Friday, 13 May 2016

The cultural lives of whales, mayoral elections and a problem of being human

I am sorry, o so sorry. I have been back for over a month now and I have not posted once. I apologise for the lack of contact (and MG's omission in not covering for me).

I have, this morning, had a trying time. I learnt by a BT website that Sadiq Khan had been elected to the position of London Mayor a week or so ago;  good on you, Sadiq. However, BT opened up a discussion via Disqus on his election when the article was first posted. However the option to comment was withdrawn and all previous comments deleted at around mid-day of the first day

Now, I understand why this was done; obviously too many offensive remarks about his adherence to the Islamic faith and the moderators just got fed up with deleting all too many posts. However, why don't you give us the opportunity to reply to what are obvious opinions to quite fallacious 'facts'; there aren't many of us willing to challenge the obvious Xenophobia on this site (which seems to be entirely composed of UKIP supporters) but why deny us  the chance.

The clear implication of many of the posts was that the Khan had mobilised the Muslim vote; you are saying you would have done different? Of course he did! But according to the 2011 census, only 12.5% of London's population is Muslim so can that account for his lead in the ballot? 1,350,000 against 990,000. (Although perhaps 2,000,000 did not actually vote, so can scarcely complain.) No. People in London were given little choice.  So, they chose the lesser of two evils. A crony of Cameron or a crony of Corbyn. Londoners had already had eight years of Buffoon Boris and his poxy bikes; anything was better than that.

Part of my silence has been caused by my reading of Whitehead and Rendell's 'The cultural lives of whales and dolphins', which is an excellent read by the way. It was published only last year, so it is fairly up-to-date with research matters.

You may wonder what a penguin is doing reading books about, primarily, the 'toothed' whales, which are, after all, our sometime predator. Pure survival, mate; I was hoping to glean some avoidance or evasion tactics from its pages! I didn't, except for one; if there's a humpback whale (not dolphin) around, swim as fast as you can towards it. You might be lucky and have it turn onto its back so you can sit on its stomach; it has happened, and could again, to one seal, wave-hunted from an ice-floe by a pod of orcas. I really do doubt that the whale mistook the seal for a young whale; most species recognise their own kind. Besides, humpbacks do not defend their own young in that way from marauding pods of orca; why should it do so for the seal?*

On the other hand, it would be too easy to apply anthropomorphism and say that the whale was merely acting altruistically, defending another creature against a common 'enemy' but that I think is going a 'bridge too far'. We may never know what prompted the whale to do as it did; it may simply be a lack of 'shared experience', which precludes humans from ever understanding other animals. Not that it will stop them from trying!

And that is, possibly, the book's greatest weakness and its greatest strength.

So much of what humans like to think as culture is bound up with their concepts of human culture; sophisticated language, the arts, technological innovation, whether primitive or modern, ethics, religion, planned agriculture and husbandry, ethnicity, representational symbolism, wars.  In what way could many of these things be either desirable for a whale or even possible/practical? Whitehead and Rendell choose a looser definition of culture but they are, nonetheless, constrained by the fact that they are fighting an uphill struggle against a very human-centric view of what the possession of culture actually means.

Their evidence of culture in the whales (Humpback, killer and bottle-nosed dolphins) is scarce at best and highly speculative at worst. Killer whales in the north Pacific have different hunting and predation strategies, and different recognition calls (dialects), depending on the pod/clan; two for separate 'resident' clans and one for 'transients'. Two pods of killer whales regularly 'beach' themselves in pursuit of seal pups, although it takes a number of years before the young can do it properly. How else but by actively teaching? Same goes for wave-hunting? How do the young learn that the effort must be synchronised? Humpbacks change their song over a uniform time within known 'clans'. Dolphins can, and do, mimic other dolphins in entirely novel ways, as though they see a new 'trick' and want to imitate it, as best they can until they can do it properly. How do dolphins synchronise their movements through the waves, and some do, even with visual clues.  It seems to Whitehead and Rendell that there is shared knowledge amongst the pod or school and this must be communicated in some way. Is it just imitation?

Me? I do believe that the more sophisticated whales have a culture, just as my rookery has a culture; we are the only rookery to read books as far as I know! I do not know how that culture manifests itself to an individual whale or dolphin but I do think that their sonar is not only purposed for echo location. As a bird, I am able to make two distinct sounds at the same time; something humans can rarely do; just listen to rural bird song in the morning. I believe that those ultrasound clicks carry far more information than humans can conceive. Sure dolphins don't direct their clicks to other dolphins directly; it would overwhelm their ears and cause all kinds of problems. But if you could echo locate as the same time as you spoke; what would be the advantages?

However, I go back to my question asked many years ago in one of my first blogs; what would you say to a dolphin? How much would you, or could you, have in common with a dolphin; let alone an orca! Now off to Carl Safina's 'What animals think and feel'; should make for interesting reading even if I might not agree with all that he says. He is after all, only human!

* The seal got away to another ice-floe, although probably the orca pod just swam around a bit until the humpback was out of range and then wave-hunted the seal from the second floe; cunning and canny is your average orca!