Animal Sounds against the Noise of Modernity and War: Julian Huxley (1887–1975) and the Preservation of the Sonic World Heritage

Marianne Sommer

In this paper, I engage with Julian Huxley’s projects of collecting and preserving animal vocalization with the help of the phonograph and camera. Huxley was not only involved in the production of early so-called “soundbooks” (e.g. Huxley and Koch 1964: publisher’s note) – books that were accompanied by the sounds of animals on disc – but was also a pioneer in the making of animal films. For both projects, his time as secretary of the Zoological Society of London, and hence director of London Zoo (1935-42), was key. In fact, scholars have discussed the similarities between cinema and zoo that are constitutive of Huxley’s work. Both provide mediated encounters with animals or living images of animals, structured by visual regimes and at the same time associated with the imaginary of the unmediated and authentic. At this interface, sounds may function in diverse ways. In her analysis of films that convey animal vocalizations or human sounds, Sabine Nessel (Nessel 2012) finds that, through the medium of film, the (zoo) animal may be given a voice, and film may also be used to point to the absence of the animals’ voices from human societies in the political sense. However, as we will see for the early zoo films, human voices can also completely overwrite – or, better, outtalk – the animal. The media of film and speech then appropriate the animal entirely into the realm of the human. This danger is never absent, of course. As expressed in Derrida’s neologism animots (Derrida 2006), animals only become a unity through words, or they become, for us, only through and in language.

When engaging with Huxley’s secretaryship of the zoo and later directorship of UNESCO, I therefore zoom in on the endeavor to capture the “real” animal sound on disc as an expression of the desire to conquer the ephemeral nature of sound. I pay attention to the complex play between the attempt to give the animal its own or a human voice in zoo and cinema – but also in other media, such as the cartoon – on the one hand, and the silencing or drowning out of the animal’s (acoustic) presence through complete appropriation in human symbolic systems, on the other. But let me begin from the beginning. Who was this Huxley, and how did he acquire these interests?

 Figure 1: Julian Huxley under portrait of grandfather Thomas Henry (and next to a photo of brother Aldous), ca. 1941, Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, Series XIII: Memorabilia, Box 150: 1940–1949, Folder 1: 1940s: “‘Any Questions?’” Life, May 17, 1943, 31–34, p. 34. Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University


Huxley was born into a family of prominent scientists, medical men, artists, and public officers. In Figure 1 we see the “biologist and statesman” (Waters and Van Helden 1992) around whom my paper unfolds below the portrait of his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley – the great nineteenth-century evolutionary biologist dubbed Darwin’s bulldog – and next to a photograph of his brother, the writer Aldous Huxley. Julian Huxley was strongly influenced by his family tradition that combined science with religion and fact with sentiment. Figure 1 represents one of a myriad of publications by and about Huxley in the mass media, which indicates that – again, like others of his family – he was a public figure. A reader clipped this photograph out and sent it to Huxley, upset that such a prominent public persona posed for a picture while smoking.

Huxley had begun his academic career at Oxford and at Rice Institute, Texas. But in 1925, he gave up a professorship in zoology at King’s College, London, in order to collaborate with the Wells brothers – Herbert George and George Philip – on writing The Science of Life (Wells, Huxley and Wells 1934), which was hailed as the first textbook of a new biology. This, too, points to his tireless efforts in the transfer of knowledge from the diverse areas of biology in which he was involved, in the lab as well as the field. For ethologists, he was a pioneer of the new ethology, and for evolutionary biologists, he was a key figure of a renewed Darwinism that resulted in the so-called modern synthesis (Huxley 1942). In the context of this paper it is particularly relevant that these different elements of his career converged in his endeavor to develop and spread an understanding of natural diversity as humankind’s evolutionary heritage, for the preservation of which he worked through institutions such as London Zoo, UNESCO, and finally the WWF (Sommer 2016: part 2).

From his early years on, Huxley had been a devout bird lover and ornithologist, engaging in the preservation of birds, which were certainly animals close to the British upper class’ heart and the subject of one of the first parliamentary legislations worldwide for the protection of wildlife (1869 Seabirds Preservation Act). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (founded in 1889 as the Plumage League) lobbied for the conservation of the great crested grebe, a species on which Huxley wrote a paper that proved constitutive for the new evolutionary ethology (“The Courtship-Habits of the Great Crested Grebe” [Huxley 1914]). In the interwar years, both Huxley’s scientific work as well as his public engagement reached a peak. In a series of speeches held in the spring of 1930 for the British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), for example, he lent his voice to the birds. He emphasized the utility of the animals for humans; in a mechanized and over-populated world, humans needed birds because “[t]o go out on a country walk and see and hear different kinds of wild birds is […] to the bird-watcher rather like running across a number of familiar neighbours, local characters, or old acquaintances. The walk becomes a series of personal encounters instead of a mere walk” (Huxley 1930: 5).

