25 June, 2009

Cetacean Culture & Personhood Outtakes

Outtakes from my articles on whale and dolphin personhood and culture.

Hal Whitehead: Someone in a review suggested that this had implications for thinking about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. We might expect a more whale-type intelligence, who don’t make radios, than a human-type intelligence, that does. There might be lots of intelligent creatures out there, but they’re swimming in seas, have complicated social conventions, complicated political systems — but they haven’t built a radio.

Lori Marino: We’ve been studying dolophin sounds for decades, and we don’t have much of a clue what they’re  saying. We know a few sounds they make that are easily correlated with something, but the vast majority of sounds they produce are unknown. we haven’t figured out how to organize those sounds, or even what a meaningful unit of sound is to them.

Between all the cognitive studies that have been done, and what you see when you look at the brain of these animals, what you see is an enormously complex creature. Everything points to them being psychologically very, very complex.

The biggest threat to these animals comes from two sources. One, obviously, is pollution and commercial fishing. The other source of concern is the taking of animals from the wild to be brought into the captivity industry, which is turning out to be the biggest driver of these slaughters and these drive hunts. It seems like everyone has to have a dolphin in their backyard, and those dolphins have to come from somewhere — for the most part, from natural habitat.  We have no idea what the conequences are on the population, but we do know the consequences for the indivduals are dire.

These are fragile groups where everybody has a different role to play. And the most important thing people should know about them is that they’re individuals with lives, and that they’re not interchangeable. When an indivdiaul dies, it affects the whole group.

Shane Gero (asked whether the historical industrial slaughter — arguably a genocide — of whales had disrupted their culture): For sure. That’s going to come out, hopefully, slowly now as we start to do a lot of work in the Pacific and Atlantic. One thing we’re seeing that’s drastically different in the Atlantic is that the family groups [of sperm whales] are very different. In the Pacific, there’s large groups, up to 20 animals, like in the North Atlantic, but it’s several female lineages living together. In the Caribbean, these are single lineages. The genetics are not as complete in the North Atlantic, we think that it’s the same case. One of the main reasons we think this is, is because there’s some required minimum group number to raise a calf. When you get inot the Pacific, where the hunting was way more intense, too many family units fell below this number. So they needed to come together. And as a result, one of the main reasons we think vocal diversity is so different in the Pacific, the diversity of vocal dialects seems greater and more distinct between groups, is maybe a result of all these merging families.

Image: Esparta