Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/The Vivisection Question I


By C. F. HODGE, Ph. D.,



FOR about thirty years the vivisection question has been before the public in this country. Discussion has often been hot and bitter, both in the press and in society, and again it is upon us in exactly its old form. What are we to do with it? What, so far as this country is concerned, has the controversy accomplished? After careful reading of all the important literature upon both sides, it appears to me that nothing has been gained either way. Both sides are practically where they were thirty years ago, and the failure seems to be due to fundamental misunderstandings of the real points at issue. In several hundred antivivisection publications I am unable to find a passage which reveals the least conception on the part of their writers of the real purpose which a physiologist has in his work. On the other side, while definite arguments have been advanced, no generous effort has been made to give the public a clear notion of what the physiologist in the study of health and the pathologist in the study of disease are driving at. Can something be said which shall do this? Or must physiologists work on under the distrust and suspicion of society because their aims and purposes are misunderstood?

The real question at issue, moreover, has been buried under personalities and under matters of detail, themselves involved in bitterest possible medical controversy, and the merits of which no amount of discussion, but time and experiment alone, can determine. Only by freeing the argument entirely from these things, and by placing it upon higher grounds, can we hope for intelligent peace upon this contested field. What, then, is the purpose of biological science?

Man finds himself in company upon the earth with an infinite number of living things, and he has found it of inestimable value to learn something about this maze of life. The science which has come to embody this knowledge is now known as biology. It falls naturally into two great divisions: the study of the form and structure of organs and organisms—anatomy or morphology—and the study of the functions, of the actions, which the organs perform. This is physiology. Dividing further, physiology falls into the sciences of healthy action, physiology proper, and diseased action, pathology, from παθος, a suffering. It is evident that for the study of form alone the dead body is in general sufficient. But for the investigation of the activities of health and disease it is as evident that the physiologist and pathologist require vital action as much as the chemist requires chemical action or the physicist requires motion. It is continually being urged that the dead body is sufficient for every scientific purpose. As well say that the dead body is as good as a live man. It would be precisely as reasonable to agitate against driving live horses, contending that dead ones will go just as fast, as to oppose the use of live animals for physiological or pathological research. And those who make this claim prove conclusively that they have no conception of what the word physiology means.

Of all physical Nature nothing is of greater importance or touches man more closely than just this thing, life. The study of form, anatomy, is little more than a dead stepping-stone to this science of the processes of life, physiology. Young as it is, no science has attained results of greater value and none gives brighter promise for the future. In a word, the faith, hope, and charity which inspire this science are to learn enough about the laws and possibilities of living Nature, to do away with all disease and premature death, and to make all life as full and perfect as these laws will permit. This is the inspiration of biology. Is it base or unworthy? And it is not Utopian. It is possible. The end may not be attained for a hundred years or a thousand. That depends upon how much faith men have in it and upon how much effort they are willing to devote to it. But it will come as surely as the world moves.

Take for a moment a broad view of our situation in this respect. Nearly one half of our people are dying before the age of forty-one, almost all of disease, curable or preventable, did we but know how. This goes on with our standing army of physicians, over one hundred thousand strong, on duty day and night. It looks discouraging, and an eminent physician has himself said that a doctor is like a man blindfolded, striking about with a club, almost as likely to hit his patient as the disease. Our only hope, therefore, must lie in more knowledge of the laws which govern living Nature. Without this, as well attempt to stay the storm and tides of the ocean with straw as the currents of disease and the course of Nature with doctors. If we could get before unprejudiced, thoughtful people some idea of the magnitude and scope of medicine and its importance to human and to all animal life, together with some faint conception of the moral forces impelling to the pursuit of those sciences which underlie medicine, in the light of these ideas the vivisection question would wholly disappear.

