On the night he died, Alex told Irene Pepperberg, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, “You be good. I love you.” “I love you too,” she replied. “You’ll be in tomorrow?” “Yes, I’ll be in tomorrow.”
Not bad for a bird.
Until Alex came along, scientists looking at animal language had concentrated on large-brained primates. But they cannot form words.
Alex (his name an acronym for Avian Learning Experiment) could talk—and could, to some extent, make sense.
At the time he died, Alex could pronounce over 100 words; could count to six; and understood abstract concepts such as bigger or smaller, same or different. He also grasped that two keys of different sizes were both keys.
When he wanted to stop his laboratory tests and rest at a window overlooking the garden he would say “Wanna go tree.”
When other parrots mispronounced words he would correct them: “Talk clearly.”
How much he really understood remains controversial. Sceptics dismiss his achievements as a one-off, the work of an exceptional animal. On the last point, at least, they were right.
If language can still be claimed as uniquely human, can anything else?
Until recently, culture would have been held up as a second defining feature of humanity.
Complex ways of doing things which are passed down not by genetic inheritance or environmental pressure but by teaching, imitation and conformism have been widely assumed to be unique to people.
But it is increasingly clear that other species have their own cultures, too.
In “The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins”, Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, and Luke Rendell of the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, argue that all cultures have five distinctive features:
- A characteristic technology.
- Teaching and learning.
- A moral component, with rules that buttress “the way we do things” and punishments for infraction.
- An acquired, not innate, distinction between insiders and outsiders.
- And a cumulative character that builds up over time.
These attributes together allow individuals in a group to do things that they would not be able to achieve by themselves.
For the first feature, look no further than the crow.
New Caledonian crows are the champion toolmakers of the animal kingdom. They make hooks by snipping off V-shaped twigs and nibbling them into shape. They fashion Pandanus leaves into toothed saws. And in different parts of the island they make their tools in different ways.
Studies by Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland showed that the hooks and saws in two sites on New Caledonia differed systematically in size, in the number of cuts needed to make them and even according to whether they were predominantly left-handed or right-handed.
To the extent that culture means “the way we do things around here”, the two groups of crows were culturally distinct.
Chimpanzees are now known to manipulate over two dozen implements: clubs to beat with, pestles to grind with, fly whisks, grass stalks with which to fish for termites, spongy leaves to soak up water, rocks as nutcrackers.
Like New Caledonian crows, different groups use them slightly differently.
William McGrew of Cambridge University argues that the tool sets of chimpanzees in western Tanzania are just as complex as the simplest human tools, such as early human artefacts found in east Africa or indeed those used in historic times by native peoples in Tasmania.
The skill needed to make and use tools is taught. It is not the only example of teaching that animals have to offer.
Meerkats feed on scorpions—an exceptionally dangerous prey which you cannot learn to hunt by trial and error. So older meerkats teach younger ones gradually.
First they incapacitate a scorpion and let the young meerkat finish it off. Then they let their students tackle a slightly less damaged specimen, and so on in stages until the young apprentice is ready to hunt a healthy scorpion on its own.
Pretty much all meerkats do this. Elsewhere what is taught can change, with just some animals picking up new tricks. As the story of Billie the tailwalker implies, whales and dolphins can learn fundamentally new behaviours from each other.
In 1980, a humpback whale started to catch fish off Cape Cod in a new way. It would slam its flukes down on the surface of the water—lobtailing, as it is known—then dive and swim round emitting a cloud of bubbles.
The prey, confused by the noise and scared of the rising circle of bubbles, bunched themselves together for protection. The whale would then surge up through the middle of the bubble cloud with a mouth full of fish.
Bubble feeding is a well known way for whales to freak out their food; so is lobtailing. Making the first a systematic set-up to the second, though, was apparently an innovation—and became very popular.
By 1989, just nine years after the first Cape Cod whale started lobtail feeding, almost half the humpbacks in the area were at it. Most were younger whales which, since their mothers did not use the new trick, could not have inherited it.
Researchers think young whales copied the first practitioner, spreading the technique through imitation. How the first one got the idea is a mystery—as is the question of whether it is actually a superior way of feeding, or merely an increasingly fashionable one.
Cultures rely not only on technologies, techniques and teaching but on rules of accepted behaviour. That things should be fair seems a widespread requirement among social animals.
At a canine research centre at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, for example, dogs frequently chosen to take part in tests are shunned by other dogs. It turns out that all the dogs want to take part in these tests because they receive human attention; those which are chosen too often are seen as having got unfair advantage.
Capuchin monkeys taking part in experiments keep track of the rewards they are getting. If one is offered a poor reward (such as a slice of cucumber), while another gets a tasty grape, the first will refuse to continue the test. Chimpanzees do this, too.
Most cultures distinguish between outsiders and insiders and animals are no exceptions.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are particularly striking in this regard, having a repertoire of calls which are distinctive to the pod in which they live, a sort of dialect. Dr Whitehead and Dr Rendell compare them to tribal markings. Orcas are unusual in that different pods tend to feed on different prey and rarely interbreed.
Most of the time, pods studiously ignore each another. But occasionally one will ferociously attack another. This cannot have anything to do with competition for food or females. Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium attributes it to xenophobia—a particularly extreme and aggressive way of distinguishing between insiders and outsiders.
But if animals display four of the five attributes that go to make up a culture, there is one they do not share. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about human cultures is that they change over time, building upon earlier achievements to produce everything from iPhones and modern medicine to democracy.
Nothing like this has been observed in animals.
Particular aspects of animal behaviour change in ways that might seem cultural, and disruptive change is certainly possible.
In the 1990s, for example, South African culling policies that saw the oldest elephants shot and their children redistributed led to large changes in their normally orderly matriarchal societies. Young elephants became abnormally aggressive, since there were no longer any elders to rein them back. In other cases such disruption can seem, anthropomorphically, not so bad.
But whether the shocks are good or bad, animal societies have yet to show steady, adaptive change—any cultural progress.
Knowledge accumulates with the oldest individuals—when drought struck Tarangire national park in Tanzania in 1993 the elephant families that survived best were those led by matriarchs which remembered the severe drought of 1958—but it goes to the graveyard with them.