Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Part two of May. It's all held together by a very strong thread of whales & dolphins.

I feel as though I'm doing a research paper on whales & dolphins and am just in the research phase right now, trying to make connections. I'm certainly doing a lot more research than I usually do for these reviews, but it's more to do with the fact that they're so closely related and feed off of one another so easily that I can't help but compare & contrast, which leads to some external research. So this is going to be a long one, despite having fewer than 10 items on the list. The first one kind of jumps around, but it gets smoother as I move onto the next two books and relate them to Cultural Lives.

On a related note, I recently found out about Unpaywall, which came up in an article on LibraryJournal. Although I haven't really been doing much that requires free access to scholarly articles, I do still appreciate that it's become that much easier to access them, legally!
Also, ResearchGate, though I have yet to request anything, appears to be a pretty cool resource as well. It looks like you request the article directly from the authors?

I thought I had written a little blurb about Do Whales Get the Bends, but I suppose not? I didn't finish it, so that makes sense. They do, by the way. And I learned about the Coriolus effect from that also, which I'm pretty sure I've learned about before (in elementary school maybe?) and forgotten all about until I read it again in that book. Cool stuff. Hahaha I totally did write about it already. Just in my last post. How did I miss that? Wow.

  1. The Cultural Lives of  Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell
    • There's less information under this review than in the other two cetacean books below, mostly because I found it easier to relate this as my base and talk about specific things from it in relation to whatever I read in the other two books.
    • Let me just gush a bit about how the authors have organized this book, and how they have, firstly, defined their terms and discussed other definitions and why they do or do not subscribe to them, along with pros and cons of using their definition v.s. others; secondly, they discuss other viewpoints and present arguments to their own interpretation of the observation data available to them, offering the reader the chance to consider alternative explanations - it can sometimes be very easy to become swept along at the author's pace if you're not reading especially critically (maybe it's just me that reads quite that unthinkingly sometimes), so I really appreciate that the authors should present voices of dissent; and overall, this book is just so well structured! It's easy to follow each of the chapters, despite the dense look of the typeset and the academic feel of the text, and Whitehead & Rendell present plenty of examples of what might constitute culture in cetaceans. And I know this one should be standard practice, but sadly it is not always the case (I'm looking at you Christopher Hibbert), but they provide endnotes, some of which expand upon the point, all of which give you where the authors found what information, in case you're so inclined to go look at the original source.
      • Although Whitehead & Rendell make note of alternate explanations for certain behaviours throughout the chapters as well, they do have a separate chapter altogether dedicated to highlighting opposing viewpoints and detailing their own arguments against them or just pointing out how impractical it would be to apply the same standards across the animal kingdom, alternatively accepting point blank that there is still room for doubt, even if there is a lot of evidence that supports there being culture in cetaceans.
      • Some of the arguments against cetacean culture that Whitehead & Rendell lay out strike me as straw men (in the sense that even the authors say that you'd have to opt for rather convoluted reasoning in order to arrive at those alternative conclusions just to steer clear of "culture" per se), and I'm not sure if that's just because they are, or if there are other arguments not cited in this book. I'm pretty taken with the authors here, so I'm leaning heavily towards the counter-arguments riding a lot on technicalities and semantics - granted, technicalities are important, because otherwise it'd be no use to define anything well enough to study them.
        • They spend quite a bit of time expanding on alternate views and detailing what it is that opponents are latching onto, which makes this a great place to start, but when I say this, I don't mean to say that it is just an introductory level book, in that Whitehead & Rendell are incredibly thorough. I've got a couple more books to go that talk about either whales or dolphins specifically, but even if I didn't, I think I would be pretty satisfied having read this one. Obviously, there is more to learn about cetaceans that they do not cover, either because it is outside of the scope of this book (i.e. not really about culture in cetaceans), or simply because they are not aiming to become the authority or touchstone book regarding everything to do with whales and dolphins. Whitehead & Rendell do a great job sticking to the point and laying out their arguments in a way that I think appeals (and satisfies) both leisurely readers as well as those who might come from a more scholarly or academic background.
    • I love the way this was written in terms of style as well, especially considering the fact that it's a collaboration! I'm not sure if it's because it was mostly one person doing the bulk of the writing, but it's incredibly easy to follow (if a bit dense), the style remains constant throughout without being cut-and-dry, and the authors retain a dry humour that I appreciated. As an example, "thanks are due to the unhurried pace of some Costa Rican customs procedures" (p.304), as that was when the outline of the book was written by Whitehead.
      • Also, the bibliography stretches from pages 351-398. And if you're wondering where any of the information that is outlined in the book came from, the notes from pages 307-349 will most likely cover that for you.
