Two years ago,* I spent a week in Bethesda, MD. My reason for going? To spend a week at the National Library of Medicine to research Dr. John B. Calhoun, one of the inspirations for “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” by Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly). I had been on the research trail of Mr. Conly for long enough to get a sense that Dr. Calhoun was far from the only inspiration for the book, but given the fact that he was a named influence, I had to know.
Like so many other things in life, it might be easier to see Dr. Calhoun in black and white – either purely good or purely evil. This certainly seems to be the way in the jury of social media, at least if one judges according to the loudest voices. I am going to take a few moments, however, to speak up on behalf of Dr. Calhoun’s best nature. While I wish he had been able to show greater mercy to the rodents used in his experiments, I, from the study of his files, cannot completely condemn him.
Take, for example, Dr. Calhoun’s emphasis on compassion as one of the most important virtues that were needed to bring humanity (or at least U.S. humanity) out of the tumultuous times leading up to, and including, the 1960s. Dr. Calhoun was hired to study, ostensibly, the effects of urban crowding on civilization. His rat and mouse universes gave the rodents everything they needed to survive except space (including a sense of privacy). The collapse of behavior in these normally social animals (rats, in particular), was devastating… leading to a complete collapse of the entire colonies – with horrific and erratic behavior becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
On the other hand, Mr. Calhoun defended rats from extermination. He even wrote a poem to one elderly female mouse that was dying in the midst of population collapse. He was the product of a culture that certainly doesn’t accord the considerations toward animals as we see now. And, I will never forget, that this man wrote to two presidential candidates – advising them on the course of ‘compassion.’
Yes, he actually did this. I am including some photos of the documents related to this part of my research in this post. What you hear about Dr. Calhoun is the ‘Behavioral Sink’ and how ‘negative’ it was and how you couldn’t apply rat-to-human observations… (Funny that, sometimes humans LIKE the idea of the comparisons, sometimes they don’t. Calhoun was probably not the first to say that rats weren’t violent by nature, but that message hasn’t quite gotten out to the community yet, either….)
But here are a couple items I think are worthy of consideration. I was brought to the need to share this after watching a movie (“Would You Rather” – 2013) that made me think of the backlash against those who have tried to study/measure human behavior and found it “wanting.” I’m thinking of Milgram, Zimbardo, etc… Where the experiments were done and didn’t exactly reveal a pretty picture of humanity. However, Calhoun, just like Milgram and Zimbardo, were never the messengers who should have been shot, but those trying to warn against very real dangers in human behavior. Is it horrifying? Yes. The movie does a psychological study of power dynamics to a degree that I wasn’t expecting, and would be a great film to view in tandem with the study of the Stanford Prison experiment. I think what makes the movie “okay” to view as fiction is you see it as someone testing people chosen with certain proclivities. That’s why the Stanford Prison experiment is still shunned, but horror movies and fiction can still try to get the real messages out there… And I admire the hell out of that. That’s why we NEED the humanities.
Now, without further adieu, friends in the jury, I supply you with a draft of the letter Calhoun indicated were to be sent to Nixon and Humphrey. I prefer to supply primary documents when I can. Alongside this letter, I provide an excerpt from one of Calhoun’s documents describing his theories surrounding the necessity of compassion as an element of progress:
“This, in the presence of this increased exposure to value conflict, there will be required an augmented awareness of the necessity for others to maintain value sets differing from one’s own. It will also be noted that I have listed the date of 2027 A.D., with possible continuance to 2400 A.D., as the time of the compassionate -systems revolution rather than the calculated date of 2018 A.D. This is because of its convergence with “doomsday” and the forthcoming transitional period into a new domain for further evolution.” John B. Calhoun, “The Compassionate-Systems Revolution of 2018 A.D.”
There are more reasons that I, of all people, who adores rodents, still struggle with the ambiguity of the legacy of Dr. Calhoun. I both saw love in Calhoun’s admiration for the rodents and then a terrifying detachment from them. Finding a letter like that he sent to the 1968 presidential candidates makes it that much more difficult. I FOUND that damned article in 2018, but, on the last day, I also found “The Old Lady” poem. (Which caused me to run outside sobbing, a fact of which I am not ashamed.)
Calhoun said he was a poet in scientist’s garb. I’m not sure, overall, what he was, but I suppose I wasn’t surprised that a man who suggested ‘compassion’ was a solution to social problems seems to have been pushed out of the limelight once pharmaceutical solutions were considered the preferred option. I’m pretty sure that the assumed dialogue surrounding Dr. Calhoun needs some adjustments. I think I better get on this….***
*Well, two and a half years ago, but who is counting? **See other articles from my site. *** Yes, I promise I’ll get all this other content written. I think I’ve finally been inspired.
A Report from Group 17 was Robert Conly’s only book written for a strictly adult audience. A thriller and commentary on the dangers of biological/biochemical warfare, it also features the kind of human touch you’d expect from a Conly book – and a tough female character, of course. As a newspaper man, Conly was well-informed on many of the concerns about the possibility of such devastating weapons. It takes place during a time in which Cold War tensions were still running high and not so long after the horrors of Auschwitz and the hunting of escaped Nazi war criminals.
Because A Report from Group 17 is out of copyright and out of print, I decided I would like to record an audio version of the title. I am doing this strictly for educational purposes and will remove these files should the status of the copyright changes or should any legal objections arise.
This recording isn’t going to win any performance awards, but I’m doing my best!
Note: I have not yet completed all chapters. The rest will be coming soon.
