Oncomice and Men: The Best-laid Scheme of Mice and Men?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is a Scottish poet, who is well known for such poems as “Auld Lang Syne,” “A Red, Red Rose,” and “A Man’s Man for A’ That.” “To A Mouse” is another one of his well-known poems written in the Scottish dialect, which was included in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), also known as the Kilmarnock volume. As the original full title, “To A Mouse, On Turning Up Her Nest With The Plow,” shows, “To A Mouse” is a poem written in 1785, while Robert Burns was still working on a farm with his younger brother, Gilbert Burns.

Having accidentally destroyed the nest of a mouse while plowing one of the fields, Burns is quite apologetic about this incident as he writes, for example, in the second stanza:

  • I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
  • Has broken nature’s social union,
  • An’ justifies that ill opinion,
  • Which makes thee startle
  • At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
  • An’ fellow mortal!

As one who was born to a tenant farmer and spent part of his life as a farmer himself, it is easy to understand how Burns came to develop his view of a mouse as man’s companion and fellow mortal. Thus, Burns goes on to express in the next four stanzas his words of sympathy for this poor mouse whose house was lost before the arrival of cold winter. Next to the last stanza contains the oft-quoted phrase, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”:

  • But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
  • In proving foresight may be vain:
  • The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
  • Gang aft a-gley,
  • An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain,
  • For promised joy!

We know, for one thing, that John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was inspired by this poem as he adopted the expression, Of Mice and Men, as the title of his 1937 novel.

Although the mouse is often regarded as man’s enemy for damaging crops and spreading diseases, Burns’ view of the mouse as man’s companion is one kind of relationship between mice and men. Keeping a mouse for a pet is an extension of such friendly relationship between mice and men. That kind of friendly relationship between mice and men is still maintained to this day with a mouse being turned into a cartoon character endowed with human-like characteristics such as Mickey Mouse, Jerry Mouse, and Stuart Little.

Another kind of relationship between mice and men that we are familiar with is the use of the mouse for scientific research. The mouse, especially the white lab mouse, has turned out be a good laboratory animal in biological and psychological studies because it is a mammal with extremely high breeding rate. The use of the mouse for scientific research reached the culminating point in 1984, when Philip Leder and Timothy Stewart of Harvard and Paul Pattengale of USC announced the Oncomouse, a mouse engineered to develop tumors at a predictable, statistically significant rate, in order to study cancer in intact living organisms. As a matter of fact, the Oncomouse became the first animal to be patented, with Patent #4,736,866 for “Transgenic Non-Human Mammals” being awarded to Harvard in April 1988.

A somewhat controversial relationship between mice and men started when the patent was licensed to DuPont, which had supported Leder and Stewart’s research. Du Pont, as was to be expected of a company whose interest was not just to support scientific research but also to make money, promoted the Oncomouse in ads and on T-shirts, insisting on a share of any commercial breakthrough made using the Oncomouse until 1999, when the National Institute for Health brokered an agreement allowing scientists to use Oncomice without a fee for academic, noncommercial research. This history-making Oncomouse now sits in a specimen box inside a storeroom of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, as reported in the December 2016 issue of the Smithsonian.

While the original Oncomouse has now retired to a quiet life, the mouse is still being used for scientific research for vital information it may provide for curing men’s illnesses. Whether commercially exploited or not, it is easy to understand why animal rights groups object to this kind of relationship between mice and men as we are fellow mammals who share the same planet. Buddhists, too, would find it difficult to accept the exploitation of the mouse for scientific research as a fellow sentient being endowed with the Buddha nature. Is it not possible, indeed, to treat the mouse even as a fellow practitioner of the Buddha dharma? Robert Burns seems to suggest as much in the last stanza of this delightful yet profound poem:

  • Still though art blest, compared wi’ me!
  • The present only toucheth thee:
  • But, och! I backward cast my e’e
  • On prospects drear;
  • An’ forward, though I canna see,
  • I guess an’ fear.

Unlike men who constantly look back with remorse and look forward with anxiety, the mouse lives in the present moment, which is what we are taught to do in Zen Buddhism.