Alex, the famous talking African gray parrot, died last night. Hislast words to his trainer were "You be good, see you tomorrow. I loveyou." His trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis, had studied and worked with the parrot for over thirty years. Realizing African parrots are social animals, she developed a method of training him by having another researchers compete for food, using words as part of the competition. Alex learned the human words in order to get the grape faster and so forth, but also learned a variety of phrases ("Calm down!" and "Good morning!") that he would say, in appropriate situations, to humans. Scientists like David Premack, of the University of Pennsylvania, warn that Alex and other "talking animals" (such as Koko, the famous Signing gorrilla) don't really have human abilities because they do not have "recursive logic," meaning they can't work with digital numbers or complex human grammars. Your point, sir? Neither can humans fly or perform hundreds of complex nonverbal communicative acts that birds, dolphins, and other animals perform with ease. And, indeed, we're not so great at translating our form of speech into animal speech. In virtually all of these studies, it is the animal who learns human language and then makes the translation from his linguistic system to ours, a tremendously complex cognitive act. As anyone who has tried to learn another language knows, it's not easy. Learning one in a different system (such as a Westerner learning Chinese or Japanese) is more difficult. And learning one across species is phenomenal. Alex is a genius. And a loving one. My guess is that Dr. Pepperberg is grieving for him today. May Alex rest in peace and my condolences to his (human and animal) loved ones.
[Pls note, this Flickr image is of another African parrot, not Alex, but here just so you can see what they look like. The YouTube video is of another African parrot, Einstein, making animal and other noises. Note how stupid the human observers look!]