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Alex & Me by Dr. Irene Pepperberg (Book Review)

December 24, 2008

Alex & Me book coverI recently read Irene Pepperberg’s book about her life with Alex the world famous African Grey, who could identify colors, quantities, materials, shapes and use language in astonishing context. Alex, and the work he did with Dr. Pepperberg, completely changed the way scientists perceived parrot intelligence. The full title of the book is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, which gives you a clue that this book is more than just a story of a scientist and her study subject.

Anyone with an interest in parrots knows Alex and the incredible contributions he made to the understanding of parrots… and that he touched all of us when he died in the fall of 2007. So it should come as no surprise that a story written in the wake of his loss is going to be touching and sad — and indeed, the opening chapter had me bawling — but it’s also uplifting and at times funny.

Chapter 1: My Wonderful Life Moment

The book begins: “How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world? It took death for me to find out.” The opening sets the stage describing Dr. Pepperberg’s relationship with Alex, who was never quite a pet, never only a scientific subject to her… as well as the world’s fascination with the most famous African Grey who ever lived. His obituary was run in mainstream media that would never dream of eulogizing an “ordinary” animal, but Alex was anything but ordinary. The coverage of his passing showed that he truly touched everyone who knew of him.

I found it fascinating and touching, how Dr. Pepperberg admits that in her 31 years she struggled with maintaining some level of emotional distance in order to stay objective. This isn’t a criticism… when I say that Alex was never really a “pet” that doesn’t mean that I think he wasn’t loved (he clearly was) or that he didn’t have a full and fun life. He had a better life than most “pets”, especially in a time when the average bird owner didn’t know very much about parrots and their needs

Chapter 2: Beginnings

As much as I had read about Alex, I honestly didn’t know anything about Irene Pepperberg. Chapter 2 of Alex and Me tells the story of Dr. Pepperberg’s first experiences with birds as a child, as well as her childhood growing up and her relationship with her parents. She lays herself pretty bare on a subject that she didn’t need to be as forthcoming about (i.e. her relationship with her parents) considering that the book is about Alex, but it explains a lot about her personality and approach to relationships. I am grateful for her honesty about such a personal subject because it does shed a lot of interesting light into her relationships with her parrots later on. The second chapter is not only about the beginnings of her interest in parrots but also the beginning of her career in avian learning. (What was most interesting was that the “Dr” in her title referred to a PhD in Chemistry, not any sort of behavioral or biological sciences.)

Chapter 3: Alex’s First Labels

The third chapter of Alex and Me is where we start learning about Dr. Pepperberg’s training method and get a glimpse into the very beginning of Alex’s path to stardom. The first label that she began to teach Alex was “paper” and she began to teach him to link the label (word) with the object. She did this using social context and a “rival” — a method she had researched earlier in her academic career. It wasn’t long before Alex asked for the object using the label (although his pronunciation needed some work). Early on there were steps forward and some roadblocks, but the more confident he became the more he trusted Dr. Pepperberg and the more progress they made together. Soon, in addition to “paper” Alex learned “key”, “wood” and a variety of new labels by watching Irene and the “rival” interact and use words in context. There was little doubt in Dr. Pepperberg’s mind that Alex understood that words meant specific things and that he wasn’t just mimicking:

Give him a banana when he’d asked for a grape, and you were likely to end up wearing the banana. Alex was not subtle…. I had wanted him to learn labels, and to express his wants. I guess I had succeeded.

But despite exciting advances, Dr. Pepperberg constantly struggled with getting respect… and funding… for her work.

Chapter 4: Alex and Me, Vagabonds

As fascinating as the field of animal language are to me, and no doubt to parrot lovers everywhere, at this time (the late 1970s/early 1980s) there was little scientific interest in Alex’s work as far the major scientific publications were concerned. Dr. Pepperberg wasn’t targeting publications like BirdTalk after all; she was looking to get published in serious scientific academic journals and there was little precedent for the work she was doing. Chapter 4 of Alex and Me starts by describing the controversy of ascribing “language” to animals since language was often held to be “a defining character of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures).” In this chapter we also get some context of the time, with insights into simian (ape) language studies happening at the time.

It’s also the chapter where he says “I love you” for the first time. Which leads Dr. Pepperberg to say (in a way that neatly sums up the overarching theme of Alex & Me):

… from the very start of The Alex Project I had determined that my professional approach would be rigorous in training and in testing my Grey. I had come from the so-called hard sciences, after all. I needed my data to be unimpeachable, to meet high standards of credibility. I wouldn’t let emotion cloud my judgment. I wouldn’t get too attached. My experience at the Clever Hans Battle made me even more determined to maintain as much of an emotional barrier as was feasible between Alex and me in order to keep that credibility intact, no matter how hard it would be. And it was hard.

Chapter 5: What’s a Banerry?

What’s a banerry? It’s a lexical elision of the words “banana” and “cherry”. It’s also a hilarious anecdote of Alex creating a new word to describe “apple” and trying to teach it to Dr. Pepperberg and her students. The more they tried to teach him “apple” the more insistent he became about “banerry” being the correct label for this big red, round thing that looked a bit like a cherry but was yellow on the inside.

By this time, Alex was getting a lot of press for being able to identify objects, colors, shapes, sameness/differences, etc, but Dr. Pepperberg’s struggles to be recognized as a scientist and to get funding continued. And then Alex got sick with aspergillosis, a sometimes deadly fungal disease. One of the most touching Alex anecdotes, for me at least, is when he has to stay overnight at the vet’s office and as Irene turns to leave he says plaintively “I’m sorry. Come here. Wanna go back”. Those parrots sure know how to tug at your heartstrings.

Chapter 6: Alex and Friends

In this chapter Dr. Pepperberg starts exploring different training variations, including use of audio and video tapes, but it was clear that the model/rival technique was more effective than anything. In other words, social interaction and context are key to learning to communicate. Dr. Pepperberg’s earliest theory was confirmed! We also learn about some of the other African Greys that became part of the project — and how Alex would like to correct them if they got their lessons wrong and admonish them to pronounce their words more clearly. Alex also begins to demonstrate a sense of humor and slight rascally temperament, when he purposefully gives wrong answers to frustrate the researchers, but then calls them back with an apology and the right answer when they turn to leave.

Chapter 7: Alex Goes High Tech

At this point in the book we’ve made it all the way to 2000, and Alex is surfing the Web (!) and learning phenomes, which leads to one of the most astounding anecdotes of Alex demonstrating learning that wasn’t explicitly taught. In this story, Dr. Pepperberg is working with Alex in front of some important visitors demonstrating that he can sound out letters. After each correct answer he insists “Want a nut.” Because they are under time constraints, Pepperberg keeps telling him to wait, that he would get a nut later. Finally Alex gets frustrated and demands “Want a nut. Nnn…uh… tuh.” The thing is, he had never been taught to sound out words, only individual letters.

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Read reviews or buy your copy of Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process at Amazon.com.

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Chapter 8: The Next Horizon

In Chapter 8, Alex the Grey again breaks new ground by getting Pepperberg to ask him a “trick question” and demonstrating that he understands the concept of “none”. Alex was being asked to identify the color of various groupings of blocks. When asked “what color three?” he kept answering “five” when there wasn’t even a grouping of five blocks (and he obviously knew that five wasn’t a color). After repeating the question and getting the same answer several times, Dr. Pepperberg said “ok, smartypants. What color five?” and Alex answered “none.” He was using “none” to indicate the absence of a series of five blocks… in other words, none meant “such a thing does not exist”. Zero is a highly abstract and complex concept, something that small children don’t grasp… so for a bird to teach it to himself (sort of) was truly groundbreaking.

Where could you possible go from there? From here, Alex’s work with numbers starts getting pretty sophisticated. In addition to mathematical addition, Pepperberg teaches him numeric equivalence (showing him Arabic numerals and a number of blocks and asking him which was the bigger “number” — not in terms of physical size but in terms of value) which he gets correct; showing that his concept of numbers is more sophisticated than that of chimpanzees similarly trained. Dr. Pepperberg is ecstatic about the boundaries Alex is pushing and the work they have ahead of them.

Then, prematurely, in 2007, Alex dies. His last words to her were “You be good. I love you.”

Conclusion

Dr. Pepperberg’s work was scientific, but her story is absolutely accessible and relevant to any of us, whether we’re interested in linguistics or not, whether we love parrots or not, whether we believe birds are “smarter than children” or whether we think that’s taking the conclusions too far. There’s no denying that Alex had a profound impact on our understanding of animal intelligence and our appreciation of the parrots in our lives. Is the book Alex and Me a literary masterpiece? Of course not. It’s a memoir, a little thin in some places, but there is no other story out there like it. Alex was one of a kind, and Dr. Pepperberg’s story is one I would recommend to anyone. It is thought provoking, touching, funny, sweet and tragic.

Go Buy This Book! Seriously, I mean it. If you read this blog, it means you’re interested in understanding your parrot better, and you’ll love Dr. Pepperberg’s memoir.

Get Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process (at Amazon.com)

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One comment

  1. Thanks for your review, I’d read a little about Alex the parrot before but now I’ll have to go and read the book!



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