Why Whales Are People Too

The science proves it, but are humans ready to see them as equals? Get ready for a new world order.

By Jeff Warren (Reader's Digest Canada, July 2012)

Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty

Back on the boat, the sperm whales surge towards each other. Before our trip, Whitehead showed me underwater footage of sperm whales socializing, and it was spellbinding. The sensuality of their movements as they slowly rolled and pivoted, scraping their long serrated spines along one another’s pale bellies. The way they sent pulses of sounds into one another’s sides. The scene seemed suffused with a mutual attentiveness and care that I found moving. 

Despite not being able to locate the seat of consciousness in the animal brain—something true for humans as well—most scientists no longer ask whether animals have inner experiences. Some degree of sentience is considered self-evident. For neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, one of the world’s leading experts on the neural origins of mind and emotion, “the denial of consciousness in animals is as improbable as the pre-scientific anthropocentric view that the sun revolves around the Earth.”

But what do we mean by “consciousness”? At its most basic, consciousness can simply mean being aware of your surroundings. By this definition, of course, nearly every animal would have some form of awareness. Many different species perform a whole range of social actions, including co-operative behaviours and maternal care. Bees show complex activities—but does that mean they’re conscious? Quite possibly. The question now is no longer whether animals have minds, but what kind of minds.

Scientists now understand the mind as a much larger phenomenon, with many different species’ expressions. Humans and animals are not separated by some yawning chasm—the fact that we share basic brain structures suggests we might also share similar cognitive structures—like thousands of different operating systems coded to run the same apps.  Cetaceans have been a big part of this story, in part because of Whitehead’s findings, but also because of the experiments of dedicated researchers such as the University of Hawaii’s Lou Herman, who has proved that dolphins are capable of complex problem solving, demonstrating prodigious feats of learning, memory and creativity. One well-known anecdote involves a clever aquarium dolphin who was rewarded by his trainers for retrieving one piece of garbage after another. It turns out that, in order to maximize his fishy rewards, the dolphin had stashed an entire newspaper at the bottom of the tank and was very deliberately tearing off one small piece at a time.

But the most game-changing research may be the reappraisal of the whale brain currently under way. Marino has spent 20 years studying the whale brain’s structure and evolution, and found that it’s not only large (it’s second only to a human’s in its brain-to-body ratio) but also contains many braided cell structures and areas of dense connectivity. The term for this is “convoluted”—the cortex folds in on itself to increase its surface area inside the skull, thus giving the brain its ridged appearance (the brains of less intelligent animals are much smoother). What’s more, the history of the whale brain has been very different from those of primates and other mammals. Thirty-five million years ago it began arranging its parts into an utterly unique functional layout and structure. This achievement, says Marino, represents “an alternative evolutionary route to complex intelligence.”

The most intriguing part of the whale brain for Marino is the limbic system, which, in mammals, handles the processing of emotions. In some respects, she found this part of the whale brain is actually more convoluted than our own. In fact it’s so large it erupts into the cortex in the form of an extra paralimbic lobe. The location of the lobe suggests it is involved in a unique mash-up between emotional and cognitive thinking, perhaps some mix of social communication and self-awareness that we do not currently understand.

“Whales are arguably the most socially connected, communicative and coordinated mammals on the planet, including humans,” says Marino. “Killer whales, for instance, do not kill or even seriously harm one another in the wild, despite the fact that there is competition for prey and mates and there are disagreements. Their social rules prohibit real violence, and they seem to have worked out a way to peacefully manage the partitioning of resources among different groups. That is something we humans haven’t done yet.”

Whitehead points down: Two of the whales have suddenly become curious about us. Torres, intent on recording the codas, unspooled a long hydrophone into the water. The whales begin echolocating furiously on the blue cable, which trails behind the boat. I can feel the echolocation pings roll through the hull below me as I pull in the line, concerned the whales might bite the cord, as happened on Whitehead’s last trip. One of the whales follows the hydrophone in. I feel as if I’m fishing for giants. Finally, she pivots onto her side and fixes me with a large watery eye before rolling back to her family.

Whitehead, Marino and a few other whale scientists believe that echolocation—which Whitehead calls the “world’s most powerful imaging device”—might play a central role in whales’ social sophistication. It is possible that the faculty is used like an ultrasound to see inside bodies. “The sonar system may see, in great detail, the internal organs of all the other members of the group,” says Whitehead. “So there’s no hiding what one has eaten, whether one’s sexually receptive, whether one’s pregnant, whether one’s sick. Presumably, this changes social life a lot.”

It doesn’t stop there. An enormous amount of information is contained in the body: accelerated beating of the heart, tightness in the diaphragm, tension in the muscles—all of these registers of information may well be processed by the whale’s huge associative cortexes at lightning-fast speed. And not in isolation—most astounding of all is the possibility that all of this may be shared. There is evidence to suggest that dolphins and sperm whales can “eavesdrop” on another’s returning echoes, an ability akin to seeing through another’s eyes. Thus a group of widely dispersed whales may in some sense be part of a single sensory loop, sensitive to every twitch and shudder in the wide phenomenal world.

Next: Whales have no hands to manipulate the world. But they
have brains to feel it, in a way we cannot fully understand.

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