Darwinism, Christianity, and the Great Vivisection Debate

Rod Preece. Journal of the History of Ideas. Volume 64, Issue 3. July 2003.

Despite the pioneering work of Major C. W. Hume, the founder of the University of London Animal Welfare Society, the reputation of the Christian tradition has fared poorly in the burgeoning literature on the history of attitudes to nonhuman animals. The impressive results of Hume’s historical research, evidenced most clearly in The Status of Animals in the Christian Religion (1957), have gone largely unheeded. To be sure, a number of accomplished scholars have encouraged a recognition of animal interests from a Christian perspective-notably Stephen R. L. Clark, Daniel A. Dombrowski, Andrew Linzey, and Tom Regan-but, by and large, the history of animal ethics in the Christian tradition has been treated, even among professing Christians, as one of unmitigated “speciesism,” to borrow Richard Ryder’s apposite, if cumbrous, coinage.

Edward Payson Evans, Lynn White, Jr., Peter Singer, Roderick Frazier Nash, William Leiss, and Jim Mason, among many others, have treated the creation story of Genesis 1—whereby humans are granted “dominion” over other animals—as the epitomizing statement of Christian principle that suffused its attitudes to animals thereafter. White’s interpretation of the creation myth was that God had planned all of nature “explicitly for man’s benefit and rule; no item in the physical creation had any purpose but to serve man’s purpose.” Peter Singer introduced his analysis of the Christian tradition with the caustic claim: “To end tyranny we must first understand it.” Jim Mason announced that the sequence of creation in Genesis “assists the belief that God had created the world and all other forms of life just for man.” All this despite the fact that such historical Christian commentators as Henry More, John Ray, James Thomson, John Brown, Ann Bronte, Thomas Young, and Victor Hugo were adamant in their belief that the Bible required consideration for the interests of animals, and that scholars of the Hebraic tradition, including Elijah Judah Schochet, Robert Murray, and Theodore Hiebert, have shown the creation message to be a complex one. For example, rada (“dominion”) may be readily interpreted to imply a significant human responsibility toward other species. The creation story of Genesis 2 suggests an essential similarity of human and animal ontological status—each being created from the topsoil. Of course, this is not to suggest that the Christian tradition has been one of general benefit to the animals. It most certainly has not. But it is a tradition that has constantly debated the status of animals—and at least sometimes our kinship and our responsibilities have not only been acknowledged but vigorously asserted.

Among the many calumnies Christianity has suffered is the frequent claim that the Christian tradition has denied souls, at least immortal souls, to animals. It is an assertion we find, among many examples, in the writings of Peter Singer, Angus Taylor, Barbara Noske, and Randy Malamud. It is certainly not an entirely unwarranted claim, to which the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Malebranche, and Swedenborg, among others, will attest. Yet many interpretations would counter this claim, including those of Lactantius, Origen, Arnobius, St. John of the Cross, Martin Luther, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, the Quaker George Fox, the Puritan leveler Richard Overton, the Protestant ecumenical philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the skeptic but confessing Pierre Bayle, the Anglican theologian Bishop Joseph Butler, the Anglican priests John Hildrop and Richard Dean, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and his protege Reverend Dr. Adam Clarke, the inquiring parliamentarian Soame Jenyns, and numerous devout Romantics, including Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Each of them, with varying degrees of confidence and clarity, ascribed immortal souls to animals.

The early nineteenth-century British animal protection legislation has been customarily treated as primarily a consequence of secular forces for humanitarian change, led by Bentham and the Philosophical Radicals. Recent research has, however, produced evidence that this is a misjudgment. Thus, for example, Paul Johnson has concluded rightly that the “animal welfare reform movement was dominated by religious groups, overwhelmingly Nonconformist and Evangelical….” Chien-hui Li has provided the detailed analysis which confirms the judgments of such reformist history. Indeed, the SPCA instituted in 1824 to enforce the recently enacted animal protection legislation—a much more radical organization than it later became—declared itself to be “conducted exclusively on Christian principles.”

There has perhaps been no firmer conclusion in the recent history of animal ethics than that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had the most profoundly beneficial impact on the recognition of our similarities to, kinship with, and consequent moral obligations to, other species. It is, for example, the thesis of James Rachels’s Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism and is an assumption or argument to be found in much modern animal welfare and animal rights literature. For example, Marian Sholtmeijer’s generally admirable study of Animal Victims in Modern Fiction opens with the claim that “The Darwinian revolution profoundly altered society’s conception of animals.” In Deep Vegetarianism Michael Allen Fox refers to “the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), which breached the species barrier so dramatically.” Mary Midgley expounded upon “the Darwinian theory of evolution” that “radically shakes the massive traditional picture of ourselves.” The veterinary ethicist Reverend Giles Legood claimed that “Darwin blew apart the almost universally accepted theory that human beings were set apart biologically from the rest of the natural order.” Peter Singer announced that: “Intellectually the Darwinian revolution was genuinely revolutionary. Human beings now knew they were not the special creation of God, made in the divine image and set apart from animals; on the contrary, human beings came to realize that they were animals themselves.”