Hello! Just wanted to send out an update that I have added my thesis and personal annotations for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to this site directly. I belatedly realized scribd was a subscription service.
If you’re still interested… here are the docs:
The Book of Nicodemus and Other Apocrypha: The Works of Robert C. O’Brien as a Reflection of Technological/Scientific Anxieties in 1960s American Culture
It’s been a couple of years since I visited the National Library of Medicine to study Dr. John B. Calhoun, one of the “inspirations” Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly) mentioned as leading to his book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what Calhoun was like. I found an interesting person in those records… One who believed “compassion” was the “revolution” that would save humanity. His assignment, to study the effects of overcrowding/lack of privacy on a society’s behavior led to a dire outcome – complete societal collapse.
I did a lot of soul searching, yet again. I suppose it’s because I found what I believed to the corpse of a poisoned mouse on the pavement near my home. Perhaps it was also because I saw an article that Don Bluth wants to resurrect the beauty of hand-drawn animation and it naturally led me to think of Secret of NIMH.
At the risk of starting out sounding like Quint, “You all know me…,” well, you know how I dream of the magnificence of Conly’s book being rendered into film as intended. I think it loses some powerful messages when changed from its original form, as well as going a bit over the top in portraying scientists as mad torturers. On the other hand, I have to admit, I give it mad kudos for getting out the brave message/suggestion that perhaps we don’t have the right or shouldn’t have the right to inflict suffering… even on “rats.” Films are forced to make messages quicker, brighter, faster, and, yes… even darker. This is necessary not just for kids, but for adults, in many cases.
This being said, I have been thinking again about Conly and Calhoun, and what Conly does so well in Mrs. Frisby and in his other books, is raise the alarm about the dangers of the kinds of detachment that can make the wonderfulness of scientific discovery abjectly terrifying.
“Perfectly healthy, except dead.”
That could have summed up in four words what Calhoun’s post-rodent-apocalypse scenarios “clinically” resulted in. Healthy, but dead, rats and mice. Although these mouse/rat worlds were never short of food or water, what they were short of was a way for these creatures to preserve the “unquantifiable,” their ability to function without undue stress or pressure. The colonies broke both in “mental” collapse for the inhabitants, and scientists watched, and did not interfere, as violence and “behavioral instability” led to horrifying results. Whole segments of the populations became withdrawn, others violent, but, eventually, all died. Even the typical burial preparations disappeared in one of the mouse worlds – a situation Calhoun captured “poetically” in a poem dedicated to one of the dying females.
Conly never portrays such anything like this in his books. The rats of NIMH are simply made “smarter” and receive little more than mild shock or quick needle pricks. But it is the “detachment” that makes Dr. Schultz the “bad guy” in Mrs. Frisby. Dr. Schultz isn’t a sadist, but what he is is completely detached. He doesn’t despise the animals – he simply doesn’t acknowledge them as being sentient or worthy of compassion. He criticizes a grad student for getting the gender of a rat wrong when she observes the rat is frightened. But, most of all, it is the end of the book that tells more about how Conly seems to feel: Dr. Schultz, after failing to exterminate the rats of NIMH, notes the dead animals as “perfectly healthy.” Which, of course, they are not. Not now. But, for the experiment’s purposes, for the “reporting” purposes, the rats that he has deliberately caused to die… knowingly…. are “healthy.” Healthy in terms of the Fitzgibbons’ concern about rabies, but also healthy in terms of the only measures of health considered important to the results. Sarah Conly, in her essay “Intelligence and Utopia in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH ,” notes the willingness of the scientists to “attack with cyanide gas a group of rats they believe to be as intelligent as themselves.”
I dedicated my research to Conly because I felt like he got it right. He’s not anti-science – not in any of his books. What he speaks to is the ability of some to turn off feelings and compassion in pursuit of some perceived “better state” of things – the ability to rationalize one’s way through anything at all. He saw past the human desire to simply treat ethics as something that can be reduced to some sort of quantifiable litmus test. Conly didn’t introduce “superhuman” elements into the stories because he needed them to retain the level of “realism” needed to keep the reader actively engaged in trying to question the ethics of the surrounding actions. There was no easy “good” or “evil,” but a seemingly infinite number of shades of human grey.
I find it interesting that Mr. Conly is still challenging me to think about and rethink about the perceptions of “humanity” and “ethics” in his books. Perhaps not many people are comfortable in a world in which things cannot be quickly and easily be categorized…. I am not comfortable in a world where they can be. A false sense of security is no sense of security at all.
Even now, many years later, after the research, I still have trouble figuring out just where I feel Dr. Calhoun fell on the Dr. Schultz scale, and perhaps it is both humbling and important to remember that living with ambiguity is sometimes preferred to living where one is simply “sure of it all.” If we do not closely examine our held beliefs, we may find we believe in nothing solid at all.
Did you know that Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien) worked for the National Geographic Society? Did you also know that his book was at least partially inspired by the work of John B. Calhoun? Dr. Calhoun was studying what happens to societies when they can have everything they want except space from constant contact with others. Although the results were horrifying (rodent lovers beware), Calhoun was a huge proponent of compassion as the way to preserve the future of America and the world. He spoke against the extermination of rats – providing expert testimony, including defending rats for their positive features.
I remain mixed on all of this… Calhoun was a bit like Schultz in the sense that we was able to go “clinical” (or should we say sociopathic to some degree?) and watch these poor animals break down and suffer…. even harming each other (which Calhoun stated was NOT normal for rats). On the other hand, he was willing to defend rats and fervently believed in compassion being our saving grace. Calhoun even wrote about this to Nixon and presidential candidates.
