The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

by Hal Whitehead, Luke Rendell

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In the songs and bubble feeding of humpback whales; in young killer whales learning to knock a seal from an ice floe in the same way their mother does; and in the use of sea sponges by the dolphins of Shark Bay, Australia, to protect their beaks while foraging for fish, we find clear examples of the transmission of information among cetaceans. Just as human


In the songs and bubble feeding of humpback whales; in young killer whales learning to knock a seal from an ice floe in the same way their mother does; and in the use of sea sponges by the dolphins of Shark Bay, Australia, to protect their beaks while foraging for fish, we find clear examples of the transmission of information among cetaceans. Just as human cultures pass on languages and turns of phrase, tastes in food (and in how it is acquired), and modes of dress, could whales and dolphins have developed a culture of their very own?

Unequivocally: yes. In The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, cetacean biologists Hal Whitehead, who has spent much of his life on the ocean trying to understand whales, and Luke Rendell, whose research focuses on the evolution of social learning, open an astounding porthole onto the fascinating culture beneath the waves. As Whitehead and Rendell show, cetacean culture and its transmission are shaped by a blend of adaptations, innate sociality, and the unique environment in which whales and dolphins live: a watery world in which a hundred-and-fifty-ton blue whale can move with utter grace, and where the vertical expanse is as vital, and almost as vast, as the horizontal.

