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Book Review: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

By (February 12, 2015) No Comment

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphinscultural lives of whales and dolphins cover

by Hal Whitehead & Luke Rendell

University of Chicago Press, 2015

After a bit of casting around at the beginning of their stunning landmark of a book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell somewhat grudgingly settle on a provisional definition of the key term in their intentionally argument-starting title; for the purposes of their discussion, “culture” will be defined as “Behavior patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information.” Whitehead and Rendell are the first to admit it’s a very broad definition, one that would be laughed out of most scientific circles, but it’s a start.

In fact, a certain amount of technical imprecision is probably no less than warranted; the problem with such an inclusive definition – the problem underlying a study like this at all – is, after all, entirely human-made. The reason Whitehead and Rendell need an inclusive set of parameters for defining “culture” in the nonhuman animal kingdom is because humans for the last 2500 years have unhesitatingly set those parameters at a flat zero: animals don’t have culture – they’re governed entirely by instinct. Since no two living things are exactly alike, the instant you admit a species can ‘transmit information’ socially from generation to generation – that is, that they can teach – you open the door for variations on all that information-transmission. And that means means art, literature, music, technology, and, crucially, individuality. And in the more progressive legal discourses of the last century, individuality, personhood, attaches axiomatically to an array of rights. Even in 2015, this is still a path many naturalists (and, needless to say, all lawmakers) want to avoid.

Not Whitehead and Rendell, fortunately. Although some of their conclusions will be far too timid for some animal rights activists, for instance, it’s very much worth noting that until very recently, most professional naturalists would have considered a title like The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins an irritating non sequitur. The fact that ethology has progressed sufficiently to allow such a book to be written is a kind of progress.

The book itself is written with an absolutely marvelous inquisitive brio. Whitehead and Rendell don’t just bring two lifetimes of experience with sea life and animal cognition to their task – they also write up the fruits of that experience with captivating energy, starting, in true purist fashion, with the question of why it’s their species doing the writing in the first place:

Humans have the highest brain-to-body ratio – and encephalization quotients – of any species, thereby making us the brainiest creatures on Earth, which seems to be right. After all, no other species have apparently spent any time at all thinking about this issue. However, there are actually few good data, or much theory, as to why relative brain size is the best inidicator of cognitive ability, other than a general feeling that large animals need large brains.

There are seeds of bias-trouble in some of that (thinking-about-systems is a particular human cognitive speciality, not a benchmark of pan-species inquisitiveness; most humans spend very little time observing and manipulating the subtleties of the ultraviolet spectrum, for instance, but you don’t see monarch butterflies looking down their, er, noses about that fact), but they’re small seeds, not very worrisome. On the whole, Whitehead and Rendell display an open-mindedness on their chosen subject that’s admirable and rare:

To biologists like us, culture is a flow of information moving from animal to animal. The movement of information is the basis of biology. Life happens and creatures evolve because information is transferred. Every new piece of life is built from templates of other life. Most of these templates are genes, and we have learned an immense amount about the living world from biologists’ focus on genes. But there are other ways of moving information around.

That wonderful line – “there are other ways of moving information around” – really ought to be the epigram for the whole book, which details in section after section the stunning variety of ways the world’s various species of whales and dolphins move information around in highly visible matters like hunting techniques and social vocalizations. Whitehead and Rendell look at many species in many different environments, from dolphins coming up with novels ways to amuse themselves to killer whales devising new and clever strategies to kill their prey (as our authors puckishly comment, “avoiding being a killer whale’s lunch is an important goal for many marine mammals”). The book’s insights fly at the reader with a speed and frequency I haven’t seen since Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, and all this fascinating information derives from what Whitehead and Rendell are the first to admit is a necessarily limited sampling:

We have been to sea. We have been surrounded, sometimes literally, by the behavior of whales and dolphins in its extraordinary richness. We, as two scientists, have been astounded, moved, and entranced, but we have generally had little idea of what was really going on from the perspective of the animals themselves. We, in the more general sense of the scientific community, despite decades of dedicated research and volumes of hard-won data, have achieved but a glimpse of the world of the whales and dolphins.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins might be only a glimpse into the world of its subjects, but it’s one of the best glimpses popular science has yet given us. It’s invigorating, revelatory reading.