On the night of Sept. 6th, one of the most famous birds in Biology passed away. He was a one-year-old Grey African parrot when he was bought in 1997 at a pet store by a theoretical chemist turned linguist, and since then until his untimely death 30 years later, never ceased to amaze the linguistic, neurobiological, and psychological worlds. Irene Pepperberg did what other scientists tried to do before her: Probe the intelligence of animals and their capacity to communicate.

 

Others attempted and failed

The most famous case of early “intelligent animals” was “Clever Hans”. This was a horse who could count. Except that it was shown later that he was reacting to unconscious cues from his trainer. Another clever animal was Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee named after the linguist Noam Chomsky, who was thought to be using language but was later shown to have been imitating his trainer.

So why would a level-headed scientist even attempt to tread these treacherous waters?

In the 1970’s, Nicholas Humphrey, a British researcher, theorized that intelligence evolved in response to the social environment, rather than the natural one. The more complex the society an animal lives in, the more intelligence is required for it to succeed. Makes a lot of sense; it can explain the intelligence of apes and humans.

What about the highly complex societies of social insects? Certainly, one would not ascribe intelligence to bees and ants. The answer is that for intelligence to evolve there has to be a rich neurological matrix on which to grow and in which to be embedded. In insects, this condition is far from being fulfilled. So how did evolution deal with this dilemma? By automating behavior. Social insects’ behavior is completely regulated by hormones, pheromones, and visual cues. No individual initiative, no spark of rebelliousness is tolerated. A worker bee which dares to challenge the prescribed order and lays her own eggs is wasting her time and energy—a special detail of bees (the equivalent of “Big Brother”) will simply eat her eggs. George Orwell couldn’t invent a more Orwellian society.

 

Why a parrot?

Attempts were made to teach chimps to speak, but they failed. The reason is obvious: Their vocal cords are anatomically incapable of uttering words. Grunts and hollers are the best they can produce.

So then comes Dr. Pepperberg and she upends the whole premise of research. Rather than trying to force chimps to speak the human language, she decides to work with animals that can utter the human language naturally—and parrots were the obvious choice. More, they also fulfill Humphrey’s postulate that intelligent animals should live in complex societies. Anybody who ever traveled in Africa or the jungles of South America couldn’t but be impressed how social and, in their own way articulate, parrots are.

I still remember a hike in South America, when a flock of white parrots flew from a mountainside aiming directly at us. They settled on a partly denuded tree about 20 feet away, and just watched us as we were watching them; two species fascinated with each other. Finally, the Homo sapiens party decided that it was time to move on. We did not take but a few reluctant steps before the parrots opened up with a deafening protest. We stopped, and they stopped; they just wanted to socialize a bit more. We resumed our walk, and again they raised an incredible racket. Once they realized that this time we meant business, they flew off with one last cacophony of disappointment. I was thinking to myself, these wild birds exhibited not only curiosity but social behavior.

During the thirty years Alex spent in Dr. Pepperberg lab, he attained the intelligence of a 5-year-old child, and still had not reached his full capacity. Pepperberg, listing Alex’s accomplishments in 1999, said he could identify fifty different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different,” and that he was learning “over” and “under”. Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 words but was exceptional in that he appeared to have an understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that, but if there was no difference between the objects, he said “none”. When he was tired of being tested, he would say “I’m gonna go away,” and if the researcher displayed annoyance, Alex tried to defuse it with the phrase, “I’m sorry.” If he said “Wanna banana”, but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. When asked questions in the context of research testing, he gave the correct answer approximately 80% of the time.

 

What does all this mean?

These results upended our preconceived notions about language and intelligence. Here is a species that diverged from us 300 million years ago that could understand us and could carry out a conversation on the level of a five-year-old. To put things in perspective, the chimpanzee, our closest relative diverged from us only 4 million years ago. So we are talking here about an animal that we used to consider relatively “primitive”, and owning a bird brain to boot.

The larger message I’d like to leave you, the reader, with is the remarkable non-uniqueness of Homo sapiens in nature. We thought we had a monopoly on intelligence, on consciousness, on language, on complex social interactions. This was an article of faith. In fact, religion taught us that and gave legitimacy to the wanton destruction we wrought on life around us. Science is now telling us the truth. Will we muster the foresight and courage to change?

 

Last words

According to Dr. Pepperberg, the final time she saw Alex was on Thursday, September 6th. They went through their goodnight routine in which she told him it was time to go in the cage. She recalls that Alex said “You be good. I love you.” She responded, “I love you, too.” He said “You’ll be in tomorrow,” and she responded, “Yes, I’ll be in tomorrow”.

We love you too, Alex.

P.S. Alex died prematurely at age 31 (In nature, a Grey African Parrots’ lifespan is 50). In case you wonder what was the cause of death, it was atherosclerosis, the quintessential disease of civilization.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.