Wednesday, 13 July 2011


"A great whale rumbles through the ocean depths uttering plaintive cries that are understood hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, where another lonely behemoth is attentively listening"(Carl Sagan)

"Does God have to be, like us, a primate? How would it be if he manifested as a whale, a dolphin or an elephant?... We make him in our image as essentially a member of our own species. As the Old Testament shows, this can lead us at times to credit him with our obvious faults: our arrogance, our partiality, our bloody-mindedness, as well as with a human gender. But it also has another effect which has not, I think, received quite so much attention. Assimilating ourselves to him, we easily come to see ourselves too as in some degree godlike. We seem to be the central bearers of all value, an essential feature of the universe, perhaps even the purpose for which it exists, and therefore a set of beings whose status can never really be in danger." (Mary Midgley)

Jersey is currently hosting the IWC, and already, as BBC News reports, this is likely to be a controversial conference:

ST. HELIER, Jersey, UK, July 12, 2011 (ENS) - The seas around Antarctica will be the scene of confrontations over whaling again this year.
Japan will send its whaling fleet to the Antarctic again, a senior Japanese official has told BBC News, and the Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling vessels will be there to disrupt the hunt. At the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, which opened Monday in Jersey, Joji Morishita said Japan plans to send its whaling fleet back to the Southern Ocean to conduct "research" whaling. The IWC allows scientific research but not commercial whaling, which has been banned worldwide since 1986.

The rules of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) allow for "special permit whaling", commonly referred to as "scientific permit whaling" or simply "scientific whaling", provided it is "for the purpose of scientific research". Scientific whaling is not under the control of the IWC - permits and quotas are at the total discretion of each nation, which basically means that while it can make recommendations, it is something of a spent force as far as conservation is concerned, because this is a loophole which can be exploited easily. Jersey is hosting a conference of the IWC, and unless this changes, it may well turn out little more than a talking shop, especially if whaling countries continue to make use of so-called "scientific whaling". If some of the banns were given more "bite", and "scientific whaling" was more restricted, Jersey could bask in the glory of being the place where it happened, But as the breaking story shows, Jersey could end up with some very unwelcome publicity.

Jeff Kingston explains how the IWC did make some headway with a ban on whaling, but the Japanese are conducting a campaign to reinstate whaling:

Since the international moratorium on whaling was imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1986, Japanese consumption of whale meat has declined markedly, the commercial whaling fleet has all but disappeared, and consumer interest is negligible. Nonetheless, the government spends considerable sums underwriting 'scientific whaling,' campaigning for a resumption of commercial whaling, and subsidizing sales of whale meat supplied from scientific whaling.

In an attempt to defend Japan's 'scientific whaling' and interest in resuming commercial whaling, Japanese government officials regularly describe whales as 'ocean cockroaches,' a phrase designed to rob these marine mammals of the appealing image they have gained in the West. The scavenger image refers to the huge appetite for fish that whaling advocates - and whaling advocates alone - believe is the reason for the depletion of world fishing stocks. The campaign to resume commercial whaling, and end the international moratorium that has successfully prevented some species from becoming extinct, is yet another example of bureaucratic commitment to a policy that does little to further the national interest at considerable expense.

But in fact, this is a bogus argument:

Critics also dismissed claims that whales are responsible for depleted fishing stocks: the simplistic assumption that fewer whales eating fewer marine resources means more fish for human consumption cannot be squared with the complex ecosystems characteristic of oceans. As one environmentalist quipped, this is the scientific equivalent of claiming that to save a rainforest we must cut down the tallest trees.

As an example of "scientific whaling" in practice, consider this:

Almost 13,000 fin, sperm, sei, Bryde's and minke whales have been killed using scientific permits since the moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986. There is heated debate in the IWC about the exploitation of this loophole as the governments of Japan and Iceland continue to issue their whaling fleets with scientific permits to kill whales, all of which are processed for their domestic whale meat markets.

and Kingston, again, writing in 2004, noted that:

Japan is not whaling to conduct research, but rather is conducting research to provide an acceptable cover for whaling. The scale of the program has grown considerably, from 300 whales in 1987 to a projected 700 in 2003. Critics point out that the scientific research has produced paltry results, with only a small number of papers published in internationally refereed scientific journals.