Drawing on their own research as well as a scientific literature as immense as the sea—including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, ecology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience—Whitehead and Rendell dive into realms both humbling and enlightening as they seek to define what cetacean culture is, why it exists, and what it means for the future of whales and dolphins. And, ultimately, what it means for our future, as well.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Biologists Whitehead and Rendell write that “culture is a flow of information moving from animal to animal,” and evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith called culture “the most important modification” of gene-based evolutionary theory. Humans, though arguably the masters of culture, are not the only species that has it. Dolphins, as the authors reveal, create signature whistles and can mimic and remember others’ even 20 years later. They can also learn tail-walking in captivity and then teach it in the wild. Whales possess dialects that change in a way that can only be explained as the result of learning. And both whales and dolphins behave in “obviously altruistic” ways. Dolphins and whales have saved humans stranded at sea, and humpback whales have been observed saving seals from killer whales. “We suspect that a sophisticated capacity for culture has been adaptive for many millions of years in the ocean,” write the authors, “ never translated into an engine for generating the awesome body of accumulated skills, knowledge, and materials that characterize human culture.” Whitehead and Rendell deeply analyze the importance of culture to evolution, exploring what can be learned from animals that are perhaps more advanced than humans before pushing “off to sea again, where there is still so much to learn.” (Jan.)
photographer and author of "Among Giants: A Life with Whales" - Charles "Flip" Nicklin
“Whitehead and Rendell tie together decades of research and observations of cetacean behavior, add in other compelling examples of culture in animals, and relate this to what we think of as culture. This work is unique, and I plan to quote parts of it for years to come. For anyone with an interest in how whales and dolphins live their lives, this is a must read.”
Library Journal
Whitehead (biology, Dalhousie Univ.; Sperm Whales) and Rendell (biology, Univ. of St. Andrews) cover cetacean culture from its earliest beginnings to the present day. The authors include research they completed as well as some from other scientists to discover that cetaceans communicate by adapting to the unique environment in which they live, investigating the broad concepts of culture, community, and social learning before applying them to whales and dolphins. Also discussed are the implications of the creatures' culture as it relates to ecosystems and conservation and the future of the cetacean world, including what it bodes for humans. An extensive set of endnotes and a robust bibliography are included. VERDICT A captivating book for readers of all levels, from curious laypeople to scientists. Some science knowledge is helpful but not necessary. Recommended for both undergraduate and graduate students; researchers; and scholars studying biology, zoology, and veterinary science; and anyone interested in learning about animal behavior.—Tina Chan, SUNY Oswego
Nature - Barbara Kiser
“This research round-up on cetacean culture opens with a description of one of nature’s great arias: the ‘high sweeping squeals, low swoops, barking, and ratchets’ of the humpback whale. That song, argue cetacean biologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, is the best evidence of culture in this intriguing family, because it is an indicator of social learning in action—communal singing evolves over time and changes radically over individuals’ lifetimes. Fascinating findings litter this sober treatise, from sperm whales snacking off fishing longlines to the ‘Star Wars vocalisation’ of dwarf minkes.”
New Scientist - Bob Holmes
“Whitehead and Rendell suggest that for tens of millions of years—until the rise of modern humans—the most sophisticated cultures on Earth were those of whales. . . . If culture is as important to whales as it appears, then conservationists will need to protect not just their genetic diversity but their cultural diversity as well. All this speculation is underlain by a wealth of biological detail, all carefully annotated, making this book a valuable—and usually very readable—resource for anyone interested in cetacean behaviour.”
Chicago Tribune, Printers Row - Jeremy Mikula
“Noted . . . . Explores the communication techniques and sense of culture developed by different species of whales.”
Science News
“Convincingly dig[s] into critiques and alternative explanations for whale and dolphin behavior, providing a detailed look at the debate over whether culture exists among the animals. Whitehead and Rendell pack the text with references, keeping the book scrupulously rooted in scientific evidence. . . . For readers who are curious about whales and dolphins in the wild, the book offers a thorough grounding.”
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
“[One of ‘The Best Books of 2015: Nature!’]. . . . The quietly revolutionary angle of this fantastic book is hinted right there in the title: culture—not the behavior but the culture of non-humans. The subject is huge and in very large part untenable, since whales and dolphins spend virtually all of their lives outside the range of human observation, let alone human measurement. But the attempts this book makes are very, very much worth making.”
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Blog, - Kris Hjalmarsson
“In this revolutionary book, destined to become a classic, the authors show that ‘culture’ is information that flows between animals; it is socially learned and shared within a community. . . . The book gives readers a captivating insight into the various ways that dolphins communicate with each other using a wide variety of signals, such as doing upside-down lob tails—slamming the top of their flukes onto the surface of the water—which appears to signal the dolphins’ arrival at a particular destination. . . . This social learning, memory, and communication are a clear example of information flow and culture. I encourage you to embark on a fascinating journey of discovery and a beautiful insight into the world of whales and dolphins: without doubt, some of the most intelligent, beautiful, and remarkable creatures to inhabit this earth.”
