“Alex & Me,” Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her 30-year scientific collaboration with an African gray parrot, was written for the legions of Alex’s fans, the (probably) millions whose lives he and she touched with their groundbreaking work on nonhuman communication. Alex — for anyone who missed the commemorations last year in The Economist, Nature, The New York Times and on the radio and TV — could label more than a hundred objects and understood the concept of categories, as well as bigger-smaller, same-different and absence. (The Guardian called Alex “smarter than the average U.S. president.”) To anyone who’s dreamed of talking with the animals, Dr. Doolittle style, Alex was a revelation.
For a technical analysis of his feats, you’ll want to read Pepperberg’s book “The Alex Studies,” published in 2000. The present book, in contrast, is largely celebratory — light on science, heavy on cute animal stories and heartwarming in its depiction of what was either a fruitful professional collaboration or a weirdly dependent friendship, or both. Still, it isn’t all billing and cooing: a strain of “I’ll show them” runs through the text. Accusations against the scientific establishment, which at first denied Pepperberg funding, publication, prestigious appointments and professional respect, propel the narrative.
Pepperberg’s basic biography ought to be rousing (nerdy girl abandons career in chemistry to pursue animal intelligence; is rejected by establishment; achieves international acclaim). But she tells her own story with far less emotion than she does Alex’s. There’s much that Pepperberg is unwilling to reveal — about her cold and controlling parents, her failed marriage and her relationships with colleagues. That’s the author’s prerogative, but it leaves a reader wondering how she ended up in her 50s, alone and jobless, reduced to eating 14 tofu meals a week (to save money, not the earth). Her approach to herself is neither scientific nor humanistic: the woman remains an enigma.
Alex, on the other hand, is a delight — a one-pound, three-dimensional force of nature. Mischievous and cocky, he also gets bored and frustrated. (And who wouldn’t, when asked to repeat tasks 60 times to ensure statistical significance?) He shouts out correct answers when his colleagues (other birds) fail to produce them. If Pepperberg inadvertently greets another bird first in the morning, Alex sulks all day and refuses to cooperate. He demands food, toys, showers, a transfer to his gym.
This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex’s charms on principle (the principle that says any author who keeps telling us how remarkable her subject is cannot possibly be right). But his achievements got the better of me. During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, “Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh.”
“I was stunned,” Pepperberg writes. “It was as if he were saying, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?’ ” Alex had leaped from phonemes to sound out a complete word — a major leap in cognitive processing. Perching near a harried accountant, Alex asks over and over if she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asks, “Well, what do you want?” Mimicry? Maybe. Still, it made me laugh.
After performing major surgery on Alex, a doctor hands him, wrapped in a towel, to an overwrought Pepperberg. Alex “opened an eye, blinked, and said in a tremulous voice, ‘Wanna go back.’ ” It’s a phrase Alex routinely used to mean “I’m done with this, take me back to my cage.” The scene is both wrenching — Alex had been near death — and creepy, evoking the talking bundle in “Eraserhead.”
Pepperberg frames her story with Alex’s death: the sudden shock of it, and the emotional abyss into which she fell. Ever the scientist, she wonders why she felt so strongly. The answer she comes up with is both simple — her friend was dead — and complex. At long last, and buoyed by the outpouring of support from people around the world, she could express the emotions she’d kept in check for 30 years, the better to convince the scientific establishment that she was a serious researcher generating valid and groundbreaking data (some had called her claims about animal minds “vacuous”). When Alex died, that weight lifted.
BUT in revealing how Alex lived, and the day-to-day workings of her lab, Pepperberg may soon find herself open to fresh criticism. Her book raises an important question: why, if Alex has the cognitive skills of a young child, and even seems to grasp such concepts as love, would anyone confine him to a cage in a lab? Why run him through the drills, or scold him for getting answers “wrong”? (“You turkey,” he’d say, mimicking his trainers, or “Say better!”) During a stint at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, Pepperberg worked on a device, designed for gray parrot owners, that projects terrifying images of predators when their pets’ vocalizations “exceeded the desired level.” She doesn’t comment on the morality of either confining a highly intelligent creatureor scaring it into submission. She deals with the question of animal rights in just one sentence: while acknowledging it would be cruel to adopt a gray and leave it alone all day, “that doesn’t mean grays or other animals have wide-ranging political rights.”
Alex was a celebrity, and this book will surely please his legions of fans. Meanwhile, supporters of Pepperberg, who continues her research with other grays, will remind critics that we’d have no inkling of parrot intelligence without Alex’s sacrifice.
Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” and “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”
By ELIZABETH ROYTE (NYT, November 9, 2008)