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Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? - Ben Ambridge ****

There's a whole lot of entertainment - but also surprising facts - to be discovered in Ben Ambridge's book Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?

Ambridge sets out to compare many human mental abilities with those of animals (and even insects), showing how often we share capabilities, and in some (rather limited) circumstances can even be beaten by animals, hence the title of the book. Ranging from the way that, for example, some animals aren't taken in by the optical illusions that fool us, to feats of memory and logic, page after page Ambridge presents us with fascinating examples from the natural world.

Sometimes what's most amazing is the lengths to which researchers (who can't ask the animals what they are thinking) have to go to devise their experiments to see, for example, how ants would deal with the Tower of Hanoi problem, or whether or not chickens are less likely than us to be fooled by optical illusions where one object (in a 2D image) is apparently in front of another. You will both be entertained by the capabilities of the star performers of the natural world and given the chance to try out many of the tests yourself (though some of the more tedious ones, involving coming back to the book after several months or filling in a questionnaire over several pages, will probably get a glance, rather than be done for real).

This book was a whisker away from five stars, and only two things held it back. One was the author's over-the-top enthusiasm for puns. Practically every page has one or more. After 20 pages I was groaning - by the end, I was whimpering. The other issue I have is that Ambridge is somewhat heavy handed in attempting to counter 'human exceptionalism' - the idea that humans are somehow special. While he makes perfectly reasonable points that we are animals, and one or more other species often has similar 'special' abilities, even Ambridge makes the point that we often have them to a far greater extent - and no other species even comes close in the range of these specialities. He also ignores our ability to consciously shape and change our environment by our creativity - rather than be shaped by it, identified by Bronowski as  one of the more unique human characteristics. I think it's silly to try to pretend humans aren't exceptional just to avoid the long outdated idea that we are the pinnacle of 'creation'.

Despite this, I had huge fun with this book, and Ambridge certainly doesn't always bang on in anti-exceptional mode. I was interested in the animal examples, but even more so in the human shortcomings. All in all, this psychological comparison of humans with other species is a delight that should get many, many readers interested.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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