Tuesday, February 24, 2009

#49 - "Alex and Me" by Irene M. Pepperberg

I needed a break from Lincoln, which has turned out to be just as detailed and politically dense as Founding Brothers, so I picked up Alex & Me (2008) by Irene M. Pepperberg. I was drawn to this book for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, as an animal lover, I think animal behavior and animal cognition are fascinating. I've read and seen pretty much everything I could find on Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees she studied in Africa. She's an amazing woman who I admire for her humanity, temerity, and contributions to science. But I know very little about how other intelligent animals think or possibly communicate with each other and with humans. I vaguely remember seeing an African Grey parrot on television accomplishing tasks I had thought impossible for a bird. The impression that parrots in general, and African Grey parrots in particular, were very intelligent animals was imprinted on my brain that day. And having read the book, I now think the parrot I saw on television must have been Alex. I wish I could see that footage again.

Irene Pepperberg, having just received her theoretical chemistry doctorate, decided that what she really wanted to do was explore intelligence and communication with African Grey parrots; so in 1977, she went to a pet store and the owner grabbed a random (domestically bred) African Grey from a cage. She called her new parrot Alex, and he became her co-worker and study subject for the next three decades. Alex constantly surprised critics and Pepperberg alike as he consistently proved his intelligence and communication abilities. Alex could "label" a certain number of objects, fully understanding their meaning and use the labels in communication. He learned numbers and even learned concepts such as "bigger" and "smaller." Pepperberg could put a number of objects on a tray and say "how many blue?" and Alex could say the correct answer. Even more telling, Pepperberg could put the arabic number 7 on one side and three blocks on the other and ask which was bigger. Even though the blocks look bigger to the eye, Alex would still say that the number 7 was bigger. He was that smart.

Pepperberg's book is definitely written for the layperson. It is short, easy to read, and free from scientific jargon. She tells quickly of some of the difficulties she had in finding funding and lab space for her project, and then short anecdotes about Alex, his behavior, and what he accomplished. Alex certainly had an alpha personality. He could be difficult and bossy and liked to order new student research assistants around. It was fun to read about him. The downside, though, was that I would have liked to have a little more scientific and background information. I know nothing about parrots, or any kind of birds for that matter, and any previous studies that may have been done with them. I also would have liked to know a little bit about how the intelligence of parrots and African Greys correspond to other animals; and whether African Greys' habitats and behavior in the wild might predispose them to more successful communication with humans. Apparently Pepperberg did write a more scientific book of her work with African Greys that might be helpful in this respect.

Alex died unexpectedly and prematurely in 2007. There's no telling what else he might have learned if he had been able to continue. But one of Alex's enduring lessons was to challenge our preconceived notions of animal, especially bird-brain, intelligence. Before Pepperberg started working with Alex, a couple of scientists tried training an African Grey and failed, deciding that parrots were simply too stupid. What they never considered was the possibility that they had not figured out a way to clearly teach and communicate with the parrot. Ignorant scientists are often more dangerous than ignorant laypeople, since the public often listens to "science" as if it's inherently rational, unbiased, and infallible. Scientific consensus well into the 1970's was that animals did not think at all. They felt no emotions; they merely reacted instinctively to stimuli around them. This position was rabidly defended, and all for the egotistical belief that only homo sapiens were capable of thought, communication, and tool-making. This same egotism led at different times to the declaration that the sun revolved around the earth and that women shouldn't run marathons because it could make their wombs drop. All knee-jerk reactions stemming from scientists' perceived superiority and ingrained biases. I think sometimes we're better off relying on our own common sense.

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