That Darwinism revolutionized our attitudes to animals is certainly not a new thesis. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, for example, equated evolution with the work of Charles Darwin, announced that “as a young man” he “had been among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species,” and he wrote a New York correspondent in 1909:

The discovery of the law of evolution, which revealed that all organic creatures are of one family, shifted the centre of altruism from humanity to the whole conscious world collectively. Therefore, the practice of vivisection, which might have been defended while the belief ruled that men and animals are essentially different, has been left without any logical argument in its favour.

In a letter of 10 April 1910 to the Secretary of the Humanitarian League Hardy observed that “the most far reaching consequences of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical … Possibly Darwin himself did not wholly perceive it, though he alluded to it.” It would appear that Hardy was unaware of Darwin’s own experiments in which he killed pigeons painfully—albeit reluctantly—nor of his opposition to controls on animal experimentation, for he would have had to conclude that Darwin did not draw the appropriate moral conclusions from his theory. Another opponent of vivisection, the Chicago biologist J. Howard Moore, argued in both The Universal Kinship (1906) and The New Ethics (1907) that Darwinism provided the “kinship necessary for a meaningful theory of the ethical relationship between humans and animals” without ever mentioning Darwin’s own attitudes to vivisection.

Not all animal advocates were of one mind, however. The devout ethical vegetarian and opponent of vivisection, Leo Tolstoy, warned his son Sergei against “Darwinism” which “won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance for your actions.” The adamantly secular but equally vegetarian and even more emphatic opponent of vivisection, George Bernard Shaw, castigated Darwinian “Natural Selection” as “no selection at all, but mere dead accident and luck.” Expounding a philosophy he conceived as an adaptation of Schopenhauer, but which in fact corresponded rather more closely to the creative evolution ideas of Henri Bergson, Shaw wrote his French translator Augustin Harmon: “I am before all things a believer in the power of Will (Volonte). I believe that all evolution has been produced by Will, and the reason you are Hamon the Anarchist, instead of being a blob of protoplasmic slime in a ditch, is that there was at work in the Universe a Will which required brains & hands to do its work & therefore evolved your brain and hands.” For Shaw, Darwinism removed individual responsibility for action and thereby denied a meaningful ethics. Certainly, Shaw did not see Darwinism as an appropriate basis for his own extensive animal sensibilities. In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, the communitarian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, criticized Darwinism as overly reliant on the concepts of competition and struggle, failing to give adequate emphasis to the altruism and cooperation present in both humans and animals which was, Kropotkin claimed, the basis of their morality. For Kropotkin, Darwin eradicated compassion as the foundation of justice.

James Rachels opened Created from Animals with the claim that “After Darwin, we can no longer think of ourselves as occupying a special place in creation-instead, we must realize that we are products of the same evolutionary forces, working blindly and without purpose, that shaped the rest of the animal kingdom.” Yet many of his contemporaries read the implications of evolution quite differently. For many, Darwinian ideas of evolution demonstrated the superiority of humans as creatures far more “evolved” than other creatures and entitled to far more consideration. Hence it was our separation from, not our similarity to, other creatures that became the relevant factor, even if such a “ladder” conception of the theory of evolution is quite misleading. The so-called Social Darwinists used the idea of evolution to place humans at the pinnacle of creation. For them, evolution was “the survival of the fittest”—a phrase which Darwin borrowed from Herbert Spencer and employed in The Origin of Species from the third edition on. For the Social Darwinists, humans, especially white, Anglo-Saxon, male humans, were the “fittest” and hence the most deserving. Nor can we claim that Darwin lacks responsibility for the views of his Social Darwinist disciples and that he did not hold such views himself. To be sure, Darwin was appalled to read in a newspaper that he had proved that might was right and therefore “every cheating tradesman was right.” Moreover, as we are told by Richard Milner, having drafted The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)—the working title referred to the Lower Animals—Darwin”resolved not to use the terms ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in his description of animals” and “he went through the manuscript striking out terms of rank.” Nonetheless, “higher” and “lower” appeared on almost every other page of the first seven chapters of The Descent of Man (1871) and remained unchanged in the significantly amended second edition of 1874, published after The Expression of Emotions. Moreover, explicitly racist statements pervade The Descent, in which time after time we are told how much closer aboriginals are to the rude and lower conditions of nonhuman animals. To take one instance at random: “The strong tendency in our nearest allies, the monkeys, in microcephalous idiots, and in the barbarous races of mankind, to imitate whatever they hear deserves our notice.” Nor was this a temporary aberration but a long held view. Thus in his 1838 Notebook we read:

Let Man visit Orang-utan in domestication, hear expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken [to]; as if it understands every word-see its affection-to those it knew-see its passion and rage, sulkiness & very actions of despair; let him look at savage, roasting his parent, naked, artless, not improving, yet improvable & let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence.