Manhattan Book Review - David Lloyd Sutton
“Five stars. . . . This exploration covers an astonishing body of knowledge and thought. . . . Well worth your probable multi-day read, this work could be the core of a course of study. What is immediately apparent is the sheer carefulness and completeness of the authors’ exposition.”
Current Anthropology - William C. McGrew
“At the least, the reader has an up-to-date, authoritative account of advances in studying the behavior of a fascinating mammalian order. Readers with enquiring minds may question earlier underestimations of these creatures that seem so alien to us terrestrial bipeds. Even if only half of what the authors report turns out to be supported by accumulating evidence, then we must acknowledge that culture comes in diverse forms, just like other natural processes, such as digestion, locomotion, or cognition. Moreover, these findings also have a real-world relevance, because these magnificent creatures must be preserved, not just for their biodiversity but also for their cultural diversity. What a shame it would be if we exterminated them before we fathomed their secrets.”
“Animals think, therefore: The inner lives of animals are hard to study—but there is evidence that they may be a lot richer than science once thought.”
Frontiers in Marine Science
The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is well written, carefully edited, and accessible to a wide readership without sacrificing authoritativeness. The backmatter with notes and bibliography alone extends to 92 pages and there is a 19-page double-column index. The book could serve as reading material in biology or conservation courses, or a delightful provocation in anthropology or psychology courses. It can be anticipated that new editions will be able to chart the further implications of culture and add to the body of evidence. Those of us studying whales are fortunate to have seen our studies go from zero to an extraordinary flowering of data and research results uncovering not just the highly diverse behaviour, life history, and population biology but now enriching ourselves with the cultural lives of wild whales and dolphins.”
author of "The Whale" and "The Sea Inside" - Philip Hoare
“Provocative, brilliant. . . . The final chapters of this groundbreaking and beautifully produced book pose stunning questions, and tease out outrageous answers. If culture exists in cetaceans, have they developed an equivalent moral sense of right and wrong? Yes, say the authors. Whales and dolphins observe rituals of the dead and exhibit grief. Could they, then, express spiritual sentiment, founded on values and belief—even a sense of religion? Perhaps. All this only underlines a pressing need to address the notion of non-human rights for such animals. . . . Whitehead and Rendell write with wit and good humour as they take on their critics.”
Psychology Today - Marc Bekoff
“I’ve been anxiously waiting for The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins to arrive and consumed it last night and early this morning. (It was far better than my coffee!) Of course, I look forward to rereading it many times for it is that good. . . . Scholarly yet easy to read, and incredibly well referenced. . . . The authors provide ample examples of nonhuman culture . . . and also discuss what we know about topics such as the moral lives of animals and others that are making people think twice about just whom other animals are and what we know about their fascinating and highly evolved cognitive and emotional lives. . . . The skeptics, if any still linger, will have to offer more than something like their dismissive claim, ‘Oh, whales and dolphins and other animals are only acting as if they have culture, but they don’t.’ They clearly do. . . . An outstanding book. . . . The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is destined to become a classic.”
photographer and author of "Among Giants: A Life with Whales" - Charles “Flip” Nicklin
“Whitehead and Rendell tie together decades of research and observations of cetacean behavior, add in other compelling examples of culture in animals, and relate this to what we think of as culture. This work is unique, and I plan to quote parts of it for years to come. For anyone with an interest in how whales and dolphins live their lives, this is a must read.”
WHALE&DOLPHIN - Philippa Brakes
“There are few environments that are more hostile and present more of a challenge to mammals than the ocean. This is precisely why, Whitehead and Rendell argue in their new book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, just like us, knowledge is also a vital currency for these marine mammals. . . . At times it is a humorous journey through aspects of human behaviour and ‘decision making,’ resulting as it does from cultural pressures. But this apparent irreverence is not without deeper meaning and strong intent. . . . They provide some sobering insights into those ubiquitous cultural forces that shape us all into modern human beings and at times can leave you reeling with questions about your own free will. This is an exceptional book; it will no doubt irritate some anthropologist who believe that culture is the domain of humans alone; it may even rile some theologians; but far, far more importantly it will help to bridge the gap between humans and other species, speaking as it does to the evolutionary continuum and demonstrating with sound scientific evidence that there are some extraordinary non-human cultures being played out in the natural world. . . . This very book can be considered itself an experiment in social transmission. The question is, will we get the message?”
“Recent publication of interest. . . . To Whitehead and Rendell, culture is ‘a flow of information moving from animal to animal’ and, thus, communication among whales and dolphins means they have a culture. This book addresses the questions of whether whales and dolphins really have cultures, what evidence indicates the presence of culture, what adaptations led to their cultures, what effect their cultures will have on the ecology of the oceans and conservation, and, finally, how the cultures affect these animals’ treatments by humans.”
