December 9, 2008

Alex The Talking Parrot

I recently listened to a Fresh Air interview with Irene Pepperburg about her research with Alex, an African Grey Parrot. Over the course of 30 years, in similar fashion to Koko the gorilla, Pepperburg trained Alex to speak, the only difference being that parrots do not need to use sign language. By the time of his death in 2007, he had a vocabulary of 150 words, could identify colors and objects, and could use his vocabulary to respond to new concepts. You can watch some examples of his abilities on YouTube.

The story of Pepperburg and Alex reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago entitled, When Elephants Weep. It chronicles a great deal of research conducted over the years on animal behavior, looking specifically at instances that indicated that animals are capable of experiencing a wide variety of emotion. The chapters are divided according to emotion, beginning with those easiest to identify, such as fear and love. By the final chapter, the authors are providing much more controversial examples, such as bears taking the time to appreciate a sunset.

What struck me in both these stories was the resistance that these scientists have faced from the scientific community at large. Many scientists vehemently oppose this kind of research, even though it is based on scientific data and observation. Is it really any surprise that animals share the same kinds of emotional capacity has humans? Where do these scientists think human emotion evolved from? And how does the fact that animals are intelligent and capable of emotion somehow make me less human?

Of course, in light of this research, the efforts of activists to win government recognition for animal rights make even more sense.

Lyric of the Day
Our ideas held no water
But we used them like a dam

Missed The Boat
-Modest Mouse

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