Archive for October 7th, 2011

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when the tradition is to blog about a woman you admire in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. I can think of dozens of women who are friends or acquaintances I could write about, but the first subject that comes to mind is Irene Pepperberg, who has quietly revolutionized the field of animal cognition with the help of her parrot colleagues Alex, Griffin, and Arthur (Wart).

Pepperberg and Alex especially are known to thousands from their public appearances. However, I sometimes wonder if many people in the audience appreciate that what they are seeing is not just an African Gray who has learned to respond on cues, but living proof that parrots’ intelligence overlaps with the lower edges of human intelligence. With the ability to use concepts such as difference, greater than, and absence, Pepperberg’s test subjects show the general intelligence of a two year old human child, and, in some cases, of a six year old. This discovery is a complete reversal of the traditional beliefs about avian intelligence – after all, “to parrot” is used as a synonym for “to repeat mindlessly.”

Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is exciting, although to parrot owners, she is only repeating what they have long maintained. However, from a scientific viewpoint, Pepperberg’s proof of avian intelligence is the least of her accomplishments.

When Pepperberg began her studies over two decades ago, animal cognition had been thoroughly discredited by a long series of studies teaching chimpanzees and gorillas to communicate – usually through some form of sign language. These studies produced many touching anecdotes about the intelligence of the primates involved, but they were rightly criticized for poor experimental design and researcher bias. By the time Pepperberg began her first studies with Alex, it took a brave person to even approach the entire subject.

However, Pepperberg’s experimental design eventually gave the entire field of animal cognition greater respectability. As detailed in The Alex Studies, Pepperberg took special care to design studies that reduced the chance of unconscious cuing and was able to duplicate results with different researchers and even strangers. Just as importantly, the tasks that parrots have to perform in her studies are more complex than those solved by the earlier chimpanzees and gorillas, which reduced the possibility that her results were due to chance. As the number of her studies increased, gradually no one who read her work could deny her results.

An especially interesting part of Pepperberg’s designs is the Model-Rival learning method she developed. Unlike the usual stimulus-response model that is usually used to teach all sorts of animals rote behavior and responses, the Model-Rival technique begins with the obvious point that learning takes place in a social setting.

In the Model-Rival technique, experiments require two researchers, one of whom takes the traditional role, and one of whom plays a fellow student. The parrots being tested see the fellow student being praised for giving correct answers, and rewarded with food or the right to play with a toy, and, wanting the same attention and rewards, are motivated to learn. This setup not only serves as a serious challenge to classic behaviorism, but may also be of use in the teaching of humans with autism and other learning disabilities, although it is still not extensively studied.

What makes this new found respectability for animal cognition especially interesting is that you only have to look at Pepperberg interacting with her test subjects on video clips to realize that she adores them as much as the soppiest pet owner. When Alex died unexpectedly four years ago, Pepperberg was devastated, and wrote a memoir called Alex and Me that is one of the most moving true stories about an animal ever written. Yet to her credit, Pepperberg has never let her personal feelings undermine the integrity of her scientific work, beyond the obvious fact that she remains deeply committed to her studies. At times, such as when Alex died, the effort to keep the professional and the personal separate must have been almost impossible for her.

As a long time companion to parrots, I find Pepperberg’s work endlessly fascinating. At one point, I seriously weighed expanding on her work in graduate school, and corresponded with her briefly. Studying parrots proved to be a road not taken, but my admiration for her courage, scientific rigor, and passion remains. Far beyond her personal reputation in the media, Pepperberg remains a scientist’s scientist.


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