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March 16, 2009

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Based on his preference, Alex appears to be a democrat.

When you're kept locked in a cage at night with no chance of a trial or a lawyer and forced to work for subsistence wages with no union, you sure aren't going to be a republican.

Never let it be said that I don't try to post nonpartisan threads ... ;)

Hmmm, Geoff Pullum doesn't have much patience for the notion that Alex was putting together phonemes into words, see here.

Does it make anyone else nervous that the macaques are using HUMAN hair to floss?

Can't they get their dental from the same place we do: the Frank Zappa dental floss farm?

The walrus at the Tacoma zoo can load up on water and spit like a firehose. He has a range of about twenty five feet. The zoo installed plexiglass on the rail overlooking his tank so that zoo visitors would have a barrier to duck and cover behind.

I had a conure named Squawkie. I had him for fourteen years. He did not live in his cage;it was his house within our house and he came and went as he pleased. He took baths with me. He bullied the cats. He loved to have his feathers ruffled. Oneof his favorite games was "Hawks and Parrots": I would pretend my hand was a hawk and I would attack him. He would flip over on his back and fight my hand with his feet. He also liked to cuddle against my cheek and make little clicking noises with is beak. Squawkie never learned any human words mostly because he didn't need to: he had me trained to understand parrot.

I do not advise anyone to have a parrot or conure for pet: they are too intelligent. It is simply cruel to keep one in a cage. A parrot has to be treated like a family member or they become crazy.

lj: Best I can tell, Pullum is familiar with Pepperberg and Alex only from a review of her latest book. I haven't read the latest, which only came out recently. But I've ordered it, and am looking forward to it, and here's why: her earlier book, 'The Alex Studies', was very, very buttoned-down. All rigorous studies, all the time. Not being a biologist, I do not know that there is nothing wrong with them, but they certainly passed every test I could think of. And they were innovative, not just in teaching Alex all this stuff, but in how they taught him (social modeling).

The price of all that, though, was that while I got a very good sense for Alex's ability to identify color in novel objects, etc., there were very few places where his character broke out. Thus, I'm looking forward to this one, which sounds as though there will be more of that.

Which is all to say: best I know, from reading her work and reviews of it in the literature, Pepperberg is a real scientist, not just the author of "a trade book for sentimental parrot fanciers". Moreover, Pullum hasn't read the book, and can't be bothered to check to see whether the bit he objects to is actually in the book. So I'm not sure I'm willing to trust his assessment of what Alex has or has not done.


AWESOME.

I've always loved parrots ever since I was a little girl, but then I saw the movie Winged Migration and I knew they are our future overlords. If the octopi (yeah, octopodes, octopi is cuter) don't get there first.
In that movie there's a scene of a boat on the Amazon fully loaded with poached animals in cage. You see all the animals, including a despondent-looking monkey just looking out, and then... an industrious parrot picking at the lock on its cage. It's picks and picks, and next thing you know it's flying off from the boat.
Go parrots !

Well another reason Squakie had the run of the house was that he taught me very early in our relatioonship tht he could undo a variety of door fstenings.

I'm curious. I'd love to have a parrot, in a I'd-love-to-have-a-million-dollars way, and if I had one I would like it to be "tame" enough not to have to keep it in a cage, like you describe Squawkie. How do you swing that ? Are there breeds that live better with humans, do you need to train them or raise them from chickhood, do you have to live somewhere like their natural habitat ?

hilzoy,
Pullum doesn't suffer fools gladly, and I have a suspicion that he may have read the book, but the riff he chooses to go with is 'why would anyone bother reading this piece of tripe'. And it may be that what Pepperberg says and what reporters run with are two different things (linguists have a lot of experience with that), and Pepperberg is notably more circumspect. In this New Yorker article, (mentioned in the comments), it has this:

Pepperberg will never really know what it is like to be a parrot, and she is careful not to claim that Alex learned a language. She calls what he learned a “two-way communication system,” and prefers the more conservative term “labels,” rather than “words,” to describe his vocabulary. “I wouldn’t say it was as much conversation as you’d have with a five-year-old,” she said when I asked her about Alex’s limits. “But maybe with a two-year-old. It wasn’t like he was going to say, ‘Hi, how are you, how was your day?’ But if you came in and asked him what he wanted, where he wanted to go, and asked him questions within the context of labels he knew, you could talk to him.”

