Revisiting The Island of Dr. Moreau
"Strange as it may seem to the unscientific
there can be no denying that ... the manufacture of monsters
-- and perhaps even of quasi-human monsters --
is well within the possibilities of vivisection."
- H.G. Wells
"You cannot recall a new form of life."
- Erwin Chargaff
Everywhere in popular culture today, one finds deep-rooted anxieties about science, technology, and the fate of the human. Thus, in recent films such as The Fly, Jurassic Park, Species, Godzilla, and Deep Blue Sea, as well as in shows like Prey and, of course, The X-Files, the focus is on biological mutations, experiments gone awry, and the creation of monstrosities.
Such media texts are responding, in part, to a chemically saturated, increasingly synthetic, ozone thinning, global warming world that has produced frogs with one eye or five legs, encephalitic babies, lower sperm counts in men, and diseased and diminished human beings affected by environmental chemicals that mimic their hormones and disrupt biological processes. They are also articulating fears of a powerful technoscience developed without restraint in the service of profit.
Already, science has engineered overgrown mice, cows, and pigs; "pharmed" crippled animals to exploit as drug factories for human medicine; bred millions of acres of genetically modified crops (some mixed with viruses and bacteria) that are spreading beyond control, polluting neighboring fields, cross-breeding with weedy relatives, harming insects and animals in laboratory tests, threatening famine and disease. At the same time, xenotransplantation, the mixing of animal blood and organs with humans, continues to erode species boundaries and portends new plagues.
But one great writer caught these changes in his perceptual traps well before they happened, and that was H.G. Wells, who created what Isaac Asimov called the "science-fiction breakthrough." Well's "breakthrough" was his earthly vision that science and technology could transgress the "laws" of nature and create entirely new species from disparate materials, resulting in terrible and unforeseeable consequences. The changes soon to be effected in nature and humanity were anticipated in The Time Machine (1895), which concerns the entropic collapse of human civilization, sharply divided between two warring species/classes (the privileged Eloi who live above ground vs. the super-exploited, subterranean Morlocks), in an allegory of nineteenth century class struggle that mutates into unbridgeable biological differences, such as eugenics might someday create.
But The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), is Wells' canonical statement of a coming rupture in life processes. A multifaceted exploration, it is a powerful protest against the self-proclaimed right of science to experiment on animals and to engineer new life forms, a critique of dangerous utopian visions of "human perfection," and a profound meditation on the psychic conflicts tearing apart humanity. Above all, it foregrounds what may happen when science recklessly tampers with genetics and disturbs intricate natural processes that have evolved over billions of years.
Forced to relocate his barbaric animal experiments to a remote Pacific island when exposed by a journalist, Moreau undauntingly advances his project to create new life forms, much as the infamous Dr. Richard Seed has vowed to continue his research into cloning humans in Japan or wherever necessary. Moreau describes his island as a "kind of Bluebeard's chamber," an apt description for vivisection laboratories around the world whose hallways echo with the shrieks of brutalized animals.
In fact, Wells not only gave voice to outrage growing in nineteenth century England against vivisection, he anticipated the logical extension of these atrocities in the near future, as the fictional crimes of Dr. Moreau progressed into the real horrors of Dr. Mengele. In the words of Edward Prendrick, the hapless traveller marooned on Moreau's island, Wells asks the terrible question, "could the vivisection of men be possible?" We know now -- through Auschwitz; the Tuskegee, Alabama experiments that withheld penicillin treatment from 399 black men infected with syphilis; the intentional infection of mentally retarded children with hepatitis-B by doctors at Willowbrook State Hospital in Staten Island; numerous radiation experiments on unwitting victims in the U.S.; and countless cases of human "volunteers" for medical "research" who were not informed of the serious risks they were taking -- that the answer is affirmative.
Upon arriving to the island, Prendrick hears cries from the "House of Pain," smells antiseptic, and witnesses the sundry "Beast Folk" engineered by Moreau, a grotesque menagerie of transgenic freaks that include mixtures of hyena and swine, ape and goat, bear and bull, and horse and rhinoceros. Initially, he sees them as humans devolved into animals, but Moreau informs him that in fact they are animals he is trying to elevate into humans, changing not only their entire physical reality but also their minds to prohibit any "regression" to animal behavior -- anticipating how eugenics tries to weed out of humanity all traits it deems "undesirable."
Amidst lush surroundings, Predrick see "the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form." On this microcosmic island, symbolic of the isolation of science from the public, there is a constant battle between instinct and morality, desire and reason. The chimeras -- the animal-humans -- play out the full tension of their being, much as human beings today struggle at the crossroads of past and future evolution, "rational animals" who still have not evolved beyond the primitive urges of war, violence, killing, hatred, and social hierarchy. Encountering the shock of "the strangest beings" he has ever seen, Prendrick realizes the island "is full of inimical phenomena" and he condemns Moreau as a "lunatic" and "ugly devil." He concludes that Dr. Moreau, like Mary Shelly's Dr. Frankenstein, "was so irresponsible, so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on."
Moreau, of course, has a different image of himself. Although he has perfected the art of scientific detachment, and is exquisitely indifferent to the pain he inflicts on his victims, he imagines himself -- in the bad faith of so many animal experimenters and genetic engineers -- as a benefactor to the world, as one who is trying to realize his utopian vision of a perfect humanity. For twenty years, Moreau devoted himself "to the study of the plasticity of living forms." Rejecting any belief that nature and species boundaries are fixed, he seeks to "conquer" nature, to bend it to his will, to become God-like in his power to design species, while admitting that he has "never troubled himself about the ethics of the matter." Nothing today could better summarize the mentality of many genetic engineers/venture capitalists.
In an uncanny anticipation of xenotransplantation and genetic engineering, Wells, speaking through Moreau, imagines that "it is a possible thing to transplant tissue from one part of an animal to another or from one animal to another, to alter its chemical reactions and methods of growth, to modify the articulation of its limbs, and indeed to change it in its most intimate structure." Yet, every time Moreau's chimeras seem to verge toward "triumphs of vivisection" ("genetic engineering" was not yet in the scientific vocabulary) they revert to animality. Despite Moreau's conditioning that he believes makes it impossible for the chimeras to disobey his will, they regularly break his laws, and in time rebel and kill him. The Beast Folk rampage out of control, as scientific reductionism cannot fathom biological complexity and humans prove unable to control powerful technologies that ultimately destroy them.
At the end of John Frankenheimer's 1996 film version of the novel, the empathetic Prendrick, upon leaving the island, tells the subhumans he will bring back the best of Western science to help, but a victim of this very science implores: "No more scientists, no more laboratories, no more research ... We have to be what we are." One can easily imagine a real Moreauvian island of genetic pariahs in the very near future, a place where the botched experiments and mutilated satyrs and subhumans live out their pathetic lives, condemned to labor or endure further experimentation.
As if enough animals are not already confined, tortured, and slaughtered in the laboratories and factory farms of the world, U.S. and Europe are now "pharming" an array of animal-human composites for their blood, milk, and organs. Gruesomely, scientists have created headless embryos of mice and frogs, dispensing with their superfluous heads so that they harvest only their organs -- a practice biologist Richard Slack imagines could easily be used on human embryos also grown as mere organ sacks for their genetic donors.
The Island of Dr. Moreau deserves to be re-read today. It is a brilliant meditation on technology out-of-control, of unethical usages of "objective" science, and of mutations to come in nature and humanity as technoscience aggressively embarks on its explorations into microcosmic reality, unimpeded by legal regulation or public debate. Here, the disparity between technical ability and philosophical wisdom may well make today's sci-fi fantasy tomorrow's living nightmare.