Alex and Me Book Review

It's not often that we get to watch a sea change in scientific thought. Most of the big changes - like when we went from thinking the world was flat to round - happened quite a while ago. However, with this book, tracing over the thirty years in Alex's feathery life, we see how scientists moved from absolutely believing animals could NOT think or talk to coming around to entertain the possibility. That's a fairly substantial change.

Alex, an African Grey Parrot, was a "normal" pet store parrot, not the product of genetic super-breeding. This typical average parrot was diligently trained by the researchers and within an amazingly short period of time he could identify colors, shapes, sizes, and count. The scientists were very careful to verify their findings, to make sure Alex was really doing what they thought he was. With the many other cases of fraud out there, the scientists wanted to make sure their research was beyond doubt, that it was not that they were leading or guiding Alex to the correct answers. He really did have the mental acuity to identify objects and describe what he saw.

This may be something we think is fairly easy to agree with in modern times. After all, research with elephants, dolphins, chimps and gorillas have revealed some pretty amazing things about their thought processes. However, back when researcher Irene Pepperberg began, the scientific community thought she was completely insane to even think something like this. Shad to fight yearly for funding to keep her research going.

While I enjoyed the Alex story greatly, I do think the book could have used some edited. The primary issue is that the first quarter of the book isn't even about Alex. It's about Irene and her background. While I agree that learning about the researcher is important in order to understand the overall story, this was a little much. I really didn't need to know the month by month details of how Ms. Pepperberg grew up. It would have been fine to summarize this more briefly and get to the main story about Alex.

In a similar vein, the very beginning of this book was just a dump of email messages praising Alex. Since we hadn't even met the bird yet or have any emotional connection with him, it felt very forced. We had to read page after page after page of obituary and press release. This all would have done well at the END of the book when we actually had grown to know and love the fluff of feathers. Then we could have related and empathized with the moving tributes. To have them all piled at the beginning of the book, about a bird we hadn't even glimpsed yet, made no sense to me. That's the sort of stuff I wanted to read AFTER I'd read his entire story and felt the sadness of his death.

Also, I realize this wasn't a scientific journal, but I would have liked to see a little more detail about how they were doing the research and less about the funding worries. It seemed like half of the story was angst about how to get funding X or Y or Z rather than learning about Alex and the techniques.

So a great story in general, but for me it was too heavily weighed on "Ms. Pepperberg and her background and funding woes" and not enough on "Alex, the amazing creature, and why his life was important."

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