Sperm Whales and Cultural Diversity


gero-whales

Image from “The Lost Culture of Whales,” by Shane Gero in The New York Times

Our annual year-end gift to each other in our family is a boat trip to visit the humpback whales in our bay in Mazatlán. They are gorgeous, and during the trip we often swim with dolphins, delight in jumping mantas, and greet sea turtles.

I just read an article about sperm whales on the other side of Mexico, in the Eastern Caribbean (The Lost Culture of Whales, in The New York Times); their populations are declining by 4% annually. Horrible, for sure, but why write about that on the Cultural Detective blog? Granted, we here at Cultural Detective very much support sustainability, a reduced footprint, and respect for our planet and its ecology. But what do declining sperm whale populations have to do with culture?

According to Shane Gero, behavioral ecologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project: “Behavior is what you do; culture is how you do it. All sperm whales do the same things — feed, swim, defend, socialize — but how they do them is different around the world. Just as humans use forks or chopsticks, they, too, differ in how they eat, what species of squid they eat, how fast they travel and where they roam, their social behavior, and probably many other ways we still do not understand.” Sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean have at least 22 different dialects, and can identify one another. Interestingly, those from a similar culture are more likely to cooperate.

It seems that the lives of sperm whales are remarkably similar to those of humans: extended family members — usually female — babysit calves. Family is critical to survival, and the whales live in communities of neighboring families in a multicultural oceanic society, according to Gero. “We are not just losing specific whales that we have come to know as individuals; we are losing a way of life, a culture — the accumulated wisdom of generations on how to survive in the deep waters of the Caribbean Sea.”

I found all this fascinating, but I especially enjoyed reading Gero’s conclusions, which I post below.

“The definition of biodiversity needs to include cultural diversity. All sperm whales around the world are similar genetically… But genetics may not be particularly helpful when conserving populations of cultural whales. ‘Genetic stocks,’ which we have traditionally used to manage and protect much of the world’s wildlife, simply cannot preserve the diversity of life. Diverse systems are more resilient, and the most important diversity in sperm whales, as in humans, is in their cultural traditions.

I could point to many reasons to protect whales, like the way they mitigate the effects of climate change by cycling nutrients that enable the ocean to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, or how top predators regulate marine food chains. But if we are to preserve life, ours and theirs, we must find ways to succeed together, and value diversity in our societies and in our ecosystems.

—Shane Gero, behavioral ecologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project

Life is indeed wholistic, all beings are interconnected, and preserving the diversity amongst ourselves and our animal and plant life may be key to our survival. I have no doubt it’s key to our well being.

The best part of working with Cultural Detective has always been the community — you — like-minded people striving to build intercultural competence. Gero’s opinions and experience would seem to make the case that our community is broader than I thought, including, at a minimum, biologists and ecologists, as well.

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