Not Coming Away Clean

A report entitled ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Using Animals in Research’, and published online by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, was the subject of the third post in this blog (1 August 2015, ‘The Complete Vivisector’). The report has now been published in book form, edited by Andrew and Clair Linzey. I’ve re-read it, and I find it as good as it seemed the first time: a complete survey (though tending to concentrate on the situation in the U.K.), thoroughly lucid and readable, surely the best all-round account of this unpleasant subject there is.

The book version adds, to the original report, a new general introduction and some supplementary essays (rather a miscellany, I feel) by scholars and activists, which together account for about as many pages as the report itself. The introduction is headed ‘Oxford: the Home of Controversy about Animals’. It’s a fair title: not a glorious one, perhaps, since Oxford has first of all been the ‘home’ of vivisection, and the controversy has largely followed on from that; but an honourable title, because it shows that there have always been actively high-principled people, in the University and beyond, to object to this betrayal of what the University might stand for, or at least to insist publicly that there are profound moral questions involved. This last is the very least of what ought to be publicly acknowledged – and it was indeed acknowledged during the nineteenth-century phase of the controversy by the leader of medical science at Oxford, Professor Henry Acland, not otherwise an opponent of vivisection. He saw in it, with explicit unease, “a new phase of modern thought … part of a great moral and intellectual question bearing on the very foundation of human society”.

His close friend John Ruskin was more absolute on the subject, of course. There has always been some doubt about why Ruskin resigned his chair in Fine Art. He was certainly ailing at the time, and had possibly become unfit for the hard work of lecturing as he practised it (i.e. with great earnestness and theatricality). However, he himself did not believe so, and he unhesitatingly gave as his reason the University’s decision in 1885 to fund a laboratory where vivisection would be used. More than that, he then spoke about his work as professor of Fine Art at the University since 1869, and the work he had been intending to do in the future (for he had “meant to die in my harness there”), in such as way as to say that the laboratory had nullified it all. His whole art project at Oxford University then, which quite apart from his own high ambitions as to its value had become a phenomenon of the University’s intellectual life probably never since matched for excitement and acclamation, he thus expressly made a casualty of this new scientific practice. It was the opposite of a dedication, reflecting his belief that the new laboratory represented the opposite of what a university should teach and be.

The introduction to the new book gives some account of these and other historical protests in Oxford. It touches rather more briefly on the campaign against the very recently built laboratory (oddly dating the campaign at 2006 although even at its full strength it lasted for several years, and it continues today). And the account concludes thus: “The campaign in opposition failed. The new Oxford lab was built.” Well yes, in that particular objective it did fail, just as the 1880s campaign had failed (that lab was built too) – just as, indeed, the book itself may be said to have failed if it doesn’t bring the practice of animal research to an end by the time it goes out of print. But in fact we know that the book’s ideas will spread outward and endure, just as the story of Ruskin and those University convulsions of the 1880s endures. And here is some of what the modern campaign achieved.

Most essentially, the campaign made manifest in modern Oxford what Henry Acland had acknowledged, the moral momentousness of the decision being taken by the University: the decision, that is, to build animal research into its long-term future. When Elizabeth Costello, in J.M.Coetzee’s novel of that name, speaks to a university audience about the slaughterhouses at work in the vicinity, unseen and unacknowledged, she concludes sardonically, “We can do anything, it seems, and come away clean.” This, Oxford University would indeed have liked to do but was prevented from doing. For a time, demonstrations and rallies came to characterize speak-demos-024-300x281the city, made all the more conspicuous by the presence (often grossly over-numerous) of police officers with their alarmist cameras and high-visibility jackets. The University’s ceremonial events in particular were trailed, like a bad conscience, by demonstrators and their banners. And the scenery itself, even without the people, came to be expressive. For a year and more, the new laboratory was halted half-built, an ugly skeleton announcing itself along one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Around it, painted lines marked the limits set by court injunctions as to where protesters might go. Even now, notices of these injunctions are pinned to the trees injunction.JPGoutside the laboratory: not irrelevantly, because the demonstrations continue in that place today, but they’re also important documents, advertising to a multitude of passers-by every day the cause they were aimed at.

