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Animal Cognition: Thoughts on a bird that uses abstract concepts?

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I assume most of that can be explained via operant conditioning without needing to postulate any higher-level abilities on the part of the parrot; evidence of abstract reasoning would have to involve the animal somehow going beyond what it was taught rather than just repeating it (eg if the parrot was explicitly taught how to count to 6, but then managed to 'grasp' counting and go on to count to 20). I recall reading a report which suggested that a chimpanzee could use abstract concepts to some degree; it had been taught basic words, but managed to combine them in a way it hadnt seen (I think the example they gave was that the chimp put together the signs for 'water' and 'bird' when it was shown a duck). The evidence was hotly debated though, and seemed fairly inconclusive. I'll try to find the link later.

I think that article is trying to suggest that the parrot came up with 'none' on its own, but the cup experiment seems to disprove this. I dunno, I'd have to look at the actual study, I dont really trust media reporting of science :dough:

Edited by Hal
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I think that article is trying to suggest that the parrot came up with 'none' on its own, but the cup experiment seems to disprove this. I dunno, I'd have to look at the actual study, I dont really trust media reporting of science :dough:

That is a good point. I don't trust the media or the scientists in many cases.
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(I think the example they gave was that the chimp put together the signs for 'water' and 'bird' when it was shown a duck). The evidence was hotly debated though, and seemed fairly inconclusive.
Even the published scholarly works are dubious. What they've actually shown is that chimp signing is a combination of Clever Hans, wishful thinking, operant conditioning, random signing and a really bad data-cleansing procedure. You can teach chimps to wave their hands in particular ways in connection with things they want, like bananas and tickling. Then all the chimp has to do is wave his hand a lot; if the hand-waving vaguely resembles the supposed sign for "cookie", they score it as "cookie" especially if it would be contextually appropriate. They have a data reduction procedure that eliminates repeated signs and (undefined) "markers". The upshot of this is that the behavior "you me banana me you banana me banana you me give me me banana" reduces to "You give me banana". In the realm of "wishful thinking", I'm particularly amused at the fact that the Gardners and Penny Patterson both attribute the signs "please" to their primates. Well, what in the world is the referent of "please" such that that can justify glossing the behavior as "please" and not "jackass" or "NOW!"? There are various papers by Herb Terrace, Mark Seidenberg, and Laura Petitto which debunk this money talk idea (see esp. Seidenberg & Petitto, Cognition 7: 177-215 for a well-deserved ass-whupping of the monkey-signer folks). I've never read any of the scholarly papers by Pepperberg on her bird, but I would be very surprised if the experimental method was any better.
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Thanks for the information. I'll try and get hold of that article you mentioned but I dont think my Athens login works for that journal... Would you mind emailing me it?

In the realm of "wishful thinking", I'm particularly amused at the fact that the Gardners and Penny Patterson both attribute the signs "please" to their primates. Well, what in the world is the referent of "please" such that that can justify glossing the behavior as "please" and not "jackass" or "NOW!"?

This is a good point, and its going to apply when 'translating' any alleged animal concepts into English. Most of our language derives its meaning from the context of our lives as a whole, and its not clear whether an animal with entirely different cognitive functions, and a very limited 'vocabulary' could ever approximate one of our concepts unless it was something incredibly simple and highly observational, like 'tree' or 'blue'. There's certainly no way you could justify translating something as abstract as 'please', for the reasons you mention.

The 'nothing' idea in the original article also suffers from this. Even if the parrot makes a sound which resembles the English 'nothing' in one particular context, how could you justify translating it as 'nothing' if the animal doesnt use it in any of the other situations where we would (eg the cups experiment)? Understanding the concept 'nothing' doesnt just mean you can say there arent 5 blue balls in one highly specific experiment - you have to go beyond simple stimulus-response tests and apply it to new situations to show that you have actually 'grasped' it. When a teacher wants to check if a child understands arithmetic, she doesnt give them a test which asks "what is 1+1?" 10 times.

Edited by Hal
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In the realm of "wishful thinking", I'm particularly amused at the fact that the Gardners and Penny Patterson both attribute the signs "please" to their primates. Well, what in the world is the referent of "please" such that that can justify glossing the behavior as "please" and not "jackass" or "NOW!"?

ROFLMAO

When my friend's hippy girlfriend saw me posting on this site once, she saw your avatar and said, "Wow, there are white wolves who are Objectivists?"

I absolutely couldn't tell if she was joking or not..

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When my friend's hippy girlfriend saw me posting on this site once, she saw your avatar and said,  "Wow, there are white wolves who are Objectivists?"
Yeah, this keyboard thing is really a pain. You'd need something like, I dunno, fingers to be able to actually type in just one letter. And don't get me started on this nonsense about using a mouse. Bite their little heads. Sorry, gotta go chase a cat.
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I can see people trying to use this as fuel against the Objectivist style of politics (that rights derive from the ability to reason.)

But only other brands of politcs (particularly the religious-based ones) would have problems here. To an Objectivist, there is nothing sacred or holy about humanity (like, for example, we are the children of God and the animals were put there for our use.) We are animals who stand apart from other life because of our ability to reason.

Another animal who evolves a reasoning mind would be granted access to all the natural rights of man. But so far, nothing even comes close. Counting to six, understanding that corn is yellow, and knowing the differences among a variety of shapes is nothing compared to understanding that one has access to rights.

Not to marginalize the bird, it's an impressive biological speciment. Nor to marginalize the scientists who are exploring the upper cognitive power of animal brains. I am merely shooting down that arguement before it even gets off the ground.

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