What can we learn from the cetaceans? How to stay with each other, no matter what
Intriguing essay from philosopher Rupert Read in Open Democracy, prompted by the end of David Attenborough's Blue Planet 2 series on the BBC. Can humans learn anything from animal behaviour, that might help them to live less destructively on the planet?
Read asks us to consider that what nature often shows us is what a less ego-driven existence would feel like. He dwells on the distressing nature of mass strandings of dolphins or whales:
Some mass strandings can be explained by reference to pollution that makes the cetaceans in question ill; or by reference to the sonar with which our navies are filling our seas, indiscriminately and highly-destructively. But there are plenty of cases which don’t fit this kind of model, cases where one or some of the pod are beached ill or wounded while others are fit and healthy.
It certainly appears stupid that the latter are unwilling to save themselves even when their conspecifics are doomed, unless we change the frame. Instead of asking repeatedly, ‘Why won’t this dolphin save itself, or even allow itself to be saved?’, we should step back to think about whether the notion of ‘self’ in play here may be prejudicial. Perhaps the cetacean sense of self transcends what for us are divisions between individuals.
To understand cetacean society, we have to let go of philosophical and ideological assumptions about the separateness of living beings from one another, assumptions which seem natural to us as human beings—though perhaps only because we are so deeply captive to an ideology of individualism: we don’t see it, for it’s the sea we swim in. Instead, we may have to contemplate the lived reality of what we would call ‘larger-than-self’ individuals, as indivisible identities.
I’d argue that, if cetaceans were able to speak to us, and were part of a pod undergoing a mass stranding who we were seeking to lead back out to sea, they might say something like this: “You ask me to save myself. But you haven’t understood that it would be part of myself that I would be leaving on the beach if I did as you asked.” If we could understand that, then we might have a much better chance of survival on this planet ourselves. That would be ‘being us.’
Then we might be better placed to think as a civilisation and to survive, for we would feel directly the reality of all the others who we are committing to suffering or death through our actions—and maybe then, we wouldn’t be able to go on doing these things.
Cetaceans expand our sense of what is humanly possible vis-a-vis relationships and community. Or perhaps they exceed it. They indicate a spectrum along which we are far from reptiles (who have no interest in their own young, and will eat them if they come across them), but perhaps not quite as advanced as cetaceans.
What kinds of beings do we need to become in order to survive the coming ecological devastation, and in order to avoid accelerating it beyond the range of civilisational survival? I would say: communitarian animals, not libertarians, liberals or neoliberals. I think cetaceans present us with an enormous clue as to what that could mean, if we are willing to hear them.
Maybe reflecting deeply on how cetaceans do sometimes walk willingly into mass strandings might help us to figure out how not to walk into our own global suicide, because, in a way so wonderfully, they’re unable or unwilling to imagine leaving each other, as we see played out in the incredibly moving way they actively resist being saved.
But perhaps we’re only doing so because, unlike them, we find it too easy to imagine leaving each other, and in particular, leaving our children to their fates. Maybe we can learn to be more like cetaceans—who simply will not do this.