P.S. About two years ago or so, the great people at National Geographic Archives allowed me to visit and take a look at their Conly files. One of the BEST days of my life.
I first became familiar with the idea of formalized humane education when I studied Caroline Earle White during my undergraduate studies in history. White and others sought to increase the power and presence of kindness in society by reaching out to children and teaching them compassion and empathy at an early age. Perhaps the most famous example of such education in the United States was Our Dumb Animals which was published by George T. Angell’s Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (https://bekindexhibit.org/exhibition/publications/our-dumb-animals/), however, White, too, worked hard to create publications to educate children and adults on animal rights issues.*
So, needless to say, I was quite excited to be informed of an opportunity to see such work being promoted today!
Yesterday, I had the honor of attending a fantastic workshop put on by Zoe Weil of The Institute for Humane Education (humaneeducation.org). The workshop featured her book The World Becomes What We Teach and introduced humane educators and advocates of humane education to the concept of creating “Solutionaries.” The workshop raises important questions about the history and purpose of education, and asks participants how to visualize how to change the nature of education in order to create hope for a more positive and kind (and existent!) world. The workshop consisted of information and exercises that put us through our own paces as “Solutionaries” and showed how empowering children and young people with the tools needed to affect REAL change is the best “game changer” of all.
I also highly recommend her book for you or for anyone who is looking to encourage young people to make change:
I was delighted at the size of our group – I would say about 30 people – and the wide variety of attendees. Classroom teachers, zoo volunteers, employees of humane societies, veterinarians – these were just a few of the great people I got to speak with. We participated in fun and active exercises as well as splitting into teams of “Solutionaries” to address issues we selected. I almost didn’t write mine down, which was the expansion of the Animal Welfare Act to include rats, mice, birds, and farm animals, but I did. Even better, there were others who also expressed enough interest to make it a group! I kept the diagrams and materials we produced for the work – I plan on referring to it/incorporating it into future work I may do on the subject.
The most important thing I took away from my full day (it was from 9am to 5 pm) was HOPE. I know it’s always been hard to keep up hope, but it has been becoming increasingly more difficult for many of us since the changes that began in 2016. Zoe Weil and The Insititute for Humane Education are releasing their brand new website in two days – a website that will offer a 90-page guidebook for creating “Solutionaries” that will be available free of charge to anyone interested in putting this fantastic plan into action.
A HUGE thank you to The Detroit Zoo ( https://detroitzoo.org/ ) and The Institute for Humane Education for their generous time, resources, and passion for making this world a better place!
You know what’s interesting about the study? Well, maybe about what they discovered? That rats find learning new tasks relieve stress. I will tell you, honestly, my love affair with rats was the only time I’ve believed in love at first site. When I met one, their clear intelligence and curiosity was just one of the many things that won me over. I always enjoy when rat research shows positive things about rats – who are often vilified – but at the same time, I feel disheartened because I know that rats (as well as mice and birds) are not offered the same protections other animals are offered under the Animal Welfare Act. I respect those who have put guidelines in place to prevent animal suffering and I am heartened by moves to alternate models, but progress takes time.
All of that aside, I still find it’s incredibly cute to watch a rat get into a little car and go after their treats (which of course, they would be inclined to share with friends( https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21256-rats-free-each-other-from-traps-then-share-chocolate/ ). I also felt like it was a good time to extract just my Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH chapter from my thesis in case anyone felt like taking a look. (IMPORTANT: This excerpt, as it appears in my thesis is FULL of citations and references that can be seen in my thesis. I have omitted them for readability.)
Chapter Two: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
The story was part of a book of essays, and the reason I had read it so eagerly was that it was called “The Rat Race” – which, I learned, means a race where no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. But there was nothing in the book about rats, and I felt bad about the title because, I thought, it wasn’t a rat race at all, it was a People Race, and no sensible rats would ever do anything so foolish.
Called “[i]ngenious, credible, and sometimes moving” in Children’s Books of International Interest, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH has been, ever since its release, praised highly by scholars and reviewers of children’s literature. In 1985, Alethea K Helbig called Mrs. Frisby “a combination of science fiction and animal fantasy” that described “fantastic situations with scientific accuracy. Scholar Paula T. Connolly noted the book for Conly’s “gradations of moral understanding and culpability” while dealing with “such problematic issues as the roles of science and technology, identity, idealism, family life, forms of community and means of survival.” The positive reviews for Conly’s pivotal work seem endless, as do the number of issues the ambitious Conly set out to address in the novel.
Of Conly’s four books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is not only the most well- known, but it is also the book which addresses the broadest range of social issues. It also almost didn’t come to pass. Conly began writing his most famous book in November 1967, while working on The Silver Crown, and had almost abandoned the book in March 1968 – after only two chapters. Then, in 1969, Conly’s work with National Geographic took him to the laboratories of John B. Calhoun, a behaviorist researcher who worked for the National Institutes for Mental Health. Calhoun, who was then doing research on the improvement of intellectual capacities in rats, had been well-known in the 1960s for his work on overcrowding and his development of the concept of societal breakdown which he called the “Behavioral Sink.” The visit would “set him thinking.” That fateful meeting may have been the spark that would lead to the creation of a tale that would address American concerns about genetic engineering and technological materialism.
The Biological Time Bomb, written
by Gordon Rattray Taylor and released in 1968, is notable for its intent to
bring the ethical concerns of biological engineering to the public at large.
Geneticist and philosopher C.H. Waddington, author of books such as The Ethical Animal (1960) and Biology, Purpose and Ethics (1971)
included the following passage in the review of Taylor’s book in The New York Review of Books:
His book is in fact the first major exposition, addressed to the general public, of questions which are going to be very much with us in the next few decades. The main question his book raises is simple to state, and very difficult to deal with. It is that the pursuit of knowledge eventually brings the power to control the subjects the knowledge is about; and power can be used for many purposes, including undesirable or evil ones as well as good. Taylor’s aim is to show that biological knowledge is on the point of presenting us with powers that might be as double-edged as the control of atomic energy proved to be.
In The Biological Time Bomb, Taylor warns that the privileged reputation of the scientist as a “miracle worker” could eventually become one of a “mad engineer, applying his arcane knowledge regardless of the human consequences, causing disasters, manufacturing monsters, prepared even to move the earth from its course or extinguish the sun to test his theories.” Books such as Taylor’s often used the words of scientists to support their assertions. For example, Taylor quoted famed geneticist Francis Crick, who suggested that “the development of biology is going to destroy to some extent our traditional grounds for ethical beliefs.” James T. Patterson, in his non-fiction book about the 1960s The Eve of Destruction, quoted the words of scientist Rollin Hotchkiss who ominously predicted that research into the manipulation of DNA could not be stopped. “It will surely be done or attempted,” Hotchkiss said, adding that “[t]he pathway will be built from a combination of altruism, private profit, and ignorance.”
It is important to note here that Dr. Schultz and his graduate students in Conly’s book are not the mad, sadistic scientists portrayed by the 1982 Bluth film, The Secret of NIMH. Conflation of the two movies often gives Conly an unfair reputation for being virulently anti-scientist and anti-science. This point is reiterated by reviewers of the text who deride the movie for muddling the subtle commentary that Conly provided in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Part of the effectiveness of the book lies in its portrayal of real-life issues in shades of grey, not in black and white. Paula R. Connolly supported this view when she said that “[d]espite O’Brien’s obvious criticisms of the overambitious goals of science and the dangers of experimentation, he is careful not to provide facile characterizations of scientists.” Nevertheless, the book was not well- received in scientific circles. Catherine L. Elick cites a Science magazine article in which authors Deborah Runkle and Ellen Granger attacked “juvenile magazine articles and novels like Mrs.Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” for “propagandizing” children and accused “teachers of subjects other than science” of “promoting the animal rights agenda during a discussion of civil rights.” The Smithsonian Institution, which included the book in a teaching list about animal research issues, also gained the ire of the American Association for the Advancement of Science whose members felt the book was an unbalanced attack on scientific research.
Conly’s book, indeed, does not condone Dr. Schultz and experimentation he conducts on the rats. It is his subtlety, which, in fact, makes the message more effective: Alethea K. Helbig describes Dr. Schultz as having a “cold, dispassionate manner [which] increases the horror of what may happen. Conly’s daughter, in her essay “Intelligence and Utopia in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH ,” notes the willingness of the scientists to “attack with cyanide gas a group of rats they believe to be as intelligent as themselves.” Catherine L. Elick, in Talking Animals in Children’s Fiction, said that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH presented “not only a harsher view of humanity but also a stronger call to see animals as intelligent, rights-bearing individuals.” She also alludes to Shelley’s Frankenstein, proposing that “Dr. Frankenstein’s inexorable hunt for his creature through frozen wastes” parallels the attempt to exterminate the rats of NIMH.” The literate rats of NIMH are well-aware of their differences to regular rats, noticing the changes in their size and intelligence, as well as the ways in which their former brethren seem to be intimidated by them. This is clear in a discussion between Nicodemus and Jenner in which Nicodemus says:
The real point is this: We don’t know where to go because we don’t know what we are…. But the fact is, we aren’t rats any more. We’re something Dr. Schultz has made…Where does a group of civilized rats fit in?
is another possible reason, however, that Conly’s scientist chooses to be
willing to attempt to exterminate the possibly re-discovered rats of NIMH
rather than capture the rats under the Fitzgibbon rosebush at the conclusion of
the book. Many animal experiments, including those in the fields of genetic
engineering, end in the purposeful deaths of the animals in order that the
scientists can then dissect the corpses in order to learn the effects of the
experiments upon the physiology of the animal. This practice, which still
occurs today, is done not only in the name of scientific analysis, but simply
because any additional upkeep of laboratory animals post- experiment is viewed
as too costly.
Materialism – and the thing about “things” – is another of Mrs. Frisby’s major foci. Alexis de Tocqueville, in now famous observations of mid-nineteenth American culture, declared that materialism was a “dangerous disease of the human mind,” a phrase which closely resembles Nicodemus’s own talk of “a feeling of discontent [which] settled upon us like some creeping disease.” Nicodemus was here describing the feeling of the rats after they had given themselves every gadget and luxury in their home beneath the Fitzgibbon rosebush.
America, too, was feeling some of this malaise, as evident in the anti-materialist sentiment that rose to the forefront in 1960s counterculture. By the 1960s, the proliferation of technology led to a whole new facet to such materialism. Elaine Taylor, in The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home, stated that Richard Nixon linked “consumer aspirations to scientific expertise” in 1959. An exchange between President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, now immortalized as the “Kitchen Debate,” featured a Nixon who trumpeted the capabilities of American technology against a Khrushchev who jokingly asked the President if the United States had “a machine that puts food in the mouth and pushes it down?” Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s More Work for Mother noted that American affluence wasn’t just indicated by the typical signs of wealth such as home size and automobile make, but also by “toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines.” Popular culture, too, expressed a sense of malaise with materialism, such as in the Monkees’ 1967 hit, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,” in which the singer laments that “[c]reature comfort goals, they only numb my soul” and “make it hard for me to see.” Anti-materialism was a prominent theme in 1960s counterculture, with many members eschewing such consumerism and advocating a return to a simpler life, including those which advocated a return to the land.
Anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey (1962) opens with a chapter in which the author describes himself observing a community: “[L]istening to the talk ringing out from neighbor to neighbor” and “seeing the inhabitants drowsing in their doorways.” It is not a human city, Eiseley reveals, but “prairie dog town.” Eiseley then relates a tale of human evolution in which the roles of rodents and the early primates play pivotal roles. Eiseley describes the rodent predecessor as a “shabby little Paleocene rat, eternal tramp and world wanderer” and the “father of all mankind.” Using detailed scientific language, Eiseley suggests that without these rodents, the early primates would have remained tree-dwelling mammals.
Compare Eiseley’s theories in The Immense Journey to the following passage from Mrs. Frisby:
But there was one book, written by a famous scientist, that had a chapter about rats. Millions of years ago, he said, rats seemed to be ahead of all the other animals, seemed to be making a civilization of their own. They were well-organized and built quite complicated villages in the fields. The descendants today are the rats known as prairie dogs. But somehow it didn’t work out. The scientist thought maybe it was because the rats’ lives were too easy; while the other animals (especially the monkeys) were living in the woods and getting tougher and smarter, the prairie dogs grew soft and lazy and made no more progress. Eventually the monkeys came out of the woods, walking on their hind legs, and took over the prairies and almost everything else. It was then that the rats were driven to become scavengers and thieves, living on the fringes of a world run by men.
Rats taken out of the wild and kept in captivity had also been observed to undergo profound changes. In Mankind Evolving (1962), Theodosius Dobzhansky concluded that the laboratory rats of the mid-twentieth century had undergone significant evolutionary changes since being sequestered from their wild cousins in the mid nineteenth-century. Because the lab rats’ “struggle for survival no longer exist[ed]” they exhibited “smaller adrenal glands and less resistance to stress, fatigue, and disease than wild rats.” Such observations could have influenced Conly’s work. This can be seen in Dr. Schultz’s dialogue with the men who have trapped Nicodemus and the other city rats. When one of the men reports to Dr. Schultz that the wild rats seemed “almost tame,” Schultz replies, “I hope not. I already have enough tame ones.”
had been other twentieth-century books that had included rats and mice in
discussions of science and technology and its effect on human civilization,
including Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo (1925)
and Flowers for Algernon (1966). It
seems likely that the character of Nicodemus may have been inspired in part by
a rat in Doctor Doolittle’s Zoo. In a
story called “The Volcano Rat,” the leader of the rat and mice complain of how
he fears “rat and mouse civilization” may regress due to its proximity to
humans and their technology. He calls the rats and mice who want to continue to
live in this way “parasites,” a description that resembles Nicodemus’s
assertion that to stay on the Fitzgibbon farm would make the rats like fleas on
drowning dog.59 The story also includes a white mouse – a possible inspiration for Mr. Ages, the white mouse who, along with Mr. Frisby, escapes from the lab with the rats of NIMH. However, Conly’s book takes the story much farther, making a far more comprehensive commentary on the rodents’ situation, and, rather than leaving the story in dystopia, creates a path toward utopia in Thorn Valley.
materialism was not only dangerous to a species’ evolutionary progress,
according to Nicodemus, but it also had dangerous implications for the
allegory of “Keeping up with the Joneses” reveals that the damage caused by
materialism is far greater than that of the dent in the pocketbook, but
I was reminded of a story I had read at the Boniface Estate when I was looking for things written about rats. It was about a woman in a small town who bought a vacuum cleaner. Her name was Mrs. Jones, and up until then she, like all of her neighbors, had kept her house spotlessly clean by using a broom and a mop. But the vacuum cleaner did it faster and better, and soon Mrs. Jones was the envy of all the other housewives in town – so they all bought vacuum cleaners, too. The vacuum cleaner business was so brisk, in fact, that the company that made them opened a branch factory in town. The factory used a lot of electricity, of course, and so did the women with their vacuum cleaners, so the local electric power company had to put up a big new plant to keep them all running. In its furnaces the power plant burned coal, and out of its chimneys black smoke poured day and night, blanketing the town with soot and making all the floors dirtier than ever. Still, by working twice as hard and twice as long, the women of the town were able to keep their floors almost as clean as they had been before Mrs. Jones ever bought a vacuum cleaner in the first place.
Compare this to
a passage from French technology-critic Jacques Ellul’s description of the
problems of household technology from his book, The Technological Society:
For example, to make housework easier, garbage-disposal units have been put into use which allow the garbage to run off through the kitchen sinks. The result is enormous pollution of the rivers. It is then necessary to find some new means of purifying the rivers so that water can be used for drinking. A great quantity of oxygen is required for the bacteria to destroy these organic materials. And how shall we oxygenate the rivers? This is an example of the way technology engenders itself.
including American President John F. Kennedy, were also thinking about the
effects of science and technology on the environment – in no small part because
of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The
work which was first serialized in The
New Yorker and eventually published in 1962, immediately gained wide
readership and bestseller status. Her whistleblowing on the pesticide industry
may have gained her friends, but it also gave her dire enemies. The book is
considered the spark for the environmental movement which would fully emerge
with vigor in the 1970s.