With the new awareness of animal research which was thus gifted to the town and University came of course the debate properly due to this subject. It was forced upon the University by activists, but of course it should have been promoted by the University itself, as an intellectual institution preparing to implicate all its thousands of members in a renewed commitment to a practice that some of them must certainly have deplored. (I don’t want to sound naïve by calling the University also a moral or even spiritual institution, although its own motto does claim or solicit divine guidance.) That it did not promote or even facilitate the debate is a reminder of how little the University really does exist as one institution with any coherent aim other than growth and reputational success. Such unitary voice as it has is mainly synthesized by fund-raisers and PR people speaking on its behalf; otherwise it’s really a congeries of discrete subjects, professions, and careers, careful not to tread on each other’s ground. This was already a concern for Ruskin. He hoped to make his own art school a harmonising force, and indeed made himself unpopular with other professors by freely expatiating on their subjects in his own lectures (in fact on “every subject on earth but the subject of his chair”, as one contemporary complained). The progressive atomizing of the university is no doubt largely what prevented its senior membership from playing any collective part in the modern controversy, of the sort it certainly had played, on both sides, in the controversy of the 1880s.

Anyway, the debate did occur, and in many different ways, formal and informal, from televised set-pieces, through talks and seminars, to ‘vocalizations’ (I use the preferred physiologist’s term) of all kinds in the streets. And crucially, the audiences and participants included science students, who were encountering animal ethics for once not just as a possible branch of their professional training – another ‘module’ to pass an exam in – but as a decision of very great consequence to be made about human nature in themselves and in general.

“Where is your moral teaching in science?” So the politician Tony Benn asked the scientist Richard Dawkins (both of them Oxford graduates) during an interview. Repeatedly in the history of vivisection (including human vivisection), sudden light has revealed scientists insouciantly doing what astonishes and scandalizes their lay contemporaries. It’s really how the anti-vivisection movement began in the U.K., when outsiders to the profession were given an unintended view of the contents of the 1873 Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory. The recent news story about testing diesel exhaust on monkeys is another such occasion. Two of the supplementary essays in the Linzey book touch on this question of the morally unschooled science-mind. One of them, ‘Is “Necessity” a Useful Concept in Animal Research Ethics?’, shows how that slippery concept is used by the research community and its apologists as a sort of alibi or substitute for real ethical attention. The other, Katy Taylor’s excellent study of the utilitarian calculus, ‘Harms versus Benefits’, considers (sceptically) the notion that doing these calculations (in so far as they are done, or even can be), at least gets researchers “to simply consider the ethics of what they are doing.”

It’s a problem which will assume ever more urgency as science grows in scope and authority. Certainly it can’t be solved simply by direct action, but at least for the fourteen years to date of the Oxford campaign, no-one using the University’s science area can have been unaware of the existence of moral values more ambitious than their own or at least than their institution’s. The years of banners, whistles, amplified commentary, crowds, vigils, earnest human attention, have made sure of that.

Yes, direct action may pass into illegality, in a way that lectures and formal debates almost never do. In fact the tactics of the police and of the University’s security service were almost certainly designed to make anything done on behalf of the animal cause outdoors look illegal in itself, or likely to be illegal at any moment. And this is no doubt largely why the introduction to the Linzeys’ book hurries rather briefly over the modern phase of the Oxford controversy; why also, though it kindly mentions VERO (and I hope that VERO has indeed played a worthwhile part in the story), it does not mention by name the group which initiated, orchestrated, and led SPEAK banners at WDAIL.jpgthe most active of the protests throughout, and is still there on the street making the case against vivisection outside the new laboratory: that is, SPEAK, ‘the voice for the rights of animals’.