    • Hypothesis-testing, flawed? I'd love to read more on this! Especially considering that that's basically all you get taught in Statistics in undergrad (or at least the intro to stats, along with advanced stats, and at least for my psych - not sure about other programs and other schools).
    • Haplodiploidy is pretty weird.
    • In the case of the two girls of Midnapore, India, raised by a wolf mother till around the age of 8, when they were taken into human custody (p.199), I wonder why they felt the need to remove them from their wolf family? I suspect even now it would happen, but if they have assimilated into the life of being a wolf, why not just let it be? Especially seeing as "the children were profoundly incapable of functioning independently in human society, with no evidence they ever approached concepts of things like shared meanings or cultural identity" (p.199).
      • This story was related in relation to Keiko, whose freedom was campaigned after the Free Willy movie, and was released, but was unable to integrate into the wild Icelandic pod, continuing to be fed by humans throughout his life (pp.200-201). It appears killer whales require social input in the early stages of their development in order to assimilate into a pod, akin to the way humans require social input to experience normal development.
    • Is the 52-Hz whale the loneliest whale? It is! Is there a possibility it is/was a hybrid whale? That BBC article ends saying there might be more than one other whale out there singing at around 50-Hz, and that 52 might just have been a wandering member... but what are the chances of that? Another blog post about that here, from UCL, but nothing in the lit.
    • I haven't found it again, but in one of the chapters, I'm not sure whether the authors were making a joke or what, but they said something along the lines of "whales occasionally pair up to beach together, and group suicide looks a lot like a social act to us", which just tickled me pink. Of course, I'm reading this in the driest voice you might be able to muster.
      • As it happens, this is not a joke: whales do beach together, intentionally, though the reasons for this elude us. Whitehead & Rendell discuss this later in the book when they talk about the effects of culture on a species (pros/cons), one of the cons being that maladaptive behaviours (read: stupid behaviours) sometimes stick.
      • See below (when I discuss Are Dolphins Really Smart?) for more detail on this.
    • If there's some evidence that the advent of killer whales around ten million years ago coincided with the "disappearance of about half the species of cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sirenians" (p.248 & in chapter 6), why should we think that humans are acting outside of the way nature works in our rather total devastation of habitats supporting wildlife, whether on land or in the oceans? I'm not saying we shouldn't try to help other species survive - I'm just wondering why we don't consider it part of the natural flow of things. Is it because we're destroying habitats at a much faster pace than ever before (as far as we know) and making it so that extirpation of animals around the world is on the rise? Or is it mostly to stroke our own egos and make ourselves feel better? I'm not discounting the other possibility, of course: we done goofed and we're just trying to make amends.
      • It would be interesting to see what past mass wipe-outs have been like (I'm sure I've read about it before in another book - I think possibly in Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, but I could be incredibly off the mark), and see whether we're just following the pattern (if there is one).
    • The authors gave me more information about killer whales than all of the previous books I've read combined (granted, none of them were focused specifically on whales and dolphins): there are more than just the two ecotypes that other books mention!
      • In the northwest Pacific, 3: transients, residents, and offshores (deepwater fish, esp. sharks)
      • northeast Atlantic, at least 2: cetacean hunters & type 2 generalized diet
      • Antarctic, at least 5, maybe more: type A (minke whales), pack-ice (seals), Gerlache (penguins), Ross Sea & sub-Antarctic both eat fish
        • This is way more detail than the more simplistic "residents v. transients" information I was getting before, and assuming each ecotype is also morphologically different, how different do they get before branching off into separate species altogether? Or are they prevented from doing so because they deplete their food supply (as there is some evidence to suggest it has happened in the past)? (pp.132-133 & later on as well).
        • And the reason for all these ecotypes? Apparently 3 main reasons: picky eaters, xenophobic, and culture (p.129). 
    • Genetic bottlenecking: I'm super confused, and not because I don't understand what Whitehead & Rendell are saying about it here, but because in Into Great Silence (below), there seems to be a completely opposite use of the term. Does it apply to both situations? Discussion below.
      • Also, bottlenecking and in relation to Palumbi & Palumbi's The Extreme Life of the Sea, where they briefly discussed how both giant squids and sperm whales had surprisingly low genetic diversity, which might have happened because of genetic bottlenecking happening to both of them around the same time. I forget exactly what they said about it, but I believe it was something along the lines of "sperm whales & giant squids came into being around the same time, and both went through genetic bottlenecking because of their relationship to one another (or because of shared environments? not sure) and so the low genetic diversity found in both of them can be thus explained". Which means it cannot be thus explained, and there must be another reason why both of these species, one of which feeds on the other, both contain such startling low genetic diversity. For the sperm whales, Whitehead has suggested cultural hitchhiking (see below), but this works only because sperm whales are matrilineal in nature, which means it wouldn't apply to the giant squid. Does that mean it's just a coincidence? Or is there something to the predator-prey relationship that made it so? Specific genetic mutations didn't survive in squid because of the genes that did in sperm whales, perhaps? It just so happened that those neutral tagalongs (or perhaps the more actively chosen genes) affected the fitness of the squid because they were being hunted in such and such ways? Would love to read more about it.
