Book Review: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins

An exploration of cetacean culture, and what humans might learn from it. 

Published June 1, 2015

In years when salmon are scarce in the northeast Pacific, pods of southern resident killer whales benefit from the ecological knowledge of their female elders. The whales are more likely than usual to follow the lead of the older females, and have better success in foraging. This conclusion, from a study published in March of this year, points to the evolutionary advantage that a capacity for social learning might offer within a tightly organized matrilineal community. Had this study been released just a few months earlier it would doubtless have featured in Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, as additional fodder for their exploration of cetacean (whale and dolphin) culture.

Not that they needed more material. 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. Recognizing that their findings will be resisted by those who consider “culture” to be a uniquely human trait, the authors are thorough and even-handed in presenting uncertainties and counterarguments. They define key terms precisely, and employ them consistently. They are also meticulous in separating evidence from interpretation. This sometimes complicates the structure of the book, as the same study may be approached from different angles in different sections; however, the reward is a rich and fascinating exploration grounded in a rigorous analytical framework. Where Whitehead and Rendell allow themselves to speculate, their ideas are plausible extensions of evidence rather than fanciful meandering, and all the more thought-provoking as a result.

Readers looking for a New Age manifesto calling for a celebration of cetaceans’ superior consciousness will not find it here. Whitehead and Rendell are clearly uncomfortable with the “mysticism” that occupies much popular discussion of whales and dolphins, and they refuse to guess what thoughts might occupy the cetacean mind. At the same time, they reject the notion that a firm boundary distinguishes human and nonhuman culture. Whitehead and Rendell instead lay out a continuum, from cultural attributes that are clearly shared between cetacean and human populations, through those that might be shared, to those that are distinctly human.

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.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins
By Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell
408 pp. University of Chicago Press