Re: Thoughts on "Origins of human thought"

17 Oct 1995 13:33:53 GMT

In article <>, (H. M. Hubey)
>An experiment was conducted with a bird (I can't remember what it
>was). Various objects were put on the table. They varied by
>shape, color and composition. The bird was taught the shapes
>by the number of corners it had. I think it went up to about
>4 or 5 which I believe is the upper limit of counting for birds.
>The various objects were made up of things like plastic, wool,
>wood, metal etc.

That bird was an African grey parrot. Irene Pepperberg, of the University
of Arizona, has been working with this bird for some time. His name is
Alex and he is about 12 years old (those birds live to be about 75). I
agree, he is truly amazing. I have one of those birds myself. He's
only a year old right now, so has nowhere near that other bird's
capabilities, but he's pretty bright. I've never systematically
trained him, he picks up words pretty much as a child does, from
the environment around him. What I find interesting is that he will
often just go off with a string of words he's learned, especially when
he's by himself, so that they sound like nonsense -- just a parrot imitating
humans. However, when the need arises, he can use those same words in the
proper context. When he's hungry or thirsty, for example, he will ask for
"Water" (water, to him, is anything ingestible -- but is not applied to
toys, paper or other things he chews on, only to things which satisy
hunger or thirst). He will peer over our shoulder and ask "Whatcha doin?"
When it gets late and he's out on his living perch he will say "Night-night
bird" (well, he's only one!) which means he is ready to go to his cage
and go to sleep. The most clever thing he did recently was when our
alarm failed to go off. We get up first (around 5:30-6) then call upstairs
for our boys at 6:30. At 6:37 that morning I was awakened to the bird
yelling "Derek! Daryl!" (My kids' names, which we always call at 6:30 in
the morning)
I have received an outline of the procedure Dr. Pepperberg used to
train her bird but, unfortunately, I haven't got the time to try it as
of yet. In the meantime, the bird's vocabulary continues to grow, without
any effort on my part, other than to talk to him while he's in the room
with me. I honestly don't know what he's doing, and am not trying to make
claims for one thing or another. I don't know much about bird neuroanatomy,
but I understand they have some kind of additional structure in their brain,
which I think starts with a "w" (wurst, werst?). Their circuitry is also
probably a lot different than ours. I never believed that cognitive abilities
had everything to do with brain size (though I would think it would help to
have more neurons available), but rather that organization and "wiring"
played a big part. Perhaps studying these birds will shed more light on how
neurons work in general. However, birds diverged from primates so long ago,
that understanding how their brains work may not do much for understanding ours.
As far as abstract thought goes, I think we first have to agree on
what that is. If it is merely an ability to associate objects with symbols,
and use those symbols to refer to those objects when they are not present,
(as my bird asks for "water") then I'd say quite a few animals may have it.
However, some folks on this group have used abstract thought to refer to
a more specialized ability to form "higher concepts," like religion, or
perhaps other, non-physical object, elements of life. Chimps seem to have
some of these concepts as well, but I don't know about birds. These things
would also be harder to discuss or model and teach symbols for, so I don't
know if it's their lack in understanding these things or just our lack in
being able to test for them.
So, I'll continue to observe my bird and try to figure it out.