Animal Einsteins

A few days ago, one of the byproducts of an Internet search turned up a reference to Alex the Parrot. If you don’t know about Alex, he was a grey parrot who learned how to count, and some folks say even understood numerical concepts. That last part is something many of us humans never seem to master.

Alex was trained by Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University psychologist.  He learned to add sets of objects – crackers and jellybeans were evident favorites – and get the correct total.  He could only add up to 8 however which means he had slim chance of passing second grade.  He also learned to put numbers (colored refrigerator magnets) in correct order up to eight and he could relate the numerical symbols to the right number of objects.  Experiments that Pepperberg performed with Alex seemed to indicate that the bird was not cued by the trainer, but actually understood the relationships between the number of objects and the abstract concept of the number that represented the set. It may be unkind to note that parrots have four “toes” on each foot.  This limitation would certainly have posed a problem in learning multiplication, but it might have been beneficial in learning computer programming.

While all of this may sound vaguely amusing, it is part of our human efforts to understand the development of intelligence.  Alex took us a way down the road to understanding that creatures other than ourselves may be capable of representing things symbolically – like the notion that “8” can represent a cluster of eight individual marbles – or jellybeans.

Alex departed this earth a bit eerily as well.  It is reported that one day in September 2007 Alex said to Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.” He was found dead the next day of what was described as a “heart event.”  Some of the research papers describing his abilities have been published posthumously earlier this year.
Alex is only one animal in a long line of animal Einstein’s. Clever Hans was a famous counting horse, Washoe was a chimpanzee who learned American sign language and a cockatoo named Figaro apparently makes tools which is a talent largely reserved for human beings. Fortunately for us, the cockatoo makes relatively simple tools; we are not talking rocket science here.

It is tempting, as a human being, to discount all of this as trickery or training.  In some cases it has been.  Clever Hans was a nineteenth century counting horse who could provide correct answers to various mathematical problems by tapping out the answer with its hoof.  The horse, owned by Wilhelm von Osten became famous enough to attract scientific interest and various tests were devised to learn whether Hans could count or if there were trickery involved.  The outcome of the tests was complicated.  It appears there was no deliberate trickery – von Osten believed his horse could count, but that the horse had learned to interpret subtle cues that helped it to the right “answer.” Von Osten was devastated.

On the language front, Washington had its own star.  Washoe a chimpanzee thought to be the first animal to learn a human language was housed in the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.  The chimpanzee learned and could use about 250 American Sign Language signs to express even abstract concepts like happiness and sadness and to describe objects that were not in the same room.  Wahoe was even said to teach signing to another chimp.  

Most recently there has been news of a tool making cockatoo named Figaro who makes little rakes to pull objects outside its cage to a point within beak reach.  Figaro not only makes these little rakes by chewing a big splinter off his perch, but makes new ones every time they are needed.  This is pretty complicated behavior and reminiscent of chimpanzees who make simple tools in the wild to catch termites – a favorite food.  We may be impressed with Figaro’s diligence and with the capability needed to fashion a tool to do a specific job, but it still reminds us a bit of friends who can never find their 10 millimeter wrench and have to run to the hardware store to get a new one.

All of these animal performances are impressive and they advance our knowledge of the development of the brain and behavior even as we try to understand how our own ancestors developed the ability to speak and count. Fortunately for our species and our own sense of pride, there is no indication that Alex was able to balance a checkbook.

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