Monkeys, microcephalous idiots, and barbarians are essentially similar. “Orang-utans” and “savages” too. But here implicitly and elsewhere explicitly Europeans are of a higher, order than both Natives and animals. Nor was Darwin merely expressing the universal prejudices of the time, for he acknowledges explicitly in the Descent that “I have entered into the above details on the immorality of savages, because some authors have recently taken a high view of their moral nature, or have attributed most of their crimes to mistaken benevolence.” The point is not to condemn Darwin, but to suggest that the moral implications of his theory, both with regard to animals and aboriginals, are, on Darwin’s own testimony, not as benevolent or far-reaching as they are so frequently made out to be.

At most Darwinism may be said to have provided the opportunity to recognize an essential human-animal similarity and to give somewhat greater consideration to animals than they customarily received. The relevant question is whether Darwinism provided that opportunity in a manner or even degree that had not been present previously. That there was an essential kinship between humans and other animals and that there were essential similarities and homologies between humans and animals had long been attested to. Indeed, there were many prior theories of evolution. What distinguished Darwin’s theory-and that of Alfred Russel Wallace-was the discovery of the process of evolution and the amassing of evidence to demonstrate the general validity of the theory. It should be clear however that it is not natural selection that may be said to have moral implications but descent itself, human-animal similarities, homologies, and familial relationships. Or, rather, if a case can be made that there are different moral implications in natural selection than in other evolutionary theories, none of those who proclaim the importance of Darwinism for the recognition of our moral responsibilities to animals have ever made such a case. They have relied on the demonstration of common descent and its implications alone.

Even the case that can be made that it was through Darwin’s work that evolution became an increasingly ineluctable aspect of the public mind could be readily exaggerated. When Erasmus Darwin’s evolutionary theory was published in Zoonomia in 1794-96, it was vilified in the Anti-Jacobin by Tory statesman George Canning. Evolution was already a matter of public concern when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to William Wordsworth, censuring him for not denouncing the idea in The Excursion (1814), even though the pair held similar views: “I understood that you would take the Human race in the concrete, and have exploded the absurd notion of Pope’s Essay on Man, [Erasmus] Darwin and all the countless Believers-even (strange to say) among Xtians of Man’s having progressed from an Orang-utan state-so contrary to all History, to all Religion, nay to all Possibility.” The Coleridge and Wordsworth mutual rejection of evolution prevented them neither from an acknowledgment of kinship with our fellow creatures nor a profound sympathy and respect for them. We should not ignore the fact that Coleridge thought the belief in evolution widely accepted in the early nineteenth century, “even … among Xtians”—almost half a century before The Origin of Species. Nor, in Coleridge’s view was it a rarity a century and a quarter before the Origin, judging by the popularity of The Essay on Man (1734). Pope, in fact, derived his evolutionary ideas from Edward Tyson’s popular 1699 tome: Orang-utan, sive Homo Sylvestris; or the Anatomy of a Pigmie Compared to that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man.

France was perhaps further advanced in public dissemination of the idea. The evolutionist (and devout Christian) Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire propounded the view in 1828 that “There is, philosophically speaking, only a single animal.” The French novelist Honore de Balzac advertised the evolutionary message to the whole literary world in his popular series of books La Comedie humaine. In the general preface to the whole series, written in 1845, Balzac announced approvingly, and indeed as the underlying theme of his own novels, that all animals, human animals included, were created on “one and the same principle.” If Charles Darwin’s impact was greater, it cannot have been by very much. After all, Balzac’s writings had a far wider audience, both in France and elsewhere.

Rachels’s Created from Animals makes no mention of early Greek themes of evolution, or those of Maupertuis, Herder, Buffon, Robinet, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire or Goethe. To be sure, a few paragraphs are devoted to Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but since they erred about the method of evolution, the moral implications of their theories are dismissed out of hand. Yet Charles Darwin himself understood the relevance of the earlier works to his own theory. In his “Historical Sketch on the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species previously to the Publication of this Work” which he appended to the later editions of The Origin of Species, Darwin mentioned no fewer than thirty relevant earlier writings. Even then he was accused of being less than generous in his acknowledgment of his predecessors. Among the Presocratics, ignored by Darwin, Anaximander, who claimed humans evolved from fishes, and the Pythagorean Empedocles, who wrote of the role of chance in degeneration and the essentially similar nature of the bodies of different species, expressed elementary evolutionary ideas. Even earlier, the Sumerian schools of some three thousand years ago taught that originally humans walked with limbs on the ground and ate herbs with their mouths like sheep. We developed, in other words, from vegetarian apes. Darwin does acknowledge evolution in Aristotle, but, unfortunately, the variant of evolution that Darwin ascribes to Aristotle is the form he is condemning!

