Why it would be difficult to talk to pigeons - part 1

A rabbit hole that taught me more than I would ever think

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This is a longer read (±12 minutes), but I assure you it's worth it.

Picture this. You are sitting on a chair in front of a touchscreen. A researcher just left the experiment room, instructing you to just look at the screen and touch whatever you feel like touching.

The screen is black and all of a sudden, two squares show up. A white and a grey one.

Unsure what to do, you wait for a little. Should you touch a square?

You hesitantly press the white square and wait.

Nothing happens.

You press the grey square.

A piece of candy drops from a shaft into a box like the change in a vending machine. Yummy.

You press the grey square again.

Another piece of candy drops. Score!

You press the white square.

You sit in silence staring at the candy slot. Nothing.

You press the grey square. Another piece of candy.

It seems that grey results in more candy. This is great. Before you can press the grey square again, the screen goes black. A little disappointed, for sure.

Then, a grey and a black square show up.

Which square do you press?

The answer to this question will ultimately explain why and how serial entrepreneurs beat their junior competitors.

But before I can tell you that answer, l have to take you along on an adventure. Not just any adventure. In fact, it's the most obscure, esoteric academic adventure ever told. And boy is it fun.

The best scientific paper title ever

The other day I was scrolling through Google Scholar search results to find something related to my research project. Blue search results shifted by until my eye got caught on something captivating. Bear with me:

On the Abstractness of Human Concepts: Why It Would be Difficult to Talk to a Pigeon - By David Premack

I just think that's hilariously obscure, vague, and foremost titillating. You couldn't ignore this, could you!? I couldn't resist the force it exerted on me. Usually, I have a digital version of any paper within a minute to serve some instant gratification.

But this time, I was not able to find a full digital version of it, neither at my universities library nor at 'other' sites (if you know what I mean). I went out on a little scavenger hunt on a sunny Friday. I could not foresee where it took me.

Scavenger hunt

My quest began, and I quickly discovered that the article was actually a chapter in a book called "Cognitive Processes in Animal Behavior". It was published in 1978 and contained a collection of papers of a conference in 1976 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Not your average toilet read.

I tried to imagine what happened at that conference, 43 years ago, in Canada. The temporal and geographical distance baffled me. About half a century ago, 5000+ km from where I'm right now, a group of academics listened and discussed why it would be hard to talk to pigeons. And that conference was completely forgotten. Until now.

(For the best experience, start this song now via YouTube or Spotify)

I could picture it: an ill-lit dusky room, everyone was smoking wearing full 70s outfits. Chatter about pigeons. This triggered something in me. Within a split second, all remaining priorities of life became unimportant. From this moment on, it became my life goal to find some photos about this forgotten conference.

First stop: Google Books. As always on Google Books, I couldn't read the chapter I wanted. But benevolent Google included the preface. This contained the month of the conference: June. From a weather archive I pulled the temperature for Halifax in June, 1976: Around 17-20 degrees celsius, it was a quite dry June month. Perfect conditions to discuss pigeons.

I set my aim on any reporting on conferences in June 1976. I found that Dalhousie University has a very decent archive. Which includes the issues of the monthly 'University News'. In these editions, I found writing for the usual university stuff: announcements for new deans, snarky opinions, critique on unionism, and even a line-up that featured Ray Charles and Pavarotti, which I found pretty cool.

But most importantly: conferences were announced in this newspaper. I discovered that conferences were announced the month prior to the conference. Since the archive was not perfectly labeled, it took me a while to get to the May of 1976 edition that should announce the conference in June; I ended up downloading almost a gigabyte of old newspapers.

Bummer: There is no mention of a June animal behaviour conference. Shoot. I felt the disappointment replaced the hope that I had. Was it a phantom conference? I didn't know where to go now, I could only conclude I was done with my search.

I set out to find a vintage photo of the university that I could use at the start of this article. And while in their photo library, I just entered the keyword 'conference' and a time period between the 1970s and 1980s. I was feeling lucky. Only 8 results showed up. And then I saw the caption "Photograph of participants at the opening of the Animal Behavior Conference". Was this the very conference?