The experience of animals and their sounds was seen as therapeutic in a world harmed by ruthless industrialization and mechanization and the accompanying ills of over-crowdedness and noise. The emphatic relationship to birds (as neighbors, locals, or old acquaintances) would be beneficial to both bird and man, and this understanding needed to be expanded to all animals. When Huxley was made director of the London zoos a few years later, the Herald quipped that “[w]hen next you see a hippo at the zoo, whisper the name of Professor Julian Huxley in its hearing and note the blush that follows. It may even simper. Hippos, according to the professor, are as beautiful as horses.” Humans should not restrict their love for animals to either birds or pets, and the zoo could help expand that love: “By extending our knowledge of and sympathy with the animal kingdom, the zoo, if properly run, can exercise an important function.”[1] Huxley wanted to emotionalize the human-animal bond that proceeded hand in hand with animal welfare movements such as took place in Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century (Eitler 2013), or even a century earlier in the British context (Ritvo 1987). With the outbreak of WWII, Huxley turned the zoo animals and their vocalizations – or, in fact, the absence of such – into carriers of hope for a future beyond physical and psychological destruction and deafening noise.

Thus, in these endeavors, sound took many forms: the form of the vocalizations of animals that, too, needed to be preserved – alive and/or on record; the form of the noise pollution brought about by the processes of modernization that had to be reduced; and that of the spoken word, which for Huxley was the fundamental medium of evolutionary progress. Language was humankind’s prerogative. It marked them as the apex of evolution and the sole steward of its future course, a course that should be planned rationally as well as with moral, emotional, and esthetic sensibility. In other words, for Huxley, evolution had proceeded from silence to vocalization and language and, finally, to noise. The last step overshot the mark or meant a development in the wrong direction. Thus, the micro-phenomenon of the ephemeral nature of sound could be valued positively as well as negatively. In both cases, Huxley and others made a demand to regard and attack the problem on a macro-scale. Sound should be scientifically studied, collected, and preserved in well-organized institutes or libraries on a global scale, while noise needed to be controlled to protect the sanity of people as well as the original soundscapes of nature.

1. London Zoo (1935–1942): In the Garden of Animal Voices and the Riot of Modernity and War


Figure 2: “Huxley and young friend, 1939,” Julian Huxley at London Zoo, © Wolf Suschitzky, London, in Omasta, Mayr, Seeber (2010): 73. Courtesy WOLF SUSCHITZKY: FILMS. Hrsg. von Michael Omasta, Brigitte Mayr and Ursula Seeber. Deutsch | Englisch. Wien: SYNEMA-Publikationen (2010)

In 1935, Huxley was elected director of the London zoos. When he moved into his lodgings in the rooms of the Zoological Society on Regent’s Park ground, he was in close proximity to the animals and their sounds during working as well as leisure hours. Soon after this move, the painter and author Percy Wyndham Lewis paid him a visit and observed: “What an agreeable destiny, – to inherit, as it were, the animal kingdom” (in Clark 1968: 256). Wyndham Lewis was referring to the picture of Julian Huxley’s grandfather, visible in the background of Figure 1, which hung on the walls of Julian’s zoo lodgings. Julian had inherited an interest in animals from his grandfather. But the observation was true in a broader sense as well. Since the beginning of his career, Julian had tried to account for evolutionary and, especially, human progress. He developed the hypothesis that humankind alone harbored potential for further evolutionary advance. The human being was the cosmos become conscious of itself. Will it or not, humans determined the fate of all living beings. This insight implied their responsibility for both animate and inanimate nature. So, in Huxley’s view, the animal kingdom was not his personal heritage, even if as a biologist he carried a particular responsibility; it was the inheritance of humankind as the culmination of evolution.

During his time at the zoo, Huxley established cooperation with the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire as well as with the British section of the International Council for Bird Preservation, which rented zoo rooms. To humans, songbirds – and in a more metaphorical sense gibbons or whales – appear to be the only animals that can sing. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the science and the hobbyhorse of bird observation and conservation were closely connected to the recording of animal sounds to which I now turn. The recording of birdsongs in the form of notes dates back several hundred years, and in the beginning of the twentieth century, ornithologists began to experiment with different systems for notation (including the phonetic system of the English language). In the late 1920s, however, the electronic recording of bird sounds in the field became the predominant method (Bruyninckx 2012). When Huxley travelled to East Africa for the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Native Education a few years before his zoo directorship in 1929, he became acquainted with the potential of the phonograph for another context. He met a member of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Company who was making sound recordings for films. Huxley, who described the African landscapes as symphonies and worried about the survival of these life- and soundworlds, was impressed by the project of a “Library of African Noises” (Huxley 1931: 139).

One protagonist of this development was Ludwig Koch (1881–1974). Koch had received two Edison phonographs from his father in 1889, and as an eight-year-old, he started to record personalities such as Herrmann von Helmholtz or Otto von Bismarck on wax cylinders. To these “sound autographs” (Koch 1955: 17) he added records of famous singers and musicians such as Johannes Brahms.[2] The Koch family, which was based in Frankfurt, had its own menagerie, and at the dawning of Ludwig’s work – and maybe of animal sound recording as a whole – stands the recording of a bird. In 1906 he received a recording device from the Parlophone company that rendered outdoor recording possible. But the first soundbook was nevertheless based on recording in a zoo. Together with Lutz Heck – the director of the Berlin Zoo – and ornithologist Oscar Heinroth, Koch recorded the sounds of animals, and Electrical Musical Industries (EMI) produced discs from the records. Combined with text and illustrations, these formed a novel kind of multimedia object. Subsequently, Koch conducted more outdoor recording with the same team for another birdsong book (Gefiederte Meistersänger [Heinroth 1935]).

