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The Nature of Suicide

The Nature of Suicide

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The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal
The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal

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The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructiveanimal
Edmund Ramsden
*and Duncan Wilson
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 humanact. Lacking the capacity to visualise and enact their owndeaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of self-preservation. However, discussion over the existence of theself-destructiveanimalhasbeenlongbeencentraltodebatesoverthenatureofsuicide.Bygrantinganimalsthecapacity to take their own lives, they were granted emotion, intelli-gence, consciousness.Bytransgressingboundariesbetweenanimalandman,scientistsandactivistsinthe19thcenturwereunitedbyadeterminationtoensurethewelfareofboth.For their critics, these boundaries were to be maintained
animal acts of self-destruction were not intentional, butaccidental and instinctual responses to stimuli. Neverthe-less,reflectionsonthesuicidalanimalhavecontinued,lessameans of granting consciousness to the non-human, but assymbols and analogies for human acts of self-destructiondevoid of thought or intention.
A singular case of suicide
In 1845, the
Illustrated London News
reported a ‘SingularCaseofSuicide’inHolmfirth,WestYorkshire.Itreflectedagrowing fascination with suicide in Victorian Britain,which, by regularly dwelling on its tragic circumstances,washelpingto overturncenturiesofmoral condemnation.
What made this case ‘singular’, however, was its unfortu-nate subject
‘a fine, handsome and valuable black dog, of the Newfoundland species’.
The paper described how thedog hadfor some days been less animated than usual, but onthis occasion was noted to throw himself in the waterand endeavour to sink by preserving perfect stillnessof the legs and feet. Being dragged out, the dog wastied up for a time, but had no sooner been releasedthanhe again hastened to the waterand tried to sink again and was again got out. This occurred many timesuntilatlengththeanimalwithrepeatedeffortsappearedto getexhausted, andbydint ofkeepinghishead determinedly under water for a few minutes,succeeded at last in obtaining his object, for whentaken out this time he was indeed dead.
 As the nineteenth century progressed, the Newfoundlandwas joined by a canvasback duck that drowned itself at theloss of its mate, a cat that hanged itself on a branchfollowing the death of its kittens, a horse that leapt intoa canal after years of maltreatment and numerous dogsthat starved to death on the graves of their masters. Thecauses were those commonly associated with the suicidalact in humans
love, loyalty, abuse, madness. At the sametime,theseaccountsofanimal self-destructioncontinuedatradition that dates back to Antiquity. Aristotle told of thefamed suicide of the Scythian stallion, which threw itself into an abyss after it realised it had been duped intomating with its mother.
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 havelong reflected the values of a society. This is the case evenwhen animal suicide is denied. St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas sought to justify strictures against self-destruc-tion through reference to the animal kingdom. Animals,they argued, did not strive for death, but life. As Aquinasdeclared:It is altogether unlawful to kill onesel
. . .
becauseeverythingnaturallylovesitself,theresultbeingthateverythingnaturallykeepsitselfinbeing,andresistscorruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide iscontrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hencesuicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary tothe natural law and to charity.
One of the few descriptions of the self-destructiveanimal that survived in Christian texts was that of thePelican,asymbolofChrist’ssacrifice.ThePelicanallegedly torefleshandbloodfromitsbreasttofeeditsyoung;anditsuse by John Donne, noted for his sympathetic treatment of the suicidal act, was, we would argue, significant.
It wasimportant, Donne contended, that humanity retain ‘anaturaldesireofdying’:‘bytheLawofNatureitselfe,thingsmay,yeamustneglectofthemseluesforothers;OfwhichthePellican is an Instance, or Embleme.’
Vol.34 Issue1
Corresponding author 
: Ramsden, E. (e.ramsden@exeter.ac.uk )
See, for example, Olive Anderson (1987)
Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England
, Clarendon Press (Oxford).
 Anon (1845) ‘Singular case of suicide by a dog’.
Illustrated London News
, 1February, p. 10.
 Van Hooff, A.J.L. (1990)
From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity
, Routledge (London and New York), p. 251.
St Thomas Aquinas (1947)
Summa Theologica
(Vol. II, Part II, Q. 64), Benzinger(New York).
See Jorge Luis Borges (2000)
Other Inquisitions: 1937 
, University of TexasPress (Austin), pp. 89
92, for a discussion of this significance. Another example thatBorges identifies is that of the bee, which, according to St Ambrose’s
,would kill itself if having violated the laws of its king.
Donne (1984)
(Sullivan, E.W., II, ed.), University of Delaware Press/  Associated University Presses (Newark/London), p. 46.
www.sciencedirect.com 0160-9327/$
see front matter
2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.01.005
Whilst it may seem self-evident that suicide is a mosthuman of acts, even constitutive of humanity, the questionof the self-destructive animal has long served as a criticalarena in which the nature of suicide is debated. Descrip-tions of animals not only reflect and reinforce acceptedmorality, asKeith Thomas would argue, but also helpcomprise it.
