Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Alex the Parrot

Not that it is exactly central to the topic of this blog, but having assumed, without conscious effort, the identity of our mascot, we cannot but say Goodbye to one of our own. Thus, Alex, the 31-year-old show parrot, who appeared with Alan Alda on PBS, passed away last week. Surviving Alex were several researchers, his distant cousins Arthur and Griffin, and not a few worms. (Well, I don't really know if this exceptional bird had a normal avian appetite.)

Alex, who
was a veritable John Stuart Mill of jungle birds, apparrotly spoke seven languages by the time he was 11. Okay, four languages by 23. Well, not quite one by the time he was 30, but still.... He learned to identify colors, shapes, numbers, and textures by name, a little more than some art critics I know, and he could use certain expressions in contextually appropriate ways. For example, if my ex-wife walked into the room Alex might say, "Calm down!" Whereas if it were George W. Bush who walked in, Alex would probably go with "Pull out!" Rumor has it that he once told Noam Chomsky, "Generative grammar is a Platonist myth!", and Chomsky chirped back that Alex was using language laden with colonialist metaphors. To which Alex merely said, "Squawck!" An even more apocryphal story has it that unknown to Alex's researchers, the night porter was also striking up conversations with him, leading Alex to blurt out in mixed company, "Damn, out of toilet paper again!" People took a step back. (Note that these anecdotes have not been confirmed by authoritative sources and probably never will be, alas.)

Even what has been confirmed about Alex's capabilities has not been confirmed. For example, Alex supposedly uttered complex and emotionally appropriate goodbye statements. According to his obit in the Times (9/11/07 A23), the night before he passed away he told Dr. Pepperberg, "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you." Very touching, but Alex's Wikipedia entry, quoting his MSNBC obit, has it that Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex's trainer, said that herself, and the Winged Wonder replied "You'll be in tomorrow". The latter version is a bit less evocative, though a helluva lot more surprising, since it suggests that Alex was not only able to understand the perspectival difference "I" vs. "you", but infer from "(I'll) see you" to "You'll be in". (Maybe the NBC peacock was so jealous of Alex's plumage that he arranged to turn viewers' attention to his intellect instead?) Personally, I'll go out on a limb and say that even the illustrious Alex probably did not make inferences of this sort. At any rate, this is clearly not what we call confirmed. Wittgenstein no doubt had a good laugh when he thought up his remark about trying to confirm something by looking in two copies of the morning newspaper (apropos of verifying that you've remembered something correctly by looking it up in your own mind, or something like that). But is it really funny that the Times and MSNBC report contradictory versions of the same story? How well do they do when reporting on the war in Iraq?

(Update Monday 9/17/07: I received an email from Maggie Wright of www.AfricanGrays.com who replied on behalf of Dr. Pepperberg and confirmed that the final words were those printed in the Times. Halleleujah, there is order in the universe! (No, not because the Times got it right, because I got it right! Squawck! See also the latest Times stories on this subject, including an editorial on 9/12, and "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End", on 9/11, not to mention a bunch of letters. And see this lengthy exchange on Slashdot while you're at it. Go, Alex! I can think of Presidents who got less attention when they died! Then again, I can think of Presidents who give a bad name to the word "birdbrain". And I now understand now why they say a bird in the hand in worth two bushes. Or something like that.)

But seriously folks - do parrots actually talk, or rather speak, or do they just imitate sounds, which happen to be words? One would assume that the Dr. Pepperbergs of the world are inclined to call it talking of some sort, or else why would they spend their time conversing with feathered bipeds? Yet Wikipedia also cites Dr. Pepperberg as calling it "complex two-way communication" - perhaps a reference to the fact that Alex still did most of his tricks in order to get a reward. Alex knew maybe 100-150 words, which to my knowledge is about 2900 short of basic minimum literacy. He could use individual words and a few expressions correctly, but a human being with that level of linguistic skill would be considered hopelessly mentally defective. One of the more interesting claims is that Alex could put together words to make new sentences, which is to say that Alex understood the concepts and not just the consequences of one behavior vs. another. Some concepts he allegedly understood are same, different, bigger, smaller, and number concepts up to six. Does this mean that if you showed him a big blue circle and a small red triangle he would say, "Blue circle bigger than red triangle"? Or would it be, "Red triangle smaller than blue circle"? No idea, but for a couple of cashews I'd try it myself.