Figure 3: Ludwig Koch, National Sound Archive, British Library, in (Koch 1955: facing p. 144).[3]

Koch enjoyed international success, and he was hired by the cities of Cologne and Leipzig to produce soundbooks of their typical soundscapes. Koch, who sang and played the violin himself, deemed even everyday street noise worth recording: “There is an atmosphere in sound which belongs only to Paris” (AudioObject 1: “Ludwig Koch and the Music of Nature,” BBC online, at 23:40 minutes), the boulevards, the cafés, the chansonniers, “the cacophony of traffic” (idem, at 24 minutes). Koch wanted to capture not only the sounds of cities, landscapes, and animals but also those of objects, such as the last piano Johann Sebastian Bach had played. His great dream was a Sound Institute that would preserve the sounds of nature, music, folklore, human languages all over the world, dialects, the voices of famous people, etc. for future generations. This dream did not come true, however – partially because “all these sounds were drowned by the shouting of Hitler” (Koch 1955: 68). Indeed, Koch’s records were partly destroyed in the war, which in his eyes deprived the world of an important heritage, including, for instance, the sound of the last quaggas (a kind of zebra) from the Frankfurt Zoo.

In 1936, after a stay in Switzerland, Koch found himself unable to return to Germany because an arrest warrant had been issued against him. The managing director of EMI invited him to England, where he collaborated with Huxley and Max Nicholson. Nicholson was a prominent ornithologist and conservationist who had played an important role in founding the British Trust for Ornithology (1932), which coordinated the studies of British bird-observers. Koch and Nicholson produced two books on birds, to which the songs were appended in the form of discs (Nicholson and Koch 1936; 1937). Huxley secured a publisher for them (Witherby), and Parlophone Records provided the phonographs as well as expertise on recording and disc production. Nonetheless, the project was far from being a Sunday school picnic. The microphones had to come as close to the bird as possible; as in a recording studio, the singer should be surrounded by microphones. In some cases, it took several days or even weeks until the desired record was on wax. A van was needed to transport the cumbersome equipment, including amplifier, microphones, batteries, and phonograph. One particularly heavy piece was the electric oven required to warm the wax so that the discs would be ready for recording.

Figure 4: The van, in (Koch und Nicholson 1936), from Joeri Bruyninckx 2012, p. 138. "Sound Sterile: Making Scientific Field Recordings in Ornithology." In Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (pp. 127-150). Oxford: Oxford University Press.[4]

Roads were therefore a necessary requirement, which meant that the ornithologists and technicians could only access areas that were permeated by infrastructure and, therefore, noisy:

“Aeroplanes, motor-cars, lorries, trains, and motor-bicycles combined to shatter the tranquility which had been so perfect a few hours before. Just as smoke pollution helps to swamp a town under fog, so the natural peace of the country was drowned under the indefinable hum of distant engines and wheels […] Until one has listened objectively to all these sounds coming through the loud-speaker, in what counts still as a peaceful retreat from the bustle of London, it is hard to realize what a noise-ridden world we have managed to make ourselves live in.” (Nicholson and Koch 1937: 38; listen also to AudioObject 1: “Ludwig Koch and the Music of Nature,” BBC online, at 21:30)

In this passage, the damage modernization has caused to nature and humans is equated with the destruction the sounds of modernity have incurred on peace and tranquility. And both, the natural soundscapes and the hum and bustle of modern times, could only become fully audible once they were mechanically recorded. There had been campaigns against noise in European and American cities already in the first decades of the twentieth century. After 1925, the decibel standard was adopted, and technological devices were developed to measure the level of urban noise systematically, objectively, and comparatively (Bijsterveld 2001; 2008; Bruyninckx 2012; Thompson 2004). Figure 5 is from Huxley’s 1934 book Scientific Research and Social Needs. It is based on a series of interviews he had given to the BBC after having toured British laboratories and universities. Huxley found that the noise of the streets was straining human nerves and causing sleeping difficulties. Industrial noise was harming the health and productivity of workers. In short: “Noise, in fact, has become a major problem in our civilization” (Huxley 1934: 257). There were governmental and private studies on noise, noise mitigation, and the effects of noise on humans; but Huxley hoped for “a large-scale concerted attack on the problem” (Huxley 1934: 258).

Figure 5: “A portable apparatus which gives an accurate measure of the intensity of sounds and noises,” in (Huxley 1934: facing p. 256)

The quotation above illustrates the idea that a mechanical recording device, in contrast to the human ear, processes the soundscape as “it really is.” While this is not the place to try to get to the bottom of this kind of reasoning, it is important to note that it posed a problem for birdsong collecting: The mechanical ear recorded, and evenly amplified, everything. As Joeri Bruyninckx (Bruyninckx 2012; forthcoming) has demonstrated, there were different views regarding what counted as noise and how “noise” should be dealt with in animal sound recording. While American researchers attempted to filter background sounds out of the recordings as far as possible through the usage of a parabolic reflector, British ornithologists favored “objective or natural rendition.” However, Koch manufactured the recording situations. He aimed to present a particular bird as if it were a singer on stage, chasing other songbirds away. Nonetheless, in the foreword to Koch’s first soundbook with Nicholson, Songs of Wild Birds (Nicholson and Koch 1936), Huxley specifically stressed the attempt to evoke the bird’s environment. He emphasized the contrast to the practices of zoo recording, for only recording in the field could provide “true” pictures of the birds’ voices.