By the eighteenth century, evolutionary themes were common. Thus, for example, we find Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish founder of the systematic taxonomy of plants and animals, doubting the immutability of species and writing to the German naturalist Johann Gmelin in 1747, “demanding that you show me a generic character … by which to distinguish between Man and Ape. I myself assuredly know of none. I wish someone would indicate one to me. But if I had called man an ape, or vice-versa, I would have fallen under the ban of the ecclesiastics. It may be as a naturalist I ought to have done so.” In like manner, the French naturalist comte de Buffon wrote in his Histoire naturelle (published in forty volumes between 1749 and 1767) that: “This Orang-utan is a very singular brute, which man cannot look upon without contemplating himself …” Like Linnaeus, Buffon hints at a common ancestry among animals, and he even wrote of the development and degeneration of species, but could never bring himself to accept evolutionary ideas unequivocally. Indeed, in his “Historical Sketch,” Darwin described Buffon as “the first author who in modern times has treated [mutability of species] in a scientific spirit,” though, since his “opinions fluctuated at different periods and as he does not enter on the causes of the transformation of species,” If these contributions are but minor for the theory of evolution itself, they are nonetheless significant for understanding the bases of our appropriate attitudes to animals. The moral significance of the writings of those who followed Buffon was certainly as great as that of the writings of Charles Darwin, at least in terms of the human-animal similarities that are emphasized by those who make the claim for a Darwinian revolution in animal ethics.

In the mid-eighteenth century, we find the French mathematician Pierre Maupertuis writing of the chance combinations of elementary particles, of the elimination of species by the accidents of nature, and the derivation of all present species from a small number, perhaps a single pair, of original ancestors. A similar thesis was propounded by the French encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1749 and 1754), and his colleague Jean d’Alembert added in the section on Cosmologie in the Encyclopedie itself (1772): “everything in nature is linked together.” The philosophe Jean-Baptiste Robinet wrote in De la Nature (1768):

I doubt not that there was a time when there were not yet either minerals or any of the beings that we call animals; that is to say, a time when all these individuals only existed in germ, and not one of them had come to birth … At least it appears certain that Nature has never been, is not, and never will be stationary, or in a state of permanence; its form is necessarily transitory … Nature is always at work, always in travail in the sense that she is always fashioning new developments, new generations.

In Systeme de la Nature (1770) the materialist Baron d’Holbach queried:

Whether nature be not now assembling in her vast laboratory the elements fitted to give rise to whole new generations, that will have nothing in common with the species at present existing. What absurdity, then, would there be in supposing that man, the horse, the fish, the bird, will be no more? Are these animals so dispensable to Nature that without them she cannot continue her eternal course? Does not all change around us? … Nature contains no constant forms.

The Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet developed a complex progressive theory of an infinitely self-differentiating nature in his Palingenesie philosophique (1770)–“whether it can be properly called a form of ‘evolutionism’ is a question of terminology” was Arthur Lovejoy’s tempered conclusion-and Montesquieu hinted around the multiplication of species after “flying lemurs” had been discovered in Java. All these, and several more, set the intellectual stage for the more explicit and self-consciously evolutionary theories that were developed in the 1790s.

Ignoring, or perhaps ignorant of, these and other minor contributions, Darwin proceeded directly from Buffon to the major eruption of the last decade of the eighteenth century. He wrote: “It is a singular instance of the manner in which similar views arise at about the same time, that Goethe in Germany, Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin in England, and [Etienne] Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in France, came to the same conclusion on the origin of species in 1794-95.” From the perspective of scientific theory Erasmus Darwin’s work was the most profound. In his Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, he addressed the question of whether all living beings were derived from a common ancestor, and if so, how the development arose. He hypothesized that overpopulation increased competition, that competition was an agent of change, that humans were related to apes and monkeys, that sexual selection was a factor in evolution, and that acquired characteristics were inherited—i.e., that the “urges” of animals and plants, their “lust, hunger, and anger,” developed their forms, which were then passed on to their offspring. He hypothesized almost everything except natural selection! Certainly, the humanitarian spirit reigned in Erasmus. He proclaimed that “compassion, or sympathy with the pains of others, ought also to extend to the brute creation, as far as our necessities will permit … To destroy even insects wantonly shows an unreflecting mind, or a depraved heart.” And in The Temple of Nature (IV, 426-28) he added “That man should ever be the friend of man; Should eye with tenderness all living forms,/ His brother-emmets, and his sister-worms.” There is no evidence of any greater degree of sensibility in the grandson.

The work of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Goethe was perhaps even more important for understanding the moral implications of evolution. As we have seen, Saint-Hilaire expounded the principle of what he called “synthetic unity”: “There is, philosophically speaking, only a single animal.” Charles Darwin never went quite that far. In some respects Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went even further than Saint-Hilaire. The commonality of species implied for him that “Each animal is an end in itself” Each animal was not only an instance of perfected design for its needs and purposes—a view in which he followed Leibniz—but it was entitled to be treated as an end in itself. Here, Goethe, an earnest student of Kant, is extending Kant’s categorical imperative—whereby each person is to be treated as an end and never as a mere means—to the realm from which the author of the imperative had excluded animals. He borrowed the precise terms that Kant had used to formulate the imperative, but used them where Kant had proscribed. There is nothing in the works of Charles Darwin that quite matches the strength of Goethe’s animal ethics. Moreover, Goethe acknowledges the denizens “of the still bush, the air and water” as his “brothers,” as had Erasmus Darwin acknowledged the emmets and worms as his siblings. The kinship is explicit.

