Not the parrot sketch

2 minute read

The New Yorker has a fascinating article about Irene Pepperberg and the way people are grieving over her deceased parrot, Alex:

In Wheaton, she quietly worked the crowd into a pleasurable state of shared outrage. At one point, she said that colleagues had admonished her, "Birds can't do what you say he can do. They just don't have the brainpower." Linnea Faris, a woman from Michigan who was wearing a "Remember Alex" T-shirt, shook her head in disbelief. Faris told me, "My husband doesn't really understand it. I can't fully explain it myself. But I've spent hours crying over that damn bird." She went on, "People used to think birds weren't intelligent. Well, they used to think women weren't intelligent, either. They talked about the smaller circumference of our skulls as though it made us inferior to men! You know what? They were wrong on both counts."

The article gives a bit of historical background to studies of intelligence in animals, from Descartes and Darwin through C. Lloyd Morgan and B. F. Skinner. Oh, and the obligatory “Clever Hans” story.

Also, a lot of more current research on animal intelligence, including crows. I liked this part about a smart crow named Betty, which seems to solve problems that other crows have trouble with:

Though some crows, like Betty, cracked the challenge quickly, others took many tries; still others never mastered it. Watching videos of Betty on Kacelnik's Web site, I noticed that she seemed to have a particularly focussed and alert way about her. Even Kacelnik, who is loath to anthropomorphize, confessed to me, "An element of our finding that still puzzles me is that while Betty was not chosen or treated in any special way, she was different. She showed a readiness to coperate and solve problems that none of the other animals in our study have replicated. We have no idea why."

And to my mind, the saddest statement in the whole article, which echoes a conversation I was having yesterday:

"Irene's work could not really have been planned ahead, as nobody knew what was possible. . . . Alex's development as a unique animal accompanied Irene's as a unique scientist. Hers is not a career trajectory one would advise to young scientists--it's too risky."

It shouldn’t have been viewed as risky at all! The worst that could happen is a confirmation of the previous biases against significant learning capacity. But there was nothing in theory that didn’t permit what turned out to be the case, and plenty of anecdotal evidence in support. When Darwin cited correspondences with animal breeders in support of the idea of heritable variation, that’s good science, reaching out to the edges of what people knew about heredity. Pepperberg began to reach out to the edges of what people know about animal learning.

Frankly, I admire her (and her assistants) the most for their ability to run through the incredible degree of repetition necessary to test these kinds of learning with the parrots. One passage in the article notes that Pepperberg collaborated with an autism researcher on the effects of similar teaching methods (with some success). It’s a good comparison in terms of the required patience, also. I think that few researchers are really cut out for the kind of work that Pepperberg does, and that may contribute to some lack of understanding of the results and their limits.