Overall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, served to provide children with a fully- fleshed out story, replete with messages of friendships and the importance of community, with a sub-story of far deeper implications. As in his other books, Conly’s sense of concern for humanity’s future in the face of rapidly expanding science and technology rings clear, giving both children, and, in some cases, their parents, much to think about and discuss.
“Inhumane Humanitarianism:” The Work of Caroline Earle White and H.G. Wells
“Many good people who abhor ordinary cruelty stultify their judgment concerning the extraordinary and feel rebuked when “the good of humanity” is hurdled at them as a telling argument; and when it is hinted that they are hysterical and indulge sickly sentimentality, they are silenced.” American Anti-Vivisection Society Journal of Zoophily , Volume IV, No. 4, 1895, Pg. 46
“To be kind to the race – to save it from self-destructive over-individuation.… This kind-to-be-cruel policy they formulate as that of “inhumane humanitarianism”…In a word, they are pitilessly benevolent (1933b:346). As ethical revolutionaries, they “see things unfeelingly” (1937c:72), with “cold inhuman clearness” (1933c:46). Given scientific self-discipline, they possess the “rational insensitiveness to get facts as facts and not as dreads and horrors” *1937c:72)” (49) Leon Stover on the Works and Philosophies of H.G. Wells pg. 49
A number of theories have been brought forward by historians of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements to explain its apparent disappearance from the annals of American and English culture, in the early-twentieth century. Some attempted to explain this disappearance as a result of the Great War, while others would argue that it was the advent of anesthesia that had taken the ‘sting’ out of the opposition to the practice. In comparing the works, both fictional and non-fictional, of Caroline Earle White, the founder of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Anti-Vivisection Society, alongside the fictional and non-fictional works of the well-known H.G. Wells, another factor presents itself for consideration, and one that would have implications far beyond the perception of the ‘worth’ of animals, but would have terrible implications for human relations as well – eugenics-based beliefs that would take root in the United States and ultimately manifest itself horrifically in the Holocaust. In both fictional and nonfictional works, are reflected their differing beliefs on what it mean to be “humanitarian” to all life.
In the consideration of both pain and the ‘humane motive’ in the nineteenth-century England and the United States, the morality of slavery became a point of fiery contention, featuring two sides that each claimed “God” and “humanity” were on their side. Historian Margaret Abruzzo aptly observes in her book, Polemical Pain, that “[T]he messy history of humanitarianism within the slavery debate reveals the limitations of a humanitarian ethic and the difficulty of resting moral judgments solely on objections to pain.” However, even after ethics of the slavery question had resolved, the Gilded Age would bring more sharply racial, economic, ethnic and gender divides than ever before, and, combined with Darwin’s recent theory of natural selection, emerging eugenicists continued where the pro-slavers left off. Opacity became the new rule, and those who would continue to vivisect both animals and people depended on the ability to cloak their behaviors; something never available to the slaveholder. H.G. Wells, although a ‘staple’ of science-fiction reading lists, considered himself a ‘new Puritan,’ and believed firmly in “inhumane humanitarianism.” His Island of Doctor Moreau was not a cautionary tale, as had been Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but, rather, a novelization of some of his most deeply held beliefs in what he felt would create the ‘perfect society.’ An ardent vivisectionist, he was the antithesis of Caroline Earle White and her allies, whose work to world cultural values.
Prendick, the leading character of The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Hargrave, of Love in the Tropics bear similar may feelings toward their fates at first glance, but even then their inner resolve shows some hint of things to come. Whereas Hargrave weeps, but “[A]fter a time, however, different feelings awoke in my breast. I was young and strong, and the love of life stirred within me, impelling me to preserve my existence,” Prendick bears less resilience and more bitterness. “I was empty and very faint, or I should have had more heart. But as it was I suddenly began to sob and weep, as I had never done since I was a little child. The tears ran down my face. In a passion of despair I struck with my fists at the water in the bottom of the boat, and kicked savagely at the gunwale. I prayed aloud for God to let me die…..,” read the words of Prendick. Each speaks of heart, but within Hargrave, there is, indeed, ‘love of life.’ At the surface, it may seem that these two passages may bear little reflection on the stories to come, however, their significance in regard to the way in which both writers saw ‘life’ would become far more clear.
In dealing first with the issue of cruelty to animals, the views of these two Gilded Age thinkers, there is certainly transparency. Wells had gone as far as to debate George Bernard Shaw on the issue of animal experimentation. Wells and his beliefs would remain a target of criticism of thinkers such as George Orwell. In response to Wellsian theory that “The modern state must apply the “good, scientifically caused pain” (1901a:325) of “social surgery” for the “maximum elimination of its feeble and spiritless folk” (1905c:141f),” Orwell replied that in Wellsian literature: “”one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past…. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. [Orwell 1941: 169] (26)”” In an interesting twist, Wells once considered himself the defender of vivisection in a debate against George Bernard Shaw, who he termed a sentimentalist. However, in this debate, Wells would consider Pavlov the better many because of his animal experimentation. In truth, Pavlov was a great advocate for overhauling the vivisection system, opposing it not only for ethical reasons, but because pain would contaminate the results. Moreau showed no such concern with his House of Pain. White may have consistently reminded opponents that she was opposed only to ‘painful’ vivisection on animals, Wells gave absolutely no ground.