Songs of Wild Birds (Nicholson and Koch 1936) and More Songs of Wild Birds (Nicholson and Koch 1937) were a great success. They contributed to what one might call the war on noise and the attempt to preserve natural soundscapes. Nicholson had included an appendix in the soundbook with guidelines to the reader about methods of listening and recording birdsong. The books were thus connected to the British Trust for Ornithology’s attempt to mobilize hobby ornithologists and to its nationwide birdsong inquiry that ran from 1937 to 1940 (Bruyninckx 2012: 61-62); they were also connected to the understanding that Britain was in the course of losing the diversity of its wildfowl. Bird recordings were played in schools and public gatherings (listen to the example of the nightingale in AudioObject 1: “Ludwig Koch and the Music of Nature,” BBC online, at 10:30, 13:00, 15:45 minutes), and a Morning Post journalist, excited about Nicholson and Koch’s project of a “Library of Bird Songs,” reported that an extinct bird had performed before the Royal Society of Arts.[5] Somewhat sarcastically then, the recording projects had a touch of “salvage ethnology”: they should preserve the birdsongs before they could no longer be heard in nature. A special contribution to the preservation of the acoustic world heritage eventually came from Huxley and Koch’s soundbook, the first in the English language to contain vocalizations from mammals. Animal Language (Huxley and Koch 1964) was recorded at the London zoos and written by Huxley.

Recording at the zoos did not live up to Huxley’s best standards of animal sound compilation, but at least Whipsnade Zoo, which had been opened in 1931 as a counterpart to Regent’s Park, offered a more natural environment. In this area, covering about a square mile on the boundary between Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, the animals could be kept in more freedom than in the crowded, 35-acres city zoo. Koch and Huxley again cooperated with Parlophone records, and, again, the recording team complained about the difficulties of their work. The seven-ton van had to be concealed from the animals, and even the small microphone, when inserted into a compound, would sometimes silence them. A cable connected the microphone to the van, where the recording workers had to wait and keep themselves ready to start transmission onto the wax plate at any time. Many animals would hardly produce any sounds or were disturbed by the noise of airplanes or visitors. At the end of this long and trying process, the recordings were edited for the animal soundbook.

Figure 6: “Listening with Julian Huxley to records for Animal Language,” in (Koch 1955: facing p. 49)

That these records were not renderings of natural soundscapes becomes particularly obvious in the case of the so-called “African symphony,” which was to be found on the backside of the disc (AudioObject 2: Afrotropical, National Sound Archive, British Library, National Sound archive, early wildlife recordings, Ludwig Koch, African symphony). It is made up of several superimposed recordings, intended to produce the effect of a day- and a night-soundscape of Africa. Huxley nonetheless presented it as quite realistic, even though not all of the animals even shared a natural habitat. Here, the aim was not the individual sound autograph, as Koch called it, but the “sound-painting”; the record was an “illustration by sound” (Huxley and Koch 1964: publisher’s note). In fact, Animal Language also included pictorial illustrations by the Hungarian animal photographer Ylla (Camilla Koffler), which were not much easier to produce than the soundtracks. They visualized the process of animal vocalization, sometimes in the format of a picture series.

Figure 7: Vocalizing Arabian Camel, Photo by Ylla, © Pryor Dodge, in (Huxley and Koch 1964: 17)


AudioObject 3: National Sound archive, early wildlife recordings, Ludwig Koch, Arabian camel.

Musical Commentary by Lucas Niggli (mit Holzgewindstange auf Floor tom und Rim), Uster/CH: Dec. 21, 2016.

Photo by Lucas Niggli of the recording situation.

Version filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 220) by Hannes Seidl.

Version filtered with a reciprocal mp3-filter (VBR 220) by Hannes Seidl, with a Musical Commentary by Lucas Niggli, Take 51 („tropengewitter“ Gran Cassa, mit hand / fingernägeln, fingerbeeren), Uster/CH: Dec. 21, 2016.

This soundbook, as the name indicated, was indeed what today we call multimedial. Sound was turned into something created by interplays of text, recording, and photography. Huxley’s perception of the world – this might be a legacy of his family – was extremely synesthetic: animals evoked symphonies and ballets; art belonged in the zoo just as animals belong in modern architecture. However, the fact that recorded animal sounds were likened to paintings and photography as well as to books in a library might well point to something else as well. In front of the background of Huxley’s ideas on evolutionary progress that I am discussing here, this may express the notion that the most important medium was still and would always be the spoken word, that the printed or recorded word was simply a way of preserving and distributing it, like a photograph does for a visual impression, even if this possibility was of enormous importance.

Figure 8: Playback experiment, in (Koch 1955: facing p. 33).