This blog has already covered the subject of law-breaking (15 January 2016, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’). I shall only say here that in the anniversary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when the suffragettes are being remembered with admiration and gratitude, I don’t hear it said that their criminal offences against property discredited the cause or the women’s reputations. It was said very often at the time, as it is said now about animal rights militancy. Well, let us wait until the animal cause too is won and has become orthodoxy; then we can more confidently decide what we think about the people who took its risks and paid its penalties.


Notes and references:

The Ethical Case against Animal Experiments, edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, is published by University of Illinois Press, 2018. Quotations are from pp.2 & 149.

The quotation from Henry Acland is part of the evidence he gave to the Royal Commission of 1875-6: see Report of the Royal Commission on the practice of subjecting live animals to experiments for scientific purposes, HMSO, 1876, pp.47-8. The Ruskin quotation is from his letter to the Pall Mall Gazette explaining his resignation, reprinted in the Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, George Allen, 1903-12, vol.33, p.lvi. The comment on his lecturing was made by the historian J.R.Green in the Saturday Review in 1870, reprinted in his Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901 (p.265).

J.M.Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is quoted from the Vintage edition of 2004, p.80. Chapters 3 and 4 of this novel recount Elizabeth Costello’s experiences as a visiting lecturer speaking about the rights and sufferings of animals. It’s a brilliant and profound piece of writing.

The illustrations show a demonstration in Broad Street (note the tourist bus viewing the principal sights of Oxford), an injunction notice outside the laboratory in South Parks Road (the cameras seen on the left followed me as I took this photograph), and a rally at the Mansfield Road side of the laboratory (this photo by Paul Freestone).

This blog’s review of ‘Normalizing the Unthinkable’ can be read here:

The post about law-breaking, ‘In Prison, and You Visited Me’, is here:



Keeping Them in their Places

At the top of Time Out’s list of recommended museum destinations in London this autumn is University College’s Grant Museum of Zoology and its exhibition ‘The Museum of Ordinary Animals’. The theme of the exhibition is “the mundane creatures in our everyday lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice”, and how these animals have, through their relationship with humans, “changed the world”: a very important theme, especially at the start of an academic year, when it may help to advise a new body of zoology students how to view their subject. Whether the advice implied in the exhibition is altogether good advice is another matter.

The Museum itself comprises one fine galleried room in the enormous 1920s Rockefeller Building, part of University College London’s medical school in Gower Street. Most of the room is taken up by a permanent collection: skeletons, whole and partial animals showcase 3 preserved in jars, and other remnants of the world’s zoology, themselves part of a much larger collection made by former administrations but still in use for teaching purposes. Being mostly (and very wisely) unmodernized, the room is a period piece. It looks, on its smaller scale, much as Oxford University’s Museum must have looked in the 1870s when John Ruskin gave his lectures there and angrily spoke against that collection as “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”. Ruskin hated its emphasis on the exotic and the dead, and he told the students “I could fill all this museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.”

So the Grant Museum’s current exhibition, fitted in among these more traditional exhibits, may be thought of as making, at least temporarily, just the correction that Ruskin had proposed. There’s a showcase about chickens (illustrated with a stuffed hen) and other farmed animals. Another one follows the human-related migrations of feral rats. There’s a sad account of the imported domestic cat and its destruction of Australia’s wild-life. And two or three videos, as well as a display of snails inhabiting a log, show animals in the live state.

One showcase is labelled ‘Ordinary animals and medicine: the Brown Dog Affair’, and tells that story, illustrated with a picture of the original “very contentious statue” [see post for 7 August 2015]. Inside the case is a respirator for keeping such dogs alive “during vivisection”. It’s an ugly exhibit, or perhaps just an ugly idea; at any rate, here and elsewhere, the exhibition strives to be candid and impartial, positivist in the scientific sense, neither giving nor taking ground on the subject of what we’re entitled to do to these “ordinary” animals. Thus a case showing examples of dissection acknowledges that the practice is becoming less popular in schools “because of changing perceptions by many students and teachers about whether dissection is right”, but the word perceptions (being nowadays used to mean thinking rather than seeing) indicates that it’s a sociological rather than a moral point that’s being made.