    • This is really frustrating, but I can't find two articles (or perhaps one was The Gene by Mukherjee) that discuss how your grandparents starving as children might either increase or reduce your chances of obesity. I believe they said contrasting things, although I'm almost positive the first one I read was talking about a potato famine - I don't remember if it was in Ireland or Denmark, or perhaps elsewhere altogether - and the second one more recently stated that it helps reduce your chances of obesity if your grandparents starved as children.
    • Some articles that might be of interest:
      • Does theory of flocking affect the way in which culture disseminates? Also bowerbirds and the way they imitate their neighbours in the way they decorate their bowers (p.280)? It's social learning, which flocking doesn't sound to be (since flocking is more just in reaction to the 7 closest partners, or however many it is). But I wonder if any of that translates over?
      • Evolution Runs Faster on Shorter Timelines as it relates to white/pink/red environment and how that influences cultural evolution.
        • So evolution doesn't run on red scales, then, because on shorter timescales, they change a great deal and change much less over the long run. In which case, pink noise seems like it's the best fit there. Or does it even make any sense to talk about genetic mutation in terms of frequency scales? Since in Cultural Lives, it seems like the concept is used more to talk about cultural evolution and how useful it is in different environments as compared to (or in addition to) genetic mutation: that is, when is culture more useful than genetic mutation?
      • Possible Quanta articles of interest: Scientists Seek to Update EvolutionThe Beasts That Keep the BeatCan Darwinian Evolution Explain Lamarckism?, and A Map of Human History, Hidden in DNA. Interestingly enough, Scientists Seek to Update Evolution talks about Kevin Laland, with whom Rendell had been working before working on this book.
    • On a slightly unrelated note: is this the same Tomasello talking about human & nonhuman culture (p.34-5) as the Tomasello mentioned in Are Dolphins Really Smart (see below) and from The Hunt for the Golden Mole? I'd really like to know, because it if is... well. That's kind of amazing.
  2. Land in Sight (2013)
    • My brother won two tickets for this movie from the Goethe Institut, so I got the chance to go see this one. It was less surprising to me than I expected it to be, and one scene reminded me a lot of a documentary film we watched in an anthropology course, showing how a woman in the Philippines was trying to get married to a customer at the club she works at - the man hailing from the United States.
  3. Onegin musical by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille
    • Wow! This was such a fun performance! I had an inkling of what Onegin was about, never having read the poem nor gone to any of the other performances (though I did want to attend the ballet, I didn't end up doing so), but this was so much more energetic than I had expected. I originally thought it'd be a pretty sad affair, considering it's pretty much rejection after rejection - and add to that the death of Lensky - so I was very pleasantly surprised at how upbeat it all was. This is motivating me to actually pick up the copy of Onegin I have in translation to read it through.
    • I really enjoyed the songs throughout (see Let me Die here), especially the Once More, Onegin that Onegin sings at the end with Tatiana. I did find that Josh Epstein, who plays Vladimir Lensky, seemed to stand out quite a bit in terms of his singing - if I'm remembering correctly, he was in another Onegin musical that took place in Vancouver, which makes sense to me. All of the cast's voices were lovely, don't get me wrong! There was just something about Epstein's voice that seemed to me to take everything one step further.
    • I also know how to pronounce Onegin now, which is a plus!
  4. Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas by Eva Saulitis
    • This was a great followup to The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins! The style is completely different, and you have completely different expectations as to how the authors relay information: Saulitis takes the storytelling approach, with short chapters, where Whitehead & Rendell took the academic/scholarly approach. I think in part because I read Cultural Lives first, I was able to enjoy Into Great Silence more than I would have if I had switched up the order.
    • Saulitis relates her experiences with the Chugach transient pod to her own maturation as a researcher and a scientist, starting out in a fishery and only encountering her first orca by chance. It's an intimate story that is made more relatable as Saulitis draws parallels between her own life and the lessons she learns during her research at Sound, as well as the parallel to the Eyak and other indigenous cultures that have orcas embedded in their cultures and traditions.
    • OK wait. Saulitis' bottleneck sounds like the exact opposite of how Whitehead & Rendell describe genetic bottlenecking! In fact, what they're saying seems to contradict each other completely:
      • "Lance's genetic study suggested that the Chugach transients exist in a population bottleneck. The animals he sampled had much higher genetic diversity than one would expect in such a small, insular population. That's why, with only twenty-two members before the spill, they could still produce calves. Genetic bottlenecks can result from a sudden decrease in population size. You can live inside a bottleneck for a very long time, but.. you are vulnerable" (Saulitis, p.229).