But setting that rank speculation aside, I don't believe that because Pepperberg is rigorous means that this is good science. Alchemists were rigorous, astrologers are rigorous. The problem is in their first assumption. I admit, the argumentation of how 'language' is a human only trait depends a lot on how we define language, and it is quite effective at erecting an uncrossable barrier between homo sapiens and the rest of the planet, which I think is problematic. But language provides such a powerful evolutionary advantage, it is impossible to imagine that animals could develop this and just not bother.

This shouldn't dissuade you from buying and reviewing the book.

lj: true (about rigor.) But as a non-biologist, it's what I can spot. She designed her experiments carefully, took great care to screen out possible confounders, and did it all in a way that made sense to non-scientific me. Whether she is a good biologist is above my pay grade; whether she looks like one to the uninitiated is not.

Caravelle,

If you decide to get a parrot, get one from an exotic bird rescue. There are recuses in every state. My bird was a conure, He was about the size of a robin. There are two obvious advantages to a conure rather than oneof the larger parrots: his bite hurt but was managable, and his natural life span was about twenty years as opposed to seventy.

I kept his wings clipped but it didn't stop him from flying.

Parrots and conures are very trainable but I neve trained Squawkie except to knwo our household routines. Hhe did shit everywhere.
Or she. The sexes are identical so I never knew for sure.

I lost Squawkie because he flew out the door and away. hhe did it very suddenly after fourteen years of not flying out the door. i don't know why he decided to leave. parrots are very very inteligent. he was probably just curious. Anyway he picked a bad time: the next week we had freezing rain every day. I put out fliers, doorbelled for hours, took days off form work to look for him. I never found him. He was socail and no afraid of people so I hope he just invited himslef in some where annd I hope whoever got him took good care of him. For years afterwatds every year in early Nov. i put a personal ad in the local papaer asking if anyone found him. I don't do it any more.

It's onny in the lat year or so that I have been able to think about Squawkie or speak about him. He was the most interactive pet I have ever had, full of personality, playful, friendly, silly, always thinking up things to do, socialble with everyone who came to our house, as cuddly as a kittne and as stubborn as an ox. I don't know of a "right" way to keep aparrot. Seems to me if you do it right you run the risk of a tragedy like what happened to Squawkie. They don't belong in houses with people. They belong in their natural habitat.

But that shouldn't, in my view stop you from rescuing one. After all the bird you rescue willnot go back to Cental AMerica or Adrica and the home you give it will be better than any other home it ever had.

Pullum doesn't suffer fools gladly, and I have a suspicion that he may have read the book, but the riff he chooses to go with is 'why would anyone bother reading this piece of tripe'.

So why would he lie about not having the book, and not just say "I can't believe I wasted $23.95 on this tripe"?

("If this merited scholarly investigation I would of course obtain it; but given what I know so far, I am deeply reluctant to part with $23.95 to get hold of a trade book for sentimental parrot fanciers")

But language provides such a powerful evolutionary advantage, it is impossible to imagine that animals could develop this and just not bother.

I think this is a very hazardous way to reason about evolution. You might as well ask why, if flight provides such an evolutionary advantage, would some animals only develop the ability to glide and not "bother" to fly.

windy,
I'm not in a position to say what Pullum's library looks like, but taking myself as an example, I've read a lot more books than I actually have, and I've read a lot of books that I wouldn't pay 24 bucks for, but I happened to be in the book store and did what the Japanese call tachiyomi. Academics read a lot of books that they aren't going to buy.

As to your second point, I agree that the argument I gave is far to short, but the longer version is that there is a very big discontinuity between the language ability in humans and symbol manipulation in animals. Pullum cites a great paper by Thomas Nagel, and I'd suggest that, like a good scientist, Pullum feels that the possibility that we are reading our own ideas onto the minds of animals like Alex and this has to be eliminated completely before we can begin to investigate how animal language and human language are similar. But any experiment where the experimenter is interacting with the animal is going to fail this hurdle. So, when journalists take Pepperberg's research to argue that Alex uses human language, like any good scientist, Pullum pours invective on the notion. It's just what scientists do ;^)

Pullum's objects to the way the "banerry" incident was interpreted. However, his objections do not pertain to the N-U-T incident, which is fascinating. Thank you so much, Hilzoy.

Speaking as an anthropologist, I'd like to point out that our symbolic processes cut both ways. On the one hand, we interpret animal behavior through the lens of our humanness. On the other hand, humans also construct oppositions between ourselves and animals. claims about what qualities make humans fundamentally different from animals keep turning out to be false, and tend to tell us more about the teller than about animals themselves.

