//Should be placed in the header of every page. This won't fire any events

Should Animals Be Prosecuted?

Drew Nelles has written a fascinating article detailing our species’ history of tackling “criminal activity” of animals. Today, we commonly hear of everyday stories of dangerous animals being “put down”. “The discussion surrounding these attacks has been limited to the immediate and the pragmatic,” says Nelles. “Should we put killer animals down? Should we curb tourism in places where wild things roam? Should we outlaw exotic pets, or circuses, or aquariums, or zoos?” But the history of tackling “dangerous” animals is far more engaging than you would surmise from today’s responses.

In the past, we have pondered their criminal agency and taken their lives in bold displays of crude retributive justice; we have wondered whether they are punishments from God or Satan’s minions… In Medieval Europe, [we had] the animal trial: the practice of dragging a creature accused of committing a crime—like killing a child or destroying a crop—before an actual court of law, and subsequently executing, exiling or absolving [the accused anima].

This was not some occasional enterprise. Lawyers could make their entire career on defending these voiceless clients.

A sixteenth-century French jurist named Bartholomew Chassenée made his name as the counsel to some rats who were accused, in an ecclesiastical trial in Autun, of decimating the area’s barley crops. Rats being rats, Chassenée could hardly rely on his clients’ sympathetic qualities to get them off the hook. So, like numerous lawyers before and since, he built his argument on technicalities: the defendants couldn’t be expected to appear in court, as Evans says, “owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage.”

What makes this fascinating is that it undermines our ideas of personhood. After all, why did it matter to bring animals to court instead of just execution? We’ve treated fellow humans worse with lynch-mobs, mass extermination and so on. Why during this time in Europe and in America, when people were being accused of witchcraft and killed (not on the scale many think though), without any due process, were rats allowed sophisticated defenders, trials and court-dates?

I can only surmise that the depth of evil (in the Christian sense) of a human was perhaps viewed as worse than any an animal could reach. Thus, if the evil of a human is worse, we more than likely won’t take chances lest that evil spread. But this actually can't be true, either, since we still did put people through trials even though witch-hunts also occured. It seems like something else was happening in relation to people's responses to evil.

Scapegoats and Evil

As writers like Susan Neiman have argued, evil was and is used as a way to makes sense of the world: earthquakes caused by mass promiscuity; diseases for deserting God; and even 9/11 was caused by the sin of homosexuality, according to Jerry Falwell. To make sense of evil in the world beyond human-caused evil, like murders, believers have often linked chaotic or natural evil, like earthquakes, with human action and inaction, or with scapegoats who either embodied types of actions or were types of people (witches, Muslims/Christians, etc.).

While animals have been and continue to be killed en masse, giving them a trial individually for crimes treated them more like persons than we often do today. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, since by making them more into persons, we can more easily use them as scapegoats for evil. If they were merely machina automata, then it would be like imputing evil into a waterfall. No, it is necessary to put them on an equal moral level - if only so we can impute evil and, thus, get “rid of” the evil by getting rid of the animals.

So though, for Nell, “the most bizarre aspect of the whole strange phenomenon is the fact that it put man and beast on nearly the same level”, we can surmise why this was the case.


Justice during this time hardly had anything to do with corrective or restorative focuses – you want to get rid of evil, not massage it into good. It was about how quickly you could send someone to the gallows, to the torture chamber, to death.

This changed with the Enlightenment, however. 

Animal trials began to die off when Enlightenment ideals shouldered aside physical torture in favour of psychological penalties: lifetime incarceration, death row, [etc.] …. As European legal systems sought to fashion themselves as something other than instruments of naked state coercion, prisons grew less physically brutal and started relying on subtler, more emotional methods. Foucault famously theorized that, during this period, the locus of punishment shifted from the prisoner’s body to his soul. And so, because animals have no soul to break, we stopped forcing them through the courts.

One need not agree that souls exist to see, descriptively, why this happened. (Furthermore, soul for Foucault probably had more to do with mind, consciousness, emotions than some ethereal Christian entity).

Nelles is correct that this history is fascinating. But it ties in finally with an important moral point, even though I disagree with him about animals having "no moral compass".

What’s absurd is the idea of trying a creature that has no moral compass, no ability to differentiate between right and wrong or atone for its actions. The outcome, though, is just as brutal as any factory-farm operation: an animal led to a painful death for reasons it cannot possibly discern. Ultimately, the problem of animal trials is the problem at the heart of the relationship between humanity and the natural world: do animals exist for our use? If the answer is no, then what gives us the right to eat or destroy them? If the answer is yes, then why does it matter whether we kill them in a slaughterhouse or at the gallows? The animal doesn’t know, or care, whether we are punishing it for some crime or killing it for its meat, and any concern over the difference merely reflects the narcissism of human morality.

This is a fascinating essay and well-worth reflecting on, especially since our views of animals have important ramifications for how we view ourselves.


Image Credit: "Trial of a sow and pigs at Lavegny" (source

"Among trials of individual animals for special acts of turpitude, one of the most amusing was that of a sow and her six young ones, at Lavegny, in 1457, on a charge of their having murdered and partly eaten a child. … The sow was found guilty and condemned to death; but the pigs were acquitted on account of their youth, the bad example of their mother, and the absence of direct proof as to their having been concerned in the eating of the child."

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Why it’s hard to tell when high-class people are incompetent

A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."

Surprising Science
  • The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
  • Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
  • However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
Keep reading Show less

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less

Mother bonobos, too, pressure their sons to have grandchildren

If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.

Surprising Science
  • Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
  • The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
  • Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
Keep reading Show less
//This will actually fire event. Should be called after consent was verifed