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The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal Edmund Ramsden1, * and Duncan Wilson2 1

Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, School for Humanities and Social Sciences, Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK 2 Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, Second Floor, Simon Building, Brunswick Street, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

It is commonly assumed that suicide is a distinctly human act. Lacking the capacity to visualise and enact their own deaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of selfpreservation. However, discussion over the existence of the self-destructive animal has been long been central to debates over the nature of suicide. By granting animals the capacity to take their own lives, they were granted emotion, intelligence, consciousness. By transgressing boundaries between animal and man, scientists and activists in the 19th century were united by a determination to ensure the welfare of both. For their critics, these boundaries were to be maintained – animal acts of self-destruction were not intentional, but accidental and instinctual responses to stimuli. Nevertheless, reflections on the suicidal animal have continued, less a means of granting consciousness to the non-human, but as symbols and analogies for human acts of self-destruction devoid of thought or intention. A singular case of suicide In 1845, the Illustrated London News reported a ‘Singular Case of Suicide’ in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. It reflected a growing fascination with suicide in Victorian Britain, which, by regularly dwelling on its tragic circumstances, was helping to overturn centuries of moral condemnation.1 What made this case ‘singular’, however, was its unfortunate subject – ‘a fine, handsome and valuable black dog, of the Newfoundland species’.2 The paper described how the dog had for some days been less animated than usual, but on this occasion was noted to throw himself in the water and endeavour to sink by preserving perfect stillness of the legs and feet. Being dragged out, the dog was tied up for a time, but had no sooner been released than he again hastened to the water and tried to sink again and was again got out. This occurred many times until at length the animal with repeated efforts appeared to get exhausted, and by dint of keeping his head determinedly under water for a few minutes, succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when taken out this time he was indeed dead.3 As the nineteenth century progressed, the Newfoundland was joined by a canvasback duck that drowned itself at the *Corresponding author: Ramsden, E. ( See, for example, Olive Anderson (1987) Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, Clarendon Press (Oxford). 2 Anon (1845) ‘Singular case of suicide by a dog’. Illustrated London News, 1 February, p. 10. 3 Ibid. 1

loss of its mate, a cat that hanged itself on a branch following the death of its kittens, a horse that leapt into a canal after years of maltreatment and numerous dogs that starved to death on the graves of their masters. The causes were those commonly associated with the suicidal act in humans – love, loyalty, abuse, madness. At the same time, these accounts of animal self-destruction continued a tradition that dates back to Antiquity. Aristotle told of the famed suicide of the Scythian stallion, which threw itself into an abyss after it realised it had been duped into mating with its mother.4 Whilst Aristotle was generally critical of the suicidal act, he accepted that in cases of disgrace, burden or sacrifice, it could benefit the polis. These tales show how accounts of animal suicide have long reflected the values of a society. This is the case even when animal suicide is denied. St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas sought to justify strictures against self-destruction through reference to the animal kingdom. Animals, they argued, did not strive for death, but life. As Aquinas declared: It is altogether unlawful to kill oneself. . . because everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity.5 One of the few descriptions of the self-destructive animal that survived in Christian texts was that of the Pelican, a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. The Pelican allegedly tore flesh and blood from its breast to feed its young; and its use by John Donne, noted for his sympathetic treatment of the suicidal act, was, we would argue, significant.6 It was important, Donne contended, that humanity retain ‘a natural desire of dying’: ‘by the Law of Nature it selfe, things may, yea must neglect of themselues for others; Of which the Pellican is an Instance, or Embleme.’7 4 Van Hooff, A.J.L. (1990) From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity, Routledge (London and New York), p. 251. 5 St Thomas Aquinas (1947) Summa Theologica (Vol. II, Part II, Q. 64), Benzinger (New York). 6 See Jorge Luis Borges (2000) Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, University of Texas Press (Austin), pp. 89–92, for a discussion of this significance. Another example that Borges identifies is that of the bee, which, according to St Ambrose’s Hexaemeron, would kill itself if having violated the laws of its king. 7 Donne (1984) Biathanatos (Sullivan, E.W., II, ed.), University of Delaware Press/ Associated University Presses (Newark/London), p. 46.

