Darwin: An Animal Welfare Advocate

“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

-Mark Twain

“I would rather see the portrait of a dog that I know, than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.”

-Samuel Johnson

Darwin: An Animal Welfare Advocate

     Writing that Charles Darwin’s contributions to science remain scientifically relevant 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man is an obvious understatement. Darwin’s work influenced paleoanthropology, geology and genetics, as well as the biological sciences. Darwin’s writings constitute a system of interconnected ideas that still manage to inspire controversy in the 21st Century. Darwin may not have been the first to propose evolution, but his critical thinking allowed him new insights into the subject. The Descent of Man may be considered his best manifestation of an insightful thought process by which Darwin succinctly fused religious, social, philosophical, scientific and political thought of the Victorian era. He seemed to recognize that by blending the scientific thought found in different disciplinary discourses of the day into a theory of evolution and natural selection, he would revolutionize how scientific thought would advance and the plethora of questions that could be raised. To this day, his work still serves as a foundation for new scientific inquiry. For example, Darwin’s theories on variation and natural selection have come to fruition in the fields of developmental gene study, since the horizontal transfer processes of genes and associated building blocks found in all life forms are central hypotheses in connecting descent with modification.

To Darwin, the antiquity of the human species is a fact. Man’s ancient past was reinforced for Darwin in the detailed geologic fossil record provided by Lyell in Principles of Geology. The differences between humans and primates are less important to Darwin than the differences between the lowest and the highest primates. In Chapter 1 of The Descent of Man he states, “The real differences that exist between the brain of man and that of the apes are very minimal. We should have no illusions about this. In the anatomical characteristics of his brain, man is much closer to anthropoid apes than these are to other mammals, and not only to them but even to some quadrumanes, gruenons and macaques (p. 26).” Comparing man’s brain size to apes denies both a special creation and special status for humans. Darwin directly contradicts many religious tenets by denying a fundamental difference between animal’s and man’s mental faculties. Humans may sit at the top of the animal pyramid of hierarchy, yet man is still an animal–only if in higher form.

Darwin states in the opening commentary of Mental Powers, “…there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties (p. 110).” The Mental Powers chapter of The Descent of Man is an argument against a fundamental gap between humans and animals. Darwin places reason at the top of a continuous scale of mental faculties. He concludes that mental powers are shared by animals and humans and Darwin uses dogs throughout his argument. Terror, suspicion, happiness, motherly affection, deceit and indignation are emotions expressed by animals, namely dogs. To Darwin, dogs have a sense of humor and play practical jokes. Dogs also exhibit more complex emotions including pride, shame, jealousy, curiosity, excitement, wonder and dread. In Chapter 3 of Mental Powers, Darwin writes, “Most of the more complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves. Every one has seen how jealous a dog is of his master’s affection, if lavished on any other creature; and I have observed the same fact with monkeys. This shews that animals not only love, but have desire to be loved. Animals manifestly feel emulation. They love approbation or praise; and a dog carrying a basket for his master exhibits in a high degree self-complacency or pride. There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear, and something like modesty when begging too often for food. A great dog scorns the snarling of a little dog, and this may be called magnanimity….Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humour, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one, he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same manoeuvre, and evidently enjoying the practical joke (p. 117).”

Darwin brings the reader time and again to dogs and their likeness to humans. He even goes a few steps further to present the reader with his observation of a dog’s mental acumen, with his comment about ‘dogs barking at the moon,’ imitation, attention, memory and imagination (p. 122). Darwin argues that such instincts are inherited habits and are an association of ideas; a process close to reason. He makes clear that the “difference is in degree, not in the nature between animals’ and humans’ ways of reasoning (p. 193).” Darwin speaks of animal reasoning by giving reference to a dog and a savage looking for water. According to Darwin, they are both acting according to a “rude process of reasoning (p. 125),” which is coming from the observation of a regular coincidence of two phenomena “associated in their mind (p. 125)”: the presence of water and the need. Both the savage and the dog are contrasted with the civilized, cultivated man, who looks for a law or explanation behind the regularity. Darwin implies that the difference between the savage and the dog is a difference in the speed of the associative process. He even speaks to the moral qualities of animals. Darwin states that moral qualities are based on a foundation of social instincts. He regards the evolution of moral qualities as a more interesting problem than the evolution of intellectual qualities. Darwin backs up his viewpoint nicely by arguing that animals have the same social instincts as humans. Darwin points out that animals find pleasure in the company of others. He provides examples of how animals warn others of danger and how they defend and help each other. Darwin proves that these social instincts do not extend to the entire animal species, but only to a species-specific community of animals. Animal social instincts benefited the animal community and were thus acquired through natural selection.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was in its infancy stage during the time of Darwin’s writing. The founders of the SPCA were especially concerned with unnecessary cruelty to animals under the vivisectionists’ surgical knife. Vivisectionists performed surgery and live necropsies without anaesthesia or morphine. The SPCA was founded on Christian principles of philosophy. The early members were worried about the demoralization of society brought about by cruelty to animals. The Victorian era was abuzz with scientific discovery and inquiry, especially in the field of physiology. Vivisection was largely practiced. The anti-vivisection movement of the 1870s and 1880s was organized along the lines of an anthropocentric view of society and animals’ place within it. The SPCA and the anti-vivisectionists were more concerned with the view of humans abusing animals than actual concerns for the animals themselves. Leading the anti-vivisectionist movement in 1881 was the Victoria Street Society founded by Frances Power Cobbe. Their journal, The Zoophilist (Kean, 1995), aimed at rescuing mankind from scientific influence and the merciless treatment of animals under vivisection. From the rhetorical tone of Zoophilist journal and the initial efforts of the SPCA, it appears that their movement was really about saving human civilization and not much to do with saving animals. Keeping in line with a Christian sense of morality the anti-vivisectionists saw the welfare of animals as man’s burden. To say that such a perspective was counter-intuitive for the anti-vivisectionists to not have the welfare of animals chiefly in mind is an understatement. Darwin saw the incongruity in the animal rights movement and continued to bring to the forefront the suffering of animals, especially the dog, in The Descent of Man.

