World’s Smartest Animal

This is a proposal for a Survivor-style reality show. It’s based on the fact that we’ve observed nearly human intelligence in a wide variety of animal species. The show would take one member of each species and pit them against each other in “IQ tests” each week. The field would be slowly narrowed by an “expert panel” or viewer call-in voting, and you’d eventually wind up with a single champion each season. This champion would return the next season to compete against new members of the other species, with a few new species thrown in for variety.

Each week would feature a broad category like tool use, memory, vocabulary, self-recognition, speed of learning, and so on. The animals would rarely be competing head-to-head, and not every animal could compete in every category, so you might go with some kind of round-robin approach rather than voting off one animal each week. Most of the actual screen time would consist of the animals and their trainers preparing for the tests, with the host or narrator following them and filling us in.

People love watching animals, and animal intelligence is a universally fascinating subject. But animal shows are still a fairly niche market. A look at the current lineup on the Animal Planet network is instructive: most shows are organized around cuteness (‘Puppy Bowl VII’), danger (‘Fatal Attractions’), or a human-centered storyline, like animal hoarding or Mike Tyson training pigeons (No, I’m not making up that last one). And despite the recent boom in nature programming, most of us still associate this subject matter with the David Attenborough approach — long shots, delicate background music, calm narration and slow pacing. “World’s Smartest Animal” would be a happy medium between these old and new styles; faster-paced than an old-fashioned nature documentary, but with more substantive scientific content than most of these modern shows. The ‘competition’ framework and the additional focus on the trainers will make it a more natural extension of mainstream reality shows, and help reach people who would normally never tune in to a nature program.

Show me someone who says they wouldn’t watch this show, and I’ll show you a liar. Think about your friends and you can probably already imagine who would root for which animal. Or maybe it’s the trainers that people will identify with — some of whom will be young and telegenic like the dolphin show staff at Seaworld, others endearingly nerdy and weird. Then there’s the “expert panel,” which could feature celebrity animal lovers along with serious scientists.

Which species should be included? My top four categories would be:

1. chimps, bonobos and other great apes
 2. dolphins and other cetaceans
 3. crows and other corvids
 4. octopi and other cephalopods

You’d also mix in more familiar animals like dogs, pigs, rats and mice, and a few exotic choices like monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys, or even jumping spiders.

And the final touch: a single human contestant, someone dumb enough that the animals could occasionally beat them — maybe a contestant from another reality show on the same network. If both shows last long enough, you could even establish a regular system whereby the top-ranked animal and the lowest-ranked human switch places each year, the way a top seeded sports team can sometimes switch with the bottom seed in the next division up.

For those who don’t believe that animals are this smart, here are videos of (1) a crow bending a piece of wire into a hook to retrieve a bucket of food, (2) an octopus that uses coconut shells for camouflage, (3) a dolphin that can answer yes/no questions, and (4) a dog with a 1,000 word vocabulary, including some verbs and category nouns (as featured in this recent NYT article).