Sunday, January 4, 2009

Alex and Me

Anyone who has ever owned and had a close relationship with a pet other than perhaps a turtle or a hamster will likely attest to the belief, much resisted by the majority of the scientific community, that animals do in fact have some capacity for thought. That has certainly been true of our last two pets, now deceased, a Newfoundland dog and a tabby cat. I remember when I would take Fred, our Newf, on long walks which would frequently see me running into people I knew and stopping for a chat. Fred, always the gentleman, would sit nicely beside me for about five minutes, but after the elapsed time, would invariably take his paw and nudge me on the thigh, saying, in effect, “Time to get a move on.” Similarly, our cat would stay out of our bedroom until he heard me getting up, at which point he would enter the room and meow at me to feed him. Despite the fact that I would react with pavlovian haste to his request, it was somehow never fast enough for him, and he would inevitably chastise me with a series of very acerbic meows as I made my way to the cupboard to get his food, as if swearing at me for not being fast enough.

No doubt, many will dismiss these two anecdotes as manifestations of nothing more than operant conditioning, but on an intuitive level I know they were much more. Which brings me to the subject of this post, a fascinating book by Irene Pepperberg called Alex and Me, the story of her 30-year relationship with an African Grey parrot named Alex. Although possessing a doctorate in chemistry, Pepperberg turned her lifelong fascination with birds into a career discovering the capacity for thought and true communication between parrot and human.

Hers is the story both of the struggle to get sufficient funding to pursue her studies and the very close, loving relationship that developed over three decades with Alex, her subject and, in a very real sense, collaborator. The book is not meant to be a scientific explication of her methodology, although she provides sufficient information about her training techniques and her results to leave the reader with the belief that what she uncovered was not some unusual capacity for mimicry on the part of an unusually bright parrot, but rather significant indications that Alex was not only able to speak with meaning and purpose but also grasp abstract concepts such as numbers, differences and similarities between things, and language as a tool for influencing and manipulating others, all qualities that have been traditionally viewed as the exclusive domain of homo sapiens.

Rather than my recounting some of Alex’s specific achievements here, I am providing a link to a segment done with Alan Alda on Scientific American Frontiers: PBS - Scientific American Frontiers:Pet Tech:Watch Online

The reader can’t help but be amused and touched by the experiences that both parrot and human shared over the many years, and perhaps a little humbled in seeing that human beings are perhaps not quite as distinct a species as we have always believed.

No comments: