An Oxford Story

Fifty years ago Oxford, like many other universities, was going through a phase of political restlessness and dissent, at least among its students and younger dons. National and local controversies made themselves felt on Oxford’s walls in graffiti of an anti-establishment kind. ‘F– Franks’ was painted in giant letters on the wall of Keble College, in reference to the recent Franks Report on the University’s governance. Balliol’s west wall was used as a lively social medium for opinions and protests. World peace, socialism, anarchism, and other noble futures were declared imminent with priggish self-confidence in countless rooms and halls: “the revolution’s here”, as the hit song said in the summer of 1969.

In all this, of course, the animal theme had almost no part. There was a University Vegetarian Society, but then there was a society for almost every strange interest. College kitchens would provide an omelette as the all-purpose meat-alternative for the very few who wanted it. As for veganism: the 1969 Oxford Dictionary addenda of new words was recognizing hippy, fuzz, and drop-out, but still not including vegan, though that word had been in use since 1944. Academically too, the theme was invisible. The study of philosophy at Oxford was mainly devoted to linguistic analysis, ‘talk about talk’. Moral Philosophy involved discussion of key concepts such as ‘good’, and ‘duty’ in the abstract, or there was ‘meta-ethics’, which questioned whether our moral judgements had any communicable validity or were merely expressions of personal feeling, the consensus being in favour of the latter interpretation. Of applied ethics, a staple of philosophy departments nowadays, there was no official teaching at all.

As to the life-sciences, this was almost certainly the most profligate period so far in the University’s hundred-year history of vivisection (but no numbers were published, or even perhaps kept). The back parts of the physiology building smelled of distressed animals, and experiments using cats and monkeys in careless quantities were routine. After all, Oxford was a centre of vivisection in a nation which was at this time using about five million animals a year in its laboratories. To supervise all this, the Home Office was providing eleven inspectors.

Then in the Hilary Term of 1970 those same numbers were advertised in a remarkable leaflet composed by Richard Ryder and distributed by him round Oxford’s churches, schools, shops, and colleges. The witty and prodding text introduced the concept and word ‘speciesism’ (Ryder’s invention). Readers were told something about the practice and ethics of vivisection, and urged to contact “MPs, professors, editors about this increasingly important moral issue.” It was a heroic individual effort by someone who, as a psychiatrist working at Oxford’s Warneford Hospital, was taking a professional risk with it. And the University, in the person of Professor of Pharmacology William Paton, did indeed complain to the Warneford authorities about Ryder’s campaigning.

But there was by now a small band of people at Oxford, mostly post-graduate students, who shared Ryder’s concerns. Their thinking and their discussions were genuinely counter-cultural, as opposed to the ubiquitous bolshevism of student fashion, and together with Ryder they would soon produce an even more notable publication, the collection of essays titled Animals, Men and Morals (1971). This daring and momentous book would revive animal rights as a serious public controversy after a long period of disuse, and show also, by example, that the claims of animals deserved the attention of academic philosophers.

This ‘Oxford Group’ (again, Ryder’s coinage) numbered ten people – three married couples and four others – though for their book they had help and contributions from several other people from outside Oxford who were already involved in animal protection. How these ten met, and how they collectively created in that inhospitable Oxford environment (even today it’s not an animal-friendly scene) a corpus of thought which still reads with subversive power, is now the subject of a full-length book, The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye. This book Ox Group coverrecords, mainly through interviews with former members of the Group, the key relationships and influences, the discussions and the shared meals, through which their moral convictions took considered form. It’s oral history, then, and there is vivid and extensive quotation, with many telling moments recorded: the ethical ‘epiphanies’; the dietary adventures (“Peter and Renata for dinner. Protoveg stroganoff, noodles, peas, olives, white wine. Nice visit.” says a diary entry); the slightly bashful demonstrations outside St Michael’s Church in central Oxford (Richard Ryder was the only natural activist among them at that time); the intellectual walks, including the one that took two of them past the body of a bird, killed by traffic (“If that were a dead person . . . they wouldn’t just leave the body beside the road”).

That last quotation is from the recollections of Peter Singer, but the speaker and acting moral tutor at the time was Stanley Godlovitch, who had been already a convinced vegetarian when he came to Oxford from Canada in 1968, and was accordingly a key persuader. But yes, Singer naturally has a leading part in the book. He arrived slightly later than the others. Animals, Men and Morals was already in the making, and he did not contribute, but his review of it later on for the New York Review of Books led to his own Animal Liberation (1975), a more compelling title and in time a much more successful book. Accordingly Singer rose professionally with the subject more than any of the others, going their own various ways as they did.