The recordings of animal sounds also formed part of Huxley’s ethological research. They were played to animals; some often reacted with strong excitement, while others reacted only to the sounds of their own species or of the other sex, and some showed no reaction whatsoever (Huxley 1970: 236). For instance, the fact that animals recognized the sounds of their conspecifics even though they had never lived among them was interpreted as evidence that the capability of recognition is innate (Huxley and Koch 1964: 12). In his text for Animal Language, Huxley stressed that sound-signaling had several functions. The laywoman was surely right in assuming that birds sing out of joy. Vocalization always had an affective element. As a biologist, however, Huxley was most interested in its evolutionary function. This encompassed the recognition of individuals, the coordination of the group, as well as mating, warning, deflection, and even deception (sound mimicry), such as in birds that imitated the hissing of snakes. Huxley envisioned a whole new branch of science devoted to experimental research exploring the differences in vocalizations between related species and the relative importance of heredity and learning (Huxley and Koch 1964: 14).

Most importantly, the study of animal sounds was related to Huxley’s great interest in evolutionary progress. The enormous complexity of animal sounds culminated in “[…] sound-signaling in the highest animals acquiring almost the status of true speech” (Huxley and Koch 1964: 17). Ever since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859), the question of the evolution of language, especially in primates, had loomed large. Animal vocalizations, and especially primate communication, were approached from three main perspectives: 1) They were studied as sound systems to be understood in their own right, 2) It was asked whether they might be considered languages or precursors to human language, 3) One tried to teach animals – again, mostly apes – human symbolic systems (Sommer 2000: 288-321). As Gregory Radick (Radick 2007: ch. 3) shows, in the 1880s, the American amateur zoologist Richard Lynch Garner used the phonograph for the first time in his attempt to answer that question. Garner claimed that, throughout the animal kingdom, there could be found a growing complexity of languages and that apes not only possessed full-fledged languages, the meaning of whose words he was able to learn through play-back experiments, but that apes were also capable of acquiring our languages. In the 1890s, Garner shut himself up in a cage in the natural habitat of chimpanzees and gorillas to capture their vocalization on a phonograph that Edison himself had improved for that purpose. Although Garner was easily dismissed because he eventually began to tell fantastic stories about cross-species apes that communicated with humans, the general question as to the language capacity of apes remained open.

In contrast to Garner’s optimism and that of those who followed him, for Huxley, the modifier almost in the above declaration – that sound-signaling in the highest animals almost acquires the status of true speech – is fundamental. He emphasized that the complex natural communication among apes indicated high intelligence and a highly organized social life, but that the recent attempts to teach human languages to great apes had demonstrated their incapability to acquire language. He therefore informed the public that

"[p]ainstaking efforts have been made to teach chimpanzees to talk, but after over a year’s training the animal had only two or three words at its command. We know that there are definite ‘speech centers’ in the human brain: these particular bits of cerebral machinery must be very poorly developed in the chimpanzee, and without them he can no more achieve fluent speech than a man could weave without a loom. Human beings have thus reached a new stage in the development of language. We may call it the stage of speech, and define speech as the use of arbitrary symbols to convey information, including words for things. Man has been defined as the tool-making animal, but in a very real sense the most important tools that he possesses are words […] vocal speech remains the basic method of human communication, and so of the essential human capacity, not only for transmitting experience from generation to generation but for accumulating it. It is interesting to reflect that sound production, which appeared late in evolution and exists only in a small minority of living creatures, has in man become the necessary foundation for any future progress that evolving life may be destined to achieve."[6]

The great apes played an important role in Huxley’s understanding of evolution. For him, they were living proof of the fact that humankind had evolved from the animal kingdom, but, at the same time, the comparison between ape and human demonstrated that the emergence of humans had brought about a qualitative change in evolution. Huxley mobilized research on animal sounds and language to bolster this perspective. His own and other studies were to support the claim that the emergence of language in the strict sense and of conceptual thought constituted a break in evolutionary history. It was tantamount to the transition from unconscious biological to cultural evolution, which could be consciously guided with the help of language and script. Evolution and history were thus less perceived as moving from silence to vocalization, to oral language, followed by written language to printed and recorded language, than as having culminated in the spoken word. The inventions of printing and recording merely rendered this tool – or technology – far more effective as the driving force of cultural evolutionary progress.

Huxley’s observation that the capacity for sound-signaling is a rare phenomenon in the animal kingdom also seems to amplify the noise of civilization. The most highly evolved among the vocal animals was drowning out a largely mute world. This conclusion clearly comes with a moral appeal. Huxley generally conveyed his evolutionary cosmology, and the morals it entailed, to zoo visitors through the animals. In the zoo guide and on labels, visitors were invited to observe directly the progress throughout the animal world that had culminated in humans. At the same time, they were to be educated about the threat humankind posed to the animal world, a message that was also spread through the public talks to which Huxley liked to bring living examples. Humankind was the sole “trustee, spearhead, or effective agent of any further evolutionary progress” (Huxley 1950: 20), and it had to take on this trusteeship of the evolutionary heritage and further progress at last. Part of the animal kingdom and yet very different in their ability for language, tradition, and culture, humans needed to preserve natural diversity for the role it could play in evolutionary advance. Many aspects of the modern period were in Huxley’s understanding a step in the wrong direction, harming humans in body and psychology as well as animals and their habitats. Part of this phenomenon was the increase of mechanical noise that threatened the sanity of people and overpowered the symphonies of nature.

