Monday, March 16, 2009

A book to rekindle my interest in a fascinating subject

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process
by Irene M. Pepperberg

All my life, I have been fascinated with the idea of cross-species communication. As a young girl, I devoured books about the ape language experiments and John C. Lilly's work with dolphins. It is mildly surprising, therefore, that I missed out on the news about Alex the talking parrot. I don't recall hearing one thing about Pepperberg's work with him until I heard about this book. And knew that I had to read it.

Alex was an African gray parrot who worked with scientist Irene Pepperberg for about thirty years. The book actually opens and ends with discussion of Alex's untimely death at the age of 31 in September of 2007. Now, I was not a fan of this animal, and am not particularly fond of birds, but I sobbed like an idiot over Pepperberg's reminiscences and the pages of notes and tributes that she received after his death. You'd have to be hard-hearted indeed to be immune. And apparently Alex touched many, many lives in his own unique way. None more so than the scientist who worked with him.

Pepperberg seems to be a bit of an odd bird herself. She had a strange upbringing and was by her own account socially awkward. Awkward, but wicked smart. She excelled academically and despite her interest in biology devoted herself to the study of chemistry, eventually earning a Ph.D. in the field. Unfortunately, by the time she completed her matriculation she realized her true interests lay elsewhere. Late in the game she made the switch to animal behavior. Her unusual background was one of many professional hindrances Pepperberg describes through the course of this book. There were never enough research grants, or lab space, or open minds. Well, all good stories need conflict.

And the real story here is about the work she and Alex achieved over the course of his life. African grays are among the best talkers in the avian world. Pepperberg's idea to embark on language studies with a bird was fairly revolutionary back in the 70's. The experiments Pepperberg describes and the results achieved are unquestionably fascinating. And far from being a mere test subject, Alex as described has a personality that's larger than life.

Alex & Me is very interesting on multiple levels--as far as it goes. But ultimately, that was my biggest frustration with this book. Totaling a scant 240 pages, the book never really went into anything in depth. Partly it is a memoir of Pepperberg's life, but everything is discussed fairly superficially--her childhood, her relationship with her husband, their eventual divorce, professional rivalries, and various friendships. Names of people are plugged in throughout the book, but not one other human is fleshed out significantly. Likewise, the science was absolutely riveting, but too often for my liking Pepperberg glossed over the details of her work, perhaps fearing she'd bore lay readers. It left me craving much more information, but to it's credit, Alex & Me did reawaken my interest in this subject.

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