A shorter post here before a longer one.
Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs. We have big questions here: Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc. Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial. Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc. The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?
I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise. Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves. We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy. I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820. That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder. Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas. Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.
My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines. They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude. Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions. Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.
So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/science/whales-songs-acoustics.html. Consider this quote: “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”
While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other. Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.
And now for something really interesting. In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern. (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).
Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life. In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew. I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.
My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution. Listen carefully while you travel on.