The Last Study

As a human being, I feel comfortable saying that human beings are pretty cool. When I walk the streets of a metropolis like New York City, I am forever conscious of the fact that the glassine canyons of iron and steel that form the city’s face are man-built. Every little bit of our civilization—every road sign, every hot dog stand, every muttered “Excuse me” and “Thank you”—is a quick reminder of what humans have managed to understand, and then build. Language, architecture, design, foresight, empathy: we are a brilliant species. Our accomplishments scrape the sky.

It is easy, and always has been, to look down from the height of our accomplishments and feel that the rest of creation, non-human life, is far below us. It is easy to be anthropocentric, to feel that we are a “pinnacle” of evolution. That’s where labs like the Pepperberg Lab, and other organizations that study animals and their cognition, come into play. Sure, we built this city and that city—but the pigeons winging through the streets have capabilities, whole senses and potential comprehensions, that we still struggle to understand. And when it comes to our own abilities, we’re constantly finding that we’re not as alone as we might think.

The fifth anniversary of Alex’s death is on September 6. It’s a big date for us at the lab. Alex the African grey was so impressive in his abilities, so useful to our understanding, and indeed so beloved that he was eulogized in The Economist. It seems fitting that the last information that Alex gave us on his cognitive abilities—the last data collected in the weeks leading up to his death—will be printed in the journal Animal Cognition this year. The article has already been published online, and can be found here.

The Last Study

Bear with me while I explain what was found, because it’s interesting. Every experiment begins with a specific question. The broad question, in this case, was “How much can a parrot understand about numbers?” We already knew that Alex understood a lot. For one thing, he had learned that Arabic numerals—a plastic 1, 2, 3, etc., the kind your toddler might play with—represented actual amounts of objects. He also knew that vocally saying 1, or 2, or 3, etc., worked as an answer to a question of amount. He got these questions right most of the time. In addition to numerical representation, Alex had learned to sum groups of objects: if you sequentially showed him a group of 2 wooden blocks, and then a group of 3 blocks, he knew that the correct sum was “5!”

The only one other non-human animal that had mastered both numerical representation and addition like Alex was a chimpanzee named Sheba, who lived at the Ohio State University. Sheba could pick out an Arabic numeral to represent an exact amount, and she could add two groups of objects together, touching a numeral that was the right sum. But Sheba spontaneously went another step: when researchers asked Sheba to add two Arabic numerals like a 1 and a 2, she would pick out the right sum—in this case, a 3.

Humans, of course, are great at addition and numerical representation. But now Sheba, a non-human, had combined the two concepts into the successful addition of numerals, as humans do. Chimps like Sheba are close evolutionary cousins of humans, so perhaps it makes sense that Sheba’s brain is human-like in such a way that she mastered this concept. The last experiment with Alex investigated whether an African grey parrot—an animal which is not a primate, nor even a mammal—could combine these concepts, and add numbers together.

It turns out that he could.

At least, it looks that way. The number of experimental trials is limited, as Alex passed away just as this study was cranking into full gear. But even with the small number of times we asked Alex these addition questions (12 times), he answered correctly a significant amount of the time (9 times).

 

What Does This Mean?

As I’ve said, this means that Alex understood several things that we could have assumed only humans understand. He was able to represent physical amounts with numbers, a substitution which is essential to our ability to create written language, for example. He was also able to add physical amounts together. Then, finally, he was able to add representational numbers together, spontaneously. This encourages our belief that Alex’s symbolic understanding of numbers was solid.

Now, Alex was the first parrot, and the first non-mammal, and even the first non-primate to show this ability! Humans and chimps have shared most of our evolutionary history: our common ancestor lived only about 6 million years ago, an eye-blink in natural history. In many senses, we are practically the same animal (though in many senses, of course, we are definitely not the same animal). It makes sense that we might be able to do a lot of the same tricks with our brains. Parrots, on the other hand, are very different from us indeed. The most recent common ancestor we share with Alex—our most recent great-great-many-greats-grandparent—lived 300 million years ago, and looked a lot like a lizard. There have been a lot of changes since then. So it’s a bit thrilling that Alex could do these complex things with numbers, along with all the other complicated things he understood. We could have assumed all of it was special, a unique human thing, like skyscrapers and hot dogs and sarcasm. But if a bird can add 1 + 2 and get 3, what else can they do? What else can all living things do?

We’re not the only special ones after all.

7 Comments
  1. Awesome Megan I love the way it was written. What a tribute to Alex.

    Cindy L

  2. Megan…
    Very nice presentation. This is so amazing that Alex was able to do this & what could he have accomplished if he hadn’t passed away. I’m glad the studies arwe continuing with Griffin & Wart.

    Cryste L.

  3. I hope these studies will eventually prove what many ‘parents’ of these amazing feathered babies already know – they are much smarter than most people believe. Alex was an amazing, wonderful creature, and an inspiration to us as caretakers and parents to our two Greys. Best wishes for continued success with your studies with Griffin and Wart.

  4. Those of us with Greys are not surprised at all by these findings. Alex was a distinguished member of a truly superior species.

  5. nope,not surprised at all! I always say my grey,Shadow, knows just what we are talking about. He answers questions correctly most of the time,and he is no Alex! They are amazing birds!

  6. An excellent article, Megan. Alex was an amazing bird, and if I had not seen Dr. Pepperberg on a television program, I may never have known how intelligent they are. I am fortunate to have my wonderful companion, Grady. I look forward to the continuing studies with Griffin and Wart. Good luck with your studies.

    Sue

  7. Asking a parrot to identify a red plastic ‘8’ is trying to identify human abilities in the parrot. I thought we had enough humans already and didn’t need to recruit more from among the parrots.

    I suspect the reason the parrot didn’t know ‘8’ earlier was that he didn’t need to – parrots don’t usually need to write down things in their daily coming-and-goings. This is not to say that their daily activity in the wild is any less complex and challenging than our activity in our world. Some may believe humans are at the pinnacle of evolution, “made in God’s image,” but all life, animals, plants, microbes – the entire biota – have arrived at this moment in time together, each having defied nature’s challenges and won the right to stand, for a moment, at the advancing edge of time as it expands into the Cosmos.

    I wonder what capabilities the parrot has that we don’t know about because they lie outside the nature of human physiology and experience. I bet a parrot could teach us a whole lot about flying in dense forests with narrowly spaced obstacles (trees) in low-visibility conditions (rain.) This could be useful research for miniature drone applications for all sorts of uses, including military.

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