Skip to main content

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 I think it's silly to try to pretend humans aren't exceptional just to avoid the long outdated idea that we are the pinnacle of 'creation'.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.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…