29 May 2010
Cetacean Cultures and Cetacean Rights
by Hal Whitehead (Dalhousie University, Canada)
ABSTRACT from "Cetacean Rights: Fostering a Moral and Legal Change Conference", Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki Finland, 21-22 May 2010
Culture is a vital constituent of the modern human, in some respects “the” vital constituent, and is often presented as the defining difference between humans and other animals. It can then be argued that species which also have advanced cultures should be included with humans in an extended moral community. A key element here is “advanced”. By many definitions of culture (such as “socially-learned group-specific information or behaviour shared by members of a group”), many species have it. But only in a very few non-human species has culture become a major determinant of many forms of behaviour. Evidence is growing that for at least some cetacean species, culture is both sophisticated and important. When this happens, processes which are important, but rare or absent in the standard genetically-evolved species, begin to operate: cultural group selection, conformism, cultural ethnicity with symbolic markers, and so on. These processes change the nature of society, individual roles within societies, as well as the ecology of the species. There is strong selection within such species to use this culture effectively. Perhaps this “culturaldrive” is a principal or contributing cause as to why cetaceans, humans and a few other species have evolved self-awareness, large brains, and astute intelligences. Thus there are good reasons to give highly cultural species special considerations. They are “more like us” not only because of the culture itself, but also because the advanced culture is at least a marker, and perhaps a cause, of other attributes that we think of as particularly human.