The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century


From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.

In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the ...

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The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century

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From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.

In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. When Burnett opens his story, ignorance reigns: even Nature was misclassifying whales at the turn of the century, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed, or widely flouted, by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day. The book closes with a look at the remarkable shift in public attitudes toward whales that began in the 1960s, as environmental concerns and new discoveries about whale behavior combined to make whales an object of sentimental concern and public adulation.

A sweeping history, grounded in nearly a decade of research, The Sounding of the Whale tells a remarkable story of how science, politics, and simple human wonder intertwined to transform the way we see these behemoths from below.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
"A sweeping, important study of cetacean science and policy. . . . [Burnett] spent a decade poring over thousands upon thousands of pages scattered in far-flung archives. If the whale swallowed Jonah whole, then Burnett has made a considerable effort to get as much of the whale as possible down his voluminous intellectual gullet. . . . A reviewer pressed for time could, in lieu of an essay, put together a very respectable (or at least very weird) collage of all the 'you're kidding me, right?' facts about whales and whaling that appear on almost every one of Burnett's information-soaked pages. . . . A gifted and often very funny writer, Burnett bristles at the restrictions of academic rigor but does not abandon them. . . . His greatest service is to tell a story that helps us understand the present-day political obstacles to addressing key environmental questions."
"By questioning the very nature of our scientific interest in the whale, Burnett has set the tone for a new century of discovery—and, one hopes, recovery. . . . A history of breathtaking depth."
Financial Times
"The heft of The Sounding of the Whale does not weigh it down, not least because Burnett takes the reader on some wonderfully strange detours. Like one of the flensers, who carved the blubber off whales, Burnett scrambles and rappels across the living and dead bodies of his subjects with aplomb."
Richard Ellis
“The wait is over. We finally have a comprehensive, brilliantly written chronicle of science in the history of whaling—or whaling in the history of science. Graham Burnett’s leviathanic opus covers everything you ever wanted to know—or didn’t know you wanted to know—about the biology, conservation, politics, and history of what is perhaps man’s most troubled relationship with wild animals. This masterly study eclipses every cetological work that precedes it. Well, maybe not Moby-Dick.”
Philip Hoare
"In the bright new age of whale science, Graham Burnett's astounding and wide-ranging report from the front lines of cetacean studies is hugely welcome. Rooted in historical fact, political, philosophical and scientific analysis, it lays out the sorry story of the interaction of humans and whales in an era which redefined the ever uneasy meeting of natural and human history. By turns enlightening, lively and disturbing, always intuitive and drawing on a wealth of knowledge as vast as its subject, Burnett’s book is set to become a new high water mark in a still unfolding story."
Helen Rozwadowski
"It is tempting to use big words to describe this big book—and Burnett's The Sounding of the Whale is big in terms of both size and importance. In his investigation of the creation of knowledge about whales, Burnett offers a uniquely fertile avenue into the fraught topics of modern whaling, science-based regulation, and the dramatic shift in the cultural meanings of whales during the twentieth century. The volume itself offers eloquent testimony to the centrality of historical narrative for understanding the relationship between science and regulation. Yet, despite the lesson that complexity and distinctiveness matter, deeply, for the particular case of twentieth-century whaling, Burnett’s study also illuminates durable characteristics of science-based regulation and provides analytical context for current controversies such as the scientific whaling exception or the concept of 'scientific uncertainty.' Historians of various stripes, those who study science, the environment, politics, or culture, will find this invaluable study worthy of careful and considered attention, but so will environmental activists, political scientists, and people concerned with the history and fate of the largest creatures on our planet and their smaller marine mammalian brethren.  To use little words to describe a big book, Burnett's The Sounding of the Whale is great."
William Perrin
"This wonderful book documents the interplays among science, conservation and politics in the evolving career of the whale over the last century, with bravura, insight and wit, as has never been done before. Using a narrative style, it explores the thoughts and trials of the men behind the origins and activities of the Discovery Investigations, the International Whaling Commission and the save-the-whale movement. It's scholarly history that reads like a good novel—Harmer, Kellogg, Mackintosh, Lilly, and more; they're all here, in full. The language is marvelous: original and eloquent."
Joe Roman
"In the early twentieth century, whale biology was restricted to the flensing decks of factory ships, where scientists were in danger of being sucked 'into the belly of the beast' of modern whaling. Graham Burnett artfully renders the history, and the often fractious relationship, between biologists and whalers; I felt as if I had discovered a trail of ambergris meticulously arrayed along the shores of twentieth-century cetology. The Sounding of the Whale is a work of stunning scholarship and a bracing read."
New York Review of Books - Tim Flannery
"In other hands it might have yielded a story as dry as dust, but this historian has an eye for small, telling details, resulting in an intriguing book full of paradoxes and unlikely heroes."
Science - Gregg Mitman
“A history of breathtaking depth. . . . The Sounding of the Whale offers a telling reminder of just how much ideas matter, literally and figuratively, in the material relationships that bind the lives of humans to other animals with whom we share Earth."
Harper's - Larry McMurtry
"A very good book."
Guardian - David Blackburn
"A remarkable book, an astounding piece of research. . . . This is a major work in the history of science, but it is also an environmental history, a study in decision-making and a contribution to the growing genre of ocean history."
Times Literary Supplement
"Overall, The Sounding of the Whale amounts to a stinging criticism of science and its methods, and should provide a basis for reflection among professional scientists from all disciplines about how they should play their role in society."
Quarterly Review of Biology
"At once original, insightful, wide-ranging, and provocative, The Sounding of the Whale is a marvelously engrossing work of high scholarship and enduring worth."
Paul Greenberg
a sweeping, important study of cetacean science and policy…[Burnett] spent a decade poring over thousands upon thousands of pages scattered in far-flung archives. If the whale swallowed Jonah whole, then Burnett has made a considerable effort to get as much of the whale as possible down his voluminous intellectual gullet.
—The New York Times Book Review
New York Review of Books
In other hands it might have yielded a story as dry as dust, but this historian has an eye for small, telling details, resulting in an intriguing book full of paradoxes and unlikely heroes.

