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Deep Sounds


The biologist and whale expert on cetacean diversity, listening to whales, and the possibility of culture in nature.

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A reliable way to unite the Internet: adorable anthropomorphism. By meme-ing a shiba inu’s stilted interior monologue, by retweeting a lizard who lifts, by following the Instagrams of a Tennessee minipig named Piper, we do in digital spaces what we have long done with the pets in our homes, and what our ancestors once did with their predators and prey. To understand, we reimagine them as off-kilter versions of ourselves.

I think often of Clarice Lispector’s damning indictment of the tendency in Água Viva : “I don’t humanize animals because it’s an offense—you must respect their nature—I am the one who animalizes myself. It’s not hard and comes simply. It’s just a matter of not fighting it and it’s just surrendering.” To really understand, we’re better off reimagining ourselves.

Last month, I spoke to Hal Whitehead, a professor of biology at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University and the world’s foremost expert on sperm whales. Whitehead has been studying the whales, with a particular emphasis on their social lives, from his sailboat since 1985. His latest book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins , written with colleague Luke Rennell, expands on his long-held belief that cetaceans do, in fact, operate within cultural societies. “What I mean by [culture], and roughly what most biologists who talk about culture mean by it,” Whitehead told me, “is either behavior itself, or information that leads to behavior.”

Throughout his work—comprising five books and countless academic articles—Whitehead emphasizes that although whales have culture, their culture is not our culture. To understand whale culture, we must meet it and them on their terms, which includes expanding our definition of communication and language, two tenets of a cultural society. In 2011, Whitehead told an interviewer, “Whales, largely, sense and communicate acoustically, whereas we do most of our sensing visually. They live in a three-dimensional world; we live in a two-dimensional world. We are trying to relate them to what we are in metrics that correspond to how we see the world. This is likely to severely underestimate their capabilities.”

Much of Whitehead’s research concerns the sonar click-patterns, called codas, that sperm whales use to communicate. Produced by pushing air forward and then back along the length of the nose, the codas are the primary bonding mechanism for groups of female sperm whales, and the subtle variations Whitehead has noticed in the codas are critical to his understanding of their social structures. I was touched by Whitehead’s deference to the whales when I researched him before our interview and had been determined to apply it myself. But as we talked about the implications of the click-patterns, our conversation kept looping back on anthro-centric themes. It felt impossible to talk about the whales without using the analogy—and especially the language—of us. This interview, in other words, is a violation of Lispector’s rule; it is haunted by a human not yet able to surrender.

Whitehead is on sabbatical this year, which allows him more time for research without the additional pressures of teaching. He spent the rainy hours before we Skyped at his home, “on the cliffs of Nova Scotia,” analyzing data and playing with his dogs. The early part of our conversation was hobbled by technical difficulties and weather-cast idle energy, but as the talk of whales became more specific, Whitehead loosened and brightened. He explained concepts like the teacher he is—lots of metaphors—and speculated freely about the future of cetacean science. By the end of our conversation, we had talked about whale religions, the possibility of interspecies translation, and what it means when we say “culture.”

Rachel Allen for Guernica

Guernica: How much time do you actually spend out on the boat observing whales?

Hal Whitehead: Well, it varies quite a bit, but usually, maybe, two to three months a year.

Guernica: Could you tell me about how you spend that time, and a little about what it’s like to be in such close proximity to these animals?

Hal Whitehead: We study a couple of different species out there, but sperm whales are our main subject. The way that works is we go out in the boat and we sail around, listening through hydrophones, which are underwater microphones. We’re usually out for about two to three weeks all together, on a forty-foot boat, with a group of five, and we listen for the whales, and if we hear them, we have ways of figuring out which direction their sounds are in. We started in the Indian Ocean. I have done a lot of work in the Galapagos. We’ve also worked in the Gulf of California, and off of Chile, and closer in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, which has been very productive, and in Sargasso Sea.