These had to be the pigeon talkers. I felt a rush. Abstract art on the wall. Funky 70s outfits. A pristine beard that became iconic for this time period. I couldn't believe my luck. I was so thrilled to find these two photos that seem to capture what I imagined. Unfortunately, this excitement didn't last long.

I found a problem: The pigeon conference was set in June, 1976. The two photos above are not from the year 1976. Those photos were taken in 1975, the archive said. My excitement evaporated. I thought for a second that maybe the archive was wrong. Maybe someone entered the wrong dates. This would be true if there is no sign of a conference in 1975.

Quickly, I rushed towards the university newspaper editions of 1975. Here I found a short announcing piece on an animal behaviour conference, set in October 1975. This must the conference of the photo. The mislabeling theory is false. These photos were taken in 1975 on the October regional meeting of the Animal Behaviour Society (ABS). Still no sign of a June 1976 Dalhousie conference. But maybe, the ABS knows something about the June 1976 Dalhousie conference?

I emailed this Animal Behaviour Society (ABS) to ask about the pigeon conference. They weren't sure such a June Dalhousie 1976 conference existed. They suggested going through their newsletters archives around the conference dates. The only 1976 ABS conference I could find was held in Boulder, Colorado: which is about 2000km from Dalhousie. A dead trail.

I emailed two other psychology academic societies about a June 1976 Dalhousie conference. Both couldn't confirm the conference. So many dead trails, my hope started to decrease, again. Who the hell hosted that June 1976 conference and why is there no mention of it anywhere, besides the preface?

The preface of the book is the only thing that seemed to keep this conference alive. In the preface, the Dalhousie Department of Psychology is thanked for their help. It is the same department that hosted the 1975 October animal behaviour conference. It seemed that if there is animal behaviour talk in Dalhousie, it happens at that department. Perhaps they are the epicenter of pigeon talk? I wrote them the email to help me out with my search.

Allright, Jeroen, take it easy

The pigeons, Jeroen, THE PIGEONS. What about them?

At this point in time, I was 25 tabs open, 10 emails sent, knee-deep in archives of a university I've never heard of until last Friday trying to understand the chronology of a conference that is vastly outside the reach of my research project. And I haven't felt this engaged in months. I'm a sucker for the obscure. Maybe most people would stop here. It didn't cross my mind. I really need the book now.

I went to a library overview page that showed me nearby libraries that do have the book. I spotted Amsterdam in the list! Only 4km from my location. Actually I found found that 400 libraries had this book, ranging all the way to New Zealand. Maybe not so obscure after all?

The University of Amsterdam (UvA) had one copy of this book in a depot, with a phone number next to it. Obviously, I phoned the depot whether I could pick it up. She was friendly, but also confused, as nobody ever seemed to call the depot. Poor her, must be lonely, on the other hand, that is something that stereotypical librarians might enjoy. Who am I to judge? I was referred to the main university library in the city centre of Amsterdam.

Turns out, as a researcher at a Dutch university I could make a free account. Next Monday I got an email: I got to pick up the book in a Wes Anderson-like room.

Every month I have one of these experiences that makes me realise how much easier it must be to do scholarly work right now. I can not imagine the books you need to hurl around, the indexes that you need to check manually, only to find that the books are not interesting. I really started to hope this effort is all worth it.

On the Abstractness of Human Concepts

I finally had the book. I started reading the chapter called 'On the Abstractness of Human Concepts: Why It Would be Difficult to Talk to a Pigeon'. It was obscure, but also extremely interesting. I'll try to explain it to you.

The pigeon experiment

Why would it be difficult to talk to a pigeon? Let me introduce you to an experiment. They put pigeons before a small video screen. The screen showed the pigeon a white and a grey square. If the grey square gets pecked (with its beak), the pigeon would get a food reward. After a while, the pigeon pecked the grey square on the screen repeatedly: the pigeon learned that pecking the grey square results in a reward. Sounds familiar?

Then, all of a sudden, the pigeon was shown two new squares. A grey and a black one (instead of a grey and white one). Which one would you peck? Well, the pigeon pecked the black one. I would've pecked the grey one. Why did the pigeon pick the black one?