More than two hundred and fifty years ago, in the town of Schaffhausen, a German anatomist was engaged in studying the anatomy of the human body. The people loathed him as one possessed of the devil. They told him, in the words of an old superstition, that the stain of human blood he could never wash from his hands. His reply was, "I can wash the blood stains from my hands with a basin of water, but the stain of ignorance of anatomy can not be washed from the medical profession with all the water of the Rhine and the ocean."[1] Wepfer spoke of anatomy. Anatomy must precede physiology and pathology, as the structure must precede the function it is to perform. Thus Anatomy must prepare the way for physiology, and to some extent she has fulfilled her mission. But were a Wepfer to arise now, he would say, "The stain of ignorance of physiology can not be washed away with all the water of five oceans." I doubt, however, whether a modern Wepfer would lay the burden of blame at the door of the medical profession. It is everyday talk that physicians must lower their practice to the ignorance and prejudice of their patients. The idea of "magic" cures is still too deeply rooted in the average mind, and a doctor must "dose" a large proportion of his patients to satisfy this craving. At no time in the history of medicine has there been such a craze for patent medicines as now, and in no country is the situation so bad as in our own. We are the laughingstock of all Europe in this regard. In Germany apothecaries are prosecuted for advertising and selling American patent medicines. What hope, then, is there for rational medicine in a country that spends yearly hundreds of millions for worthless or harmful "patent medicines" and quack doctors, and but a very few paltry thousands for the advancement of physiology—and worse still, among a people who are as completely and just as intelligently satisfied with quack nostrums as men were in the dark ages with amulets and signatures, the moss scraped from a human skull, the powder of dried toads, or the hair of a saint?[2] In a nation of popular rule, the only hope seems to lie in scientific education of the people. How this is to be attained is a most difficult problem. The people will not educate themselves. Against such education are naturally trained all the resources of quackery, whose trade would be gone. And where free expression is accorded to all alike, progress must be made in the teeth of ignorance too dense to have any conception of its own depth, and in the face of brawling charlatanry and screaming fanaticism. With nearly half our people dying before or about the prime of life, this is the situation. To teach ideas of cause and effect with reference to matters of health and disease, to inspire at least a willingness to heartily co-operate in efforts to control the causes of disease, our public-school system seems well adapted. But even here there is a serious tendency to hamper and restrict the proper teaching of physiology.


If vivisection is impious, immoral, or demoralizing, it must be abandoned as a method of research, and further discussion on grounds of utility is precluded. Hence this aspect of the subject must receive our first attention. Scarcely a paper appears against the practice of vivisection which does not contain solemn appeals to the Deity. These are too sincere to be ignored. In fact, the most active supporter of the agitation in England would confine the discussion wholly to these grounds, and invites us to "leave, then, utility alone, and all the weary controversy which hangs upon it." With the help of God, it (the national conscience) will yet abolish vivisection.[3] A recent expression of the American Society is as follows:

Resolved, That we, the American Antivivisection Society, believe vivisection to be morally wrong; to be distinctly opposed to the intent of a beneficent Creator, who wills the happiness of all his creatures; that we should, as Christians, unite in every effort for its suppression, and, as the best weapon of the Christian is prayer, Resolved,[4]etc.

The argument has been cast by Cardinal Manning into the following syllogism: Truth of Nature must be sought only by methods in harmony with the perfection of Nature's God. Mercy is one of the perfections of God. Vivisection is not in harmony with perfect mercy.[5] Therefore truth must not be sought by vivisection. How the worthy cardinal knows that vivisection is not in harmony with God's perfect mercy he nowhere explains. This is the all-important question. If this proposition is true, vivisection is impious, and must be abandoned immediately, no matter what its value to science, or utility to mankind.

Clearly the only way to find an answer to this question is to go to Nature itself and examine the principles upon which God has deemed it wise to order the living population of the world.

Doing this, we find living upon the world at present at least 272,090 different species of animals, the number of individuals in each species being beyond computation or expression. We also know that 39,925 species, with their countless numbers of individuals, have succumbed in the struggle for life and become extinct.[6]

Now, it has been ordained, in the perfect mercy of God, that each individual of this innumerable population be born, live for a little time, and die. With many species, birth itself is painful. With all, life is a continuous struggle and terminates in what is commonly called "the agony of death." Few, at least of the higher animals, struggle out the full measure of their days and die in peace. The vast majority are starved to death, or famished and scorched to death by heat and drought, buried in the burning debris of volcanoes or in snows and frozen to death, or are beaten to death by hail or drowned in floods. And in and through all this is the desperate struggle to find a grain of food, a drop of water, a little shelter, a foothold in the flood, a way out of the fiery hail or burning forest.

But harsh as is the relation between animal life and the physical world, still more severe are the relations of animals to one another. Here we see the weaker preyed on by the stronger mercilessly, and behold the array of vivisectional instruments—the teeth and jaws, the beaks and talons, the claws and fangs, developed for this purpose. Here the animals that escape the accidents of the physical world perish most miserably, are lacerated, torn limb from limb, are slowly crushed in serpents' coils or slowly swallowed alive. And again in all this is the last, probably of many, flight for dear life, the last convulsive effort to tear loose from the teeth or talons. Certain plants, even, are carnivorous, and entrap and digest living animals. More than all this, among certain animals, the males fight to the death for possession of the females of the species.