Pacific Standard
“The anthropologist Joe Henrich . . . showed how cultural differences shape cognitive differences in people. A new book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, by the biologists Whitehead and Rendell, calls out researchers like Henrich for treating culture as uniquely human. Their own decades of research indicates social learning among animals. For example, they note, whale pods in different parts of the world have developed regional singing styles.”
Hakai Magazine - Darcy Dobell
“Whitehead and Rendell mesh their own research from several decades of cetacean studies with investigation and theory from the biological, physical, and social sciences. This wealth of experience is distilled into a simple thesis: whale and dolphin culture exists, and it matters—for the survival of cetacean species, for the management of marine ecosystems, and for the way we conceive of human culture. Whitehead and Rendell’s work is ambitious in scope, yet careful in its presentation. . . . They define key terms precisely, and employ them consistently. They are also meticulous in separating evidence from interpretation. . . . In its evocative and richly annotated examination of the evolutionary interplay between environment and social learning, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins makes a compelling case that we can learn much more about cetaceans and about human cultures by exploring what we have in common—such as a predisposition to learn from our grandmothers—rather than by insisting on what sets us apart.”
Times Literary Supplement - Barbara J. King
“The idea that our oceans teem with cultural animals—and have for millions of years—is the central conclusion of a new book by two whale scientists. And it’s a convincing one. . . . Rendell and Whitehead stake out provocative positions—for example, that language isn’t necessary for culture to exist—that ensure cross-talk from anthropologists who insist that language and symbolic meaning-making sit at the core of culture.”
Guardian - Sam Leith
“These days I’m very seldom excited by a trade non-fiction title, roaring as most of them are down the middle lane of the same motorway, to the degree I’m excited by the original and vital byways that university presses are exploring for the general reader. In natural history and popular science, alone, for instance: Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s amazing book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins or Brooke Borel’s history of the bedbug, Infested, or Caitlin O’Connell’s book on pachyderm behaviour, Elephant Don, or Christian Sardet’s gorgeous book Plankton? All are published by the University of Chicago.”
BioScience - Peter McGregor
“Considers wider implications, including contributions to the field of gene-culture coevolution, applications to conservation, and how humans perceive and treat whales and dolphins. To attempt any of these aims would make a book noteworthy in the field; to do all of them makes it a must read. . . . Was I convinced by the evidence? In a way, that question misses the point of this book. Certainly, I became engaged in the ongoing discussion, so much so that I found it hard to write this review (and you would be correct in thinking that this sounds like an excuse for missed deadlines, but it also happens to be true). . . . Whales and dolphins could not wish for better advocates than the authors—this book will make readers think, and that might just be enough to move human culture from treating our oceans and their inhabitants slightly less badly to actively treating them better.”
Scuba Diver Life - Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson
“Over the past few years, the most controversial question in animal cognition has not been whether animals have thoughts and feeling as individuals but whether a few species collectively create something that could reasonably be called a culture. . . . For a long-lived, social species, having a culture is an environmental advantage, since a collective knowledge means individuals can do things they would never be able to learn in their own lifetimes. Whitehead and Rendell are distinguished marine scientists. They provide [an] even balance between science and storytelling. . . . Their book is a profound exploration of animal cognition’s cutting edge.”
Choice - J-B. Leca
"This extremely well-written book is an exemplary attempt at peacemaking in the so-called culture wars. Whitehead and Rendell provide a clear historical perspective on the study of animal culture, up-to-date literature reviews on behavioral innovations and traditions in non-human animals, comprehensive classifications of social mechanisms (i.e., the building blocks of culture), and careful critical analyses of the similarities and differences between human and animal cultures. The title of the book does not give a full appreciation of the long-term and fascinating research by Whitehead and Rendell. The authors’ insight and open-mindedness allow them to successfully address key definitional issues (e.g., ethnic markers, social norms); discuss the strengths and weaknesses of several methodological approaches to studying culture (e.g., method of elimination, experimental designs); link brain size, cognition, communication, and sociability; and explain the (mal)adaptive consequences and evolutionary implications of cultural transmission (e.g., gene-culture coevolution). . . . Spiced up with excellent quotations, this book will resonate well with a broad readership, from cetacean lovers to students of animal behavior to the general public. . . . Essential. All readers."
Resurgence & Ecologist
“For those captivated by whales and dolphins, whether in reality or by an idea, Whitehead and Rendell’s impressive book brings their world vividly to life, with a blend of anecdote, scientific research, and personal reflection. . . . The call to action is admirable. . . . Infectious.”
New York Review of Books - Tim Flannery
"A comprehensive academic work by researchers who have devoted their careers to studying sperm and killer whales. . . . The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent, social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered."