      • In contrast, Whitehead & Rendell say, "the matrilineal whales - the killer whale, sperm whale, and the blackfish species - have a genetic anomaly. The diversity of their mitochondrial genomes, which they inherit from their mothers, is remarkably low, about a tenth of that of other whale and dolphin species with similar populations" (p.238). A few explanations were proposed:
        • Genetic bottleneck, where a population is very small, resulting in few individuals carrying genes, some of which are related and thus overlap. "Thus, during the bottleneck, the total number of different genes in the population is few. Later, the population may increase, but the number of different genes, which all come from the same few individuals that lived through the bottleneck, stays low. Hence a bottleneck can reduce the genetic diversity of a population" (p.239). Whitehead & Rendell find issue with this explanation for the low diversity in mitochondrial genomes for the matrilineal whales though.
        • The second argument is that those specific genes that don't change much are important for the animal's survival. Again, they find issue with this explanation. A third explanation was the matrilineal nature of the whales being the cause, which was also rejected, because the whales of a pod don't all tend to die together (with the exception of mass strandings).
        • Whithead proposes cultural hitchhiking to explain this genetic anomaly instead: neutral variants are linked to genes that are selected for, so even though they don't directly affect fitness, they tag along for the ride, reducing variation in neutral genetic variants (p.240).
      • So now, back to discussing genetic bottlenecking. How can both descriptions be correct? There's the possibility that for the Chugach transients, there's more movement (in and out of members of the pod) than in the killer whale populations discussed in Cultural Lives for this section? Or perhaps the population used to be a lot larger, and bottlenecked not too long ago, so there's still genetic variety - more than expected for such a small population - but it's still a bottleneck. In theory, different parts of the bottleneck are being described: for the Chugachs, pretty close to the bottleneck incident in evolutionary terms; for Whitehead & Rendell's killer whales generally (nevermind that they reject the bottleneck hypothesis), further down the bottle, around where the body is after everything has settled down.
        • Alternatively, Whitehead & Rendell's bottleneck refers to a population that started out small before booming, whereas the Chugachs started out large before suddenly getting culled somehow. Kind of like flipping the bottle around. It's pretty confusing because they don't discuss different types of genetic bottlenecking, so I'm under the impression there's just the one and apparently I'm not understanding it because these two books seem to say completely opposite things!
      • Edited: I think it might be the case that what Saulitis meant was that for the fact that the AT1 community is constituted of 10 individuals, they had greater genetic diversity than expected (with full knowledge that killer whales in general have low genetic diversity). Rather than saying that the Chugach transients have more genetic diversity than other killer whales, it's more that in terms of genetic diversity in killer whales, taking into consideration that the population is so small and insular, it is surprisingly genetically diverse.
    • Again, bringing to the fore the variety of ecotypes of killer whales, and the different populations of killer whales that make up each ecotype. It expands almost as much as Cultural Lives, in more accessible terms (because Cultural Lives was explaining the concept of pods, clans, populations, ecotypes all at once, which admittedly was a bit hard to keep track of, especially when it came to the residents).
    • There's one quote that is in both Cultural Lives & this book, about how compassion is interpreted into human action and out of other animals':
      • "When a human protects an individual of another species, we call it compassion... If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn't that clear" (Pittman, quoted from Saulitis, p.203). I think just by having this quote, Saulitis effectively highlights the issue of burden of proof, which Whitehead & Rendell also discuss (in more detail and in so many words), and opens up a forum for discussion without the density present in Cultural Lives. (Whitehead & Rendell also quote this story observed by Robert Pittman & John Durban about the humpbacks that helped the seal out when it was chased off its ice floe by killer whales hunting it down, p.293.) I appreciate both ways of approaching this topic, and I believe all three authors (Saulitis, Whitehead and Rendell) did a wonderful job in vastly different ways of illustrating culture in killer whales. (Of course, Cultural Lives is more expansive with much more breadth, not focusing solely on killer whales, but although Saulitis doesn't explicitly talk about cultures of other species such as the porpoises and humpbacks that get more than a couple mentions throughout this book, I think her descriptions do plenty to bring the question up without so many words.)
    • Not that the tragic story of the Chugach transients wasn't interesting, but I was waiting all throughout more for the point in the book when Saulitis would tell us how she and Craig became partners - there was a point at which I started wondering whether the Craig she mentions at the beginning is the same Craig that comes up in the story, and I even went to the back of the book to see if the last names matched (they did). Silly of me, but I couldn't help but be on the lookout - constant vigilance - in case that information popped up; I couldn't help it.
