On Bird Brains

I apologize to you faithful checkers out there for the paucity of entries as of late. The Feast in Branson is really dominating my time, and I expect it will only get worse as the days approach, here in the “final stretch” — so don’t feel bad if you don’t check in for a while. [Frankly, I only have these few moments to write this because I am stuck waiting for a Feast-related phone call, and I want to give it another ten minutes before I give up and move to “Plan B”.] I will admit that there may not be much to read in this space until the Feast of Tabernacles is over. I have debated whether to blog a bit during the Feast, but the debate is only hypothetical: (1) It is unlikely I will have the time, and (2) given that most of you dear readers will be observing the Feast, there won’t be much interest! 🙂

Of course, beginning this entry this way might make you think that the title of today’s entry is meant to refer to myself. If you thought that, I forgive you.

No, actually, I was referring to the passing of Alex, the African gray parrot that died about a week-and-a-half ago.

Alex the Parrot (Wikipedia picture)

As some of you may know, Alex was a remarkable bird trained and studied for thirty years by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Gray parrots are known to be very intelligent animals, and over thirty years Alex, in particular, had built up an impressive ability to communicate with his trainers and staff. The results of the work have raised a number of questions concerning the nature of mental conceptualization and what it means to communicate based on understanding rather than on simple conditioning.

For those who might be interested in reading about the discussion engendered by Alex’s thirty year run, the New York Times had an article in yesterday’s paper that seems available to non-subscribers (like me): “Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?” (I have the print version, but the online version is nice in that it has a link to a (very short) YouTube video of Alex in action.)

The article is a good, brief read. It doesn’t hit much of the controversy — such as the scientists who disagree with many of Dr. Pepperberg’s conclusions — but it is still a good introduction to the sorts of discussions concerning the understanding of concept and consciousness that experiments like this tend to raise. (The Wikipedia article on Alex can be found here.)

Do I believe that — taken as a whole — man is on a different plan from the animals? Absolutely. Genesis 1:26-27 is true of no animal on earth, and no animal has the equivalent of the human spirit. Even for those who do not believe in the truth of Bible, the evidence is there for those willing to look (having “eyes that see”). The gap between the animal “mind” and the human mind is so vast that there is plenty of room for a creature like Alex to exist, even granting the conclusions of Dr. Pepperberg — the sentries standing on the wall guarding the belief in human uniqueness would not even notice any dust kicked up in the distance, let alone blow the horn and man the ramparts, so vast is that distance.

Yet, God has made us physical beings in this life. The way in which the brain is used to help create who we are and enable what we do is a fascinating study, and work like this that helps us to see into that inner world of the brain — bringing up questions about mind and conceptualization — is (for me, at least) enthralling stuff.

(Should a team of gray parrots, chimpanzees, and dolphins ever get together and build a space shuttle, I am ready to revisit my conclusions, by the way. And I grant that — even in their current, unenlightened, bestial states — such a team of critters could probably outperform the UN in capacity to reason logically…)

For those of you out there gearing up for the Feast of Tabernacles, our prayers are with you! Let’s really invest in this holy day season so that we may better open ourselves up to God that He may really invest in us.

[And for those who have no idea why Christians observe a supposedly “Jewish” festival like the Feast of Tabernacles, I recommend our free booklet The Holy Days–God’s Master Plan. It’s not only available on line, but you can order a free copy for yourself by clicking here and filling out the form. As always, our materials are free of charge or obligation.]

One thought on “On Bird Brains

  1. It is fascinating to watch the more intelligent animals, especially from dogs and cats on up, interact with the world, each other and human beings. Orcas — the largest and among the most intelligent of dolphins — especially fascinate me. They and their cousins can be very inventive. I remember a young lass at Sea World — one of the orca trainers — tell us in the audience that sometimes it’s the orcas that seem to be training *them*.

    But I like your metaphor about the watchmen on the walls of human uniqueness. Here’s something to appeal to your mathematical mind. (Forgive me if I mess up on the terminology and symbiology; mathematics is not my specialty.) Animals can comprehend a finite equation, in effect: say, A + B + C + D + whatever = 1. Humans can understand the concept of an infinitely nested equation (which I don’t know how to write out properly, let alone write out given the limits of this text box). If someone doesn’t think this is a common human achievement, then he should listen to a conversation between two or more teenaged girls sometime. 😀 The layers of parenthetical thought that can build up are awe-inspiring.

    There is a difference both in degree and in kind between the ability of animals to understand finite things and the ability of humans to understand the infinite (an ability that’s better on the average, in my opinion, than most humans give themselves credit for). Not bad for creatures who are finite themselves.

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