In regard to the issue of pain, it is not only a question of whether pain is allowed to be inflicted, but rather, what the very nature of pain was. White’s view, incorporating her feelings regarding the practice as follows:
“No one would maintain that we were justified in either robbing or murdering a large number of poor people in order to confer a great benefit upon a large portion of the human race; then why are we justified in inflicting such indescribable tortures upon poor, helpless animals that happen to be in our power? It is just as much of one of God’s laws that we should be merciful as that we should not steal or murder; and is it merciful to cut up sentient creatures alive and torment them in every possible way that the imagination of the vivisector can devise? (9)”
Prendick, who does, to the reader, offer a modicum of resistance to Moreau, at first, does ask Moreau the application of such infliction of pain. Moreau replies in a way that both agrees and yet denies the presence of pain as it exists in Moreau’s work:
“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain… Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur.”
A compatriot of Wells in the fight against the anti-vivisection movement, and an equally enthusiastic proponent of eugenics was Dr. Alexis Carrel. Carrel received the Nobel Prize despite protests from members of the anti-vivisection movement. Carrel’s own former medical brethren constantly challenged his results, however, he found a home with the Rockefeller Institute, and, later, in Vichy France where it is believed he continued his open avocation of eugenics. The Rockefeller Farm, a bugbear of White’s, became one of the sources of her most bitter defeat. Her protests against the ‘lab animal farm’ were banned from discussion by political intrigue between Dr. W.W. Keen, a fierce White opponent, President Taft and the complicit cooperation of the President of the American Humane Association.
Slavery may have ended, but imperialism certainly hadn’t, and as imperialism was a mainstay of both England and the United States, it isn’t terribly surprising that the idea of valuing one human life over another wouldn’t be extinguished along with formal practices of slavery. Despite the common accusations that the anti-vivisectionists did not care about humanity, and placed animals above them, consistent research of the movement reveals otherwise. Caroline Earle White was constantly refuting this idea, and a poignant example of her compassion toward people can be found in the introduction to her (FIRST) novel, Love in the Tropics:
“As I know… that a book stands of falls upon its merits alone, I will merely say that, whatever be its fate, it will not have entirely failed if it bring home to the minds of my readers what I believe to be certain truth, that as warm a heart, as noble a nature, and as bright an intellect may be found under a yellow, or brown, or a black skin as under a white one. (iii-iv)”
As in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Love in the Tropics begins with a shipwreck near islands generally inhabited by Polynesians. White portrays them as a kind and beautiful people. Wells may remain neutral (at best) when it comes to the Kanakas of Moreau’s Isle, derogatory terms, but his real world feelings toward the people of Polynesia are not so subtle, saying that “That large, naked, virtuous, pink, Natural Man, drinking pure spring water, eating the fruits of the earth, and living to ninety in the open air is a fantasy; he never was nor will be. The real savage is a nest of parasites within and without, he smells, he rots, he starves… As for his moral integrity, let the curious inquirer seek an account of the Tasmanian, or the Australian, or the Polynesian before “sophistication” came. (16)””
Even as the indigenous peoples in both of these books would have been perceived as significantly different in the eyes of White and Wells, the idea of ‘womanhood’ would also bear marked differences. Moreau’s Prendick even sees gendered differences among the beast people, ascribing to them descriptions such as “these weird creatures—the females, I mean—had in the earlier days of my stay an instinctive sense of their own repulsive clumsiness, and displayed in consequence a more than human regard for the decency and decorum of extensive costume.” White’s ‘leading lady’ of Love in the tropics, on the other hand, is treated positively. The native woman “wore a sulu of the finest native cloth, which reached from her waist below her knees, and was ornamented with the feathers of various birds. Around her wrists and ankles she had circlets of shells. (29)” Polygamy too is addressed, and though neither White nor Wells condone it, there is a distinctly different flavor to the choices of wording made to approve or disapprove of the choices. White, who was certainly the more religiously affiliated of the two, is kinder regarding the practice in Paloa, stating that “polygamy was practiced among the men of distinction in Paloa, but that Owahi, with the good sense and moderation which distinguished all his proceedings, chose to confine himself to two wives. (25)” Wells, however, not only leaves the males out of the system of polygamy, but unsubtly implicates the females as the instigators. “Some of them—the pioneers in this, I noticed with some surprise, were all females—began to disregard the injunction of decency, deliberately for the most part. Others even attempted public outrages upon the institution of monogamy. The tradition of the Law was clearly losing its force. I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.”
As one investigates more deeply into both stories, and the passions that drove each of these ‘humanitarians,’ the religious focus of Wells versus the minimal reference of religion to the otherwise more religious White starts to lose much of its mystery. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the idea that even humanity should be subject to shaping and vivisection is but alluded to. However, Wells himself put no such subtleties into his words when expressing his own beliefs. Whereas he stated that “the new Puritans are necessarily cruel to individuals. This kind-to-be-cruel policy they formulate as that of “inhumane humanitarianism” which , in their “obliteration of out-of-date moral values,” White, for her part was confronting a Christian clergyman (and doctor) who preached that vivisection with a worthy purpose was not cruel, White replied by asking:
“But who, I will ask, is to be the judge of the purpose and the motive? Are a few powerful men united in the pursuit of any object, who claim that their motive sanctifies their action, to be allowed to inflict atrocities upon helpless creatures, either human beings or the lower animals? Do we think at the present time that Philip II of Spain was justified in burning alive heretics and schematics, as it is said he did? Yet he had a far greater motive than the vivisectors of today, for they say they are only trying to save our bodies, while he hoped to save souls. Were Cotton Mather and his colleagues justified in burning or in defending the burning of witches at the stake, and were our Puritan ancestors who fled from religious persecution in England justified, after they had obtained power in this country, in flogging and even putting to death the innocent, gentle Quakers?“
However, Wells was far from alone as an advocate for scientific betterment of mankind at any cost. White reported, in her Journal of Zoophily, that the “cruelty of the dog and ear grafting in which Dr. Carrel cut off dogs’ legs and ears and put legs and ears from other animals in their stead was described by sworn witnesses who were at the Rockefeller, who mentioned it was “awful.” Indeed, one or two of the attendants left the institute because they could not endure the sight of so much suffering.” This was not a false flag, and that can be seen clearly through Moreau. When questioned by Prendick regarding the scope of his work and his goals, the vivisectors replies:
“All in good time,” said he, waving his hand at me; “I am only beginning. Those are trivial cases of alteration. Surgery can do better things than that. There is building up as well as breaking down and changing…This is a kind of grafting in a new position of part of an animal upon itself. …,—monsters manufactured.”
