Television Review

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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE Darwin, the list of things that separate us from the animals has been shrinking. One of the last spars we can cling to is our aesthetic sense, and even that looks doubtful after last week's Animal Minds (Sat BBC2), which showed that pigeons can distinguish Matisse from Picasso about as effectively as most art students. Mind you, didn't you always half suspect that if they were really bright, they'd have been doing a proper subject like history or physics?

This week, the list was whittled down even further, as the series went on to ask whether animals have feelings. Up to a point, this is uncontroversially true - when we're dealing with the higher primates, who express emotions in ways we can easily recognise, or when we are talking about the most primitive emotions, such as fear and pleasure (even fish, it seems, will go out of their way to stimulate their pleasure centres). But the programme went on to examine more complex, more human- seeming emotions, and to suggest that animals have a wider range of sensibilities than you might expect.

The sweet little prairie vole, for instance, bonds for life after mating, and if one dies, its mate is unlikely to bond again: doesn't this look like love? And if animals can love, can't they be jealous? We met Nelson the macaw, who can't bear to see his owner, Christine, in bed with her partner, Paul (though when you compared Nelson's green and scarlet plumage with Paul's brown pyjamas, it was hard to see what he was getting jealous about).

Perhaps most importantly, it was clear that animals experience stress and anxiety in similar ways to us. Young male baboons, continually intimidated and harassed by the dominant males, are likely to come down with peptic ulcers and heart disease. From this you can derive the simple proposition that animals have a capacity to suffer that entitles them to moral consideration.

Trying to take the argument a step further, though, the programme stumbled. The question was, can animals feel guilt or shame? First we were shown experiments in shaming children - asking them to complete a task before a buzzer went off, then ensuring failure by fiddling the timer (which seemed to prove that whether or not children experience shame, some scientists certainly don't). We were then shown an orang-utan doing similar tests and showing dejection. Then came a bizarre chain of reasoning: these children feel shame when they fail tests; the orang-utans also feel shame; shame implies moral awareness... If I ever see an orang-utan looking disappointed in himself after staying up to watch late-night erotic movies on C5, or returning his reward banana because he feels guilty about having cheated at his lab tests, then I might admit there is something in this. Still, apart from that blip, this has so far been an exemplary balancing act between scientific reductionism and anthropomorphic sentimentality.

For years during the Cold War, espionage was treated by novelists as a kind of moral-frontier territory - notions such as loyalty, truth and friendship were hopelessly blurred for the agent. The Spying Game (Sat C4) was espionage with the ethics painlessly removed: spies popped up posing shamelessly in public toilets to show how they would photograph their documents, talking with the enthusiasm that salesmen and computer programmers bring to their craft about secret cameras, dead-letter drops and microdots. Spying, it seemed, can be ethically neutral fun, and it isn't even that dangerous - the KGB and the CIA had an unofficial agreement never to kill one another's men. Perhaps it's a little early to treat the Cold War as no more than a game, but this came with just enough gravitas to avoid the charge of frivolity.

Not a criticism The Scarlet Pimpernel (Sun BBC1) needs to worry about, either. The middle-class is in the majority now, which is a problem for a drama that relies utterly on the conviction of the natural superiority of the upper classes: there is a dire shortage of really plebby peasants and lordly aristos. But I had high hopes for Richard E Grant as the hero who hides under a veil of foppery, if only because he has to be good for something. Unfortunately, not only was he alarmingly limp-wristed in the fight scenes, the fop scenes were sleep-inducingly leaden. You looked for a juicy ham; instead, you got a tin of Spam.

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