October 9, 1999  Ny Times

     A Thinking Bird, or Just Another Birdbrain?

        Join a Discussion on Measuring Intelligence


             TUCSON, Ariz. -- "Calm down," Alex, an African
             Gray parrot, told Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the
        scientist at the University of Arizona who owns him.
        "Don't tell me to calm down," Dr. Pepperberg snapped.
        Sometimes Dr. Pepperberg and Alex squabble like an
        old married couple. He even says, "I love you."

        For the last 22 years, Dr. Pepperberg has been teaching
        Alex, who is 23, to do complex tasks of the sort that
        only a few nonhuman species -- chimpanzees, for
        instance -- have been able to perform. But unlike those
        other creatures, Alex can talk, or at least, he can
        vocalize. And, Dr. Pepperberg says, Alex doesn't just
        imitate human speech, as other parrots do -- Alex can
        think. His actions are not just an instinctive response,
        she says, but rather a result of reasoning and choice.

        Assertions like Dr.
        Pepperberg's are at the
        center of a highly
        emotional debate about
        whether thought is
        solely the domain of
        humans, or whether it
        can exist in other
        animals. Although
        many people are
        intrigued by the idea
        that animals may be
        capable of some form
        of abstract reasoning and communication, scientists
        often ascribe what looks like clever behavior to
        mimicry or rote learning or even, in some cases,
        unconscious cues by a trainer.

        So, just how smart is Alex?

        The question of animal intelligence goes back at least
        to Descartes and his famous aphorism, "I think,
        therefore I am." Animals cannot think, said Descartes,
        and therefore are inferior to humans. And for many
        theologians and philosophers, the ability to think gives
        man a unique closeness to God.

        Parrots, of course, are famous mimics, and some
        parrots have bigger vocabularies than Alex. But no
        parrot, says Dr. Pepperberg, has been able to perform
        tasks as complex as Alex can. And she believes that
        when Alex vocalizes, he is expressing the results of his
        thoughts, not mere mimicry. For instance, when she
        asks Alex what color corn is, he answers yellow, even
        though there is no corn around. This means, she says, he
        has an abstract concept of what the words "color,"
        "corn" and "yellow" mean. He has not simply
        memorized them, but can apply them to different

        Chimpanzees and dolphins have been able to perform
        equally complex tasks, though the tasks differ from
        those given to Alex because of the differences between
        species. But chimps and dolphins, obviously, cannot
        vocalize in the way Alex does.

        Few scientists would dispute that Alex is doing
        something unusual in the history of animal studies. At
        least, his behavior is more advanced than that of most
        other parrots who have been the subject of scientific
        experiments. But scientists differ on the implications of
        Alex's behavior.

        Until now, Dr. Pepperberg has published her work in
        scientific journals, but in January Harvard University
        Press will publish "The Alex Studies," a book
        summarizing her experiments with Alex.

        Dr. Pepperberg bought Alex at a garden-variety pet
        store in Chicago when he was about a year old with the
        idea of studying him. As far as she knew, he had no
        particular pedigree, and she is not even sure whether he
        is particularly smart in relation to other parrots. Now
        she is trying to replicate his training with another Gray
        Parrot, Griffin.

        Dr. Pepperberg, listing Alex's accomplishments, said
        he could identify 50 different objects and recognize
        quantities up to 6; that he could distinguish 7 colors and
        5 shapes, and understand "bigger," "smaller," "same"
        and "different," and that he was learning the concepts of
        "over" and "under." Hold a tray of different shapes and
        colored objects in front of him, as Dr. Pepperberg was
        doing the other day as a reporter watched, and he can
        distinguish an object by its color, shape and the
        material it is made of. (Dr. Pepperberg said she
        frequently changed objects to make sure Alex wasn't
        just memorizing things and that she structured
        experiments to avoid involuntary cues from his

        But today Alex was being recalcitrant.

        Dr. Pepperberg had been away for three weeks at
        M.I.T., where she is a visiting professor this year.
        When she leaves him, she says, Alex chews at his tail
        and wing feathers, giving him a rather threadbare
        appearance, and when she returns he is very
        demanding, turning his back and saying, "Come here!"

        "What matter is orange and three-cornered?" she asked
        Alex, holding the tray of objects in front of him. First,
        Alex had to identify which object was orange and
        three-cornered, and then tell Dr. Pepperberg what it
        was made of. She allowed Alex to pick up the objects
        on the tray with his beak and to "examine" each one.

        But after he finished, instead of giving an answer, Alex
        demanded a nut. "Want a nut," he said clearly, sounding
        almost human. (He also responds to other people's
        commands, Dr. Pepperberg's graduate students for

        "I know, I'll give you a nut," Dr. Pepperberg said,
        sounding annoyed.

        "Wanna go back," said Alex, meaning go back into his

        Dr. Pepperberg continued trying to get Alex to perform,
        but he resisted and she began to lose patience.

        "C'mon, Alex," she said.

        "I'm sorry," he said.

        Usually, said Dr.

        Pepperberg, that means he is about to give in.

        "What matter is orange and three-cornered, Alex?" she

        "Wool!" said Alex, getting it right.

        Dr. Pepperberg refuses to call Alex's vocalizations
        "language." "I avoid the language issue," she said. "I'm
        not making claims. His behavior gets more and more
        advanced, but I don't believe years from now you could
        interview him." She continued: "What little syntax he
        has is very simplistic. Language is what you and I are
        doing, an incredibly complex form of communication."

        Still, many scientists and others remain unconvinced.
        What about unconscious cues from the trainer? Perhaps
        the most famous instance of that involves Clever Hans,
        a horse at the turn of the century who could supposedly
        count, tell time and make change by tapping his hoof on
        the ground.