Still more terrible, many animals and plants become parasitic, and suck from day to day the life-blood of their hosts. Undoubtedly the greatest distress to which the animal kingdom is subjected occurs under this head. Some of the many diseases producing microbes become established in the animal. The disease ensues—slow, loathsome decay, sharp, convulsive torture, or the burning to death of fever.

All this is going on in the sea and on the land and has been going on for geological ages upon a scale which baffles expression in number or quantity. And this is God's ordering of Nature in "perfect mercy." With it man has had nothing to do, since there is every reason to believe that it existed ages before he appeared upon the scene. Cardinal Manning goes on to tell us that he believes in Genesis; but there we are told, "And God saw everything that he had made: and behold, it was very good." According to any estimate of the enormity of physical suffering which I have been able to find among anti vivisection writers, the God who ordained such a scheme of Nature must be a monster of cruelty. What is wrong with the equation? The Creator? Nature? Or the ideas of antivivisectionists? Is it not true that the religion of a hermit's hut, a lady's parlor, or a pope's palace is apt to fit ill the problems of the wide world, and that we must go to Nature to study even religion?

This travail of the animal creation is the "Slough of Despond" for every philosophy but one. The biologist would agree with the Creator in pronouncing it "very good." He too has gained in some degree the divine point of view, and can see that out of the struggle comes the quickening to nobler form and higher life, and that, without this, life of any sort is scarce worth the living.

Few who drive thoroughbreds ever pause to think of the fleeing for life, through geological epochs, the kicking and biting, the hardship and training it has cost to give to the horse his beauty and strength, since the time when the fox-sized Eohippus picked his way among Eocene bogs. So with man, so with every form of life that has attained any height of development. The price has been great, but the gain is priceless; and we would not give back, if we could, all the suffering the world has felt and revert to vegetation and formless slimes.

Examining a step further, is it not possible to imagine a more merciful dispensation of Nature? Suppose all the "cruel" carnivora should be exterminated or become vegetarian. Would we not then have the animal millennium of certain sentimental people? No, far from it. The ensuing year would be the most dreadful in the experience of the animal kingdom upon the earth, and would end in death by starvation and disease of many more animals than are now annually appropriated by the carnivora. But suppose all manner of disease should be done away with—the millennium of scientific medicine; the struggle for food would be only the more terrible, and it is more merciful to kill in a night, even by pestilence, than in a month by starvation and the kicks and butts of stronger animals.

There is what is known as the "balance of natural forces." It is this that keeps the planets balanced in their orbits, and among animals it holds the species within the bounds which make for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is the plan of an all-merciful Creator, and man has never been able to suggest an improvement upon it, within the limits of physical conditions.

From the above, we see that every animal life is cast into the world as an experiment, often of the severest and most painful type. In this lifelong vivisection. Nature provides no ether or chloroform, nor even chloral or morphine.

By this very dispensation of Nature God clearly gives to man every sanction to cause any amount of physical pain which he may find expedient to unravel his laws. Not only this, the situation places upon man heavy duties, which he is bound to perform. These we will consider in a moment. As far as biological science is concerned the whole argument may be summed up as follows: Biology is not an exact science like mathematics and physics. These sciences are exact simply because it is possible in them to obtain as many equations as there are unknown quantities to be determined. Hence, with the solution of all possible equations, every unknown quantity in these sciences may be exactly determined. In biological sciences the case is thus far quite different. Here the unknown quantities are legion in every equation. Hence the extreme difficulty of any solid advance; hence the many mistakes, the many disagreements. In the best of experiments it is only possible to mass one series of unknown quantities against another series of unknown quantities so that they balance as nearly as possible, and then with our one unknown quantity, about which the experiment turns, make the best temporary solution of our problem possible. Thus the science must be content to proceed until the vast series of unknown conditions which influence life have been dealt with one by one. Thus, if the science is to advance, if we are ever to learn under what conditions life is most favorably placed, we must vary the conditions in every possible way—i. e., experiment physiologically; and, as we have seen, everything in the divine ordering of Nature is in complete harmony with this method, and bids man Godspeed in this great work.

