“Hi non sunt homines”: Perspectives on Humanization on Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau as Influenced by Contemporary Philosophy and Surgical Science
By Brandon Forys
Humans have, for millennia, felt a desire to impose their unique characteristics on other animals. When we look at a dog, we typically imagine that it looks at humans around it much as we look at other people. We imagine that the dog is thinking about food, its owner, or its favourite toy – just as a human baby might think about his or her parents or favourite toy. We have similar thoughts when we see squirrels scurrying across a path, or a fish drifting about in a pond. In short, we perceive animals in our image, and the vast majority of us are merely content with personifying animals in our imaginations or conversations. Humans are also often fascinated by fictional media that portray animals having human characteristics, be they talking dogs or police-officer rabbits. These examples are harmless enough.
However, at the end of the 19th century, a dehumanized perspective of animals was present in many parts of biology and medicine as a result of the practice of vivisection, or cutting open animals for scientific research while they were still alive. To most, vivisection would certainly seem at odds with a humanizing process like personifying animals in our imagination. This was not the case for British author, and student of biology, H.G. Wells. In the Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells portrays vivisection as a way to, in a sense, literally humanize animals, by physically and psychologically shaping them into humanoid forms through reshaping their bodies and conditioning them to follow laws. Through the book’s narrative, Wells portrays the way in which these human characteristics shrivel away without the guidance of humans, and depicts the dehumanization of virtually every living being in the book. As such, the author suggests that human attempts to physically humanize other animals are at odds with humanity. Through Wells’s critical perspective on the dehumanization processes taking place in the novel, we see an ironic structure that strengthens the novel’s tragedy. We can also examine Dr. Moreau’s scientific motivations through the lens of the historian Carl Becker who, in his book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, discusses extensively the changes in how scientists and philosophers viewed science in the Enlightenment era and beyond. This examination allows us to probe whether our current concerns regarding vivisection are in fact a function of the scientific norms of our time. Similarly, Jürgen Meyer’s “Surgical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century: Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Flatland” gives us an insight into the institutions that might have promoted Dr. Moreau’s view on vivisection. In fact, Meyer’s discourse normalizes Dr. Moreau (to an extent) in terms of the scientific views held in Wells’s time. However, before we can discuss how Dr. Moreau and his practices can be normalized and rationalized, we must examine what Dr. Moreau does to change our perspectives on animals. To this end, Wells uses Dr. Moreau to demonstrate the extent to which some humans will go to humanize animals.
When the protagonist, Edward Prendick, arrives on Dr. Moreau’s island, Prendick encounters some odd-looking ‘humans’ who illustrate what human expectations of other humans are. One of these characters is a man with “a large, almost lipless, mouth, extraordinarily lank arms, long thin feet, and bow-legs” (Wells 89). This description serves to unsettle us, and encourages us to question what we expect to see in a human being. In this way, we come to share in Prendick’s perspective of human beings, and seek to understand humans as he does. The paradigm shift that Wells presents, allows us to process for ourselves the ingenuity of his narrative on creation. Other ‘humans’ are described as speaking “to one another on odd guttural tones” (Wells 89); this encourages us to consider what we expect a human to sound like, and also invites us to hear the creatures as Prendick does. Wells’s choice to write his narrative in the first person thus has a couple of significant effects. The first is that, through seeing and hearing what Prendick sees and hears, we can connect with his perspective more easily than if these sights and sounds were simply described to us by a narrator. The second is that, through giving us this experiential perspective of Prendick, Wells creates for us a sort of sensory prosthesis that renders us more concerned to distinguish uniquely human from uniquely animal characteristics. This prosthesis serves to convey to us the real-world implications of Wells’s narrative more effectively. Prendick notes that the creatures have some semblance of humanity because they move “with slightly awkward gestures” (Wells 89) compared to a human, and Prendick perceives them as speaking to one another; in this way, the protagonist is certain that they are merely awkward humans. Thus, he exposes us to details that we might not otherwise perceive, through an experiential, rather than a descriptive, narrative. Prendick is not prepared to consider alternatives yet because he has just arrived from civilization and is therefore still entrenched in conventional conceptions of human behaviour. Wells uses these disturbing creatures to set up Prendick for a re-evaluation of what defines a human. By extension, Wells invites us, the readers, to process what Prendick sees, hears, and observes through his perspective. The author’s aim, therefore, is to force us to reconsider our perspective on the differences between humans and animals by exposing us to Prendick’s rapidly evolving perspective on them.
