While Bram Stoker’s spine-tingling vampire lore traded on fears inspired by cerebral automatism, some of Stoker’s contemporaries enthusiastically embraced the idea of the human being as thinking machine. Grant Allen, an Anglo-Canadian novelist, journalist, and devotee of Herbert Spencer, opened his first published work with an elaborate comparison between the human body and a “locomotive engine.” In Physiological Aesthetics (1877), Allen argued that steam engines differ from human beings in four principle ways: first, humans “have been evolved by natural selection, instead of having been consciously produced by the art of man”; second, humans are “self-conserving,” since they can take care of their own needs for food, shelter, and other necessities; third, humans can reproduce, while locomotives cannot; fourth, humans are “endowed with consciousness.”
But whereas many Victorian writers would have emphasized this fourth and final point as the definitive distinction between man and machine, Allen saw consciousness itself as largely mechanical in nature. He viewed the mind as “a thinking machine … minutely constructed, inscrutable in all its cranks and wheels, composed of numberless cells and batteries, all connected together by microscopically tiny telegraph wires.” Allen likewise argued that pleasure and pain result from the correct or incorrect functioning of the bodily mechanism: in his view, pleasure stems from the “strong but normal excitation of fully-nurtured nervous structures,” while consciousness of pain results either from “dismemberments of the body” or from “a general state of innutrition, either in the body as a whole or any of its component systems.” Allen further insisted that even subtle intellectual and aesthetic pleasures, such as enjoyment of literature and painting, could be attributed solely to the functioning of the nervous system, rather than to abstract entities like the mind, will, or soul. Allen’s statements sound strikingly similar to Victorian supporters of vivisection who paraphrased René Descartes, arguing that “the cries of animals are but the working of the curiously-contrived machine, in which, when one portion is touched in a certain way, the wheels and springs concealed in the interior perform their work … there is no consciousness or feeling.” But Allen went further than Descartes, emphasizing that even human emotion and intellectual activity amounted to no more than the creaking of a rusty wheel.