  5. Sea Change by Frank Viva
    • I picked this up for the cover, and I'm glad I did! The illustrations and odd palette continues throughout the chapters, interacting with and complementing the text. The overall shape of the story is easy enough to guess, but the cheeky narrator makes palpable his unwillingness to go, and the whole dramatic t(w)eenage character gains more depth as we see the world through his eyes. When he has to make a hard choice, betraying the trust of his friend/the girl he's taken with, in order to help her in the best way he knows how, he's taking a step forward, and we feel how heavily this decision weighs down upon him. Beautifully illustrated and sensitively written, I wouldn't mind purchasing this one for my own shelves.
  6. White Oleander by Janet Finch
    • They want to be us. From her mother to her foster mothers, Astrid goes on her journey from childhood to maturity, building up her own identity independent of - or perhaps not independent from so much as separate from - her mother, Ingrid, fusing together elements she has gleaned from each of her homes to become her own person. She is the snake in the garden. Beauty recurs as a theme throughout, as something dangerous for Astrid and those around her who succumb to it - it is a poison for Astrid the way Ingrid's beauty deceives those around her and helps her sculpt her world and impose it upon others. It's a bit heartbreaking to see how the novel begins, bare with simple beauty, three white flowers in a glass vase, hanging their gods upon trees... and then to follow through with the foster homes, to see Astrid grow up and infuse her being with the families she grows up with. Sleeping for the father, a recurring fear. Something she does more than once, and willingly. It's almost as though she seeks them out. Is she looking for a father figure - the one she is, in the end, disgusted by the ordinariness of? - or are those simply her tastes? But she does choose Paul, in the end, who was "more than her boyfriend. He was me". Over her mother, over Oskar Schein. But even as she makes her choice, there is something of the uncertainty of whether she will perhaps waver and sleep with the father (Oskar) again, somehow participate - willingly or otherwise - in the ruin of another family. She will never be free of her mother, in that her mother, along with all her other mothers, has exerted an incredible influence over the person she has become, but White Oleander ends on a hopeful note, despite the bleak picture of her and Paul's shambles of a home, as Astrid is able to mold herself at last.
  7. Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani
    • How adorable is this! The illustrations, the cheekiness - six cats prefer... two stacks of three - the CATS. I'd love this as an introduction to counting book, but also for any cat lover.
  8. Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth by Justin Gregg
    • It's kind of a really weird book in that Gregg is out to debunk all the dolphin myths about their specialness and render them just another animal, effectively taking away some arguments for considering dolphins persons and protecting them. It's a bit humourous the way that he goes on, chapter by chapter, deconstructing the myths and presenting Dolphin, just another animal, stressing the ambiguity found in scientific literature in terms of how "intelligent" these animals are (and thus, implied, how worthy of our protection). In the end, though, Gregg tries to make a different sort of appeal: that we should stop comparing other creatures to humans in determining their value or their worth, and learn to appreciate all the different creatures with which we share the planet in their own right, and for their own sake. That last paragraph probably brought my rating of this book up an entire star.
      • Although it's getting a bit repetitive for me to read, I do appreciate that Gregg outlines the issue of using the term "intelligence" (along with a slew of other terms that are not well-defined even in the literature). In the end, he goes with the definition of intelligence in non-human creatures as a comparison of how closely the animal's behaviour matches with human behaviours. In other words, the more human the animal acts, the more intelligent we suppose it to be. Unfortunately, this strikes me as pretty on point.
    • So I'm just going to be going through my book darts & written notes (I ran out of darts) below:
      • Jumping spiders have huge brain to body ratio, it seems: "jumping spiders, with their eight eyes and brains so big for their body size that they spill over into their legs, seem equally as skilled [at interpreting stimulus from a television screen]" (p.99). I was just reading a Quanta article on spiders and how their webs might be a form of extended cognition: The Thoughts of a Spiderweb. And even though it's been proven to be the wrong way to think about intelligence (even as we struggle to define the concept of intelligence), brain to body size ratio having been one of those factors...
        • So jumping spiders can apparently "hold mental representations when it comes to planning routes and hunting specific prey. The spiders even seem to differentiate among "one", "two" and "many" when confronted with a quantity of prey items that conflicts with the number they initially saw" (Sokol, The Thoughts of a Spiderweb, May 23, 2017). Linked to the article cited in Quanta article to information to which it pertains in quote.
          • I assume this also means they have short-term memory? I haven't read the article I linked to, so I can't actually make this statement with much confidence, but they would have to have the memory of one number in mind, then realize that the number of prey spiders exists once it's out of sight (object-permanence), as well as being able to compare their expectations (if I may refer to it as such) with the reality presented before them. And this would affect their behaviour. Which is pretty cool. If I'm understanding correctly, of course.
