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Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease

Previous Events

'The Science of Self-Destruction. Animal Suicide and the Human Condition' - CHMD Research Seminar. Duncan Wilson (CHSTM, Manchester University)

13th November 2007, 17:00, Queen's Campus, Holliday Building, Room C 107

Sponsored by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine Supported by the Wellcome Trust

The presence of, and causes for, apparently self-destructive behaviour among animals has long been the subject of intense debate, not only in biology, but among the social and medical sciences and within the popular realm. In the nineteenth century, the suicidal animal, long a backdrop to debates on human suicide, came to the fore, for linked reasons. It helped Romantic writers portray suicide as a perfectly natural act; at the same time, it served as evidence of animal 'reason' in debates regarding mental evolution. These interests, I will show, converged in recurring emblems such as the mournful dog that drowned itself, or the scorpion surrounded by fire that sought relief in its own sting.

The paper will explore how shifting explanations for animal behaviours mirrored shifting concerns over human problems, not least in the rising accounts of mass animal suicides in the late nineteenth century, concomitant with the belief there was an epidemic of human suicide. Here, I will show, scientific explanations for animal suicide shifted from the psychological to the Malthusian - and the archetypal animal shifted from the heroic scorpion to stressed lemmings. But, as before, suicidal animals were polysemic and contested objects. I close by showing how literary and popular works in the early twentieth century reasserted the individual animal's capacity to act rationally, as a response to the pessimistic view of nature as a perpetual struggle. Here, again, in books such as Ernst Seton Thompson's "Wild Animals I Have Known", and even in Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse strips, the Romantic capacity to commit suicide was the archetypal act that characterised animal - and by extension human - reason.

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