Thursday, May 20, 2021

Whale Culture

Do animals have culture, defined as the customs of a particular social group? Not too long ago, established science would have answered with a firm negative. Now, however, several examples of animal behavior are widely recognized as cultural. They're not merely cases of animals imitating others whose actions they observe, but of behaviors passed from generation to generation within a group and specific to that group. For instance, there's the well-known example of macaques on Koshima Island in Japan washing sweet potatoes in a stream or the ocean before eating them. One young macaque, Imo, started this custom, and long after her death, members of that colony still practice that behavior. Among chimpanzees, some groups use purposely modified twigs to "fish" for termites, while chimps in many other bands don't. Some species of songbirds "learn dialects and transmit them across generations." Even bumblebees learn from more experienced colony members which flowers to choose.

An article in the May 2021 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, "Secrets of the Whales" (from which the above quote about birds comes), explores the cultural practices of whales and dolphins. (If you want to read this article and can't find a copy of the issue, maybe at the public library if it's no longer in stores, you can access it online only behind a paywall.) On the Pacific coast, northern and southern orcas have different greeting rituals, breaching habits, and the behavior or not of pushing "dead salmon around with their heads" (no reason given for this habit). Orcas in the two regions even vocalize with different "vocabularies." Yet in most ways the two populations are "indistinguishable," and their ranges overlap. Whale songs and other vocalizations vary from one group to another. Among humpback whales, new song arrangements that become popular spread over thousands of miles as other whales pick them up.

To traditional anthropologists, who considered culture—"the ability to socially accumulate and transfer knowledge—strictly a human affair"—the idea that animals could have culture would have "seemed blasphemous." Some biologists remain skeptical on this point. The majority, however, at least as surveyed in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article, are inclined to attribute this capacity to at least some animal communities over a wide variety of species. Modern zoology has undercut one after another of the supposedly unique human abilities. Toolmaking, language, and now culture no longer seem the sole possession of humanity. Hard-line materialists might draw the conclusion, "See, there's nothing special about us; we're mere animals, too." I prefer to see those discoveries as evidence that many animals aren't as simply "mere animals" as we've previously believed. They may have minds, although not the same as ours, and maybe—souls? As the article points out, "Whales reside in a foreign place we're just coming to understand." We've mapped the surface of the Moon far more extensively than the bottom of the ocean. With whales, we have the opportunity to delve into the lifestyles and thought processes of "sophisticated alien beings."

Good practice for meeting alien beings from planets other than our own!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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