A special opportunity for Huxley to teach the public, in particular through animal vocalization, came with the outbreak of war. The war hit the zoo hard, and it severely limited Huxley’s research on animals.[7] Apart from the fact that financial constraints forced the Zoological Society to drastically reduce its staff, the most dangerous animals, such as poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions, had to be killed, and others, like the big cats, bears, and grown apes, were relocated to safer places. Indeed, cages and enclosures were hit by bombs, and animals escaped; those that posed a danger, and could not be lured back, had to be shot by the zoo’s Air Raid Precautions personnel.[8] People themselves had to seek refuge in the zoo’s shelter during air raids, where Huxley tried to drown out the bomb noise with the music of Sibelius – one of modernity’s euphonic aspects. However, in the midst of the tumult of the bombings and air raid defense, Huxley recognized the opportunity to observe the animals’ reactions. This developed into an exercise in mobilizing citizen scientists and one of his many attempts to convey moral lessons to the public via animals. Huxley published a questionnaire in the News Chronicle, asking readers to write down their observations and send them to him: “How does your cat or dog behave when bombing begins?” Not only did Huxley’s own parrots scare people by imitating alarms; some birds and other animals even burst into hysterical screaming. Nevertheless, Huxley’s conclusion was that animals in general remained rather calm amidst the noise of raids.[9] His own observations in Regent’s Park Zoo confirmed this. In one instance, the Camel House was severely damaged, “yet the camels were sitting in their now open cage as if nothing untoward had happened!” (Huxley 1970: 255).

Figure 9: Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, Series VI: Publications by Julian Huxley, Box 98: 1936–1943, Folder 6: 1940: Huxley, “Animal Behaviour in Air Raids,” News Chronicle, Dec. 4, 1940. Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.

In this, as well as in other respects, the animals and zoo life were to serve as a good example to London and to Britain as a whole. In Huxley’s own words, they demonstrated that “Britain can take it” (Huxley 1970: 254). By making the public participate in his research and turning London into an extended zoo, he enabled people to learn this lesson first-hand, and Huxley spread his message abroad:

"When I was in the U.S.A. last winter I was often asked if this was really true [the damage to the zoo and the harm to the animals], and was told that the news had brought the war home to Americans more than anything else. A visit to Regent’s Park at the present moment would, I think, convince a neutral observer, as much as any other single aspect of life, that London is carrying on with very reasonable efficiency in spite of the aerial Blitzkrieg and all its fury."[10]

Huxley made sure that this was the picture the press would convey of the zoo. In a short story about a visit to Regent’s Park in The Sketch, it was once again presented as a well-organized and quiet place in the midst of bomb noise und chaos. The animals simply stayed calm during air raids, just as an ideal citizen would (Sommer 2016: ch. 7).[11]

2. The Zoo is a Cinema and the World a Zoo: Voices of and for Animals in Film and Cartoon


Of course, storing animal sounds on disc was not the only possibility; around that time, it also became possible to use them as the soundtrack to film. The interrelations between phonographic recording and cinematic shooting, but also between cinema and zoo, are manifold. Beginning in the 1890s, animals could be publically viewed as part of the actualité, and the majority of these films were made at zoos. The zoo animal film tradition began with the brothers Lumière, who in 1895 shot Lion, Zoological Gardens at the London Zoo (Horak 2006: 463). And in 1924, MGM gave expression to the desire for and increasing technological mastering of sound in the production of its logo showing a lion and making audible its impressive roar – first through the use of disc and later through sound film technology (Nessel 2012: 226). Thus, a zoo animal and its voice became one of the most famous Hollywood icons. Over the decades, animal films became longer and increasingly showed animals in the wild, with their sounds (Bousé 2000; Burt 2002). Film could bring animals and their ways of communicating to the public in unprecedented intimacy; also, within the animal behavior sciences, film, like phonographic recordings, entered the field. In the 1920s and 1930s, it became an integral tool of ethology.

Figure 10: “Zoo education movement,” Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, Series XI: Clippings, Box 136: 1909–1939, Folder 5: Biographical Materials, 1931–1939: The Evening Standard, Jan. 5, 1935. Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.

These potentialities of film mattered to Huxley. After his mission for the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Native Education in East Africa at the end of the 1920s, he propagated the use of film in education and for the causes of nature conservation. During his zoo years, he aspired to imitate the American Museum of Natural History and install little penny-driven-machines that would show the zoo animals in their natural environments (Mitman 1999: 74-75). He also struggled to follow other parks in their production of films as well as in placing a cinema on the zoo grounds. It would screen not only his own and others’ animal documentaries; even animated cartoons would be run, particularly those by Walt Disney. Their humanized animal characters – Mickey Mouse acquired sound in 1928 – might, too, foster a love of animals. In fact, during Huxley’s directorship, British Pathé made a series of short sound films at the London Zoo styled after the Disney animated movies. In these, the animals were anthropomorphized to such an extent that they were completely overwritten. A fundamental technique to turn them into comic characters in the way of Mickey Mouse was to let them speak in the human language through voice-over – only rarely interspersed with their own sounds (see and hear for example VideoObject 1: bears and VideoObject 2: consensus).[12]