In one respect, perhaps minor, but worthy of note, Goethe’s evolutionary ideas proved more prescient than those of Saint-Hilaire, Lamarck and both Darwins, all of whom, as Richard Milner has indicated, subscribed to, or at least toyed with, the idea that characteristics acquired by the efforts of the animal during its lifetime could be passed on to the offspring. It was an appealing theory that could not be scientifically dismissed until the acceptance of Gregor Mendel’s genetic theories in the early twentieth century. In his “Metamorphose der Tiere” Goethe insists that the will of the animal has no role in evolution. Although each higher animal will attempt “to create capricious forms … what it begins it begins in vain.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, prior to the publication of the discoveries of Darwin and Wallace, numerous evolutionary theories appeared—from Lamarck through Chambers to Spencer—but, from a lasting scientific perspective, all lacked the persuasiveness and explanatory capacity of natural selection, as indeed did those of previous centuries. Nonetheless, the elements of Darwinism customarily deemed to impact our moral responsibilities to other species—our descent from them, our similarities to them, our homologies with them—had long been proclaimed. Darwinism added nothing to that.

In fact many who placed little or no weight on evolution stressed our similarities and the essential kinship, or communitas. In the classical period Plutarch, Lucretius, and Porphyry stressed the essential similarities in reason, emotions, structure, and kinship, just as Darwin does in the Descent, at least Plutarch and Porphyry drawing the most far-reaching moral consequences from such similarities (and Montaigne doing it for Lucretius). Among the early Christian writers, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Athanasius stressed the similarities, and at least implied the kinship. St. Basil of Caesarea wrote of “the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us.” St. John Chrysostom announced: “Surely, we ought to show other species great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but above all because they are of the same origin as ourselves.” From the moral perspective advanced by those who proclaim a Darwinian ethical revolution, do not Basil and John Chrysostom declare everything Darwinism is said to imply? There was much in similar vein that followed these early Christian authors, most remarkably in the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and in the writings of the numerous luminaries who castigated Cartesian notions of animals as automata, as no more than complex watches, including Henry More, Pierre Gassendi, John Locke, Joseph Addison, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Voltaire. The most memorable caustic response came from Viscount Boling broke who was confident that the plain man would still be able to distinguish the town bull from the parish clock. Bernard Fontenelle was no less pleased to point out that if you put a dog and a bitch together in no time there would be a puppy. But if you put two watches side by side and waited a lifetime no third watch would appear. This, he thought, might suggest there was a difference of nobility between a machine and an animal. Humans and animals but not watches shared a great deal in common.

In On the Movement of Animals (1680) Giovanni Borelli demonstrated the unity of life by showing how the same laws governed the wings of birds, the fins of fishes, and the legs of insects. In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson stated the theme in his inimitable prose: “Each creature is only a modification of the other; the likeness in them is more than the difference, and their radical law is one and the same.” From the perspective of similarities, homologies, and kinship, as promoted by those who declare a Darwinian ascendancy, what does Darwin add that is not already present in Emerson? Of course many Christians continued to seek means of proclaiming a human exclusivity. One of the more popular claims was that, unlike other species, the human had no intermaxillary bone in the jaw, which was thought to be the structural variant that allowed humans the exclusive capacity for speech. In 1790 Goethe demonstrated there was indeed the vestige of an intermaxillary bone in the human jaw. Not all arguments, then, were on one side, but there were many, and many of those among the most illustrious, and, indeed, among the most pious, who argued in essence, in the words of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, “There is, philosophically speaking, only a single animal.”

If Darwinism had the moral impact and the moral implications that are customarily claimed for it, one would be entitled to expect that in practical ethical matters the Darwinians would be more considerate of animal interests than those who clung to traditional Christianity. The first major issue to arise after the publication of The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions was that of vivisection, which came to the fore in the mid-1870s, though there had been a lengthy earlier history of opposition to animal experimentation in the writings of Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, and Henry Fielding, among others. In fact, the attitudes expressed in the Great Vivisection Debate were, with minor exceptions, the very reverse of what those who maintain the thesis of ethical Darwinism and unethical Christianity would be required to expect.

Now it would be churlish to deny that Darwin himself cared deeply for animals, at least when he was not engaged in his early pastime of sport hunting, a pastime he learned to regret as he aged. He was, for example, appalled at his own experiments on pigeons. “I love them to the extent that I cannot bear to skin & skeletonise them,” he wrote. “I have done the black deed and murdered an angelic little Fan-tail Pointer at 10 days old,” he added. Appalled as he was, he continued the skinning, the skeletonizing, and the “murdering,” Animals mattered. Knowledge mattered far more.

He wrote a correspondent in 1871:

You ask my opinion on vivisection. I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I should not sleep tonight.