— Tim Flannery

Library Journal
This impressive work documents the history of whaling and the development of the whale conservation movement in a lively, readable style. Burnett (history of science, Princeton Univ.; Trying Leviathan) organizes each chapter around a specific time period. The role of the International Whaling Commission, which was founded after World War II, is also thoroughly examined. Burnett presents biographies of scientists whose work centered on various aspects of whale science and management, and his coverage of the controversial advocate of interspecies communication John Lilly is particularly entertaining. The text is enriched by numerous drawings and photos. The author visited archival collections in six countries, and the 56-page bibliography includes government documents and technical reports as well as published sources. VERDICT Burnett writes for the graduate-level student and specialist, as well as political scientists and policymakers. His book serves as a complement to Richard Ellis's The Great Sperm Whale, which covers whale anatomy, physiology, reproduction, and migration.—Judith Barnett, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Kingston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226100579
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 824
  • Sales rank: 723,570
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

D. Graham Burnett is professor of history and history of science at Princeton University, where he teaches in the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities, and directs graduate studies in the Program in History of Science. He is an editor at Cabinet magazine and the author of four books.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2012 D. Graham Burnett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-08130-4

Chapter One


Like the boy on the burning deck the little Herr Professor (as he came to be called) stood on the flensing stage.... Between his boots and the planking there existed a layer of viscous yellowish grease: whence, doubtless, the apprehension betrayed at his bearded lips, the awkward stiffness of his bodily attitude. But his eyes, under beaded brows, were brightly alert, for the spirit was gaining mastery over the flesh, as it so oft en does when Science is goddess.

J. J. BELL, The Whalers, 1914

During these months at sea, I have watched the sperm whales, looking for keys to an understanding. I have found it impossible to function simply as an impassive machine, turning the actions of the whales into scientific truths.... I lower the hydrophone, and hear the whales: "Click ... click ... click ..."

