Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/October 1884/Man's Right Over Animals
|←The Recent Progress of Physical Science||Popular Science Monthly Volume 25 October 1884 (1884)
Man's Right Over Animals
By Charles Robert Richet
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THERE is no such impassable gap between man and the animals that they can not be considered brothers in creation, and therefore liable to certain reciprocal obligations. As it is our duty to be just and sympathetic toward men, it is equally our duty not to be wicked or cruel toward animals. Whoever believes that he has a right to cause death or suffering to innocent beasts for his own pleasure is unworthy to be called a man. This precept is, however, limited by the consideration of what is useful to us. A dangerous or noxious animal may be destroyed without pity; for, whatever may be our duties toward the animal, our duties toward man are greater. Thus, no one would think of having any mercy on the phylloxera, the pest of the grape-vine, but all would consider it a pious duty to destroy that baleful insect; and it is right to use every effort to hunt out the tigers and serpents of India. All the world is of one mind on these points.
Besides these maleficent animals there are useful ones, which serve us food, or on which we call for daily help. It would be absurd to prevent horses from drawing carriages, or oxen from being yoked to plows. The suppression of animal food, which is almost necessary to our existence, is not a subject for serious consideration. But if man has the right to slay an animal to live upon its flesh, it does not follow that he has the right to make it suffer before killing it. Legitimate as it may seem to kill a sheep to make food of it, it would be cruel to take the animal and expose him to torture for the vain pleasure of watching his contortions and observing his pain. It is, however, this very pain and just such contortions that physicists who make vivisections study with curiosity; and this leads us to the consideration of the question. Has man the right to make living beings suffer for purposes of utility or information?
We remark, first, that if vivisection is to be proscribed, it will be impossible to draw the line at any animal. If morality prohibits us from experimenting on the dog, we must, by the same rule, respect the cat, the rabbit, the fowl, the turtle, and the frog. If we prohibit the use of the frog, how can we permit the use of the snail, the oyster, and the medusa? In a little while we come to those beings the animal nature of which is in dispute. If we are forbiden to send an electric current through the body of a medusa, I do not see what right we have to electrify bacteria. Finally, it might be made to appear a culpable act to put an axe into an oak, or to electrify a sensitive-plant, since in either case we disorganize a living being, and possibly produce suffering. Thus easily is the reasoning of the anti-vivisectionists reduced to absurdity.
The anti-vivisectionists, however, direct their opposition against the infliction of pain; and that, they say, is acute in proportion as the animal is intelligent. The animals nearest in order to man are the ones which it is most important to spare from suffering, and there are gradations in the wrong. It is very wrong to make a dog suffer, but the matter is less a crime when it comes to a rabbit. A frog and a crawfish are entitled to still less compassion, and, in the case of the medusæ, bacteria, and plants, whose sensibility is less developed, the act is only half reprehensible. This argument yields the point that we have a right to experiment upon animals which do not feel suffering, or only feel it a little. Let us leave out the question of the inferior animals, and go straight to the strongest argument that can be brought forward, that which turns upon the martyrdom of the dog. Let us take the question, as they say, by the horns, and see if the physiologists have the right to make a dog suffer.
I love dogs for themselves; I have as much compassion as any one can have for them when they are suffering; I know by experience that their friendship is a precious resource in solitude; but, however, much I may feel for dogs, I should never hesitate to sacrifice the dearest pet among them all for the existence of a human being, even were the man unknown to me, or the lowest of savages. Hesitation as between a dog and a man is not permissible. We owe aid and love to the beings who are nearest to us, in the degree that they are nearer, to a Frenchman more than to a Chinese, to a man more than to an animal. We are all of the great human family, to all the individuals of which we owe justice and assistance, while we owe to animals pity and protection only when they involve no harm to our human brethren.
The principal object of science, and particularly of physiological science, is to be useful to men. Knowledge of the laws of Nature alone can help us to assuage the miseries of our existence. Every step of progress in our knowledge leads in the end to a forward step in our career. Even though we may not immediately comprehend the practical utility of a particular discovery, it will eventually bear a sure fruit. The innumerable and mysterious facts of the medium in which we live are subject to fixed laws that are only imperfectly known. All our efforts should tend to elucidate these laws; and science—that is, the investigation of the grand laws of Nature—seems to be one of the principal functions of human energy. A very high value should, therefore, be set upon everything that aids the progress of science.
