Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Alex, Scientific Luminary, passes away at age 31

Image used without permission, but with the deepest respect & appreciation.

Alex, the African Grey parrot who taught the world so much about animal cognition, passed away at the end of last week. He leaves behind his friend and co-scientist, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, as well as The Alex Foundation.

As a former parrot owner, I was always feeling a slight bit of awe toward my own avian friend after reading about Alex. There was so much clearly happening inside his mind. And 'mind' is what it is for these intelligent, curious, and vocal animals. Alex showed the world that it was possible for parrots to comprehend and not merely mimic.

As usual, some of the best stories that have been posted about Alex come from members of the Scienceblogs.com community.

Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle has re-posted previous entries about Alex, including an interview with Dr. Pepperberg.

At A Blog Around the Clock, you can find a brief but eloquent obituary by Coturnix.

There is a typical and hilarious story showing just how much Alex understood what he was saying over at Neurontic.

There is a tribute on the Alex Foundation site as well, by Elaine Hutchison.

I do not have a lot more to add, having always been an interested spectator in Alex's accomplishments. I will say that I have always thought of Alex and Dr. pepperberg's contributions will resonate further down through history, for centuries to come.

In David Brin's Uplift science fiction novels, in the far-flung future, humanity becomes lonely enough in the universe that a process called 'Uplift' begins. Chimpanzees and dolphins are selected to receive genetic tinkering and a slow process to become as intelligent as humans, and integrate into Earthly culture. This may sound far-fetched, and I only mean this with the utmost respect, but I often looked at Alex and Dr. Pepperberg's contributions to science as something similar: a true attempt to bridge the species gap in understanding. As has been said when talking about speaking to alien life should we ever encounter it, how will we be able to understand aliens if we cannot yet understand what other species on our own Earth are saying? Alex went further than we did, by speaking in our own language on topics humans asked him about.

Alex's work continues with Wart and Griffin, and all those at the foundation. My deepest sympathies to all those who knew him.

-Glendon Mellow

1 comment:

leslie said...

I am sorry to hear about Alex. What a remarkable 'birdbrain' for the world to have lost.
I can never be convinced that Alex wasn't exhibiting the highest form of abstract thinking.
People tend to dismiss intelligence if it doesn't meet some arbitrary standard we have set for it.
My dog Ace exhibited abstract thinking, and had a great sense of humor, to boot.
The world is lesser for the death of Alex.

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