The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Cover of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Author: Dr 'Hal' Whitehead (Christ's 1970) and Luke Rendell

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

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 sea - including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, ecology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience - 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.

Whitehead and Rendell tie together decades of research and observations of cetacean behavior, add in other compelling examples of culture in animals, and relate this to what we think of as culture. This work is unique, and I plan to quote parts of it for years to come. For anyone with an interest in how whales and dolphins live their lives, this is a must read.
- Charles 'Flip' Nicklin, photographer and author of Among Giants: A Life with Whales

'This very book can be considered itself an experiment in social transmission. The question is, will we get the message?' - Philippa Brakes, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Huffington Post UK

'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 ‘off to sea again, where there is still so much to learn.’' - Publishers Weekly

'The skeptics, if any still linger, will have to offer more than something like their dismissive claim, ‘Oh, whales and dolphins and other animals are only acting as if they have culture, but they don’t.’ They clearly do. . . . An outstanding book. . . . The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is destined to become a classic.' - Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today

Publication date: 
Monday 12 January 2015

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