It is an erroneous view of science to expect that it shall at once give a result useful, palpable, and precise, or an instantaneous practical application. Science has nothing to do with utility; or, rather, the true utilitarians are those whose hopes are in future science. They are forced to respect the science of to-day, even when it appears useless, because it is bringing us nearer to the science of to-morrow, which alone can effect some great alleviation to human suffering.
Who could have conceived, when Galvani announced that, on touching the foot of a frog with copper and zinc, he provoked contractions of its muscles, that this little fact would lead, by a remarkable series of discoveries, to the invention of the galvanic battery, electric telegraphy, and dynamic electricity? If Galvani had not observed the feet of frogs, the electric telegraph would never have existed, nor the electric light, nor any of those marvelous machines which constitute one of the greatest series of forces man now has at his disposal. Yet, at the moment Galvani was making his discovery, would we not, at least apparently, have had a right to condemn his sterile and bloody experiments? What benefit could men gain from a massacre of frogs strung along a balcony-rail?
Every new discovery, however trivial it may seem at first, is big with discoveries to come. One truth is the germ of innumerable others. Thus we have no right to restrict the domain of science, and, for the sake of saving some unfortunate being a few passing sufferings, to smother in its cradle all the hope of the future.
The science of life—that is, physiology—can not progress without vivisection. To interdict this practice would be to slay that study. The anatomical examination of the organs teaches us nothing, or hardly anything, respecting their functions. How could we understand the circulation of the blood, if our only resource was the anatomical study of the heart, arteries, and veins? What idea would a description of the brain give of the functions of the brain? We might see the strange forms and complicated structure of the cerebral apparatus; but the examination of these forms would be of no help toward gaining an acquaintance with their offices. The work of physiology is founded entirely on experiment, and the required experiments can be made only upon living beings. Sometimes these beings are plants, but this is only a part of physiology. Animal physiology requires animals. The observation of dead bodies is not useful in teaching the laws of life. Suppose a skillful artisan, to whom we give a watch to examine. In vain will he look through his lens at the springs, the wheels, the cogs, the jewels, and the whole machinery, so long as the watch is not wound up; for he can not find out from this whether it will go or how it goes. To learn the movement of a watch, it must be seen in motion. The same rule is in force for the physiologist. A dead organ tells him nothing; he must see it living.
There are, then, but two alternatives—either to stop physiology in its progressive course, to shut our books, and give up the study of the vital functions, or to continue the practice of experimental researches and vivisections, as Galen, Harvey, Haller, Magendie, and Claude Bernard did. If we think physiology is not a science, or imagine it is useless to man, all right. Let us be contented to observe the stars, and resign ourselves to ignorance of the conditions of our existence. But if we want to sound the mysteries of life, to penetrate to the causes and mechanism of the forces that rule us, then we should continue our efforts without allowing ourselves to be discouraged by unjust attacks. We may be sure of an abundant harvest; and every day, at the price of a few rabbits, frogs, or dogs, will give us some important discovery. Thus, even if physiology (with which we include vivisection, for they are one) does not immediately give practical contributions to the relief of the human race, it is nevertheless a good thing, for the immediate result of a discovery is often nothing, while the discovery may perhaps bring about wonderful consequences in the future.
The favorite argument of the enemies of vivisection is, that physiology is of no use in medicine. "Never," they say, "has a vivisection or a physiological discovery gained by experiment been of any aid to therapeutics. Chance, not physiology, has made us acquainted with the medical properties of cinchona, mercury, opium, and chloroform. The great physiological discoveries, though interesting as curiosities, have not been for our good. What has come from the knowledge of the circulation of the blood? Are we any more able to cure affections of the spinal marrow because we know now, what we did not know a hundred years ago, that there are motor cords and sensitive cords in it? K mortality is less now than formerly, it is not in consequence of the progress of medicine, but of general hygiene. Now, as much as three hundred years ago, doctors are impotent to cure diseases, and all the improvements in modern medicine are due to the attentive observation of the sick, not to experiments on animals." This reasoning finds credit with the ignorant, for it artfully mingles a little truth with much error. The physician is, alas! too often powerless to contend against the ills that are raging around us. But, really, we can not expect physiology to cure incurable diseases and make men immortal; its mission is to discover the truth, and it is for the physician to apply the lessons of the new truth to the treatment of diseases. Who can say seriously that modern medicine, enlightened by the great physiological discoveries of this and former centuries, is not superior to the medicine of the middle ages? The circulation of the blood was discovered by vivisection. Can we form a practical conception of a doctor who does not believe in the circulation of the blood? Is there a man among the members of the Society for the Protection of Animals that would commit himself to the care of such a doctor? To be consistent, they should banish from therapeutics all of it that is the result of experiment, and accept only that which is due to chance or empiricism; there would be very little left! We should not have galvanic electricity, for all our knowledge of this is due to the experiments of vivisectors. We should possess, in the way of medicines, only a few simples, and should have to employ them empirically, without being permitted to obtain a clear idea of their dangers or their advantages. We should not have chloral, or injections of morphine, or bromide of potassium. We should be reduced to prescribe decoctions of cinchona, or that old theriac compounded of nearly two hundred plants of different properties.
