Posts Tagged ‘vivisection Descartes bird animal machine beast Bestie Maschine Vivisektion’

Quote of the Day: Descartes‘ „beast-machine“

18. Juli 2010
Just another bird machine: Descartes

Just another bird machine: Descartes

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„If Brutes, as Learned Bards of late would prove,

Are only Engines, and like Clock-work move,

Say, how my dearest Bird, my charming Dove,

Knows that destructive Ill, has sense of love?“

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The quote has been taken from “The Turtle, an Elegy, by Clarissa” in The Gentleman’s Journal, or the Monthly Miscellany, III, published in August 1694 (p. 222).  The poem is a reaction to Descartes’ notion of animals being nothing more than spirit-less machines. The author wants to point out that he or she does believe in the existence of an an animal soul, that they are capable of emotions.

This idea of the „beast-machine“, however, had a great impact on how animals were regarded and treated in Europe throughout the 18th and 19th century. It allowed scientists to mistreat animals for scientific experiments without having to care about issues of emotion or pain. Thus a very common method of anatomic research in the 18th and 19th century was vivisection, i.e. cutting open animal bodies while they were still alive.

It has been argued amongst scholars whether Descartes himself might not have been convinced that human beings were machines as well, just like later Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote in his famous book L’homme machine. If so, Descartes must nonetheless have feared the harsh reaction by the church, like towards his friend Galileo Gallilei, so that he might have suppressed the idea and hid it from the public. This way he only allowed animals to be soulless, whilst leaving space for the superiority and god-like appearance of the human race.