Are we really going to talk to whales?

<spanklasse=A humpback whale surfaces for a chat. Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzOQ–/ 3a01ae685b93337″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYzOQ–/ 1ae685b93337″/>

The past decade has seen an explosion of new research into some of the most fascinating sounds in the sea: the sounds of whales and dolphins.

Scientists have discovered how humpback whales learn songs from neighboring populations so that these songs travel from Western Australia to South America. They found that bowhead whales sang 184 different songs over three years, and learned how bottlenose dolphins use distinctive whistles to strengthen alliances.

Researchers have also shown that the vocal dialects of sperm whales become increasingly different from each other the more they come into contact throughout the Pacific, suggesting that these dialects function as ethnic markers. Due to advancing technology in the form of drones, acoustic tags and recorders, such insights are rapidly accumulating.

Much of what whales and dolphins signal appears to be related to identity within social contexts. This may include identifying alliance members, or members of long-term social units and clans, or a particular population or species. Vocal communication also builds and strengthens social bonds and coordinates cooperative foraging.

We have also seen the resurrection of an old idea: that behind all these findings there is actually a human language. If we can just find the right tools, the thinking goes, we can decode it and start talking to whales the way we talk to our neighbors.

The hottest new tool is AI. Reading some of the press on this topic, you might think that such conversations are imminent.

Researchers in yellow jackets pilot a drone next to a moored research vessel.

Two recent studies are notable for the dramatic claims they make about whale language. One describes a humpback whale that responds to the playback of a call with a similar one (but eventually loses interest).

The importance of this research was to demonstrate that such playback studies are possible, because playing back an animal’s sounds and observing their response is a proven method of uncovering the meanings and functions of signals.

However, this is not the first time that whales or dolphins have been portrayed, nor were they, as the scientists claimed, “talking” to the whale. If this was a “conversation,” then we have had more illuminating “conversations” with other species for decades—there have been more than 600 such playback studies on birds.

The second study is a detailed analysis of click patterns, called codas, produced by sperm whales. It shows that the whales appear to change the tempo of their codas in synchrony when they use them in exchanges with each other.

Such synchronous choruses are not unique to whales. It happens throughout the animal kingdom, from fireflies to primates. Few animal shows are as breathtakingly synchronized as the four-part chorus of common-tailed wrens, as happy wrens use pair-specific duets to signal their devotion to their partners.

Nevertheless, the sperm whale findings are exciting and fit into our general understanding of codas serving a social bonding function. But the scientists also tried to force these tempo changes into a “phonetic alphabet,” “like the International Phonetic Alphabet for human languages,” and it is this last claim that made headlines.

However, there is no evidence that sperm whales use these different tempos in the complex sequences that characterize human language. We find better evidence for complex sequence rules in Bengal finches. I wonder why we don’t see headlines about phonetic alphabets or upcoming conversations with these birds?

Don’t believe the hype

We have been closely studying the vocal behavior of cetaceans in the wild and in captivity for decades. Compare that to how quickly you or I can start exchanging ideas with someone else with whom we don’t share a language – because we use our Theory of Mind to understand each other as communicative agents.

If there was language, I think we would have found it by now. The most powerful language detector we know of is between our ears, and we used it to effortlessly learn the language of our childhood as toddlers. As Helen Keller’s story shows, language finds a way.

Convince The BBC’s failure to describe sperm whale clicks as ‘language’ in their Blue Planet II series was the highlight of my career in science communications. Why?

There is a lot of complex communication going on in cetaceans, much of which we still don’t understand. However, I am convinced that we must abandon the stifling and anthropocentric focus on language. It crowds out other perspectives on what’s going on – for example, the relationship between rhythm-based communication and music might be a better way to understand the connective function of coda synchrony in sperm whales.

We should be wary of ranking species on a single dimension relative to humans, as if all evolution is a path to something like us (just as early anthropologists ranked societies based on their progress toward Western “perfection” ). Instead, let’s take ourselves off the top of the ladder and see other animals as separate branches of an evolutionary tree.

Both research groups promoting talking to whales are affiliated with, or named after, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti). The leaders of one group, Project Ceti, claim that understanding the ‘language’ of whales will help us when we meet ET.

Two large radio telescope dishes at dusk.Two large radio telescope dishes at dusk.

We’ve been here before. John Lilly also leaned into Seti, promoting the idea that dolphins were an alien intelligence with a complex language. His weak evidence eventually disappeared in a cloud of hype and hallucinogens.

Unfortunately, his claims overshadowed the important discovery of the distinctive whistles of bottlenose dolphins for far too long, casting a cloud of discredit over the entire field of cetacean communication that took decades to spread. It would be tragic if today’s important insights suffered the same fate because of irresponsible claims and a narrow focus on language.

We should strive to understand and appreciate these awe-inspiring creatures for what they are, not for how they can soothe our cosmic loneliness.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversationThe conversation

The conversation

Luke Rendell does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Leave a Comment