It may be that the number of those whom modern medicine, relying upon experiment, has cured, is not large; but certainly the number whom it has relieved is immense. If it can not cure disease, it can at least prevent pain. Why, then, should so much account be taken of a few pains of animals in the face of the thousands of men we have saved from suffering? We should not be indignant that a dog may be sacrificed every day in the thirty physiological laboratories that are scattered over the whole world; for the thirty dogs that suffer bear no sort of proportion to the thousands of cases of pain through the whole civilized world which medicine abbreviates or diminishes in a single day. If the sick thus relieved could give their testimony and knew how to do it, they would confound the sentimental objections of the anti-vivisectionists, and would declare that their own sufferings deserve a higher consideration than the sufferings of a few animals.
The physiologist in his experiments is inspired by a humane sentiment—by love, not only for the present, but for future generations as well, of mankind, for his purpose is to discover some of the truths that may contribute to the relief of man. The immediate consequence, the practical end, may often escape him, but he is not concerned with them; for he long ago in his own mind identified science with the love of man. He has acquired a conviction that science and the love of his fellows are the same thing, and that every scientific conquest is a step in the way of social progress. I do not believe that any experimenter would say, on giving curare to a rabbit, or in cutting the marrow of a dog, or in poisoning a frog, "This experiment is destined to help cure or relieve some man's disease." He would not think of that, but would say, "I am going to dissipate an obscurity, to seek out a new fact"; and this scientific curiosity, the only thought that animates him, can be explained in no other way than as a consequence of the exalted ideal he has conceived of science.
This is why we pass our days in nauseous dissecting-rooms, surrounded by groaning beings, in the midst of blood and suffering, bent over palpitating viscera. We love science for itself, for the grand results it is destined to give, and we surrender ourselves with passion to the disinterested investigation of the truth that is hidden in things, convinced that this truth will in time become the salvation and hope of our brethren.
No parity can be established between the results obtained and the price they cost. A few sufferings of animals while so many other animals are suffering are as nothing in comparison with the results of a scientific discovery. Must we, when a great result is to be secured, charge up an account of the suffering or the death of a small number of individuals? We may suppose, for instance, that the magnificent work of constructing the canal across the Isthmus of Panama will cost, in consequence of the necessity of extensive labors in an unhealthy country, the lives of several hundred or even of a few thousand coolies. Must we, then, give up making the canal? By it we would shorten the route of many thousand ships. Most certainly the facility given to commerce, the greater wealth and prosperity that will be conferred on all mankind, will compensate for the death and sickness of these poor, obscure laborers. It is the same in war. If a general in the course of a battle believes it necessary to carry a redoubt, he will not hesitate to give the signal for the assault, even if he knows that the struggle will cost the lives of a thousand men. He will sacrifice a few squads, for the safety of the whole army, without any hesitation. By the same rule, a people has a right to make war in defense of its independence, although every war is accompanied by thousands of deaths and woes. The case is controlled by the consideration of a superior interest. The freedom of a people is at stake, and the interests of a whole people at times exact the sacrifice of a few citizens.
The struggle of the scientific investigator against natural forces in some degree resembles the struggle of a people for its liberty. Material laws bind us on all sides, and to secure deliverance from them it is necessary to become acquainted with them. It is our liberty as against the things it is necessary to conquer; and it is not a dear bargain to buy this at the price of a few dogs and a few skinned frogs.
