On a recent visit to Barnes & Noble (this literary addiction is getting rather expensive) I browsed through a stack of compilations of novels by famous authors. One caught my eye: a collection of works by H.G. Wells. It includes the Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, all of which I’ve been meaning to read, so I found it a new, loving home–my bookshelf.
The Island of Dr. Moreau got inexplicably bumped to the top of my reading queue, probably because I was craving something fictional. I saw the movie adaptation some years ago, and had vague memories of it being creepy, scary and disgusting.
The basic premise is that Prendick, passenger on a sea voyage, is shipwrecked on an island occupied by the namesake physiologist and his assistant. The only other residents of the island, as the narrator eventually discovers, are monstrous human/animal hybrids.
Dr. Moreau was a prominent physiologist in London who was eventually driven away from respectable society by his methods, including his disregard for the pain caused by his experiments. Dr. Moreau moved shop to his island, where he was free to take all manner of beast and shape them into human form.
While the science is assuredly outdated in ways, Dr. Moreau’s reality has a potential to become ours. Whole segments of one embryo can be grafted onto another of a different species during development, and many of the results can be both surprisingly revolting and survivable.
Our pursuit of cures for genetic diseases in humans will inevitably lead to an ability to alter specific genes for the sake of improvements, not just treatments. (Some, such as members of the transhumanist movement, openly advocate improving the human species in this way.) Surely someone will also realize the benefit of inserting genes for the production of human insulin, antibodies, or blood into a primate. Or what about using animals to grow replacement human organs?
Not many are openly calling for the creation of more grotesque human/animal chimeras, but as the ability to perform such experiments becomes more diffuse, it is nearly inevitable that someone will eventually attempt it. So we are left with the question of how we will regard these creations. Fully animal? Partly human?
For now, I’ll leave you with some rather disturbing diatribes by Dr. Moreau:
“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.”
“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life. While you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—Bah! What is your theologian’s ecstasy but Mahomet’s houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came.”
“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.”
For the record, I don’t recommend Moreau’s ethics or theology. But bravo to Mr. Wells: good novel, nice concept, and interesting dilemmas. I think I’ll have to watch that movie again and see what I think now.