will take place at the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane (at 3 p.m.). The event is organized by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, but there will also be members of Catholic Concern for Animals there, and of Quaker Concern for Animals – and for that matter adherents of other faiths or of no faith, since the wickedness of involving other species in our wars is self-sufficiently plain, regardless of what else we may believe. Therefore it is an occasion for anyone to attend who can: religion may be its language, but its sentiment is universal decency.

The memorial itself was designed by the sculptor David Backhouse, and built there in 2004. Its commissioning and making were a notable achievement, giving permanent and very public recognition for the first time to the part which animals have been made to play in human wars.

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

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

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

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

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

Such research is the least glorious and photogenic of all types of war service for animals to participate and die in. It offers no scope for the mutual affection and loyalty suggested in that telling word “alongside” in the text of the memorial. It won’t earn any animal the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, with its inscription “For Gallantry (we also serve)”. All the more reason, then, to give it this much recognition: a place among the representations here in Park Lane. But most unfortunately no such place is made for it. There are no images of monkeys by which to recall, for instance, their service to ‘allied forces’ on the hellish Primate Equilibrium Platforms at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, as described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, or their continuing service at Porton Down, testing the fatal effects of biological agents. There are no dolphins or whales to memorialize the ways in which their kind have served in cruel and unnatural trials at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Undersea Centre near Pearl Harbour. (It was about these last experiments that the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau commented, “No sooner does man discover intelligence, than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity.”) Nor are any pigs shown on the memorial, to record the use of their deliberately injured bodies in the training of British military surgeons – a practice which still goes on, as a minister of defence recently confirmed (in July 2019): “live but fully anaesthetised pigs are given bullet and blast wounds which are then treated in real-time exercises by surgical teams.”

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

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

 

Notes and references:

An account of the Brown Dog memorial and its significance can be found in this blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/the-brown-dog-statues/

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

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

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

The experiments using the Primate Equilibrium Platform are described by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (Pimlico Books, 1995; first published 1975) pp.25-29; those at Kaneohe Bay in Richard Ryder, Victims of Science (Poynter Davis, 1975), pp.79-80, where also Jacques Cousteau is quoted. Because weapons research is especially secretive, up-to-date information is not easily available, but some examples of work done for military purposes at Porton Down and also at British universities can be seen on the Animal Justice Project web-site at https://animaljusticeproject.com/the-secret-war/. The statement about pigs used in surgical training was made on 23 July 2019 by Minister of Defence Tobias Ellwood as part of a written answer to a question put to the government, at the request of Animal Aid, by Ben Lake MP.

As to the nuclear research: a fuller account of its history and present practice is given in this blog, together with references, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/scenes-from-the-dawn-of-the-atomic-age/

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

Not mentioned in the above text is research being carried forward now, sponsored by the US Department for Veterans Affairs, in which dogs are used as models for the study of paralyzing injuries sustained in battle. These ruthless experiments are the subject of a ForceChange petition which you can sign here: https://forcechange.com/518057/stop-backing-experiments-that-mutilate-and-murder-dogs/

Whose World, and How We’ll Leave it

Fifty years ago this autumn, the record at the top of the UK singles chart was ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans. The song’s lyrics (by Rick Evans himself, who also wrote the music) follow humanity into distant futures, and picture with rising alarm (and rising pitch in the music) the gradual decommissioning of human functions by technology – “Some machine’s doing that for you” – until finally “man’s reign is through”. Then, the suggestion seems to be, things start again from the beginning, as the song itself does.

The ambitious and pessimistic theme made this record an unusual victor in the hit parade. It was also remarkable in looking beyond what was then the most obvious and discussed form of apocalypse, nuclear war. (That had indeed been the theme of Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ a few years earlier: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”) But of course the question whether we shall be science’s masters or science ours was hardly new: it had been a topic for debate and imaginings ever since (if not before) Mary Shelley put it into brilliantly mythical form for her story Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818). And as science itself has increased its scope and powers, which it has done enormously since Zager and Evans sang about babies being selected from “the bottom of a long glass tube” (in the year 6565), so concern has grown about how those powers may variously jeopardize the world.

In 2012, a research institution devoted to the subject was set up at Cambridge: the Centre for the Study of Existentialist Risk. One of its founders, the astrophysicist Martin Rees, had published a book in 2003 plainly setting out the reasons for taking the matter seriously. The book’s title is Our Final Century: Will Civilization Survive the Twenty-First Century? It’s an expert survey by a very distinguished scientist, although, like the Zager and Evans song, it’s intended for popular or at least non-specialist consumption. Alarming it also is, like the song: reviews called it “eloquently frightening”, “provocative and unsettling”, “terrifying”. It has, as I’ve said, much more material to be alarming about than the song had, and the material is crowded into a more panicked perspective: the remainder of this century as opposed to about seven millennia. Eighty years is certainly the more plausible time-allowance, but in at least one respect the song is wiser than the book, as I hope to show.