The sentimental spirits who are so much interested in the lot of our victims seem to believe that there is no more important occupation for them. We must undeceive them. There are more pains than joys among the men on this little terrestrial globe. Instead of busying themselves to prevent the researches which are being privately carried on in a few laboratories, let these charitable people make an effort to put down the slave-trade, of which negroes are the victims by thousands. Or let them endeavor to relieve the misery which prevails everywhere from Greenland to the land of the Hottentots. Let them try to suppress the terrible scourge of war, which has made a hundred thousand times more human victims than all the frogs, rabbits, and dogs that have been sacrificed by all the physiologists in the world. There is a task worthy of their activity.
We are apt, when we speak of pains and martyrdom, to exaggerate the sufferings of animals. There is no pain unless there is consciousness and attention to the pain. The more intelligent a being is, the more it can suffer. Unintelligent animals are incapable of feeling in its fullness the sensation we call pain. We can not form an idea of what a frog feels when we cut one of its nerves; probably we never shall know what it feels; but it appears to me that the pain it feels then is very vague and very confused. Compared to man, whose intelligence is so clear, the inferior animals are like automatons: most of their acts are half involuntary. They are not deliberate acts, maturely reflected out, but irresistible impulsions of which the actors have imperfect consciousness. These animals live in a kind of dream or half consciousness that excludes terrible pain. Their nerves are less excitable, and their brain is less susceptible of that clear perception of self without which pain can hardly be.
It is not without reason that we feel little remorse in martyrizing an animal of low degree in the series of beings. As we descend from man to the plant, intelligence diminishes, consciousness becomes more and more confused, and therefore the sensibility to pain is more and more obtuse. This is only a personal opinion, and it would be impossible to give a rigorous proof of it; but every day's observation seems to confirm its reality.
No one has a right to believe that a physiologist takes any pleasure in making animals suffer. For my part, I always feel a painful sensation whenever it is necessary to fix a dog to the experimenting-table. All physiologists, whenever it is possible, try to anæsthetize their victim with chloral, morphine, chloroform, or ether. When the anæsthetization is completed, the animal does not suffer, and all the experiments afterward made upon it are without cruelty. It is very rarely necessary to experiment upon an animal that has not been treated with an anæsthetic; and even in these cases it is possible, by various processes, to make the pain much less acute. I always endeavor to ameliorate the pains of the animals I subject to experiments. Yes, I have caused rabbits, frogs, and dogs to suffer; but I believe that never, since I reached a man's age, have I taken pleasure in inflicting suffering upon a living being. For every animal, even the lowest, I feel something analogous to pity and sympathy; and I have a right to say this, for there is no contradiction between such sympathy and physiological experiment.
Instead of developing cruelty, the practice of physiology should rather tend to increase in us the feeling of humanity and pity. The physician who has closely observed human suffering, instead of being hardened to it, becomes more compassionate. So the physiologists, who are acquainted with pain, are full of pity for suffering beings, and I do not hesitate to say that not one of them would be guilty of brutality toward an animal. It is true that they immolate dogs and rabbits, but that is for a superior interest; and in their very experiments they prove their clemency by trying to save their victims from useless sufferings.
In truth, if we divest ourselves of all vain sentimentality, we shall arrive at the conclusion that innumerable and extreme sufferings are already imposed by Nature upon living beings. Over the whole surface of the earth, in Borneo as in France, in the Sahara as in Lapland, men and animals are suffering. In the depths of all the seas, in the currents of all the rivers, on all the shores of all the oceans, in all the forests, and in all the plains, suffering and pain exist. Our object is to bring in some mitigation for all these evils, and it can not be accomplished except by the aid of science, through becoming acquainted with the laws of life. What then, compared to such a grand result, are the confused groans of the unfortunate dogs we immolate from time to time? Indeed, we have a right to sacrifice these rare and innocent victims, for at as small a price as that we can become masters of living nature, and may be able to penetrate the laws of life, and to relieve the unfortunate of our kind.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.
- It is with great reluctance that we perform vivisections in public lectures for instruction. When the question is one of scientific research, the act must be performed resolutely and without regard to the pain; but, whenever the purpose is to demonstrate before any audience a known phenomenon, the greatest reserve should be exercised in the employment of means that are cruel.