A letter by an international group scientists in May 2002, published in the New York Times, noted that:

We are concerned that Japan's whaling program is not designed to answer scientific questions relevant to the management of whales; that Japan has refused to make the information it collects available for independent review; and that it lacks a testable hypothesis or other performance indicators consistent with accepted scientific standards. Most of the data being gathered by Japan's 'scientific whaling' are obtainable by nonlethal means. . The commercial nature of Japan's whaling program conflicts with its scientific independence . These commercial considerations create a profit incentive to kill whales even when no scientific need exists...By continuing to fund and carry out this program, Japan opens itself to serious charges that it is using the pretense of scientific research to evade its commitments to the world community.

and as far as "scientific study" goes for Iceland, consider how this study is done - as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society note (and easily verified fact):

"We are seeing increasing numbers of tourists walking off whale watching vessels and straight into restaurants that serve whale meat," the group said in a statement. More than 100 Icelandic restaurants and shops are currently selling minke whale meat as an exotic food - smoked, marinated or cut into steaks for grilling."

So much for science!

If one wanted to have "scientific permit" for gorilla studies, and it involved going out and shooting gorillas in order to study them, you would think there was something rather bizarre about the permit. If it was a "scientific permit" which allowed people to go and shoot elephants in order to study them, and somehow when the study was over, the ivory would enter the commercial market, you would begin to smell something rotten. But it is apparently fine to have "scientific permit whaling" when whales are killed supposedly for study.

Or, to take the human population, it is as if the scientific study of human beings involved a massive amount of permits being granted to people like Burke and Hare, and Desmond Morris had a book called "Man hunting" rather than "Man watching", and stated that it was about the scientific study of mankind.

The Victorians used to make collections of fish picked in glass jars, and while you can learn something of the anatomy of the fish, and even use it to identify different species, most scientists today realise that to study a fish while it is alive is of far more value, to learn from its behaviour, its feeding grounds etc. The same must surely be true of whales, although they are mammals, of course, and not fish. Scientific study should, as far as possible, study the whale in its natural environment, and live whales rather than dead ones.

In his series Cosmos, Carl Sagan has this to note on whale evolution:

The whales are recent arrivals in the ocean. Only seventy million years ago their ancestors were carnivorous mammals who migrated in slow steps from the land into the ocean. Among the whales, mothers suckle and care tenderly for their offspring. There is a long childhood in which the
adults teach the young. Play is a typical pastime. These are all mammalian characteristics, all important for the development of intelligent beings.

And he explains how whale's distinct songs developed:

The sea is murky. Sight and smell, which work well for mammals on the land, are not of much use in the depths of the ocean. Those ancestors of the whales who relied on these senses to locate a mate or a baby or a predator did not leave many offspring. So another method was perfected by evolution; it works superbly well and is central to any understanding of the whales: the sense of sound. Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps fifteen minutes; the longest, about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically, beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. Occasionally a group of whales will leave their winter waters in the midst of a song and six months later return to continue at precisely the right note, as if there had been no interruption. Whales are very good at remembering. More often, on their return, the vocalizations have changed.

Very often the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative songwriting, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 106 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey. We do not know what whales or their cousins the dolphins have to talk or sing about. They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

Is it or can it be scientific to study such creatures by killing them? While the examination of dead bodies may yield some important information about the larynx and vocal chords in human beings, our most exceptional characteristic, the production of speech, needs examination of the living human being, not the dead one.

The philosopher Mary Midgley notes that we must be wary of understanding the intelligence of whales in purely human terms, as the kind of thing than an IQ test shows, or - ironically - something that computers could develop artificially. Even in science fiction, the stories of aliens, and alien intelligence almost always - with some notable exceptions like H.P. Lovecraft - cast intelligence as analogous to our own, but writ large. But she notes that this is a flaw in our understanding of intelligence, and reducing it to just one kind of thing.

