In today's cliché verification news: Scientists reveal old dogs can learn new tricks and new findings suggest elephants really never forget. Well... one old dog anyway, a canine Einstein called Chaser, who has acquired a vocabulary of more than 1,000 different names for different toys and can fetch them on demand. Chaser can go further still. If you stick a new toy down in a pile of familiar ones and use a name she's never heard before, she'll mill about a bit anxiously before figuring out that that must be the one her handler means. In the second of Liz Bonnin's series Super Smart Animals, Chaser was the first act up, in a variety show programme intended to showcase the fuzziness of the once-sharp demarcation between our intelligence and that of animals. The elephants were next on, thanks to their ability to remember the location of food sources and waterholes in the Botswana bush, a knowledge they appear to be able to pass on to strangers.
"Super smart" is obviously a relative term. It actually means something more like "smarter than we previously believed", and in some of the cases here the genius was a bit underwhelming. Bonnin seemed impressed that a vervet monkey in St Kitts could assess her direction of gaze and steal the fruit juice she couldn't see rather than the one that was under her nose. But that wasn't super-smart, really, it was just not super-dumb. Other examples were a bit more impressive because you started with lower expectations. Late report on cliché verification news? "Bird-brain" may have to be reconsidered, given the canniness of the scrub-jays and the crows who featured later in the line-up. Both corvids (sheepdogs with wings essentially), they appear to display evidence of a theory of mind – that is the ability to conceptualise what a situation might look like from another perspective.
Bonnin talked "as a scientist", but it was telling that she was at her least scientific when doing so, after visiting the Gulf of Mexico to commune with whales, and having one of those close encounters (with a mother and calf) that can be so captivating in natural history programmes. "This anecdotal meeting is important in itself," she said breathlessly. "It's not just me romanticising this fabulous contact with this incredibly mystical creature... this feels and looks like something else." But, given that her emotions about the event were the only new data supplied, romanticising was precisely what she was doing. Super Smart Animals was strong on cute clips – the meerkats would have been disabling for anyone not wearing a full-body anthropomorphism-protection suit – but a bit short on hard thinking. Couldn't really argue with its conclusion though, which was that whether there's a conceptual fence line between animals and us or not, it might be an idea to treat them more empathetically.
Super Smart Animals told us that "more capuchins are killed by their own species than by any other animal", which is at least one thing we have in common, not to mention proof that smartness will only get you so far. Bullets, Boots and Bandages: How to Really Win at War is about the application of smartness to killing, and is a perfect example of a BBC4 programme. It is defiantly unglamorous – being a history of military logistics – and pretty much untroubled by the idea of wasting any time or effort seducing the reluctant to watch. It is also densely populated by military historians, a species from whom, once tapped, enthusiasm drips as pure and translucent as birch sap. I learned from this programme why jerry cans were better than their British equivalent (German design, wouldn't you know), how a sprung cart helped win the day at Blenheim and why Napoleon's failure to pack winter shoes for his horses turned out to be catastrophic. The poor beasts just couldn't hack a Russian winter in espadrilles.
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