The fallacy of the ‘bad’ human
The comparative study of animal and ‘idiot’ minds gave rise to new ways of thinking about the mentally incapacitated human that persist in contemporary society. A whole genre pervades our bookshops today, making claims about the abilities and consciousness levels of apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, birds, cows and even fish, which seek to narrow the consciousness gap between animals and humans.
Some philosophers, such as Peter Singer (author of ‘Animal Liberation’, 1975), claim that some non-human animals should enjoy greater rights than humans with learning disabilities.
The origins of these ideas lie in the work of Darwin’s disciple George Romanes and other late-19th-century animal psychologists. The Wellcome Library archives hold a superb collection of these works, which show how early animal psychology gave rise to a mode of thought about ‘good animals’ versus ‘bad humans’ that is very much with us today.