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).

Life on Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes and references:

The earlier post about space travel can be viewed here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/to-boldly-make-them-go/

PETA’s petition can be signed at http://www.peta.org/action/action-alerts/russia-plans-send-monkeys-mars/

The studies of lichen at the Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin are reported at http://www.dlr.de/dlr/en/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-10081/151_read-3409/#/gallery/5671 , from where also the quotation about contamination of Mars is taken. The NASA potato studies are reported in the Times, 10 March, p.11.

For the text of the Outer Space Treaty see https://www.state.gov/t/isn/5181.htm

Quotations from War of the Worlds are in the Penguin 2012 edition, pp. 3, 32, 51, 151, 70, 161, 8, 156. The quotation from A Modern Utopia is taken from an essay ‘H.G.Wells and Animals: a Troubling Legacy’, which can be read on the excellent web-site of the Animal People Forum at http://animalpeopleforum.org/2016/01/24/h-g-wells-and-animals-a-troubling-legacy/

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

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