      • Pigeons were once trained in a scientific study to recognize a Van Gogh from a Chagall as accurately as college undergraduate students (p.103). I vaguely recall reading this elsewhere - The Thing with Feathers, perhaps? - but it's still funny the second time around. I don't know if it says more about college undergrads or pigeons though.
        • "In a rather peculiar experiment, pigeons were taught to discriminate between good and bad art, and thus might have learned the concept of "beauty"" (p.103, article in endnote). Okay, this I find contention with. There's the issue of what constitutes good/bad in art, as well as whether good necessarily equates with "beautiful", and bad, "ugly". The concept of beauty that was learned is more specifically the concept of beauty held by those adults who sorted out the paintings into the good/bad dichotomy, and it seems to me that the experiment was more enlightening in discovering what made those pieces of art more appealing to the adults by using pigeons to narrow it down to colour and pattern. The sentence as presented in Are Dolphins Really Smart? is a bit misleading, because the author of the actual article it refers to doesn't make quite the same claim - or rather, they do, but they do then go on to qualify what they mean (basically what my quibbles with it are).
          • I'm going to be so incredibly obnoxious here (to Hibbert, as I always am - I can't help making jabs at such a great example of what not to do!) and say, isn't it great when books do proper citations so that you can find where the author found what, and you can actually go and find more information on the original source afterwards if you so choose? Honestly though, while I rarely do go and research more following endnotes and footnotes, here is one of those instances where I'm all about that, and I'm glad that the referenced sources are easy to find. Hurrah for standardization!
    • The way it was presented in The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, it sounded like a lot more than just "[a] single wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin in Australia... observed hunting for cuttlefish using a peculiar - and perhaps unique - hunting technique that is likely her own devising. After first killing the cuttlefish, she beat the ink out of it, scraped it in the sand to remove the skin and the cuttlebone, and consumed the rest" (p.112).
      • Publication dates might offer some clue: Dolphins (2013), Cultural Lives (2015), the article that is referred to in the endnote in Dolphins (2009). You might think, right? No! They actually refer to the same article in both books! So why was it presented as a more wide-ranging thing in Cultural Lives (even in terms of being isolated within that population of bottlenose dolphins) and referred to here in Dolphins as a single and singular occurrence?
        • This article is open access (hurrah!), so feel free to make your own conclusions. It appears to me that where Gregg chooses to focus on the fact that the article authors only made observations of one dolphin processing cuttlefish this way, Whitehead & Rendell take into consideration that "in addition to [the article authors'] observations, individual bottlenose dolphins feeding at these cuttlefish spawning grounds have been observed by divers in the area to perform the same behavioural sequence (as cited by Finn, Tregenza & Norman, 2009). There have also been observations at surface level of cuttlebones floating up around where pods of dolphins were foraging (ibid.). So I'll have to go with Whitehead & Rendell in their portrayal of events in this case, and wonder a bit as to why Gregg decided to make it sound as though it was really only the one dolphin who was observed - ever - to do this. I understand that Gregg wants to debunk the myth of the amazing human-like dolphin, but this instance is making me question everything else he is presenting throughout the book now. Then again, bias is to be expected, and I should simply be reading with more care than I do.
        • It's actually pretty fascinating as an example of how the same source article can be used to argue two completely different viewpoints: in Dolphins, Gregg capitalizes on the fact that the article authors personally only observed the one dolphin, thus bringing to the fore the ambiguity as to how this dolphin might have learned to do so - "might well have been a result of insight and planning... although trial and error and serendipity cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, none of these examples can be conclusive evidence of insight and planning insofar" (p.112) because researchers didn't witness the first instance of this behaviour, which, by the way, is a bit of an extreme stance to begin with in my opinion, seeing as it's still not conclusive by any means even if the researchers did witness it; there'd simply be other types of doubts that arise - ignoring that apparently other dolphins were also observed to do so by divers, in addition to which even Finn, Tregenza & Norman suggest that going by the evidence of the cuttlebones floating to the surface in association with pods of dolphins, that the behaviour is likely not limited to the one dolphin; thus Gregg cleanly avoids speculating about the possibility of social learning in this instance. In contrast, Whitehead & Rendell focus on the possibility of social learning as it plays a part in this behaviour, because it seems highly improbable that each dolphin practicing this foraging technique learned it independently of all the other dolphins in the same pod doing the same thing.
        • On the whole, Gregg comes off as much more skeptical regarding dolphins' abilities, downplaying sponging behaviour as well (p.121). I'm pretty sure he does this in an attempt to actively err on the side of caution though, in keeping with the feel of the entire book, so I'm not going to do a comparison between Cultural Lives & Dolphins for sponging.