Our Final Century does discuss the threat of nuclear war, but Rees considers that the use by terrorists of stolen or improvised nuclear materials is the less controllable and therefore more dangerous possibility. In fact, having rather more trust in the international order of treaties and institutions than might be justified today, he concentrates on terrorism and error as the most likely routes to mass disaster, with small groups or even individuals as the agents. He writes, for example, about ‘bioterror’ using either known infections (smallpox, ebola, anthrax) or newly engineered ones. Or he pictures self-replicating ‘nanomachines’, designed with the capacity to live off organic material; such creations might, by accident or design, “proliferate uncontrollably . . . until they had consumed all life.” Reviewing these and other such science-based threats, Rees says “We are entering an era when a single person can, by one clandestine act, cause millions of deaths or render a city uninhabitable for years . . . Indeed, disaster could be caused by someone who is merely incompetent rather than malign.” After all, it was a sort of collective incompetence which got us here, wasn’t it?

Rees very reasonably concludes that we ought to subject the practice of science to some kind of “restraint”: close off some of its more sinister directions or at least keep them unpublished, and control others through international agreements. And it’s here, rather suddenly, that a few of the non-human planetary species woodboatget a rare look-in to Rees’s text (and of course they have a vital interest in this topic too; they may not know that, but we know it). He instances animal experiments as evidence that, in “many countries” at least, limits to what is allowed in scientific research can indeed be agreed upon and kept to. But, he wonders, where are we to fix those limits? He then introduces the term “yuck factor”, used by bioethicists (so he claims) for the sort of quasi-ethical squeamishness which, it seems, has no reliable relevance to welfare or morality. Rees admits feeling this sort of response himself to “invasive experiments that modify how animals behave”, but he considers his response “disproportionate”. In fact this discussion of ethics in life-science is conditioned by words like that: “exaggerated”, “perceive” (in the now common sense of ‘impute’ or ‘imagine’), “unthinking”, and indeed the childish “yuck factor” itself. The suggestion is that we shouldn’t take very much notice of our “deep-set repugnances”: that’s the phrase which C. S. Lewis uses in his science-fiction novel That Hideous Strength to identify humanity’s most fundamental ethical guides. In fact the novel is largely about that most fatal of all usurpations of human function: the supplanting of human judgement as to what is right by the mere fact of what is technically possible.

What we learn, then, from this not unfeeling but not especially interesting three-page discussion is that (as its unexamined assumption) humans are quite entitled to make such decisions about what to do to other species, and, on the other hand, that they can’t be trusted to make them wisely. And now we can get at the world-view which this book teaches us to take into the future, and indeed to make that future with – long or short as it may turn out to be. It’s a world-view not absolutely man-centred, for Rees does contemplate evolutionary advances on the human species as it now is: “intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings.” But the reader knows which species is being identified by those privileged characteristics, intelligence and complexity. We humans may possibly be improvable, therefore, but we do represent at least the “beginnings” of what really matters in nature. And although we may subsequently rise into other forms or even other planets (Rees discusses this latter possibility – an especially disgraceful one, given the book’s theme), what we apparently won’t do is feel any solidarity with varieties of life that have lagged behind us in evolution.

For all its “terrifying” material, therefore (and there’s much more of it than I have been mentioning, including of course climate change), Our Final Century is a surprisingly triumphalist text. You may recall that when Zager and Evans get to the far end of their journey into the future, they take stock like this:

In the year 9595,
I’m kind of wondering if man is gonna be alive;
He’s taken everything this whole Earth can give,
And he ain’t put back nothing
.

It’s a shaming summary, and surely an incontrovertible one. But its well-founded moral diffidence, its suggestion that man may not deserve to survive, is wholly absent from Our Final Century: there, the assumption is that we have only been taking what was ours. For Rees, the Earth, or at least the world, is humans. When he writes about “the world’s needs” (i.e. for energy), he means human needs. When he writes of “prospects for life beyond the Earth”, he means human life, or ultra-human life. What he hopes that his book will achieve, he says in the preface, is to show how crucial it will be to deploy “new knowledge optimally for human benefit” (still putting back nothing, then). In fact not just the world but the whole cosmos, as Rees prefers to think of it (and he’s a professional cosmologist), has this same human reference: he quotes with approval the mathematician Frank Ramsay, who wrote in 1931, “I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens . . . My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.” We don’t need to ask, then, exactly whose “existential risk” that centre in Cambridge is studying.

