Whaling & Dolphin Hunting Not About What's Being Killed But Who

humpback whale photo

Humpback whale breaching, photo: Christopher DiNottia.

Continuing on a theme that keeps coming up on TreeHugger, the fact that an increasing number of scientists believe that cetaceans have levels of self-awareness and societal development that they should be granted rights similar to human rights: There's an interesting new article in the New York Times that gives some great examples of whale and dolphin personhood.Cetaceans Between Humans and Chimps
But the punchline (and title hook) first: The sum of all the examples below is, as the NYT says, "the evidence is high and mounting that the cetacean order includes species second only to humans in mental, social and behavioral complexity, and that maybe we shouldn't talk about what we're harvesting or harpooning, but whom."

Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University says that, at minimum, hunting whales and dolphins is like hunting chimpanzees--adding that cetaceans come out ahead of chimps in terms of "relative brain size, or levels of self-awareness, sociality, [and] the importance of culture." Whitehead states flat-out, "They fit the philosophical definition of personhood."

OK, on to the examples...

killer whale photo

Orca photo: Kat Kellner

Richard Connor of UMASS on bottlenose dolphins,

Bottlenose dolphins have incredibly complex social lives mediated by emotions and feelings very much like our own." They are so sweet! "Dolphins pet and stroke each other a lot, and rub against each other in a gentle way," Dr. Connor said. And so mean! "It can be easy to tell when they're upset with each other," he said. "They have quite a few different vocalizations to express their displeasure."

Dr Whitehead says sperm and killer whales have a sense of ethnicity or cultural identity that is discernible in their calls,

One way whales express their ethnicity is through dialect. Every clan has its signature call, and in regions of the ocean where two clans overlap, the differences between calls become exaggerated. "It's like if you're Irish and you run across someone who is Scottish or Welsh," said Dr. Whitehead. "You'll speak with an even stronger Irish accent to make it really clear whose group you belong to."

There are a number of other examples in the original: Killer whales are no less slaves to fashion than humans (if you consider pushing dead salmon around for fun and then other whales around you joining in); cetaceans being better mimics of humans than great apes; and then one really good one on self-awareness in dolphins,

What to do with all that intellectual firepower? Primp in the mirror, of course. Dolphins have passed the famed mirror self-recognition test, which bespeaks possession of an inner life and a concomitant concern with its packaging. When presented with a mirror, dolphins take the opportunity to check their teeth and body parts they can't normally see, like their anal slit.

dolphins underwater photo

photo: Jay Ebberly
We Cannot Treat Cetaceans In Ways We Wouldn't Treat Humans
The thing to take away from all this is that while one can debate the proper limits of compassion when it comes to animals lacking in self-awareness there is an increasingly deep scientific case that cetaceans and great apes are sufficiently self-aware to be called persons.

Which means we ought not kill them except in rare cases of self-defense (to do otherwise is murder or at minimum manslaughter); we ought not keep them in conditions which we ourselves would not willingly submit to be kept against our will (to do otherwise is kidnapping and/or wrongful imprisonment).

Homo sapiens needs to acknowledge philosophically and legally that we can no longer maintain we are the only individuals out there.

Tradition Always Evolves Based on Changing Knowledge
This position need not be made in a repudiation of the past. It need not be made as a refutation of the cultural traditions of those people, those nations which in the past and currently have hunted whales and dolphins. It simply is an acknowledgement that we now have greater levels of understanding of the situation.

Without this knowledge, past actions are fault free; now knowing what we know, that ethically guilt-free position on current and future whaling cannot be maintained.

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More on Whales & Dolphins:
Humpback Whales Have BFFs Just Like You!
Scientists Say Dolphins Should Be Granted Non-Human Person Status
Endangered Whale Birth Photographed for First Time!
A Declaration of Cetacean Rights! All Should Be Granted Right to "Life, Liberty & Wellbeing"

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