All the same, illuminating as it is, the exhibition doesn’t really present a dis-interested account of the subject. In details, and in more general ways, its world-view is plainly and conservatively anthropocentric. That stuffed henstuffed hen, for instance (incidentally a modern piece of work), is glowingly clean and alert-looking, with a roomy glass case to itself. The plinth is simply labelled ‘chicken’, as if this glossy hen stands for all her kind, but the theme of the case is given as ‘The genetics of battery farming’. It amounts to a consoling lie. No battery-farmed chicken could look like this. A single photograph of ‘battery farming’ would have shown what in practice it means to a chicken’s health and appearance to “yield” (that’s the verb used in the exhibition) eggs or meat on the scale required.

And there’s a larger and stranger misrepresentation. Of these species that we “encounter every day on our plates, on our laps and on our streets”, by far the most familiar and ubiquitous, on our streets at any rate, is simply omitted, except as the reference-point for everything else. Anyone visiting the exhibition must feel this anomaly, having just been part of the herds of humans surging this way and that between UCL’s different buildings, and hunted off the roads by competing surges of the motorized sub-species. What the cat has done to Australia is a little thing compared to what humans have done there and everywhere else in the world. But I could find no confirmation in the exhibition that humans are even animals at all. In this room where the names of UCL life-science worthies are inscribed in gold on the ceiling brackets, the exhibition discourses as if the evolution of species has yet to be accepted in the university.

Then there’s the humour. Time Out’s review of the Grant Museum show is predictably flippant: “They’re playing a cat-and-mouse game with a show dedicated to all creatures ‘mundane’.” That’s how some journalists like to write. More dismaying is that the several curators of the show, some or all of whom are academic scientists, are infected with the same waggishness. “Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not”, they announce on the more or less scholarly web-site ‘The Conversation’. And it’s there in the exhibition too. The text about cats in Australia is headed ‘CATastrophe’. The one about rats following human settlements is headed ‘Rat race’. Professor Steve Jones enlivens his display of Cepaea snails with a quip about the science of genetics having until recently moved at a snail’s pace.

This is fun science, I suppose (one of the associated events is a ‘comedy night’), but it’s instructive to compare the ‘Ordinary Animals’ show with another UCL exhibition a short distance away in the main building, entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL’. This is a straight and wholly unjocular review of its subject, which is human attitudes and practices in relation to human death and the dead human body. It includes the preserved head of Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of UCL. Bentham Benthamfirst bequeathed his own body to medical study in a will made when he was aged 21. Later he specified that it should afterwards be preserved and set up as an ‘auto-icon’ in the college – where indeed it may still be seen, in a cabinet stationed a few yards from this exhibition, though with a wax model for the head. Partly, Bentham wished to support scientific education, but he also, as a secularist, wished to de-mystify the human body, to rank it thus with the thousands of deserted casings of other species later to be kept in the college and visible in the Grant Museum. (For the ethical dimension to this egalitarianism, see the quotation from Bentham on the banner shown at the top of this page.) But evidently UCL hasn’t yet caught up with Bentham’s serene impartiality: the quite properly respectful, even wary, tone in the wordage to this exhibition is very different from the jauntiness at the Grant Museum. This, after all, is about us; over the road, it’s only about them.

