whale communications; intelligence

From: Orca Network (howard@orcanetwork.org)
Date: Sat May 24 2003 - 09:15:15 EDT

  • Next message: Orca Network: "whale communications"

    I'm interested in finding information on whale communications; intelligence
    functions; different aspects of whale intelligence; thought processes;
    sensory processes. The sperm whale has the largest brain on earth, I
    think. What do they do with it all? How good are our efforts to
    understand them?
    Susannah Smith, Ph.D.

    That would be a topic for a graduate seminar, or actually a new
    interdisciplinary Department of Cetacean Cognition. I think we have to
    start with a realistic appraisal of our own vantage point, in comparison to
    the evolutionary history of the largest and largest-brained cetaceans.
    We're far more recently evolved as self-conscious, culture-building
    mammals, and our brains are much smaller. Actually, recent measurements by
    Dr. Rich Osborne indicate that orca brains are slightly larger than sperm
    whale brains, but both are around five times the size of human brains.

    What do they do with it all? I'm quite sure nobody knows. Anything we know
    varies tremendously by species. Most cetacean communication seems to lack
    great diversity or complexity, but maybe we're not looking for the right
    elements within the calls. Or maybe all that needs to be said can be said
    in a few calls. It may be helpful to note that cetaceans don't make things,
    or have any material culture. So they probably don't have a need to take
    things apart and name the parts, or to name things much at all. With social
    and ecological stability gained over millions of years, there may not be
    much new to talk about. Until humans disrupted the marine ecosystem just
    recently, cetaceans had pretty well managed to live long and prosper within
    the parameters of a finite planet, with a minimum of hostility. Maybe
    that's an answer to what they do with it all. The difficulty may lie in our
    inability to remove the lens of our values and biases to consider what such
    a history of conscious intelligence on such a scale may bring. What would
    peace on Earth be like?

    Though I'm sure there are people trying to look into the cetacean mind, I'm
    not aware of much new theory that's based on empirical studies rather than
    sheer speculation. The most exciting new theory that I know of was a 2001
    paper called Culture in Whales and Dolphins, which you can find at:
    My main interest is in orca communication and social systems. The
    proposition I'm working on is that orcas, and by implication several other
    species, are aware of themselves as both individuals and as members of
    their cultures, as we are. I've borrowed a paradigm from a subdiscipline of
    sociology called symbolic interactionism. You can find my attempt to put it
    all together at:
    http://www.orcanetwork.org/nathist/scifield.html#interactionism. Some of
    the other papers in that section may be of interest to you as well.

    Keep in touch if you'd like. I'd love to hear what you find.

    Howard Garrett
    Orca Network
    Greenbank WA
    (360) 678-3451

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