Sunday, December 12, 2010

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

"You be good.  I love you," were Alex's final words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, before he died at age 31.  Alex was an Afridan Grey parrot with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, yet he could sound out words, understand concepts, and do other things comparable to human intelligence.  This book is the true account of an amazing parrot and his best friend who worked together for 30 years.

Dr. Pepperberg's training of Alex differed from accepted standards of the time.  Under the prevailing psychological dogma of the time, known as behaviorism, animals were seen as automatons, with little or no capacity for cognition, or thought.  It was claimed that much of animal behavior was innately programmed.  When you worked with animals, they were actually supposed to be starved to 80 percent of their body weight so they would be eager for the food given for a "correct" response.  They were also supposed to be placed in a box so that the appropriate "stimuli" could be very tightly controlled and their responses precisely monitored.  This technique was known as "operant conditioning".

This was contrary to all of Dr. Pepperberg's gut instincts.  She adopted instead a model/rival program of training having two trainers, trainer B being the "model" for the animal subject and its "rival" for the attention of trainer A.

In the process she taught all of us that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believe.  They are far more than the mindless automatons that mainstream science held them to be for so long.  Alex taught us how little we know about animal minds and how much more there is to discover.  Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.  Our vanity has blinded us to the true nature of minds, animal and human.

This is the story of a landmark scientific achievement and a beautiful relationship.

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