Culture in nonhuman animals is a slightly controversial topic. Does the learning and subsequent transmission of a bird song in such a way that makes the tune group specific really constitute a culture in the sense that an anthropologist would understand the term? With sperm whales there seems less doubt over their vocal clans constituting a true culture, since these vocal differences are accompanied by clear diving and surface motion pattern differences. The sperm whale is an animal that spends most of its time and does almost all its foraging half a kilometre or so below the surface. What we can see of them, we know to be the tip of the iceberg, yet even these residual observations reveal huge differences by culture. These vocal clans are large, each constituting around ten thousand animals, and every female or immature male in a region can be unambiguously assigned to one, even though the territory ranged by some clans entirely overlaps that of others.
In some of these cultures, family units group together, such that single unit pods are seldom ever seen. Their pods constitute two to three such units. Within these cultures, about every week, one pod will meet another and they will swap over units.
Just stop and think about this a minute.
First, take yourself back the beginning of the Neolithic, since this was the last era where human cultural change was slow enough for our genes and culture to be in reasonable balance. This was the last time our social groupings could be said to be ‘natural’ to us. There you live in an extended family group of about ten, (the typical size for both sperm whales and us). Now suppose that every week or so, you meet up with other tribes of your culture and socialise for the night. That’s a situation typical of humans, so easy for us to cope with. Now imagine that you integrated with that other family unit and then you proceeded to do all your hunting and gathering or farming together. That’s a big step, and tricky for humans – but it’s doable. Further imagine that your new combined tribe meets up with other combined tribes every week and swaps over the family units within, each time having to reintegrate and re-coordinate your operation. Finally, for true comparison, put yourself in a culture whose hunting method involves throwing a stream of spears for at least half the duration of each expedition, and that you need to establish prior and elaborate rules to avoid injuring each other The world’s leading expert on sperm whales explains the situation in the following way.
“Sperm whales have the most powerful sonar in the natural world. It is very directional and extremely powerful. To use the sonar effectively, you not only need to make a click, you need to hear it. Any ear damage would be very dangerous; as some people have said, a deaf whale is a dead whale. Whales have got to look after their ears. So it seems highly likely that if a sperm whale’s sonar system were directed at another whale’s ears, it would be very dangerous for the receiver.
Imagine a group of 20-30 sperm whales feeding at depth, each making these dangerous clicks once a second. They are all in the same area so they need to be really careful. To me it is like having a bunch of hunters with machine guns out in the forest, they are firing away pretty continuously and they have got to have clear rules if they are all going to come out of the forest alive. So I think there must be some conventions they abide by about how you use these sonar systems.”
– Hal Whitehead
If you are beginning to think this swap over needs an insanely complex social structure, requiring ridiculously elaborate culture-specific rules, and that it is just too much for us to cope with, then you are not alone. This sounds so difficult that it is no surprise that I know of no comparable human examples – even in our modern world where our genetic potential is augmented by technology.
However, guessing at how the typical social complexity of our two species might measure against each other is not what has held my attention. It is the data on culture that I find hardest to ignore. In fact, culture is so important to sperm whales that the vocal clan to which a whale belongs almost certainly has more impact on its growth rate and reproductive success than its genetics or location. That’s the stunner!
There is no other non-human animal for which culture has been shown to have any survival impact at all… and now we know one for which its importance is supreme. For the anthropologists among you, I put the question: has this ever been shown among human tribes living at the Neolithic technology level? Culture might be important to the survival of such tribes, but does it stand out head and shoulders above genetics in predicting their survival versus that of their neighbours? It is this which makes me suspect that sperm whales do in fact utilise a higher level of social and cultural sophistication than we are capable of. But I must end with a note of caution.
This result is unique, and unique results are very hard to evaluate properly. We might suspect that an animal in which culture has higher survival value than we might place on Neolithic humans, has at minimum a comparable intelligence to us, but to conclude it would be unscientific… That shouldn’t stop us thinking about it though.
CONTINUE to see why their brain structure shows them to be unique among all animals, and marks sperm whales as likely to be the most intelligent cetacean.
or DISCOVER what it really means to belong to a sperm whale vocal clan.