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The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

By Hal Whitehead, Luke Rendell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-89531-4



Ocean of Song

We love wilderness, the parts of the earth where humans have little impact. So much of the planet is eroded, polluted, and dominated by people. Well, not people directly. It is rarely the mere physical presence of large numbers of humans that degrades—it is, rather, what we do, as well as our products, our methods of exploiting the land, the plants, and the animals, the effluents of our industries, and the things that we build. All these are the results of human culture, the body of knowledge, skills, customs, and materials that each generation inherits and builds on and that surround us every moment of our lives. We are born with the genetic template of Homo sapiens, but we cannot become fully human without what we learn from each other. Human culture accumulates, so the good can become very, very good—like the routine treatment of medical conditions lethal not a century ago—and the bad, such as our pollution of the earth and its atmosphere, can get worse. This feature of our societies is a large part of what makes humans unique. The effects of our cultures are very nearly omnipresent, affecting the entire earth. The one major part of our planet's surface where humans and our cultures are least apparent is the deep ocean.

So we love to sail the deep ocean. Unless crossing a shipping lane, a fishing ground, or a garbage-strewn central-ocean gyre, we see few signs of humans outside our twelve-meter sailing boat. Out here, it would be easy to believe we have managed to escape the mess humanity has made of the earth. In reality, we have not. There are far fewer turtles and sharks and whales than even a hundred years ago, before humans learned such effective ways of killing them. The deep- ocean waters are more polluted and acidic than they used to be. But it feels like wilderness. We do not directly see the lack of ocean wildlife—or the pollutants.

Far out in the ocean, we have escaped the vast dominance of human cultural impact, although to make this escape we have to use the seafaring knowledge and technology that humans have built up over many generations. This accumulation began before 5,000 B.C., when the earliest known depictions of sailing boats appeared (plate 1). Fishers in developing countries use simple sailing boats, basically logs with some piece of material for the wind to catch, which have not changed much for millennia. But during the late Middle Ages sailing ships became some of the most technologically advanced elements of human culture, and human mobility took a great stride forward. The yachts we sail for our research, with their fiberglass hulls, stainless-steel fittings, and Dacron sails, are technological descendants of those ships (plate 2). They are products of a system of cumulative cultural evolution that allow humans to cross oceans reasonably reliably, a remarkable achievement for a terrestrial mammal.

As we sail, every half hour we listen to the ocean through a hydrophone, an underwater microphone towed behind our boat on a hundred-meter cable. We hear waves, and sometimes dolphins. Quite often there is the deep rumble of ships. We can hear the ships farther than we can see them, and their rumble signifies that this is not the wilderness that it appears.

Despite this, on recent voyages through the Sargasso Sea in the western North Atlantic, we heard another type of sound more often than the whistles of dolphins or the throb of ships. Not one sound, but an extraordinary range of sounds, high sweeping squeals, low swoops, barking, and ratchets. All are part of the song of the humpback whale. In February 2008 we heard humpbacks at 45 percent of our half-hourly hydrophone listening stations over two thousand kilometers of ocean between Bermuda and Antigua. As we will explain later, we think that humpback song is a form of nonhuman culture. A humpback whale learns the song from other humpback whales and passes it on. Some liken it to human music, others to the songs of birds; it has elements of both. Within the frequencies that we can hear on our hydrophone and over thousands of kilometers of ocean, the culture of the humpback whale dominates the acoustic environment of the ocean, as it has for millions of years. Human cultural supremacy over the surface of the earth is recent and not quite complete. If we could have listened at lower frequencies, below the limits of the human ear, we would have heard rumbles and groans of other whales—the finback and the blue—their songs competing in the lowest frequency bands with the recent sound of ships. Could these be other nonhuman cultures?

This book is about the culture of the whales and dolphins, known collectively as the cetaceans. What is it? Does it even exist? If it does, why? What might it mean? It is also about our evolving understanding of nonhuman societies and, through them, what it means to be human. We are carried by rafts of insights hard won from the oceans by scientists all over the world.

