Skip to content


  1. Kel Kel

    Just as long as the primate lab is housed well away… 😉

  2. I get into this discussion a lot at work, behind the scenes (at the zoo). When we teach at the zoo, we’re supposed to say “parrots don’t really talk, they’re just very good mimics”. I had a long discussion with our education curator at one point who wanted to drive home the point that parrots don’t talk by telling us that parrots learn to mimic certain words because they become associated with certain rewards or social cues. I was not looked upon well when I asked how that was fundamentally different from how children gain vocabulary.

  3. Adam Adam

    I’m probably missing the joke somehow, but can parrots actually connect their words to their material conditions? For instance, can they distinguish between a cracker and a grape?

    I once met a parrot who seemed to know that the word “ShhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiT” was an expression of frustration… but I always wondered if I was just projecting onto the bird.

  4. OK, I assumed others would generally have a background including knowledge of the research done by Prof. Irene Pepperberg. Maybe that was not warranted.

    Pepperberg’s original research subject, an African Gray parrot named Alex, built up a vocabulary of about 300 words. Pepperberg’s research showed that Alex had a conceptual understanding of various categories and relations that he could express with that vocabulary, including number, color, shape, and material of items presented to him. I think that the stance that there is no possible understanding of words and concepts attached to them by parrots is, well, quite behind the times.

    • I am always wondering what does it mean in neodarwinian dictionary “to understand”. Does the parrot “understand” the same way as we humans? Does he realize that there are symbols which are used instead of this or that? Ernst Cassirer in his philosophy of symbolic forms showed it quite clearly that “to understand words” means you realise their symbolic meaning. It is this fact that only humans are able “to understand”.After realizing this important fact deaf and dumb people suddenly start to show with their hands on this or that thing asking “what’s its name, how do we call it?”. I wonder if the parrot ever came to the idea that there may be also words he doesn’t know. Did he asked about them? Unless no, then his “understanding words” is quite dubious concept. Even his induction is quite peculiar – “knowing” allegedly 300 hundred words, why it didn’t occured him that there may be also the 301st?

  5. Jeb Jeb

    “Parle et je te baptise” as Cardinal de Polignac said to the chimpanzee.

    Rousseau would later comment on the Cardinal to Hume, its no wonder these creatures pretend to to be mute.

    The joke is based on Rousseau’s belief that the muteness of apes was a trick they used. A rational choice made”out of fear that they might otherwise be made to work.”

    Perhaps it was the parrots choice to leave the philosophy department before they get rumbled.

  6. bob koepp bob koepp

    If the claim is that a lot of linguistic behavior on the part of purportedly conscious human beings is easily assimilable to “parroting,” well, I think that’s overwhelmingly likely to be true. If, on the other hand, what’s being claimed is that parrots engage in symbolic behaviors (e.g., use symbols as symbols, as opposed say, to using them as signs), well, the evidence so far is pretty shaky.

  7. jeff jeff

    “My trained use of words and phrases in appropriate context is not fundamentally different from human communication which is ascribed to consciousness”

    You wouldn’t be parroting this from Dennett et al would you? Kinda like saying that the speech from a machine that passes the turing test is not fundamentally different from real human speech. Yeah, so what? But is there understanding and subjective experience behind it?

    • You wouldn’t be parroting this from Dennett et al would you? Kinda like saying that the speech from a machine that passes the turing test is not fundamentally different from real human speech.

      That’s neither Dennett nor Turing.

      D. Dennett, “Can Machines Think” in Brainchildren, MIT Press, 1998.

      Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433-460.

      Also Stanford Ency. Phil. and wikipedia.

      But is there understanding and subjective experience behind it?

      That’s a good question. Here’s a better one: how would you go about finding out if there was understanding and subjective experience behind it?

      Here’s Dennett’s example of a reasonable question to ask a Turing machine candidate:

      An Irishman found a genie in a bottle who offered him two wishes. “First I’ll have a pint of Guinness,” said the Irishman, and when it appeared he took several long drinks from it and was delighted to see that the glass filled itself magically as he drank. “What about your second wish?” asked the genie. “Oh well,” said the Irishman, “that’s easy. I’ll have another one of these!”

      Please explain this story to me, and tell me if there is anything funny or sad about it.

      If I get a reasonable answer back to that question, I’d be hard-pressed to explain why understanding wasn’t involved.

      [BTW: I can go on at very tedious length about Turing and I’m not going to put John through yet another edition of my version of Philosophical Amateur Hour. Drop me a line if you like or post to on usenet.]

      • jeff jeff

        “how would you go about finding out if there was understanding and subjective experience behind it?”

        You can’t via science, because subjective experience is not an objectively observable property of any physical system in the universe, brains included. This leads some to conclude that it doesn’t exist (it’s an “illusion”). So let’s see.. I observe subjective experience in myself (otherwise I’d be an automaton and the universe would pass by unnoticed), but scientists tell me that subjectivity can’t exist, and since science is always right, therefore, subjective experience can’t be real. Some fine logic there.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    Rousseau rejected arguments based on the comparison of human use of language as proof of the great gulf between human and animal .

    Suggesting that linguistic competence is learned and not a natural characteristic.

    Human language usage had a long,complex and very specific social and cultural history.

    Lack of a shared cultural and social development may explain the differences in understanding between human and parrot.

  9. Maybe we should view the advent of true human language and the incredibly elaborate culture that comes with it as analogous to the episode when proto-eukaryotes outsourced their energy production to the bacteria that would become mitochondria. And if acquiring those bacteria amounted to a speciation event at the time, maybe we’re going through another one at present as Google becomes an integral part of the lichen-like constitution of I-man. Of course this suggestion comes from somebody who thinks that strudel is a friable metamorphic rock created from sedimentary layers of dough and fruit under relatively low temperatures…

    • jeff jeff

      No one is questioning the science behind parrot vocalizations or animal cognition. Some might question any non-objective philosophical conclusions drawn from it. As If… science was everything there is. An assumption that many scientists seem to have.

      • You seem to be pre-supposing the existence of objective philosophical conclusions. All that you will be able to support, though, is inter-subjective assent and consensus, which isn’t quite the same thing. We just tend to gloss over the difference.

        Some scientists do assume science is all there is. I’m not one of them. What I pointed out is that the views introduced in earlier comments weren’t consistent with the evidence. This is not going beyond the remit of the available evidence. There is more than mimicry going on.

        • bob koepp bob koepp

          Wesley –
          Yes, it seems clear that there is more than mimicry going on. But it isn’t clear that symbolization is going on. It might be. But the evidence is, as I said, “shaky.” My sense is that the question of how to distinguish empirically between things like signs and symbols needs refinement. And I think it likely, as indicated in my earlier comment, that if we manage to effect this refinement, we will find that much linguistic behavior does not require symbolization.

  10. David Lewin David Lewin

    We have a cockatiel who is apparently very vocal for his species. However, his speech is not very clear until you listen closely for some time. He often uses phrases he’s been taught, or picked up, in what seems an appropriate context. For example, he will say “Very good” when we do something he likes. On the other hand, he uses “Good morning” when we wake him up, but also when he’s tired and is ready for sleep. As with humans and canines, his body languague can be very communicative–when we are getting ready to go out, he’ll turn away and show us his rump!

    • Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

      Has he had the opportunity to learn an appropriate phrase to use before sleeping? Perhaps he just associates “Good morning” with wake/sleep cycles.

Comments are closed.