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The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

Rich in biological detail, and steering clear of mystical notions, this is a thorough treatise on cetacean culture and a scientifically sound argument for the idea that these are sensitive and intelligent beings

By: Hal Whitehead(Author), Luke Rendell(Author)

417 pages, 16 plates with 15 colour photos and colour illustrations; 7 b/w photos, 4 b/w illustrations, 5 tables

University of Chicago Press

1 customer review
Paperback | Nov 2015 | #224372 | ISBN-13: 9780226325927
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £18.99 $26/€22 approx
Hardback | Dec 2014 | #215695 | ISBN-13: 9780226895314
Out of Print Details

About this book

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 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.

"[...] Asserting that any animal other than humans has culture is fraught with controversy, so Whitehead and Rendell spend a big chunk of their book defining the term "culture" [...] In a few cases, this evidence seems indisputable [...] More often, though, the case for culture is a little murkier [...] All this speculation is underlain by a wealth of biological detail, all carefully annotated, making this book a valuable – and usually very readable – resource for anyone interested in cetacean behaviour."
– Bob Holmes, New Scientist, 13-01-2015

"There are few environments that are more hostile and present more of a challenge to mammals than the ocean. This is precisely why, Whitehead and Rendell argue in their new book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, just like us, knowledge is also a vital currency for these marine mammals [...] At times it is a humorous journey through aspects of human behaviour and 'decision making,' resulting as it does from cultural pressures. But this apparent irreverence is not without deeper meaning and strong intent [...] They provide some sobering insights into those ubiquitous cultural forces that shape us all into modern human beings and at times can leave you reeling with questions about your own free will. This is an exceptional book; it will no doubt irritate some anthropologist who believe that culture is the domain of humans alone; it may even rile some theologians; but far, far more importantly it will help to bridge the gap between humans and other species, speaking as it does to the evolutionary continuum and demonstrating with sound scientific evidence that there are some extraordinary non-human cultures being played out in the natural world [...] 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

"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 others' even twenty 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 'obviously altruistic' ways. Dolphins and whales have saved humans stranded at sea, and humpback whales have been observed saving seals from killer whales [...] 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

"I've been anxiously waiting for The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins to arrive and consumed it last night and early this morning. (It was far better than my coffee!) Of course, I look forward to rereading it many times for it is that good [...] Scholarly yet easy to read, and incredibly well referenced [...] The authors provide ample examples of nonhuman culture [...] and also discuss what we know about topics such as the moral lives of animals and others that are making people think twice about just whom other animals are and what we know about their fascinating and highly evolved cognitive and emotional lives [...] 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

"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

"In every generation, there are some scientists who transcend the strictures of their disciplines, who decline to be confined by ordinary thinking. Whitehead and Rendell are two such people, for our own time. Perhaps it is something to do with the enigmatic beauty of the animals they study. Or perhaps their own brains are better evolved than the rest of ours. Whatever the reason, this book is an astonishing, unconstrained exploration of the nature and practice of cetacean culture. Placing it side by side with human culture, the authors show that the expression of ideas is not limited to humans or primates. Exciting, witty, with its finger – or should that be flipper? – ever on the pulse, wearing its profundity with a wonderful lightness of touch, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is a revolutionary book. Transcending the notion of a 'science' book, it contains explosive new concepts for our understanding not only of whales, our watery cousins, but of our own selves, too."
– Philip Hoare, author of The Whale and The Sea Inside

"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 others' even twenty 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 'obviously altruistic' ways. Dolphins and whales have saved humans stranded at sea, and humpback whales have been observed saving seals from killer whales [...] 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

"Whitehead and Rendell cover cetacean culture from its earliest beginnings to the present day. The authors include research they completed as well as some from other scientists to discover that cetaceans communicate by adapting to the unique environment in which they live, investigating the broad concepts of culture, community, and social learning before applying them to whales and dolphins. Also discussed are the implications of the creatures' culture as it relates to ecosystems and conservation and the future of the cetacean world, including what it bodes for humans [...] A captivating book for readers of all levels, from curious laypeople to scientists [...] Recommended for both undergraduate and graduate students; researchers; and scholars studying biology, zoology, and veterinary science; and anyone interested in learning about animal behavior."
– Tina Chan, SUNY Oswego, Library Journal

"This research round-up on cetacean culture opens with a description of one of nature's great arias: the 'high sweeping squeals, low swoops, barking, and ratchets' of the humpback whale. That song, argue cetacean biologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, is the best evidence of culture in this intriguing family, because it is an indicator of social learning in action – communal singing evolves over time and changes radically over individuals' lifetimes. Fascinating findings litter this sober treatise, from sperm whales snacking off fishing longlines to the 'Star Wars vocalisation' of dwarf minkes."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Noted [...] Explores the communication techniques and sense of culture developed by different species of whales."
– Jeremy Mikula, Chicago Tribune, Printers Row