The assumption is that readers will share this strangely arrogant point of view. There’s a probabilistic theory put forward by Professor Richard Gott of Princeton which argues that humanity as we now find it is unlikely to be at an early stage of its career; it’s an intriguing theory, and makes a pleasant break from epidemics, meteorites, etc., but Rees calls it “far from cheerful”, since “none of us welcomes a new argument that humanity’s days may be numbered.” None of us humans, he means of course, not us earth-dwellers, for surely Gott’s idea would raise a world-wide clamour of pleasurable expectation among the other species if only they could understand it.

Even so, “none of us”? I try to keep up with the science which, as Rees says, “is surging ahead at an accelerating rate”, with its “benign applications” in one prosthesis, and “new hazards” in the other. Much of it is wholly obscure to the amateur – and of course even most scientists are amateurs in each other’s specialist areas, a fact which tends to favour the hazards – but some of it is patent enough. In the journal Science, for instance: still a few weeks behind, I’m attempting the issue of 4 October. Here there’s a report, all too easy to understand, on the international trade in wild-life, and one on the “staggering decline of bird populations”. Then among the research articles there is one about how juvenile zebra finches are taught by their parents to sing, or rather how they can be force-taught to sing without parental guidance by means of “optogenetic manipulation of a synaptic pathway connecting auditory and vocal motor circuits to implant song memories”. A link is provided to some video material, which shows these birds performing in their wretchedly alien laboratory surroundings. But not for long, evidently, because the birds were then “quickly decapitated”, after which “The brain was removed from the skull and submerged in cold (1-4˚C) oxygenated dissection buffer . . . “ etc. Meanwhile another research project has involved collecting the brains of pigs in slaughterhouses – this part of their bodies being “readily discarded by the food industry” – and attempting to show that not just cell samples but the whole brain may be kept alive even some hours after death. As the author complacently observes, “one person’s trash is another’s unexpected model.” So one way or another it all gets used; what else is it for? Read or look where you will, there is man the great world-wide plunderer, taking “everything this old Earth can give”.

“None of us”, then? As tribal members of humanity, we may indeed feel “far from cheerful” at the prospect of an early end to our species, especially if we think about its practical details. But as impartial observers, judging things as they are rather than as they suit ourselves (and isn’t that what academic scientists are supposed to aim at?), we must surely regard the fact that “humanity’s days may be numbered” as earth’s brightest hope.

 

Notes and references:

Our Final Century is published in the UK by Arrow Books. Since it’s a relatively short book, 228 pages of pleasantly large type, and well worth reading in full, I haven’t put page references for the quotations.

That Hideous Strength was first published in 1945 by Bodley Head; the quotation here is from p.121 of an edition slightly revised by Lewis and published by Pan in 1956. The title is itself a quotation from a text referring to the Tower of Babel; Lewis uses the phrase for the modern scientific form of that ancient act of hubris.

The woodcut ‘We Are All in the Same Boat’ (2005) is by Sue Coe. This and other remarkable woodcuts by Sue Coe can be viewed here: https://graphicwitness.org/coe/wood.htm. For a post in this blog about Sue Coe’s art, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

 

 

Franciscan Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

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

The idea of using convicted offenders in medical trials may have some obvious logic and appeal but is also flawed and dangerous, even sinister. There is quite an informative piece about it on the web-site of Understanding Animal Research here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/why-testing-on-prisoners-is-a-bad-idea/  But I don’t mean to promote that web-site, which is given some critical attention in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

Last year’s post about World Animal Day can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/two-anniversaries-one-lesson/

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

The Science of Handing on Misery

An article in the journal Science speaks about orphanages in Pakistan, and of the many children there whose mothers, unable to find paid work in that very conservative society, have been obliged to surrender them. Understandably, these children sometimes show symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including anxiety and depression. That’s not the only unhappy human scene touched upon in the article, although it’s the only present-day one. The author, Andrew Curry, also speaks of the 1945 famine in Holland, of the Holocaust, and of the American Civil War – a strange assortment of very good reasons to pity the human experience.

The article is titled ‘A Painful Legacy’, because what brings these disasters together in a science journal is the hypothesis that stress and emotional trauma may alter biology in ways that can be transmitted to succeeding generations: not directly, by altering genes themselves, but by modifying the epigenome, defined in the article as “a swirl of biological factors that affect how genes are expressed”. Studies of the children of parents that have suffered in such disasters have discovered “subtle biological alterations – changes so lasting that children might even pass them to their own offspring.” If that really is happening, some revision of evolutionary theory may be necessary, incorporating to some degree the inheritance of acquired characteristics – of undesired and unfavourable ones, at least.

But the word ‘pain’ is always a sort of skull and crossbones for the reader of science journals: it signals vivisection. Whether or not humans do pass their misery down the generations, modern research habitually makes sure that other animal species inherit it, forcing them to try out our pain for us. Most cruelly and haphazardly is this so when the pain in question is the sort suffered by the mind, as in the present instance. And sure enough, the first word of this article’s sub-title is “Mice …” So yes, it’s mice being made to suffer, although mention is also made of experiments on rats, crickets, worms, water fleas, more vaguely “many organisms”, and even more casually just “animals”. (The author mostly calls humans “people”, a non-scientific word which helps to keep us categorically distinct from this scene of zoological service and sacrifice.)

