Before and well into the 1800s, the torture of animals for sport, such as cock-throwing and bear-baiting, was a common sight on the streets of London. Animal rights and welfare values as we know them today did not exist. However as street torture decreased in the early-mid 1800s, live experimentation (vivisection) grew in popularity for scholars and scientists.
At the same time, around the 1860s/70s people were becoming more interested in animal welfare and questioned the morality of and need for vivisection. A number of renowned historians have credited Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution by natural selection published in On the Origin of Species in 1859, for forcing people to re-evaluate their position to animals thus sparking animal welfare interest.
Darwin’s theory of evolution meant that humans could no longer see themselves as uniquely created, or apart from other animals (although highly advanced). This kinship with animals meant for some that vivisection could not be justified, no matter the scientific gain in knowledge. For example, Thomas Hardy wrote in 1909: “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.” Henry Mercer, in 1899 wrote: “science, since Darwin at least, admits no such chasm as theology formally alleged, between animals and man,” and questioned why vivisection was immoral on humans, but not on dogs.
But did animal welfare sentiment really arise only with Darwin and evolutionary theory? There were individuals well before Darwin who believed that vivisection was immoral and unnecessary.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744), for example saw animals as having souls like humans, and believed that killing them for knowledge was wrong; “how do we know that we have a right to kill creatures that are so little above us as dogs, for our curiosity, or even for some use to us?” Other examples include the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth who rejected evolutionary theory, and yet had strong sympathies for animals which derived from other values.
In short, antivivisectionism was not always inspired by Darwin.
The Spirit of the Age?
Other values towards animals were likely more important in the antivivisection debate than Darwinism.
The re-thinking of old values was a feature of the 1800s, part of the “Spirit of the Age”, even before Darwin. According to P. R. Horne, new scientific knowledge such as geological and fossil discoveries prompted people to question the literal Christian creation narrative. Perhaps humans were not entitled to “dominion” over animals as the Bible claimed, but ought to treat them with respect.
The ideology of utilitarianism arose in the late 1700s after Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). The beliefs of utilitarianism included promoting greatest happiness for the greatest number, and avoidance of pain or unhappiness. This became an influential ideology in the 1800s, and was applied not only to humans, but also to animals. Surely animals too deserved part of this “greatest happiness.” Whether animals could feel pain or suffer became a major aspect of the antivivisection debate because of utilitarianism.
A Complex Issue
The kinds of opinions and viewpoints in the antivivisection debate were diverse and often complex; the debate was never as binary as simply pro- vs. antivivisection.
For some, experimentation was allowable if anaesthetics were used to remove suffering. Others, such as the vocal feminist and antivivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe believed that no vivisection was ever justifiable. However, most vivisectionists believed that scientific progress justified animal pain. Even Charles Darwin admitted that vivisection was “justifiable for real investigation on physiology; but not for mere damnable and de-testable curiosity.” (However he performed experiments on live pigeons himself in his younger days).
Some of the most important contributions to antivivisectionism were from feminists and socialists. Socialists often became involved because they perceived that scientists formed an elite class, and resented the state control of science. Feminism was often associated with antivivisectionism, as feminists likened the violation of the bodies of animals to the oppression of women. Women actually made up the majority of antivivisection societies, and often saw themselves as spiritually closer to animals than men. To many feminist antivivisectionists, vivisectionists were inhuman torturers who had sacrificed their humanity to science.
Much antivivisectionism, far from being Darwinian, went hand-in-hand with anti-science sentiment. Scientists were portrayed by antivivisectionists as Frankenstein-like, secretive and demonic. Medical achievements at the time only fuelled such imagery, such as the mixed success of Pasteur’s early work on vaccinations which led to fears of experimentation on humans. In addition, antivivisectionists abhorred vaccination studies as they involved vivisection of animals, most often dogs.
While Darwinism played a part, it is likely that a number of factors influenced the rise of antivivisectionism in the 1800s.