Dr Moreau’s Island

Most of the primate-research projects going forward at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China, as featured in the post previous to this one, involve editing genes in order to produce in non-human primates such human brain disorders as autism and Parkinson’s disease. But some of the projects are rather more speculative. For instance, monkeys are to be re-programmed with the human version of gene SRGAP2, “which is thought to endow the brain with processing power”, or with MCPH1 (“a gene related to brain size”), or with FOXP2, “which is thought to give humans unique language ability”. As to this last, the researcher in charge is expecting to see changes in behaviour, but is quoted as saying, with disagreeable flippancy, “I don’t think the monkey will all of a sudden start speaking.” The aim here is evidently ambitious (“an opportunity to understand human evolution”) but not utilitarian – in the style, then, of the “biological experimenter” described by H.G.Wells in an essay on vivisection published in 1928: “He wants knowledge because he wants knowledge.”

In fact thirty or so years before that essay Wells had pictured just such a ‘pure’ scientist in his character Dr Moreau. On a remote South Pacific island, this biological experimenter is shown pursuing his researches with a similarly dis-interested zeal: “You cannot imagine”, he tells Edward Prendick, the narrator and involuntary visitor to the island, “the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires!” What to Prendick seem “aimless investigations” are, to Moreau (and to Wells in his essay) the ideal of scientific practice: “I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of true research going.” And the particular “way” in Moreau’s case is the Kunming way, for he too is dabbling in human evolution, impelling animals by short cuts across the millions of years which separate humans from their non-human ancestors.

Not that there really can be such a thing as dis-interested or pure research, even in the absence of any practical purpose. As Oxford’s first and most humane professor of physiology, George Rolleston, told the Royal Commissioners in 1875, all original research is in part “a gratification of self, and liable to develop [i.e. promote] selfishness, which of course is the root of all unscrupulousness.” Moreau’s research is fiercely selfish – “as remorseless as Nature”, he himself calls it – and hubristically ambitious: “I will conquer yet . . . I will make a rational creature of my own!” It’s what enables him to rise above not just the moral scruples which might inhibit such work, but also the squalor and frustration of repeated disappointment. In fact Moreau, at work in the sanguinary mayhem of his laboratory, provides an ironic commentary upon that 1928 essay’s idealized experimenter, he of the “disposition to see things plainly and to accept the subservience of beast to man in man’s increasing effort to understand and control.” “to accept the subservience”! Wells was a much better story-teller than he was a social philosopher (a fact made savage fun of in the character of Horace Jules at the end of C.S.Lewis’s anti-vivisection novel That Hideous Strength). And The Island of Dr Moreau is indeed a very well-told story.

Nor is the book simply the melodramatic fantasy which images remembered from a succession of film versions may suggest. Moreau himself is carefully placed in the recent history of vivisection in England, having been driven out of his professional position by the public exposure of his ruthless researches in the mid-1870s, a time when national indignation was forcing both parliament and the profession to take ethical notice of the practice. His name is a reminder that on the European continent there was no such official interference in animal research, and in fact Moreau more or less quotes, in places, what the celebrated Claude Bernard and other continental practitioners had written or said about vivisection as a technique. He accordingly intends, when he has achieved what he aims at, to return to London and “wake up English physiology”.

Placed in history, then, but also in a conceivable future, conceivable to Wells himself anyway. He justified it in a note to the first edition of the story: “the manufacture of monsters – and perhaps even of quasi-human monsters – is within the possibilities of vivisection.” Moreau of course is improvising a technology more primitive than the one in use at Kunming; he uses surgical force to hustle his animals towards the fully human condition. (The variety of these animals – including wolf, leopard, ape, horse, puma, ocelot – is one of the less plausible features of Moreau’s science, though it very much increases the pathos of their collective plight.) This surgery includes organ transplantations of one sort or another. An Oxford zoologist, Peter Chalmers Mitchell, reviewed the book when it first appeared, and wouldn’t accept the scientific premise: “attempts to combine living material from different creatures fail.” Wells, he said, “is scaring the public unduly.” Prematurely at most, we should now say; not just the work at Kunming, but the even more obviously gruesome and wasteful recent history of xenotransplantation, have shown that neither the motivation nor the cruelty of Moreau’s researches were mere fantasy.

