God and ethics in Dr. Moreau

As scientists push the boundaries of genetics, society faces ever more ethical questions.  Well before any of our modern ideas about genetics came about, however, there was H.G. Wells, who gave us a look at tampering with nature in his The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The titular doctor, though not a geneticist, creates chimeras through extensive use of vivisection.  His efforts yield humanoid beings that can think and speak, but that are still profoundly animal.  Though modern genetics has not produced anything so bizarre (yet), the ethical questions surrounding these experiments are very pertinent.  In responding to the protagonist’s protestations over the pain that Moreau causes, Moreau, perhaps surprisingly, says the following:

“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be.  It may be I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you – for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies.  And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven and hell.”

Now in actuality Moreau acts as sort of a perverted god-figure in the novel, lording himself over his experiments.  What I find fascinating, however, is that Moreau is the character with the least moral qualms about any sort of scientific pursuit, however “unnatural.”  The other two men on the island, Prendick and Montgomery, generally find the whole thing appalling.  And yet Moreau is the only one that uses God as a justification for anything.  I would expect the opposite.  Prendick calls the creatures abominations.  If he took a traditional religious view of the matter, he would have plenty of grounds on which to make that claim.  But he never does.  He never gives a reason why they are monsters aside from his own repulsion.  Moreau’s argument, on the other hand, almost makes sense.  If he is indeed religious, then finding out more about nature would actually show him more of his Creator (though that being said, his conduct and outlook on life are really not at all in tune with legitimate Christian ideals and beliefs).

The reason I find this interesting is not so much because I think it means Christianity supports cold scientific ambition (I rather think the opposite), but instead that without any such viewpoint I think harsh scientific pursuit might make sense.  What reason does Prendick have to think Moreau’s efforts are in some way diabolical?  Is it just because the result is different than what he is used to?  There is of course the issue of pain, that may be legitimate, but that would not make the creatures themselves abominations.  Any judgment passed on Moreau must be on some level subjective without a firm basis on which to consider it wrong.

-Ethan Dixius


~ by ethanbdixius on January 19, 2014.

4 Responses to “God and ethics in Dr. Moreau”

  1. I can’t help but feel like Wells might have intended Moreau as a warning — or at least example — of how religion might be warped into an excuse for ethically dubious scientific experiments. I think it’s very interesting that we have swung the other way in recent years, and now modern professionals try to separate science and religion as completely as possible. As you point out, someone’s religious beliefs and his or her approach to science are closely connected, and it would be beneficial to remember this as we all try to navigate the genetic ethics issue.

  2. One of the reasons I found Moreau to be such a compelling character was that, despite my best efforts, I could never truly understand what drove his urge to explore and create. While his creations range from the uncanny to the downright murderous, he never claims any really effective moral justification. You mentioned his acting as “a perverted god-figure” through his acts of vivisection and creation; I wonder, then, if Moreau’s quasi-religious self-justification is just that: a justification from the only legal or religious authority he acknowledges.

  3. Maybe the confusion surrounding Moreau’s supposed alignment with religious ideals is exactly what Wells wanted – he shows how easily beliefs can be distorted for diabolical causes, and thus how dangerous organized religion can be.

  4. I think it’s interesting that you call Moreau “a perverted god-figure […] lording himself over his experiments,” particularly because that’s not the impression I got of him. While I agree with you and other commenters that H.G. Wells uses Moreau’s character to elicit the reader’s thoughts on science and Christianity, I think he goes about it in a more subtle way – highlighting themes of a god-complex through Prendick’s perception of Moreau and Prendick’s own thoughts and actions regarding the Beast Folk.

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