[The Infinite Monkey Cage] Clever Creatures

Clever Creatures

23/09/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=81940130
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07ns73f.mp3

Those Clever Creatures

Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined on stage by comedian and author Danny Wallace, ornithologist Professor Tim Birkhead and marine biologist Helen Scales to look at animal intelligence. We have all heard about clever chimps that can count, and about how we can compare the intelligence of humans and the great apes – but have we underestimated many of the other animal species? It would seem so, with remarkable examples of cunning, smart behaviour from animals as diverse as birds, octopuses and even fish. So how do you test a guppies IQ and can a crow really outsmart a gorilla, or even a human…prepare to be amazed.

Producer Alexandra Feachem

Listen Date: early January 2020


  • The story of Koko the gorilla ripping a sink out of the wall and then blaming her cat reminds me of how my niece once vandalised the competition’s entry in a drawing contest, and then claiming that a cat came in through the window and spoilt it. Perhaps there is a very deep instinct stretching back to the common ancestors of humans and gorillas to blame cats.
  • I learned that grey parrots go mad when they are solitary, unless they really imprint on their owners – but then if their owners leave, they also go mad.
  • The Aesop’s fable about a crow getting water by dropping stones into the pot was replicated in lab conditions, though with a dish of food for a hungry rook, not water for a thirsty crow.
  • Apparently octopus intelligence has evolved even though octopi are solitary and not social creatures – while the episode didn’t mention it explicitly, this probably refers to the theory that human intelligence is an evolutionary response to having to communicate with each other (and is touched upon in Paleofantasy among other things I’ve read recently). The flip side of this, of course, is that evolving to figure out what other humans are thinking means that we are now dangerously prone to perpetual social anxiety or vanity, as Why Buddhism Is True reminds us.
  • I also learned that there is one colony of octopi which has started living together rather than being solitary; even though most octopi, on seeing another octopus, usually try to eat it; and the suspected reason for this is that it’s beneficial for them to share resources in that environment rather than compete for it. This is a cool triumph of rationality over instinct, and Adam Smith and / or Paul Bloom would be overjoyed. Also see: Semiosis, and the Atlantic article about socially adjusted psychopaths.


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