Heredity being the theme, the target of the so-called “mouse intervention” is motherhood. The scientist principally featured in the article, Professor Isabelle Mansuy of Zurich University – a woman, you’ll notice – “separates mouse mothers from their pups at unpredictable intervals and further disrupts parenting by confining the mothers in tubes or dropping them in water, both stressful experiences for mice [in case you wondered].” And this account, unpleasantly reminiscent of Harry Harlow’s notorious experiments with monkeys, continues thus:

When the mothers return to the cage and their pups, they’re frantic and distracted. They often ignore the pups, compounding the stress of the separation on their offspring.

Actually there is a brief pause for ethics after that unsavoury pair of sentences. Two lines of the article reassure us that this contrived misery “has a purpose”, which is “to gain understanding for better child health”.

We aren’t given much reason to expect this purpose to be achieved (and of course, as this article celebrating the work implies, the success of the science and of the scientists does not depend on practical results). For a start there’s the obvious and familiar reservation, expressed already in the second word of the sub-title: “Mice hint at how people’s emotional trauma may affect the biology of their children.” It can only be a hint, for as Professor Mansuy admits, in a break from tormenting her mouse families, “mice and people are different, showing the limits of mouse models.” Among other discontinuities, human histories are full of personal and social unknowns, producing ills whose causes can’t be conveniently traced and measured like the ones which Professor Mansuy devises. Her solution is to look for the right sort of humans, people whose life stories (says Curry) “have similarities to what the mice in Mansuy’s lab experience.” So now we’re looking about for humans to go with the mice!

But let’s suppose that these “epigenetic effects” are indeed confirmed in humans. How will the discovery be made beneficial to them? Curry does his best to make a dramatic ‘breakthrough’ story of it all, with some atmospherics (“Mansuy donned a fresh lab coat . . . and gently cracked the door of a darkened room at her lab at UZH.”) and helpful hyperbole: “really scary stuff”, says another scientist about the idea that “the things we’re doing today, that we thought were erased, are affecting our great-great-grandchildren.” Actually it’s rather a familiar idea, isn’t it? At any rate, it’s mooted in the Bible, and is plainer than ever now that the industrial revolution is afflicting its latter generations with climate change. However, “The implications are profound”, Curry insists; they constitute “a powerful argument against everything from smoking to immigration policies that split families.” So for those of us who had always suspected that smoking and splitting families, to say nothing of famine and civil war, were bad things, but couldn’t explain quite why – well, we’re now scientifically vindicated.

But what if, even now that we’re furnished with this “powerful argument”, we can’t always stop these things from happening? Can this science tell us how to prevent or cure their malign effects in later generations? Again there’s a sort of drum-roll in the article: “In a darkened room down the hall from Mansuy’s office, just outside the mouse breeding area, two cages stand side by side on a table . . .” One of the cages is the standard featureless box endured by countless generations of lab mice as their perfunctory home. The other is ‘enriched’ with play-wheels and a maze; it even has an upstairs. It seems that “traumatized mice raised in this enriched environment don’t pass the symptoms of trauma to their offspring”. And perhaps epigenetic change is not just preventable in this way, with equivalents of enriched environment, but actually “reversible”. That makes sense, after all, for as another scientist is quoted as saying, “If it’s epigenetic, it’s responsive to the environment”, which ought to mean good environments as well as bad. And indeed, Professor Mansuy’s research suggests that “life experience can be healing as well as hurtful.” Mirabile dictu!

Returning to the orphanages in Pakistan: we were told at the start of the article that the children there already get “the best possible support”. So the science of the matter as described by Andrew Curry, with all its equipment and expertise, seems to have taken us on a grand tour of predatory experiment and gratuitous suffering, and then landed us back where we were before, using our ordinary common sense and human decency. Well, not quite back there yet, because it’s all still hypothetical. As a geneticist at the finely-named Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York warns us, there have been no “definitive studies, even in mice”; we need to be “open to the idea that there may be nothing there.”  And Professor Mansuy doesn’t deny it; fortunately for all involved – for the ‘people’ involved, that is – “there’s lots more work to be done.” Of course, there always is, and lots more mice, crickets, and other innocents for it to be done on.

Meanwhile I guess that we should go on giving the orphans and other human legatees of sorrow the best possible support, until we know better.

 

Notes and references:

‘A Painful Legacy’, written by the journalist Andrew Curry, was published in Science, 19 July 2019, pp.212-15.

The cruelty and futility of Harry Harlow’s research into maternal deprivation are discussed in the post ‘How Not to Treat Babies’ here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/