12 September 2007

Another sad day

Some become so famous that one one name is needed. Elvis. Madonna.

In the field of animal behaviour and psychology, most people knew about Alex.

Poor Alex died unexpectedly last week. When I saw a new story about a "famous parrot" dying, my heart sunk, because I knew there was only one parrot that it could be.

Alex was the African grey parrot that Irene Pepperberg had worked with for 30 years in her classic studies of comparative cognition. People had always known parrots were clever, but started to show just how clever. Categorization, counting, concepts... Work with Alex really started to undo a lot of the thinking that had permeated animal behaviour since the Clever Hans affair and the radical behaviourism of American psychology in the mid-20th century. For decades, anything that remotely smelled of "thinking" was exiled from scientific study in animals, and sometimes even humans.

Irene Pepperberg's work can be seen at the Alex Foundation.

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