Herbert Roitblat, the author who wrote a different chapter for the book, was kind enough to explain to me over email why the pigeon pecked the black one. The scientists wanted to discover whether the pigeon had a certain abstract, cognitive concept of 'grey'. But it seemed the pigeon didn't grasp the concept grey. There is no such thing as 'grey' for the pigeon. The pigeon picked the black square because it was 'darker than'. It learned that pecking 'darker than', not 'grey', resulted in a reward. They had a different abstraction than us.

Pigeons seem to be very limited in their concepts. Other research found that pigeons are able to recognise concepts such as a tree or water, but that was about it. Premack—the author of the pigeon chapter—writes:

"There is no evidence that a pigeon's perceptual categories have any internal structure as man's have shown to have."

To answer the question ‘Why it would be difficult to talk to pigeons?’, it would be hard to talk to pigeons because they don't have the rich library of concepts that we have.

They repeated these types of experiments with apes. Apes are able to detect grey, other colours, and symbols. This has to do with the level of abstraction that their mind allows. And our minds resembles the mind of apes. So unless you want to talk about trees and water with pigeons, you are out of luck. Given that pigeons share a language you speak.

Striking gold on that conference

In the meantime, the Dalhousie Department of Psychology emailed me back. And this would show me the rabbit hole is even deeper than I imagined.

Richard Brown wrote me that he has been in the psychology department for many years but just not in the years 76-78, which is unfortunate. He had to admit, that most contributors to the book have passed away; for instance, pigeon writer Premack died in 2015.

When I googled the 14 names of the authors of all the chapters, I often found a bibliography sitting next to an obituary. Some of their contributions stood out in their own way, such as a book on the history and psychology of Blindfold Chess by Eliot Hearst or an entry on Wikipedia on Pavlovian responses by Allan R. Wagner. It's cool to see the breath of these scholars, that seemed to make broad contributions to science. After some checking, it seemed that indeed only three of the dozen chapter writers didn't perish.

Richard Brown helped me with reaching out to scholars who might know something about the conference. Three replied, which was great. So far, many people have been helpful on this journey. This is much smoother than cold emailing sales leads. Gotta love that part of the scientific community.

For instance, Herbert Roitblat emailed me back that he did write a chapter but wasn't at the conference. His co-author for that chapter referred me back to Herbert. Herbert did ask me, paraphrasing, why the hell a PhD student in design and entrepreneurship was investigating an animal behaviour conference!? I loved that. I wasn't so sure either, but something kept raising my curiosity, every little discovery, every little step down that rabbit hole gave me a dopamine shot to continue.

And then, someone who attended the conference replied to me: Raymond Klein, professor emeritus. He told me he was just a starting scholar when the conference happened. However, he said, he wouldn't remember the nitty-gritty details of the discussions of that conference.

I told him, that was perfect because it was not so much about the contents of the conference anymore as it was just to get a glimpse of the conference. He remembered something about a lobster boil on a private island. Now my curiosity peaked. I, for one, wanted to know everything about this lobster boil on a private island.

Extremely helpful, Raymond emailed some of his colleagues. I was able to reconstruct the following based on Raymond's input.*


It's 1975, October. You visit the regional meeting of the Animal Behaviour Society. You are in your first year as a researcher. You try to attend many conferences to have an idea of what goes on in your field.

We walk into this room where a group of scholars is having coffees during the conference opening. I turn to you and say: "Look over there in the white suit, that is the department administrator, Doug Fisher. Next to him, in the dark suit is, that is James Henry, who studies seal behaviour."

"In the 1960s, James Henry built the Dalhousie Psychology Department into one of the strongest in the world in animal learning. He laid the seed for our later strengths in cognitive psychology, vision, and neuroscience. Somewhat of a founding father of that department and a major contributor to the field."

"Come with me, I want to introduce you to someone else. Look over there, in the back, with rad sideburns, we have Dr. John Fentress. Since 1974 he chaired the psychology department of Dalhousie." This was the same year Raymond Klein starts as a young researcher at that department.


Fast forward to 1976, the year of the pigeon conference. Raymond Klein now is in his second year as a young researcher. It's a calm, dry June. A brisk summer breeze sweeps over your neck as you walk across the campus of Dalhousie University. It's rather empty, the summer recess is almost here. Students are saying goodbye to each other, while others are sitting in the library to finish their final terms.

