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Feature Endeavour Vol.

34 Issue1

The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive

Edmund Ramsden1, * and Duncan Wilson2
Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, School for Humanities and Social Sciences, Amory Building, Rennes Drive,
Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK
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 loss of its mate, a cat that hanged itself on a branch
act. Lacking the capacity to visualise and enact their own following the death of its kittens, a horse that leapt into
deaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of self- a canal after years of maltreatment and numerous dogs
preservation. However, discussion over the existence of the that starved to death on the graves of their masters. The
self-destructive animal has been long been central to debates causes were those commonly associated with the suicidal
over the nature of suicide. By granting animals the capacity act in humans – love, loyalty, abuse, madness. At the same
to take their own lives, they were granted emotion, intelli- time, these accounts of animal self-destruction continued a
gence, consciousness. By transgressing boundaries between tradition that dates back to Antiquity. Aristotle told of the
animal and man, scientists and activists in the 19th century famed suicide of the Scythian stallion, which threw itself
were united by a determination to ensure the welfare of both. into an abyss after it realised it had been duped into
For their critics, these boundaries were to be maintained – mating with its mother.4 Whilst Aristotle was generally
animal acts of self-destruction were not intentional, but critical of the suicidal act, he accepted that in cases of
accidental and instinctual responses to stimuli. Neverthe- disgrace, burden or sacrifice, it could benefit the polis.
less, reflections on the suicidal animal have continued, less a These tales show how accounts of animal suicide have
means of granting consciousness to the non-human, but as long reflected the values of a society. This is the case even
symbols and analogies for human acts of self-destruction when animal suicide is denied. St Augustine and Thomas
devoid of thought or intention. Aquinas sought to justify strictures against self-destruc-
tion through reference to the animal kingdom. Animals,
A singular case of suicide they argued, did not strive for death, but life. As Aquinas
In 1845, the Illustrated London News reported a ‘Singular declared:
Case of Suicide’ in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. It reflected a
growing fascination with suicide in Victorian Britain, It is altogether unlawful to kill oneself. . . because
which, by regularly dwelling on its tragic circumstances, everything naturally loves itself, the result being that
was helping to overturn centuries of moral condemnation.1 everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists
What made this case ‘singular’, however, was its unfortu- corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is
nate subject – ‘a fine, handsome and valuable black dog, of contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity
the Newfoundland species’.2 The paper described how the whereby every man should love himself. Hence
suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to
dog had
the natural law and to charity.5
for some days been less animated than usual, but on
One of the few descriptions of the self-destructive
this occasion was noted to throw himself in the water
and endeavour to sink by preserving perfect stillness animal that survived in Christian texts was that of the
of the legs and feet. Being dragged out, the dog was Pelican, a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. The Pelican allegedly
tied up for a time, but had no sooner been released tore flesh and blood from its breast to feed its young; and its
than he again hastened to the water and tried to sink use by John Donne, noted for his sympathetic treatment of
again and was again got out. This occurred many the suicidal act, was, we would argue, significant.6 It was
times until at length the animal with repeated efforts important, Donne contended, that humanity retain ‘a
appeared to get exhausted, and by dint of keeping his natural desire of dying’: ‘by the Law of Nature it selfe, things
head determinedly under water for a few minutes, may, yea must neglect of themselues for others; Of which the
succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for when Pellican is an Instance, or Embleme.’7
taken out this time he was indeed dead.3
Van Hooff, A.J.L. (1990) From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical
As the nineteenth century progressed, the Newfoundland Antiquity, Routledge (London and New York), p. 251.
was joined by a canvasback duck that drowned itself at the 5
St Thomas Aquinas (1947) Summa Theologica (Vol. II, Part II, Q. 64), Benzinger
(New York).
*Corresponding author: Ramsden, E. (e.ramsden@exeter.ac.uk) See Jorge Luis Borges (2000) Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, University of Texas
See, for example, Olive Anderson (1987) Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian Press (Austin), pp. 89–92, for a discussion of this significance. Another example that
England, Clarendon Press (Oxford). Borges identifies is that of the bee, which, according to St Ambrose’s Hexaemeron,
Anon (1845) ‘Singular case of suicide by a dog’. Illustrated London News, 1 would kill itself if having violated the laws of its king.
February, p. 10. Donne (1984) Biathanatos (Sullivan, E.W., II, ed.), University of Delaware Press/
Ibid. Associated University Presses (Newark/London), p. 46.