Sperm whales make loud—very loud—clicks. These are sonar, so they’re looking for their food, and we can hear them at about seven kilometers away. We follow them day and night and get a feel for where they’re going, what they’re up to, how their lives are arranged. At nighttime, we mainly just try to stay in touch with them, and we may record their sounds from time to time. In the daytime, we have a number of other research techniques that come in. One—a main one—is that we identify individuals by photographing them. They’ve got little differences in how they look, so, from the photograph, you can say, “That’s Joanne,” and, “That’s Susie,” and that is a key to looking at their social structure, their movements, their populations.

We also collect their shit to see what they’ve eaten. And we collect their skin—they slough skin, like dandruff, so we can do genetic tests and stuff like that. Occasionally, we will biopsy them to get better material; the sloughed skin isn’t very good quality, and we can only do limited analysis with it. Most recently—I have colleagues who do this—we put suction cup tags on whales and they stay on for six or eight hours and record everything in extreme detail: sounds, what the whale’s doing, everything, and then they fall off, and we pick them up.

So life at sea is pretty hard work because it’s twenty-four hours a day, there’s five of us, the weather varies—if it’s really horrible, we can’t do it.

Guernica: And the whales will just let you be that close to them twenty-four hours a day? They’re amenable to humans?

Hal Whitehead: They’re quite nervous creatures, so if we make a mistake and get too close, or startle them, they startle quite easily. If you put the engine in reverse by mistake, they’ll move on quickly. We’re careful. We stay a little way away from them and we don’t do anything sudden. Most of the time, though, they just sort of let us be there and go about their business, which is what we want.

Guernica: You’ve described yourself as a “whale nut.” When and where did your love of cetaceans begin?

Hal Whitehead: It grew out of my being a sort of ocean nut, and out of sailing. I live right here by the ocean—it’s over there, it’s the North Atlantic. After I got my [undergraduate] degree, which is in mathematics, actually, I bought a sailboat in Connecticut, and sailed off from here in Nova Scotia and saw some whales and met some whale scientists. I saw the whales and thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” When I met the whale scientists, they thought I could be useful in two ways: first, as someone who could sail around collecting data for them, and second, as someone who knew some mathematics to [be able to] analyze that data. And then there was—is, he’s still alive—this wonderful professor who said, “You know, you don’t have to just analyze data, you can do it yourself, be a biologist.”

Culture includes everything, from really basic stuff, like which side of the road you drive on, to opera, to building jumbo jets.

Guernica: Your most recent book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, argues, as the title suggests, that cetaceans have cultures. Can you explain what you mean by culture in this context?

Hal Whitehead: What I mean by it, and roughly what most biologists who talk about culture mean by it, is either behavior itself, or information that leads to behavior. Information that is picked up through social learning—so, from being with, watching, being taught by others. It’s a way that individuals behave or get information about how they will behave that comes directly from the behavior of others. It includes things like imitation, emulation, and so on. We also usually restrict it to group-level behavior, so it’s behavior that a bunch of individuals do. A bunch of individuals do the same thing because they learned from watching each other or somebody else. That’s what we would call culture.

It includes everything, from really basic stuff, like which side of the road you drive on, to opera, to building jumbo jets—all of that would be culture in the bionic age. And in terms of whales and other animals, it includes—or it can include, it doesn’t have to—things like how they move around, how they communicate with each other, how they socialize, and so on.

Guernica: At this point, how controversial is the notion that nonhuman animals might have culture? Among biologists, but also among anthropologists, for example?

Hal Whitehead: I don’t think in biology it’s very controversial at all. Whether certain behavior is culture or is not culture is argued. How good is the evidence that they learned this from each other, as opposed to having learned it themselves, or having “learned” it through genes—that certainly gets argued. But I think virtually all biologists would agree that some animal behavior is culture. Bird song is a good example. The studies are clear that some birds cannot sing or will not sing the song of their species unless they’ve heard it from other members of their species.