Thus far we have considered Nature as uninfluenced by the presence of man. Let man, a moral being, take his place among the animal creation, and at once there spring up moral relations between him and every living thing capable of feeling pleasure and pain. It becomes his duty to do all in his power to increase the happiness and to diminish the suffering of every sentient thing. But we do not sympathize with the Hindu who lay down before the starving tigress in order to save her life and the life of her whelps with his own. Man's first duty is to those of his own species. If wild beasts endanger the life of his wife or child, it becomes his duty to kill them by any means in his power, let the suffering be what it must. This is man's first step in the conquest of any country. And when he has rid the earth of the fierce carnivora, it becomes his duty to kill such numbers of the herbivora as will enable the rest to obtain food and enjoy life. This surplus man has always utilized for food and clothing. All this, however, is but his first step. He must tend herds and till the soil to support as many as possible of his own species. Even then his work is but just begun. If disease threaten the life of his child, is his duty any different? Certainly not. It is as much his duty to exterminate the disease as to destroy the wild beast. To subdue the earth, "and have dominion over. . . every living thing that moveth upon the earth," was one of God's first and highest commands to man; and it includes microbes as well as lions and tigers.

At just this point we are met with the argument that there is no moral proportion between the amount of suffering caused by vivisection and the advantage gained. "Suppose it is capable of proof," says Lord Coleridge,[7] "that by putting to death with hideous torment three thousand horses you could find out the real nature of some feverish symptom, I should say, without the least hesitation, that it would be unlawful to torture the horses." Accepting the proportion as stated, we will have: Torture of three thousand horses is to knowledge of real nature of feverish symptom as power gained by such knowledge is to prevention of death annually from splenic fever, we will say, of many millions of cattle, horses, and sheep, and thousands of men in Europe. There is no very exact "proportion" between end and means, but Nature is too generous to insist on exact "proportions" when men study her laws aright.

The difficulty with good people who reason out this "proportion" is that they fail to grasp the stupendous size of the problems involved, the whole world over and through all time. France alone is estimated to lose sheep to the value of four million dollars annually from splenic fever, and in one district, Beauce, one hundred and eighty-seven thousand sheep are killed annually by it. In Russia, during 1857, it was reported that one hundred thousand horses perished from the disease. In other epidemics, the losses within small districts reach tens of thousands, and in one a thousand people caught the disease and perished.[8]

Or suppose it to be a "knowledge of the real nature of some symptom" of one of the fevers that are yearly causing in this country the premature death of nearly fifty thousand people,[9] and the knowledge gained saved the life of but one, the proportion would still stand approved in the minds of all humane people. I am aware that Miss Cobbe has said in effect. Our days are numbered, and I would not have my own or those of my friends spared or lengthened by the suffering of animals. This sentiment is sanctioned by no code of Christian ethics. For all normal, rational, and truly humane people the following statement of Prof. Davis is true beyond danger of cavil. He says: "When the brute's ordinary right to welfare, yielding exemption from inflicted pain, confronts man's right to welfare, it (the welfare of the brute) shrinks to zero and disappears."[10]

In order to test the popular acceptance of this principle, I actually put the following question to twenty American women: "Let the suffering be any amount necessary, how many dogs and cats do you feel that you would give to save the life of one human being?" Without exception, these women have answered, "I would give all the dogs and cats in the world."

Contrast with this the following sentiments from the pen of a woman who is perhaps the most active agitatrix of antivivisection in this country. She answers as follows: "How many human lives which you 'experimenters' are so anxious (apparently) to prolong are really worth the time and trouble?. . . Would the world not be benefited were they allowed to pass to another sphere, where perhaps the conditions would be more favorable to moral and spiritual advancement?" Such perversion of human sentiment is little, if any, short of the pathological, and calls for no further comment.

Thus is seen the impossibility of separating morality from utility. If the right of the animal stand in the way of human use, "it shrinks to zero." If one human life can be saved, any amount of animal suffering necessary is justified. With this. noble sentiment we thus accept the burden of proving that the sacrifice of animal life has brought us knowledge by which the human life has been prolonged and the sufferings of humanity have been ameliorated. With this proved, it is clear that it may be as much the moral and religious duty of a man to vivisect, who has faith that he can advance the cause of humanity by so doing, as it is his duty to preach or teach who has equal faith in these occupations. We shall treat the argument for utility in the succeeding chapter. Before passing on to this head, however, two moral questions, fundamental to the whole discussion, must be carefully considered.

An assumption found in every, or almost every, antivivisection argument is that vivisection must be demoralizing to those who practice or witness it. Neither fact nor proof is adduced. From beginning to end it is pure tissue of antivivisection imagination, like the old assumptions against the first anatomists. The assumption is not only unfounded but thoroughly irrational. It would be precisely as sane to assume that a missionary who goes to preach among the heathen tends to become heathenous; or that anything in the practice of surgery or medicine tends to blunt the sensibilities of men in these professions. Granting that there are brutal men in the medical profession, as there are in all others, carries no proof that their work has made them so. It may have made them decidedly more humane than they ever would have been without it.

