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Alex Can Think

Say's Phoebe - San Antonio NM, April 15, 2010

Animal researchers are finally beginning to catch up to the little old ladies in tennis shoes who say Fifi the poodle can think. The fights are always between a big group of experts who think animals don't have a lot of feelings or aren't very smart, and a much smaller group of researchers who think there's a lot more going on inside an animal's head than we know. The really nasty fights always seem to go one way: it's always the animal "debunkers" who are on the attack. At least, I don't remember a single big academic fight where someone got fired or lost their funding for doing a study where the animal turned out to be dumber than people thought, and lots of studies like that have been done. Claiming that an animal can't do something isn't considered blasphemous.

Fortunately, it's gotten a lot more respectable to argue that animals are smarter than we realize, One of the main research teams we can thank for that is Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her twenty-five-year old African gray parrot, Alex. Alex has now reached the cognition level of a normal four-to-six-year-old child.

His achievements are nothing short of revolutionary, because until Alex came along no one had ever been able to teach birds much of anything at all. It wasn't because they hadn't tried, either. Bird researchers had spent hours and hours trying to teach birds concepts like color, and no bird had even come close to figuring out, Birds couldn't even learn labels for familiar objects, something everyone agreed apes could do, Even though experts were extremely skeptical of the language abilities of apes like Kanzi, who was said to have receptive language equivalent to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old child, it was obvious that you could teach an ape a huge amount. But birds seemed like real birdbrains, (Receptive language means language you can understand, as opposed to expressive language, which is the language you can use to speak or write.)

So it was a huge shock when Dr, Pepperberg succeeded where every single person before her had failed. Not only could Alex learn categories like color and shape, which no bird had ever done before, he learned them easily. Also, once he'd learned the categories, he could spontaneously answer questions like "What color?" and "What shape?" about brand-new objects he'd never seen before.

This means Alex was learning abstract categories like color and shape, not just concrete categories like "cat" and "dog,"


Animal behaviorists always assumed that if forming abstract categories is hard for children, it was probably impossible for animals.

Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin, p242

Read Alex Can Spell too. And also: "That Damn Bird," A Talk with Irene Pepperberg

clipped March 15, 2005

Collection: Philosophy

I Ain't What I Was
Alex Can Spell
Alex Can Think
Beware of Hypnotic Media
When Hope Dies
Commitment is the Glue that Binds
Concentrated Space Intensifies Everything
Frustration Between People in Creative and Non-creative Universes
The Credential of the Dominant
Lifestyle's Supports and the Difficulty of Understanding
Digging Your Toes
Digitally Thin
Do We Really Mean What We Say
That's the Point of Emotions: Survival
Ever Tried, Ever Failed
Finding a Balance in Execution, Reflection and Articulation
Finding the Words to Fit It
First Find What's Truly Significant
Fit In Better
Float Your Ideals
From Knowledge to Wisdom
Genetic Determinism and Human Nature
God made mud. God got lonesome.
Growing up... it never stops
Skepticism is Helpful
How Do You Know
Haunted Until his Humanity Awakens
Gets Me Into My Boots
It's Time to Go Home
It was the Crickets
Leaving Home
Life is Strange
Life is to be Lived, Not Controlled
Make No Little Plans
Mix With the World
More Toward Realism than Fantasy
I Mourn the World in Which I Live
Normal Damage
There is Nothing a Man Will Not Do for Another
Now, Dazzled
Transcript of Barack Obama's Speech on Race and Politics
Observational Learning
One Forgets
Others Choose the Path of Healing
Our Peripheral Existence
Over Fifty
Passing Time in Byzantium
Our Past is Written Deep
People are Themselves
Persistent and Ineradicable Instinct
Playing and Learning and Loving
Politics and the English Language
Primary and Secondary Emotions
Proficiency in Knowledge of the World
Relive Your Traumas
Running With the Pack
The SEEKING Circuit
Shopping for sensation
Sincerity Itself is Bullshit
Or So I Feel
The Speed of Wisdom
Stay What You Always Were
That Ideas Should Freely Spread
The Bottom Line
A Theory of the State
The Speed of Darkness
Our Three Brains
Tools for Communicating
To Remember Safely
I Tremble for my Species
Truth and Story
Something Useful Can Be Artful
The Value of Notebooks
The Value of Time
Vision, Novelty and Fear
Visual Thinkers
A Voyage and a Harbor
Walk Humbly
Walking the edge, I am. ...
Was Love Then
What a Deale
What I've Learned
Ask What Surprised Them
Words Get in the Way
Writing From the Inside Out