The arguments get a little bit stronger when we cross academic boundaries. Psychologists would say that the only two important forms of social learning are imitation and teaching, and they will spend time trying to figure out if animals imitate or teach. Sometimes they find they do; sometimes they find they don’t. And so that’s kind of the level of controversy there. Biologists would include imitation and teaching and a range of other kinds of social learning. Like, just following your mom around, you learn stuff, even though she doesn’t teach you, and even though you’re not actually imitating her, but because you were following her around, you find out this, that, and the other. So we would call that culture, whereas the psychologist wouldn’t.

The real controversy comes with anthropologists—not all, but some—who see themselves as studying culture, and they then see culture from the perspective of humans, which is what they study. From their perspective, or, from some of their perspectives, it’s sort of heresy to even talk about culture in any other animal. Others would say, “Yeah, you can talk about it, but our definitions of culture are so utterly different from yours and include things like values, and so on, which you’ve never shown to exist in any of these other creatures.” To which we would argue back, “Quite a lot of what we normally think of as human culture doesn’t fit that definition.” What are the values behind cuisine, which is a form of human culture? Does it have deep values? I don’t know—I would say not. But maybe I’m not a foodie.

Guernica: Why is it important to use the word “culture” at all, given its associations with anthropology? Why not just call it something else?

Hal Whitehead: We believe we’re seeing, in other animals, a process, or an attribute, that isn’t fundamentally different from what we see in humans, so it seems to us to be spurious to call them different things. Now there are aspects of human culture that we don’t find in animals, and that’s really interesting, but there are also probably aspects of animal cultures that we don’t find in humans, and that’s really interesting.

Humans are particularly interesting; our culture is incredible, there’s no doubt about that. In many respects, no other species matches ours. But in quite a few respects, they do, and that can help us, perhaps, to better understand our own culture. We look at the ways humans are similar to other animals, and at the ways they differ, rather than just saying, “We have culture and you don’t.”

Guernica: Can you tell me about some of the specific examples of culture you’ve observed in sperm whales?

Hal Whitehead: When we started studying sperm whales a long time ago, we would try to explain their behavior in terms of the kinds of paradigms used for animals, which are generally called evolutionary psychology, which posits that most behavior should be adapted. What I mean is, if you look at the behavior of an animal and ask, “Well, why did it do that?” and then consider the alternatives, those alternatives probably wouldn’t be as successful at getting its genes around.

But as we started studying sperm whales we found patterns that needed further explanation. The key one came when we were looking at the dialects of the sperm whales. The sperm whales use clicks to find food, but they also use clicks to communicate, and normally there are patterns to clicks. So: click-click [pause] click-click-click, or click-click-click-click. As we started looking at the click patterns, and looking at alternative explanations for how a particular sperm whale got its particular repertoire, we couldn’t make sense of it. For instance, if it was genetically determined, then most of them would have pretty much the same repertoire and it would vary a bit with genetic variability. It doesn’t, though. It doesn’t correlate with genetic variability. If they learn it by themselves, from the environment, then they might learn it with place. But it didn’t fit with that. By far the most parsimonious explanation was that they learned it from each other.

So then we looked at who had which repertoire, and we found that individuals in the same social unit, which is sort of like a family—about a dozen females and their young offspring; the males leave some time in their teens, but females probably stay in the same social unit throughout their lives and raise young sperm whales cooperatively, babysitting and suckling each other’s young—had pretty much the same dialect. And that sort of makes sense: you learn a language from your mom, or your aunt, or some combination of the two, so you get these dialects propagated through the social units.

But then we found, in the Galapagos, that there were a bunch of social units that had very similar dialects, and another bunch, using the same waters, that had a different dialect. We started calling these two groups “clans.” One was the “regular” clan—their dialect went click-click-click. The other was the “plus-one” clan, who’d go click-click-click [pause] click, like a Canadian “eh?” at the end of every sentence.

Then we looked and found that social units from the regular clan only associated with other social units from the regular clan. They’d get together and form groups and go around together for a few days, as would plus-one units, but the clans would never associate with each other, even though they were in the same area. We looked at the genetics and found that there were virtually no genetic differences between the two clans. But even though the genes are the same, and the environment is the same, we found all kinds of behavior that was clan-specific.