Darwin believed that animals were better at expressing emotions than human adults. He states: “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous tail, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master (p. 149).” Based on the numerous times he alludes to dogs in The Descent of Man, I can only assume, Darwin loved dogs. In The Descent of Man, in the chapter Mental Powers, Darwin tells of a touching story about a dog on a vivisectionist’s operating table. He writes, “In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master, and every one has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt some remorse to the last hour of his life (p. 115).” An argument can be made that Darwin’s published comment sparked controversy in the physiology community because on April 18, 1881, Darwin penned a letter to Professor Holmgren of Upsala, Sweden in what appears to be a rebuttal to a previous letter that appeared in the London Times regarding vivisection. Darwin writes, “I have all my life been a strong advocate for humanity to animals, and have done what I could in my writings to enforce this duty….From all that I have heard, however, I fear that in some parts of Europe little regard is paid to the suffering of animals (London Times, April 18, 1881, Mr Darwin on Vivisection).” Darwin argues elsewhere that the highest feelings known in man can also be found in lower animals. He even touches on the spiritual origins in savages by comparing them to a dog’s loyal and worshipping behavior towards its human master.

Darwin was completely focused on measured expression. He is silent, however, regarding emotional nature and its relation to human character. For Darwin, dogs have powers of association and affection. Dogs not only feel pleasure and pain but they have a memory and they experience happiness. Not only do dogs experience the supernatural by howling at the moon, but they are also religious in a way, substituting their master for God. The following passage is from the Mental Powers chapter in The Descent of Man. “The feelings of religious devotion is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of independence, fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements….Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to his state of mind in the deep love a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings. Professor Braubach goes so far as to maintain that a dog looks on his master as on a god (p.149).” Dogs have a moral sensibility manifest in their knowledge of right and wrong and their assistance to the pack. Continuing in Mental Powers he states, “Our domestic dogs are descended from wolves and jackals, and though they may not have gained in cunning, and may have lost in wariness and suspicion, yet they have progressed in certain moral qualities, such as affection, trustworthiness, temper, and probably in general intelligence (p.129).” Darwin even believed that dogs are altruistic. In the chapter entitled, Morality (The Descent of Man), he remarks, “It must be called sympathy that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one who strikes his master, as he certainly will (p.163 ).” In the Mental Powers chapter, he meekly admits that dogs may lack self-consciousness, but, then, Darwin asks, “how can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as shown by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures or pains in the chase (p. 133)?”

Darwin was a man of science, and he understood the benefits that mankind gained through animal experimentation. He saw that the vivisectionist in conjunction with the physiologist made strides in medical advancements that benefited humanity. Darwin did, in fact, see that limited animal experimentation was necessary for furthering human medical advancements. He did, however, believe in the humane treatment of animals. Since Darwin spent so much time writing about the shared traits of animals and argued for limiting and regulating vivisectionist exploration, the evidence that Darwin was an early animal rights activist seems compelling. In closing, I leave the reader with a quote by Dr. Lauder Lindsay, referenced by Darwin in the Mental Powers chapter of The Descent of Man, “ A dog is the only thing on this earth that luvs you more than he luvs himself (p. 115).”


All page numbers cited are from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, The Concise Edition, Plume, Published by Penguin Group, USA, 2007 (unless otherwise noted).

Kean, Hilda, “The Smooth, Cool Men of Science” : The Feminist and Socialist Response to Vivisection. History Workshop Journal, 40 (1995): p. 17.

London Times, April 18, 1881, Mr. Darwin On Vivisection.

Author:  Wynne Guglielmo

bio:  I’m a Philadelphia transplant living on the coast of Lamoine, Maine. Prior to moving to Maine I lived on the southwest coast of Florida. I am an avid dog lover and animal rights supporter and advocate. Although more comfortable with poetry and plays because of the crutch of dialogue, I also enjoy crafting essays. Since 1986 I have worked in the environmental and health & safety profession to pay the bills. I see a connection between the industrial scale animal slaughter and concentrated feeding operations to environmental degradation, with particular regards to stormwater and our fresh water bodies including streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. Growing up poor in Philadelphia I would pester my mom to take me to Edgar Allen Poe’s house in Philadelphia because it was free. I also liked the dark that surrounded Poe’s writing. I still like and write about the dark.