0160-9327/$ – see front matter ß 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.01.005



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Whilst it may seem self-evident that suicide is a most human of acts, even constitutive of humanity, the question of the self-destructive animal has long served as a critical arena in which the nature of suicide is debated. Descriptions of animals not only reflect and reinforce accepted morality, as Keith Thomas would argue, but also help comprise it.8 Our research shows how scientists and social groups have used animal suicide to understand and define self-destructive behaviour – privileging agency or determination, seeking to redeem or condemn and addressing the relation between humans and the natural world. Animal emotion and reason Accounts of animal suicide in the nineteenth century reflect contemporary debates on the relations between animal and human minds. Humane groups such as the Royal Society for Protection of Animals (RSPCA) seized upon popular accounts to claim that animals shared with humans the capacities for grief, love, despair – and, moreover, that they possessed enough intelligence to plan and execute their own deaths. When the RSPCA journal The Animal World reported yet another ‘Remarkable Suicide’ of an old and infirm dog, it claimed the animal ‘was driven to this climax of despair by the desertion of its master’.9 Having ‘wandered in the fields for a while, receiving more blows than crusts’, the dog eventually ‘preferred a violent death to its miserable existence’.10 Its decision to drown itself in a river was, the author was certain, ‘a deliberate act of will.’11 This and other accounts of canine suicide reinforced the Victorian view that dogs were the most intelligent, noble and loyal of animals (Figure 1). The Illustrated London News described how the suicide of our ‘proud and noble’ Newfoundland offered proof of the ‘general instinct and sagacity of the canine race’. Following yet another act of animal self-destruction, The Animal World questioned: How is it possible not to be deeply attached to the poor beast, so good, affectionate & fruitful, & so devoted, which consecrates its whole life to the service, pleasures & companionship of its master, who follows, finds out in the midst of the largest assemblies, defends & saves, & for whom it sacrifices itself & which often cannot survive the grief of its loss?12 By humanising animal actions and emotions, anti-cruelty groups such as the RPSCA sought to engender sympathy and rebuke those ‘apt to treat lower animals as creatures born to labour without sense of enjoyment or pain’.13 Perhaps the most dramatic example of the animal martyr to human cruelty was the stag that leapt off a cliff to escape a pack of hunting dogs. Dismissing claims that hunting was a noble pastime, enjoyed equally by the dogs and their quarry, The Animal World argued that ‘it is notorious that the wild stag, rather than be overtaken by its pursuers, will. . .fall into the jaws of an awful death.’ Again, suicide was the preserve of a ‘noble and proud animal of high 8

Keith Thomas (1983) Man and the Natural World, Allen Lane (London). Anon (1871) ‘Remarkable suicide of a dog’. The Animal World 3, p. 91. 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid., emphasis added. 12 Anon (1870) ‘Faithful unto death’. The Animal World 2, p. 29. 13 Anon (1873) ‘Animals capable of intellectual pleasures’. The Animal World 4, p. 107. 9

Figure 1. Image of a dog pining to death on its master’s grave, from The Animal World article, ‘Faithful unto Death’.

virtues and merits.’ With little hope of survival, the stag chose its own fate. It was, the journal argued, ‘driven to desperation’.14 By the 1870s, claims for animal reason in the humane press found scientific and medical support. For the Scottish psychiatrist William Lauder Lindsay, ‘mind is essentially the same in other animals and in man, differing simply in the degree of its development, and in the mode of its expression.’15 It is through the writing of Lindsay that we see the most obvious and detailed connections drawn between the act of self-destruction in man and animals. Lindsay, like his medical contemporaries, believed many exhibitions of destructive behaviour ‘were not the simple product of malady, but of malady aggravated by mismanagement.’16 Like people, animals were regularly: . . .persecuted, ill-used – often literally goaded into fury: and mania is, therefore, the commonest form of insanity in animals, the next most frequent variety being suicidal melancholia. But, when the law of 14

Anon (1875) ‘Stag-hunting’. The Animal World 6, p. 2. William Lauder Lindsay (1871) ‘The physiology of mind in the lower animals’. Journal of Mental Science 17, 25–82, on pp. 34–35, emphasis in original. 16 John Conolly (1856) The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints, Smith, Elder & Co. (London), p. 33, quoted in William Lauder Lindsay (1871) ‘Madness in animals’. Journal of Mental Science 17, 181–206, on p. 195, emphasis in Lindsay. 15



