R.I.P. Alex

Here's something you don't see every day— a New York Times obit for a parrot. A taste:

Scientists have long debated whether any other species can develop the ability to learn human language. Alex’s language facility was, in some ways, more surprising than the feats of primates that have been taught American Sign Language, like Koko the gorilla, trained by Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org in Woodside, Calif., or Washoe the chimpanzee, studied by R. Allen and Beatrice Gardner at the University of Nevada in the 1960s and 1970s. When, in 1977, Dr. Pepperberg, then a doctoral student in chemistry at Harvard, bought Alex from a pet store, scientists had little expectation that any bird could learn to communicate with humans. Most of the research had been done in pigeons, and was not promising.

But by using novel methods of teaching, Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to recognize small numbers, as well as colors and shapes. “The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains,” said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College who works with dolphins and elephants. “That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe.”

And the poignant last bit:
Like parrots can, he also picked up one-liners from hanging around the lab, like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He could express frustration, or apparent boredom, and his cognitive and language skills appeared to be about as competent as those in trained primates. His accomplishments have also inspired further work with African Grey parrots; two others, named Griffin and Arthur, are a part of Dr. Pepperberg’s continuing research program.

Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes eloquently in the NYT on the lessons Alex might teach us. Here's a taste:

"A truly dispassionate observer might argue that most Grey parrots could probably learn what Alex had learned, but only a microscopic minority of humans could have learned what Alex had to teach. Most humans are not truly dispassionate observers. We’re too invested in the idea of our superiority to understand what an inferior quality it really is. I always wonder how the experiments would go if they were reversed — if, instead of us trying to teach Alex how to use the English language, Alex were to try teaching us to understand the world as it appears to parrots."

1 comment:

Eva Yaa Asantewaa said...

This is one of the most amazing and moving tributes I've ever read. The ending touched my heart so much.