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Alex and Me (part 1)

April 3, 2009

The thing that struck me most about Alex and Me was what an emotional book it was.  I thought it would be a warm popularization of Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex the parrot, but I was astonished by how much Pepperberg let herself loose, how honest she was about something most research scientists would forbid themselves from discussing or even feeling – her vast affection for her research subject.  And yet, after reading the book, I can’t help think that only a scientist willing to make that emotional connection could have attained Pepperberg’s results.

If you don’t know the Alex story, here it is in a nutshell (and here’s the PBS video that him famous):  in the 1970s, Irene Pepperberg had grown disillusioned in her quest for a PhD in chemistry.  It was clearly not what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.  A fire destroyed her home, and she and her husband found shelter in a colleague’s house – the archetypal academic “We own a television but only watch it if there’s something good on PBS” household.  Fortunately, the professor deemed NOVA to be good for his children, and Pepperberg’s life was changed:

Among the early programs we saw were reports on dolphins whistling and chimps signing under the tutelage of university researchers.  A later one was on why birds sing.  I still remember the visceral shock of these shows.  They were a revelation.  Humans communicating with animals, animals communicating with humans, and humans learning about how animals learned to communicate with each other – it seemed little short of a miracle for me.

Pepperberg tells her own story of being a lonely, socially maladjusted child.  Her mother, whose mind seemed to always be elsewhere, simply forgot to teach her child “please” and “thank you,” resulting in a scarringly public embarrassment.  Her only friends for a long time were the birds she had as pets, so after her epiphany and after learning more about the research being done in man-chimp communication, she decided that “the answer was obvious.”  An African Grey parrot learned fast and spoke clearly.  “I also learned that Greys love attention and form deep and lasting bonds, with their owners becoming profoundly emotional about their birds” – a discovery her own experience would soon validate.  It helped that a formative experience in her bird-loving childhood had included watching Dr. Doolittle, in which the doctor is taught to talk to the animals by an African Grey.

Alex came from a group of eight one-year-olds in a pet shop in Chicago. 

I reasoned that because I was embarking on a scientific study that should reflect the cognitive abilities of Greys in general, I thought it would be best to have one chosen at random. “Why don’t you select one for me?” I said.  “OK,” he replied, and picked up a net, opened the cage door, and scooped up the most convenient bird he could reach.

Can’t get a study more randomized than that.  But this would be the last purely objective moment in their relationship. Pepperberg then began her now-historic studies on human-animal communication and animal language development, teaching Alex words like “paper” and “wood” for the items he loved to chew to bits, then moving on to “three corner wood” for triangles, adding colors and eventually numbers.  Pepperberg’s success, in my estimation, stems from her decision not to treat her animal like another lab instrument:

My plans for training Alex differed from the accepted standards of the time.  Under the prevailing psychological dogma known as behaviorism, animals were seen as automatons, with little or no capacity for cognition, or thought.  Biology was little better, dominated by theories claiming that much of animal behavior was innately programmed.  Experimental conditions for working with animals were very tightly prescribed.  Animal subjects were actually supposed to be starved to 80 percent of their body weight so they would be eager for the food given for a “correct” response. 

To Pepperberg, it was “blindingly obvious” that “learning to communicate is a social process…putting an animal in a box and expecting it to learn to communicate could not succeed.”

Over time it also became blindingly obvious that Alex was a person – he had personality.  He’d insist “wanna go back” to his cage when he was bored or scared; he would willfully give wrong answers when he was tired of doing the same test over and over (repeating your experiments being a requirement of research); and astonished Pepperberg on several occasions with his cognitive abilities, including the day he spelled “nut” when Pepperberg tried to get him to pull a nut up on a string instead of handing it to him – as if to say, give me the damn nut, do I have to spell it out for you?

Along the road to the acceptance and fame she enjoys now, the roadblocks were huge – personal obstacles, such as the now absurd but then “normal” behavior of people in a university environment who automatically asked her when she was quitting school when she said she was getting married.  And professional obstacles, especially a huge backlash movement against the idea that animals had verbal skills, which included a whole conference in 1980: “a huge gathering of leading scientists, organized to denounce the work of the animal-language researchers: part of the bias that ‘they’ cannot talk – only ‘we’ can.”  The climate was so hostile that Pepperberg started telling people that Alex was named for the “Avian Learning Experiment,” instead of “Avian Language Experiment.”  Funding was hard to come by and Pepperberg bounced from school to school, Alex sometimes in tow and sometimes, distressingly, left behind when she knew her appointment was temporary or where she didn’t have a space for him.

Reading the book, it’s clear Alex isn’t just “parroting” what he hears.  If he were, there would be none of the other behaviors that he displays, especially when Pepperberg takes on other parrots who aren’t quite as bright as Alex.  “Say better!” Alex would disparage the feeble attempts at words by the others, making the cognitive connection between his own initial attempts (i.e. just “sssss” when he first learns “spoon”), the urging of the trainer to complete the word (“say better”) and the end product, the complete word.  Or Alex’s understanding of “I’m sorry” after Pepperberg’s irritation with Alex, or more often academia, leads her to outbursts which ruffle his feathers, after which she says “I’m sorry” and he comes to understand that’s what you say after you’ve been bad.  Alex even invented a word, “banerry,” to describe an apple – he knew banana (“what bigger?”) and cherry (“what red?”), and that they were both edible, so he combined the two into “banerry,”  insisting on this new name for apples, regardless of what Pepperberg thought they should be called. 

She sums up the changes in animals’ place in the world – we began with the Aristotelian view of “all living and nonliving things on a ladder of perceived importance based on mind.  Humans were at the top, below the gods, a place earned by our great intellect.  On lower and lower rungs were the lesser creatures…the Judeo-Christian tradition enthusiastically adopted Aristotle’s blueprint, in which humans were given dominion over all living things and the earth.”  Even Darwin’s discoveries didn’t dent this world view, as “we were still different from and superior to the rest of nature,” since as T.H. Huxley said, “man..alone possesses the marvelous endowment of intelligible and rational speech [and]…stands raised upon it as on a mountain top, far above the level of his humble fellows.”  When Pepperberg started her research, little had changed: “the equation was simple and, for many, conclusive: language is necessary for thought; animals don’t have language; therefore, animals don’t think.”

But the “fortress of human uniqueness” wasn’t built to last.  In the 1980s, we discovered that chimps were tool users, too, using sticks and leaves to get food.  So instead of “only humans use tools,” the fundamentals were changed to “only humans make tools.”  Then chimps were found doing that, too.  “Each time nonhuman animals were found doing what was the supposed province of humans, defenders of the ‘humans are unique’ doctrine moved the goalposts.” 

Next post, the rest of the review:  what does a talking parrot have to do with artificial intelligence?

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