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).