Prendick’s encounter with three creatures during their religious rite is the moment when he – and we – begin to wonder at which point humans truly become set apart from other animals, and whether the boundary is defined in physical or mental terms. As he observes two ‘men’ and a ‘woman’ with “fat, heavy, chinless faces” that he describes as “bestial-looking creatures” (Wells 100), the protagonist perceives “clearly for the first time what it [is] that had offended [him]” (Wells 100) about the previous creatures he encountered. He observes that
The three creatures engaged in this mysterious rite [are] human in shape, and yet human beings with the strangest air about them of some familiar animal. Each of these creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of its bodily form, had woven into it…some now irresistible suggestion of a hog…the unmistakable mark of the beast (Wells 100).
We are likely to react with pleasure or surprise to an animal acting like a human while physically being a non-human in a book, because that animal possesses the abilities of speech and reason that humans treasure, while maintaining a physical appearance that we are comfortable with; thus, the animal is humanized only so much that we would never mistake it for a human. The above quotation, however, reveals what happens when the line of what humans consider to be appropriate humanization has been crossed. Prendick demonstrates the significant visual basis for our judgments of humanization by perceiving the creatures’ rags, which serve as imagery to emphasize the incompleteness of their clothing and, therefore, the incompleteness of their humanity. The moment that animals are physically made more human on top of them appearing as being made mentally more human, we react by defining them as beasts, as unnatural beings. Here, Wells is perhaps getting at the idea that humans hold their physical attributes – but not so much their mental ones – as sacrosanct and unfit for being grafted onto non-humanoid creatures. The author’s observation of this idea is significant because it implies an odd privileging of the physical over the mental. Perhaps this privilege informs how humans have often subjugated animals for food or use as beasts of burden, without being too concerned with the moral implications of such actions. However, this lack of concern for the moral implications seems not to apply so much to Prendick at this point. He is forced to re-evaluate those around him – human and non-human – in new terms as the line between the two becomes blurred. This is a process that continues to evolve to the point that all divisions between the two become unclear and eventually disappear, connecting all parties and leading to questions about where humans belong in the frameworks of life at a grand scale.
It is here that we return to the topic of vivisection and how Wells imagines it can be used to humanize animals while dehumanizing humans. When Dr. Moreau reveals that he is responsible for modifying the creatures around him, he discusses how “it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another, or from one animal to another…to change it in its most intimate structure” (Wells 124). Thus, by vivisection, Dr. Moreau is able to greatly alter the physical nature of the creatures in order to give them more human characteristics. Additionally, through hypnotism he is able to instill ideas and thoughts in the minds of the creatures. The question arises in the mind of the protagonist and reader as to Dr. Moreau’s “justification for inflicting all this pain” (Wells 126) to humanize the creatures. Dr. Moreau argues that pain is a material, human construct that holds no sway on the cosmic scale. In this way, Dr. Moreau is attempting to set himself on a plane that acts in the interests of the ideals of science and discovery rather than the interests of humans or, indeed, life. His vivisection and conditioning serve the interests of science because he is exploring the limits of life, and life’s amenability to being shaped. By focusing on abstractions rather than human concerns, he is distinctly setting himself apart from the very humanity that he seeks to impose upon the beasts. This makes sense because Dr. Moreau can really only justify playing God – which he arguably does by modifying life at the expense of living beings – by setting himself on the level of God, who does not have to be as concerned with the practicalities of common sense and human morals. Thus, Dr. Moreau’s ‘humanization’ – in a very literal sense – of animals can only be accomplished by him dehumanizing himself. This fact speaks to the novel’s larger ironic structure, which highlights the futility of Dr. Moreau’s work on animals.
