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Tue 20 October 2020
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John Mitchinson is back with another fact and fun-filled insight into the human animal and what we can learn from orcas and octopuses

At the end of September, there were reports from the waters off the coast of southern Spain that pods of orcas – killer whales – had been intentionally ramming sailing boats.

Cetacean experts were quick to point out this was deeply unusual behaviour as no human has ever been killed by an orca in an attack in the wild. Eyewitnesses described the hours-long ramming sessions as feeling orchestrated and that the animals appeared “pissed off”. As well they might. The Gibraltar coast is an overcrowded and polluted stretch of ocean. Fish stocks are in steep decline and there is the ever-present danger of injury from nets and fishing lines. The population of orcas in the area is now as low as 30. 

You come into your full being as the human animal and a great silent, natural sentience is telling you, you belong.

Whatever the cause of the behaviour, the story stirs up a deep unease. Is the natural world beginning to rebel? Is our baleful stewardship of the planet pushing some species beyond the limits of their endurance? What are they trying to tell us? How smart are they? 

The honest answer is we don’t, and maybe can’t, know.


Cetacean and primate brains have been developing on separate evolutionary branches for more than 55 million years, but we have both developed similar capacities for handling complex social interactions. Killer whales have families, cultures and dialects like us. But cetacean brains are not just bigger versions of our own: they have capacities ours don’t.

In particular, their ability to integrate sensory information is much faster, probably as a result of evolutionary pressure exerted by living in water. Sound waves travel four times faster under water and whales have turned the ocean itself into a sophisticated communication system. They ‘see’ through sound in a way that is unimaginable to us: we simply lack the cranial equipment to do so.

The massive head of the sperm whale focuses sound into a burst that can stun a giant squid, but it also acts as a kind of acoustic retina, a giant IMAX sound screen through which it interprets its dark world. And when we attempt to ‘translate’ the clicks and whistle of a dolphin or the long complex songs of a humpback, we do so through the template of our own language – simple sounds articulated in a long and complex sequence.

But the ‘language’ of whales and dolphins isn’t like Italian or Urdu. It’s made up of complex sounds perceived simultaneously. What we might need dozens of sounds to communicate, they can carry in a single sound. 

So, asking how smart they are is the wrong question.

As the veteran cetacean expert and conservationist Paul Watson observes in a piece in The Ecologist: “Evolution moulds our projection of intelligence. Humans evolved as tool-makers, obsessed with danger and group aggression. This makes it very difficult for us to comprehend intelligent non-manipulative beings whose evolutionary history featured ample food supplies and an absence of fear from external dangers.”

To have a chance of understanding them, we need to think more like them.

An encouraging recent example of an attempt to do just this is the new Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, which captures in glorious, almost hallucinatory detail, the year-long relationship between film-maker Craig Foster and a female octopus in the kelp forest off the southern coast of Africa.

Octopuses are as close to an alien life forms as it’s possible to get – liquid in form, constantly changing shape and colour, with three hearts, blue blood and a brain distributed across its body. How can such a creature ‘think’? And yet, as Foster patiently shows by entering into her world without wetsuit or tank, here she is clearly revealing a capacity not just for the use of tools, disguise and careful planning, but also for having fun, and even showing affection. 

It is a moving film, but it is animated by a more important impetus than anthropomorphism.

Foster first made his name in 2000 with his award-winning film, The Great Dance, which followed a group of San hunters in the Kalahari. The San taught him that a proper relationship with nature requires us to be patient, to engage with it on its own terms, to observe and to suspend human notions of intelligence. This is what Foster does in the kelp forest and he is repaid handsomely.

But his broader point is that, approached in the right spirit, any patch of nature, any back garden, would gradually reveal similar patterns of complexity and interdependence and also – crucially – clues as to how we might better re-imagine ourselves as part of the whole. 

In a piece about the change her husband’s year of cephalopod obsession made in her own practise as a wildlife journalist, Foster’s wife Swati Thiyagarajan offers the perfect summary: “You come into your full being as the human animal and a great silent, natural sentience is telling you, you belong.” 

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI


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