“Popular Feeling and the Advancement of Science. Anti-Vivisection,” by H.G. Wells (1928)


(Featured image: “Der Vivisektor” by Gabriel von Max (1883). Lady Justice cradles a small dog while weighing the brain against the heart on her scale)

Transcriber’s Note:

Recently, I wrote the article “H.G. Wells and Animals, A Troubling Legacy,” examining the seemingly pro-vegetarian, anti-vivisection themes of Wells’ famous science fiction stories and their stark incongruence with his own defense of vivisection for scientific research later in life. How, I asked, could the same author who erased moral boundaries between humans and animals and cast a sadistic vivisector as his villain in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and condemned exploitation of others as a means of societal progress in The Time Machine (1895), ever support the torture and killing of other creatures for scientific knowledge? I proposed three possible hypotheses that might resolve the paradox:

  1. Wells started off morally opposed to vivisection on animal welfare grounds, as when he wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau at age 29, and later changed his position. Either he failed to heed his own novel’s warning and, seduced by the wonders of science, cast aside his ethical qualms; or, after carefully considering the dilemma, ultimately decided that the potential benefits to medicine and human knowledge outweighed the harm caused to animals.
  2. Wells never actually intended Doctor Moreau to criticize vivisection, himself viewing the title character as a tragic hero rather than a villain. By this hypothesis, Wells was a sociopath who wrote his lurid descriptions of Moreau’s cruelty with admiration rather than revulsion, and has been grossly misinterpreted by readers who’ve understood his work through the lens of normal human compassion.
  3. Wells’ views on vivisection were always complex, and he supported some types of experiment while condemning others, depending on the methods used and purpose of the research. In this case, Doctor Moreau may have been meant to draw some dividing line between morally acceptable and unacceptable forms of vivisection, or to expurgate his own conflicted feelings on the matter by projecting them onto a fictional character and scenario.

Since writing that article, I had the opportunity to do some further research at the University of Washington library, where I found materials not available to me online. These include Wells’ 1928 non-fiction volume The Way the World is Going: Guesses & Forecasts of the Years Ahead, a collection of essays previously published in various newspapers and journals. One of these, titled “Popular Feeling and the Advancement of Science. Anti-Vivisection,” spells out in detail his personal views concerning vivisection. In it, he also addresses several other ways in which humans exploit animals, including hunting for sport, breeding pets with physical deformities, capturing animals from the wild as exotic pets, and slaughtering livestock for food, which he compares and contrasts with vivisection in terms of their respective suffering caused and opposition provoked among activists.

Since this document is not otherwise publicly available online, I have decided to transcribe it here for the sake of future scholarship on Wells and the history of animal research. There is much that I could critique in Wells’ essay, including his estimation of animal suffering caused by vivisection, and whether his characterization of anti-vivisectionists is accurate or even sincere. There are also parts that I believe raise difficult issues deserving of serious consideration by activists, and anyone seeking an ethical verdict on the question of animal research. However, in the interests of allowing Wells to speak for himself, and readers to reach their own conclusions as to his views on animals, I will save my own thoughts for the comments section or a future follow-up essay.

Here, then, is H.G. Wells’ own writing on the subject of vivisection:


“Popular Feeling and the Advancement of Science. Anti-Vivisection.”
From The Way the World is Going: Guesses & Forecasts of the Years Ahead (1928)
By H.G. Wells

There are some questions that really serve to classify men’s minds. Nowadays the popularly received classifications rarely mean anything at all. Are you Republican or Democrat, are you Liberal, Labour, or Conservative? The answer tells you only of accidents of upbringing and circumstance. Are you a Socialist? “We are all Socialists nowadays.” Are you a Christian? Yes and no, or a “Yes” – and a long explanation. But these other questions are test questions. Fairly put and fairly answered they reveal the quality – or rather, let me say, the key and colour – of a mind, quite definitively. They mean exact things. They show you are this sort of man or that.