Perhaps not vivisection for “damnable and detestable curiosity,” but vivisection for the sake of pure knowledge, not merely medicine, was quite acceptable to Darwin. Describing an appalling case of cruelty in animal experimentation, he noted that the vivisector “unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.” For Darwin, it would appear that the pursuit of knowledge justifies behavior that must otherwise be regarded as reprehensible.

Where his own interests as a physiologist were not at stake, Darwin was far more sympathetic to animal interests. Thus, in The Descent of Man he described sympathy to animals as a “virtue … one of the noblest with which man is endowed,” though he could not restrain himself from adding it is unknown to savages except toward their pets. In an article he wrote on “Vermin and Traps” in the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1863 he excoriated those who would set such gins:

If we attempt to realize the suffering of a cat, or other animal when caught, we must fancy what it would be to have a limb crushed during a whole long night, between the iron teeth of a trap, and with the agony increased by constant attempts to escape … where game keepers are not human, or have grown callous to the suffering constantly passing under their eyes, they have been known by an eyewitness to leave the traps unvisited for 24 or even 36 hours.

Before the days of the vivisection debate, Frances Power Cobbe, journalist, Kant scholar, Unitarian preacher, and ardent anti-vivisectionist, found Darwin’s “gentleness” towards a pony and “fondness” for his dog “very pleasing traits in his character.” Yet:

Mr. Darwin eventually became the centre of an adoring clique of vivisectors who (as his biography shows) plied him incessantly with encouragement to uphold their practice till the deplorable spectacle was exhibited of a man who would not allow a fly to bite a pony’s neck, standing forth before all Europe as the advocate of vivisection.

If Charles Darwin was a reluctant supporter of vivisection he was nonetheless an adamant supporter not only of the practice but of the practice unrestricted and unlegislated. He wrote one of his daughters:

I have long thought physiology one of the greatest of sciences, sure sooner, or more probably later, greatly to benefit mankind; but, judging from all other sciences, the benefits will accrue only indirectly in the search for abstract truth. It is certain that physiology can progress only by experiments on living animals. Therefore the proposal to limit research to points of which we can now see the bearings in regard to health, etc., I look at as puerile … I conclude, if (as is likely) some experiments have been tried too often, or anaesthetics have not been used when they should have been, the cure must be in the improvement of humanitarian feelings.

Far from evolution bringing about an increase in sensibilities, we find Darwin’s position in almost exact correspondence with that of the Anglican priest, publisher of sermons, and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Thomas Young, writing in 1798. In An Essay on Humanity to Animals Young expresses his sympathy for the nonhuman realm, discusses some of the practices of the vivisectionists, and concludes: “Upon the whole, that cruelty does take place in Anatomical experiments seems indisputable, but in what particular instances I must leave to the judgment and conscience of Anatomists to determine; taking the liberty of repeating to them, that every experiment is cruel, without having for its object the leading to some great and public good.” Both the evolutionist and the evangelist deplored the cruelties of vivisection, found the potential benefits to humans more important than the lives of animals, and rather than legislating controls, each was willing to leave the matter in the hands of the experimenters themselves. To be sure, Darwin supported some controls in the end. When alternative bills were laid before Parliament and it was clear that some legislation would succeed, Darwin opted for the very much weaker one. By contrast, many of the Christian reformers of the 1870s and ’80s would find both Young’s and Darwin’s view naive and inconsiderate of the respect to which animals were entitled. They supported the stronger legislation, which, for many of them, was even then nowhere near as strong as they thought appropriate.

The views of Darwin’s most eloquent publicist, Thomas Henry Huxley, were decidedly not of the order of a Darwin or a Young. While he accepted all of the Darwinian notions of our similarities to, homologies with, and descent from, other species, he concluded:

I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation … can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves; and I may add that the attempt to draw a psychical distinction is equally futile, and that even the highest faculties of feeling and of intellect begin to germinate in lower forms of life. At the same time, no one is more strongly convinced than I am of the vastness of the gulf between civilised man and the brutes; or is more certain that whether from them or not, he is assuredly not of them.

Like Darwin, Huxley would have preferred no legislative controls on vivisection. Given, however, that legislation was inevitable, Huxley was a prime mover in furthering an alternative bill and in working steadfastly on the Commission appointed to find a compromise. He argued in favor of the weakest bill he thought Parliament might approve. Richard Ryder’s judgment is that “Huxley became a key advocateof speciesism.”

Now, the point is not to castigate Darwin and Huxley specifically, or the evolutionists and physiologists in general. A case can be made that their approach was the correct one, though logically that is only possible if one accepts humans as vastly greater in importance than all other species. Given Darwin’s stance on vivisection, it was a sham—a moral if not a scientific subterfuge—to erase the terms “higher” and “lower.” (Huxley, like Darwin despite his protest, continued to use the terms incidentally.) It should certainly be noted that animal experimenters who subscribe to the principles of replacement, reduction and refinement, and believe they should be legislatively and administratively enforced, would find the views of Darwin and Huxley on vivisection quite retrograde. What is at issue here is not whether Darwin’s or Huxley’s views were sound, but whether the much vaunted Darwinists were more or less sympathetic to the vivisected animals than those who are customarily damned as the enemies of animals—those who approached the matter from a Christian perspective.

