Whales and dolphins have rich cultures – and could hold clues to what makes humans so advanced

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A pod of spinner dolphins in the Red Sea.
Alexander Vasenin/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Susanne Shultz, University of Manchester

Humans are like no other species. We have constructed stratified states, colonised nearly every habitat on Earth and we’re now looking to move to other planets. In fact, we are so advanced that some of our innovations – such as fossil fuel technologies, intensive agriculture and weapons of mass destruction – may ultimately lead to our downfall.

Even our closest relatives, the primates, lack traits such as developed language, cumulative culture, music, symbolism and religion. Yet scientists still haven’t come to a consensus on why, when and how humans evolved these traits. But, luckily, there are non-human animals that have evolved societies and culture to some extent. My latest study, published in Nature Evolution & Ecology, investigates what cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can teach us about human evolution.

The reason it is so difficult to trace the origins of human traits is that social behaviour does not fossilise. It is therefore very hard to understand when and why cultural behaviour first arose in the human lineage. Material culture such as art, burial items, technologically sophisticated weapons and pottery is very rare in the archaeological record.

Previous research in primates has shown that a large primate brain is associated with larger social groups, cultural and behavioural richness, and learning ability. A larger brain is also tied to energy-rich diets, long life spans, extended juvenile periods and large bodies. But researchers trying to uncover whether each of these different traits are causes or consequences of large brains find themselves at odds with each other – often arguing at cross purposes.

One prevailing explanation is the social brain hypothesis, which argues that our minds and consequently our brains have evolved to solve the problems associated with living in an information rich, challenging and dynamic social environment. This comes with challenges such as competing for and allocating food and resources, coordinating behaviour, resolving conflicts and using information and innovations generated by others in the group.

Primates with large brains tend to be highly social animals.
Peter van der Sluijs/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

However, despite the abundance of evidence for a link between brain size and social skills, the arguments rumble on about the role of social living in cognitive evolution. Alternative theories suggest that primate brains have evolved in response to the complexity of forest environments – either in terms of searching for fruit or visually navigating a three dimensional world.

Under the sea

But it’s not just primates that live in rich social worlds. Insects, birds, elephants, horses and cetaceans do, too.

The latter are especially interesting as, not only do we know that they do interesting things, some live in multi-generational societies and they also have the largest brains in the animal kingdom. In addition, they do not eat fruit, nor do they live in forests. For that reason, we decided to evaluate the evidence for the social or cultural brain in cetaceans.

Another advantage with cetaceans is that research groups around the world have spent decades documenting and uncovering their social worlds. These include signature whistles, which appear to identify individual animals, cooperative hunting, complex songs and vocalisations, social play and social learning. We compiled all this information into a database and evaluated whether a species’ cultural richness is associated with its brain size and the kind of society they live in.

We found that species with larger brains live in more structured societies and have more cultural and learned behaviours. The group of species with the largest relative brain size are the large, whale-like dolphins. These include the false killer whale and pilot whale.

To illustrate the two ends of the spectrum, killer whales have cultural food preferences – where some populations prefer fish and other seals. They also hunt cooperatively and have matriarchs leading the group. Sperm whales have actual dialects, which means that different populations have distinct vocalisations. In contrast, some of the large baleen whales, which have smaller brains, eat krill rather than fish or other mammals, live fairly solitary lives and only come together for breeding seasons and at rich food sources.

The lives of beaked whales are still a big mystery.
Ted Cheeseman/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

We still have much to learn about these amazing creatures. Some of the species were not included in our analysis because we know so little about them. For example, there is a whole group of beaked whales with very large brains. However, because they dive and forage in deep water, sightings are rare and we know almost nothing about their behaviour and social relationships.

The ConversationNevertheless, this study certainly supports the idea that the richness of a species’ social world is predicted by their brain size. The fact that we’ve found it in an independent group so different from primates makes it all the more important.

Susanne Shultz, University Research Fellow, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Three books I recommend

They make very good reading. The first book helps you develop an understanding of the principles behind laws (and partly also why judges sometimes decide the way they do). The second book is handy for when you are doing business with companies in other countries, and the third one can make you see where people from other cultures and countries are coming from. Concepts like “truth”, “time” and “pain” are not as fixed as we tend to think but have strong cultural components.

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? 
  2. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity
  3. When Cultures Collide, 3rd Edition: Leading Across Cultures 3rd by Lewis, Richard D. (2005)


Human rights views

Are universal human rights infringing on specific national, religious or cultural traditions? Or are they instead a condition for these traditions to be able to thrive, to express themselves and to evolve?

This is a question the University of Louvain/Leuven asks during its introductory course on human rights.

I think that universal human rights are an ideal. Their implementation is another matter, but I also believe that the interpretation of these rights continues to evolve and I hope that their increased awareness (through education and the media) is starting to open people’s eyes and minds all over the world.

I do believe that some human rights – not the rights themselves, but their interpretation and use – infringe on specific national, religious or cultural traditions of some nations without the same principles being applied to other cultures in other nations. It takes considerably more courage and honesty or vision, and perhaps humility, to address human rights violations in one’s own country and culture, and it is much harder.

womenA relatively clear example may be the condemnation of “female genital mutilation” (originating) in non-western countries, but seeing no problem with female genital mutilation carried out within the realm of western cosmetic surgery.

The NHS follows the World Health Organization in describing female genital mutilation as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” and the concerns surrounding non-western mutilation are said to be based on human rights.

The description, however, equally applies to western-type female genital mutilation (but not to surgeries for medical reasons such as tumour removal). These particular human rights concerns themselves can therefore be said to be a violation of human rights, as they are discriminatory in nature when they are only being applied to non-western practices.

The main difference is that the medical risks are generally lower in western-type mutilation, though it depends on who carries out the procedure. The backgrounds – the reasons for these procedures – are surprisingly similar.

Western women often do horrible things to themselves, but see nothing wrong with it because it’s been that way for so long that everyone is used to it. I think a Frenchman – his name escapes me at the moment – wrote a book about that ten years ago.

What about male circumcision?

Piercings? Stiletto heels?

The fact that many western women’s shoes don’t contain enough space for a woman’s toes?

Foot binding? Surgeries that extend the legs of asian women after they changed their eyelids, all so that they look more like western women?

While the focus of the world is shifting toward Asia, will many western women follow, have their legs surgically shortened, their breasts made smaller and their eyelids changed to resemble asian women more?

So where do we draw the line when we declare something illegal globally? At the intersection between western viewpoints and non-western viewpoints? (Will that line in the future be found at the intersection between asian viewpoints and non-asian viewpoints? What could that imply for common western habits?)

If you make certain practices illegal if they are carried out with a non-western point of view, they should be equally illegal when done from a western point of view.

Otherwise, you are discriminating.

We humans have a lot more in common than things that distinguish us from each other, but the latter always stand out, by definition. If you look at them in detail, they often turn out to be merely different expressions of the same ideas.