One of these test questions is birth control, because on your belief whether that is possible and desirable or whether it is not, hang, logically and necessarily, all your ideas of the competition of types, peoples, and races, and of the possibility of socialism and world peace. If you can believe it is possible then world peace is possible, and if you think it is impossible all talk of world peace is just sentimental foolishness or a hum-bugging preparation for propaganda in the next war. Another test issue is the question whether the Mass as performed by a properly qualified priest is or is not the central facet of Christian religious life. If your answer is “Yes,” you are a Catholic, and if “No” a Protestant. All the other points at issue among the different sorts of Christians are subordinate to that, and you will find that the decisions people make upon them are always more or less clearly consequent upon that primary decision. Your attitude towards education will be different, and towards literature and history. You will face death differently and pain differently. Upon a great multitude of the important problems of today you do not know where you are, you are just meandering about, until you have thought out and decided clearly on these two key matters and adjusted your other ideas to them.

A third cardinal issue, not perhaps quite so far-reaching in its implications as these others, but very far-reaching, is the question of vivisection. To get your attitude to that quite clear and settled in your mind is – after these other two – as sound and profitable an enterprise in self-examination as it is possible to imagine.

What is vivisection? It is a clumsy and misleading name for experimentation on animals for the sake of the knowledge to be gained thereby. It is clumsy and misleading because it means literally cutting up alive and trails with it to most uninstructed minds a suggestion of highly sensitive creatures, bound and helpless, being slowly anatomized to death. This is an idea naturally repulsive to gentle and kindly spirits, and it puts an imputation of extreme cruelty on vivisection which warps the discussion from the outset. But the larger bulk of experiments upon animals for scientific purposes involve no cutting about and very little pain. Many cause discomfort rather than actual pain. There may be the prick of an injection and a subsequent illness. Where there is actual cutting it is nearly always performed under anesthetics, and in a considerable proportion of such cases there is no need for the animal to recover consciousness and it does not recover consciousness.

Still, a residue of cases remains in which real suffering is inflicted. Far more pain, terror, and distress is inflicted on the first day of pheasant shooting every year, for no purpose at all except the satisfaction of the guns, upon the wounded and mutilated birds which escape than is inflicted by all the scientific investigators in the world vivisecting for a year. The lives of “fancy” dogs, again, invalid and grotesque deformations of the canine type, must make an aggregation of prolonged discomfort beyond all comparison greater than that of the creatures inoculated by the physiologist. But such considerations do not release us from the straight question whether it is right and permissible to cut even a single animal about, or indeed to hurt any living creature at all, for the sake of knowledge.

That is what the scientific experimentalist claims to be free to do and which the anti-vivisectionists labour strenuously to prevent. There is no denial on the part of the scientific experimentalist that a certain number of experiments are painful and have to be painful, and that they are of a sort that have to be performed upon animals of an order of intelligence that leaves one in no doubt of the reality of the sufferings inflicted. The large majority of experiments involve no inconvenience to the creatures tested, but there is this residuum of admittedly painful cases. It is an amount of suffering infinitesimal in comparison with the gross aggregate of pain inflicted day by day upon sentient creatures by mankind, but it occurs.

The anti-vivisectionist wants legislation to prevent all experiment upon living things for the sake of knowledge. Failing that he wants to prevent experiment upon dogs in particular, even when the experiment involves no pain whatever to the subject. But you will find that the typical anti-vivisectionist is incapable of believing that an experiment can be painless; his imagination is too vivid for any assurance to the contrary. The idea of living substance cut while it quivers and feels is too powerful for him. When the arguments and imaginative appeals to his agitation are scrutinized it will be found that his objection is to real or imagined pain, inflicted in cold blood to no matter what beneficial end.

This is what he wants to stop. His propaganda literature is filled with assertions that no knowledge of any value has ever been gained by biological experimentation, but these preposterous denials of widely known facts are the natural and habitual exaggerations of controversial literature. The sound anti-vivisectionist would not rest his case on any such proposition, for, even if it were true, a single wonderful discovery tomorrow would upset it again. Pushed into a corner he will admit that he does not care whether the knowledge gained is worth while or no. He will not have knowledge gained in this fashion.