A group of scholars is in a room, discussing many topics of animal behaviour, but one stands out: a discussion on talking to pigeons.

After a good day of conferencing, the chair of the psychology department, sideburn Dr. John Fentress, invites everyone for dinner at his house.

You get an address in Sambro Head, 30 minutes from Halifax, easy drive. You walk to your car and get your map from your glove compartment. Figuring out your route, looking for Sambro Head on the map. There is a Sambro Island (which for some reason you remember has the oldest light house of North America, built in 1758), a regular Sambro, and then, boom, Sambro Head. Easy drive indeed.

You drive up to the house of John Fentress, which was surrounded by woods. He lived in a typical A-frame house. Some crowds hover around the house, you recognise some of the faces of the conference that day. You parked your car and you join the pack of people. You overhear people talking about going to an island to eat lobster. It appears that close to this house was a small island that John owned. Someone tells you that "John hoped to keep his wolves there".

With the group you walk towards a lake, where local teenagers—hired for this occasion—ferry the party-goers to the private island on a small boat. Soon, it seems that there were some issues with 'thinking ahead'.

Arriving at the island, you see a larger lobster pot on a wood fire, yet it is not boiling yet. A party-goer walks towards you and asks you "do you happen to know how long it takes for this thing to boil?" You have no idea, you seldom make lobster, never for this large quantity of people. It seemed people underestimated how long it takes a log fire to bring a large pot to boil. You shrug and get yourself a drink and mingle with a different group.

"When's the lobster ready?", someone asks.

"The pot is not even close to boiling", you mention.

"Really?", the person replies. "How long will it take?"

Again, you don't know anything about boiling lobsters. "No clue"

"I hope it's not too late, these teenagers that ferry us have parents and must be home at some point. What if we get stranded on this island?"

Most people laughed, some are visibly worried. Another person weighs in "Let's say they can stay late. In an hour or so it will be dark. Do they know the coastline well enough to navigate around the rocks and shoals? I rather not capsize" A combination of hilarity and angst got hold of the group.

Some graduate students start exploring the idea of faculty staff sinking. "If a boat sinks, the field of animal learning would be decimated." Another graduate student replies: "There might be a load of job openings!" The group laughs themselves into the lobster-boiled night.

Be curious, it pays off

As with YouTube's recommendation engine, you sometimes get into a niche of a niche that actually was already a niche of a niche. This process of unguided discovery is the openness I wrote about before. It's a dance you can intuitively navigate, something entrepreneurs do to find and explore opportunities.

You don't know where you end, and being open to the lack of clarity of your route is key. This journey brought me to understand things I would not be able to define upfront as something I didn't know. Be curious. It pays off.

We now know a pigeon has different abstractions than us which hinders talking to pigeons. We learned that not every species can reach high abstraction levels. It is related to the way the mind works. Abstractions are key in entrepreneurship. As I wrote earlier, making innovation happen requires various levels of abstraction.

Now, how does this relate to how experienced entrepreneurs beat their junior counterparts?

Read about that in part 2, which you can find here.

*This reconstruction is based on the story Raymond Klein was able to make, as he recalls it. The wolves, the 'failure to think ahead’, the long taking boil, the teenager's ferry, it getting dark, the joke about the faculty staff sinking, are all not made up. I love it.

Jeroen's note

If you would know what you didn't know, life would be easier.

I want to thank everyone involved in this piece for the help. This piece is made with the help of close to 20 people, such as researchers and people I told it to which helped me structure it. It was quite an endeavor, so thanks!

This edition is a rabbit hole. It's a peek into how I dive into stuff and how my brain makes associations. It's very different from what I did before and I really want to know what you think. I'm probably not going to do this every week, but I had a lot of fun making it.

Help me out, how was this?

Great - Good - Meh

It takes 1 second and makes me happy in my tummy.

Two more snacks

  • Podcast episode on how abstract thinking is linked to higher IQ scores throughout the years and more stuff (and a great book tip, too)

  • Herbert L. Roitblat wrote a book at MIT press called 'Algorithms are not enough' on Artificial General Intelligence. It's now on my reading list