Home » Whale Culture: Hal Whitehead at TEDxHalifax (Full Transcript)

Whale Culture: Hal Whitehead at TEDxHalifax (Full Transcript)

Hal Whitehead – 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.

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.

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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.

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.

So, here we go. (Whale clicking sounds) So that was a couple of sperm whales communicating with each other. We analyzed these clicks, these patterns, and off the Galapagos, we found two main kinds of social units. Some units made codas like “click, click, click, click,” or “click, click, click.” We called them the regular units. Others made “click, click, click – click,” or “click, click – click.” We called them the plus-one units, like a Canadian “a” at the end of each sentence. We found that the coda repertoires were stable. If we recorded a plus-one unit now and then five years later, they were still plus-one units. The units only grouped with other units from their own clan, even though they lived in the same general area.

So, we had these two types of sperm whales living in the same area, but having very different lives. And they behaved differently. Units of the regular clan stayed close to the Galapagos Islands, shown here in yellow, and as we followed them, they wiggled about this way and that way, we’d have to keep changing the direction of the boat. When we were following the plus-one clan, we were further from the islands and moving generally in straight lines. What’s behind this? Well, are they subspecies? We checked the genetics and there’s almost no difference between the two clans. We also checked that the clans were not different parts of the same population, say, teenagers and adults. No, all parts were in each clan. The only explanation left was that these clans were formed by culture. The young sperm whale learns from her mother and the other members of her family unit “how we do things.”

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So, we have a situation here comparable to two ethnic groups, living in the same area, each doing their own thing, being aware of each other, but rarely interacting – what we would perhaps call multiculturalism. Well, we were so excited when we discovered all of this, but there was more, as we began to think about the implications of the sperm whale clans. How deeply does clan membership affect sperm whales? We looked at two fundamental attributes of life: feeding and reproduction. Well, unfortunately, this is a very rare picture. We usually cannot see the sperm whales eating. They’re a kilometer below the surface, feeding on squid. But when they come to breathe, they also defecate.

So, on the principle of “what went out must have gone in,” we count brown patches behind whales. More brown patches equals more feeding success. In normal years off the Galapagos, such as 1989, when we’d got a lot of data, the regular clan units usually did better. About 20 percent of the time that the whales dived, started their long dives for squid, we saw a brown patch behind them. For the plus-one clan, it was only about 6 percent. But every few years, El Niño strikes he Galapagos area, the waters warm up, and it’s bad news for nearly everything in the ocean, including sperm whales. The feeding success goes down. However, in these new conditions, the plus-one clan does better. We see almost no brown patches when we’re following the regular clan around. But the plus-oners managed to squeeze out a few.

With global warming, El-Niño-like conditions are likely to increase in frequency, so for sperm whales, cultural diversity may be very important to their survival. We also looked at reproduction. Once again, there are big differences, with the plus-one groups almost always having a young baby with them, whereas when we were following the regular groups, they only had a young calf about half of the time. This indicates that culture may be affecting genetic evolution. While the clans don’t differ in the nuclear genes, the ones that really control behavior and so on, they do differ a bit in the neutral mitochondrial genes, which are passed down from mothers to their offspring, to daughter and so on.

So, if we think of the regular clan as having generally green genes and the plus-one as having blue genes – and I’m sorry about that, it turned out to be blue genes, yes – If the plus-one clan keeps up its high reproductive rate, at each generation, the proportion of blue genes in the ocean will increase, because there’s more plus-oners, and eventually, they’ll come to dominate the sperm whale’s ocean. So, the ocean becomes filled with the plus-one blue genes not because these blue genes are advantageous in themselves, they’re no better than the green ones, but because they were lucky enough to be linked to the good ideas, the cultural ideas of the plus-one clan, which allowed them to have more babies. I call this “cultural hitchhiking” and think it probably explains the extraordinarily low diversity of the mitochondrial genes in sperm whales. This chart shows the differences between the coda dialects of the units off the Galapagos. The lines on the left represent the units of the regular clan. Those on the right, the units of the plus-one clan. The tree represents the differences between the dialects of the different units.

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So, this is the average difference between a plus-one unit and a regular unit. Remember: these clans live together off the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean. We’ve also studied sperm whales in the Atlantic, where, as Ricardo Antunes found out, the clans do not overlap. So, in each part of the Atlantic, there’s only one clan. He calculated the difference between the coda repertoires of these different areas of the Atlantic, which are shown in red here. And so, that’s a geographical distance. That distance, the difference between the different areas in the Atlantic, is less than that between the two clans that live in the same area in the Pacific. The implication is that in a multicultural environment such as off the Galapagos, it’s particularly important to designate who we are and who they are, so we actually change our dialect to make it different from the others.

So, sperm whale clans have culture, and they seem to have a multicultural society. They have huge ranges. Each clan contains thousands of animals and covers thousands of kilometers. The clans strongly affect ecology. They seem to affect genetic evolutions through cultural hitchhiking. They govern large parts of the behavior of the whales, and they probably form a major part of the identity of the whales.

So, “I am a plus-one whale” is one of the ways they see themselves. Well, we know only a tiny bit of the behavior or the culture of sperm whales, and more generally, we only know a tiny bit of the behavior or culture of whales and dolphins, but we do know that their cultures include diet, foraging methods, dialects, songs, social conventions, movements and play behavior. They include stable traditions, like the coda repertoires, perhaps a bit analogous to our languages, which are stable over generations.

They also include short-term fads, like killer whales pushing around dead salmon for a week, or two weeks, and then everyone getting bored and say, “That’s not cool anymore,” and stopping, rather like our fads for boy bands. Their cultures affect their ecology, their evolution and what the animals really are. Their cultures are not like our cultures, but they’re vital for them. I believe we need to try to understand them. First we have to conserve them, as we humans increasingly rubbish their ocean. Secondly, it should help us to understand our own cultures, what they mean, why we have them.

And thirdly, they’re just so fascinating, so we go out and study them. I’d like to end with this quote, which is about dolphins, but could easily refer to whales, and it’s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy: “Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than the dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water, having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man, for precisely the same reason.” Thank you.

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