It would be easy to convict the anti-vivisectionist movement of many manifest inconsistencies, but my object here is rather to disentangle a fundamental idea than to exhibit confusions of thought. I want to disentangle what is at the root of the feelings of the anti-vivisectionist, and not to score controversial points. But I must call attention to the marked disregard shown by the active spirits in this agitation for any sort of experimenting with animals, however productive of pain, that does not produce scientific results. The world of pet animals is a world of aimless experimenting with life. The lives of the “pets” of careless women are for the most part remarkable histories of wrong and excessive feeding and fitful fussing and negligence, and these creatures are themselves, in many of their varieties, products of a ruthlessly dysgenic breeding industry which sacrifices vigour and vitality to minuteness, quaintness, and delicious ugliness, but the anti-vivisectionist has never shown the slightest disposition to couple this ugly trade in animal deformity with the pursuit of scientific research. Nor does he show any animus against the importation of little monkeys and suchlike small attractive beasts, dragged from their natural environment to die en route or perish miserably but “amusingly” in uncongenial and often terrifying surroundings. Indeed, a large part of the social and financial support of anti-vivisection seems to come from just the sort of people who sustain the breeders and procurers of animals for “petting.”

But very probably the toy-dog lover does not realize the biological abomination of these practices. In his disregard of possible pain and discomfort in one case and in his exaggeration of pain and discomfort in the other, we find the clue to the fundamental issue of this controversy. The pet is to him a dear little thing and its incessant struggles to breathe with its pug nose are considered to be funny; its fitful appetite is interpreted as fastidiousness; its manifest ill-health is “delicacy;” if it is constantly washed and combed it does not smell and it is a sweet creature; its abject physical dependence on its owner, its terror and hatred of the world beyond the proprietary aura is very flattering and easily interpreted as love. There is the same disinclination to see the realities in the case of the pet dog as in the case of the dog in the hands of the experimentalist, but the disinclination is set at a different angle. The former leads a life of general discomfort, but it is necessary for the pet-owning and pet-protecting type to think of it as exquisitely indulged; the latter may not suffer in the slightest degree, and may show the friendliest feelings to the man who has made it a contributor to science or may jump on the table eagerly for the injection that is followed by a pat and a tid-bit of food, but it has to be regarded as being thrillingly and outrageously tormented. These however are honest delusions, the outcome of a peculiar mental make-up, and the anti-vivisectionist is not to be charged with willful inconsistency. His or her – it is more commonly her – intention is to prevent and forbid the infliction in cold blood and for a scientific end of anything that looks like pain on any animal that can be imagined to suffer.

The hatred is not against pain as such; it is against pain inflicted for knowledge. The medical profession is massively in support of vivisection, and its testimony is that the knowledge derived from vivisection has made possible the successful treatment of many cases of human suffering. So far as we can measure one pain against another, or the pain of this creature against the pain of that, vivisection has diminished the pain of the world very considerably. But the anti-vivisectionists will hear nothing of that. They will hear nothing of that because it is not material to their conception of the case.

The peculiar animus of the anti-vivisectionist is clearly against the deliberation and the scientific aim and not against the pain in itself. The general subjugation of animals to human ends is not questioned. Many anti-vivisectionists are, like their pets, carnivorous. They will leave the abattoir to go on when they have closed the laboratory; they will recognize the right and duty of the owner of a big dog to beat his fortunate possession into good behavior and keep it short of food to tame it. They would be indignant if they were refused the freedom of giving their pets anything to eat that they fancied – provided always that no scientific knowledge ensued from its subsequent reactions. It is the quiet determination of the clean-handed man with the scalpel that they cannot endure.

It is not that he is cruel, because manifestly he is not cruel – if he had a lust for cruelty the richly emotional nature of the anti-vivisectionists would probably understand him better – it is because he is not driven by his feelings or cravings to do what he does, but by a will for abstract lucidity, that he rouses the antagonism, the violent sense of difference, in his “antis.” Vivisection is only occasionally and incidentally the infliction of pain, and anti-vivisection is not really a campaign against pain at all. The real campaign is against the thrusting of a scientific probe into mysteries and hidden things which it is felt should either be approached in a state of awe, tenderness, excitement, or passion, or else avoided. It is, we begin to realize, a campaign to protect a world of fantasy against science, a cherished and necessary world of fantasy. It is a counter-attack upon a treatment of animals that gives the lie to a delightful and elaborated mythology in which these poor limited creatures are humanized and have thrust upon them responses, loyalties, and sympathetic understandings of which they are, in reality, scarcely more capable than plants. The curious, materialistic, shameless, and intelligent monkey lends itself far less easily than the dog to such mythological interpretation, and so gets far less consideration from the anti-vivisectionists. It pulls everything to pieces, including pleasant fantasies about itself. But you can tell a dog that it thinks and feels anything you like, however noble and complex, and it watches you hopefully and wags its tail. And so it is about the dog that the controversy centers, and the passions of the dispute rage most obstinately.

