Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty
Whitehead calls such socializing the “bonding glue” for sperm-whale society. But we’re also being shown a window into his most astonishing proposition: Sperm whales have distinct cultures. Each clan, he argues, is unique in almost every way: feeding, migration patterns, child-care preferences, rates of reproduction. Sperm whales also speak different dialects. In addition to their echolocation clicks, they produce unique sequences of clicks called “codas,” which change from clan to clan—think of the variations, say, between Sicilian and Venetian—and are likely a declaration of group identity.
“These aren’t genetic differences,” says Whitehead. “They’re learned.” What distinguishes whales—along with chimps, elephants and perhaps some birds—is the fact that the things they learn persist through time. They seem to be passed down from generation to generation until they form part of the distinct identity of the clan.
Whitehead’s evidence adds a whole new dimension to the way we think about protecting whales. It tells us that if humans break up a group of sperm whales or killer whales or dolphins, we are destroying not just individual lives or a population of animals; we are also destroying a unique dialect, a hunting strategy, a social tradition—an ancient, living culture. “You have to understand,” Whitehead says, “until a few hundred thousand years ago most of the culture was in the ocean. Certainly the most sophisticated cultures on Earth were whales and dolphins, until the strange bipedal hominid evolved.”
When Whitehead and his colleague Luke Rendall published their findings in a 2001 special issue of the influential journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a few scientific commentators were critical, calling the claims of culture “weak” and “overblown.” Others found the evidence convincing, piecing it together with new research into cetacean cognition that continued through the decade.
It all came to a head this past February in Vancouver, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the world’s largest gathering of scientists—when a small group of scientists and ethicists presented what they hoped would be a paradigm-changing proposal to a packed room: “The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.”
“We affirm,” reads the declaration, “that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being.” They have the right, the declaration continues, not to be slaughtered, not to be held in captivity, not to be owned or exploited or removed from their environment. The declaration sparked national and international coverage, most of it positive, some critical and some quizzical. “The important thing,” says one of the authors, Atlanta-based Emory University neurobiologist Lori Marino, “is that people are taking it seriously.”
The declaration is, of course, nonbinding, so the real test will be whether the group can get the project endorsed legally. They hope to bring the declaration before the UN. As part of another effort, Marino and some of the signatories are also working with an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is preparing to litigate its first cases and break through the legal wall that currently separates humans from nonhumans. “We want to argue for whale common-law status—to actually use a dolphin or whale as a plaintiff,” says Marino. “We think we can find a jurisdiction where a judge would be open to hearing this. The science is on our side.”
The key claim is that whales and dolphins are entitled to that privileged human status known as personhood. “Humans are considered persons because they have a certain set of characteristics,” says Marino. “They are self-aware, intelligent, complex, autonomous, cultured and so on. If we accept that definition—and versions of this are used around the world in constitutions and other legislation—then the latest science is telling us that cetaceans also qualify. They are, therefore, nonhuman persons.”
Whales, it seems, are having their civil-rights moment. But is the science behind the declaration’s claims sound? And if so, what are the legal and ethical implications of extending personhood to cetaceans? What would a Cetacean Nation even look like?