HAL WHITEHEAD, Voyage to the Whales, 1990


This is a book about whales, but there are relatively few whales in it. Indeed, let's start with a basic truth: there is not a single cetacean of any sort in these pages. You knew that, of course, since even the smallest dolphin needs much more room than the largest trim size of the most voluminous scholarly tome. And though they breathe air, cetaceans basically like being in the water, while books are mostly written on paper, a substance that fares poorly when submerged. In this sense books and whales are, in an important way, immiscible. I tried to keep this in mind as I wrote, and it will be good to keep it in mind as you read.

So let me start again: this is a book about knowledge of whales. And to be still more precise, it is a book about the knowledge of whales garnered and mobilized by experts over the course of the twentieth century. Experts like the two men who appear in the epigraphs for this introduction, two whale scientists (a tribe sometimes known by the Melvillean moniker "cetologist," sometimes by the more sedate professional designation "marine mammal biologist") whose labors—one slogging through the gruesome residue of a whaling station with knife and notebook, the other bronzing himself on the bow of a hydrophone-equipped sailboat in the Indian Ocean—mark out the chronological (and perhaps also the spiritual) endpoints of this book as a whole. Two whale scientists pursuing knowledge of whales in different ways, at different times, for different purposes. Their work and its effects—this is my subject.

Knowledge is a funny thing. It is hard to explain what it is, hard to explain how we get it, hard to explain how it works in the world. It is characteristic of knowledge that it takes different forms than the thing known, and this means that the known thing is consistently absent from knowledge of it. One feels this, sometimes, even painfully. This book is interested in all these problems, and it frets about them, even as it recapitulates and re enacts them. In this sense, at least, the writing of whale books and the doing of whale science are more alike than different. Both go into the world absent their whales. If it is the whale you want, you will have to go to sea, where, because of the events I recount in this book, you are likely to have a considerable wait. Bring a book. You might bring this book, since it is long.

Like knowledge, whales are also funny, and a little hard to pin down. It would be difficult to pick a set of creatures that have been subjected to a more dramatic reimagining over the course of the last century: once seen as monstrous dwellers in the abysmal depths, shelled with explosives, melted for industrial commodities, and gunned as target practice by gleeful flyboys, these peculiar beasts eventually came to be understood by many as soulful, musical friends of humanity, symbols of ecological holism, bellwethers of environmental welfare, and even totems of a movement to transform the world and our attitude toward it. How did this happen? This book offers an answer to that question, and in sifting out that answer, it traces almost a hundred years of human efforts to understand these fugitive and mysterious animals. At the beginning of the chronology of this book, the most significant scientific publication in the world, Nature, could prominently and grossly misidentify the species of a whale depicted in its pages—and go uncorrected. Such was the extent of general scientific ignorance of these animals. By the end of the period surveyed below, there was hardly a schoolchild in North America who had not been obliged to write up a whale report for science class. Because these superlatives of organic organization have taken up a great deal of space in the collective imagination, and because of the remarkable trajectory of their reconception since 1900 (a process in which the sciences played a significant role), I contend that a history of whale science can shed considerable light on the changing understanding of nature in the twentieth century. That is my claim, and the pages that follow represent my best effort to deliver thereupon.

I have various (imagined) readers in mind for this work, which is situated at the intersection of several different disciplinary literatures. For starters, my primary approach is that of the history of science. It is—after all, and for better or worse—the scientists' techniques for producing knowledge of nature that have proved most robust and authoritative in the modern world. How do those techniques work? How do they develop? And how do the findings of the scientists help make the world in which we live? These are, I think, the central questions that concern any historian of science, and they are questions that motivate and organize this study. I am, therefore, preoccupied throughout with showing what it meant to have scientific knowledge of cetaceans at different moments in the twentieth century, and I work to demonstrate who succeeded in making such claims, how they did so, and what larger consequences followed on their efforts. The range of different kinds of "cetology"—from sloppy slaughterhouse anatomy conducted under macabre and trying conditions to fiddly bioacoustics work performed by tidy military scientists wearing headphones (or stoned hippies playing synthesizers)—proves surprising, and the conflicts between these different sorts of whale science ended up playing a significant role both in the history of whaling, and in the history of whale conservation, which was in turn an important component of the rise of the modern environmental movement.