When Prendick arrives on the island and first encounters the living results of Dr Moreau’s surgery, his shock and indignation arise from a misunderstanding: he supposes that these are former humans subjected to a “hideous degradation”, that “such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here.” Naturally enough he fears for his own safety, but his relief when he discovers his mistake is not simply self-interested; he feels relief also that the peculiar status of humanity in nature remains unchallenged. From this assured position, he can feel pity for the “mock-human existence” which is all that Moreau’s humanized animals have so far risen to.

But the story does not at all endorse this sense of species segregation. Moreau’s chimeras may fall short of his human aim, but in doing so they do indeed “mock” the model. More and more, the evolutionary heritage of the human declares itself. A partly absurd instance of this is the intellectual pretentiousness of the ‘Monkey-man’, who “had developed in the most wonderful way the distinctive silliness of man without losing one jot of the folly of a monkey.” But the larger effect is much more sombre. The human reach in evolution increasingly seems to have meant a shrewder version of what came before, rather than the acquisition of new wisdom or responsibility. And what is noted as specially human is hardly a cause for pride: for instance, mendacity (the ‘beast folk’ may be cunning, but “it takes a real man to tell a lie”) and drink (“Moreau forgot this; this is the last touch”, says Moreau’s assistant as he introduces alcohol to them). Prendick’s late phrase “the human taint” seems tragically apt.

The island itself, when its last human inhabitant departs, makes the same point: disfigured by fire, a cemetery of human and animal remains, ecologically ruined. Ecce homo, one might say: behold the human! No wonder that when Prendick returns to civilization, he shuns the company of his kind and devotes himself to astronomy: it’s there, he concludes, “in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

Dr Moreau himself has a similarly unfavourable view of human nature, though what he feels is contempt rather than Prendick’s fear and aversion. More ominously, this contempt conditions his research aims. When he talks about “man-making”, he means man as an ideal, without the “cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity”. In particular he deplores the human surrender to the rule of pleasure and pain, calling it “the mark of the beast”. The dreadful suffering which occurs in Moreau’s laboratory – known by those who’ve passed through it as “the House of Pain” – is not therefore just gratuitous horror, as Peter Mitchell complained in his review. The way towards the “rational creature” of Moreau’s imagination is through that “bath of burning pain” by means of which he hopes to “burn out all the animal”. Evolution of itself will eventually do that, he believes, since pain is a redundant instructor to those who can “look after their own welfare”. But Moreau wants the means and the results in a hurry. As the Russian biologist presently working on the gene-editing of human babies, Denis Rebrikov, replied when asked if he should not be more circumspect: “When did you see the researcher willing to slow down?”

Although Wells himself doesn’t, of course, champion Moreau, there is much in Moreau’s thinking that he evidently sympathized with. In fact the philosophical substance of the chapter entitled ‘Doctor Moreau Explains’ had been published as a straight journal article only a few months before. And in Wells’s last public reflections, appearing in 1945 as the short essay Mind at the End of its Tether, he is again urging the Moreau case. Humanity in its present form was “played out . . . There is no way out for Man but steeply up or steeply down . . . Ordinary man is at the end of his tether.” It could be Dr Moreau speaking: “steeply up” is exactly his chosen direction, with all its implications of strife and hardship horribly dramatized on that island.

Wells himself did indeed “accept the subservience of beast to man” in science as elsewhere. The 1928 essay is one of a number of express defences of the practice which he wrote. These now seem dated and uninteresting, aimed at long-since vanished targets. But The Island of Dr Moreau endures as a powerful fable, the more effective for Wells’ obvious fascination for a personality whom he nevertheless fates to disaster. I select just two of the story’s lessons by way of conclusion.

In the laboratory of Dr Moreau there’s no euthanasia, of the sort that normally cleans up behind vivisection as it moves from animal to animal. The products of Moreau’s surgery are simply set loose – “I turn them out” – and they form their own grotesque and Korchev's Mutantswretched community elsewhere on the island. He takes no interest in it (“They only sicken me with a sense of failure.”), but there they are, the eleven-year history of his pitiless researches made known not as ideas or publications or even numbers but as the live and visible costs. It’s a brilliant and highly instructive conception, the realization as fact of a conscience that Dr Moreau doesn’t acknowledge (“I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter”), but which finally discredits and destroys him.

Might not Prendick himself and the third man on the island, Moreau’s assistant called Montgomery, have forced a conscience or at least a few ethical scruples upon him? Both of these characters are inadequate to such a task – Prendick an impressionable prig, Montgomery an ineffectual fatalist – plain examples of the ‘ordinary man’ for whom Wells, in Mind at the End of its Tether, saw no useful part in making the future. Dr Moreau’s clarity of thought and purpose, and his scientific authority, simply bear them down. Only the story itself judges and tames him. It’s the second lesson, a reminder of the truth already argued in this blog in connection with Dolly the cloned sheep (see notes below): science is not an island, complete in itself; it’s a dependency of human culture in general, or should be. One of the functions of that culture is to keep science civilized.

 

Notes and references:

Information and quotations about the gene-editing research at the Kunming Institute of Zoology come from this article in the journal Nature: https://www.nature.com/news/monkey-kingdom-1.19762

The quoted essay on vivisection by H.G.Wells, ‘Popular Feeling and the Advancement of Science: Anti-Vivisection’ was published in a collection titled The Way the World is Going: Guesses and Forecasts of the Years Ahead (1928). Although I refer to it as ‘the 1928 essay’, it may well have been written and even published in some form before that year. The text has been made available on the web-site Animal People Forum by Wolf Gordon Clifton, who has published on the same web-site his own interesting account of the subject: ‘H.G.Wells and Animals, a Troubling Legacy’. See https://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/02/07/popular-feeling-and-the-advancement-of-science-anti-vivisection-by-h-g-wells-1928/  and https://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/01/24/h-g-wells-and-animals-a-troubling-legacy/

Quotations from The Island of Dr Moreau are taken from the Garden City Publishing Company edition of 1896 (the year also of the first UK edition by Heinemann), as kindly made available online for Project Gutenberg. Since this version has no pagination, I’ve been unable to give page references. The essay Mind at the End of its Tether is quoted similarly from a Project Gutenberg source.

George Rolleston was giving evidence to the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes on 15 July 1876 (see p.63 in the Report published by HMSO in 1876).

The review of Dr Moreau by Peter Mitchell appeared in the Saturday Review, 11 April 1896, the two relevant pages being accessible on the British Library’s web-site here: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-h-g-wellss-the-island-of-dr-moreau-from-the-saturday-review

Dr Rebrikov is quoted from an article in Nature, 18 October 2019, available online here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03018-0

The post about Dolly the sheep is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

The painting ‘Mutants’ is by the very fine Russian artist Geliy Mikhailovich Korzhev (1925-2012).

Animal Research in China

The Chinese government does not like or accept the orthodox view that the Covid-19 virus first infected humans at an animal market in Wuhan. Even a much vaguer formulation, referring to “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, was notoriously excised by the China Daily newspaper from an otherwise cordial article signed by the European ambassadors in Beijing. Still less does China officially countenance the suggestion that the virus was an escapee from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology.

