Animal rights and 19th century antivivisection- was Charles Darwin the catalyst?

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.

On the Origin of Species, 1859.

 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).

A chilling image revealing fears of human vivisection

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.



9 comments on “Animal rights and 19th century antivivisection- was Charles Darwin the catalyst?

  1. amandalee3 says:

    I was really interested in your subject area since it’s not the usual types of history mainstream historians focus on. Your blog is really interesting, easy to understand but involves sources and enough information to get an idea of the different groups that were for and against vivisection. I really don’t understand why they couldn’t at least kill the animals first before they explored their anatomy, reading your blog keeps making me think of all the types of animal cruelty that’s technically ‘legal’ now like bear bile farming. Hopefully things like that will be abolished too.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, I was exploring this issue because I have strong feelings on animal welfare too. It is true that some information could only be gained by studying live animals, such as respiration and blood flow. But whether it was strictly necessary to obtain this information is another debate entirely!

      I do feel however that while 19th century science often didn’t meet our 21st century standards, these people honestly believed that their actions were very moral.
      Thanks! 🙂

  2. jarrodhore says:

    Hey Jessica,

    It seems as though you have taken a fairly established historical position and really interrogated it in your project. This post only shows the outline of your results, but I would now really like to read your whole paper, and look at the way you went about it – which I think is a really good outcome to have from people reading these blogs.

    I also think that the origins of many principles that we now take for granted are really really interesting. I would hazard a guess that not many contemporary animal rights campaigners would be aware of either the darwinist angle of the origins, or the ideas inherent in your revision. In many cases I think they would be astonished that a movement that has developed into some level of maturity had its origins this long ago.

    Given that you suggested that there were individuals before Charles Darwin that avidly opposed vivisection, could it be the case that these arguments partly informed the development of Darwin’s Origin of Species? I’m stabbing in the dark here but I think it’s an interesting question, and would serve to invert the existing scholarship (as far as I can tell from this post).

    In short this was really interesting topic, and interrogating conventional understandings is a great way to approach research.

    Thanks Jessica and great post.

    Jarrod Hore

    • jessicawilks says:

      Thankyou very much for your comments! 🙂
      There was so much depth that I couldn’t include here, but yes it was very interesting to see hom animal welfare movements originated. It seems that at first, hatred of animal cruelty was purely for social reasons- eg that bear baiting was often associated with unruly behaviour! Rather than true interest in welfare. Just the question of Darwin’s feelings on the subject are deeply complex, as while he practiced some vivisection himself, he had a lifelong love of animals and hated experimentation for no good reason.

      I guess I have learned that origins of such movements cannot be judged from a 21st century viewpoint. As for your other suggestion, it would be hard to demonstrate causation between early animal welfare and Darwin’s work. However I think it’s safe to say that Darwin did so much work on animals (which informed his theory), such as the finches of the Galapagos etc, because he did love them. And I wonder how much less influential his work would have been if he had used fossil evidence alone.

      I will send you my essay if you would still like to read it!

  3. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Jess,
    Good work with locating Darwin’s role in the animal rights movement. As Darwin noted in defence of vivisectionists, cutting up a live animal would allow the scientist to see how an animal’s organs functioned. A vivisectionist probably could have done that on humans as well, but anaesthetic would have been a concern… The main issue with vivisection is perhaps similar to the Japanese claiming they kill minke whales for “scientific” purposes. An non-human animal cannot refuse being used as an experiment (if that is what the Japanese are really up to…), a human can. People these days who volunteer for scientific experiments volunteer in full knowledge of how controlled the experiment is. Such codified ethics have only really come in the wake of Josef Mengele’s experiments on humans during the Holocaust.
    The other issue is what the vivisection is actually for. Andreas Vesalius’ work during the early modern period demonstrated that human anatomy is not the same the anatomy of other mammals. Investigating non-human anatomy and functions, then, does not work as a means of investigating human functions. As with eugenics and other Victorian-age practices, vivisection was hard-headed science, but for what?
    Any thoughts?

    • alfredjohnson1707 says:

      “A non-human animal” rather than “an non-human animal” (whoops…)

      • alfredjohnson1707 says:

        “Andreas Vesalius’ work… human anatomy is not the same as the anatomy…” rather than “not the same the anatomy” (awfully sorry, my radar’s off today…)

  4. jessicawilks says:

    Thanks for your comments! 🙂
    Yes, this topic was rather more complex than an 800 word blog will allow me to explain. One of my main findings was that values surrounding sympathy with animals have not been constant throughout history. Yes, nowadays animal rights activists would argue that all life is sacred/ if we can’t ask animals, we can’t judge their feelings etc… However in the past, feelings of sympathy with animals were not always ‘true’ animal welfare. A good example of this would be the feminist and socialist antivivisections, some of whom supported the cause because it became entwined with their ideology. Even earlier, the issue (for Christians) was whether animals had souls, rather than whether they had some intrinsic value which made vivisection immoral. In short, the values present in the debate ‘evolved’ themselves.

    Interesting point about codified ethics emerging as a result of Nazi atrocities. If I had more space in my essay, it would have been fascinating to explore 20th century animal ethics.

    As for the usefulness of vivisection, just as today pro-vivisectionists will tell you it’s useful, and anti-vivisectionists will vehemently deny its use for anything. I should point out that in the 19th century, ‘vivisection’ meant all forms of experimentation on live animals, not just cutting. eg ranging from toxicology, to fairly benign tests of metabolism etc. As a (plant)scientist, but also as an animal lover, I would say that vivisection has had much use to humanity, but that vivisection without anaesthetics is not justifiable. (remember though that anaesthetics were only just being developed in this time period). Our advances in vaccination, for example, sadly necessitated animal experimentation. As for today, I cannot reconcile vivisection with cosmetics testing etc… vivisection once had a place in science, but I believe it no longer does.

    Thankyou for your thoughtful comment Alfred!

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