"Convincingly dig[s] into critiques and alternative explanations for whale and dolphin behavior, providing a detailed look at the debate over whether culture exists among the animals. Whitehead and Rendell pack the text with references, keeping the book scrupulously rooted in scientific evidence [...] For readers who are curious about whales and dolphins in the wild, the book offers a thorough grounding."
Science News

"Written with an absolutely marvelous inquisitive brio. Whitehead and Rendell don't just bring two lifetimes of experience with sea life and animal cognition to their task – they also write up the fruits of that experience with captivating energy [...] They display an open-mindedness on their chosen subject that's admirable and rare [...] The book's insights fly at the reader with a speed and frequency I haven't seen since Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, and all this fascinating information derives from what Whitehead and Rendell are the first to admit is a necessarily limited sampling [...] The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins might be only a glimpse into the world of its subjects, but it's one of the best glimpses popular science has yet given us. It's invigorating, revelatory reading."
– Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly

"In this revolutionary book, destined to become a classic, the authors show that 'culture' is information that flows between animals; it is socially learned and shared within a community [...] The book gives readers a captivating insight into the various ways that dolphins communicate with each other using a wide variety of signals, such as doing upside-down lob tails – slamming the top of their flukes onto the surface of the water – which appears to signal the dolphins' arrival at a particular destination [...] This social learning, memory, and communication are a clear example of information flow and culture. I encourage you to embark on a fascinating journey of discovery and a beautiful insight into the world of whales and dolphins: without doubt, some of the most intelligent, beautiful, and remarkable creatures to inhabit this earth."
– Kris Hjalmarsson, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Blog,

"Recent publication of interest [...] To Whitehead and Rendell, culture is 'a flow of information moving from animal to animal' and, thus, communication among whales and dolphins means they have a culture. This book addresses the questions of whether whales and dolphins really have cultures, what evidence indicates the presence of culture, what adaptations led to their cultures, what effect their cultures will have on the ecology of the oceans and conservation, and, finally, how the cultures affect these animals' treatments by humans."

"The anthropologist Joe Henrich [...] showed how cultural differences shape cognitive differences in people. A new book, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, by the biologists Whitehead and Rendell, calls out researchers like Henrich for treating culture as uniquely human. Their own decades of research indicates social learning among animals. For example, they note, whale pods in different parts of the world have developed regional singing styles."
Pacific Standard

"Whitehead and Rendell mesh their own research from several decades of cetacean studies with investigation and theory from the biological, physical, and social sciences. This wealth of experience is distilled into a simple thesis: whale and dolphin culture exists, and it matters – for the survival of cetacean species, for the management of marine ecosystems, and for the way we conceive of human culture. Whitehead and Rendell's work is ambitious in scope, yet careful in its presentation [...] They define key terms precisely, and employ them consistently. They are also meticulous in separating evidence from interpretation [...] In its evocative and richly annotated examination of the evolutionary interplay between environment and social learning, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins makes a compelling case that we can learn much more about cetaceans and about human cultures by exploring what we have in common – such as a predisposition to learn from our grandmothers – rather than by insisting on what sets us apart."
– Darcy Dobell, Hakai Magazine

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Chapter 1
Culture in the Ocean?

Chapter 2

Chapter 3
Mammals of the Ocean

Chapter 4
Song of the Whale

Chapter 5
What the Dolphins Do

Chapter 6
Mother Cultures of the Large Toothed Whales

Chapter 7
How Do They Do It?

Chapter 8
Is This Evidence for Culture?

Chapter 9
How the Whales Got Culture

Chapter 10
Whale Culture and Whale Genes

Chapter 11
The Implications of Culture: Ecosystems, Individuals, Stupidity, and Conservation

Chapter 12
The Cultural Whales: How We See Them and How We Treat Them

This Book Came From and Is Built On . . .


Reviews (1)

Academic but accessible overview
By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Jul 2017 Unconfirmed Purchase Written for Paperback

Next to intelligence, another claim to fame that whales and dolphins can make is that of possessing culture. After the authors have clarified that they, too, wish to stay far from unsupported claims of higher intelligences and pseudoscientific attempts at cross-species communication, the book kicks off with definitions. Because, as with Justin Gregg's book on dolphin intelligence, the proverbial devil is in the definition.