It is the fraught history of modern whaling (of which more later in this introduction) that gives the story of whale science much of its significance, not to mention its poignancy. The bulk of chapter 2, for instance, deals with the emergence of an extensive and well-funded program of biological research on the large whales of the Southern Hemisphere in the early part of the century—work that aimed to lay the foundations for the "rational regulation" of the whaling industry, which was then rapidly expanding into new waters in the Antarctic. The failure of this initial scientific-cum-regulatory undertaking—and it was a complicated sort of failure, as I show in some detail—had lasting repercussions, I argue, for the later history of efforts to control the commercial exploitation of the world's whales. And for the scientists who were charged to do "biology"—the science of life—in the stygian swamps where their subject organism underwent Brobdingnagian dismemberment and rendering, field research came to mean a demanding acculturation to industrial-scale killing, grinding, and cooking. It is my hope that this aspect of my investigation—a portrait of a life science at work in the maw of death, a set of scientific investigations inextricably entangled with a highly remunerative and destructive activity—will hold the attention of traditional historians of biology as well as historians who work on the field sciences, natural history, agricultural research, and science in commercial settings. The changing relationship between science and industry is a significant theme in this study.

Because much of the early research into the life histories, migration patterns, and basic biology of the large whales was conducted by Great Britain as part of a major multi-vessel scientific initiative (known as the "Discovery Investigations"), chapter 2 also engages the larger history of oceanography in the first half of the twentieth century. And because Britain had designs on the ice, islands, and waters of the Southern Hemisphere (where the vast majority of the whaling in this period was conducted), I have also gestured, if passingly, at issues of science and imperialism in writing about Discovery and the ways that whale research served to advance various geopolitical strategies in the period before World War II.

The question of what it would mean to be "rational" about the fantastically lucrative circum-Antarctic killing fields dogged the work of whale scientists and the policy makers who hoped to make use of their findings. This issue is central to chapters 3, 4, and 5, where I am concerned to unfold the changing relationship between science and regulation from 1930 to 1965. It is my hope that this material will be of interest not only to historians of science but also to political scientists, environmental activists, and others concerned to understand how expert knowledge functions in the complex arena of collective decision making. Because whales were a unique, open-ocean commercial quarry, they raised from early on unprecedented problems for regulators, diplomats, and international lawyers, and these challenges eventually led to the formation of the first formal international body dedicated to the management of a biological resource, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), founded shortly after World War II. This organization was explicitly committed to building a mechanism whereby "scientific findings" about whales would serve as the basis for sound regulatory policies that could be implemented on a global scale. A Panglossian techno-scientific optimism spangled the early years of the IWC, a touch of which can be found in this paean to whaling "factories" (the big blue-water whale-processing vessels that roamed the oceans digesting large cetaceans into commercial fats, waxes, and fertilizers) offered by a leading member of the IWC's "Scientific Committee" in 1952:

In the course of time, the floating factory has become more and more of a technical marvel. It is an oil-plant and a meat-meal factory. It is also a canning factory. It is a very well-equipped chemical works, with a most ingenious and varied routine. It is in fact a scientific institute of the first rank.

Chapters 4 and 5 take up the fate of this dream in some detail. In doing so they not only lay out a revised history of one of the great debacles of twentieth-century natural resource management, but also suggest a way of approaching the larger problem of telling suitably nuanced stories about the intersection of science and politics in a regulatory setting. In chapter 4, for instance, I trace out the evolution of the scientific advising system in the IWC, paying particular attention to the ways that scientists themselves functioned as savvy political actors sensitive to the need for careful "boundary work" between the questions that would be defined as "scientific" and those that would be defined as "political." An analytic focus on the elaboration of these boundaries leads to some larger conclusions about what it meant to "do science" in a new and challenging environment: the committee rooms of the post–World War II international organizations for global governance, geopolitical diplomacy, and international regulation.

