H. G. Wells’s novel tells the tale of Edward Prendick, a natural historian (a type of biologist), who, after surviving a shipwreck, arrives on Dr. Moreau’s island. There, Moreau is carrying out experiments in vivisection—the dissection of live organisms—in secret, safely away from the prying eyes and petty ethics of human society. The scientist is consumed with his “research,” brutal experiments in which he tries to make human beings out of animals by reshaping their bodies and excising their brains, teaching them to repress their animal instincts and behave like humans. The results are predictably grotesque: an island’s worth of part-animal, part-human Beast Folk. Through Moreau’s unregulated experimentation, Wells raises questions about the ethical cost of scientific experimentation—and, even more specifically, whether scientific knowledge is valuable in and of itself. Ultimately, the novel seems to warn against unchecked scientific experimentation, suggesting an ethical boundary that prevents such curiosity from becoming needlessly cruel.
On the one hand, the fact that Moreau has been effectively exiled from for his work suggests that societal squeamishness often holds back scientific research—and, it follows, the potential for human progress. Moreau, a pioneer in the field of vivisection, has been cast out of society for daring to push the limits of anatomical research by vivisecting a live dog. Although he could have remained in society by sacrificing his research, he instead chose to sacrifice his place in society so that he could continue his experiments on the island. Moreau argues that no one else is doing innovative work in vivisection because they do not have the stomach for it, particularly for the pain of other creatures. Prendick confirms this by his initial revulsion at the pain induced by Moreau’s experiments. The conscience of human society simply will not permit such brazen and disturbing experimentation. Despite the grotesque nature of Moreau’s work, he is allegedly furthering the bounds of scientific knowledge. Prendick, himself a scientist, cannot help but sympathize, briefly, with Moreau’s quest for progress once his revulsion has abated. Thus, Moreau’s self-imposed exile from society seems worthwhile and his research is justified, at least through his own lens of scientific advancement above all else.
On the other hand, though making scientific breakthroughs, Moreau is inevitably cruel to the beings he creates. Without any sort of social conscience, there is nothing to hold him, or other scientists, back from pursuing scientific knowledge at any cost. Moreau admits to himself that he is not bothered by the ethics of what he is doing, and chastises Prendick for his initial squeamishness. Moreau is trying to create human beings from animals, but will not treat them as actual people. Not only is the procedure horrifyingly painful, but he also commonly executes those creatures who represent a failure to him; he dehumanizes his would-be humans. At the same time, he is kind enough to Prendick and to Montgomery, his assistant, indicating that he is not simply a soulless individual, but that his quest for scientific knowledge drives his cruelty; his test subjects only represent data to him, not living beings. Moreau, with no sense of shame or ethics, is guided only by his research. Without the conscience of society to judge his work, nothing else stands in the way of his own progress. There is no external judge to hold him to an ethical standard.
Ultimately, Prendick finds Moreau’s work not to be scientifically enlightening, but disturbingly pointless. All of the research dies with Moreau, and the decade of suffering of the Beast Folk comes to nothing. Though Wells could have shown Moreau’s work to have some sort of benefit to human society and thus possibly be ethically defensible, he depicts it as utterly fruitless, the obsession of a madman. The cruelty far outweighs the potential benefits; the ethical dilemma of Moreau’s unflinching quest for knowledge becomes a one-sided argument. Upon his return to human society, Prendick gives up his prior field of biology—to which vivisection belongs—for chemistry and astronomy. Rather than tinkering and altering living beings, Prendick sets himself to the safer study of the cosmos and the substances of the Earth, where no pain or suffering is caused, implying that perhaps humanity’s efforts would be better suited there than in the ethical quandaries of vivisection.
As a futurist and one of the pioneering authors of science fiction, Wells was certainly not against scientific progress. However, it seems that considering the possibilities of vivisection and research into anatomy, he was particularly wary. The story especially condemns research done outside the bounds of human society with no clear end, such as Moreau’s work that was simply an end in itself. Over a century after the story’s publishing, Wells’s dire warning against the pursuit of scientific knowledge over and above any consideration of the ethical implications considered is still remarkably relevant. Progress in biological engineering and genetic editing poses many of the same ethical quandaries.
Scientific Knowledge and Ethics ThemeTracker
Scientific Knowledge and Ethics Quotes in The Island of Dr. Moreau
It was not the first time that conscience has turned against the methods of research. The doctor was simply howled out of the country…He might have purchased his social peace by abandoning his investigations, but he apparently preferred the latter, as most men would who have once fallen under the over-mastering spell of research.
A horrible fancy came into my head that Moreau, after animalizing these men, had infected their dwarfed brains with a kind of deification of himself.
“You forget all that a skilled vivisector can do with living things,” said Moreau. “For my own part I’m puzzled why the things I have done here have not been done before.”
“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pain drives you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely than an animal feels.”
“It looked quite human to me when I had finished it, but when I went to it I was discontented with it; it remembered me, and was terrified beyond imagination, and it had no more than the wits of a sheep. The more I looked the clumsier it seemed, until at last I put the monster out of its misery.”
“[The Beast Folk] build themselves dens, gather fruit and pull herbs—marry even. But I can see through it all, see into their very souls, and see there nothing but the souls of beasts, beasts that perish—anger, and the lusts to live and gratify themselves…Yet they’re odd. Complex, like everything else alive. There is a kind of upward striving in them, part vanity, part waste sexual emotion, part waste curiosity.”
“Who breaks the Law—” said Moreau, taking his eyes off his victim and turning towards us. It seemed to me there was a touch of exultation in his voice.
“—goes back to the House of Pain,” they all clamored; “goes back to the House of Pain, O Master!”