When we’re following the plus-one clan, for instance, it’s relatively easy because they go in straight lines, whereas the regular clan wiggles about. The plus-one clan is better at babysitting, they’re better at staggering their dives so there’s usually an adult at the surface when the mothers dive for food. The different clans have different reproductive rates: the plus-one clan has more babies than the regular clan. Normally, the regular clan seems to have higher feeding success, but when El Niño strikes, like it is now, it’s reversed—it’s bad for everybody, but it’s worse for the regular clan. You’ve got this kind of multicultural situation where you’ve got these two kinds of whales living in the same area but behaving differently, interacting with the environment differently.

One of the biggest challenges is just producing a sound…that they think is actually another sperm whale, not, you know, bloody humans, messing around again.

Guernica: And only associating with the whales they share linguistic and cultural traditions with—so, to some extent, they must be aware of the concept of difference. Are you witnessing a kind of whale xenophobia?

Hal Whitehead: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of—well, we haven’t tested this yet. The next step when we’re exploring is to try experimenting on this. If we can produce sounds good enough to fool the whales, and we play the sounds of the regular clan for the plus-one clan, and vice versa, then we can see how they would react to each other. Logistically, doing experiments in the ocean is a bit difficult, though. One of the biggest challenges is just producing a sound that fools the whales, creating something that they think is actually another sperm whale, not, you know, bloody humans, messing around again.

Guernica: How did you develop your existing methodologies for studying sperm whales?

Hal Whitehead: I was very lucky. I was just finishing my PhD at Cambridge in 1981. This opportunity came up because whaling was drawing to an end. There was the prospect of a moratorium, and one of the arguments that was brought up, especially by Japanese whalers, was that, if we didn’t have whaling, we would know nothing of whales. All the science depends on having dead animals, they argued, so that’s one of the benefits of the whaling industry.

There had been studies of other species, like humpback whales, during the previous ten years that had shown you could get really interesting and important information through looking at whales, photographing them, and so on—the genetics came later. There hadn’t been any studies of living sperm whales at that point.

And so, it was through World Wildlife Fund, which raised money to do studies to show that you could study them [alive]. The problem, relative to humpback whales, is that sperm whales live further offshore, which makes it logistically harder to do the research. The fact that I was an offshore sailor meant that I was in a good position to do this, even though I was pretty young and inexperienced. My friend and I got the contract to do this, so we took our sailboat into the Indian Ocean.

We started, as a template, with some of the methods that had been effective with humpbacks, with white whales, and so on, like photo identification and using sounds to track. That’s kind of how it happened, and during that period I became fascinated with sperm whales—they’re just weird and wonderful animals, and I’ve kept at it ever since.

Sometimes when I’m watching them—and I’ve been watching them for thirty-five years—I have no idea what they’re up to.

Guernica: In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, you talked with Philip Hoare about an idea you and a writer friend had come up with to simulate the lives of whales through a virtual reality program. Did that ever come to fruition?

Hal Whitehead: No, it hasn’t, but I keep thinking about it. It would take a lot of work, but what you would have to do is take the science of what we know about how the whales behave, and then use that to develop this virtual world. It would require a lot of good, close collaboration between the scientists—a lot of scientists, because you’d need to talk to the ones who study social behavior and communication, as well the ones who study diving, feeding, and so on. But then, if you could do this, and you could build this virtual world, which would correspond as well as it could to what we know of the animals, then you could get people to inhabit it and get a feel, as they spend more time in it, for what it’s like to be a sperm whale. One of the ultimate things behind my fascination is that question: What is it like to be a sperm whale?

Sometimes when I’m watching them—and I’ve been watching them for thirty-five years—I have no idea what they’re up to. You know, you look around—and this is when they’re at the surface, to say nothing of when they’re deep underwater—and you have no idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. When I’m out in the ocean and I watch a seabird, I think, “Oh, I probably I know what that seabird is doing”—and I don’t study seabirds. And the same for the turtles and on and on. But with the whales, a lot of the time, I have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re the ones I study.

