Human Exceptionalism

Parrot Personhood?

We get stories like this from time-to-time: There was Washoe the chimp who could supposedly converse intelligently through sign language that turned out to be training and subtle prompts. And now, a researcher has written a book about her claims that a parrot named Alex the parrot had the intelligence of a young child. From a review of the researcher’s book:

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.

All of this raises moral issues in the mind of the reviewer:

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 creature or 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.”

Well, the researcher is right about that, but I think we should take this all with a huge grain of salt–as some have. What is the size of a parrot’s brain, about that of a shelled walnut? If Alex is as smart as claimed, without much, if any, of a frontal lobe, wouldn’t it throw everything we know about brain function out the window?

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