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kindness dictates man’s treatment of other animals – as it now regulates the management of his insane fellow man – destructive violence at least, and perhaps also desponding suicidal propensity, will doubtless become much less frequent.17 Lindsay’s articles reflect a broader shift in medical and social attitudes to suicide. Contemporary psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley were similarly concerned to analyse suicide less as a criminal and moral issue, and more as a social and medical problem – ‘a natural event of the human dispensation. . .no more out of keeping than any other mode of death.’18 Yet Lindsay and Maudsley differed as to whether suicide was unique to humans and, in doing so, disagreed on the relative faculties of animal and human minds. This difference of opinion became public following the 1879 publication of Lindsay’s final work – the two-volume Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Disease. Having now collected a vast array of correspondence and evidence, Lindsay included a whole chapter on animal suicide, incorporating 25 examples across 14 species.19 He argued that there existed no category of human suicide that did not have an animal correlate. ‘In all cases,’ he wrote, ‘whether in animals or man, there is manifest derangement of the powerful instinct of self-preservation, the strong conservative, ever active, principle of love of life.’20 This could occur for the same variety of reasons in animals as in man: age, despair, grief, jealousy, desperation, captivity, cruelty, insanity, self-sacrifice through maternal or social affection, or sheer ennui – the latter, long fabled as a curse of rich women, was also common amongst their pampered dogs. Crucially, and in all cases, there appeared evidence of ‘choice and consideration’. ‘Suicide proper,’ wrote Lindsay, ‘that which involves intention, and frequently plan – occurs in the lower animals.’21 Maudsley disagreed. He chose one of Lindsay’s examples to counter – a cat that had supposedly strangled itself in a forked branch after its kittens had been drowned. Writing in the journal Mind immediately after the publication of Lindsay’s book, he stated: It is quite possible that an animal in a state of excitement or delirium from pain and illness may make a frantic rush which issues in its death, just as a human being may do; but that is quite a different thing from a distinctly conceived and deliberately perpetuated suicide. Of such an act by any animal below man we are yet in want of satisfactory evidence.22 Lindsay, Maudsley alleged, had been duped by the allure of anthropomorphic reasoning:


examined by some one. . .on his guard against these fallacies.’’23 Inducing animal suicide in the laboratory Such skepticism was firmly entrenched not by Maudsley, but by the comparative psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan. From the late 1880s, Morgan argued that no observer should interpret an animal action as the outcome of a higher mental faculty, if they could explain it through reference to one lower down the psychological scale – such as trial-and-error learning or instinct. A book titled Animal Intelligence by George Romanes had provoked Morgan to explicate his famed ‘canon’. Published in 1882, it was, as Lorraine Daston describes, ‘a compendium of stories about the alleged mental abilities of animals, from protozoa to monkeys.’24 When developing his critique of Romanes, Morgan chose a case of animal suicide to argue against the existence of animal reason – that of the scorpion. According to Iberian folklore, when the scorpion was surrounded by flames it would choose suicide by stinging itself in the back. The story was popularised by Byron, who would have learnt of it in his early travels to the Mediterranean. For Byron, the scorpion conveyed the inner torment of his tragic anti-hero The Giaour, published in 1813. ‘The Mind, that broods o’er guilty woes’, he wrote, ‘is like the scorpion girt by fire.’25 The Romantic motif of the suicidal scorpion would become entrenched in scientific accounts, as it became the first vehicle through which to test theories of animal reason and instinct. Romanes relayed several accounts where scorpions had killed themselves after being ringed with fire, but noted cautiously, ‘such a remarkable fact unquestionably demands further corroboration before we accept it unreservedly.’26 E. Ray Lankester, professor of zoology at University College, London, took up the challenge and, reporting to the Linnaean Society late in 1882, claimed that he had observed a scorpion repeatedly trying to strike itself after he administered chloroform into its glass container. This he believed to ‘throw light on the old tradition’, and tended ‘to confirm its accuracy.’27 In 1883, Morgan endeavoured to dispel this belief. He designed a set of experiments ‘sufficiently barbarous. . .to induce any scorpion who had the slightest suicidal tendency to find relief in self-destruction.’28 He surrounded them with fire, condensed sunbeams on their backs, heated them in a bottle, burned them with phosphoric acid, treated them with electric shocks and subjected them to ‘general and exasperating courses of worry.’29 Though he witnessed scorpions striking at their 23

