160. Alex the Parrot and Mysterious Zero

29 Jun

By the age of three or four the average human child can grasp the concept of ‘Zero’ – the idea of nada, zilch, nought and nothing. This is quite impressive, so is Alex the Parrot. At age 28 this domestic parrot with a walnut-sized brain learnt zero.

Alex is an acronym for Advanced Language EXperiment, from the age of 1 he has been reared and kept indoors, to study exactly what a ‘birdbrain’ is capable of. The answer is a lot. Were you to show Alex a tray with four items upon it, “four,” he would croak. The same for three, one and eight. the breakthrough came when he was performing the counting game and was shown a tray with zero items on it. He will croak in his distinctive voice, “none,” which is more than impressive. You may find it natural, however contrary to what we think, it is very abstract. Humans as a whole are very smart, four years to learn a concept is considerable. In fact a few ancient cultures didn’t have an actual term for zero by the Middle Ages. However, while impressive this parrot is not the full thing. Lead researcher Irene Pepperberg said:

“Alex has a zero-like concept; it’s not identical to ours but he repeatedly showed us that he understands an absence of quantity,”

This is a case of animal intelligence exceeding what we assume is the limit for what are assumed to be ‘lesser beings.’ Chimps too have been shown to understand the concept of an absence of quantity. One may say that this is trained, but it cannot be a totally unwarranted new thing. For all the will in the world you could never make a salmon sing or gecko grin. These abilities, while brought out by lab studies are deep-rooted. Humanity’s intelligence is firmly rooted in the animal kingdom.

For example come species of monkey can teach other monkeys in their groups to swim. This is an example of learning and communication. Other animals, such as prairie dogs have different sounds to warn others of different animals, they have even created their own equivalent ‘word’ for humans. Be glad though that humanity have progressed: consider the case of 450 sheep in 2005 which all jumped to their deaths for no apparent reason. Intelligence is a boon.

Alex the Parrot died in 2007 at the age of 31, after a long life of furthering science and the proof that a birdbrain is actually quite a good thing. He was succeeded by another African Grey Parrot called Griffin.

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Posted by on June 29, 2011 in Articles



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