Monday, September 17, 2007

Polly Wants an Obit

By now, you've all heard about the extraordinary parrot named Alex who recently died. I'm timely like this. George Johnson had a good piece in Sunday's Times about the story:
He is survived by his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, a prominent comparative psychologist, and a scientific community divided over whether creatures other than human are more than automatons, enjoying some kind of inner life.

Skeptics have long dismissed Dr. Pepperberg’s successes with Alex as a subtle form of conditioning — no deeper philosophically than teaching a pigeon to peck at a moving spot by bribing it with grain. But the radical behaviorists once said the same thing about people: that what we take for thinking, hoping, even theorizing, is all just stimulus and response.
I liked Johnson's last paragraph a lot, but I'll let you get to it yourself.

I wonder, though, if Johnson isn't overreaching with the word "automatons." The primary definition of an automaton is a robot, or "a mechanical figure or contrivance constructed to act as if by its own motive power." The slightly more gentle and reasonable definition (as it applies here) is "a person or animal that acts in a monotonous, routine manner, without active intelligence." Still, does a large part of the scientific community really believe all creatures other than humans are automatons? I doubt that.


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