www.sciencedirect.com 0160-9327/$ – see front matter ß 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.01.005
22 Feature Endeavour Vol.34 Issue1

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. Descrip-
tions 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 determi-
nation, 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
Figure 1. Image of a dog pining to death on its master’s grave, from The Animal
of the ‘general instinct and sagacity of the canine race’. World article, ‘Faithful unto Death’.
Following yet another act of animal self-destruction, The
Animal World questioned:
virtues and merits.’ With little hope of survival, the stag
How is it possible not to be deeply attached to the chose its own fate. It was, the journal argued, ‘driven to
poor beast, so good, affectionate & fruitful, & so desperation’.14
devoted, which consecrates its whole life to the ser-
By the 1870s, claims for animal reason in the humane
vice, pleasures & companionship of its master, who
press found scientific and medical support. For the Scottish
follows, finds out in the midst of the largest assem-
psychiatrist William Lauder Lindsay, ‘mind is essentially
blies, defends & saves, & for whom it sacrifices itself
& which often cannot survive the grief of its loss?12 the same in other animals and in man, differing simply in
the degree of its development, and in the mode of its
By humanising animal actions and emotions, anti-cruelty expression.’15 It is through the writing of Lindsay that
groups such as the RPSCA sought to engender sympathy we see the most obvious and detailed connections drawn
and rebuke those ‘apt to treat lower animals as creatures between the act of self-destruction in man and animals.
born to labour without sense of enjoyment or pain’.13 Lindsay, like his medical contemporaries, believed many
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the animal martyr exhibitions of destructive behaviour ‘were not the simple
to human cruelty was the stag that leapt off a cliff to escape product of malady, but of malady aggravated by misman-
a pack of hunting dogs. Dismissing claims that hunting agement.’16 Like people, animals were regularly:
was a noble pastime, enjoyed equally by the dogs and their
quarry, The Animal World argued that ‘it is notorious that . . .persecuted, ill-used – often literally goaded into
fury: and mania is, therefore, the commonest form of
the wild stag, rather than be overtaken by its pursuers,
insanity in animals, the next most frequent variety
will. . .fall into the jaws of an awful death.’ Again, suicide
being suicidal melancholia. But, when the law of
was the preserve of a ‘noble and proud animal of high
8 14
Keith Thomas (1983) Man and the Natural World, Allen Lane (London). Anon (1875) ‘Stag-hunting’. The Animal World 6, p. 2.
9 15
Anon (1871) ‘Remarkable suicide of a dog’. The Animal World 3, p. 91. William Lauder Lindsay (1871) ‘The physiology of mind in the lower animals’.
Ibid. Journal of Mental Science 17, 25–82, on pp. 34–35, emphasis in original.
11 16
Ibid., emphasis added. John Conolly (1856) The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints,
Anon (1870) ‘Faithful unto death’. The Animal World 2, p. 29. Smith, Elder & Co. (London), p. 33, quoted in William Lauder Lindsay (1871) ‘Mad-
Anon (1873) ‘Animals capable of intellectual pleasures’. The Animal World 4, p. ness in animals’. Journal of Mental Science 17, 181–206, on p. 195, emphasis in
107. Lindsay.

