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Darwin Correspondence Project

Vivisection: Darwin's testimony to the Royal Commission

Wednesday, 3rd November 1875.

Mr. Charles Darwin called in and examined.

4661. (Chairman.) We are very sensible of your kindness in coming at some sacrifice to yourself to express your opinions to the Commission. We attribute it to the great interest which we know you take in the subject referred to us, both on the score of science and also on the score of humanity?

— Yes, I have felt a great interest in it.

4662. I think you took part in preparing the resolutions of the British Association at their meeting in Edinburgh in 1871?

— No; I had nothing to do with that. I was very glad to see them, and approved of them; but I had nothing to do with the framing of those resolutions; I did not attend the meeting.

4663. But you signed a petition which embodied them?

— When they were sent to me I may have done so. I do not remember it; but if my signature is attached I must have given it; I had forgotten it.

4664. But you cordially approved of them?

— I cordially approved of them. I had occasion to read them over lately at the time when this subject was beginning to be agitated. I read them over with care and highly approved of them then.

4665. I think you took some part in the preparation of a Bill which was ultimately laid before the House of Commons by Dr. Lyon Playfair?

— In the steps preparatory to that Bill, but the Bill itself did not exactly express the conclusions at which after consultation with several physiologists we arrived; I apprehend that it was accidently altered.

4666. But in the main you were an approving party?

— In the main.

4667. You have never, I think, yourself, either directly or indirectly been connected with the practice of trying experiments upon living animals?


4668. Will you have the kindness to state to us the views which you desire to lay before the Commission in connexion with it?

— The first thing that I would say is, that I am fully convinced that physiology can progress only by the aid of experiments on living animals. I cannot think of any one step which has been made in physiology without that aid. No doubt many surmises with regard to the circulation of the blood could be formed from the position of the valves in the veins, and so forth, but certainty such as is required for the progress of any science can be arrived at in the case of physiology only by means of experiments on living animals.

4669. Then I need hardly ask you what your opinion is as to the notion of prohibiting them altogether?

— In my opinion it would be a very great evil, because many reasons, mostly general, but some special, may be assigned for a full conviction that hereafter physiology cannot fail to confer the highest benefits on mankind. Many grounds, I think, can be assigned for this conviction.

4670. Is it your opinion that most of the experiments can be performed while the animal is entirely insensible to pain?

— That is my belief; but I ought to state that I have no claim to rank as a physiologist. I have, during many years, read largely on the subject, both general treatises and special papers, and in that respect I have gained some general knowledge, but as I have said, I have no claim to be called a physiologist, and I have had nothing to do in teaching physiology; but from all I can learn, the exceptions are extremely few in which an animal could not be experimented on in a state of entire insensibility.

4671. Then to hesitate to perform experiments, though painful in their nature, when the animal was rendered insensible, would not be, in your opinion, a judicious course to recommend to the Queen and Parliament?

— Certainly not. It is unintelligible to me how anybody could object to such experiments. I can understand a Hindoo, who would object to an animal being slaughtered for food, disapproving of such experiments, but it is absolutely unintelligible to me on what ground the objection is made in this country.

4672. Now with regard to trying a painful experiment without anaesthetics, when the same experiment could be made with anasthetics, or, in short, inflicting any pain that was not absolutely necessary upon any animal, what would be your view on that subject?

— It deserves detestation and abhorrence.

The witness withdrew. 

About this article

Darwin's testimony appears in the Report of the Royal Commission on vivisection, Minutes of evidence, pp. 233–4.

This transcription has been taken from 'Darwin and vivisection', F. Burkhardt et al. eds The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 23 (1875), Appendix VI, pp. 590–1.  The volumes of the Correspondence are available from Cambridge University Press.