So what is culture? Whitehead & Rendell settle for the broad definition of culture being information or behaviour that is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning and which is shared within a community. Social learning in turn is learning influenced by observation of, or interaction with, another animal or its products, and community is a collection of individuals that is behaviourally self-contained and within which most individuals interact. This has bristled the hairs of scholars of human culture who dismiss such a definition as too inclusive, but, argue Whitehead & Rendell, it is a useful one, as it can shed light on the evolution and spread of culture in humans. Once you have culture, everything changes: new ideas are developed, superseding old ones, things are produced (technology, art, political systems) leading to complex societies. And, like it or not, it is what has made humans have an overbearing influence on the planet, subjugating it in the process some would say.

The thesis of this book is that whales and dolphins show a plethora of behaviours that spread through populations through social learning, that knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, and that evens fads and other short-lived phenomena can be observed. With a dispassionate and factual approach Whitehead & Rendell make their case.

First off, the ocean forms a habitat where having culture is potentially really useful. By its very nature, it is a world that is highly variable and three-dimensional. This has effects all the way up the food chain, making resources concentrated in local patches, rather than evenly distributed, encouraging cooperation. Since the ocean is so vast, it's hard for one animal to make sense of it, and the accumulated knowledge of conspecifics can be a great resource.

Second, when cetaceans returned to the sea in their evolutionary history, brought some unique adaptations with them: breathing air allowed them to become large and fast moving in oxygen-scarce waters. Air passages are well suited to producing loud and complex sounds, and the sense of hearing they inherited from their mammal ancestors exploits this. They arrived in the ocean with large and complex brains that grew even larger. And whale mothers care intensively for a small number of offspring, which is an excellent vehicle for social learning.

After setting the stage, the evidence is laid out, most of it from observations in the wild. Culture, so claim the authors, can be seen in the songs of baleen whales, which are fixed but change over timescales shorter than population turnover can account for, suggesting a role for social learning. In the diversity of dolphin foraging strategies around the globe, such as sponge carrying by Australian dolphins, and dolphin-human fishing cooperatives in Brazil and Burma. In the orcas, which show variation between different groups in vocalisations and foraging tactics. And in the vocalisations of sperm whales which similarly differ between groups. Finally, experiments on captive dolphins show that they are very adept at imitating both humans and each other, including learning to imitate sounds. There is also limited evidence of orcas and spotted dolphins teaching.

Whitehead & Rendell give ample room to their critics in the last part of their book, as their ideas are not free from controversy. Although the observations are undisputed, many scholars question if this is sufficient evidence of culture. The critics have two major bones of contention.

First, none of the cetacean behaviour observed in the wild has been experimentally demonstrated to rely on cultural transmission and could have an ecological or genetic component to it. Whitehead & Rendell are at the cutting edge of thinking about data analysis though, something which many biologists struggle with. Following traditional dichotomous hypothesis testing means you would have to rule out genetic and ecological influences, which is hard to do definitively. They argue a more Bayesian approach is required, trying to understand the relative contributions of each factor. Based on this they divide the above evidence in things that are definitely, likely and plausibly culture.

Second, the anthropological wing of the animal culture debate is critical of the whole idea of nonhuman culture, believing Whitehead & Rendell's definition to be too simplistic and so too broadly applicable. They disagree and are comfortable with this broader definition, as it allows us to ask questions about what is going on in cetaceans, how it compares with other species, and how culture has evolved in different ways in different species. And it allows us to make the right decisions on how to coexist with whales and dolphins. I see no fault with their reasoning, and the observations that have been made are fascinating.

The book ends with a few further musings on the implications of accepting cetacean culture, such as whether a notion of culture should affect conservation efforts. Whitehead & Rendell make the case that, yes, it should. Indiscriminately catching whales can remove individuals from the population that are repositories of knowledge. And although culture can allow cetaceans to rapidly adapt to a new threat posed by humans, cultural species can experience a cultural bottleneck if reduced to low numbers.

We have a responsibility to err on the side of caution. Because, if anything emerges from this book, it is how much this field is still in its infancy. Observing whales and dolphins is incredibly laborious and time-consuming, and their habitat requirements pretty much preclude experimental work. Our knowledge so far is gleaned from a small number of species, while for the remaining 84 species of whales and dolphins we know next to nothing.

This book is a commendable effort to support the idea of whales and dolphins having cultural lives. The reading is at times be fairly dense, and certainly a few notches above pop-science reading, but in my opinion the book is accessible for a wide audience. And though Whitehead & Rendell feel passionately about their ideas, they clearly separate the facts from their interpretation of it, lending an ear to their critics. If cetaceans or animal behaviour are your thing, this is a must-read.

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Hal Whitehead is a University Research Professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the author of Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean and Analyzing Animal Societies, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

Supported by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology, Luke Rendell is a lecturer in biology at the Sea Mammal Research Unit and the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution of the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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