At the risk of sounding heartless, the death of Alex the Talking Parrot last week leaves some of us, who have worked in the same department with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a bit relieved. It was certainly bordering on irritating when those of us studying animal behavior using less glamorous species were putting in the long weekends to raise our sample sizes in order to make our work acceptable to the reviewers of actual science journals, while Dr. Pepperberg cranked out dozens of papers in such publications as the Journal of Comparative Psychology and Language Sciences, and was recruited to various appointments in science and psychology departments at the University of Arizona, MIT and Harvard using data from a single, often disagreeable, bird.
Certainly Dr. Pepperberg played the media like a fiddle, making her attractive as a “researcher” because of all the publicity she drew to that one bird. She laments Alex’s passing in many respects, surely, but partly because after over 25 years of training, Alex still had not had the chance to show the world what a genius he was:
Alex could pull together a few simple concepts. Show him a group of objects and he could tell you, “What color is wood and four-corner?” or, “What shape is paper and purple?” Dr. Pepperberg was hoping to train Alex to spin his own recursions, informing her that the nut was “in the blue cup that’s on the tray” or “in the yellow box on the chair.”
“I wish we had gotten further,” Dr. Pepperberg wrote in an e-mail message. “We were just beginning to get him to designate things like ‘in’ and ‘on.’ “
Fortunately, though, he did last long enough to have a human’s entire career built around him. Perhaps the two other parrots Pepperberg is training will achieve greater heights of language skill than Alex did. Still, one cannot help but wonder why Dr. Pepperberg never seemed to last more than a few years at a given institution. Perhaps it was her uninterest in interacting with her colleagues, which seemed to indicate that she had nothing of value to learn from such an interaction. Perhaps when the novelty of her research wore off at a given institution, the realization finally dawned that her career’s work has added little of value to our body of scientific knowledge.
Sample size is a critical issue in science. Data from one individual (or even three individuals) are marginally useful at best because there is so much variation among individuals. What if an alien came to earth and collected data about the linguistic abilities of humans based on conversations with only Franklin Roosevelt? What if its data were based on conversations with a high school drop out with an IQ of 60? (or President Bush? Sorry, couldn’t help that one.) Its conclusions would be quite different in the two cases.
Another problem with teaching animals English in order to draw conclusions about how their brain works is that we are testing them in a context that has no evolutionary relevance for their species. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists were interested in Alex’s data, given more study about African grey parrots social structure in their natural habitat – because “language” is all about communication with others of one’s same species. Unfortunately, although Dr. Pepperberg gave lip service to exploring such research directions in the future when that is what her colleagues wanted to hear, she never seemed much interested in actually pursuing that avenue (and a glance through her long reference list does not indicate any publications devoted to the parrots in the wild).
So people can argue forever about Alex’s true abilities, parsing his every word and knowing glance, but what biologist can really muster any interest in the conclusion of that discussion? It will tell us nothing about Comparative Psychology, because all we have is an inadequate sample size about an animal living in a cage in a lab, interacting mostly with humans. But perhaps the Language Scientists love all the hullabaloo for inspiring passionate discussions about whether and how any species other than humans can use language. Perhaps training Alex had some purpose after all, but it was not science.