Some of the major scientific and literary figures of the nineteenth century contributed the opening salvos to the Great Vivisection Debate that erupted in the mid-1870s. The prominent and influential veterinarian and quondam non-conformist minister William Youatt opened The Obligation and Extent of Humanity to Brutes (1839) with a chapter on “The Obligation of Humanity to Animals as Founded on the Scriptures,” and continued with a discussion of duties to animals as Christians before turning to “On the Dissection of Living Animals.” There he recounts innumerable cruelties of vivisection, argues for strenuous legislative controls, while acknowledging the benefits of animal experimentation itself, and cites “the recorded opinions of several of the most eminent surgeons against the dissection of living animals.” The close similarity between the concepts and categories employed by Youatt in The Obligation and Extent and those employed by Darwin in the Descent is striking. And they are precisely those categories that the advocates of a Darwinian revolution in animal ethics proclaim as the harbingers of a new world. Youatt writes of the animals’ senses, emotions, consciousness, attention, memory, sagacity, docility (i.e., capacity for learning), association of ideas, imagination, reason, instinct, social affections, the moral qualities, friendship and loyalty, each of which is acknowledged to exist in other species and differ from human attributes only by degree. Thirty-two years later Darwin was writing:

All have the same senses, intuitions and sensations—similar passions, affections and emotions, even the more complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity; they practice deceit and are revengeful; they are sometimes susceptible to ridicule, and even have a sense of humour; they feel wonder and curiosity; they possess the same faculties of imitation, attention, deliberation, choice, memory, imagination, the association of ideas and reason, though in very different degrees.

With respect to the intellectual qualities, Youatt tells us, in language bearing a striking resemblance to the future expression of Darwin that “we are endeavouring to shew that the difference between [humans and nonhuman animals] in one of the most essential of all points, is in degree and not in kind.” Despite evolution by natural selection, Darwin’s conceptions of human-animal comparison add nothing of substance to those already expressed by Youatt. Nor is Youatt being particularly original. Similar categories, with similar inferences, were employed not only by some scholars of the classical period, but are also to be found in the writings of Rorarius, Overton, Gilles, Bary, de la Chambre, Bayle, Voltaire, and George Nicholson. Already in the sixteenth century, French army surgeon Ambroise Pare was writing that “magnanimity, prudence, fortitude, clemency, docility, love, carefulness, providence, yea knowledge, memory & c. is common to all brutes.”

In an 1866 article entitled “Inhumane Humanity,” Charles Dickens, who appears to have taken little interest in Darwinism and rather more, but not a great interest in Christianity, castigated animal experimentation practices, concluding that “Man may be justified-though I doubt it—in torturing the beasts, that he himself may escape pain; but he certainly has no right to gratify an idle and purposeless curiosity through the practice of cruelty.” Charles Dodgson, Oxford mathematician and Anglican deacon, as well as author of the Alice books, who was sympathetic, if less than wholeheartedly,  theory, concluded his 1875 article on “Some Popular Fallacies about Vivisection” with the claim: “We have now, I think, seen good reason to suspect that the principle of selfishness lies at the root of this accursed practice … [creating] a new and more hideous Frankenstein-a soulless being to whom science shall be all in all.” Later, the novelist Wilkie Collins, famed author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, referred to vivisection in Heart and Science (1883) as “this infernal cruelty” and denounced the motives of the experimenters as “All for Knowledge! All for Knowledge!” Generally speaking, for those who opposed animal experimentation, animals were more important than knowledge gained at the animals’ expense; for those who supported animal experimentation, knowledge was the supreme goal, or at least so their accusers claimed, and not without some justification. After all, as we have seen, Charles Darwin confessed to it.

With the increasing distaste at the excesses of Victorian vivisection, Frances Power Cobbe, former vivisector George Hoggan, and editor of the Spectator, Richard Hutton, joined forces to found an anti-vivisection society in November 1875. Initially named the Victoria Street Society, it later became the National Anti-Vivisection Society. When the original 1876 Cruelty to Animals Bill to control vivisection was presented to Parliament, “Darwin,” his biographers Desmond and Moore inform us, “vented his spleen in The Times, the old patrician targeting those women who ‘from the tenderness of their hearts … and their profound ignorance’ opposed all animal experimentation.” It was the redoubtable Frances Power Cobbe he had uppermost in mind. In reality, the abolitionists were neither predominantly women nor ignorant but included most of the founders of the Victoria Street Society. Its immediate membership included Archbishop Thomson of York, Roman Catholic Cardinal Henry Ernest Manning, John (by 1880, Lord Chief Justice) Coleridge, the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Ruskin, and Christina Rossetti. Its first president was the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the foremost social reformer of the nineteenth century. Each of these original members opposed animal experimentation on the basis of what they regarded as explicitly Christian principles.

