Monday, July 13, 2009

NY Times feature on whales and us

"Human-whale relations have long been defined by this stark dualism: manic swings between mythologizing and massacre; between sublime awe and assiduous annihilation, the testimonies of their slayers often permeated with a deep sense of both remorse and respect for the victims."

In between these extremes, the relationship between humans and whales turns out to be social and complex. Among themselves, whales have languages, communities, and actually resemble us more than we would care to admit. So given our history of hunting whales and driving them to suicide by the cacophony of underwater sonar, could they find it in their hearts to forgive us?

Towards its conclusion, this article by Charles Siebert raises the issue of anthropomorphism. Because of the close parallels in their behavior and sociality to that of our own species, it is tempting to suppose that whales and other cetaceans have feelings and motivations like we do, that they feel sadness or gladness when they display aversion or preference.

Anthropomorphism has long been the big taboo in the field of ethology, because of the concern that it is unscientific and sentimental, so generations of behaviorists have been taught to refer to their animal subjects by numbers rather than names, and to carefully suppress their instinct to ascribe human-like motivations and feelings to them. The scientist that the author quotes, Toni Frohoff, is quick to say: "I don't anthropomorphize", but also that "those who would reject out of hand the idea that whales are intelligent enough to consciously interact with us haven’t spent enough time around whales."

The intuition of a seasoned and experienced observer encodes subtle nuances and detail that the hypothesis-testing model of science can be blind to. The question, of course, is how to translate the ineffable quality of a humpback gently nudging a dive team that had recently freed it from a tangle of rope into some convincingly systematic scheme of explanation. It would be very satisfying if the rigorous study of cetaceans can give us insight into whether these animals, like us, are able to lead rich and interesting internal lives.

No comments: