If careful investigation proves sperm whales sapient, what happens next will be dependent on whether they are our peers or significantly more intelligent.
Contact with our Equals
Even if they are merely our peers, most humans will see the advantages as obvious. but, typically, there will always be a few of us that ask ‘why bother to reach out?’ and ‘what’s in it for us anyway?’ For those few, I will put it as briefly and concisely as I can by way of one important example.
It used to be thought that we domesticated our first animal, the dog, about the same time we took up a more sedentary way of living, but now it is known the union was older than that, maybe even three times older. Whatever the exact date, it looks to have occurred at a time when the partnership was advantageous to the dog/wolf, not us. This has led to fringe ideas or humorous suggestions about the dog domesticating us, but, more realistically, the event was mutual. All subsequent domestications occurred for us at a time and place that spoke of an element of deliberation on what advantage they may convey. The next of them occurred thousands to tens of thousands of years later, and only after we already had that original template example. Let me put it another way, we wouldn’t even be here in the modern world as yet, was it not for what dogs taught us. Whether they sped our transition to agriculture by just decades, or by hundreds of thousands of years, I have no idea, but the point is that an animal with a 70 gram brain taught us at least one vital lesson, and some fine minds think dogs taught us more.
During the last 30,000 years, we have moved far on from that level of sophistication, and so there are few transformative possibilities to be learned from most animals. However, from another sapient one with a 7kg brain, I would put my money odds on, on us coming away with at least one. At a time when we many be facing global disaster, that one might just make the difference in the survival of our species.
Contact with our Betters
If they do indeed prove the greater and more intelligent species, few humans would dispute the advantages of reaching out to them, but what would be the consequences of contact? We already know that sperm whales are not passive animals that just exist ‘at one’ with their environment. Unlike primitive human hunter-gatherers they shape their entire environment to an extent that ancient Egypt or mighty Rome could only dream of. Their productivity footprint in the seas is today about the size of our global wheat crop. Before commercial whaling it would have been comparable to our entire modern footprint. Theirs might have been a kingdom of unparalleled splendour but we would be meeting its refugees. I imagine that our whaling slaughter effected far more than just their population numbers, but even communication with this remnant this would have immediate impact.
With their great intellects, and our accumulated body of technology and science there would be so much we should and must change, but in our enthusiasm the old culture and traditions of each species would be challenged as if by the force of a passing hurricane. Its hard to slow the rate of progress when we know it is towards the better, but easy to see why we (and they) might wish they could. Most probably none from either species could predict the final shape of our new world order until those sculpting winds begin to die. All we can say for certain is that our children will live very differently than us in this scenario, and that much that is bad or seen to be evil now will be nothing more than history for them.