    • Interestingly, Gregg references the 2001 article published by Whitehead & Rendell about cetacean culture (p.123).
    • I remember learning about what the defining elements of a language are in a psycholinguistics course, and how only human language has been able thus far to satisfy all the points. And while I don't remember how many factors there were, I remember thinking it unfair in that we only know how to judge everything else through a human lens, and so what if other animals don't have language in the same capacity as we do anyways?
      • There's a Michael Tomasello mentioned on p.134 and I'm wondering if it's the same Tomasello that discovered the Somali Golden Mole remains in an owl pellet in The Hunt for the Golden Mole.
      • HUMPBACK WHALES AND BENGALESE FINCHES. Implied in Dolphins to have "been shown to comprehend or produce center-embedding or similar hierarchical syntactic structures" (p.148), although neither of them, nor dolphins, "appear to harness the power of recursion" (p.148).
      • Gregg notes that alarm call repertoires are "pitifully small when compared to humans" (p.149), to which I've got to respond, "Well no shit." They're alarm calls. How many predators could you wish upon a single species that they have to generate as many alarm calls to warn brethren about possible dangers as humans have words to refer to so many other types of information? That being said, even in terms of alarm calls for humans, which I'm not really sure are alarm calls so much as shout-outs to warn others of impending doom, are theoretically limitless.
    • Zipf's Law
      • It made me think of Benford's Law, but I don't think they have any relation in this case, as from what I understand, only Zipf's Law would apply to language utterances. What does Zipf's law actually describe though? It applies to word frequencies, city sizes, and whatever else it applies to - what exactly is it? Unless we can define what Zipf's law describes - what makes the set that Zipf's law applies to the set? - it's a bit difficult to use the fact that dolphin whistles adhere to the law well enough as evidence for natural language in dolphins, which Gregg also notes (p.171).
    • Amazing. There's a National Geographic documentary titled Dolphins: The Dark Side, and I want to watch it. It won't play on the site though - not sure if I'm just in the wrong country?
      • Dolphin aggression: bottlenose dolphins attacking porpoises was not mentioned in Cultural Lives, nor was porpicide, although Whitehead & Rendell do make a mention of the myth of the peaceful dolphin: "Male competition is fierce. There is documented evidence that fights can lead to unconsciousness, so it is entirely possible they could result in fatality. There is also evidence that male dolphins sometimes kill calves, for reasons that are poorly understood" (p.101). While Whitehead & Rendell are much more conservative about why male dolphins may engage in infanticide, Gregg presents it as a reproductive strategy with a clear goal: once the calf is dead, the female dolphin will become receptive to mating within days (p.189).
        • Again, the same article is used (Patterson et al., 1998, linked above). Dolphin aggression towards porpoises is part of the title of the article, although Whitehead & Rendell do not make much note of it, choosing to remain speculative as to why infanticide occurs and focusing instead on other aspects of dolphin behaviours, such as male groups, foraging strategies, communication and play, and the massive oceanic dolphin schools in the dolphin chapter. I suppose this makes sense, though, for the purposes of their book, considering they specifically want to discuss culture and possible evidence for cetacean culture. And if that one article from 1998 is all we have to go off of, which I'm assuming it is (although I haven't done a search into the literature) by dint of the fact that it's the one article in common and the other article Gregg cites is also from 1998 (I was unable to find this article, though the same authors published another article in 2002 on infanticide in bottlenose dolphins), despite both of these books having been published quite recently, then perhaps the evidence isn't as clear as Gregg is making it sound? Scratch that - the Patterson et al. article states outright in the introduction that "the reason(s) for the interactions remain(s) unclear" (Ross & Wilson, 1996, as cited in Patterson et al., 1998), though they do posit as explanations "competition for prey, feeding interference, play or practise fighting, and sexual frustration" (ibid.).
          • The 2002 article repeats the ambiguous findings in terms of the motivations behind infanticide, citing as possibilities "resource limitations, parental manipulation, social pathology, and/or sexual selection" (Dunn, Barco, Pabst & McLellan, 2002), which are not too different from the list Patterson et al. laid out in 1998. In fact, oddly enough, even though the article was published in 2002, all of the evidence was still based off of 1996 & 1997 strandings of bottlenose dolphin calves. I'm starting to wonder whether this isn't actually the article that Gregg is citing, especially since I'm having difficulty finding the 1998 one, but the chances of my inability to find it being due to my own incompetency & lack of access to databases are probably higher than Gregg misciting something, I think.
          • Either way, though, both articles' conclusions are much less conclusive than Gregg's seeming confidence in declaring that the reason behind infanticide in bottlenose dolphins is clear: it's a technique to increase sexual success (p.189). You're making me lose a bit of confidence in your words, Gregg!
