In Depth

PBS: ‘Ape Genius’

“Ape Genius” started life at National Geographic Television, but when the organization struck its recent deal with PBS’ “Nova” to share editorial content for a series of specials, the program moved to PBS. A look at the latest research involving the creative capacity of great apes, the program was singled out by the Peabody judges for exploring just what it means to be human.

Research by Iowa State University anthropologist and National Geographic Society grantee Jill Pruetz, which documented for the first time a chimp hunting with a primitive spear it fashioned, “pushed us into a new realm,” said John Bredar, executive producer for National Geographic Television.

“What we’re always looking for is, is there some kind of quantum leap in the research?” said Paula Apsell, the senior executive producer of “Nova,” which originates at WGBH in Boston. The show had done an episode on apes and their use of language several years ago; since then, much of the research had appeared incremental, she said, until the new experiments featured in “Ape Genius” came along.

“They showed a kind of intelligence that had not been gotten at before, had not been understood before,” she said. “It felt to me like it was more than incremental. You can really start to say something about the way in which ape intelligence is something we would recognize as our own intelligence and then what the limits are.”

“The level of intelligence was so impressive we were forced to ask the question: ‘Why can’t they go further?’” added Mr. Bredar.

To illustrate the difference in thought processes, the program juxtaposed children and apes performing similar experiments. “My favorite one was the little plastic box,” Ms. Apsell said. “Kids are mindlessly repeating what the authority figures taught them,” she said, while the apes quickly figure out the shortcut to a treat.

Nonetheless, she said, “You realize that being able to learn from a teacher is really part of the strength of human intelligence.”

The new collaboration between “Nova” and National Geographic “is a great way to marry the strongest science series in the history of television with a more field-oriented, exploration-oriented approach to documentary filmmaking,” Mr. Bredar said.

“It is all about collaboration now, especially in times when resources are short,” added Ms. Apsell, whose program also won a Peabody last year, for “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”