"Culture Changes Everything"

To biologists like us, culture is a flow of information moving from animal to animal. The movement of information is the basis of biology. Life happens and creatures evolve because information is transferred. Every new piece of life is built from templates of other life. Most of these templates are genes, and we have learned an immense amount about the living world from biologists' focus on genes. But there are other ways of moving information around. The great evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith identified cultural inheritance, this process of learning from others, as the most recent major evolutionary transition in the history of life on earth. He labeled it "much the most important modification" of genetically based evolutionary theory. So an animal may eat a certain food because of preferences largely coded in its genes or because it learned from others that the food is good. An animal may also develop preferences through individual learning, for instance, working out that something is good to eat through its own experimentation. In fact, virtually all the information that moves around through cultural processes originates in this way. However, individual learning on its own does not involve information transfer between organisms and so cannot transform biology in the manner that cultural transmission does.

These processes can interact in different ways. A bird may have the genetically driven instinct to migrate but learn the route from others. Some behavior can be acquired either way. For instance the calls of cuckoos (and many other birds) can mostly develop without social inputs, whereas canaries, finches, and other birds in the oscine suborder learn at least some aspects of their song from others, so their song is a form of culture. Genetic determination and social learning are, however, fundamentally different processes. Tellingly, the cultural songs of the oscine birds are generally more complex, sometimes much more so, and more diverse than the genetically driven nonoscine calls.

We use the phrase "genetic determination" with respect to behavior here and will do so again. However, we do this as shorthand. What we really mean is a large genetically inherited causal component. Genes do not code for behavior—they code for proteins and control the production of those proteins. How genes come to affect behavior is a complex process, intertwined with other factors such as development, maternal effects, and environmental experiences, a system that we still do not fully understand. Biologists have left behind the nature/nurture debate, for good reason, and we have no desire at all to resurrect it here. Unfortunately, discussing the various ways an animal comes to behave the way it does quickly becomes tedious in the extreme without using shorthand in this way. Nearly all behavior that has been well studied is found to require some form of experience to develop properly. It is also true that there are species-typical behaviors that develop even among animals raised in isolation and that vary across populations in ways that are completely consistent with a relatively large genetically inherited causal component. This is what we mean by "genetic determination." It can be contrasted with behavior that requires a significant social input to develop fully. It does not mean we should expect to find a gene "for" that behavior. Contrary to what you might read in the popular press, things are just more complicated than that.

Human language is another example of these complex interactions. While still arguing about the details, most who have studied its evolution conclude that we are born with a genetic template that allows us to learn a language effortlessly between the ages of one and four, but the language we learn is completely determined by social input during this period—we learn it from others. It is part of our culture.

Animals, including humans, acquire their culture in fundamentally different ways from their genes. During sexual reproduction the genes from two parents shape the new offspring, and in asexual reproduction there is just one parent. These genes are present at the beginning of a life and stay more or less unchanged until death or before being passed on. In contrast, culture may be acquired at any age, from a wide range of models, including parents, siblings, peers, teachers, role models, and, in our material-based culture, media like books and web servers. In many cases recipients actively choose the culture giver. Cultural information from various sources may be combined and altered and then passed on with different content or in a different form. A mother teaches her daughter a recipe for a cake. From watching TV chefs and talking to her friends the daughter adds new ingredients. One day she accidentally cooks the cake at a higher temperature. It tastes better. The improved cake recipe is passed on to her son. In contrast the genes the son received from his mother that, together with those from his father, determine his eye color are virtually identical to those she received from her parents. As another example, we trace many of the methods that we use to study sperm whales at sea, such as identifying individuals using photographs and tracking groups using directional hydrophones (underwater microphones), to innovations made our colleague Jonathan Gordon during the 1980s. With Jonathan aboard, the sailing was a backdrop to tinkering, as he worked on methods that could allow us to begin to understand the whales. Wires ran hither and yon, devices were attached here and there. Jonathan would climb the mast to take photographs of the whales lying parallel to the horizon and thus measure them—that worked—and attach underwater cameras to the boat to watch them underwater—that didn't. Many of Jonathan's techniques were inspired by field methods introduced by the American scientists Roger and Katherine Payne for right and humpback whales a decade earlier, and these in turn had roots in the work of terrestrial scientists like Jane Goodall. Both the photo- identification and tracking of sperm whales have increased in efficiency since the 1980s with experience and technical developments such as digital cameras and on-board processing of sounds, as well as the incorporation of new research methods such as the collection of sloughed skin for genetic analysis. These are the techniques we show to our students, who will develop them further in the decades to come. Cake baking, sperm whale science, and most other human behavior develops from a complex blend of cultural inputs.

