Fungie may be more like us than we thought

“It takes a village to raise a child,” it’s often said. To become a viable human being, a youngster must learn to relate not only to members of his or her extended family but to the wider community.

All animals communicate with their own kind and some even do so with other species. Humans, however, are in a league of their own; they are the world’s great talkers.

But are we the only species to have created what might be called ‘culture’? According to the findings of a major study, just published, we are not.

Fungie, the Dingle celebrity, behaves like a precocious highly-intelligent child, greeting people and playing with anyone prepared to enter the water. All dolphins frolic, and some love to race boats, but Fungie’s behaviour is odd in that he chooses humans as playmates.

Zoologists and neuroscientists, from both sides of the Atlantic, examined the evolution of social behaviour in 90 whale and dolphin species, correlating it with brain size.

They claim to have found overwhelming evidence of cooperation between individuals and identified highly sophisticated activities “similar to many found in human culture”. Whales and dolphins, they say, belong to rich human-like societies.

According to the ‘social brain’ hypothesis, the ancestors of the great apes began to cooperate, and engage in ever more complex interactive behaviours, as they developed larger brains. The ‘cultural brain’ hypothesis goes further; it says the that the development of ‘culture’, and not just increased brain size, was a driving force of human evolution. Being able to communicate and exchange information, our forebears engaged in increasingly sophisticated social behaviour.

The development of language led to exchanges of knowledge and know-how between communities on an unprecedented scale.

The whale researchers identified similar evolutionary patterns among various whale and dolphin species.

Social play, à la Fungie, seems as important to the cetaceans as it is to us humans. Individuals will work with others for mutual benefit. Some form coalitions and hunt cooperatively, using divisions of labour similar to ours.

Mothers baby-sit, and look after youngsters which are not their own. A whale can identify its peers, use name recognition and even mimic particular individuals. Nor is cooperative behaviour confined to each one’s own species; cetaceans can work with other creatures.

They can even work with us. The list of accomplishments prepared during the recent study is impressive.

“If a lion could talk,” declared Ludwig Wittgenstein, “we could not understand him.” Lions are not great conversationalists but whales are; the great philosopher’s remark can be applied literally to them. The vocalisations of male humpbacks are among the most extraordinary sounds in nature.

Decoding what the whales are saying to each other remains a challenge for
researchers.

We know that birds sing to claim territories and procure mates. Rather lazily, scientists assumed that the whales must be doing something similar.

However, humpbacks don’t patrol territories and no female has been recorded approaching a male in response to singing. There is no doubt, however, that these transmissions broadcast a wealth of information over vast areas of ocean.

The researchers conclude that “whales and dolphins live in tightly-knit social groups, have complex relationships, talk to each other and even have regional dialects, much like human societies”.

Their social behaviour is so rich and varied that we must credit them with possessing highly developed marine cultures.

K. Fox et al. The social and cultural roots of whale and dolphin brains. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2017.


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