Saturday, February 28, 2009

Alex's Legacy

An article in the latest issue of Discover Magazine describes the last days of Alex, the African gray parrot that taught researchers so much about non-human life.

There are several remarkable debunkings of "common knowledge" in the article. For example, the notion that intelligence derives from the physical structure of the brain--quote:
Animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believed--or, more importantly, were even prepared to concede might be remotely possible.
Note the use of the word "minds". Not "brains".

Even more remarkable is that Irene Pepperberg, the author of the article, takes for granted that we can communicate with animals--she sets out to learn about Alex's perceptions based on the simple fact that she could ask him questions and get reasonable answers.

Concerning Alex's use of language, she says,
This new channel of communication opened a window onto Alex’s mind, revealing to me and to all of us the sophisticated information processing—thinking—going on inside that little grey-and-white feathered head.
And in regards to debunking established thought, she says,
We faced a flurry of goalpost moving, too. Birds can’t learn to label objects, they said.
Alex did.
OK then, birds can’t learn to generalize.
Alex did.
All right then, but they can’t learn concepts.
Alex did.
Well then, they certainly can’t understand "same" versus "different".
Alex did.
And on and on.

Alex was teaching these skeptics about the extent of animal minds, but they [the scientists] were slow, reluctant learners.

Alex taught us that our vanity had blinded us to the true nature of minds, animal and human; that so much more is to be learned about animal minds than received doctrine allowed.
No wonder Alex and I faced so much flak!
An important article. Please read it.

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