Last Night's Television - Survivors, BBC1; Horizon, BBC2; Natural World, BBC2
Planet of the japes
Wednesday 26 November 2008
When Queen Victoria was taken to view an orang-utan, she described the animal as "painfully and disagreeably human". Why so disagreeable? Because, I'd guess, every primate is a mirror, and hardly any of the reflections we see are flattering to our lineal dignity. How could you look at an orang-utan, even as Empress of India, and not know, deep down, that an ancestral connection was in play? Or even a monkey, for that matter, generally a good deal less human than apes but still capable of stirring anthropomorphic recognition, particularly when they're on a smash-and-grab raid through a house, like the macaques at the beginning of "Clever Monkeys", a
Natural World film that was notionally about revised scientific assessments of simian intelligence but was actually about how fantastic it is watching monkeys doing their thing.
The house burglary was a clear case of entrapment, by the way, and any half-way decent lawyer would get the macaques off scot-free. Open doors? Boxes full of food? More fixed cameras than the Big Brother house? Frankly, the macaques deserved a daily rate, plus an hour for lunch and their own trailer. Apart from that little teaser, though, you got the sense that what you saw was straight up, and some of it was far from enchanting. Having lured you in with footage of white-faced capuchin monkeys labouring away to break open clams (look at their sweet little hands!), they suddenly sprung a full-blown capuchin civil war on you, which was hideous, all scimitar teeth and weeping battle scars. Apparently, more capuchins are killed by their own kind than any other predator, which is something else we have in common.
Some of the anthropomorphism got a bit out of hand now and then. As the footage showed us a group of macaques gathering round a troupe leader who'd just bought it in a power struggle, David Attenborough's voice-over suggested that what we were looking at was the jungle equivalent of a lying in state. "Some who brought about the old leader's downfall are now tender and respectful," he whispered gently. What they were actually doing was ferreting through his fur and eating the fleas they found there, not an expression of respect that I think would go down well in Westminster Abbey. It didn't look like a memorial service, it looked like a buffet.
It was interesting, though, to learn that monkeys can speak more than one language, reacting to the different alarm calls of other species, and that they also occasionally cry wolf. White-faced capuchins have occasionally been observed shouting "Snake!" in order to get everyone else to take to the trees so that they can get first dibs on something tasty they've just found. Apparently, baboons also suffer workplace stress, succumbing to ulcers and high blood pressure if their place in the pack is threatened. This raised a question for me that the programme did not satisfactorily answer: how exactly do you take a baboon's blood pressure without seriously affecting a baboon's blood pressure?
"Jimmy's GM Food Fight" raised another one, after I heard Lord Melchett, the anti-GM campaigner, say this: "There are real risks to human health that haven't been investigated." How do you know they're real risks if they haven't been investigated? And since Lord Melchett has condoned the vandalising of GM crop experiments, is he really in the best position to pontificate about scientific testing?
Horizon's programme about the GM debate had enlisted Jimmy Doherty – no friend of monolithic agri-business – to look again at a field that was abandoned to gibbering panic several years ago, the anti-GM campaigners having successfully persuaded the public that the sky would fall in if plants were altered, and never mind the fact that virtually every vegetable we eat is a perversion of nature already. Doherty, a champion of sustainable, free-range, rare-breed farming, but also with a scientific background, set out to weigh up some of the arguments on both sides. It's possible that I'm prejudiced, but I thought he strained a little more when presenting the anti-GM case than when following up evidence that it was an unfairly demonised technology. There are worrying things about GM business. The sight of vast fields of GM soya in Argentina provoked anxieties about the vulnerability and ecological costs of mono-culture. But when Doherty visited Uganda, where a fungal disease is seriously affecting the staple crop of bananas and GM technology offers the best hope of a cure, you got a sense of how self-indulgent a lot of European protest had been. You only tear plants up and kick them over so blithely when you don't depend on them to survive.
Champions League Live had deprived ITV1 viewers of their nightly dose of a bickering monkey troupe, but the second episode of Survivors offered a substitute, with the new tribe squaring off against a rival pack outside a Netto supermarket. Only asking, but if you could loot Waitrose or Netto, would you really choose the latter?
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