Feature Endeavour Vol.34 Issue1 23

kindness dictates man’s treatment of other animals – examined by some one. . .on his guard against these
as it now regulates the management of his insane fallacies.’’23
fellow man – destructive violence at least, and per-
haps also desponding suicidal propensity, will doubt- Inducing animal suicide in the laboratory
less become much less frequent.17 Such skepticism was firmly entrenched not by Maudsley,
but by the comparative psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan.
Lindsay’s articles reflect a broader shift in medical and From the late 1880s, Morgan argued that no observer should
social attitudes to suicide. Contemporary psychiatrists such interpret an animal action as the outcome of a higher mental
as Henry Maudsley were similarly concerned to analyse faculty, if they could explain it through reference to one
suicide less as a criminal and moral issue, and more as a lower down the psychological scale – such as trial-and-error
social and medical problem – ‘a natural event of the human learning or instinct. A book titled Animal Intelligence by
dispensation. . .no more out of keeping than any other mode George Romanes had provoked Morgan to explicate his
of death.’18 Yet Lindsay and Maudsley differed as to whether famed ‘canon’. Published in 1882, it was, as Lorraine Daston
suicide was unique to humans and, in doing so, disagreed on describes, ‘a compendium of stories about the alleged mental
the relative faculties of animal and human minds. abilities of animals, from protozoa to monkeys.’24
This difference of opinion became public following the When developing his critique of Romanes, Morgan chose
1879 publication of Lindsay’s final work – the two-volume a case of animal suicide to argue against the existence of
Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Disease. Having animal reason – that of the scorpion. According to Iberian
now collected a vast array of correspondence and evidence, folklore, when the scorpion was surrounded by flames it
Lindsay included a whole chapter on animal suicide, incor- would choose suicide by stinging itself in the back. The story
porating 25 examples across 14 species.19 He argued that was popularised by Byron, who would have learnt of it in his
there existed no category of human suicide that did not early travels to the Mediterranean. For Byron, the scorpion
have an animal correlate. ‘In all cases,’ he wrote, ‘whether conveyed the inner torment of his tragic anti-hero The
in animals or man, there is manifest derangement of the Giaour, published in 1813. ‘The Mind, that broods o’er guilty
powerful instinct of self-preservation, the strong conserva- woes’, he wrote, ‘is like the scorpion girt by fire.’25 The
tive, ever active, principle of love of life.’20 Romantic motif of the suicidal scorpion would become
This could occur for the same variety of reasons in entrenched in scientific accounts, as it became the first
animals as in man: age, despair, grief, jealousy, despera- vehicle through which to test theories of animal reason
tion, captivity, cruelty, insanity, self-sacrifice through and instinct.
maternal or social affection, or sheer ennui – the latter, Romanes relayed several accounts where scorpions had
long fabled as a curse of rich women, was also common killed themselves after being ringed with fire, but noted
amongst their pampered dogs. Crucially, and in all cases, cautiously, ‘such a remarkable fact unquestionably
there appeared evidence of ‘choice and consideration’. demands further corroboration before we accept it unreserv-
‘Suicide proper,’ wrote Lindsay, ‘that which involves inten- edly.’26 E. Ray Lankester, professor of zoology at University
tion, and frequently plan – occurs in the lower animals.’21 College, London, took up the challenge and, reporting to the
Maudsley disagreed. He chose one of Lindsay’s Linnaean Society late in 1882, claimed that he had observed
examples to counter – a cat that had supposedly strangled a scorpion repeatedly trying to strike itself after he admi-
itself in a forked branch after its kittens had been drowned. nistered chloroform into its glass container. This he believed
Writing in the journal Mind immediately after the publi- to ‘throw light on the old tradition’, and tended ‘to confirm its
cation of Lindsay’s book, he stated: accuracy.’27 In 1883, Morgan endeavoured to dispel this
It is quite possible that an animal in a state of excite- belief. He designed a set of experiments ‘sufficiently barbar-
ment or delirium from pain and illness may make a ous. . .to induce any scorpion who had the slightest suicidal
frantic rush which issues in its death, just as a human tendency to find relief in self-destruction.’28
being may do; but that is quite a different thing from a He surrounded them with fire, condensed sunbeams on
distinctly conceived and deliberately perpetuated their backs, heated them in a bottle, burned them with
suicide. Of such an act by any animal below man we phosphoric acid, treated them with electric shocks and
are yet in want of satisfactory evidence.22 subjected them to ‘general and exasperating courses of
worry.’29 Though he witnessed scorpions striking at their
Lindsay, Maudsley alleged, had been duped by the allure
of anthropomorphic reasoning: 23
Ibid., p. 411.
Lorraine Daston (2005) ‘Intelligences: angelic, animal, human’. In Thinking with
Stories of the kind require to be severely sifted, and Animals: New Perspectives in Anthropomorphism (Daston, L. and Mittman, G., eds),
ought not to be accepted unless the narrator. . .has Columbia University Press (New York), 37–59, on p. 46.
taken every pains to avoid the common fallacies of 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
observation and inference, or has been strictly cross- and their Royal Art, Rosenkilde and Bagger (Copenhagen), for a psychoanalytic
reading of medieval associations between the scorpion (and many other animals)
Lindsay, ibid., p. 195, emphasis in original. and destruction.
18 26
Gates, B.T. (1980) ‘Suicide and the Victorian physicians’. Journal of the History of George Romanes (1882) Animal Intelligence, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 222–
Behavioral Sciences 16, 164–74, on p. 172. 225.
19 27
William Lauder Lindsay (1879) Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Ray Lankester, E. (1882) ‘Notes on some Habits of the Scorpions Androctonus
Disease: Volume II. Mind in Disease, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 130–148. funestus, Ehr., and Euscorpius italicus, Roes’. Journal of the Linnaean Society: Zoology
Ibid., p. 141. 16, 455–462, on p. 459.
21 28
Ibid., p. 130. Lloyd Morgan, C. (1883) ‘Suicide of scorpions’. Nature 27, 313–314, on p. 313.
22 29
Henry Maudsley (1879) ‘Alleged suicide of a dog’. Mind 4, 410–413, on p. 412. Ibid.

