Whales demonstrate humans have no monopoly on altruism

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Whales prove humans are not the only species capable of disgust at cruelty when they work to defend a baby whale of another species against predators.

Human haters abound in the animal rights movement. I can understand their sentiment. It’s very difficult to hear about all of the abuse inflicted upon other species of animals. But in reality some of the most heartbreaking stories I have witnessed have been animal on animal.

Perhaps it is more heartbreaking to hear of yet another case of human insensitivity and violence against animals because we expect more out of ourselves. A lion cannot feel any compassion for the zebra or it would have a hard time killing and surviving (although we know they feel compassion and love for their young and pride). As humans, our existence does not depend on killing anymore, so we have the luxury of developing a highly sensitive capacity for compassion toward any and everything.

As opposed to the lion, who would die off quickly if compassion for the zebra so much as tickled its conscience, humans have progressed and thrived as our empathy for each other and other species has grown. We value compassion highly. Try watching a Disney movie where the heroine is not portrayed as kind and loving to animals.

But for as long as humans have realized the existence of conscience, we have largely reserved altruism and the cognition that comes with it as proof of human superiority. While we definitely stand apart from the animal kingdom, we may be a lot closer than is comfortable for many people to accept.

Humpback Whales
Photo by Doug Knuth

An article appearing in the Digital Journal recently described how humpback whales came to the aid of a mother gray whale trying to defend her newborn calf from a pod of transient killer whales off the coast of Monterey, California.

As with many practices humans long held as decidedly human – such as using tools, building huge, complicated structures and developing unique cultures – these whales are the first to prove that other species can and will come to the aid of another species against a common enemy at great risk to their own safety.

One of the wonderful things about being human is our desire and ability to expend energy protecting and healing sentient creatures of all species at no real benefit to ourselves.

Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, quotes cetacean (whales, dolphins, etc.) expert Dr. Lori Marino in his blog Animal Emotions on the Psychology Today Web site where he argued that some animals, especially cetaceans, clearly “display empathy, and they surely are conscious beings.”

Although common sense more than anything tells us these whales demonstrated altruism for another species, Marino provides scientific support for this conclusion when she points to the Von Economo neurons, or “spindle cells” that are present in the same location in many cetaceans, and all humans, great apes and elephants. These cells are thought to be responsible for “social organization, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid ‘gut’ reactions.”

Sadly the baby gray was finally killed after the seven-hour ordeal, and whale watchers reported that the humpbacks repeatedly returned to harass the killer whales as they tried to enjoy their meal.

Human superiority over all other beasts of the Earth is rarely called into question – we cite our intellect, our compassion and our ability to mold the world into one in which our species can overrun every corner of the globe as reasons for our divinity.

The supremacy we wield over the Earth and its creatures is close to divine. What we do with that power says a lot about us as a species. We use our supremacy to rationalize our exploitation of other creatures. The problem is that we say the opposite to excuse our abuses.

Eating meat and hunting are perfect examples. It’s OK for me to eat meat/hunt because animals do it. So the question here is: are we superior to the animals, or are we equal to them? Should we be held to the same standards as animals?

Male lions kill cubs not their own on a regular basis and there are very few of us who would accept that reasoning if a human male did the same. Monkeys throw feces at people, but I doubt that excuse would fly if I started throwing poop at people I didn’t like, as much as I would love to do it.

Human haters focus on the cruelty of humans, and inconsistencies in our rationalization for such abuse. But I argue that as cruel and heartless as humans can be, we can be equally as compassionate and kind. For every heartbreaking abuse I hear of, there are people willing to give their love, empathy, time, money and energy toward righting that wrong.

These whales make things uncomfortable for a lot of people benefiting from the suffering of animals – eating meat, dairy, hunting, horse racing, dog fighting, puppy mills and so on – because they force us to consider that just maybe species other than our own have all the same emotions, and the same capacity for suffering, as we do.

I’ve watched a zebra mother give her life for her dying calf, and seen a man fight an alligator to save his dog. Hating humans is not the answer. Humans are animals. Nature is unforgiving and cruel, humans have the choice not to be.

Further reading and sources:
  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

4 thoughts on “Whales demonstrate humans have no monopoly on altruism”

  1. Whales eat other lifeforms too. The Native Americans who thanked the buffalo for giving up its life for their survival shows to me, the most honesty and understanding of the circle of life.

    PS: scientists have recording grass screaming when it is cut at a wave length we don’t hear. Consider your lawn and all your food choices.


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