Guernica: You spoke to that divide in that same interview. You said: “There have been a number of studies on various cognitive tasks using dolphins but all these tests have been designed by humans, based on how we see our world, how we interact with it. Dolphins and sperm whales live in a world structured very differently to ours, where different features are important.” How can we assess cetacean intelligence on a cetacean scale? How do we de-center ourselves as humans when we look at other lifeforms?

Hal Whitehead: The more we can see them, hear them, in their own world, doing their own thing, the more we can get a handle on this. It’s kind of ironic that when you look at the evidence of intelligence and so on, a lot of it is anecdotal. A lot of it is, “Well, we saw this dolphin do this extraordinary thing,” or, “We screwed up with our apparatus, and then the dolphins did this.” And so it seems to me that the more we can actually watch them doing their thing, the better chance we’ll have of making some sense of them. When we find something that really intrigues us, then perhaps we can do experiments or more in-depth studies. For instance, the business about the sperm whale culture and codas and such just came from listening and looking for data, and then twenty years later, we started thinking that maybe we’d found enough that we could try and do an experiment.

A lot of it is coming up with an experiment that makes sense to them on their terms. Science, the way it’s set up, pays too little attention to just watching. Especially with these species, we’ve got to do a lot of looking before we come up with more equal ways to do experiments. While we’re looking, we can see extraordinary things happen, which can inform the experiment.

Guernica: One of the most interesting ideas in The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is the possibility that whales might practice their own kind of religion. Can you talk to me a little about that?

Hal Whitehead: Well, religion’s pretty pervasive in humans. And why it’s pervasive in humans is debated a lot. There are indications of things that look like religion in other animals, like chimps doing rain dances, and that sort of thing. Actually, I say that, but there’s that and not much else [laughs]. But one thing that seems pretty clear when we look at human religion is that it’s highly tied in with human culture. So if, as seems to be the case, culture’s governing a lot of what [whales] do, it’s perhaps not an unreasonable hypothesis to think that it’s got elements of…what I guess you’d call the supernatural. Now, this is just a hypothesis, and I may very well be wrong. I’m trying to figure it out—it’s something I’ve thought about a bit but haven’t gotten very far on.

I believe in thinking along these lines, though, and not just being constrained to what we’ve seen rats do. You know, whales are cultural animals, and we’re cultural animals, so although we shouldn’t expect whales to do what we do, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hypothesize that we might share some of these things.

Guernica: If whales and dolphins do have culture, what are the implications for humans?

Hal Whitehead: Well, there are implications for how we should treat them. Most prosaically, in terms of things like conservation. For instance, if you have a society, like the sperm whale one, which is, in a sense, multicultural, where you have animals in the same area with different ways of behaving, that diversity of behavior might be important to them as they try and survive natural threats as well as the new threats we’re putting on them, like global warming.

With the sperm whale clans, it looks like one clan is better at dealing with El Niňos, and the way we’re affecting the world, it’s becoming more El Niňo-ish, so the thought there is we should be trying to preserve the diversity of culture, as well as the diversity of genes. That part of it is straightforward, but conservation biology is hard because you’re up against economics, really.

The trickier part is how their having culture affects how we should treat them in a more individual sense. This relates to some of the ideas we worked on with philosophers about whether they should have rights, and what rights, and so on. And how culture influences that argument I don’t think is clear yet.

You know, culture is built on society, culture is about learning things from others, and you learn it from the others who you associate with, your social network. So the social network is not only key for itself, but also because it’s how the information about behavior is being moved around, which to me emphasizes the importance of society for these animals. In some respects, they seem almost more social than we are. The idea of taking killer whales, who naturally live in tight, very structured societies, which are the focus of their cultural behavior, and then putting one in that tank and one in that tank and two over there—that really seems wrong.

Guernica: I saw that you’re a member of the Helsinki Group, which in May 2010 drafted a “Declaration of Cetacean Rights.” The group argues that cetaceans ought to be legally recognized as nonhuman “persons” because of the complexity of their cultures, and that they have a right to life, among other things. I don’t necessarily disagree that whales have a right to life, but I do wonder why having what some humans consider a sufficiently sophisticated culture grants them that right. That seems slippery, especially given the ways in which the language and concepts of “culture” and “personhood” have historically been used to deny, rather than to expand, human rights.

Hal Whitehead: I don’t think that culture necessarily gives them the right. I think it’s one of the complex aspects of this whole debate, which needs to be brought in, but it doesn’t automatically give them that right. Some of the philosophers see this from the perspective of personhood, the idea that some individuals we consider persons, and because they’re persons, they get certain rights. They find that useful when thinking about humans because there’s the perspective that some humans are persons and some aren’t. So, a brain-dead individual, or maybe a fetus, isn’t a person.

If you take that perspective, then it opens the idea that some nonhumans might be persons. It takes the criteria that philosophers are trying to use to separate human persons and human nonpersons, and applies it to nonhuman animals. The criteria include things like self-awareness and so on. Culture is not usually one of the criterion for personhood, but it has been argued that culture is sort of a medium for a lot of these criteria, such as empathy, and so on.

Guernica: Reading up on whales, especially sperm and killer whales, I learned that their clans are matrilineal; that their childcare is communal; that their limbic systems, responsible for emotional processing, seem to be more developed than humans’; that their social rules prohibit violence against each other and promote tenderness; and that their females not only live past but remain sexually active well beyond menopause. It kind of sounds like a socialist-feminist utopia.

Hal Whitehead: [laughs] Yeah, but you have to be careful here. What we see when we see sperm whales looks pretty nice, it does have those characteristics. And, I suspect, when compared with animal societies where you naturally see a lot more aggression and so on, there is cooperative, decent stuff going on in these societies.

But we’re only seeing a bit of it, and all the levels of competition just aren’t apparent. My guess is that there is some of that, but it’s rather little. So, there are studies of bottlenose dolphins which show that they have complicated societies, but that they have some pretty nasty, aggressive elements—and similarly with chimps. My guess is that in sperm whales there is relatively little of that.

Guernica: We’ve talked a little bit about the clicks sperm whales use to communicate, and you’ve said that they may be more social than we are. Can you tell me more about how they interact with each other?

Hal Whitehead: Well, they’re nomadic, they’re moving around the ocean. The most constant things in their lives are the other whales. At least for the females, they’re always with the same bunch of females, and they’re doing all this stuff together, like suckling each other’s young, babysitting. And they’re moving together—if one turns left, they all turn left. They’re living as part of this very tight society.

Their behavior also seems to reflect that. They make their livings diving deep and finding these deepwater squid, and they spend about three-quarters of their time doing this; they spend about a quarter of their time at the surface, socializing. When they’re socializing, they cuddle up in tight clusters. Sometimes they just lie very still; sometimes they’re very active and jumping out of the water. But whatever they’re doing, you hear these sounds, these codas. And these codas seem to be about maintaining the social bonds. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a whale go, click-click-click-click, and then there’s a pause of about two or three seconds, and then click—and that’s the other whale—and then click-click-click-click, and then they’ll put them together, and do this kind of duet thing. So the codas seem to be about bonding.

They also touch each other a lot, nuzzle each other. Given that they’re animals that forage way down deep, pretty much by themselves, it looks like quite a lot of their behavior is to maintain their social bonds.

“Nice day,” or, “Yeah, looks like rain”—that’s about a bond, not about meteorology.

Guernica: Do you have any sense of what they’re saying to each other? Are the codas “about” anything other than bonding—do they have meaning, as humans might define it?

Hal Whitehead: I think primarily they are about bonding, which sounds simple, but if you think about it, most human communication is also about that. So, you meet someone on the street, and say, “Hello, how are you?” and that’s not really a request for information about health—it’s reasserting the social bond at a certain level. Or, if you’re sitting at the bus stop and you start talking about the weather—well, you both know what it’s like, it’s pretty obvious what the weather’s like. “Nice day,” or, “Yeah, looks like rain”—that’s about a bond, not about meteorology.