To the question we have posed, whether it is justifiable to inflict pain upon animals if need be for the sake of knowledge, the supporter of vivisection says “Yes.” He says “Yes” because he regards the whole animal creation as existing not merely for its present sensations, but as a contributing part of a continuing and developing reality which increases in knowledge and power. His disposition is to see things plainly and to accept the subservience of beast to man in man’s increasing effort to understand and control. He regards animals as limited and simplified cognates of our own infinitely more complex and important beings, illuminating inferiors, and he can conceive no better or more profitable use for their lives than to serve the ends of mental growth. What otherwise are their lives? A play of desires and fears, that ends in being devoured by other creatures great and small. To this mentality that of the natural anti-vivisectionist is in the completest contrast. The world that the pro-vivisectionist is by his nature impelled to strip bare, the anti-vivisectionist clothes in rich swathings of feeling and self-projection. He imagines souls in birds and beasts, long memories and intricate criticism. He can imagine dogs and cats pressed by forebodings, a prey to anxiety, vexed and thwarted. He does not clearly separate them from humanity. Often he will compare these dream-enriched animals of his with mankind to the disadvantage of the latter. He enriches reality but at the same time he distorts and conceals it by these ornamentations. He is afraid of bare reality as a child is afraid of a skeleton.

The biological experimenter experiments because he wants to know. He is neither dismayed by pain nor does he desire that pain should enter into his experiments. He avoids it when possible. I doubt if his work is largely determined by practical ends, or whether it would have much value if he undertook it directly for the sake of curing disease, benefitting humanity or anything of that sort. Sentimental aims mean loose, sentimental, ineffective work. He wants knowledge because he wants knowledge; it is his characteristic good. Practical applications follow unsought. He is a type of humanity that may or may not be increasing in the world. Most of us do not stand up to knowledge like that. We want to keep our illusions. We do not want knowledge for ourselves or others very much, we prefer to be happy in our imaginations, and the rescue of animals from the “clutches” of the vivisectionists appeals to our deep instinctive self-protection quite as much as it does to the widely diffused desire to champion the weak against the strong.

24 July, 1927

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About Author

Born and raised within the animal rights movement, Wolf Gordon Clifton has always felt strongly connected to other creatures and concerned for their well-being. Beginning in childhood he contributed drawings of animals for publication in Animal People News, and traveled with his parents to attend conferences and visit animal projects all over the world. During high school he began writing for the newspaper and contributing in various additional ways around the Animal People office. His first solo trip overseas, to film a promotional video for the Bali Street Dog Foundation in Indonesia, led him to create the animated film Yudisthira's Dog, retelling the story of an ancient Hindu king famed for his loyalty to a street dog. It also inspired lifelong interests in animation and world religion, which he went on to study for college at Vanderbilt University. Wolf graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and minors in Film Studies and Astronomy. In 2015, he received a Master of Arts in Museology and Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology from the University of Washington. His thesis project, the online exhibit Beyond Human: Animals, Aliens, and Artificial Intelligence, brings together animal rights, astrobiology, and AI research to explore the ethics of humans' relationships with other sentient beings, and can be viewed on the Animal People Forum. His diverse training and life experiences enable him to research and write about a wide variety of animal-related issues, in a global context and across the humanities, arts, and sciences. In his spare time, he does paleontological work for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and writes for the community blog Neon Observatory. Click to see author's profile.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Edwin Elgersma on

    Looks like Wells sympathized with Moreau’s motivations more than not. Interesting, and thanks so much for uploading this.

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