In fact, Huxley criticized nature documentaries for lacking humor. Nevertheless, he also wanted to present animal life seriously. He believed that films documenting the behavior of animals, including their sounds, could convey their concerns to people. In 1935, he signed a contract with London Film Productions for advice and supervision in the production of short nature sound films, and he supervised the production of nature films for use in schools by Gaumont-British Instructional. In 1937, Zoological Film Productions was established as a subsidiary of Strand Films, producing footage of zoo animals, among other things.[13] In 1935, Huxley gave twelve radio interviews on the making of nature films. One of his greatest concerns was that the films might merely end up in cold storage, invisible to the public. To prevent this from happening, in parallel to the example of a Sound Institute and in the year the National Film Library was established (today British Film Institute National Archive), Huxley advocated for the establishment of national as well as international film libraries that should catalogue and store films in several copies to facilitate lending.[14]

Such libraries would also facilitate the instrumentalization of the medium of film in the attempt to promote evolutionary progress and preserve the evolutionary heritage that was fundamental to it. Huxley believed that in the cultural stage, evolutionary progress consisted of adapting human idea systems to a growing knowledge about the natural world (rather than, as in biological evolution, the human body to natural environments). So the main function of film, just as with printing and recording, would be the production, preservation, and distribution of such knowledge. Huxley felt a certain “bewilderment” or even “despair” at the “number of things” there were in nature (Huxley 1931: 139), resulting from this desire to document, catalogue, and understand everything – or vice versa. Also, nature film and its sound – neatly stored for efficient and long-term distribution – was part of this goal of a global reconnaissance and should at the same time in particular inspire the will to preserve “unmediated” natural diversity.

Huxley’s greatest success in this regard was The Private Life of the Gannets (Huxley 1934), made for Alexander Korda. It was shown at hundreds of cinemas in the country; it was even presented at the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in Venice and won the Academy Award for best short subject in 1937. It was made on the Island of Grassholme, off the coast of Wales and one of the largest breeding colonies of gannets. It shows the birth, adolescence, courtship and rearing of young. However, it differentiates itself from the individualizing and anthropomorphic way that Disney portrayed nature. It presents, instead, an ecological vision ending with a plea for the care of the animals and their habitats – this plea was rendered by a human voice, while the animals remained silent (see and hear VideoObject3: The Private Life of the Gannets).[15]

However, it is in fact through the way Disney came to portray nature that we gain further insight into the connection not only between zoo/nature films and animated cartoons but also between nature films and conservation. A closer look at Mickey Mouse and Co. again raises the question of who is heard. In 1949, Walt Disney Studios launched the first short feature nature flick, Seal Island (James Algar), intended for entertainment as well as to educate viewers about the “last frontier” of Alaska (see and hear VideoObject 4: Seal Island). Although supposedly on a pristine habitat and produced in association with the Fish and Wildlife Service, it combined the natural vocalizations of the animals with voice-over, in order to project on the animals – in a farcical way – human gender stereotypes and the rule of the male patriarch over his females. Its great success – winning an Academy Award for best short subject – was immediately followed by more such “true-life adventures.” In fact, throughout the 1950s, the commercialization of animals in films remained a Disney monopoly, and the studios began producing feature-length nature films. For example, in 1955, The African Lion (James Algar) celebrated the marvelous diversity of the great African mammals. But despite the promise of authenticity, the true-life adventures resembled the early animated cartoons, and in the cinemas they were shown with animated movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) or Cinderella (1950). So, we can observe an interesting circularity there, because the animated cartoons, again, were based on the study of living animals.

Yet, it has also been speculated that the true-life adventures were inspired by Huxley’s The Private Life of the Gannets. Another hypothesis is that they followed the tradition of the Pathé zoo films, such as those made at the London Zoo during Huxley’s secretaryship, which had themselves attempted to imitate Disney cartoons with real animals, decades before Disney himself. These various influences – of the animated cartoon, the zoo and nature film – are not mutually exclusive, and they all point to the fact that the true-life adventures were about drama and laughter, so much so, that one commentator criticized the representation of “beavers and otters in Beaver Valley as though they were scampish little animated animals right out of Bambi or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (in Mitman 1999: 121). The animals were rendered as individuals, and to create a personality for them, the techniques of synchronizing their actions with music or humorously re-applying their own sounds were instrumental. Whether showing living or drawn ones, Disney’s animals were animated (see and hear VideoObject 5: Beaver Valley; in Beaver Valley, the croaking of frogs is accompanied by a sextet – “the frog symphony”).

