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Dr. Irene Pepperberg: Animal Cognition, Consciousness, and Ethics

Emerson Hall 105, Harvard University (map)

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a researcher at Harvard University in the field of animal cognition, specifically of African Grey parrots. Her work began with Alex, a parrot who was shown to have the emotional age of about a 2 year old child and the intelligence of up to a 5-6 year old child. Her research in areas such as the labelling of objects, shapes, colors, and the understanding of categorical concepts, of bigger-or-smaller, same-different, and nonhuman numerical abilities, revolutionized what the world knew about avian cognition. 

Arguments for human consciousness usually derive from introspective reports; we lack such reports for nonhumans. Not being able to derive data to posit human-like consciousness, Dr. Pepperberg argues that nonhumans have, at the least, a sense of awareness, which may or may not be distinct from full consciousness. She proposes that this awareness if required for complex tasks and is a form of higher order cognition.