Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — And Formed a Deep Bond in the Process
is a 2008 memoir by American animal-intelligence researcher Irene Pepperberg. It recounts her thirty-year experiment with an African Grey parrot named Alex (short for “Avian Learning Experiment”). According to Pepperberg, Alex demonstrated the intelligence of a two-year-old human at the time of his death, the highest level of intelligence exhibited by a non-human animal. Alex & Me
is a personal memoir, focusing less on Pepperberg’s findings and more on her relationship with Alex.
The book is framed by the story of Alex’s death: “How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world? It took death for me to find out.” Pepperberg relates the experience of reading Alex’s obituaries in mainstream newspapers, pointing out that many people who never met Alex were touched by his intelligence and personality. This sets the stage for Pepperberg to admit that she struggled, throughout Alex’s life, to maintain the emotional distance from him necessary for scientific objectivity in her work. During their thirty years together, Alex could never be her pet, but he was also never just an experimental subject.
Pepperberg recounts her own childhood, revealing that her parents were emotionally distant and controlling. She discusses a failed marriage and her tense relationships with colleagues. This narrative establishes how she came to be a total outsider in the scientific establishment. She abandoned the field she was trained in (Chemistry) in order to pursue studies in animal intelligence.
Pepperberg discusses how she began training Alex. She uses the “model/rival technique,” in which Alex is encouraged to compete with a “rival” (another researcher) to understand words as labels for objects. Alex soon learns to identify “paper,” “key” and “wood.” Pepperberg insists that Alex genuinely understood the labels, rather than mimicking the sounds: “Give him a banana when he’d asked for a grape, and you were likely to end up wearing the banana. Alex was not subtle….I had wanted him to learn labels, and to express his wants. I guess I had succeeded.”
Pepperberg introduces a recurring theme. Despite making exciting discoveries and providing scrupulously rigorous evidence, she struggles to gain recognition—and funding—from the scientific community at large. She argues that she faced particular difficulty not only because her work was completely original, but also because of a lingering prejudice about the idea of non-human animals being able to use language, because language is assumed to be “a defining character of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures).”
Alex says, “I love you” for the first time, introducing the difficulty Pepperberg faces in maintaining scientific objectivity in the face of Alex’s strong personality: “From the very start of the Alex Project I had determined that my professional approach would be rigorous in training and in testing my Grey. I had come from the so-called hard sciences, after all. I needed my data to be unimpeachable, to meet high standards of credibility. I wouldn’t let emotion cloud my judgment. I wouldn’t get too attached in order to keep that credibility intact, no matter how hard it would be. And it was hard.”
Pepperberg recounts Alex’s coining of the word “banerry,” a portmanteau of “banana” and “cherry” to describe an apple. She also describes the beginnings of major press attention for Alex, primarily for his ability to use abstract concepts. Nevertheless, Pepperberg continues to struggle for funding.
Alex falls ill with aspergillosis, a potentially fatal fungal infection. Pepperberg has to leave him overnight at the vet’s. As she leaves, Alex says, “I’m sorry. Come here. Wanna go back.”
Pepperberg begins using Alex as the “rival” in the training of other African Grey parrots. Alex learns to correct the other parrots and to tease Pepperberg and her research team, for instance by deliberately giving the wrong answers, only to give the right answers as the researchers turn to leave.
Pepperberg recounts a particularly extraordinary event. While she is demonstrating Alex’s skills to some visitors, Alex keeps insisting, “Want a nut.” Pepperberg tells him to wait, and eventually, in frustration, Alex says, “Want a nut. Nnn…uh…tuh.” This is significant because Alex has never been taught to sound out words, only the individual letters. By himself, he has worked out the relation between the word “nut” and its component letters.
Alex’s intelligence continues to develop. He invites Pepperberg to ask him a “trick question,” and perhaps demonstrates an understanding of the concept of “zero,” something which small children are unable to comprehend. Pepperberg begins to teach Alex Arabic numerals, and he demonstrates that he has a concept of larger and smaller numbers.
The end of the book returns to Alex’s unexpected and premature death. His last words, as Pepperberg leaves the lab for the night, are, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”