At the same time – like Huxley’s Gannets – the true-life adventures were associated with conservation. Disney won the Audubon Medal for conservation in 1955, and films like The Vanishing Prairie (1954, James Algar), which won the Academy Award for best documentary, were advertised to schools. In The Vanishing Prairie, the spectators watched animals endangered by the “relentless advance of civilization” (in Mitman 1999: 115; see VideoObject 6: Vanishing Prairie). Like Huxley, conservationists welcomed the Disney productions because they acquainted a mass public with the threats facing nature and animals. Indeed, some of these films were influential in raising awareness for preservation issues, and conservationist organizations took advantage of this. Thus, the Conservation Foundation, the New York Zoological Society, and the Wilderness Society sponsored Letter From the Brooks Range, which was instrumental in the establishment of the Arctic Wildlife Range in 1960. Nonetheless, there was a certain discomfort regarding the proclaimed authenticity, and this included a critique of the use of sound. The ornithologist Arthur A. Allen from Cornell University, one of the pioneers of wildlife sound recording in America (Bruyninckx 2012), supplied Disney with sound recordings and film footage of animals. But, he insisted that picture and soundtrack correspond to each other; he gave his consent to the cooperation only when Disney assured him of that and emphasized that the true-life adventures were primarily for the purpose of conservation.

As Figure 10 shows, Huxley was a fan of Disney, precisely because he recognized this potential. He was impressed by the material the film-maker-adventurers accumulated for the Disney Studios, and when planning a conference on ritualization in humans and animals in the 1960s, he asked Disney for rare footage, for example of the mating behavior of crested grebes. However, Disney’s alliance with conservationists came to an end shortly thereafter when Disney made plans for a skiing resort, including roads cutting through Sequoia National Park in 1966. By that time, the true-life adventures with their multifaceted and often contradictory use of sound had been launched on TV and further adapted for home use as rental films (on the true-life adventures, see Mitman 1999: ch. 5).

While these developments were taking place in the USA, Huxley had achieved much in areas concerning the conservation of natural as well as cultural heritages. When he was elected as first director-general of UNESCO in 1946, he included in its agenda the establishment of national parks and, among several other cultural institutions, a world library. In his vision, UNESCO should promote all methods of storage, reproduction, and diffusion, such as microfilm. It was to extend the concept of library collections to include films, pictures, and records (Huxley 1946). Huxley actually managed to get a UNESCO resolution passed that stipulated that the British Trust of Ornithology was to take care of Koch’s sound recording collection. However, it turned out that the trust lacked the necessary funds. The BBC, however, expressed its interest. Thanks to Huxley’s intervention, Koch had worked for the BBC, recording farm animals, factory and other urban noises, among other things. In 1948, Koch was hired to arrange his collection for preservation at the BBC Recorded Programs Library. He extended the collection, and he refined his own voice, too, making his heavily exaggerated German accent a trademark of his popular radio broadcasts.[16] However, only in 1980 would UNESCO call for the preservation of film footage and sound records as part of the cultural heritage (cooperating with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives 1969). 

Together with his networks of friends, scientists, and conservationists, and through his position at UNESCO, Huxley tried to coordinate the preservation of living animals as well as those transmitted onto audiovisual media worldwide. Still in office, he became involved in the establishment of the first global conservationist organization, the International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN), in 1948. Affiliated with UNESCO, it connected governmental bodies, NGOs, and experts.[17] In England, it was followed by the establishment of Nature Conservancy (1949) and the Council for Nature (1958). An important factor for the success of Huxley’s conservationist concerns were the sympathies he was able to arouse through his portrayal of the endangerment of the African megafauna. In articles for the Observer that were published after his travels to south, east, and central Africa to report on wildlife and natural habitat for UNESCO, he described the sight of these animals in the wild as “comparable with the sight of a noble building or the hearing of a great symphony or mass” (Huxley 1960: 23). In this discourse, Africa’s natural diversity was presented as a heritage encompassing Pliocene landscapes and Pleistocene animals. The description of the animal land- and soundscapes of Africa as well as likening the experience of animal observation to the experience of listening to music moved many readers; the Observer articles initiated a process that culminated in the foundation of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1961 (Sommer 2016: ch. 9).[18]

Figure 11: “United Monkey Elite,” Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, News Chronicle 8 vii 55 ??. Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.

Huxley’s great engagement with the establishment of national parks as a kind of extended and modernized zoo and his grappling with threats, such as the growth of population and production, was parodied in the cartoon (Figure 11) that shows another talking animal. As Figure 12 shows, already at Huxley’s time of involvement, the WWF, too, made the animals of Africa speak out for their cause. No longer the animal animated by human language to achieve a comic effect – even if with a nod to conservation – the animals were now offered human language to take over the role of their own advocacy from humans. On a metaphorical level of representation, they were provided with agency. In doing so, the conservationists drew on yet another tradition of mediating animals that is associated with the history of preservation movements. As J. Keri Cronin (Cronin 2011) shows, cartoons were used to provide animals with agency and voice in the context of American and Canadian animal welfare movements from the second half of the nineteenth century. While such movements were understood as an effort to give a voice to the voiceless, some cartoons portrayed animals using the English language to plead for their cause (see also examples reprinted in Goble, Hirt and Kilgore 2005). These cartoons once again highlight the interplay between representation in the medial and political sense as well as between the representation of voice and the voice of representation.

Figure 12: Julian Sorell Huxley – Papers, 1899–1980, MS 50, Series IX: Organizational Materials, Box 120: University–Z, Folder 4: Organisations: World Wildlife Fund, 1962–1964, 1970, n.d.: “World Wildlife Fund, British National Appeal: Dinner at the Mansion House, Tuesday, 6th November 1962.” Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.



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