Path of Needles, Path of Pins: The Role of Pain in Science

Do scientific advancements justify pain and torture? The title character of H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau would have us believe so, as he enacts the literal flaying, splicing, and melding of animals to form new creatures. I’ll admit freely that it is this saturation of agony that gives the book its element of horror, at least for me. For example, when Prendick first arrives on the island, he is haunted day and night by the sounds of a puma, wailing in pain, as Dr. Moreau works his black magic on it. I likewise cringed every time the text referenced its screaming, page after page after page. Later, Prendick learns that Dr. Moreau has tortured dozens of animals in the same way, “dip[ping] a living creature into the bath of burning pain” time and time again (horrible, haunting, insidious phrase; 59). His goal is to create the ultimate chimera: a plausible melding of human and beast.

Moreau, however, is completely blasé about this when Prendick finally confronts him about it. It’s a satisfying clash, at first, as Prendick is righteously indignant about these cruel experiments (though he noticeably relaxes when he realizes that no humans are ever subjects, which I resent. At this point in the text, I’m still concerned for the puma).

Then come some of the most interesting passages in the book. Moreau chides him for being “ ‘materialist’” (54), saying that aversion to pain is a base, animal instinct. Pain, he says, is nothing but a body’s cautionary signal to itself. It’s not real – only a warning signal that isn’t even ubiquitously present throughout the body (consider optic nerves, or callouses). As a result it is needless, an unpleasant extra which shouldn’t factor into logical decisions. Moreau even extrapolates that intelligent species will someday evolve to a point where they no longer feel it.

(– I should note that, midway through this speech, Dr. Moreau casually flicks open a penknife and jams it with confidence straight into his thigh. In the novel, Prendick makes no comment on his reaction to this, and, following his lead, I will not attempt to describe mine, either.)

At any rate, my question is this: is Moreau right? Is valuing pleasure over pain materialist? Certainly some intelligent cultures have been able to dismiss pain – consider practices in Brazil and elsewhere where some surgeries are successfully performed without anesthesia, as patients use religious or meditative practices to simply not feel the knife. Perhaps our enslavement to pain really is an animal instinct which can be dismissed. Still, for now, it’s nothing most of us can easily change.

A second point: Moreau also seems to think that animal agony is a fair price to pay for certain scientific benefits. Our noble protagonist hesitantly concurs with this; though skeptical of Moreau’s experiments, Prendick provides us with a telling confession: “The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me would be some application–” (54). In short, both characters agree that some human scientific gains are worth the price of other species’ pain.

Harsh, I know – but before we attack them for this, remember that our contemporary society feels the same way, employing animal testing in many Western countries to gauge the safety of cosmetic products, medicine, or medical procedures. True, the constant screams of Wells’s puma may be nauseating for a reader as they resurface throughout the book, chapter by chapter. However, today we rely on an out-of-sight, out-of-mind deafness to a parallel reality: a nonfiction, in short, which most of us refuse to read.


For the record, although I certainly support humane treatment of animals in labs, I believe that in some cases the testing itself is necessary. Prendick hits the nail nicely on the head when he cites “an application” – animal testing has reaped successful vaccinations against diseases that cause disability or, you guessed it, more pain (I don’t care if it’s “materialist;” I will always believe that the amelioration of suffering is a good thing). Moreau, meanwhile, never quite vindicates his experiments with animal grafting in terms I can understand. He’s curious about the plasticity of cells, yet the non-hereditary traits and the lack of Beast-People contribution make me think that it’s nothing more than exhibitionism. And needless pain – even if Moreau is right, and pain itself is needless – is never justified.

Julia Ray


~ by juliamray on February 23, 2012.

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