Field of Science

Can a parrot really talk? (So long, Alex)

Alex the Parrot, research subject and beloved friend of Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis and Harvard Universities, died last week. This may be the first parrot to merit an obituary in the New York Times. The parrot was famous for being able to not just name objects, but count them -- something not all human cultures do. Alex could also name the colors of objects.

A colleague of mine has actually seen this in action and confirms that it is really true. Alex was no doubt a very remarkable birrd, but that doesn't mean tha the parrot could really talk. Clever Hans, an early 20th century phenomenon, was a horse that was able to stomp out the answers to simple math problem with his hooves. It turned out that Hans didn't actsually know the answer to 3 + 3, but he did know to watch the behavior of his human observers. Whenever he noticed his owner getting excited, he knew that if he stopped stomping right then, he'd get a horsey treat.

The question, then, is whether Alex really used words as symbolic labels for colors, or if he was just very good at getting crackers. Dr. Pepperberg has been met with a lot of skepticism, partly because she is actually trained as a chemist, not as a linguist, psychologist or even biologist. Even my colleague, who admires Dr. Pepperberg greatly, isn't convinced that the professor uses the proper controls in her experiments to rule out simpler explanations for Alex's behavior.

Another reason to be skeptical is that there is a long history of animal language hoaxes. By "hoax," I don't mean that the researcher is pulling a fast one. Clever Hans's owner really believed his horse could complete math problems. The most famous example, though, is Koko the gorilla.

Koko, trained by Dr. Francine Patterson, is said to be able to use more than 1,000 words from American Sign Language and to understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. She was the inspiration for the talking gorilla in Michael Crichton's novel Congo. The problem with Koko, is that her conversations are always interpreted by her trainers, who can be rather fanciful in ascribing meaning to the ape's gestures.

The best way to see this is to read Koko's Internet chat from 1998. Here are some excerpts:

HaloMyBaby: Is Koko aware that she's chatting with thousands of people now?
LiveKOKO: Good here.
DrPPatrsn: Koko is aware.

Patterson's translation seems reasonable, if a stretch, but look at the next question:

HaloMyBaby: Koko are you going to have a baby in the future?
LiveKOKO: Pink


It continues:

DrPPatrsn: What about a baby? She's thinking...
LiveKOKO: Unattention
DrPPatrsn: She covered her face with her hands...which means it's not happening, bascially, or it hasn't happened yet.

Or maybe she's playing peekaboo.

HaloMyBaby: What are the names of your kittens? (and dogs?)
LiveKOKO: foot
DrPPatrsn: Foot isn't th e name of your kitty
HaloMyBaby: Koko, what's the name of your cat?
LiveKOKO: no
Question: Do you like to chat with other people?
LiveKOKO: fine nipple
DrPPatrsn: Nipple rhymes with people. She doesn't sign people per se, she was trying to do a "sounds like..."

I don't know of anybody who has accused Patterson of a hoax. It seems like she really believes that Koko talks. But the evidence isn't very compelling.

Koko is by all accounts a remarkable ape. Alex may be one of the brightest animals alive. But are they really talking, or just "aping," as it were, language?

The NYT piece ended by saying that as Dr. Pepperberg left the lab the last evening that Alex was alive, "Alex looked at her and said: 'You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.'" Here's a quote from the Language Log:

"It's certainly not unimpressive that Alex had apparently learned to associate the quoted string of words above with being put back in his cage for the night. Call me callous, but I can't help thinking that Alex's last words would have been very different if Dr. Pepperberg and her associates had taken to saying 'see you later, bird-brain' to Alex every night."

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Watch this video with Alan Alda, Dr. Pepperberg, and Alex, if you haven't already done so. Go to "Entertaining Parrots":

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