By Philip Hoare
What happens when we discover that another species acts in a manner which confronts our notional dominion as the only thinking, altruistic animal on the planet — or in its waters? New reports about humpback whales going to the aid of other animals takes this dilemma into new dimensions. It addresses deep-seated and perhaps disturbing notions of the way we interact with other species, and questions the distance we have set between us. Is that a strict demarcation — between sentient us and dumb them — or is the connection far more fluid than we ever imagined?
Selfless behaviour among cetaceans has been remarked upon by many observers, from the ancient Greeks to the present day. In the Azores, I've seen adult females performing 'alloparental care', looking after other females' calves whilst they dive for food. The 'babysitting' female may not even be genetically related to the young whales she is caring for (during foraging dives which can last for an hour or more). She may suckle these unrelated young (juveniles may not wean until they are in their teens). Cetaceans such as sperm whales and orca may be unique in having social roles for post-fertile females in this manner.
Other cetaceans appear to exhibit similar behaviours. Bottlenose and common dolphins have been seen to herd human swimmers out of danger from sharks. They also support ailing comrades, holding a sick fellow dolphin either side and helping it to breathe at the surface. Narwhals, whose unicorn tusks are in fact extended teeth, and highly sensitive with nerve endings close to the dentine, have been seen using the tips of their tusks to plug gaps in other narwhals' broken tusks, as if to mend the fracture in cetacean dentistry.
Many historical stories insist on inter-species altruism. Recent reports indicate that humpback whales will defend other whales, seals and even sunfish against attacks by predatory orca. Scientists believe this may be intrinsically self-protection, in that it is in the humpbacks' interest to keep waters clear of orca which might attack their own young. But when one sees images of a humpback rolling belly-up with a Weddell seal tucked underneath its pectoral flipper, apparently saving it from an orca assault, it is hard not to invest the scene with emotion.
Some will criticise such a reaction as anthropomorphic. But what other language do we have, to discern another culture? In his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, (Granta) primatologist Franz de Waal concludes that we may indeed be the only linguistic species; but that we are certainly not the only one to operate with a sense of culture, empathy, morality and politics. Whales and dolphins clearly do possess a culture of their own — as discussed, wonderfully, in Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell's recent book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (University of Chicago Press).
This is expressed in sound — from the intricate click systems of sperm whales to the haunting song of the humpback whale. Science often rationalises this behaviour as self-interest, or centered around mating. We appear unable to accept that a whale might sing merely for the beauty of its song.
In her excellent Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris (University of Chicago Press) artist and philosopher Chris Herzfeld discusses the notion that animals might produce art for art's sake. She reasons that they express a sense of Funktionslust: a joy in what they do. Anyone who has seen ravens — one of the most intelligent birds around, so much so that they have been dubbed 'feathered apes' —tumbling in the air filled with what we see as the ecstasy of flight — would agree. When we see the exquisite shape of a blue whale's flukes descending into the ocean, as I did during my most recent visit to the Azores, it is impossible not to wonder if the animal itself is aware of its own sculptural beauty, more awe-inspiring than any architecture ever created by us.
In an amazing new exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris, bioacoustician Bernie Kraus has installed an amazing series of environmental soundscapes, representing seven distinct biozones. One, focused on the waters around Hawaii, replays, in echo-sharp state of the art sound, the calls of whales (hear it here). Kraus, who has recorded 15,000 different species around the world, maintains that these animals have established their own place in the bandwidths of natural sound; that they are, as the title of the exhibition suggests, The Great Animal Orchestra.
Cetacean society itself is expressed in a collective sense: toothed whales in particular exhibit this sense of the collective individual. Whales are defined by other whales; home to a whale is other whales. They cannot live without each other. Surely that is a potent lesson for Homo sapiens. In what may be the most ground-breaking scientific paper of the 21st century — and yet which has gone almost unnoticed — Andrew Foote and his colleagues at the University of Bern, Switzerland, have concluded that orca are the only animals other than man who owe their evolution to culture.
Reporting on the paper, New Scientist magazine noted, 'Killer whale culture is shaped by evolution. Killer whale populations have different hunting strategies. Some herd fish, while others pick on seals. Young killer whales learn these strategies from adults. Biologists consider this a form of culture. New research reveals these cultural groups are genetically distinct, meaning culture has shaped their evolution. This happens in humans: dairy-farming populations gained a gene for lactose tolerance, for example'.
This is a game-changing conclusion. After this, how can we hold cetaceans captive, or abuse their environment with our actions? 'It's the first time this has been seen in other animals', says the New Scientist. 'Killer whales are intelligent, long-lived, and social like us. Culture is one more reason to set them free' (watch video here). With knowledge comes responsibility. If cetaceans can demonstrate that, then surely we must do the same.