We speak of Dr. Moreau being ‘dehumanized’ because our modern expectations of science suggest that there are philosophically defined limits on how we should treat animals, limits that Dr. Moreau has broken. These limits, however, are defined by the scientific norms of our era. It is therefore useful to consider how some of Dr. Moreau’s actions might have been justified in the philosophical expectations placed on the science of his era. Carl Becker, an American historian, discussed the differing ways in which we, and many philosophers of the Enlightenment era along with their nineteenth century inheritors, have viewed science and the world around us.
A significant trend to which Becker points, is the determination and ability of humans to more closely examine nature in the Enlightenment era. Nature, in this context, is the operation of the world outside of human control, a conjectural state of being, as discussed by writers like Locke and Rousseau. The first conflict that characters like Dr. Moreau would face is the rejection of “design in nature…derived a priori from the character which the Creator was assumed to have” (Becker 55) that arose in the eighteenth century. When Dr. Moreau seeks to design his own creatures against the grain of nature, he embodies these Enlightenment ideals, which continued to hold some sway until the era in which Wells wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau. Becker then traces out a shift in humanity’s perception of nature from a God-designed marvel of the universe to Hume’s view: that “nature is not a logical concept, but a substantial reality” (Becker 56-57). It seems that Dr. Moreau whole-heartedly adopts Hume’s conclusion: the substantiality of nature allows him to view it as a tangible object that he can attempt to modify. Dr. Moreau might also have been clouded by a concept that Goethe discusses and Becker quotes:
Many a one became convinced that nature had endowed him with as great a portion of good and straightforward sense as, perchance, he required to form such a clear notion of objects that he could manage them and turn them to his own profit, and that of others, without laboriously troubling himself about the most universal problems (Goethe 231).
In this case, Dr. Moreau becomes empowered with the idea that he has enough sense to test the limits of nature, “‘to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape’” (Wells 127), without concern about universal problems such as the morality of his actions. This single-minded perspective is important to consider because, while today we might scoff at it for its narrow approach to science that tends to ignore morality, as late as Wells’s era it was symptomatic of the Enlightenment view of nature as a tangible world that humans could modify as they wish.
Indeed, Wells explicitly discusses the idea of vivisection being associated with playing God and putting aside humanity. After a great struggle in which Dr. Moreau is killed, the protagonist begins to evangelize to the Beast People – or humanized creatures of the island – instilling in them the conviction that Dr. Moreau – the leader of the religious Law of the Beast People – “has changed his shape” and “changed his body” (Wells 151) and that Dr. Moreau looks down upon the Beast People to ensure that they obey the Law that he had set in place. In this parody of the Christian Resurrection, Prendick positions Dr. Moreau – who changed the shapes of those around him by vivisection – as a messiah now above humans and other life. This is fitting, considering Dr. Moreau’s dehumanization into a vivisecting idealist. His characterization as a messiah is also, in some sense, a parody of his God-like ambitions and actions; these serve to reinforce his inhuman nature and caricature him as a scientist – to be precise, a surgeon – who has gone too far.
