Inside the Animal Mind is a three part series presented by Chris Packham that looks at what we know about how animals think and what that tells us about our own thinking. The first episode covered animal senses, the second looked at how intelligent animals are and the third investigated the effects of being social on animal intelligence. In each episode Packham showed us the sorts of experiments currently being done to extend our knowledge of animal minds. For instance one of the questions he looked at in the first episode is how do dogs seem to know when their owners are due home from work? It’s not like they can tell the time after all. It turns out that this may have something to do with scent levels in the house – if you bring into the house something smelling of the owner earlier in the day, which increases the scent levels, then the dog doesn’t react at the normal time.
The first episode was mostly setting the scene for the meat of the series – making sure we knew a bit about how information gets into the animal brain. The next two episodes were mostly concerned with the overall question of how unique are humans. What, if anything, sets us apart from the other animals. So the second episode concentrated on some of the most intelligent animals – primarily a variety of crow species. These birds solve can solve complex puzzles, use tools and even plan for the future. That last was illustrated by an experiment where a couple of crows were kept in a large cage that could be partitioned into three – overnight they were kept in one end or the other, during the day they had free range of the whole cage (and were given plenty of food). They weren’t given a choice about which end of the cage they spent the night. If it was one end they would get breakfast in the morning before the partitions were removed, if it was the other they wouldn’t. So after that pattern had been established they were given places to hide food (little sandtrays) in each end of the cage. During the day they’d hide some of the food they were given, and they’d hide a significantly higher proportion in the “no breakfast” end – knowing that if that was where they ended up then they’d want more food in the morning than if they ended up in the breakfast room.
The last episode concentrated mostly on dolphins (tho also other intelligent social animals, like chimps). The idea is that being social helps to drive the development of intelligence and in particular intelligence to do with communication and recognition of others (and oneself) as individuals. Things we think of as human traits, and some of these traits take a while to develop in young children too – a child won’t recognise his or herself in the mirror until the age of 2, and the ability to realise that other people have other perspectives takes longer than that. Dolphins are one of the few animals to recognise themselves in a mirror – they had footage of a dolphin very clearly admiring himself in a mirror in the water. They also had some footage of how this was first observed – the biologists were observing dolphin mating via a one-way mirror, and when the dolphins realised there was a mirror there they oriented themselves so they could watch themselves while they were mating.
The series didn’t try to provide an answer to what sets us apart from animals – just pointing out that many of the things we think make us special have been found in at least one other species. And yet, there must still be something that means we are the ones with civilisation and advanced technology not the others, but we don’t yet know what that is.
I’d been expecting something a lot more shallow, so this series was a rather nice surprise. Worth watching.
We’ve started watching some of the World War I related programmes that the BBC are broadcasting at the moment. The first three that we’ve watched were sort of prequels to the war. The first was a biography of Edward VII (Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure), and the others were a two part series about the descendants of Queen Victoria who were ruling England, Germany and Russia by the outbreak of the war (Royal Cousins at War). I’m lumping these together to talk about because they had clearly been made by the same team, and had the same format and aesthetic. Each one had a (faceless) narrator, as well as a selection of experts on the subject, and they were very focussed on the biography of the individuals and how that intersected with the politics. At times that did make us feel they overstated the importance of (for instance) the English King in the politics of the day but mostly it stayed on the right side of the line.
The mission of all three programmes seemed to be to humanise the people they were talking about, and one of the tricks they used to do this was by colourising black and white photographs of them which suddenly makes them seem more real. In the two Royal Cousins at War programmes they also had video footage taken by the royals on their holidays – so all messing about a bit and hamming it up for the camera. And of course there’s a soap opera quality to the dysfunctionalness of Queen Victoria’s family. The Edward VII programme spent a lot of time looking at the way the relationship between Victoria and Edward was a vicious circle – she felt he was useless and shouldn’t be trusted with responsibility. So he frittered away his time on women and parties, and whenever he did get given something to do he’d end up doing daft stuff like showing official documents round to his friends to get opinions. Which then meant Victoria had proof he was useless. So that meant by the time he came to the throne no-one, not even himself, thought he was going to be any good at being King. As it turned out, he was good at the job – he was charismatic and much better than his mother at the public performance side of royal duties.
This is also the last hurrah of powerful monarchs in Europe. While Edward VII and his son George V didn’t have much overt power, as constitutional monarchs, they had even less after WWI was over. Their role was still important in terms of diplomacy, however. Edward’s ability to get on with people helped to sweeten relationships with countries such as France – a visit from Edward helped get public opinion onside before the “real diplomats” sat down at the negotiating table to discuss what became the Entente Cordiale. And George’s lifelong friendship with his cousin Tsar Nicholas helped shape the alliance between Russia and England.
At the other end of the spectrum Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas were still autocratic rulers and so their personal qualities and opinions did have a large part to play in politics and foreign policy. They weren’t entirely free to do what they wished – public opinion and the opinions of their politicians did matter, but they had more genuine power than the British monarchy. And sadly neither were particularly competent. Tsar Nicholas seems to’ve epitomised “nice but dim” and combined this with a strong sense of his duty to preserve the authority of his throne. Which doesn’t end well.
The story of Wilhelm is the sort of thing that if you wrote it as fiction people wouldn’t believe it. He was the son of Victoria’s eldest daughter and she had been married off to the Kaiser Wilhelm I’s eldest son with a mission to liberalise Germany. Her husband (heir to the throne) is more liberal than his father and than Wilhelm II would turn out to be – so if only he’d lived to rule longer than a few months then history might’ve gone very differently. Wilhelm II had a very troubled relationship with his mother – he had had a difficult birth, and his left arm was damaged in the process. His mother couldn’t bear the fact that she had a crippled child, and Wilhelm himself felt inadequate – which only got worse as he got older and bought into the militaristic culture of Germany at the time. As future Kaiser he should be the epitome of perfection, and yet he was physically crippled. This sense of humiliation isn’t helped along by relations with his extended family. Edward VII was married to a Danish princess, whose sister was married to Tsar Alexander. Prussia had invaded Denmark, and defeated the Danes, in the 1860s and the Danish royal family had never forgiven them. So the two sisters would organise jolly family holidays … to which Wilhelm was not invited. He seemed to go through most of his life overcompensating for his disability and for his perceived lack of friends. He also seems to’ve been a rather nasty piece of work, too – so even tho some of it was out of his control, he did make his own problems worse.
These programmes were an interestingly different perspective on the run-up to World War I, and I realised how little I know about Germany of that era & Kaiser Wilhelm in particular.
We also finished off watching The Great British Year. This was a nature series, about the wildlife of Britain across the year. I don’t really have much to say about it – the point was very much the visuals, and they did have some spectacular footage 🙂 And there were red squirrels, but not enough of them for J’s tastes 😉
Other TV watched this week:
Episode 1 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.
Episode 1 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.