Our research shows how scientists and socialgroups have used animal suicide to understand and defineself-destructive behaviour
privileging agency or determi-nation, seeking to redeem or condemn and addressing therelation between humans and the natural world.
Animal emotion and reason
 Accountsofanimalsuicideinthenineteenthcenturyreflectcontemporarydebatesontherelationsbetweenanimalandhumanminds.HumanegroupssuchastheRoyalSocietyforProtection of Animals (RSPCA) seized upon popularaccounts to claim that animals shared with humans thecapacities for grief, love, despair
and, moreover, that they possessedenoughintelligencetoplanandexecutetheirowndeaths. When the RSPCA journal
The Animal World
reported yet another ‘Remarkable Suicide’ of an old andinfirmdog,itclaimedtheanimal‘wasdriventothisclimaxof despairbythedesertionofitsmaster’.
Having‘wanderedinthe fields for a while, receiving more blows than crusts’, thedog eventually ‘preferred a violent death to its miserableexistence’.
Its decision to drown itself in a river was, theauthorwascertain,
ThisandotheraccountsofcaninesuicidereinforcedtheVictorianviewthatdogs were the most intelligent, noble and loyal of animals(Figure 1). The
Illustrated London News
described how thesuicideofour ‘proudandnoble’Newfoundlandofferedproof 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 thepoor beast, so good, affectionate & fruitful, & sodevoted, which consecrates its whole life to the ser- vice, pleasures & companionship of its master, whofollows, finds out in the midst of the largest assem-blies, defends & saves, & for whom it sacrifices itself & which often cannot survive the grief of its loss?
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 creaturesborn to labour without sense of enjoyment or pain’.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the animal martyrtohumancrueltywasthestagthatleaptoffaclifftoescapea pack of hunting dogs. Dismissing claims that hunting was a noble pastime, enjoyed equally by the dogs and theirquarry,
The Animal World
argued that ‘it is notorious thatthe wild stag, rather than be overtaken by its pursuers,will
. . .
fall into the jaws of an awful death.’ Again, suicidewas the preserve of a ‘noble and proud animal of high virtues and merits.’ With little hope of survival, the stag chose its ownfate. It was, the journal argued, ‘driven todesperation’.
By the 1870s, claims for animal reason in the humanepressfoundscientificandmedicalsupport.FortheScottishpsychiatrist William Lauder Lindsay, ‘mind is essentially the same in other animals and in man, differing simply inthe
degreeo f its development
, and in the
mode of its expression
It is through the writing of Lindsay thatwe see the most obvious and detailed connections drawnbetween 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 misman-agement.’
Like people, animals were regularly:
. . .
persecuted, ill-used
often literally 
goaded into fury
: and
is, therefore, the commonest form of insanity in animals, the next most frequent variety being 
suicidal melancholia.
But, when the
law of 
Figure 1
. Image of a dog pining to death on its master’s grave, from
The Animal World 
article, ‘Faithful unto Death’.
Keith Thomas (1983)
Man and the Natural World
, Allen Lane (London).
 Anon (1871) ‘Remarkable suicide of a dog’.
The Animal World
3, p. 91.
Ibid., emphasis added.
 Anon (1870) ‘Faithful unto death’.
The Animal World
2, p. 29.
 Anon (1873) ‘Animals capable of intellectual pleasures’.
The Animal World
4, p.107.
 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.
John Conolly (1856)
The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints
,Smith, Elder & Co. (London), p. 33, quoted in William Lauder Lindsay (1871) ‘Mad-ness in animals’.
Journal of Mental Science
17, 181
206, on p. 195, emphasis inLindsay.
Vol.34 Issue1
dictates man’s treatment of other animals
as it now regulates the management of his insanefellow man
destructive violence at least, and per-haps also desponding suicidal propensity, will doubt-less become much less frequent.
Lindsay’s articles reflect a broader shift in medical andsocialattitudestosuicide.Contemporarypsychiatristssuchas Henry Maudsley were similarly concerned to analysesuicide less as a criminal and moral issue, and more as asocial and medical problem
‘a natural event of the humandispensation
. . .
 YetLindsayandMaudsleydifferedastowhethersuicidewasuniquetohumansand,indoingso,disagreedonthe relative faculties of animal and human minds.This difference of opinion became public following the1879 publication of Lindsay’s final work 
the two-volume
. Having now collected a vast array of correspondence and evidence,Lindsay included a wholechapter on animal suicide, incor-porating 25 examples across 14 species.
He argued thatthere existed no category of human suicide that did nothave an animal correlate. ‘In all cases,’ he wrote, ‘whetherin animals or man, there is manifest derangement of thepowerful instinct of self-preservation, thestrong conserva-tive, ever active, principle of love of life.’