    • Now onto something happier: epimeletic behaviour.  I can't help but relate epimeletic behaviour to either kin selection or stupidity as Whitehead & Rendell talk about in terms of byproducts of culture and cultural evolution (pp.256-261). And Gregg also discusses mass strandings, although in terms of altruistic behaviour rather than stupidity: the group refuses to abandon a sick dolphin part of the community or family, choosing to follow them into shallower waters, which are safer to be in than open ocean, resulting in mass strandings (p.205). In fact, they are so giving of themselves that healthy individuals strand themselves again on purpose so as to accompany their sick friends and family.
      • Whitehead & Rendell put it in a rather funnier way: "whales and dolphins sometimes strand themselves alive on shorelines - not just briefly to catch a seal or fish but with no apparent intention of leaving" (p.258). Don't ask me why I think that's mildly hilarious. It just is. I'm not finding the situation funny so much as the way they're put it, of course. Anyway, they detail 3 types of intentional stranding, and the one Gregg describes is either typical or atypical mass stranding. Atypical strandings don't seem to fit the bill though, as these are due to loud noises (read: the ones people started making around the mid-20th c.) that disorient the poor animals. Which leaves typical mass strandings. Although something still strikes me as a little odd about Gregg's description: it doesn't fit in too well with any of the three types of strandings detailed by Whitehead & Rendell. It's a mix of the first one - individual animals that strand, usually involving "sick or injured animals and presumably result[ing] from disorientation, an inability to swim, or a desire for the support of the beach - which fits in with the sick individual part of Gregg's description, coupled with the typical stranding, where the stranded animals are generally perfectly healthy (in Gregg's scenario, presumably there are one or two or at most a few sick or injured individuals within the mostly perfectly healthy group, I'm assuming). Something else doesn't quite fit together: according to Whitehead & Rendell, "the species most likely to be involved in typical mass strandings are matrilineal whales: sperm whales, pilot whales, false killer whales" (p.259), although they allow that oceanic dolphins do so as well, at much less frequent intervals.
        • Here's the encyclopedia article Gregg has in his notes for this part, unfortunately not accessible. From the summary though, it doesn't really talk about mass stranding in the same breath as it does sick or injured dolphins intentionally beaching, which is the first case as listed by Whitehead & Rendell. Perhaps I'm understanding Gregg incorrectly - misinterpreting what he's saying, rather: he only says that dolphins beach in groups, which I'm understanding to mean "mass stranding", which is not necessarily the case... although I'm confused as to why there is no mention of groups of dolphins stranding in Cultural Lives, as I get the feeling Whitehead & Rendell would make a mention of it, given that they're detailing the best they can a comprehensive list of when whales and dolphins strand themselves (p.258). Or at least it sounds like they're not only focusing on what might be "stupid" behaviour in this case so much as explaining different types of strandings. Of course, Whitehead & Rendell do state outright that there are three general types of strandings, which does not purport to capture all the different types, though the way Gregg says it, it sounds as though the group strandings happen often enough that it should fit into one of the three general types or constitute a fourth one. Even more frustrating, Gregg doesn't specify which species of dolphin it is he's talking about. I'm assuming the encyclopedic article he references discusses it at some more length - or I'm hoping so, at least.
      • Continuing on in altruism, Gregg notes that some species of social insects "dedicat[e] & sacrific[e] their lives in an effort to care for and protect their queen, the young, and the colony as a whole" (p.206), but I wonder whether this is truly altruism as we might associate with the word? Are the social insects genetically hardwired to dedicate & sacrifice their lives for the good of the colony, or do they make a choice? Perhaps I'm misinterpreting what is meant by altruism, but Gregg doesn't really define it categorically, so I'm left to my own devices here. Then again, if we get into that line of argument, there's no way to actually test for whether animals are making a choice or not, so it's not a very productive way of looking at altruism.
      • Iguanas group up when young - that sounds adorable. I feel as though the male iguanas protecting the females at the cost of their own lives shouldn't be considered as altruistic behaviour so much as a strategy that leads to reproductive success, so long as the female has mated with the male. Or so long as chances are, if the female is fertilized by the male, she will more likely than not lay eggs fertilized and they will hatch. So I suppose the factors are how likely male iguanas are to run into female iguanas in their natural habitat, and which reproductive strategy would serve them better: dying for the female he has fertilized, or letting the female die and finding another female to mate. Without this information, we can't really draw conclusions about whether it's altruistic behaviour or not, right? And I don't know enough about iguanas to say.
    • Why, asks Gregg, is the peaceful dolphin myth so pervasive despite all observation to the contrary (p.208)? It's a little something called confirmation bias.
While we're on the topic of language, fascinating article that briefly discusses black ASL: What Counts as Standard? on Lithub,

No comments:

Post a Comment