Writings

How dolphins and whales can teach us to survive

Who are you? 

You go to work, hang out with friends, care for your family. You may have a favourite meal or song or movie or memory. You read certain books, purchase a specific newspaper, have your own affiliations, and vote in a certain way. You are you in a way no one else can be. But how much of you did you chose? 

From the day you were born you have been bombarded by person-shaping experiences, from your parents, teachers, friends, media, and society at large. No opinion you hold about any subject can exist without these shapely experiences, and thus the ‘pure’ you, unhindered by others, is practically knowable; you are the exciting cocktail of millions of experiences.

Adorning the forecourt of the ancient Temple of Apollo in Dephi was the phrase “know thyself”. The ‘self,’ and all its wants and desires, was to be separated, analysed, and understood. But we are increasingly seeing that the self is not an easily-distinguishable unit, and even things as rudimentary as what language you speak can have a significant impact on your values and ideals. 

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer explores the impact of language on value-systems by showing that Western languages only give animacy to humans (by, for example, capitalising the first letter). Other indigenous languages (in her example, Potawatomi) give all animals and objects the same animacy as humans, and the author explores how this change can produce huge cultural differences; Western languages are organised to set humans apart from the rest of the world, whilst most indigenous languages embed humans within the world. Moreover, Braiding Sweetgrass explores the enduring impact of mythology on culture and attitudes, comparing the ‘Skywoman’ story of the tribes of the Great Lakes with the Adam and Eve mythos of Christianity. She shows that myths convey certain attitudes about nature, responsibility, anthropocentricity, and exceptionality that can significantly guide cultures for thousands of years. Once again, the ‘self’ and the values you hold are no exception, and you too have been guided by the myths, and the language, you were brought up on. 

When we look at evidence like this, it becomes clear that liberal individualism is a bit of a misnomer. It declares us to be free-thinking autonomous agents, yet ignores the extent to which we are influenced, knowingly or unknowingly, by our environment. It asks us to be the central unit of concern, ignoring the fact that the self is porous. We behave as our culture demands, we act as we see on TV, and even things like our most fundamental desires are largely constructed by society. 

What a paradox this is. We have a reality where we are so fundamentally interlinked with the people around us for every element of our lives, and a culture that demands us to view ourselves as distinctly separate. How do we go about rectifying this? How do we go about making the fundamental unit of concern embedded communities, rather than specific people?

We, as social mammals, have much more in common with other social mammals than we have typically so far thought. Science has long used animals for experiments and extrapolated the results to humans (certainly not without contention, both from the view of animal ethics and scientific vigour). Perhaps the humanities would also benefit from investigating the animal kingdom, although I assure you our investigations will require no dissections and cause no electric shocks. 

There is a practical benefit to doing this: animal societies can be easier to investigate than the immeasurably complex and increasingly global human societies. Such findings from animal societies, in lieu of our shared social mammal hardwiring, may be able to teach us valuable things about ourselves.  

Other social animals, such as dolphins, have clearly not read their Hobbes or Machiavelli. Or maybe they did and saw the flaws in liberal individualism coming a nautical mile off. Either way, dolphins are an example of a species that do not worry themselves on the concern of the individual and instead display a community-based ethic. As a tragic demonstration, dolphins often engage in mass strandings. If one is beached but the others can get away, the others will stay, despite the harm they cause to themselves. This is an example of the ‘greater than individual’ thinking that occurs in the animal kingdom, where what is important is the community. ‘What is the point’ the dolphins may ask ‘of my body escaping this beach when part of me is stranded here?’

You may look down and see feet instead of flippers and declare ‘authors, I am no dolphin!’ But it is worth pointing out that we do, surely, experience this great-than-individual thinking in spite of the rampant individualism our society thrusts upon us. What parent would not prioritise their child if ever faced with such a terrible circumstance? The issue, then, is not that we don’t have this extended kinship with others, but that our kinship in its current form does not extend far enough. It may encompass close family members, but to deal with global issues that threatens our society, species, and biosphere, it must expand far more. 

The impact of such thinking on a rebellious mindset – the kind of mindset that will resist us being herded into mass death as our current civilisation is herding us – should be fairly obvious; the willingness to endure personal suffering for the sake of championing the interests of those you feel a sense of kinship with is the bedrock of the protest-driven climate movement. The kinship people feel with not just their children (which has obviously inspired many parents to act) but also to members of the global south or non-human animals who they have never met is inspiring a wave of selfless personal suffering for the cause of others. Those who sit in front of private jets or in front of oil tankers are the healthy dolphins laying on the beach: ‘we’re not moving until all of us are saved.”

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