The Island of Dr. Moreau paints surgeons, especially those who use their skills for scientific exploration, as untrustworthy, isolated, and dangerous characters. Jürgen Meyer’s essay, “Surgical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century,” gives us a deeper look at the societal trends shaping Wells’s narrative: it suggests that Wells tries to explore the evolution of perceptions of surgery throughout history in addition to his philosophical examination of vivisectionists. Observing the changing role of surgeons throughout history, we see that they were often marginalized in medical practice. This was because some surgical operations were limited by “socio-religious taboos” (Meyer 174) surrounding working with dead bodies, as well as surgery not being an institutionalized medical practice. Additionally, the fact that surgeons were once only able to learn their craft by acquiring and dissecting dead bodies led to surgeons being stereotyped as “cold, inhuman, and unable to relate to others” (Meyer 174). This stereotype readily reminds us of Dr. Moreau’s personality. Even once surgery was institutionalized in Britain, the home country of Wells and Dr. Moreau, surgical facilities there “soon faced a strong antivivisectionist movement,” a movement in which “surgery was considered both destructive and creative; and the surgeon was caught in the discursive knots connecting medicine, evolution, ethics and the law” (Meyer 176). Wells explores both the destruction and the creation of surgery by playing Prendick’s disgust and Dr. Moreau’s creativity against each other. Prendick initially “perceives the Beast Folk population of the island as a degenerate, crippled species of humans; later, however, he has to listen to Dr. Moreau singing the ambivalent praises of his own futile ‘triumphs of vivisection’” (Meyer 177). Prendick, like readers who are carefully considering the merits of vivisection, is conflicted in deciding whether Dr. Moreau’s rationale is justified.
The connections between nineteenth century perceptions of surgical engineering and Dr. Moreau’s character suggest that Dr. Moreau is not so much a unique God-like figure as a follower of a system that promotes a God-like approach to surgery. As it were, French scientist Claude Bernard published a treatise in 1865 in which he “elevates surgery on the social scale” by claiming that “the surgeon…patiently carries the burden of the diseased flesh, perfecting human society and animal world alike” (Meyer 178-179). By reading Dr. Moreau as “a pitiless vivisectionist of the French school” (Meyer 179), Dr. Moreau’s reasoning for his actions results from a system that follows Hume’s idea of a substantial reality that can be modified and perfected by humans. The idea that a surgeon begins from “the burden of the diseased flesh” (Meyer 179) implies that the original animals on the island, in Dr. Moreau’s eyes, were incomplete and had not reached their full form, and that it is Dr. Moreau’s place to perfect them according to his own judgment. Therefore, Dr. Moreau’s God-like perspective can be grounded in medical institutions. Considering that the premise of Dr. Moreau’s isolation is his expulsion from the British medical community, Dr. Moreau’s philosophical alignment with the French school of vivisection could be read as Wells’s support for the French school. In this way, Dr. Moreau can be normalized as a follower of an optimistic rationale for surgical exploration. This normalization makes Dr. Moreau slightly more palatable and humanized, at least within the context of his field. Dr. Moreau’s position as someone above the plane of normal human interests has its roots in Wells’s own views on vivisection.
In Appendix G to The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells argues for vivisection on the basis that the vivisectionist “wants knowledge because he wants knowledge; it is his characteristic good” (Wells 269). Thus, although H.G. Wells is a little more humane in conceding that “the biological experimenter…does not desire that pain should enter into his experiments” (Wells 269), and inacknowledging pain as an unfortunate side effect of vivisection, he delivers his argument by setting the interests of vivisectionists as being on a different plane from human interests. Wells also suggests that those who oppose vivisection “prefer to be happy in [their] imaginations” (Wells 269). This last quotation returns to what many of us would consider acceptable humanizations of animals – imagining that our pets have feelings, or engaging in imaginary worlds where animals can talk. Both Wells and his character Dr. Moreau – although Dr. Moreau to an appreciably greater extent – reject the idea that animals innately have human-like thoughts and attributes, and thus Wells’s views on the vivisection issue inform his depiction of Dr. Moreau. That being said, the two men take this conclusion and follow differing paths from it. Wells argues that because animals do not have human characteristics to begin with, we can vivisect them in the interest of science without cruelty or malice; Dr. Moreau further argues that because of this lack of innate humanity in animals, we can vivisect them in the interest of science to give them human characteristics. In both cases, vivisection is justified only through setting aside the human feelings of remorse and pity. In Island of Dr. Moreau, this dehumanizing process is widespread.