However, it’s one of the merits of The Oxford Group that it shows the collectivity of the ideas at that time and re-distributes their ownership (as Singer himself, least arrogant of celebrated thinkers, very willingly does in his interviews for the book). In particular it highlights the importance of Richard Ryder, less famous now than Singer but in fact a hero of the animal rights movement, who in any other sphere of the UK’s public life would surely have been honoured in some way by the state for his services.

Then there was Roslind Godlovitch. Like her husband Stanley, Roslind was a strong persuasive influence on Singer and the others. She had already published a pioneering article in the journal Philosophy, which she adapted for her chapter in Animals, Men and Morals. This is a witty and polemical piece, still illuminating and authoritative now. She contemplates the contemporary ethical notion that, although animals should be protected from suffering when possible, their lives in themselves have no moral value, and she subjects it to a contemptuous reductio ad absurdum, showing that our logical course should therefore be “to exterminate all animal life.” She then suggests, much as Jonathan Swift might have done, how governments and charities could collaborate to achieve this end. But in fact, as she says with moving absoluteness, “there is nothing to indicate that an animal values its life any less than a human being values his” (the ‘his’ is perhaps of its period; the statement itself is surely for all time). Roslind Godlovitch, who discontinued her post-graduate research and wrote nothing further about animal ethics, is one of the five members of the Oxford Group to whom Singer dedicated Animal Liberation.

Richard Garner, the lead author of The Oxford Group, is a notable and well-published proponent of animal rights. In particular he has argued, as a political scientist, for the incorporation of animal interests in the political system. But for this study of ideas he has expressly chosen to be impartial as to the quality of the arguments involved: “agnostic” is the term he uses. That seems wise for a historian and interviewer, and the arguments speak adequately and indeed passionately for themselves, or rather for the personalities who are recorded as proposing them. But Garner has gone further and cast the whole story as a sociological study, illustrating “the social construction of knowledge”, or how humans collaborate to create ideas and give them currency.

It makes for a clear organizing principle, certainly, but I would say also an unfortunate one. It’s not just that the dead hand of sociological jargonizing lies heavily upon some parts of the text, but I shall take that first. It especially affects the opening chapter, which lays out the theoretical machinery and will surely tend to alienate the common reader and doom the book to the shelves of university libraries (though the price may do that anyway). For instance this, by way of providing some theory for the interviews: “The dynamics of an oral history interview is usually centred around the intersubjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee.” I choose this sentence partly as a sample of sociology’s habit of disguising the patently obvious in nebulous abstracts, and partly to illustrate the baleful influence which this habit of abstract diction has on ordinary nearby English: “dynamics is”? “”centred around”?

But perhaps more unfortunate is the incongruity between this study-bound theory and the energy, urgency, and sense of revelation which (as the book clearly shows us) animated the members of the Oxford Group. That encounter with the dead bird, for instance, so immediate and also so emblematic (Albert Schweitzer saw a dead insect as both a lesson and a real presence in just the same way), is part of a section intended to illustrate “the Role of the Gatekeepers”. That’s “in Farrell’s terminology”, Professor Michael Farrell being the chief supplier of sociological theory to the book – and the reader comes to dread his name, academically distinguished as it no doubt is.

I would finally add that, as David Wood argues in his chapter of Animals, Men and Morals, jargon is a notorious enemy of clear moral awareness. He titles the chapter ‘Strategies’ (i.e. strategies to conceal what’s really happening to animals) and shows how “a huge pattern of jargon” has been deployed with great success to obscure the realities of meat and dairy production. Again, therefore, the use of this sort of abstract and distancing language in The Oxford Group is painfully incongruous.

Still, the story easily escapes this theoretical cage, and it’s a fascinating, exciting, and moving story, whose importance is growing all the time. In his ‘Postscript’ to Animals, Men and Morals, Patrick Corbett (of Balliol, but by 1970 a professor at Sussex) says “we want to change the world.” How many of the restless spirits at Oxford in the late 1960s were thinking and saying that! So many of their projects came to nothing, and often enough it’s just as well they did. But here was one that most fortunately did not. Sadness we must feel that it continues to be relevant and urgent fifty years on, but profound gratitude too for the originality and fervour of that band of ten – and of course gratitude also, despite my carping, towards the authors who have now given the Oxford Group its proper history.