UCL isn’t alone in this, of course. When the Oxford University Museum hosted a conference earlier this year with a similar theme, ‘Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future’, it did have a definite ideological aim: to consider “the consequences of our consumer demands [i.e. for “cheap protein”] on global human and animal health”. It hoped also to recover or at least recall, on the chickens’ behalf, something of the prestige which the species enjoyed in pre-modern times as one of the “special animals”. Even so, the event was presented with the same familiar winks and puns. “Why did the chicken cross the globe?” asked the University’s News and Events web-page, introducing the conference. The running narrative of the event on twitter was tirelessly joky: “Registration table ready!” “Flocking to take seats at the chicken conference.” “Cracking!” Someone tweeted a sign which they’d noticed outside an Oxford fast-food restaurant, advertising “our latest special Cluckosaurus Rex: it’s a clucking beast of a burger!” Noticed it with indignation and sorrow? Not at all, for in fact a highlight of the conference scene was a giant model chicken, placed alongside the Museum’s skeleton-cast of Tyrannosaurus rex and itself named ‘Dinnersaurus rex’. As the University’s web-site explains, “With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.” It’s true that this model was part of a school project linked to the conference, and led by an official artist/comedian (wearing, hilariously, a papier-mâché chicken head), but that just makes the remorseless jocularity authoritative and prescribed. It would have been more in accord with the expressed purpose of the conference to teach or show children how to take animals seriously. I feel sure that most children would naturally prefer to do so.

The question is whether these adults take animals seriously. Perhaps they can’t really afford to, except as academic raw material; it would make using them for that or any other purpose so much more problematic. In her novel Hackenfeller’s Ape [see post for 11 October 2015], Brigid Brophy writes about a research monkey called Percy, and “the facetious spirit which had given the animal its name”. Mocking animals in this way, however mildly, has a function; it keeps them at a distance, makes their status more malleable. For after all, at the same time as boosting the chicken’s proper dignity with this conference, or proposing to do so, Oxford University had been conducting ‘procedures’ on real chickens as part of an extended study of their mating and reproductive characteristics (using red junglefowl or Gallus gallus, chief ancestor of the farmed chicken). This was partly a study in evolution, but it also aimed to illuminate “reductions in performance amongst domestic chickens and resultant impact on the poultry industry”. Such work presupposes and accepts the complete subjugation of the species, and supports it. I won’t detail the devices and techniques used to intervene in the animals’ sex acts, but neither they nor their commercial reference will have done anything to advance the status of this wretchedly abused species.

Like Oxford, UCL is always somewhere in the top three or four consumers of research animals among British universities. The uncertainty of attitude characterizing the events  at these two institutions, their unscientific speciesism, the habitual smirk with which the non-human animals are patronized, all these are symptoms of a divided mentality. As humans, we know that these animals are fellow-creatures, homogeneous with us in origin and mode of being, but so long as in practice we exploit them as objects, we cannot think and speak of them with the rationality of a good conscience, and it shows.


Notes and references:

The Grant Museum exhibition (on until 22 December) is introduced online at

Quotations about it are from the online text, or from the booklet issued at the Museum, unless otherwise stated. The exhibition is free, and the place is hospitable and well worth visiting anyway. The photograph of the hen is made available on the Grant Museum web-site. I should add that the taxidermist in this instance, Jazmine Miles-Long, quite reasonably calls her taxidermy “ethical”, in that she does not accept work upon animals which have been killed for that purpose.

The piece in Time Out, selecting London’s top ten museum exhibitions, was posted on 25 September here:

The exhibition ‘What Does it Mean to be Human?’ (on until 28 February 2018) is in the Octagon of the main Wilkins Building of UCL.

John Ruskin’s words come from lecture 4 in the series ‘Readings in Modern Painters’, delivered in the University Museum in Michaelmas Term 1877 (see Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, vol.22, p.520).

The Oxford conference took place on 27-8 January 2017, as presented on the University’s web-site here: and as variously reported on @Chicken_project.

The particular junglefowl study quoted is Borziac, K., et al, ‘The seminal fluid proteome of the polyandrous Red junglefowl offers insights into the molecular basis of fertility, reproductive ageing and domestication’, published in Scientific Reports 6, 2016. This was one of several publications arising from a research project at the University’s John Krebs Field Station.