By CARL SAFINA
Scientists refer to the diversity of life on Earth as biodiversity, which usually means the diversity of species, genes and habitats. In this essay, a prominent ecologist delves into a fourth area that has been almost entirely overlooked: cultural diversity. He explains that passing down learned skills and knowledge also provides species with ways to stay resilient that can help them adapt to a changing world.
Years ago, a captive young orca at Marineland Canada somehow had the insight to figure out that spreading mashed fish at the surface of the pool, then sinking out of view, could bring a little sport into his life. If a gull landed, the whale shot upward, sometimes catching—and eating—the gull. He set the trap many times. Eventually, his younger half-brother and three other whales caught on.
Learned skills, knowledge and customs that spread socially—through innovative individuals—and are passed down through generations were, for centuries, considered uniquely human. Humans had culture. Other animals merely had in-the-moment instincts. But now it’s becoming clear that, just like us, many species have cultures of their own and they must learn it from their elders—who learned from their elders.
Cultural learning spreads survival skills (such as what is food and how to get it), creates identity and a sense of belonging within a group (and recognition that there are other groups) and carries on traditions that are defining aspects of existence (such as how to perform effective courtship songs and dances). Living in nature doesn’t always come naturally—animals must learn local quirks and how to communicate and be heard effectively in a particular place among their specific group.
So, while learning how to live from others is human, it’s also orca, raven, ape, parrot, even honeybee. Some creatures must learn almost everything to adapt within their community and survive in the place they live. Sometimes culture is even more powerful than DNA.
For example, orcas have a culture that brings individuals together into groups called pods. The whales know and recognize other individuals in their pod, and certain pods mix, mingle, mate, hunt and play together in a community with social layering recognized as more complex than that of chimpanzees. But other adjacent orca communities avoid each other for purely cultural reasons. The so-called northern and southern resident communities of the North Pacific have been seen feeding less than a thousand yards apart—but they never mingle. Their DNA shows these non-mingling neighbors are genetically the same species. The only discernible differences between them are cultural: their vocal dialects. This self-segregation of cultural groups is so exceptional that researchers say, it has “no parallel outside humans.”
Sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean also maintain vast, non-mingling groups. There, researchers have identified six sperm whale clans that distinguish themselves by patterns of emitted clicks. Each clan spans thousands of miles, each containing perhaps 10,000 sperm whales. Different sperm whale clans travel and hunt differently—and those differences are cultural. Scientists know of no other stable cultural groupings at such transoceanic scale.
Yet for many species, culture is both crucial and fragile. Long before a population declines to numbers low enough to seem threatened with extinction, their special cultural knowledge begins disappearing. When the culture chain breaks, life gets rougher. Breeding and feeding take more time. Survival drops, and the living world shrivels just a little bit more. Species recovery efforts, never assured, get harder and become more expensive.
For example, a formerly common Australian bird called the regent honeyeater is endangered by habitat destruction. It’s now so rare that young males often never get to hear an adult male singing. Without that cultural learning, the species’ traditional song is not passed down from the older generation, and younger males sound more like they’re babbling. It’s not very attractive to females, and this cultural disruption in song-learning is causing females to forego mating with muttering males—accelerating their extinction spiral.
Clearly, we all become who we are not by genes alone. Individuals receive genes only from their parents but can receive cultural learning from anyone and everyone in their social group. Culture is stored in minds with pools of knowledge—tools, skills, preferences, songs and dialects—passed through generations like a torch. And culture itself changes and evolves, often bestowing adaptability more flexibly and rapidly than genetic evolution ever could. And because culture improves survival, culture can lead, unlike genes that must follow and adapt.
Say there’s an orca group that hunts fish. For some reason—probably in response to environmental conditions—those fish-eaters begin hunting mammals. That’s a cultural shift. But if you are going to hunt mammals, evolution will begin favoring larger jaws, bigger teeth and perhaps different behaviors. The genetic changes will follow the cultural shift. That is exactly what seems to have happened over time in some orca populations.
