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Whale communication

Every couple weeks I receive alerts from a grants database configured to send me information about communication research informing me of sponsored projects relating to animal communication.  I am always surprised to see these alerts since the field of speech communication in which I’m trained (and in contrast to scholars of the science of language development) only peripherally engages the topic and in ways that either treat it as an issue of passing relevance in our introductory texts for students who inevitably raise the subject, or in fully anecdotal ways.  A famous essay by the literary critic Kenneth Burke thus distinguishes animal communication as motion (which for him is a term referring to instinctive and unthinking movement) as compared to human action; although ideological convictions can make us instinctively hop around this way or that, Burke argued our capacity for intersubjective communication enables thoughtful and motivated acts.  As influential as Burke is for scholars of rhetorical process, it has never occurred to me that he had a sophisticated understanding of, say, primate interaction, and of course his work in the 1950s and 1960s predated the most significant anthropological and biological research on animal sociability, some of which comes very close to suggesting or even proving beyond doubt complex structures of communicated meaning.

I was reminded of all this, and also my own ignorance, in watching a PBS Nature documentary aired the other night in Atlanta which told the story of some animal caretakers who have rescued aging chimpanzees kept in lifelong captivity either because they were raised to be circus performers or the subjects of medical research.  Many of the chimps, who age to be 35 years or older, are living with having been infected with HIV or hepatitis or other illnesses with the goal of discovering cures for these illnesses in humans.  One of the common characteristics of these animals is that they have lived so long in cages and on concrete pads that they may fear a return to more natural habitats, although that rightly does not prevent advocates for their humane treatment from endeavoring to restore them to such living conditions.  One of the sad moments in the documentary showed a chimp who recognized one of his trainers after having not seen him for more than a quarter century.  On renewed contact the old chimp seemed to immediately recognize his old captor with affection.  The professionals who cared for him (the ape) learned that he liked ice cream cones, and so for the last couple weeks of his life they brought him one every day which he would happily devour, not by swallowing it whole but by licking it and nibbling through the cone as any human being might.  One of the happiest moments showed a chimp released at last from concrete and caged confinement into an almost open park – the monkey raced out, off the concrete pad onto the grass, and scrambled to the top of the tallest tree on the property.  The good people who fought to create such a habitat wept tears of joy.  A small victory for primate rights, to be sure, or perhaps simply for the humane treatment of animals who have been, let us say it, tortured.  As I watched all this I realized I was as moved by the fact that the old chimp ate ice cream in ways that made him seem human as I was by the other’s sprinting return into an environs harder to see as recognizably human.

We’ve all heard the statistic noting the degree of genetic separation distinguishing humans from bonobos, gorillas, or chimpanzees as less than one percent.  And although the genetic distance between humans and dolphins is just a bit greater (a new book by Maddalena Bearzi and Craig Stanford notes that we split away from dolphins more than 100 million years ago), dolphins and whales are also astonishingly clever, in part because their neocortex is considerably larger than ours.  The point of the book (Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins, Harvard UP), as the titles and the author’s credentials imply (Bearzi studies dolphins, Stanford primates), is to point out the affinities between these animals (and by doing so to implicitly close the gap we typically perceive between them and us):  all “spend their lives navigating a complicated social environment.  An ability to learn quickly and make subtle choices lets individuals track the moods, intentions and shifting dominance ranks of others with an eye to increasing their own position within the social hierarchy…[D]olphins and apes are assessing rivals and friends, inventing distractions, employing bribes, and forming alliances to get [food and mates], relying at least as much on cunning as on brute strength” (Chadwick).

The point of all this is not to establish or prove to skeptics that animals are capable of communication – these authors take such a conclusion as already having been established, where the real questions of interest have more to do with communicative variation among species.  While debate remains over the extent to which non-humans possess the capacity to socially transmit learned information, there is by now no doubt that “dolphins and great apes grasp language to some extent.  [Bearzi and Stanford] describe dolphins responding readily to commands that require an understanding of the meaning and order of words – i.e., syntax – while studiously ignoring researchers who issued illogical orders” (Chadwick).

David Rothenberg has been working on the prospects for interspecies communication for some time now, and his 2005 book Why Birds Sing recounts his efforts to create duets with birds.  Birdsong is interesting because, as Chadwick (and of course Rothenberg) notes, birds sing far more than biologically necessary – Rothenberg is thus interested to discover whether birds sing as a form of entertainment, or because it might bring them joy.  With the discovery that whales make elaborate music beneath the waves, efforts were made to uncode whalesong, in part motivated by the thought that we could perhaps talk to each other.  As Chadwick notes:  “Enthusiasts grabbed flutes and lutes and boated out to serenade minds in the waters, intending to open up lines of contact.  The typical reaction from the whales was avoidance, and the dream evaporated.  Rothenberg thinks it may be time to try again.”  His new book, Thousand Mile Song:  Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books), recounts efforts to make recognizable contact with whales both in captivity and in the wild.  The book pays special attention to the clicks and whistle-like sounds made by sperm whales, and maps out the different patterns that distinguish whale families.

In one of the Star Trek movies, Spock mind-melds with an earth whale, who is able to seamlessly bring Spock up to date on how ocean pollution has eviscerated habitats.  The film, of course, is predicated on a hopeless but lingering cultural fantasy that holds out the possibility of mental transference and total communicative transparency, a dream no less utopian when considered in the human context than in cross-species encounters.  But I wish Rothenberg well anyway and understand his work as deeply serious.  If research only gets as far as decoding signs of distress or hunger in other species, then that alone will have justified the effort.

SOURCES:  Douglas H. Chadwick, “Cool sounds for killer whales,” Times Literary Supplement, 14 November 2008, pg. 26; David Rothenberg, “Whale Music: Anatomy of an Interspecies Duet,” Leonardo Music Journal 18 (2008): pgs. 47-53.

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