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The Alex Studies:
When Irene Pepperberg, a professor at the University of Arizona, says goodnight, she typically hears the reply "Bye. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow." Though the response itself is not unusual, the source is, for it comes from Alex, a gray parrot, Pepperberg's main research subject for the past 22 years. That parrots can talk is well known; what Pepperberg set out to study was their cognitive abilities. By teaching the bird the meaning--not just the sound--of words in order to communicate, she hoped to discover how his brain worked. She exhaustively details her fascinating results in The Alex Studies.
Pepperberg bought Alex--a parrot of average intelligence and without lofty pedigree or training--from a pet store when he was 1. Since working with Pepperberg, he has developed a 100-word vocabulary and can identify 50 different objects, recognizing quantities up to six, distinguishing seven colors and five shapes, and understanding the difference between big and small, same and different, over and under. He can tell you, for instance, that corn is yellow even if there is no corn in view, as well as correctly select the square object among various shapes and identify it verbally. What this all means, stresses Pepperberg, is that Alex is not merely parroting but actually thinking; he bases answers on reason rather than instinct or mimicry.
Though the anecdotes are rich and Alex makes a lively subject, this is principally a research paper relying on intricate details and a prodigious amount of data (the notes and references alone run to 79 pages). This is not light reading, particularly for the layperson. Still, The Alex Studies manages to be more than a valuable contribution to science, for in providing ample evidence of our similarities to other creatures, the book ultimately calls into question the concept of human supremacy over the animal kingdom. Pepperberg's stated goal is "to provoke awareness in humans that animals have capacities that are far greater than we were once led to expect, and to remind us that all we need to examine these capacities are some enlightened research tools." She has provided such tools in this seminal work. --Shawn Carkonen [via]