There are hypotheses out there that even though we have this wonderful communication system which allows us to talk about philosophy, or nuclear physics, we use it mostly for simple, bonding stuff. The actual communicative value of what we say is usually quite small. I’ve lived for times in small, isolated fishing villages, where everyone knows everyone each other and everyone knows what’s going on and everyone’s watched the same TV programs and, really, there’s not a whole lot of new information to convey. But there’s still a lot of talking. What’s said doesn’t seem to matter; that you say it, and who you say it to, and how you say it is what matters.

To return to the sperm whales, we haven’t been able to find that this coda means “Come over here” or “Ooh, look! There’s a human here!” However, we have found that there are different codas that seem to symbolize different social boundaries—so there’s the clan ones, with the regular coda and the plus-one coda.

Or, in the Caribbean, the animals there have a one-plus-one-plus-two coda that is made by all the animals in that area who are members of the clan, but it’s not made anywhere else, and that’s their thing, and they all do it. In the Caribbean, you have that, but also overlaid on that there’s a four-click coda that’s characteristic of a particular social group.

And then there’s another coda that’s made very universally which is just the regular five, so it’s just five clicks nearly equally spaced, but there are variations within it that are characteristic of different individuals. So you’ve got these different codas that relate to different levels of social structure: the clan, the social unit, and then the individual.

Guernica: So if sperm whales divide into clans based on their codas, and if different behaviors are associated with each clan, I’m wondering if you’re seeing something like linguistic determinism. Do the coda differences play a role in shaping the behavioral differences?

Hal Whitehead: You know, I never thought of that one, that linguistics could be driving cultural things. There are some thoughts that that does happen in humans, that languages have different characteristics and that influences in some ways how different groups behave, and I suppose it might in whales.

What we’re trying to do is to look at more subtle aspects of the coda. So, for instance, I talked about alternating codas and then overlapping them, and is that done differently within the different clans, and how does that relate to different levels, and types, of sociality. I hadn’t really thought of it as the codas driving the differences in social behavior, more the other way around—a clan which was more socially cohesive might communicate in one way, and one that was less so might communicate in another.

Guernica: Humans have, for a long time, been using our own languages to represent whales in various ways. I know you said that it’s unlikely that sperm whale codas are part of a syntactical language, but do you foresee a future in which whales might somehow speak to us for themselves, or we to them?

Hal Whitehead: I don’t know. I don’t like to be dismissive of it. There is a pretty New Age-y, poorly thought set of ideas about this going around. I also think these animals benefit most from us staying out of their way. I think we learn the most by being as passive as we can, so those are my biases, and I’m sort of against it from that perspective.

It could happen, but I think it would be easier for it to happen with creatures we share a bit more with—those that have been bred to interact with us, like dogs or horses, or ones to whom we have a natural evolutionary link, like chimps and other nonhuman apes. I mean, we do communicate with dolphins and whales, but we’re not trying to get to the depths of their understandings. I feel that with animals as different from us as the whales and dolphins, it’s likely to work better with us just watching them and trying to figure them out.

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2 comments for Deep Sounds

  1. Comment by Landolphe D'Aquin on March 15, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Wonderful, thoughtful interview. The idea of “Linguistic determinism” is an intriguing concept to me as a linguistic neuroscientist: another vector of analysis beyond denotation and connotation.

  2. Comment by Cameron Thomas on September 16, 2016 at 3:16 am

    I saw an illustration recently that I believe was used to illustrate Melville’s, “Moby Dick”. In the illustration, a large white sperm whale is attacking a small harpooning boat. The whale’s mouth is wide open and in his jaws is the harpooning boat. Is it your opinion that this illustration is accurate? An associate claimed that this illustration was not accurate. I believe the illustrator knew what he was doing. Which of us is correct? Thank you so much.

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