Whale Culture: Hal Whitehead at TEDxHalifax (Full Transcript)

We are all like one another, and that likeness is the essence of life. Life is built on information moving from one organism to another organism, from one animal to another animal, or from one plant to another plant. Without this transfer, there would be no life, no evolution, no biology.

So, how does this intermotion move around? Well, we biologists concentrate on genes, and part of the reason we’re also like one another is because of the human genes that we share. If this was a gathering of squirrels, we’d all be like each other again, but we’d be very different from what we are now. Squirrel DNA. But we’re also similar in ways which are not due to our genes. We all understand English, and most of us are wearing the same T-shirt. And these similarities are not because of genes, they’re because of culture.

Culture is what we learn from one another, and culture is another way that information moves from one organism to another organism. Culture is why we are here, the TED culture. Some of what you’ll hear here you may pass on, and other communities will become more similar to one another.

Look at this picture. It contains all kinds of cultural elements. Genes do not produce anything like this: unrelated organisms wearing identical apparel, carrying complex technology, marching lockstep into a very dangerous situation with no likely personal reward. The one animal in this picture from a non-cultural species, the horse, may be rightfully very dubious about what’s about to happen.

The human population, our human population, is defined by our genes as well as our cultural information, whereas individual squirrels and the squirrel population largely possess only genetic information. We get our genes from our parents, at least until now, whereas we get our culture from all kinds of sources. We might get our religion from our parents, our taste in clothes from our peers, our ideas about politics from our professors, our knowledge of sports from TV. These profound differences in how genes and culture move from one creature to another creature mean that if culture is important to a species, evolution proceeds very differently. Cultural species can produce cathedrals, kamikaze pilots, the Simpsons, jumbo jets, NASCAR and the United Nations. Species without much culture can hoard nuts.

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So, are we the only species with culture? No, birds sing, and a lot of that song is learned from other birds, and so, culture. Then, perhaps we are the only species in which culture is so important that it drives our society, our evolution, our ecology and an extraordinary technology. That’s what most people and most academics think. This 2009 book addresses the question of animal culture from a number of perspectives. Kim Hill is one of the relatively few anthropologists willing to even talk about the idea of non-human culture, but the anthropologists’ point of view is pretty clear: only humans have culture.

Psychologists might be a little bit milder: only humans have sophisticated methods of getting knowledge from one to another by learning, and so only they can produce significant cultures. Zoologists aren’t so certain. They wonder whether culture might be quite significant for a few species and animals, like chimps and elephants and capuchin monkeys. And then, there’s me, and a few other whale nuts. We have spent years of our lives with these animals. We haven’t learned a whole lot, because the whales and dolphins are very hard to study, and it’s been a struggle to work out how to make sense of them.

But what we have found out has convinced us that for these animals, culture is more than vital. It confirms who they are and how they interact with each other, and their culture affects their ecology as well as their genetic evolution, as it does for us humans. Well, a caveat: there are two important parts of human culture that the whales do not have. They don’t have cumulative material technology; so, no jumbo jets. And don’t have a syntactical language; so, no Shakespeare. But there are signs that they have all the other important aspects of culture, and there may be elements of their culture that we do not have, and of course we’ll have a really hard time recognizing them. There’s lots of evidence of whale culture in all the best studied species. I’m going to concentrate on my own experience.

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Well, I study sperm whales, the Moby Dick whale. The sperm whale’s a predator on deep-water squid. It’s an animal of extremes. It has the largest nose on Earth. This nose is the most powerful sonar system in the natural world. They also have the biggest brain on Earth, the biggest of all brains, and the sperm whale population, even though we’ve reduced them by about two-thirds through whaling, takes more food out of the ocean every year than all our fisheries for all species combined. And we generally cannot catch those deep-water squid that they live on. I’ve been particularly interested in the social structure of the female sperm whales.

I’ve studied this for 30 years by following the whales around in my sailing boat, tracking them by listening for their sounds, and it’s great. We have studied them in various places, but I’m going to concentrate on the research we’ve done off the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Female sperm whales live in permanent social units, with about ten animals in each. Off the Galapagos, these units contain both related animals and unrelated animals. So, the two whales at the top of this picture might be aunt and niece, the two at the bottom might be unrelated in any genetic way, but they will live together for most of their lives. They move around the ocean together, they babysit each other’s young, they suckle each other’s young and they defend themselves against predators such as killer whales, communally, together. Sperm whales communicate with a strange Morse-code-like system, using patterns of clicks.

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