Notes and references:

The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: an Intellectual History, by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye, is published by Oxford University Press, price £47.99. Please note that the date of publication was 17 December 2020, and this review of it uses a proof copy only. There will have been changes, and accordingly I don’t give page references.

The song quoted is Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’, which was top of the hit parade for a while in July 1969, but Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are a-Changin’, with its stern advice to “mothers and fathers . . . don’t criticize what you don’t understand”, would summarize the outlook just as well.

The new words are listed in the ‘Addenda’ to the 4th edition of the Little Oxford Dictionary, OUP, 1969.

The text of Richard Ryder’s 1970 leaflet is provided at pp. 44-5. Professor Paton later wrote a defence of animal research, Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research, OUP, 1984.

Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, was published by Victor Gollancz. Quotations are from pp. 168 and 164 (Godlovitch chapter), 199 (David Wood), and 232 (Patrick Corbett). Contributors from outside the Oxford Group included Ruth Harrison, Brigid Brophy (who partly organised the project), Muriel Lady Dowding, and Maureen Duffy.

Poets and Vivisectors

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

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

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

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

                        of mankind’s lot. For instance …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, addressing the hare herself,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

The stained glass window is from the Norfolk church of St Nicholas, Dereham, where the poet is buried. It shows Cowper with the three hares and his spaniel Marquis (the four of them were, he wrote, “in all respects sociable and friendly”). The photograph is used by kind permission of Simon Knott, and can be seen in context at http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/derehamnicholas/images/dscf6948.jpg.

 

Remembering the Founding Text of the Animal Rights Movement (not by Peter Singer)

It’s now forty five years since the book of essays Animals, Men and Morals was published. Its editors were three post-graduate philosophers at Oxford, and several of their fellow-writers for the book were likewise University people. Accordingly some of its chapters are academic studies of one kind or another, though written with unacademic fervour and impatience. Others lay out the facts of factory farming, fur and cosmetics, and experiments on animals. Although it made no great splash at the time, this book proved to be the pioneering text for the modern animal rights movement, in both its philosophical and animals-men-morals-coverits political forms. The chapter on vivisection was written by Richard Ryder, then a psychologist in an Oxford hospital, and since that’s the unhappy subject of this blog I shall say a little more about his part in the book.

Ryder himself had done research work with animals (I politely use that richly euphemistic “with”). Therefore he knew the things of which he came to write. What he first wrote was a pamphlet titled Speciesism, which he published and distributed round Oxford in 1970. He had coined its title-word on the analogy of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, in order to show at a lexical glance that the moral revolution of the 1960s, unfinished as it obviously was, had still another ancient orthodoxy to start to undo. By placing the subject of animal welfare in a political context in this way, he also freed it from its conventional associations with the minor good works of well-off old ladies (i.e. courageous women who meant to get something right done, as fortunately many still do). When another Oxford post-graduate, Peter Singer, reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books, and when he went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), he used ‘speciesism’ as his key word for just those reasons and despite its awkwardness (“the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term”[i]). Defining as it does the essential wrong, Ryder’s word remains a complete work of animal ethics and a rule-book in ten letters.

Singer’s review spoke of Animal, Men and Morals as “a manifesto for an Animal Liberation movement”[ii]. In the event, it was his own book which became that manifesto, and it has been so ever since. But it was the earlier book which had established the proper way to look at the subject: not just as a miscellany of improvised cruelties, calling on the services of kindly people to press for remedies, but as an enormous and systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind. As the book’s ‘Postscript’ says – so much in the spirit of that time, as well as of that project – “we want to change the world.”[iii]

Richard Ryder’s chapter of the book, surveying the law and practice of animal research, was a good deal longer than any of the others. It gives many examples of contemporary experiments, illustrative of what animals might be asked to endure: rats in their ‘Wright Auto-Smoker’, dogs having their legs crushed in the notorious ‘Blalock Press’ (ah, those evocative trade-names!), pregnant baboons in car-crash simulations, and so on. A few of the examples are from Oxford’s laboratories. It’s a disgusting read, and it all sits in the baleful shade of the chapter’s epigraph, taken from the works of one of experimental psychology’s leading practitioners, Harry Harlow: “most experiments are not worth doing and the data obtained are not worth publishing.”[iv]

It is often asked of those who oppose vivisection why they don’t bother about the far greater numbers of animals killed for food. The simple answer of course is that they do. As Animals, Men and Morals insisted, it’s all one subject, though some may specialize within it. But there’s a more unpleasant answer too. Factory farming is itself a product of scientific research. Ruth Harrison showed as much in her chapter of the book, and she had already written, in Animal Machines (1964), that “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The laboratory may exemplify speciesism in an especially stark and modern way, but it also promotes and facilitates it elsewhere.

A popular account of animal research published in 1963 makes this last point very clearly, and also helpfully illustrates the orthodox thinking of the time. The Science of Animal Behaviour was written for the Pelican imprint by P.L.Broadhurst, a professor at Birmingham. He was presumably aiming the book at the lay-person and the aspiring young scientist, and it is clearly and reasonably intended as an advertisement for his profession. There is not much in it about animals as they can be observed in nature. The laboratory is Broadhurst’s preferred setting, partly because that was his own place of work (rats and the misleadingly fun-sounding “shuttle box” were his customary tools), but mainly because animals in themselves do not quite constitute a subject: “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.”[v] 

Accordingly, a high point of Broadhurst’s presentation is the contemporary research of that same Professor Harlow into maternal deprivation as it affected baby rhesus monkeys, and therefore might be supposed to concern humans. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed”, muses our author, himself a family man. “But just how important …?” Harlow’s work with his artificial mothers, carefully graded as to their lovelessness and delinquency, seemed to provide some exciting answers. For instance, as Broadhurst reports, these forlorn babies “preferred a soft cloth model even when it did not provide milk to a hard one which did!” Not just that bumptious exclamation mark, but the cover of the book itself, picturing a monkey in the throes of this pathetic decision, show that the experiment, which ought to bring tears to the eyes of any person of ordinary sensibility, is thought to instance the discipline of animal research at its most thrilling.

I’m sure that Professor Broadhurst was a kind enough man, though of Harlow one can be rather less certain. Both had wives who helped them in their research, if that’s relevant. As Richard Ryder says in Victims of Science, “My intention is in no way to defame scientists, but to question their conventions.”[vi] And the convention in which Broadhurst was working is very clear: it is the old master/slave convention. And not just at work, where what he calls “the lowly rodent and his laboratory master” live out that relationship. Those two are the template for a much larger project, because, so he proposes, the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In the editorial foreword to The Science of Animal Behaviour, this “service of man” is frankly and enthusiastically called “slave labour”.

It seemed natural at that time, at least to Broadhurst and his editor, to cast the scientist as the designer of our future relations with animals. So at the same moment that Ruth Harrison, in Animal Machines, was warning of the horrors of industrialized farming, Broadhurst was telling his Pelican audience that the present role of animals in food production would soon “seem pitifully small” (a most interesting choice of adverb). It’s true that to some extent science has begun to provide its own corrective in the new academic discipline of Animal Welfare (where Oxford University has been taking a leading part). But I believe that Broadhurst and his colleagues in the profession would have welcomed this, as keeping the story within the laboratory and its variants, and in the hands of scientists. Besides, science has not been brought to a pause in this matter. New ways of exploiting animals for food, indeed new animals, are being thought up and made real now for new forms of slavery.

No, it’s not by inventing techniques for the study and measurement of animal welfare that speciesism, as exposed in Animals, Men and Morals and still going strong now, can be understood and undone, and new varieties of it prevented. What’s needed of mankind is a “re-appraisal of his position in relation to the creatures with which he shares the environment” That quotation is from Ruth Harrison’s chapter in the book. It’s the chapter about factory farming, but it’s also the first chapter, and it acted as an introduction to what followed. Her first sentence accordingly takes a fully re-proportioning view of our standing in the natural world: “It is a sobering thought that animals could do without man yet man would find it impossible to do without animals.” This is a radical fact: if you read “could” as a past tense (‘were perfectly able to’), you have the whole tragic history of human/animal relations before you. Animals, Men and Morals was the first full statement of that tragedy as it looked in the twentieth century, and the first authoritative call to put it right.

 

[i] Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, p.6

[ii] New York Review of Books, vol.20, no.5, April 5, 1973

[iii] Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, Gollancz, 1971, p.232. Later quotations are from p.11.

[iv] Referenced in the text to Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1962

[v] The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963, p.12. Later quotations are from pp.74, 73, 100, 135, and 132.

[vi] Davis-Poynter, 1975, preface

This post is a revised version of an article first published in the Oxford Magazine (the University’s house journal) in 2013.