To be clear, cultural learning is not universal among all species. But it is certainly important in the lives of most mammals, birds and fish. And it goes on all around us—usually subtly and unobserved. For some species it’s a minor aspect of life. For others, they’d die without it. Elephants learn from the matriarchal keepers of knowledge who during a drought, for example, can lead younger family members to an alternative watering hole that hasn’t been used for 20 years.
Scientists have known since the 1970s that humpback whales learn to sing structured songs. Even though separated by thousands of miles, males converging on mating grounds all sing the same song. Humpback song is composed of about 10 different consecutive themes, each made of repeated phrases of about 10 different notes that require about 15 seconds to sing. The song lasts about 10 minutes. Then the whales repeat it. For hours in the ocean, in their season of courtship, the whales sing.
Each ocean’s song is different, and over months and years it changes in the same way for the thousands of whales in each ocean, the song somehow a continual work in progress, fully shared. Sometimes the change is sudden and radical. In 2000, researchers announced that humpbacks’ song off Australia’s east coast was “replaced rapidly and completely” by the song that Indian Ocean humpbacks off Australia’s west coast had been singing. It seems that a few “foreigners” made the trek west to east, and their song became such an instant hit with the easterners that everybody had to sing it. The researchers wrote: “Such a revolutionary change is unprecedented in animal cultural vocal traditions.”
Once a phrase in the song disappears, it has never again been heard, despite decades of eavesdropping. Why do the males’ songs constantly change? Researcher Peter Tyack says, “We may have to thank the evolving aesthetic sensibilities of generations of female humpbacks for the musical features of the males’ songs.” Songs of humpback whales, by the way, have sold millions of recordings. We share that aesthetic. That might be evidence of something akin to cultural like-mindedness.
Culture, if you will, is life taking charge of and directing its own destiny. Culture creates vast stores of unprogrammed, unplanned knowledge that networks every mind that has been working on the problem of survival throughout time. And in their groups, in their lands and waters and in a world away from industrialized humans, each species knows who they are. Their lives are vivid. They do everything they can to stay alive and to keep their babies alive, just like us.
Beings who’ve succeeded on Earth for millions of years don’t seek, and should not require, our approval. They are of the world and they belong as well and as much as any of us. We do neither them nor ourselves any favors by deciding whether their existence is worthwhile. The modern human world is hardly in a position to judge, hurtling along as we are with no goal, no plan except: bigger, faster, more.
If we had the courage to be honest about it, we would have to admit that whales and birds and apes and all the rest live fully up to everything of which they are capable. And we, regrettably, fall short of doing that. For them, as for tribal peoples, to be in beauty is enough. For us in our modern, tidal retreat from the living world, nothing is enough. It is strange how dissatisfied we insist on being, when there is so much of the world to know and love.
“Who are we here with?” That’s an important question. A newer question looms: Will we let their kinds continue to exist, or will we finalize their annihilation? That’s our stark choice.
Can we humans evolve a culture for the future of life on Earth? Can humans adjust our own nature and elevate compassion in time to keep the world beautifully and abundantly alive? Only humans can ask that question. Only humans need to. And the world depends on our answer. The miracle of our Living World is rare and stunning on a cosmic scale. That makes Earth sacred. But sacred doesn’t mean safe.
Some other species make tools. We are the only species that makes global problems. It would be useful if there existed a species that solved them. Whales recognize differences among themselves because different groups have different answers to the question ‘How best can we live where we are?’ Why aren’t we asking ourselves that question?
What will it say of us if more animals vanish? Will we miss them? Or, my worse fear: that for most people, their disappearance from the world would be less noticeable than turning off a light. People at least notice when the lights go off.
The reassuring news is there is still time, and people—like you and me—who care. Wild horizons remain, and species have shown they can recover when we give them space and half a chance.
Off the East Coast beaches where my dogs and I like to greet mornings, there are now more humpback whales than have been there in a century. We often see them. Their increasing presence gives me great hope, as I contemplate their unique culture playing out beneath the waves. ◆
This article has been adapted from Carl Safina’s books Beyond Words and Becoming Wild. Defenders honored Safina with its Wildlife Legacy award in 2021 for his stalwart dedication to advocating for and protecting endangered species and preserving our nation’s wild spaces.