In examining the works and beliefs of both sides of the vivisection debate, one sees some of the same arguments which led to two sides of a story claiming moral victory, and arguing pain in disturbingly flexible terms. However, once slavery disappeared, the movement to alleviate the pain and suffering of both animals and the marginalized members of society continued. The key to implementing ‘inhumane humanitarianism’ was not openly asking people to believe that pain was good, rather, it was to be achieved either by convincing people to look the other way either out of selfishness and fear or to never give them the choice at all. In a world of ag-gag laws and distant sweatshops, we can see what appears to be a primarily successful outcome of silencing, discrediting or keeping evidence of what could be considered ‘unethical’ behavior out of the hands of those whom would share it. Fortunately for society, that level of opacity is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. Martin Niemöller
On a fateful day in 2013, a new adventure started for me. I had already been a rat advocate, as well as adoring other rodents, but I took a little course called “Animals and Human Civilization” – taught by the amazing Boria Sax (check out his books!). We had to pick out a book to read in relation to the course and I decided it was finally time to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I had always loved animals and wanted to work on their behalf – ALL ANIMALS, not just the charismatic ones – and I was sort of surprised by what I was learning in my late-life undergraduate studies: It was in to be worried about animal welfare in academia. It sure hadn’t been that was when I graduated high school in 1992. Back then animal advocates were often painted as unbalanced people who didn’t get along much with other humans and who foolishly “anthropomorphized” things like emotions onto non-human animals.
What was I expecting? A light little romp, honestly. What I got was the work of a brilliant man who was worried about all aspects of life. Philoshopher, poet, and a little too well-informed about current events to be blithely optimistic about a human future unchecked by ethics. I can’t even bear to think of what he’d think about today’s world…
Anyway, I keep digressing. Here’s the truth, gang: I have always been concerned about non-human animal abuse and lab testing. I’ve never believed it would be possible to completely eliminate it, and people get REALLY defensive and angry if they even think you’re thinking it, but it used too often, sometimes for frivolous studies, and, on top of all that, the Animal Welfare Act does not consider rats, mice, and birds “animals.” Yep, you read that right – that means they don’t have to consider the suffering of these species. I won’t get into the realities for the sake of the weak at heart, but just trust me on this one. Also, don’t start asking me to compare the values of lives. I just told you I know that I don’t believe it can be eliminated, so that’s my final answer. I won’t die (or be murdered) on that hill.
What’s been interesting, though, is the fact that when I would explain the inspiration for my thesis, people (including my advisor) just assumed it was all about animal testing (which it was not) – a point I was trying to make to anyone who would listen AND hear. There was plenty here about Conly’s primary focus – which was human civilization. Conly wasn’t an animals right activist, although he did have a respect for animals. Secret of NIMH removed all the other stuff and then went extreme with the testing angle in a way that would cause any research scientist to automatically assume that Conly’s work was just completely anti-science. In fact, it really focused a great deal on ‘civilization’ and materialism. Additionally, the scientists in the book weren’t creepy sadists, it was the clinical detachment that Conly emphasized.
NOW, here I sit, about six months after graduating with my Master’s thesis and I am just going to tell you straight out – YES, I freaking care a lot of about the treatment of rats and rodents. I do want most of it eliminated. Go on – go out there and tell people I’m a bit of an animal activist.
Do me another favor: Tell people about how awesome rats are (or learn about them). Don’t fall for the horror-hype and, also, be prepared for the invasive species stuff. But before you say: “Yes, they are invasive and wipe out other species,” you better realize you-who-is-not-without-sin better not cast the first stone. They survived because they’re adaptable and because we’re bloody filthy. *steps off of soap box*
*ahem* A great place to learn about how cool rats are – or to take your kids to learn about how cool they are – is at the Smithsonian National Zoo in D.C. They have a HUGE area for the rats to run around in and tons of great information about the positive things about rats. I’m not kidding – I almost cried when I saw the display. As you can see, I came dressed for the occasion.
So, yes, Arahshiel Silver cares an awful lot about animals and about reducing animal testing. She cares an awful lot about the suffering of these animals that science is just getting around to “proving” can suffer, have positive affects, and empathy.
So yes, you can call me the animal lover. But you should also realize that I also study the facts and don’t promote hyperbole. At this point though, does anyone even pay attention to facts any more? What I do pay attention to is the very real connection I feel with my rats and other non-human animals. Both Caroline Earle White and Robert Leslie Conly had empathy for human animals AND non-human animals. It’s not an either/or proposition.