This last is not an explanation that convinces many scientists outside that country either, but for China it’s especially objectionable. A recent announcement by Beijing’s Science and Technology Commission, taking a quick survey of modern history, noted that “Nations that led the most revolutionary scientific advancements . . . became global leaders in industry, commerce, and culture.” Global leadership in these and other areas of international life is patently China’s aim, so naturally the country “strives to be a superpower in innovation.” Biomedical research is an important part of this project,

CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS

and the laboratory at Wuhan has been one of its early manifestations. The National Bio-Safety Laboratory there is the first of an intended series of institutions working at the highest internationally agreed level of bio-safety, BSL-4. When the lab was completed, in 2017, a report in the journal Nature reflected in its style something of the heroic swagger of the project: “Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats.” A leading Chinese microbiologist was quoted: “The world is facing more new emerging viruses, and we need more contribution from China.” Irony and coincidence: we shouldn’t be surprised that China is doing what it can to keep them from spoiling the shine on its research facility at Wuhan, and on the larger science project which it represents.

It’s not simply a matter of national pride. That announcement quoted above was part of a closely-printed 4-page ‘advertorial’ in the American journal Science on 1 May; another one, with a different text, appeared in the next issue. Both were positioned immediately after the journal’s own editorial: that is, not among the adverts at beginning and end, but as part of the reading matter. Their express purpose, thus lavishly funded, is to attract “foreign experts” either to collaborate in the research or to set up their own research establishments – in this case in the Beijing area, but other cities and provinces are equally eager. It’s being made as easy and attractive as possible for the experts to do so, with special visas, plentiful research grants, even suitable schools “public or private”. And the high-powered welcome is very acceptable to Western scientists. “This place just makes things happen quickly”, says an MIT neuroscientist whose work is becoming trans-Pacific accordingly. A fellow-professional in that discipline is making a complete re-location to the city of Hangzhou in order direct a laboratory built to her specifications, and feels likewise liberated from impediments: “Once the decision is made, you can start writing cheques.” Cheques, that is, for staff, for equipment, and, of course, because it’s neuroscience, for animals.

So it’s not just the grants which come easily; it’s the animals, and particularly the large animals. One of the planned BSL-4 laboratories, to be built near Kunming in Yunnan province, south-western China, will be specifically for primate research, but already that province is a noted centre for such work. The Yunnan Key Laboratory, which the journal Nature calls “a Mecca for cutting-edge primate research”, specializes in editing the genes of monkeys (of which it has a colony of something over 4000) to produce models of human neural diseases. The “dream” of its director, apparently, is “to have an animal like a tool” for making biomedical discoveries with. Then there’s the Kunming Institute of Zoology, whose director of primate research hopes to develop a colony of 5000 monkeys; his dream is to run the place “like a hospital, with separate departments for surgery, genetics and imaging.”

These are dreams that many researchers in Europe and the USA evidently share, but difficulties with funds and ethics tend to prevent them from realizing the dreams in their own countries. One such, Professor Nikos Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for cloned monkeysBiological Cybernetics in Tübingen, was recently in the news announcing his intention to move to a centre for primate brain research in Shanghai. (The centre is part of a biomedical research complex which has recently produced the five monkeys pictured here on the right, gene-edited and cloned to suffer sleep-disorders. To produce these five survivors, 325 embryos were planted into 65 surrogate mothers.) Characteristically, the Shanghai centre is in process of being built; China’s science, vast as it may already be, is dwarfed by its own future. There will be 6000 or so non-human primates available there. “Scientifically it’s incredible”, Logothetis told a journalist (with that imprecise fulsomeness that scientists use for journalists, or perhaps it’s just that journalists impute it to them), but he means ethically “incredible” as well. Having had trouble with animal activists and with animal-protection law in Germany, he looks forward to a more liberal regime in Shanghai. So, presumably, do the other members of his department, about half of the total, who mean to move with him.

That’s just one well-reported example. Some Western scientists seem to run a sort of second home in China. One specialist in spinal-cord injury based in Lausanne, we’re told, “travels almost monthly to China to pursue his monkey research . . . He has even flown to Beijing, done a couple of operations on his experimental monkeys, then returned that night.” Incidentally, it costs less than half as much to buy and keep a monkey in a laboratory in China as it does in Europe or the USA, although the chances are that the monkey will have come from a breeder in China in all three cases (China provides about 70% of the primates used in the USA). That should help pay for the flights, then.