Where do we draw the line?' because intelligence is a matter of degree. Some inhabitants of our own planet, including whales and dolphins, have turned out to be a lot brighter than was once supposed. Quite how bright they are is not yet really clear. Indeed, it may never become so to us because of the difference in the kind of intelligence appropriate to beings with very different sorts of life. How can we deal with such a situation?

Legend apart, it was assumed that whales and dolphins were much like fish. The great apes were not even discovered until the eighteenth century, and real knowledge of their way of living has been acquired only within the last few decades. About better-known creatures too there was a very general ignorance and unthinking dismissal of available evidence; their sociality was not noticed or believed in. The central, official intellectual tradition of our culture never expected to be forced to refine its crude, extreme, unshaded dichotomy between man and beast. In spite of the efforts of many concerned thinkers, from Plutarch to Montaigne and from Blake to John Stuart Mill, it did not develop other categories. If alien beings landed tomorrow, lawyers, philosophers and social scientists would certainly have to do some very quick thinking. (I don't expect the aliens myself, but they are part of the imaginative furniture of our age, and it is legitimate to use them to rouse us from our dogmatic slumbers.) Science fiction, though sometimes helpful, has far too often sidetracked the problem by making its aliens just scientists with green antennae, beings whose 'intelligence' is of a kind to be accepted instantly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -only, of course, a little greater. Since neither dolphins nor gorillas write doctoral theses, this would still let us out as far as terrestrial non-human creatures were concerned. 'Persons' and their appropriate rights could still go on being denned in terms of this sort of intelligence, and we could quietly continue to poison the pigeons in the park any time that we felt like it.

It is understandable that people should have thought so, but this surely cannot really be the issue. What makes creatures our fellow beings, entitled to basic consideration, is surely not intellectual capacity but emotional fellowship. And if we ask what powers can justify a higher claim, bringing some creatures nearer to the degree of consideration which is due to humans, those that seem to be most relevant are sensibility, social and emotional complexity of the kind which is expressed by the formation of deep, subtle and lasting relationships. The gift of imitating certain intellectual skills which are important to humans is no doubt an indicator of this, but it cannot be central.

And, of course, how does one understand whales best? Carl Sagan, in his epoch making series Cosmos, criticised the hunting of whales - which back then was not banned. Sagan - as a sounder of Seti - was well aware that any kind of extraterrestrial intelligence (in any radio transmissions) might not be readily understood in human terms - and he noted how the UFO cults invariable did just that. But if intelligences from beyond the stars, perhaps sending out messages across the light years to reach out to any others, might be quite different from our own, how can we best communicate with them? Sagan saw the language of science as a possible universal, a "Rosetta stone", but he was also perceptive enough to see that the study of whales offered a unique scientific opportunity to explore and learn how to communicate with non-human intelligences - and it was on our own planet. Here is a real, and nor fraudulent, agenda for the scientific study of whales:

We have done worse than that, because there persists to this day a traffic in the dead bodies of whales. There are humans who hunt and slaughter whales and market the products for lipstick or industrial lubricant. Many nations understand that the systematic murder of such intelligent creatures is monstrous, but the traffic continues, promoted chiefly by Japan, Norway and the Soviet Union. We humans, as a species, are interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Would not a good beginning be improved communication with terrestrial intelligence, with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with the great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with those intelligent masters of the deep, the, great whales?

Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century. Jeff Kingston, 2004


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that piece Tony. The guys outside the Hotel de France are getting a good level of support from the passing locals.

Rick Jones said...

Possibly the best worded article on the subject I have ever read. Bravo.

alane wallace said...

Fascinating. You raise some very interesting questions about the nature of intelligence. I'm glad to see someone express a philosophical point of view in addition to the moral issues so obvious in the commercial whaling argument.