Barbara J. King writes: The idea that our oceans teem with cultural animals — and have for millions of years — is the central conclusion of a new book by two whale scientists. And it’s a convincing one.
Whales and dolphins, as they forage for food and interact with each other in their social units, may learn specific ways of doing things from their mothers or their pod-mates.
Certain killer whales (orcas), for example, learn to hunt communally with such precision that they cause waves to wash seals — of only certain species, because other seals are rejected as prey — off their ice floes and into the sea. And the complex patterned songs of humpback whales evolve so quickly over time and space that only learning can explain it.
“The song being sung at any location can change dramatically into an entirely new form, with new units, new phrases, and new themes within less than a year,” write authors Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell in their book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. “A revolution, rather than an evolution.”
The two scientists, who have been studying sperm whales for a collective half century, offer this working definition of culture: Behavior that is shared by some identifiable group such as a family, community or population, and that is acquired by learning from others.
In order for culture to be ruled in as the primary explanation for some behavior, then, genetics and features of the habitat in which the marine mammals live should be ruled out. [Continue reading…]