I'm not in a position to say what Pullum's library looks like, but taking myself as an example, I've read a lot more books than I actually have, and I've read a lot of books that I wouldn't pay 24 bucks for, but I happened to be in the book store and did what the Japanese call tachiyomi. Academics read a lot of books that they aren't going to buy.

Oh, come on. What he says is not consistent with his having browsed the book either. But if he has, it's rather dishonest of him to pick one statement from a review to criticize, and nothing from the book.

Pullum cites a great paper by Thomas Nagel

I am aware of the paper, but where does Pullum cite it?

I'd suggest that, like a good scientist, Pullum feels that the possibility that we are reading our own ideas onto the minds of animals like Alex and this has to be eliminated completely before we can begin to investigate how animal language and human language are similar. But any experiment where the experimenter is interacting with the animal is going to fail this hurdle.

Would you say that Jane Goodall failed at studying chimps because she interacted with them? Or does this hurdle apply only to language, and not other aspects of animal cognition?

There is a line between argumentation and informal writing. Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax is another example of his authorial voice in informal writing. You can discount me, but I'd urge you to read the book, which has him starting "The Campaign for Typographical Freedom" and then being imprisoned for embezzlement for funds accumulated by said campaign.

I've read enough Pullum (and had a class and various conversations with him) to know that the personality he expresses on his blog is in line with that and I wouldn't be surprised if he had read the book. However, there is a difference between happening to read a book and actually purchasing a book. Arguing that he is either telling the truth about what he has purchased or he must be a liar is, strictly speaking, ad hominem.

The citation for the Nagel paper is here, which Pullum takes from this NYT piece here, though I'm pretty sure he was familiar with the paper before because I read it the summer after I took his class and can't think of another way that I would be directed to it.

As for Jane Goodall, I'd say yes, studying language is a different ball of wax that studying social interactions. I do wonder how we can justify language as a separate cognitive ability and I do, as I mention, think it creates a Descartian gap between animals and humans. However, I (and most linguists, I think) don't view "language" as simply the ability to manipulate symbols to generate specific outcomes, but rather the ability to perform specific processes on those symbols in a way that is open-ended. Thus, any attempt to first teach and then test an animal to perform these processes runs into the Clever Hans problem.

I like Lakoff and Johnson's Theory of Embodied Cognition, (though my interest in it is as a tool for the acquisition of foreign languages rather than as a foundation of philosophical thought) which argues that the body's interactions with the environment are what gives rise to consciousness and the only way to 'prove' that is to be able to find a way to drop a human consciousness into a non-human body. This leaves open the door to the possibility of apes being able to use some sort of language, but discounts the possibility of animals whose interaction with the environment is different than ours from being able to use language as defined by human usage.

as glasglowtremontaine points out, the problem can run both ways. But if that is the case, we should be looking at animal communication as its own system rather than trying to teach animals to imitate humans. I'm certainly open to the notion that animals may have symbol manipulation ability that is self-generated, creative and open ended, but it is not going to be proven by teaching human language to a parrot.

How do we prove that one form of symbol manipulation is "self-generated, creative, and open ended" and another form is not?

For members of the same species, we can make certain assumptions about the use of symbol mainpulation, but for other species, we cannot. Nagel has this:

I am not adverting here to the alleged privacy of experience to its possessor. The point of view in question is not one accessible only to a single individual. Rather it is a type. It is often possible to take up a point of view other than one's own, so the comprehension of such facts is not limited to one's own case. There is a sense in which phenomenological facts are perfectly objective: one person can know or say of another what the quality of the other's experience is. They are subjective, however, in the sense that even this objective ascription of experience is possible only for someone sufficiently similar to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view—to understand the ascription in the first person as well as in the third, so to speak. The more different from oneself the other experiencer is, the less success one can expect with this enterprise. In our own case we occupy the relevant point of view, but we will have as much difficulty understanding our own experience properly if we approach it from another point of view as we would if we tried to understand the experience of another species without taking up its point of view.