Ibid., p. 411. Lorraine Daston (2005) ‘Intelligences: angelic, animal, human’. In Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives in Anthropomorphism (Daston, L. and Mittman, G., eds), Columbia University Press (New York), 37–59, on p. 46. 25 Lord Byron (1813) The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale, John Murray (London), p. 16. See also Johannes Fabricius (1976) Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, Rosenkilde and Bagger (Copenhagen), for a psychoanalytic reading of medieval associations between the scorpion (and many other animals) and destruction. 26 George Romanes (1882) Animal Intelligence, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 222– 225. 27 Ray Lankester, E. (1882) ‘Notes on some Habits of the Scorpions Androctonus funestus, Ehr., and Euscorpius italicus, Roes’. Journal of the Linnaean Society: Zoology 16, 455–462, on p. 459. 28 Lloyd Morgan, C. (1883) ‘Suicide of scorpions’. Nature 27, 313–314, on p. 313. 29 Ibid. 24

Stories of the kind require to be severely sifted, and ought not to be accepted unless the narrator. . .has taken every pains to avoid the common fallacies of observation and inference, or has been strictly cross17

Lindsay, ibid., p. 195, emphasis in original. Gates, B.T. (1980) ‘Suicide and the Victorian physicians’. Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 16, 164–74, on p. 172. 19 William Lauder Lindsay (1879) Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Disease: Volume II. Mind in Disease, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 130–148. 20 Ibid., p. 141. 21 Ibid., p. 130. 22 Henry Maudsley (1879) ‘Alleged suicide of a dog’. Mind 4, 410–413, on p. 412. 18



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backs, this, Morgan explained, was an instinctive attempt to remove irritation. Those who ignored or rejected this fact were ‘not accustomed to accurate observation.’ In 1887, Alfred Bourne provided further evidence that questioned ‘the phenomenon so graphically delineated by Byron’. Scorpions, he claimed, were immune to their own venom.30

Within the shift towards understanding suicide as an unconscious and collective process came a shift in depictions of the suicidal animal. With the apparent human propensity for self-annihilation witnessed during the twentieth century, attention turned to crowds of animals unintentionally driven to destruction – be they shoals of fish dashing themselves off boat hulls, whales beaching themselves on the shore, or hordes of lemmings known to periodically march across Norwegian planes to perish in the sea.

A social malady At the same time as Morgan was denying animals the capacity of intentionally ending their lives, the study of suicide was advancing and changing. The Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli claimed in an English edition of his Darwinian treatment of the subject: ‘the motive of every suicide is not alone that which is apparent; there are other, more secret causes whose existence and influence elude even the suicide himself, because they act on him almost unconsciously.’31 Morselli’s work, first published in 1879, ´ mile had been of considerable influence on the sociologist E Durkheim’s famed study of suicide of 1897. At the outset, Durkheim lent his support to Morgan, arguing that whilst the scorpion did ‘become its victim, though it cannot be said to have had a preconception of the result of its action’.32 Yet he viewed suicide less as an individualistic act, and more as a social phenomenon. Acts of self-destruction, he argued, were ‘but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for reasons unknown to consciousness’.33 Suicide was a social malady, a disease of civilisation.34

Conclusion Today, scientists still conscript animals to help understand why people kill themselves.35 Whilst popular and romantic notions of a scorpion or dog dying in defiance or grief remain, animals more commonly serve as models for understanding suicide without intention – the mind and body as biochemical and genetic phenomena; now even cells serve as crucial supplements to human self-destruction.36 Through shifting archetypes of animal suicide, we can trace the history of perspectives on self-destruction – we see the victim and hero of ancient philosophy and romanticism, the martyr or sinner of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the automaton and the neurotic, lost amongst the masses of modernity. When scientists, philosophers, writers or theologians have reflected upon the nature of suicide, they have, persistently, reflected on the natural world.

30 Bourne, A.G. (1887) ‘The reputed suicide of scorpions’. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 42, 17–22, on p. 18. 31 Enrico Morselli (1881) Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), p. 8. 32 ´ Emile Durkheim (2002) Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Routledge Classics (London), p. xliii. 33 Ibid., p. 262. 34 See, for example, Brand, J. (1896) ‘Is suicide a sign of civilization?’ Pearson’s Magazine 2, pp. 666–667.

35 See Crawley, J.N., et al. (1985) ‘Animal models of self-destructive behavior and suicide’. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 8, pp. 299–310; Antonio Preti (2005) ‘Suicide among animals: clues from Folklore that may prevent suicidal behaviour among human beings’. Psychological Reports 97, pp. 547–558. 36 See Skulachev, V.P. (2001) ‘The programmed death phenomena, aging, and the Samurai law of biology’. Experimental Gerontology 36, pp. 995–1024.

The Nature of Suicide  

It is altogether unlawful to kill oneself. . . because everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps i...

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