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.