Sorry, I a bit more. This problem is really interesting to me because in dealing with students learning English as a second language, especially here in Japan, it is very difficult to know whether they actually 'know' the language they use or they have just been able to find it and put it down, but they really don't know it. Japanese students (over)use electronic dictionaries, so you can have an essay that seems to have some underlying notion that makes sense in some way, but you find, on questioning the student, that they simply had a Japanese version of the essay in their head (or written down!) and the 'English' is simply a mechanical replacement of various words. Or, even worse, you will get an assignment that looks as if the student did that, but on closer analysis, they simply wrote the passage in Japanese and dropped it into a web page translating machine. For either of these two instances, being human does not privilege this language as being authentic, because the process by which is was created is inauthentic. We know that some animals display incredible abilities of memory, so the problem is to create a situation where the responses are not simply rote responses to particular situations but responses with the intent of communication behind them.

This potentially puts as great a barrier between native first language acquisition and second language acquisition, as it does between animal and human communication, so I don't think I'm being specio-centric here.

So the idea is that we need to develop a construct of the animal's perspective?

That makes sense, but it also sounds like something that happens in stages, through a series of approximations and refinements, starting with our own human projections, and then being gradually corrected by evidence that runs counter to our assumptions.

In fieldwork with humans, you get better feedback if you do this not only through observation, but also through interaction. Even if (perhaps especially if) you're trying to figure out the perspective of folks whose experience and consciousness is radically different from your own. It can be enlightening not only to try using their categories, but also to see what happens when they start playing around with your language, putting it to their own purposes, etc.

It's not obvious why this would not be true when studying/learning from non-humans.

Sorry, I hadn't seen your 12:33 when I posted. It sounds like neither of us are being specio-centric.

What I am wondering about, though: it seems like there's a contradiction between on the one hand creating a situation in which result X will confirm your hypothesis, and on the other hand insisting that X must be creative, authentic, etc.

Instead, we might need to just thoroughly understand as many parameters of the experimental situation as possible, and take good notes whenever such an X does (unpredictably) occur. Which, it seems, is what Pepperberg did.

wonkie that was really cute, then really sad.

it seems like there's a contradiction between on the one hand creating a situation in which result X will confirm your hypothesis, and on the other hand insisting that X must be creative, authentic, etc.

Welcome to my world. I am supposed to teach students basic building blocks of language but they are supposed to be creative. Some students never get past the memorization part, and I've had students memorize massive amounts without that spark that gets them to some sort of useful fluency.

I've read only a little Pepperberg, so I'm waiting for Hilzoy's review, but there are two separate problems here. One is the question of Pepperberg's research, which may or may not have some bearing on language, but is primarily concerned with animal cognitive ability. The second is the human tendency to take the ability to produce language as mapping directly to cognitive ability. It is not for nothing that people who lack the ability of speech are referred to as 'dumb' in English. Unfortunately, it is precisely that aspect of Alex's story that journalists concentrate on, because it is easier to wow the readers with stories about a parrot repeating the Gettysburg address than it is to convince the reader that certain things s/he may think are indicative of cognitive ability are not.

By coincidence this week's SF story in Nature touches on the subjects in this thread...

Parrot Honored for Helping Save GirlAP
posted: 11 HOURS 49 MINUTES AGOcomments: 16filed under: Good News, Animal NewsPrintShareText SizeAAADENVER (March 24) - A parrot whose cries of alarm alerted his owner when a little girl choked on her breakfast has been honored as a hero.
Willie, a Quaker parrot, has been given the local Red Cross chapter's Animal Lifesaver Award.
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Animals in the NewsCBS4Denver.com / AP29 photos In November, the cries of alarm from Willie, a Quaker parrot from Denver, Colo., alerted his owner, Megan Howard, that the toddler she was babysitting was choking. His yells of "Mama, baby" led Howard to perform the Heimlich maneuver and earned Willie the local Red Cross chapter's Animal Lifesaver Award on Friday.(Note: Please disable your pop-up blocker)

In November, Willie's owner, Megan Howard, was baby-sitting for a toddler. Howard left the room and the little girl, Hannah, started to choke on her breakfast.
Willie repeatedly yelled "Mama, baby" and flapped his wings, and Howard returned in time to find the girl already turning blue.
Howard saved Hannah by performing the Heimlich maneuver but said Willie "is the real hero."
"The part where she turned blue is always when my heart drops no matter how many times I've heard it," Hannah's mother, Samantha Kuusk, told KCNC-TV. "My heart drops in my stomach and I get all teary eyed."
Willie got his award during a "Breakfast of Champions" event Friday attended by Gov. Bill Ritter and Mayor John Hickenlooper.
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This bird apparently knew how to use the owrds "Mama" and "Baby" correctly and even knew how to apply the words to an unfamiliar context.

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