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(BBC) — In H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, the shipwrecked hero Edward Pendrick is walking through a forest glade when he chances upon a group of two men and a woman squatting around a fallen tree. They are naked apart from a few rags tied around their waist, with “fat, heavy, chinless faces, retreating foreheads, and a scant bristly hair upon their foreheads.” Pendrick notes that “I never saw such bestial looking creatures.”
As Pendrick approaches, they attempt to talk to him, but their speech is “thick and slopping” and their heads sway as they speak, “reciting some complicated gibberish”. Despite their clothes and their appearance, he perceives the “irresistible suggestion of a hog, a swinish taint” in their manner. They are, he concludes, “grotesque travesties of men”.
Wandering into Doctor Moreau’s operating room one night, Pendrick eventually uncovers the truth: his host has been transforming beasts into humans, sculpting their bodies and their brains into his own image. But despite his best efforts he can never eliminate their most basic instincts, and the fragile society soon regresses to dangerous anarchy, leading to Moreau’s death.
It is 120 years since Wells first published his novel, and to read some recent headlines you would think that we are veering dangerously close to his dystopic vision. “Frankenstein scientists developing part-human part-animal chimera,” exclaimed the UK’s Daily Mirror in May 2016. “Science wants to break down the fence between man and beast,” the Washington Times declared two months later, fearing that sentient animals would soon be unleashed on the world.
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