In 1882, Lord Chief Justice Coleridge condemned the practice of vivisection and indicated where his parliamentary vote would lie on any future occasion:

What would our Lord have said, what looks would He have bent, upon a [laboratory] chamber filled with the “unoffending creatures which He loves,” dying under torture deliberately and intentionally inflicted, or kept alive to endure further torment in pursuit of knowledge? … the mind of Christ must be the guide of life. “Shouldst thou not have had compassion upon these, even as I had pity on thee?” So He seems to me to say; and I shall act accordingly.

Coleridge indicated that total abolition was his preference, but he was prepared to support legislation for very strict controls.

Lord Shaftesbury spoke eloquently in Parliament in favor of strict controls in 1876, suggesting that animals not only have immortal souls, but are more deserving of them than some humans. He added:

These ill-used and tortured animals are as much His creatures as we are; and to say the truth, I had, in some instances, rather been the animal tortured than the man who tortured it. I should believe myself to have higher hopes, and a happier future [in the afterlife] … No physical pain can possibly equal the injury caused by the moral degradations of the feelings which such barbarous experiments must naturally induce.

In 1879 Lord Shaftesbury joined with Lord Truro in introducing a Bill for the total abolition of invasive animal experimentation.

John Ruskin followed the Bishop of Oxford in addressing a meeting of the Oxford branch of the Victoria Street Society in 1884:

It is not the question whether animals have a right to this or that in the inferiority they are placed in to mankind, it is a question of what relation they have to God, and what is the true sense of feeling as taught to them by Christ the Physician … These scientific pursuits are now, defiantly, provokingly, insultingly separated from the science of religion; they are all carried on in defiance of what has hitherto been held to be compassion and pity, and to the great link which binds together the whole creation from its Maker to the lowest creatures.

Ruskin was so appalled when funds were voted by the Oxford University senate in 1885 to provide a laboratory for animal experimentation that he resigned his appointment as Slade Professor of Art in the university in protest.

The devout Robert Browning, a vice-president of the Victoria Street Society, wrote two anti-vivisection poems, “Tray” (1879) and “Arcades Ambo” (1889). In the first a dog saves a child’s life and is rewarded with the prospect of being vivisected. In the second Browning suggests that vivisection is cowardly and haphazard. In 1875 he wrote in support of the anti-vivisection movement that “he would rather submit to the worst of deaths, than have a single dog or cat tortured on the pretence of saving me a twinge or two.” Author of primarily religious verse, Christina Rossetti distributed pamphlets for the Victoria Street Society and sent a dozen autographed copies of an especially composed poem for an anti-vivisection fund-raising bazaar. In “To what purpose is this waste?” (1872) she expressed her egalitarian animal sensibilities: “The tiniest living thing/ That soars on feathered wing,/ Or crawls among the long grass out of sight/ Has just as good a right/To its appointed portion of delight/ As any King.” Like Browning, a vice-president of the Victoria Street Society, Alfred Lord Tennyson subscribed to a Swedenborgian Christianity and developed a Lamarckian-style theory of evolution in In Memoriam (1850) and in Maud (1855)—both prior to The Origin of Species.

Cardinal Henry Edward Manning stated in 1882 that:

Vivisection is a detestable practice … Nothing can justify, no claim of science, no conjectural result, no hope for discovery, such horrors as these. Also, it must be remembered that whereas these torments, refined and indescribable, are certain, the result is altogether conjectural-everything about the result is uncertain, but the certain infraction of the first laws of mercy and humanity.

Basil Wilberforce, Anglican Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey, observed in a 1909 sermon at the abbey:

I believe that no greater cruelty is perpetuated on this earth than that which is committed in the name of science in some physiological laboratories … The cause which we are championing is no fanatical protest based on ignorant sentimentality, but a claim of simple justice not only on the transcendent truths of the immanence of the divine truth in all that lives, but also upon the irrefutable logic of ascertained fact.

What all this suggests is not only the depth of revulsion in which vivisection was held by prominent Christians but also that the animal sensibilities of such authorities, whether right or wrong on the issue of vivisection, were far stronger than those of the most prominent proponents of evolution by natural selection. None of this should indicate to us that all Darwinians were of one mind and all Christians of another—and there were, anyway, large numbers of individuals who subscribed to both doctrines. The co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was as adamant an anti-vivisectionist, indeed, an abolitionist, as Lord Chief Justice Coleridge or Lord Shaftesbury. His opposition, however, as he explained in World of Life (1911) arose from what he saw as the degradation that the practice of vivisection imposed on the practitioners rather than the manner in which it degraded the animals.

The customary tale of how Darwin’s theory of evolution occasioned the most fundamental revolution in animal ethics needs to be rethought and retold. From a moral perspective Darwinism added nothing that had not been long proclaimed. From a practical perspective at least the more prominent of the Darwinians were far less sympathetic to animals in experimentation than some prominent Christians. The reality is that the history of human attitudes to animals is far more complex, indeed convoluted, than we are customarily led to believe. Much of our contemporary analysis reads more like ideology than history. The prevailing premises of the history of animal ethics require a thorough reinvestigation.