Human Capacity in The Island of Dr. Moreau

In Mark Greene et al.’s article “Moral Issues of Human-Non-Human Primate Neural Grafting,” the collective authors suggestively chart a series of potential ethical responses to the grafting of human neural stem cells into non-human primate (NHP) brains that revolve around the potentially new capacities that these NHPs could develop. For this working group, the ethical pitfall that haunts human to non-human primate (H-NHP) neural grafting lies in the ever-present possibility that NHPs will develop cognitive capacities outside of the normal range of their species. Although their article tempers such concerns by clearly stating the difficulty in definitively determining whether any given capacity is in fact outside of a species’ normal range, the authors leave no doubt that the acquisition of any human cognitive capacities by NHPs should be forcefully condemned as unethical. However, we might ask how Green et al. determine what a “capacity” is and from what perspective we should be confronting said capacities. For the authors, capacities exist as inherent properties of the NHPs under consideration, something that is internal to their structure and free from any mediation on the part of humans. The guiding concern of the working group and their ethical proposals is therefore to prevent any cross-species tampering that would provide an NHP with a capacity internal to its biological structure that otherwise would not have been there.

The issue that such an approach sidesteps is the manner in which what constitutes “human capacities” is not necessarily inherently biological or environmentally conditioned. To this end, I would like to turn to H.G. Well’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, which constructs human capacity in a far different manner from Green et al. During Prendick’s initial days on the island, he finds it difficult to identify what exactly disturbs him about the artificially-humanized Beast Men. He formulates a long list of anatomical differences, such as the Beast Men’s “stunted legs,” “sloped foreheads,” and “slow gestures,” but none of these comprehensively encapsulates the (uncannily small) gap that separates Man from (Beast) Man. Indeed, Prendick often falls back on ambiguous phrases like “the grotesque Thing,” the animal (or, at the end of the novel, human) “taint,” or the “peculiar” feeling that he gets around the Beast Men. This uncanny sensation is only exacerbated at the end of the novel, when Prendick returns to London and begins to sense the dormant animality within civilized society. At the same time, though, there is no doubt that Prendick differentiates Man from (Beast) Man during his stay on the island; after all, Montgomery’s cardinal sin is his own inability to clearly distinguish between himself and the island’s more bestial inhabitants. If physical appearance is so close as to be (almost, but never quite) indistinguishable, “capacities” are likewise frighteningly close.

Prendick’s stay on the island ends with the growing savagery of the Beast Men, but this orgy of violence is prefaced by a bloody hunt in which Prendick, Moreau, and Montgomery hunt side-by-side with the Beast Men in defense of “the Law.” In other words, bloodlust, insofar as it connotes a desire to kill another being, is in no way an animalistic “capacity,” but rather one that is shared by humans and animals alike. To be “human” for Prendick seems to paradoxically imply that one can in fact act on this desire to kill other beings: all three “men” (Prendick, Moreau, and Montgomery) engage in indiscriminate slaughters of various Beast Men without Prendick accusing any of them of bloodlust, whereas all three “men” mercilessly patrol the animalized “Beast Men” for signs of physical assaults. (Similarly, the “men” regularly eat meat without questioning their humanity, while the Beast Men must remain herbivores according to “the Law”). We can see this paradoxical construction of the human taken to extreme lengths in Prendick’s attempted suicide, wherein he claims the right to decide over his own life and death. The Beast Men may be stuck with whatever bodies and capacities Moreau forms them into, but Wells gives Prendick the ability to choose whether to accept a changed set of capacities or to instead facilitate his own death as a preferable option (although Wells recontains the danger implicit in this formation by preventing Prendick from having to kill himself). What we see here, in contrast to Green et al., is a conception of human capacities that is sanctioned by culture – humans can kill, animals must not – and that definitively policies the border between human/animal but is not inherent to the internal biological structure of that being or its environmental conditioning. This cultural constitution of human “capacity” – which, it may be added, is proscriptive rather than empirically inductive – gestures towards why Prendick’s sense of the human/animal split, so secure on the island, becomes undone when he returns to England: in civilized English society, the human capacity to kill that Prendick witnesses on the island is not immediately present, and so he fails to make meaningful distinctions between English citizens and the Beast Men who followed “the Law.” What we are we left with, then, is a measure of human capacity that circumvents “civilization” and its values to instead base itself on the ability to decide over life and death.

Matt Eatough


~ by matteatough on February 5, 2009.

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