“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of nature makes a man at last as remorseless as nature” Dr Moreau
Published in 1896, H G Wells book ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ tells the tale of a stranded castaway, faced with the increasingly disturbing work of the said mad scientist, whose experiments in blood transfusion and vivisection have created a race of “beast-folk”. Whilst categorically a work of fiction, the book is clearly inspired by scientific progress at the time. Just take a trip to the Huntarian museum at Lincoln Fields Inn, London, where vials of formaldehyde contain the remains of a cockerel who when living had a human tooth grafted to his crest.
Wells himself trained as a biologist, studying under Huxley, whose work on evolutionary theory challenged the view of humanity as supreme beings separate from the rest of natural order (in addition to inspiring the more sinister branch of biological practice, eugenics). It is with this boundary pushing concept that ‘the scientist’ became fearful and mistrusted by many, in particular due to their meddling in God’s creation. Moreau joins Doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein in unleashing evil under the veil of furthering human understanding.
The position for justifying the use of animals in expanding our knowledge of the world has been that animals make no moral choices, and thus have no social contract. This response seems too clinical to really address the issue, which is one of the suffering caused. Utilitarian philosophy supposes that the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain demonstrates that animals use reason to make choices and as rational beings should be eligible to rights. And yet, utilitarianism would also support the position that the loss of a few lab rats would result in “the greater good” of say curing ovarian cancer.
Interestingly Locke argued against animal cruelty because of its effects on the perpetrator: "For the custom of tormenting and killing of beasts will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men." Dr. Moreau’s search for answers and continual slaughtering of animals makes him insensitive to the idea of bloodshed, till he has no qualms with killing humans who threaten his project.
Human emotion, opinion and our tendency to anthropomorphise (attribute human qualities to non-humans) can cloud a truly scientific view of our position amongst nature. The Nazi party passed the most comprehensive laws of animal protection for their time with the Tierschutzgesetz, but these effectively gave pigs more rights than Jews. A sea change in perceptions came in the 1960s and 70s, centred around Oxford where liberal scholars mixed with student activists. Ronnie Lee, a law student formed the anti-hunting group ‘Band of Mercy’, and following a year in prison after setting fire to a research lab, came out to establish the ‘Animal Liberation Front’. This organisation now has an international reach, breaking into labs, “rescuing” the animals and releasing them in “sanctuaries”. More recently however, a spate of death threats and letter bombs delivered through the doors of prominent scientists means that the ALF are now listed amongst terrorist organisations by the US Government.
A step back is required to consider our place as consumers of resources within an ecological web. We will always rely on using natural resources to maintain our livelihoods, but we should aim for such extraction to be efficient, sustainable, and with a focus on welfare with no unnecessary suffering.