Dog fight: Darwin as animal advocate in the antivivisection controversy of 1875

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2009 Dec;40(4):265-71. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.09.004. Epub 2009 Oct 30.


The traditional characterization of Charles Darwin as a strong advocate of physiological experimentation on animals was posited in Richard French's Antivivisection and medical science in Victorian England (1975), where French portrayed him as a soldier in Thomas Huxley's efforts to preserve anatomical experimentation on animals unfettered by government regulation. That interpretation relied too much on, inter alia, Huxley's own description of the legislative battles of 1875, and shared many historians' propensity to foster a legacy of Darwin as a leader among a new wave of scientists, even where personal interests might indicate a conflicting story. Animal rights issues concerned more than mere science for Darwin, however, and where debates over other scientific issues failed to inspire Darwin to become publicly active, he readily joined the battle over vivisection, helping to draft legislation which, in many ways, was more protective of animal rights than even the bills proposed by his friend and anti-vivisectionist, Frances Power Cobbe. Darwin may not have officially joined Cobbe's side in the fight, but personal correspondence of the period between 1870 and 1875 reveals a man whose first interest was to protect animals from inhumane treatment, and second to protect the reputations of those men and physiologists who were his friends, and who he believed incapable of inhumane acts. On this latter point he and Cobbe never did reach agreement, but they certainly agreed on the humane treatment of animals, and the need to proscribe various forms of animal experimentation.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animal Experimentation / history
  • Animal Experimentation / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Animal Rights / history*
  • Animal Rights / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Animals
  • Correspondence as Topic / history
  • Dogs
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Literature, Modern / history
  • United Kingdom
  • Vivisection / history*

Personal name as subject

  • Charles Darwin