This could occur for the same variety of reasons inanimals as in man: age, despair, grief, jealousy, despera-tion, captivity, cruelty, insanity, self-sacrifice throughmaternal or social affection, or sheer
the latter,long fabled as a curse of rich women, was also commonamongst their pampered dogs. Crucially, and in all cases,there appeared evidence of ‘choice and consideration’.‘Suicide proper,’ wrote Lindsay, ‘that which involves inten-tion, and frequently plan
occurs in the lower animals.’
Maudsley disagreed. He chose one of Lindsay’sexamples to counter
a cat that had supposedly strangleditselfinaforkedbranchafteritskittenshadbeendrowned.Writing in the journal
immediately after the publi-cation of Lindsay’s book, he stated:It is quite possible that an animal in a state of excite-ment or delirium from pain and illness may make afranticrushwhichissuesinitsdeath,justasahumanbeingmaydo;butthatisquiteadifferentthingfromadistinctly conceived and deliberately perpetuatedsuicide. Of such an act by any animal below man weare yet in want of satisfactory evidence.
Lindsay, Maudsley alleged, had been duped by the allureof anthropomorphic reasoning:Stories of the kind require to be severely sifted, andought not to be accepted unless the narrator
. . .
hastaken every pains to avoid the common fallacies of observation and inference, or has been strictly cross-examinedby some one
. . .
on his guard against thesefallacies.’’
Inducing animal suicide in the laboratory
Such skepticism was firmly entrenched not by Maudsley,but by the comparative psychologist Conwy Lloyd Morgan.Fromthelate1880s,Morganarguedthatnoobservershouldinterpretananimalactionastheoutcomeofahighermentalfaculty, if they could explain it through reference to onelowerdownthepsychologicalscale
suchastrial-and-errorlearning or instinct. A book titled
Animal Intelligence
by George Romanes had provoked Morgan to explicate hisfamed‘canon’.Publishedin1882,itwas,asLorraineDastondescribes,‘acompendiumofstoriesabouttheallegedmentalabilities of animals, from protozoa to monkeys.’
Whendeveloping his critique ofRomanes,Morgan chosea case of animal suicide to argue against the existence of animal reason
that of the scorpion. According to Iberianfolklore, when the scorpion was surrounded by flames itwouldchoosesuicidebystingingitselfintheback.Thestory waspopularisedbyByron,whowouldhavelearntofitinhisearly travelstothe Mediterranean. For Byron, the scorpionconveyed the inner torment of his tragic anti-hero
,publishedin1813.‘TheMind,thatbroodso’eruilty woes’, he wrote, ‘is like the scorpion girt by fire.’
TheRomantic motif of the suicidal scorpion would becomeentrenched in scientific accounts, as it became the first vehicle through which to test theories of animal reasonand instinct.Romanes relayed several accounts where scorpions hadkilled themselves after being ringed with fire, but notedcautiously, ‘such a remarkable fact unquestionabldemandsfurthercorroborationbeforeweacceptitunreserv-edly.’
E.RayLankester,professorofzoologyatUniversity College,London,tookupthechallengeand,reportingtotheLinnaeanSocietylatein1882,claimedthathehadobserveda scorpion repeatedly trying to strike itself after he admi-nisteredchloroformintoitsglasscontainer.Thishebelievedto‘throwlig htontheoldtradition’,andtended‘toconfirmitsaccuracy.’
In 1883, Morgan endeavoured to dispel thisbelief.Hedesignedasetofexperiments‘sufficientlybarbar-ous
. . .
to induce any scorpion who had theslightest suicidaltendency to find relief in self-destruction.’
He surrounded them with fire, condensed sunbeams ontheir backs, heated them in a bottle, burned them withphosphoric acid, treated them with electric shocks andsubjectedthem to ‘general and exasperating courses of worry.’
Though he witnessed scorpions striking at their
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.
William Lauder Lindsay (1879)
Mind in the Lower Animals, in Health and Disease
Volume II. Mind in Disease
, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 130
Ibid., p. 141.
Ibid., p. 130.
Henry Maudsley (1879) ‘Alleged suicide of a dog’.
4, 410
413, on p. 412.
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.
Lord Byron (1813)
The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale
, John Murra(London),p.16.SeealsoJohannesFabricius(1976)
 Alchemy:TheMedievalAlchemistsand their Royal Art
, Rosenkilde and Bagger (Copenhagen), for a psychoanalyticreading of medieval associations between the scorpion (and many other animals)and destruction.
George Romanes (1882)
Animal Intelligence
, Kegan Paul & Co. (London), pp. 222
Ray Lankester, E. (1882) ‘Notes on some Habits of the Scorpions
Androctonus funestus
16, 455
462, on p. 459.
Lloyd Morgan, C. (1883) ‘Suicide of scorpions’.
27, 313
314, on p. 313.
Vol.34 Issue1 23

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