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In the songs and bubble feeding of humpback whales; in young killer whales learning to knock a seal from an ice floe in the same way their mother does; and in the use of sea sponges by the dolphins of Shark Bay, Australia, to protect their beaks while foraging for fish, we find clear examples of the transmission of information among cetaceans. Just as human cultures pass on languages and turns of phrase, tastes in food (and in how it is acquired), and modes of dress, could whales and dolphins have developed a culture of their very own?
Unequivocally: yes. In The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, cetacean biologists Hal Whitehead, who has spent much of his life on the ocean trying to understand whales, and Luke Rendell, whose research focuses on the evolution of social learning, open an astounding porthole onto the fascinating culture beneath the waves. As Whitehead and Rendell show, cetacean culture and its transmission are shaped by a blend of adaptations, innate sociality, and the unique environment in which whales and dolphins live: a watery world in which a hundred-and-fifty-ton blue whale can move with utter grace, and where the vertical expanse is as vital, and almost as vast, as the horizontal.
Drawing on their own research as well as a scientific literature as immense as the seaвЂ”including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, ecology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscienceвЂ”Whitehead and Rendell dive into realms both humbling and enlightening as they seek to define what cetacean culture is, why it exists, and what it means for the future of whales and dolphins. And, ultimately, what it means for our future, as well.
Biologists Whitehead and Rendell write that вЂњculture is a flow of information moving from animal to animal,вЂќ and evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith called culture вЂњthe most important modificationвЂќ of gene-based evolutionary theory. Humans, though arguably the masters of culture, are not the only species that has it. Dolphins, as the authors reveal, create signature whistles and can mimic and remember othersвЂ™ even 20 years later. They can also learn tail-walking in captivity and then teach it in the wild. Whales possess dialects that change in a way that can only be explained as the result of learning. And both whales and dolphins behave in вЂњobviously altruisticвЂќ ways. Dolphins and whales have saved humans stranded at sea, and humpback whales have been observed saving seals from killer whales. вЂњWe suspect that a sophisticated capacity for culture has been adaptive for many millions of years in the ocean,вЂќ write the authors, вЂњ never translated into an engine for generating the awesome body of accumulated skills, knowledge, and materials that characterize human culture.вЂќ Whitehead and Rendell deeply analyze the importance of culture to evolution, exploring what can be learned from animals that are perhaps more advanced than humans before pushing вЂњoff to sea again, where there is still so much to learn.вЂќ (Jan.)
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