Ecologist turns human view of animal cultures on its head

Katharine Norbury

THE WASHINGTON POST – At the New Networks for Nature conference in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2017, the renowned Scottish wildlife cinematographer Doug Allan described a pod of beluga whales in the Lancaster Sound of the Canadian Arctic swimming beneath him as he snorkeled at the surface.

After rolling onto their backs so they could look up at him – their eyes are at the bottom of their heads – one of the whales confronted Allan and “scanned” him from head to flipper.

He described how the whale’s melon – the mass of adipose tissue at the front of its head used for echolocation and communication – “appeared to wrinkle in frustration, in exactly the same way your or my forehead might wrinkle in frustration” when encountering a curiosity. Allan then complained that no one has yet managed to understand the whales’ language.

Carl Safina begins Becoming Wild, his luminous meditation on the complexity of contemporary animal culture, in the company of someone attempting to do just that: Shane Gero, a zoologist who has devoted his career to observing and analysing the behaviour of sperm whales.

Safina visits with naturalists who study three species: the sperm whale, the scarlet macaw and the chimpanzee. He drops an intellectual hydrophone into these seemingly disparate pools to see what information he can elicit. In doing so, he demonstrates the extent to which different species exhibit cultural behaviours that humans historically have associated exclusively with themselves. We humans glorify our own culture yet have devoted scant attention to the existence of culture among whales and other species.

Thomas Beale, a surgeon who sailed on a British whaling ship, wrote in his 1839 book, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, “It is a matter of great astonishment that the consideration of the habits of so interesting, and in a commercial point of view of so important an animal, should have been so entirely neglected, or should have excited so little curiosity.” Beale was fascinated by the animals’ behaviour. “All sperm whales, both large and small, have some method of communicating by signals to each other, by which they become apprised of the approach of danger,” he wrote. “The mode by which this is effected remains a curious secret.”

For hundreds of years, learning how best to kill the whale has been the extent of our interest in its culture. Safina quotes the pioneering whale researcher Roger Payne to explain the ongoing slaughter of the magnificent creatures, “It’s as if intelligent aliens arrived from outer space and because we couldn’t understand their language, we cooked and ate them.”

Safina demonstrates that the three species studied in Becoming Wild – all of which have life spans not unlike our own – learn how to live their lives through lengthy education from their elders, just as humans do.

Macaws are taught where tasty and nutrition-rich clay lies. Chimpanzees learn which fruit trees are ripening in which order, and even consider changes in the weather when making their calculations.

By destroying the sea beds in our continued search for fossil fuel, and filling the deep with noise from explosives and mechanical drills, we interfere with cetaceans’ delicate echolocation and therefore their ability to orientate themselves, to feed and to communicate.

In wiping out the habitats of the Amazonian scarlet macaw and of the Ugandan chimpanzee, we destroy deep knowledge of vast and complicated landscapes passed down through generations. Orphaned macaw chicks hand-reared and released into the forest lack the cultural knowledge and the dialects of their nest-reared cousins.

In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different from our usual anthropocentric perspective. Becoming Wild demands that we wake up and realise that we are intrinsically linked to our other-than-human neighbours. We are not alone in loving our families.

Having an aesthetic sensibility, both visual and musical, is both shared and can be perceived by many other species while war-prone humans are not the only ones who would generally prefer to live peaceably with one another.

Safina helps us see the profound impact caused by the destruction of other species and their habitats, the inability to live in harmony with one another, and the demonisation of environmental scientists battling to preserve our Earth’s delicate balance.

As Safina puts it in his epilogue, “Can we evolve a culture for a beautiful future on Earth?

“Only humans can ask that question. Only humans need to. And everything that means anything depends on our answer.”