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 I think it's silly to try to pretend humans aren't exceptional just to avoid the long outdated idea that we are the pinnacle of 'creation'.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



Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…