After Dr. Moreau dies, Prendick himself begins to dehumanize even as the Beast People begin to lose their human characteristics. The protagonist observes that, as he misses the opportunity to “grasp the vacant sceptre of Dr. Moreau and [rule] over the Beast People” (Wells 162), he becomes “one among the Beast People” (Wells 162). The Beast People begin to adopt a scepticism towards the tenacity of the moral code that had held them in check, now that there are no superstitious underpinnings for it in light of Dr. Moreau’s death. This scepticism speaks to how the human tendency for religion is slipping away from the Beast People. Soon they also lose their ability to communicate and act in any human sense, rendering Prendick alone but also longing for companionship from them. This transition speaks to the need for humanity in any form to be supported by other humans, be it to maintain artificial humanity or to keep a human sane. Without ostensibly human leadership, the Beast People revert to animals, and Prendick himself loses touch with human nature and becomes very lonely. Although our view of Prendick in this state would seem to suggest someone whose understanding of humanity has been torn to shreds, it is worth considering whether Dr. Moreau actually helped Prendick’s mental state. Dr. Moreau does not do so by offering Prendick any leadership role. However, as Prendick struggles to lead the animals by example, he – in a sense – retains some of his humanity, because he is now acutely aware of how significantly the minds and bodies of animals can be shaped by humans for selfish ends. In this way, Dr. Moreau’s terrible acts serve to remind Prendick of his own humanity, which exists in stark contrast to Dr. Moreau’s cold personality. Perhaps the extreme that Prendick encounters leads him to re-evaluate how he treats animals, and thus encourages him to recover some of his morality. These changes have profound effects on the protagonist.
When Prendick is at last rescued and brought back to civilization, he finds it difficult to identify with – and trust – other humans. He describes how “for several years now a restless fear has dwelt in [his] mind – such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel” (Wells 172). The suggestion of Prendick feeling “half-tamed” is very significant because it echoes human efforts to mentally humanize animals today. Although taming is much more acceptable than vivisection because it usually does not involve grave injury, it is nonetheless a form of humanization. The fact that Prendick feels like this when he sees himself as “an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone” (Wells 173) suggests that he feels controlled by the expectations of humanity to act like a human. This again raises the question in our minds of what makes a human: although Prendick is physically a human, he has been dehumanized by the attempts of others to humanize animals. It is important to note that the attempts of others in the book to humanize animals are primarily superficial, and therefore unsuccessful. Perhaps Prendick is dehumanized by these attempts in part because they cannot be complete, and never will be. While the animals have been trained to be subservient, and conform their behaviours, to the dictates of their human companions, Prendick discovers that the transformations Dr. Moreau undertook on animals, take away much of their otherwise apparent acquiescence. If that is the case, perhaps attempts to humanize – or tame – animals are futile, because they will lead to dehumanization in some form or another.
When we personify animals, we try to impose our mental characteristics on them, but only in our imaginations and with the recognition that animals could never actually take on these characteristics. When H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau tries to impose human physical characteristics on animals in real life, he ends up giving the animals a crude, transient form of humanity and dehumanizes everyone around him. In this way, Wells evidently makes the argument that we as humans are not meant to humanize animals. However, Wells continues to believe that we may vivisect them for the purposes of furthering science. While this is a smaller step than Dr. Moreau takes, it is nonetheless an important point to consider, as Wells’s support for vivisection perhaps frames the mindset he had while writing this novel. Wells may also have shaped Dr. Moreau’s character with inspiration from philosophers like Hume and Goethe and their conceptions of the human ability to shape nature, as discussed in Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Wells was also grounded in a scientific community that was very optimistic about the scientific rationale for vivisection, as Meyer tells us in his essay, “Surgical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century”. The Island of Doctor Moreau encourages us to consider whether sentience really gives us that much license over other forms of life.
Becker, Carl. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven: Yale UP, 1957.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Autobiography (Bohn ed.), I. Translated by A.J.W. Morrison. London, 1849.
Meyer, Jürgen. “Surgical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century: Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Flatland.” Unmapped Countries: Biological Visions in Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture. Ed. Anne-Julia Zwierlein. London: Anthem Press, 2005.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Doctor Moreau. Ed. Mason Harris. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2009.