Friday, May 7, 2010

Animals in the dock

Although we may not all have been thrown by a horse, had a dog escape the yard and attack a hen house, or had a deer defecate right were we want to step in order to get into our garage, we're well aware that animals can be frustrating. But did you know that, hundreds of years ago in Europe, you could take the damn critters to court?

So says Michael S. Gazzaniga, a leading psychologist and neuroscientist, in a popular-science book called "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique." It's in a chapter about how humans can't help mentally conferring agency, or purpose, on animals and even inanimate objects. (My old clunker won't start; it's being stubborn this morning!)

Drawing on a 1906 book by one E.P Evans called "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals," (New York: E.P. Dutton), Gazzaniga said that animals in the 800s and for many hundreds of years thereafter could be arrested and imprisoned (in the same jails as humans) for overturning a cart, biting a person, or some other offense. The accused creatures were appointed lawyers and had to stand trial in a civil court. If an animal were convicted of buggery, "both it and buggerer were put to death." (This is the place for all sorts of comments I won't bother making.)

Back then, accused human criminals could be tortured and - if they didn't confess - have their sentences lessened. Likewise, Gazzaniga said, in the spirit of consistency, animals could be tortured and - if they didn't confess, which nobody expected - the animals' punishment could be reduced.

Humans' tendency to assign agency to animals and other things remains in place in our brains, of course. But these days, I'm glad some genius came up with the idea of just saying: "Bad dog!"

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