There were new sciences in play as well. Chapter 5 examines the mobilization of mathematical models of population dynamics in the regulatory arena in an effort to show how these models were made into powerful tools for forcing consensus among conflicting actors. This section of the book may be of interest to those historians concerned to understand the ways in which numbers, calculations, and computational systems have come to affect public life. And if there is a chapter of this book that I think could be profitably read by a student of politics, I think this would be it. Though, to be fair, it would have to be a more than ordinarily patient student of the discipline, since my treatment of this episode cannot easily be reduced to the sort of "finding" that one could readily mobilize in a think tank working group: there is a narrative here, there are characters, and there are some mathematical models too. It is the (tacit) contention of the chapter that one cannot really understand what happened without rolling up one's sleeves and working to make sense of the math, the people, and the specific sequence of historical events. What is the take-home point once one has subjected oneself to this exercise? Well, the most important lesson may simply be that one must do this actual work; that without this work one cannot really understand what happened. In that sense, while I would like this material to be read by political scientists (particularly those with an interest in science, society, and environmental problems), I am aware that some of them may find its historical (and scientific?) detail tedious, even rebarbative.

And that points to a larger fact about this book and its approach: this is an archival history of a somewhat demanding variety. It has been written out of reams of published and manuscript material—personal letters, scientific notebooks, technical reports, diplomatic correspondence—from dozens of archival collections in half a dozen countries. It is not unreasonable to ask some hard questions about the ultimate value of such studies, which are difficult to research and compose and oft en by no means especially pleasant to read. I am, as I give this volume to a world increasingly concerned with Twitter-scale texts, acutely conscious of these sorts of questions and feel them with great force—particularly when, say, I glance from the walls of my office (crammed with unwieldy binders and an unholy proliferation of old books) to the screen of my iPhone (which quietly insists that the relevant world can stream bright and clean through a glassy lozenge of responsive obsidian). This, however, is not the place to mount a full-scale defense of the culture of the book, or, for that matter, a plea for the future of the bricklike academic monograph. Suffice it to say that the satisfactions of the latter are an acquired taste, and I, having tasted, would happily share my morsel with any comer.

Including environmental historians. Chapter 6, which attempts to explain—by reference to changing scientific ideas and practices—much of the extraordinary shift in attitudes toward whales and dolphins that occurred across the 1960s and 1970s, is at least a contribution to the history of environmentalism in Europe and North America in the period associated with the Vietnam conflict and the rise of the counterculture. If I am right, this story is a remarkable instance of crossing lines of biology, linguistics, information theory, and acoustics, all of which get tangled up in an unlikely hot tub churning Cold War bioscience, ocean theme park entertainment, sexual liberation, and mind-altering drugs. The story of learning to love the whales is an adult swim, as it turns out, and I very much hope that this chapter makes the case for pushing the links between the history of science and the history of environmental ideas and movements. Is it, or are any of the other parts of this book, really engaged with environmental history? I would like to think so. In important ways, for instance, I have accepted the arguments of a set of pioneering scholars over the last two decades who have insisted that animals and our relations with them constitute a crucial subject for historical investigation. This study seeks to contribute to a robust literature on human-animal relations and the historical construction of the human-animal boundary. By rearranging a history of several quite disparate modes of scientific research in the twentieth century (reproductive physiology, psychology, biological oceanography, population dynamic modeling, acoustics) around a specific taxon, I aim to show the value of thinking with animals. Some would argue, I think, that this historiographic move (which I am by no means the first to make) does not really bring us into the heartland of environmental history. But there is more to my story than that: the tapping of the ocean resources of the Antarctic Convergence in the first half of the twentieth century, for example, certainly represents an instance of human-driven environmental change that can vie with the most salient and historically significant episodes of such phenomena, and here we would seem to be very squarely on the environmental historian's terrain. Though of course we are not on terra firma at all, but out upon the oceans, which have to date proved somewhat recalcitrant historical subjects. There is reason to think this is changing: American historians recently heard a clarion call for new work in the environmental history of the oceans, and I would be delighted if this book found readers intending to make new contributions in this area—not least because I have benefited from my exposure to this scholarship and have presented much of this work to colleagues in this field over the last several years.


Excerpted from THE SOUNDING OF THE WHALE by D. GRAHAM BURNETT Copyright © 2012 by D. Graham Burnett. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

ONE   Introduction
TWO   Into the Belly of the Beast
THREE   The Prince of Whales
FOUR   A Cetaceous Parliament
FIVE   Trials of Force
SIX   Shots across the Bow
SEVEN   Conclusion


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