A Review of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Front Cover
University of Chicago PressDec 4, 2014 - Science - 408 pages

This book is a voluminous, painstakingly documented work, with almost half of its 408 pages devoted to references. The book reviews the song of humpback whales as a cultural phenomenon which changes over the years as innovations in the song are copied among singers. It makes a case for the dolphin's use of a unique click signature for each individual in the local pod, and explores the passing of specific foraging skills between older and younger members of pods of killer whales and dolphins, and how this has been shown to be relatively independent of genetic heredity. I found its detailed descriptions of cooperative fishing between humans and dolphins, something still occurring today in South America, and past cooperative whaling between orcas and humans on the Australian coast especially intriguing. The book also reviews evidence for sperm whale clans, organizations over huge regions of oceans which share similar dialects of "coda" whale song, again in patterns which suggest learning after birth, not heredity.

The book is cumulatively quite convincing in this assertion: there is excellent evidence for, and little evidence against, the belief that various species of cetaceans show evidence of communication as a path to the learning of, at minimum, foraging techniques and social skills.

The philosophical question: is this learning and communicating in cetaceans really the same thing which we call culture in ourselves? Whitehead and Rendell devote two entire chapters (chapters 2 and 8) to this question. These two chapters depart from the authors' thoroughly illuminated documentation of cetacean behaviors and venture into the less lit boundaries of theoretical biology, sociology, and philosophy. Thoughtful, objective despite the authors' declared position, and thorough, these chapters might do well as excerpts in college classroom readings in the philosophy of science.

So what is the case for cetacean culture on the philosophical side? The authors point out their difficulty, despite their evidence. The Bayesian biases are clear: in biology, we look first for an explanation of human behavior in their culture and first for an explanation of nonhuman animal behavior in their heredity (Morgan's Canon).

The case seems to be as follows:

  • Define culture as non-genetic information moving from animal to animal.
  • Add to definition: Exclude individual learning from culture.
  • Add to definition: Exclude genetically determined behaviors, even if they appear acquired.
  • Include in culture the influences of culture on genetics, but not its converse.
  • Include changes in behavior of a community of cetaceans during their lifetimes.
  • Then, by the above definition, the book provides empirical evidence for definite culture in:

  • Humpback whale song. (Based on observations from the Hawaii coast, I think I'd add many instances of breaching, which I think is taught socially to the calves here.)
  • Frequency changes in bowhead and blue whale songs.
  • Behavioral "fads" in bottlenose dolphins, such as dead-salmon-pushing and tail-walking.
  • Lobtail feeding in Gulf of Maine humpbacks.
  • Pulse-call dialects in killer whales.
  • The book lists many other instances that are less well shown as cultural behaviors, by their definition. The case is thus one of accumulating empirical evidence that cetaceans show culture as defined above.

    What of the definition? Is it compatible with what humans consider culture? Yes, but only in a greatly impoverished sense. Cetacean cultures lack the aspects that are uniquely ours as humans, those unique to sophisticated uses of language and technology. But by convincingly documenting the evidence that cetaceans, too, have culture, the authors may have both widened views of nonhuman sentience and narrowed the scientific understanding of what it is that is uniquely human.

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