Human Exceptionalism

Whales Are Not “US”

Did it start with Jane Goodall? The enterprising anthropologist didn’t just report her amazingly detailed observations of chimpanzees. She pursued an ideology by giving the chimps internal lives and thoughts in her writing in order to make them seem more human.

Now, that approach is all the rage. Barely a week goes by in popular scientific writing these days without some writer mining the meme that animals are really people too.

Latest example, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” by Charles Siebert in the New York Times Magazine. From the article:

Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans’ depths, succumbing to our assaults. Indeed, when that baby gray calf bobbed up out of the sea and held there that first morning, staring at me with his huge, slow-blinking eye, it felt to me as if he were taking one impossibly long and quizzical look in the mirror.

Oh, please: When a writer rockets that far over the top, I lose trust in the entire article. Siebert is clearly smitten. It’s a romance. And when one is emotionally involved with the subject, yearning for something to be true, one will tend to interpret events to make them appear to be what one hopes.  (Just ask any man who has fallen in love with the wrong woman.)

Something very strange is going on these days; a desperate desire to personalize and humanize nature, while we are depersonalizing and dehumanizing some humans. It is like the writer I discussed awhile back in a post I called, “Hyenas are People Too,” in which a professor named Deborah Bloom wondered in The New Scientist (of all places) whether she–or a hyena–was the real moral animal. She wrote:

I wish they’d attempted to answer that tricky question that nags at me whenever I study a captive animal. As I stand on the unrestricted side of a fence watching a hyena, and it watches me back with deep, wary eyes, which one of us is really the moral animal?

As I wrote then, we are. And I hate to tell Siebert, but that whale who gave him the eye was unquestionably a magnificent animal who may have been curious. But the writer’s deeply romantic yearning to transform whales into huge versions of us notwithstanding, was quite indifferent to his existence.

What are whales trying to tell us?  Not a blessed thing.