On just this point I have taken the pains to collect the testimony of experienced teachers of physiology in thirteen institutions in this country, where the greater part of our vivisectional work is done. In every case the moral effect of experimentation is claimed to be wholesome, and in no case have they any evidence of its being evil. I will quote from but one instance, the experience of a professor in an institution for the higher education of women. He writes: "In numerous cases students have entered the course with decided objections to the practice of vivisection; and in no case, so far as I know, have they left without the removal of their objections and the substitution for them of sound views as to the necessity and value of vivisectional work."

The other question is one which touches the bed rock of human life: What is the use of living anyway? It is Franklins old question, "What is the use of a baby, unless it is to become a man?" but with the added question. What is the use of the man? A good many people every year look their lives in the face in this way, and, deciding that this life is of no use or worse than no use, put an end to it.

Furthermore, What is, or what may be, the value of a man's life work? And how far have we the moral right to pass judgment as to the value or use of another's life or work? With the earth reeking in carnage and with humanity and animate Nature writhing in pain, how is it possible to say that God has ordered Nature wisely and mercifully? And taking Nature q,s we find it, what can man do about it?

One theory has always been that the forces of Nature and life are far too vast for man's feeble powers to influence for good or for ill; that his chief duty lies in resignation to fate. Directly opposed to this is the spirit of modern science, which considers it man's duty to go to work and manufacture fate. What right, it would ask, have we to assume that the forces of Nature are difficult of control until all the laws which govern them are investigated? Numberless instances in the history of science prove that his powerlessness is a mere bugbear of man's own imagining. It may be so in all cases. If man will only put forth a reasonable amount of effort, it may not be so difficult to comply with the command, "Subdue the earth."

Still, the old superstitions cling tenaciously to the best of men. A child sickens and dies, and we say, "It is the will of God, so let it be." What right has man to lay this flattering unction to his lazy soul? The scientific spirit would say: "It is the ignorance of man. It is his duty to learn enough about this disease to prevent or cure it." In taking this position science simply accepts the universal principle that ignorance of law does not exempt from penalty, and hence would study the law under which the calamity occurred and, by obedience, escape the penalty in future.

To conclude in a sentence the result of a chain of reasoning too long to even outline in detail, all the suffering and physical evil in living Nature finds ample justification for its existence if, serving as a spur to man, it arouses him to use his intelligence and put forth every energy available to alleviate the misery of the world and improve its condition. In other words. Nature is wisely ordered to give man plenty to do, and to do this work is one of his highest duties. How he is to accomplish it, depends upon the means he finds at hand, which prove themselves useful to his purposes.

In passing to a consideration of the utility of scientific experimentation, it must be remembered that we are not discussing the question with infanticides, murderers, or would-be suicides. It can be considered only with those who believe that, after moral excellence, human life and happiness and freedom from disease are the most useful things in the world.

A spelæological society has been formed in France, at the instance of M. E. Martel, for the study of everything relating to caves, including artificial ones. At the end of December, 1895, it had one hundred and seventy-five members. It publishes a quarterly bulletin, Spelunca, and Memoirs, of which three numbers have been issued. It has endowment members, who contribute not less than four hundred francs; titular members, who pay fifteen francs a year; life members, who make a single contribution of two hundred francs, and corresponding members, who pay five francs a year. The general secretary is M. Martel, rue Ménars 8, Paris.
  1. Rudolf Virchow. Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie, vol. clxxxv, p. 375, Berlin, 1881.
  2. George F. Fort. History of Medical Economy during the Middle Ages, London, 1883.
  3. Miss F. P. Cobbe. A Charity and a Controversy, London, 1889, p. 4.
  4. American Antivivisection Society Report, 1892, p. 19.
  5. Manning. Annual Address, Victoria Street Society, March 20, 1887.
  6. Leunis. Synopsis der Thierkunde, vol. ii, p. 1176, Hanover, 1886. The above is merely the number of species known to Leunis in 1886, and by no means the entire number inhabiting the earth. Lord Walsingham estimates that there are upward of two million species of insects alone. (Entomological News, April, 1890, p. 58.)
  7. Coleridge. The Nineteenth Century Defenders of Vivisection, p. 8.
  8. R. M. Smith. Therapeutic Gazette, November, 1884; and George Fleming. Vivisection and Diseases of Animals. Nineteenth Century, 1882, p. 470.
  9. Compendium of the Tenth Annual Census, pp. 1708, 1709.
  10. Prof. Noah K. Davis. The Moral Aspects of Vivisection. North American Review, 1885, p. 217.