24 Feature Endeavour Vol.34 Issue1

backs, this, Morgan explained, was an instinctive attempt Within the shift towards understanding suicide as an
to remove irritation. Those who ignored or rejected this fact unconscious and collective process came a shift in depictions
were ‘not accustomed to accurate observation.’ In 1887, of the suicidal animal. With the apparent human propensity
Alfred Bourne provided further evidence that questioned for self-annihilation witnessed during the twentieth cen-
‘the phenomenon so graphically delineated by Byron’. tury, attention turned to crowds of animals unintentionally
Scorpions, he claimed, were immune to their own venom.30 driven to destruction – be they shoals of fish dashing them-
selves off boat hulls, whales beaching themselves on the
A social malady shore, or hordes of lemmings known to periodically march
At the same time as Morgan was denying animals the across Norwegian planes to perish in the sea.
capacity of intentionally ending their lives, the study of
suicide was advancing and changing. The Italian psychia- Conclusion
trist Enrico Morselli claimed in an English edition of his Today, scientists still conscript animals to help under-
Darwinian treatment of the subject: ‘the motive of every stand why people kill themselves.35 Whilst popular and
suicide is not alone that which is apparent; there are other, romantic notions of a scorpion or dog dying in defiance or
more secret causes whose existence and influence elude grief remain, animals more commonly serve as models for
even the suicide himself, because they act on him almost understanding suicide without intention – the mind and
unconsciously.’31 Morselli’s work, first published in 1879, body as biochemical and genetic phenomena; now even
had been of considerable influence on the sociologist Émile cells serve as crucial supplements to human self-destruc-
Durkheim’s famed study of suicide of 1897. At the outset, tion.36 Through shifting archetypes of animal suicide, we
Durkheim lent his support to Morgan, arguing that whilst can trace the history of perspectives on self-destruction –
the scorpion did ‘become its victim, though it cannot be said we see the victim and hero of ancient philosophy and
to have had a preconception of the result of its action’.32 Yet romanticism, the martyr or sinner of the Judeo-Christian
he viewed suicide less as an individualistic act, and more as tradition, the automaton and the neurotic, lost amongst
a social phenomenon. Acts of self-destruction, he argued, the masses of modernity. When scientists, philosophers,
were ‘but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for writers or theologians have reflected upon the nature of
reasons unknown to consciousness’.33 Suicide was a social suicide, they have, persistently, reflected on the natural
malady, a disease of civilisation.34 world.

Bourne, A.G. (1887) ‘The reputed suicide of scorpions’. Proceedings of the Royal
Society of London 42, 17–22, on p. 18.
Enrico Morselli (1881) Suicide: An Essay on Comparative Moral Statistics, Kegan
Paul & Co. (London), p. 8. See Crawley, J.N., et al. (1985) ‘Animal models of self-destructive behavior and
Émile Durkheim (2002) Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Routledge Classics suicide’. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 8, pp. 299–310; Antonio Preti (2005)
(London), p. xliii. ‘Suicide among animals: clues from Folklore that may prevent suicidal behaviour
Ibid., p. 262. among human beings’. Psychological Reports 97, pp. 547–558.
34 36
See, for example, Brand, J. (1896) ‘Is suicide a sign of civilization?’ Pearson’s See Skulachev, V.P. (2001) ‘The programmed death phenomena, aging, and the
Magazine 2, pp. 666–667. Samurai law of biology’. Experimental Gerontology 36, pp. 995–1024.


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