So the cultural transfer of information is, potentially at least, much more flexible than genetic reproduction. The products of genes change only on intergenerational timescales. In some cases, especially when a culture is conformist and learned largely from parents, it can be as stable as the products of genes—elements of Judaism, for example, have changed little over thousands of years, but few would argue that the religion could exist without cultural transmission. At the other end of the scale, when culture is learned primarily from peers, it can be highly ephemeral, spreading fast and dying faster—think pop music or fashion. For a short time such cultures—whether a boy band or a "seasonal look"—can have immense influence on behavior, and then they are gone. The abilities to meld cultures and modify them before passing them on allows for the rapid evolution of extraordinary cultural products: jumbo jets and the Internet, hip-hop and nouveau cuisine. Even when culture does not accumulate it can be very useful, basically because other individuals are a rich vein of information about what works and what does not.

So, when culture takes hold of a species, everything changes. Extraordinary new ideas are developed from old ideas and passed on. Things are produced. The things can be technology or art or language or political systems. Interactions with the environment change. New ways of exploiting, polluting, or caring for the earth arise. Nations and ethnicities are formed. And it all feeds back into genetic evolution as those able to deal effectively with all this information and its consequences do better, living longer and having more offspring survive. But there is more. In the words of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd: humans' "extreme reliance on culture fundamentally transforms many aspects of the evolutionary process. The evolutionary potential of culture makes possible unprecedented adaptations like our modern complex societies based on cooperation with unrelated people, and some almost equally spectacular maladaptation, such as the collapse of fertility in these same modern societies." The result is the extraordinary evolutionary and ecological trajectory of modern Homo sapiens over the past ten to twenty thousand years. Culture is the principal reason why humans are so different from other species. But, in terms of the significance of culture, are we so different from all other species?

The Idea of Whale Culture

In the 1960s people started to study whales and dolphins in the wild, spending significant time observing their behavior. Over the next twenty years, they grew to know cetaceans a little, but that little was enough for the beginning of speculation on the role of culture in their lives. Most prominent among these pioneers was Ken Norris (fig. 1.1). The American zoologist inspired numerous friends, colleagues, and students—the next generation of whale and dolphin scientists, many of whom he supervised—as well as interested members of the public. He gave us a new view of cetaceans as intensely social animals. A superb naturalist, fine scientist, and generous teacher, Norris spent a good part of his life with whales and dolphins, both wild and captive. He observed carefully and devised new ways of looking at the animals. He talked and wrote in a folksy way, but he was clear and careful in what he said. In 1980 Norris felt that dolphin "learning capabilities provide for a high level of flexibility in nature and this is translated into local variations in group behavior that we might call culture." By 1988 he went further, concluding that some of the social patterns that he observed were "clearly cultural."

That cetacean social patterns are cultural is a radical concept, but, despite Norris's insight and eloquence, the idea of cetacean culture stayed mostly beneath the surface of cetology, the study of whales and dolphins, during the remainder of the twentieth century. However, over the last decade or so, the idea of whale culture has taken a stake in the awareness of scientists and reached the general public. The idea may be out there, but there is little clarity as to its extent or what it means. In 2001 we published a scientific review titled "Culture in Whales and Dolphins." It received thirty-nine commentaries from academics in a wide range of disciplines with perspectives ranging from "a whale of a tale: calling it culture doesn't help" to "culture among cetaceans has important philosophical implications ... [they] should now be included with us in an extended moral community." These reactions emphasize both the difficulties some scientists had with our interpretation of the evidence, as well the potentially profound implications if it were to be accepted.


Excerpted from The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead, Luke Rendell. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Hal Whitehead is a University Research Professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the author of Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean and Analyzing Animal Societies, both published by the University of Chicago Press. Supported by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology, Luke Rendell is a lecturer in biology at the Sea Mammal Research Unit and the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution of the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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