        It was learned that Hans's trainer was tipping him off to
        the right answer by tensing his body and moving his
        head as Hans "counted."

        More recently, Dr. Herbert Terrace, a Columbia
        University psychology professor, famously repudiated
        his own studies in the 1970's with a chimpanzee he
        called Nim Chimpsky, after the M.I.T. linguist Noam
        Chomsky. Dr. Terrace taught Nim to use signs that
        looked as if they were combined grammatically into
        sentences. But it turned out they were clever imitations
        of his teacher.

        Asked about Alex, Dr. Terrace said he thought that
        what Alex was doing was "a rote response." He calls it
        "a complex discriminative performance."

        But is Alex thinking? "I would say minimally," Dr.
        Terrace responded. "In every situation, there is an
        external stimulus that guides his response." Thought, he
        said, involves the ability to process information that is
        not right in front of you.

        "It shows Alex is a smart bird," he said. But if you take
        away Alex's ability to vocalize in a way that seems
        human, he went on, it would not seem as impressive:
        "The words are responses, are not language."

        On the other side of the animal-intelligence debate is
        Dr. Donald R. Griffin, author of "Animal Thinking,"
        who coined the phrase "cognitive ethology," the study
        of animal cognition. He believes that animals are
        capable of complex thought and behavior that is not just

        The discovery that "a bird can express his conscious
        thoughts and feelings," said Dr. Griffin, "is a great

        We used to think that was impossible." To Dr. Griffin,
        Alex's achievements are just one more proof of his

        Dr. Griffin's views of animal intelligence have been
        hotly contested. "The intensity of the aversion is
        incredible," he said. "It's a very touchy subject.

        Scientists don't like to be told that a valid reason for
        what an animal does is the possibility that it does it
        with any consciousness."

        Dr. Steven Pinker, an M.I.T. scientist and author of
        "How the Mind Works," said that at the heart of the
        debate is the question of human primacy. "In earlier
        times the issue was of whether we are mere animals,
        and to separate and exalt human worth. Ironically, there
        has been the same kind of moralistic return from animal
        fans who say we shouldn't mistreat them because they
        think and feel the way we do."

        Dr. Pinker believes that human beings alone are
        genetically programmed to learn language
        spontaneously and easily. "I think it is rather an ironic
        definition of animals to tend to enoble them by training
        them to mimic humans."

        Until recently, birds had been thought of as on the low
        end of the intelligence scale -- hence the term
        "birdbrain." The point, Dr. Pepperberg said, is that
        Alex "is a nonmammal, nonprimate, with a brain the
        size of a walnut." And Alex's accomplishments. she
        added, show that "animal intelligence is more
        widespread than we thought."

        Dr. Pepperberg attributes what she calls Alex's ability
        to reason and process complex information to her
        training methods. Most training of birds has followed
        the conditioning theories of B. F. Skinner, the
        behaviorist. A bird is taught to say or do a specific
        thing by a human instructor and is rewarded with food.

        Dr. Pepperberg initially uses the object itself as a
        reward so that the bird associates the word with the
        object. She uses two human trainers instead of one to
        demonstrate the interaction she is trying to teach Alex.

        For instance, Dr. Pepperberg stands in front of Alex
        with a graduate student and orders the student to select
        a three-sided orange object and to say what the object
        is made of -- wool, perhaps.

        She believes that by watching the interaction, Alex
        connects the graduate student's response to the
        command. "Orange" she believes, comes to mean to
        Alex the color of an object rather than the immediate
        reward of a grape.

        Dr. Pepperberg says her experiments have implications
        beyond determining whether -- or how well -- animals
        can think.

        She says her methods have been successfully used to
        train autistic children and children with learning
        disabilities. Alex's achievements, she said, also
        underscore the need for stricter conservation of parrots,
        which are an endangered species.

        Dr. Pepperberg, who is 50, was born in New York
        City, an only child who kept parakeets as pets and
        taught them to speak.

        She was studying for her Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard,
        she said, when she saw a "Nova" series on PBS about
        chimps' using sign language, dolphin research and why
        birds sing. She wanted to change fields, but her
        advisers discouraged her, she said, so she continued
        her chemistry studies, continuing nonetheless to read all
        she could on animal behavior.

        She married and divorced. She has no children.

        When she applied for her first grant to study bird
        behavior from the National Institutes of Health, she
        said, "there were reviews asking me what I was

        "People are not at all surprised a chimpanzee can do
        this," she went on."You can't imagine -- people said
        birds were stupid."

        Dr. Pepperberg expects Alex to live at least 20 more

        Meanwhile, she has added two new birds to the lab.
        Besides Griffin, now 4 years old, there is Kyaaro, who
        Dr. Pepperberg believes exhibits symptoms of attention
        deficit disorder.

        "Alex doesn't like either of them," she said. "Kyaaro is
        weird. Griffin is a threat." Right now she is trying to
        train Griffin to do some of the things Alex can do.

        Griffin, who learned the word "wool" only recently,
        has been clinging to it the way a child clings to a
        new-found possession. One day recently Dr.
        Pepperberg held up a purple plastic letter S and asked,
        "What sound is purple?" Griffin stared at the letter.

        But from the other side of the laboratory Alex made the
        sound for him, "Sss."

        "Buttinsky," Dr. Pepperberg said to Alex, and she
        turned back to Griffin.

        "What sound?" she asked Griffin again, holding up the

        "What sound?"

        "Wool," said Griffin.

        Griffin has a long way to go.