Wednesday, December 3, 2008

You be good

Book review: 'Alex & Me'
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
International Herald Tribune, Monday, December 1, 2008

Alex & Me How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence - and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process By Irene M. Pepperberg Illustrated. 232 pages. Collins. $23.95.

When Alex the African gray parrot died in 2007, the world mourned. The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe ran articles reviewing his life achievements. The Economist devoted its obituary for the week of Sept. 22, 2007, to Alex. (Earlier weeks had featured Luciano Pavarotti and Ingmar Bergman.) ABC News, CNN and National Public Radio did segments about his collaboration with the scientist Irene M. Pepperberg.

"Alex, the African gray parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31," read an obituary in The Guardian of London. "He could count to six, identify colors, understand concepts such as bigger and smaller and had a vocabulary of 150 words. To his supporters he was proof that the phrase 'birdbrain' should be expunged from the dictionary."

As his owner and colleague, Pepperberg writes in her charming new book, "Alex & Me," the parrot she bought in a pet store in 1977 would help open a new window on the capacity of birds and other animals to think and communicate. "Alex taught me to believe that his little bird brain was conscious in some matter, that is, capable of intention," Pepperberg writes. "By extrapolation, Alex taught me that we live in a world populated by thinking, conscious creatures."

In this volume Pepperberg, an associate research professor at Brandeis and a teacher of animal cognition at Harvard, describes her three-decade-long relationship with Alex and her struggle to win recognition from the scientific establishment, which was dominated, when she began working with the parrot, by "the behaviorists' gospel," which held that "animals are automatons, responding mindlessly to stimuli."

In the 1980s, however, "the fortress of human uniqueness came under attack" with the findings of Jane Goodall and others who worked with primates, and Pepperberg proposed to "replicate the linguistic and cognitive skills that had been previously achieved with chimps in a gray parrot, an animal with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, but one that could talk."

Her book movingly combines the scientific detail of a researcher, intent on showing with "statistical confidence" that Alex "did indeed have this or that cognitive ability," with the affectionate understanding that children instinctively possess: that "animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know." While her training as a scientist keeps her from lapsing into sentimentality, her love for her longtime avian colleague keeps her from sounding like a stuffy academic.

Through years of painstaking trials, Pepperberg worked to show that her parrot was not just parroting things he'd heard from his handlers, but that he could also distinguish colors and shapes and sizes, that he understood concepts like "bigger," "same," "different" and perhaps even the existential idea of "none."

Intellectually, Pepperberg said, Alex had the development of a 5-year-old; emotionally, that of a 2-year-old. He could identify objects by their color, size and material; do basic addition; and is said to have had a concept of phonemes, the sounds that make up words.

When Alex was sick of working, Pepperberg reports, he would ignore his handlers, preen his feathers or say, "Wanna go back," meaning he wanted to return to his cage. When he knocked over a coffee cup or gave a wrong answer, he would say, "I'm sorry," suggesting, Pepperberg says, that he'd "learned that 'I'm sorry' is associated with defusing a tense, angry and potentially dangerous moment."

Alex's essential personality, however, was mischievous, supremely confident, even bossy. "Once Alex had learned how to label objects and request things," Pepperberg writes, "he relished the control it gave him over his environment, the ability to manipulate the people around him." Her students joked that they were "Alex's slaves," and he was merciless with new handlers, running through his entire repertory of labels and requests: "Want corn . . . . want nut."

He was easily bored with the repetitious trials created for him, and he could be condescending with the other birds in the lab, correcting them with a brisk "You're wrong" or "Say better." And yet, like most gray parrots, who grow up in the wild in highly socialized communities, Pepperberg writes, Alex "was very empathic": "He could sense when I was particularly blue. He would sit close with me at these times, just being Alex. Not Alex the mischievous imp; not Alex the boss of the lab; not the demanding Alex. Just Alex the empathic presence. He'd sometimes say, 'You tickle,' and bend his head so I could scratch his face. As I did, the white area around his eyes turned a subtle pink, blushing as grays do when being intimate. His eyes would squint almost closed."

Alex died on Sept. 6, 2007, apparently of a fatal arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke. His last words to Pepperberg were: "You be good. I love you."