In short, primate research is one of those things in which China has the firm intention, and every likelihood, of becoming a “global leader”. There are no general animal-cruelty laws in that country, and it’s reasonable to ask whether the animals which Westerners think it worth hurrying across the globe to experiment on have any ethical protection at all. And not just primates, of course, for these are part of a huge annual cohort of lab animals. It numbers about 20 million at present, but seems likely to grow rapidly, for the present moves past at speed in China: this whole hyper-active animal-research scene in China is hardly more than fifty years old.

In fact hustle has marked the modern history of China. The people have often enough suffered as dreadfully as the animals, although they have at least been the notional last sparrowbeneficiaries. Mao Zedong’s great ‘Eliminate the Sparrows’ campaign of 1958 was one typical illustration of the place of non-human animals in communist China. In its unthought-out assault upon these birds as crop-predators, the campaign boosted the populations of the insects which the sparrows also used to eat, and helped cause the ‘Great Famine’. It did also wipe out the sparrows, apparently with the keen support of the Chinese people. Later, a sparrow population had to be imported. Something of this same hubris and hurry is evident in what has been called China’s “animal-editing binge”.

However, the hustle today has Western interests in mind, as we’ve seen. In the case of laboratory animal welfare, policy therefore pulls in opposite directions. Whilst moral permissiveness in the laboratory will appeal to many individual researchers like Logothetis, it makes collaboration with Western institutions awkward or even impractical, and as publicity it would compromise the international standing of Chinese biomedical science. It’s certainly not one of the inducements offered in that Beijing ‘advertorial’ or in any other publicity that I’ve seen. And happily there is indeed a system of ethical regulation in China’s animal research laboratories, or at least the paperwork for it.

Some reference to animal welfare even appeared in the very first Ministry of Science and Technology rules of 1988, the publication of which really marked the institutionalizing of animal research in the country. Those rules mainly concerned hygiene, record-keeping, and other aspects of lab management, but animal welfare was more expressly the subject of the Ministry’s Guidelines for the Humane Treatment of Laboratory Animals, issued in 2006. Here, something approximating to the EU’s system – with licensing, training, ethical review committees, ‘humane end-points’, and application of the 3R principles – was introduced. The stated purpose was to ensure that “animals will not suffer from unnecessary harm, hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear, torture, disease and pain”, and that “animals can achieve their natural behaviour.”

No doubt every country has its own history of malpractice in laboratories, mostly unrevealed, occasionally illuminated in scandals: helplessness of the sort imposed on the animals by these alien circumstances will always bring out the sadist or bully in some humans, whatever their nationality. Therefore there need be nothing xenophobic in deducing from the Guidelines something very unpleasant in the situation which they proposed to correct. For instance, these are some of the actions which, except when done “for the need of testing”, are specified as violations: “teasing, irritating, beating, using electric shock or hurting laboratory animals by using food with offending taste, chemical drugs and poisonous materials . . . intentionally harming the organs of laboratory animals.” 

Whether the Guidelines have been able to correct such things is another matter. They do not have the status of law, and there is little evidence that the sanctions which they do make available (warnings, suspension of license, ‘re-assignment’) have been enforced. The official policy, and habit, of secrecy would tend to hide any such evidence, of course, but also to hide the violations in the first place, and to discourage their reporting. Occasionally, papers by Chinese researchers have appeared in science journals discussing the subject in general terms, and they aren’t reassuring. Mention is made of ignorance, negligence, blunders, and deliberate abuse. One account in 2008 found that little or no provision for the welfare of animals in laboratories, beyond their basic survival needs, was then being made: “As a result, many such animals have a very high incidence of abnormal behaviour.” A survey of Chinese medical students, published in 2015, found that only 25% of them recognised animal welfare as a concept, the others not having encountered or at any rate noticed it at all.

In 2016 a new set of proposed national standards for the treatment of laboratory animals was published. These were described in China Daily as “tougher regulations . . . to bring the nation into line with developed countries”. That this was indeed at least part of the purpose, or of the purposed impression, was indicated by the choice of time and place for the announcement: a conference involving Chinese research groups and the British NC3Rs (National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research). I can’t find any reports since then of the introduction or effect of these new standards. However, we know that more and more Chinese laboratories and training programmes are applying for endorsement from the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, suggesting that they believe themselves to be indeed getting “into line with developed countries”.

It may be more significant in the long run that China has an animal rights movement of its own, or at least a growing debate on the subject. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was translated into Mandarin Chinese in the mid-1990s, and Chinese writers and campaign groups have taken up the ideology and developed it in their own setting (against greater odds, no doubt, than we have known in the West). The Chinese Animal Protection Network is an especially enterprising group, which stresses the scientific reasoning for animal rights – in evolution and in our growing awareness of the sentient capacities of non-human animals. In 2008, CAPN organised the first World Day for Animals in Laboratories in that country. And it wisely reminds its constituency of a national tradition older than communism in this matter. The last of the “six keys of our philosophy” is this: “The term animal rights may be quoted from the West, but the essence of the idea is not imported. The essence of its ideas has been widely and profoundly expressed in Chinese traditional ideas: Buddha, Taoism, and Confucianism.”

Western scientists sometimes say that tightening the rules which govern their animal research, or even maintaining them as they are, will simply drive the work away to more permissive regimes. We see that happen, but it’s not a good reason to make things more permissive here. For all its proud nationalism, China needs Western collaboration in biomedical science. Many of its own leading scientists have trained in the USA, and many of their successors will still wish to study and work in Western laboratories. They like to publish in English-language journals, as do the Western scientists who re-locate there. These journals, the better ones at any rate, demand that the welfare implications of the research they publish should be part of what’s reported (as specified in the international ARRIVE guidelines noted below). The ethical standards of the West, such as they are (and they certainly fall pitifully short of those prescriptions in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), will continue to be the international model, however crude or insincere the approximations to it may be. The stricter Westerns standards are, the better the prospects for those millions of primates, dogs, pigs, and other species doomed to live and die in Chinese laboratories.

Even so, as the foregoing sketch may have shown, their prospects are pretty frightening.

 

Notes and references:

The quotations from Chinese and Western scientists are mainly from two articles by David Cyranoski published in Nature:

https://www.nature.com/news/monkey-kingdom-1.19762

https://www.nature.com/news/inside-the-chinese-lab-poised-to-study-world-s-most-dangerous-pathogens-1.21487

A report on the Logothetis affair can be found in the journal Science here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/animal-rights-conflict-prompts-leading-researcher-leave-germany-china

The five cloned monkeys, with an extended account of gene-editing in Chinese laboratories which includes the “binge” quotation, can be found in Science, 2 August 2019, pp.426-9. The article is ominously titled ‘The CRISPR Animal Kingdom’, CRISPR being the gene-editing technology which has now made possible rapid and accurate work of the sort described.

Much of the information about animal-research regulation and ethics as practised in laboratories, including quotations from the official texts, is taken from Deborah Cao, ‘Ethical Questions for Research Ethics: Animal Research in China’, Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol.8, no.2, 2018, pp.138-49.  Also, Bryan Ogden et al, ‘Laboratory Animals Laws, Regulations, Guidelines and Standards in China Mainland, Japan, and Korea’, ILAR Journal, published online on 4 May 2017 here: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/57/3/301/3796588

China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-01/18/content_23124464.htm

CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing: https://capn-online.info/en.php

The ARRIVE guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting In Vivo Experiments) were devised by NC3Rs in 2010 and revised in 2019 as a means “to improve the reporting of research using animals”: see https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/arrive-guidelines

Illustrations show the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the five cloned monkeys in a publicity shot (note the ‘enrichments’), and a 1959 poster titled ‘Eliminating the Last Sparrow’.