Archive for September 13th, 2007

In casual conversation a couple of days ago, I heard that Alex, the African Gray studied by Irene Pepperberg, was found dead in his lab last week. I’ve been reading about Alex for over twenty years, so the news struck me hard, both because of what he represented and my memory of what my life might been.

The summary of Pepperberg’s work with Alex is that he was the emotional equivalent of a two year old human child and the intellectual equal of a five year old one. To parrot owners, that is not surprising news – we’ve known for a long time that, when you look at a parrot, someone looks back at you, just as with a raven or crow (In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that parrots dominate the southern hemisphere and the corvidae the northern. Where they overlap, they tend to forage at different times at day, as if they have figured out the best way to minimize confrontations). But what Pepperberg is doing is establishing the intelligence of parrots scientifically, closing the door to doubt in a way that the anecdotal evidence of pet owners never could.

Alex’s obituary in the New York Times a few days ago called him a genius parrot. However, we don’t know that. Alex may have been a genius, but he could have been a normal African Gray, or even a dull one. We don’t know yet. However, perhaps Pepperberg’s work with other Grays will establish that over the next couple of decades.

However, just as important as establishing Alex’s intelligence is how Pepperberg did it. Remember the language studies with gorillas and chimpanzees thirty years ago? They were partially discredited because of poor experiment design and obvious anthropomorphizing. No doubt in response to such problems, Pepperberg designed Alex’s tests to be tougher than those done with primates, and in such a way as to minimize the bias of the experimenters. Yet, despite these tighter controls, Alex proved his intelligence.

Another interesting part of the Alex studies was Pepperberg’s use of a second trainer besides the one conducting the experiment who acted as a rival for the parrot to imitate. This teaching method proved far more effective than simple rewards, probably because it transformed learning into a social activity by giving Alex someone to emulate and compete against. The method could have a major effect on learning theory, if educators would only take notice of it.

For all these reasons, Alex deserves to be remembered as an important figure in science. Yet now that he is dead, what I remember is how nearly I came to doing similar work. I graduated from university with a double major in English and Communications, and, when I decided to start graduate school, I seriously considered doing similar studies with another parrot species. I even went so far as to write Pepperberg a letter about my plans, to which she was kind enough to reply. But the Communications Department at Simon Fraser University only admitted grad students in the Fall Semester, and I was starting in January, so I went into the English Department instead.

Thinking back, I can’t help thinking that of how different my life would have been if I had started my own parrot studies. Almost certainly, I would have missed the worst trauma of my life. And probably, I would have made the pilgrimage to see Alex up close at least once.

It’s too late for that now, and I’ll always regret it. By all I’ve seen, Alex was as exasperating a bundle of beak and feathers as any Gray I’ve ever met.
Having lost a parrot a few years ago, I can easily imagine how Pepperberg must feel. Losing a dog or a cat is hard enough, but losing a parrot is closer to losing a person. She always did her best to be professional with him while doing her studies, but you didn’t have to look very carefully to see that she adored Alex. I’m sure for her that the loss was not just professional, but personal as well.

Still, I envy her even in her loss. In these pre-spaceflight days, how many of us can say that we conversed daily with an alien species?

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