Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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He was not ours, he was not mine.
Thank you for sharing him with us.
He brought us much joy. We loved him well.

— Irene Pepperberg (p. 226), modified from Karen Blixen’s
eulogy for Denys Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa.

As a scientist who studies, lives with, and even breeds and hand-feeds parrots, it is easy for me to empathize with Irene Pepperberg, the author of the long-awaited book with the awkward title, Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process (NYC: Harper Collins; 2008). This small but fascinating book tells the thirty year story of Pepperberg’s life with Alex, the African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus erithacus, that was both her scientific colleague and her research subject who — dare I even mention this? — ended up being her closest, longest friend.

This captivating memoir is an extraordinary love story, first and foremost, although it does provide some basic information about the topics and methods associated with research into animal cognition. It also provides a brief but much-needed glimpse into scientific research and the challenges that women in particular must face in this male-dominated world.

As you read this book, you will quickly realize that the relationship between Pepperberg and Alex was far more substantial than the slimness of the book suggests, and their time together was more interesting and complex than the obituaries imply. In this book, you will read how Pepperberg’s research career developed: you will catch very brief glimpses into Pepperberg’s lonely and loveless childhood; how her pet parakeets formed the early basis of her emotional connection to the world in general; how her innate intelligence and persistence carried her to the pinnacle of higher education when she earned a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry from Harvard University; and how she realized her true professional calling was investigating animal cognition rather than interactions between molecules.

In this personal memoir, we watch their relationship change from researcher and subject into that of colleagues, into that of friends, who shared a common intellectual goal and an abiding emotional bond. For example, we learn that Alex became jealous when Pepperberg interacted with other parrots; that Alex was bossy and headstrong and had a sense of humor; that Alex loved to dance. Oh, and we learn that Alex and Pepperberg sometimes argued — like a married couple? As we read about Alex, we, like the author, are charmed, and we too, fall in love with this personable parrot.

Throughout the book, we learn about Pepperberg’s training methods. She used a humane form of training known as the “model/rival method,” which relies upon competion between two rivals for the reward of playing with an object when it is correctly identified. Alex’s cognitive abilities blossomed under this social reward-system. But Pepperberg was very strict in her effort to avoid replicating the “Clever Hans” scenario where a trainer subconsiously provides the subject with the correct answer using body language. To do this, Pepperberg never allowed those who trained Alex to test him. Further, she tested Alex using many different objects at the same time, so he couldn’t anticipate the correct answer based on a small subset of possibilities. She even tested him using novel objects — those he had never seen before.

By the time he was thirty years old, Alex could add and subtract, he could reliably count to six, identify objects and colors, and he sometimes made up names, like “banerry” (for apples — banana plus cherry) –and “cork nut” (for almonds). Amazingly, he could sound out words. And perhaps most astonishing, Alex understood the concept of zero — something that humans didn’t understand until the time of Aristotle. He even used language to express his emotions. For example, when Alex had to stay overnight at the vet’s office for the first time, he pleaded with Pepperberg as she left: “I’m sorry, come here, wanna go back.”

Before his death, Alex and Pepperberg were working with optical illusions, to learn whether parrots perceive the world as humans do. During the few tests she carried out before his death, it appeared that Alex did.

Throughout her thirty years of working with Alex, Pepperberg endured intense criticism from the scientific establishment, occasional professional jealousy from her human colleagues, nearly insurmountable funding challenges, several major relocations from one part of the country to another, and periods of unemployment and other personal sacrifices. Yet, throughout everything, Pepperberg and Alex continued their pioneering work in the new field of animal cognition.

As much as I enjoyed this book, as a scientist, I view it as an introduction, as background information: I encourage interested readers to continue reading about Pepperberg’s training methods in her first, more informative but less well-known book, The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots (Harvard, 2000).

I strongly recommend that Alex and Me be added to the collections of every public library in the country. I also recommend it to every student of psychology and animal behavior, to animal enthusiasts, especially to those who love birds and to those who live with parrots. This powerful and educational memoir will change the way you view animals, particularly birds, and how they think.

Irene Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and she teaches animal cognition at Harvard University. Her work has been featured in print media throughout the world, and on television, including the now-famous interview of Alex by Alan Alda on Scientific American Frontiers. Pepperberg has written one previous book, The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Comments

  1. #1 kamaka
    December 4, 2008

    I got the picture with parrot cognition when I offered a smart, talking macaw a baby pickle. He looked at it with some doubt, gave it a little tongue touch and then asked “Is it good?”

    And the true giveaway that Alex was smart: he told lies.

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