Some people have their doubts about animal intelligence claims. "There's no evidence of recursive logic, and without that you can't work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar", the Times quotes former Psychology professor David Premack as saying. "Digital numbers"? Did he really say that? And he's talking about parrot intelligence? Squawck! (Please email me the next time you meet a nondigital digit, thanks. Or does he mean that parrots can only deal with Roman numerals? So they're no brighter than, say, Cicero?) The point about recursive logic sounds more important, but what exactly does he mean? Brooklyn parrots use only cursive logice: "Get the &%$#^*)& off my lamppost!", for example. Most other parrots don't even curse, so they surely can't recurse.

As for logic, that's a different story. Suppose you have just learned to say "Yellow banana bigger than round cherry". Then you learn, "Red cherry bigger than green pea", and finally "Green watermelon bigger than yellow banana". If you are an even minimally intelligent human you should now be disposed to say many other things, such as: "Yellow banana bigger than green pea", "Green watermelon bigger than green pea", etc.; and if you add just one or two more concepts, even some quantifications: "Some yellow things smaller than some green things", "Some things of same color different sizes", etc. This does not involve recursion, but mere generalization. By my lights, even that is too much for parrots - at least, the ones who don't write blogs. And for chimps and porpoises and other Highly Intelligent Creatures.

All animals use practical logic of a sort; animals can clearly learn, and all learning involves reasoning, albeit usually quite rudimentary, from instances to rules. That means the instances have to be seen as belonging to types, things that can have many particular occurences, and the animal has to apply the type to the individual situation and behave according to what happened last time the type was encountered. Once the bear gets kicked in the teeth by a moose he'd better reason "moose - kick in teeth - avoid hind legs". But this is all what we usually call inductive logic. As soon as we find an animal that shows even the slightest appreciation of deductive logic - that understands even the simplest Aristotelian syllogism (e.g., All men are mortal - Socrates is a man - Therefore Socrates is mortal) - we'd better call on the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey to take us to the next stage of evolution.

Parrots get lots of media attention. There are the four who were allegedly being used last year by landlord Stephen Kates to drive the tenants out of his building on 18th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. There was the Science Times interview with Joseph M. Forshaw, a leading parrotologist. There are light rock stations spinning Margaritaville every few days. Now there's Alex - and his similarly trained but less talented buddies Griffin and Arthur. Pretty soon there will be a parrot candidate for President. Everyone else is running, after all, and for the most part they don't do much more than screech what they think the public wants to hear, like Alex did for his trainers. But Alex supposedly had an 80% accuracy rate in his trained responses. Perhaps Alex's untimely death is a blessing in disguise. Had Bush, Obama, Clinton, Thompson, or Romney managed to hire him as a PR consultant we might be treated to even more insincere, opportunistic speeches than we are now. I'm glad we have so many parrots in Brooklyn, and Florida, and not too unhappy that we have them in university research labs, as long as they're treated well. But D.C. area ecology is already unbalanced enough, creating odd evolutionary phenomena, such as hawks that suddenly turn into doves when they think public opinion is going that way. And vultures who feed on easy prey and then claim great victories against terrorism. No, it is a good thing that Alex never made it to D.C. At least his secret is safe from that jungle now. (Arthur, Griffin, don't get any ideas...)


Anonymous said...

gawd what a load of scheisse................

H.A. Monk said...

I could exercise my Executive privileges and detoxify the site from the above comment, but I prefer to leave it as evidence that while parrots may defecate in their cages, it takes a human to do it on a blog.