Sing it: whale sound and the science of non-human speech

Whale FM is taking up my time.

Some whale sounds reflect a huge elastic twanging off a planet sized gong. Some sound like a gothic door on an ancient hinge. Some whale songs sound like the most orchestral fart you have ever done. All songs must break the bubble wrap muffler of the ocean. The medium isn’t the message, but it’s got everything to to do with how the songs have evolved. contains thousands of sound clips of pilot whales in the north Pacific. It is a crowdsourcing project that invites us to match similar sound clips by playing them and watching the accompanying phonogram.

The site does not suggest what we should we looking for. You could match on timbre or length. You could match pulsatile sounds and continuous sounds. The reflex action is to match phraseologies – phrases that play out in a similar sequence of morphemes over similar lengths of time. One common phrase consists of an initial squeal, a high bellow and a sharp decrescendo.

I matched 18 whale sounds like so before I learned that the major understanding on whale song is indeed in the syntax. Not a lot is known about pilot whales, but the closely related orca is known to share syntactical dialects within groups.

The researchers appear to be tracking the evolution of memes between populations – catch phrases that whales pick up from one another, mutating the sequence as it goes along.

Now there are a lot of people who say that there is a huge gulf between the language of humans and the communication rudiments of non-humans. We hear that no animal uses symbols of any kind. It is interesting to read that language itself did not evolve like a hand or an eye, so it looks like the lesser creatures are doomed to wander the earth mutely forever. There are no primitive languages or languages in the making– we are told the gulf is absolute. It is different to the argument on moral codes. In this argument, non-humans have moral codes up to a point, but they are never going to debate abortion or same sex marriage.

But you wonder what the guys at are up to. And you read something like this and you get a different take on it. Rather than comparing whale song to our own language, we are admitting that it is simply completely different and we don’t know much about it. We may never interpret it and there may be more important things to do. But we respect its complexity. We don’t rule out that the message is meaningful. I’m down with that.


Part 1: Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory. Patrick Wilcken

I’m reading this magic bio of Claude Levi Strauss by Patrick Wilcken. If you are into anthrozoology you must come to Claude.

He was tall and healthy. He lived to 101. Let’s vaguely amass his worldly contribution from say 1930.
As a young academic Claude swiveled on a tripod of Freud, Marx and geology, attracted by the things underneath things. He moved like a magnet on the pull of his mind.

Anthropology was an infant discipline when Claude was himself a young academic. His ideas were impressionistic like flowers on a badly printed pillowcase. Tough to master in the large, so he started with the One. He asked, what is a human being? And thus went to Brazil to track the remnant societies of hunter gatherer Indians.

A predictable peregrination for the time, with teams of cattle, mules, hired herders. He saw the human condition in the layout of the pioneer towns. He saw it in the careful balancing of flour sacks on the sides of the draught animals. Just as I saw, in the Sinai this year, the weighting of scuba tanks on camels. Claude was noticing pattern, balance and relationship.

When he reached the first forest settlement of “savages” his intellectual excitement took a knock. What “took away the poetry of my naïve vision” were flecks of the same global churn that sobers us today. Broken bits of a sewing machine, cheap shitty utensils. This surely needled his conscience for his own corrupting influence, his intellectual and material lust: in his quest for artefacts: he traded similar tat and toys for exquisite, irreplaceable craft.

His sense for connections leapt out when he met the Bororo. He noticed the precision routine of their rural hamlet, the same stamp of human organization as in the pioneer village and the load weighting on the mules. Embroidered on this template was the deft association of hut to hut, tribe to clan, man to woman.

He travelled with a guy called Vellard who clearly was a dick. A tropical medicine specialist, his academic assholery included plunging a poison-tipped arrow into the thigh of a dog. The dog became torpid and died after some minutes. Vellard also ransacked a village for artefacts, and when a small child got abandoned in the fray, wondered if he could place the boy in an adoptive home and study him.

On one expedition, the Indians and the researchers alike caught a purulent conjunctivitis. Not Claude. He had a pet capuchin monkey, Lucinda, trained to cling to his boot. At times he felt lonely, futile, trapped in his mind and the sprawl of his notebooks. At the end of the expedition he swore off fieldwork for its indiscreet intrusion.

He went back to Paris to furnish a museum. War broke out and Claude, a Jew, was confused. With the fear that makes a person arrogant, he carried on as usual for some time. Danger was creeping in and Claude was dallying in the woods. But he found something. He held up a dandelion seed head and his vision exploded.

Here was the conclusion of everything. The dandelion was the result of its own structural properties, organized into a unique geometry. He built an intellectual career out of this flyaway piece of nature.

Of course he had to get away. He got an apartment in Greenwich Village NY and began lecturing on tribal kinship. He met all sorts of others in exile. His most influential friend was Roman Jakobson.

Jakobson was a philosopher of linguistics. He blew on Claude’s dandelion and what remained was the Two.

The quanta of language was phonemes, said Jakobson, and the essence of language the relationship between phonemes. This is too intelligent for me, so let’s move on.

Claude Levi-Strauss had found a vital piece of kinship circuitry. As Wilcken puts it, he saw the mathematical efficiency that drives the drama of human relationships. He was back to the big impressionist picture. Something like marriage rules, hard to understand in isolation, made sense as part of a set of contrasting strategies. He got free of the physical and came back to where he started: the forces underneath. Two dandelion seeds broke the surface and Claude put out some very special new roots.

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Canned hunting

Chris McBride is a dude. He brings important concepts to the public in large text and colour pics. Probably his major work is The White Lions of Timbavati, written in the early 70s about the emergence of individuals with a cream coat and the conservation questions thus posed. Chris is still rocking and researching in Africa to this day. Go Chris!

His wife Charlotte is still taking the air too. I guess at some point she gave up her 34 mile nightly round trips through lion country in that breakdown open sided vehicle. Running to camp with her daughter, both singing loudly, when the car blipped out yet again. Nuts!

My coworker Kate dropped the White Lions hardback on my desk one day. I spent some time admiring the style Chris and his wife brought to the savanna. In one colour plate, Chris, long, lean and flexy, rocks twill flares and a fitted cord jacket like Jarvis of the Bushveld.  His wife Charlotte is splendid in a midnight blue kaftan. She coolly guts an impala for the camera while their daughter plays with a spleen or something.

For a scientist, McBride was open about his mental struggle with the white cubs. He worried they would be social outcasts and unsuccessful hunters. Foreseeing lingering starvation, he wondered whether he should sell them to zoos and invest the capital back into the game.

He didn’t. Told you he’s a dude.

Those lions were OK. But their offspring have become part of an international freak show.

Do we object to raising and shooting a lion in captivity (for a trophy)? Many do. The first thing we’ll say is it’s unsporting. I think unsporting may have started with long-range weapons.

There is a huge issue with keeping big predators captive, and it’s still allowed all over the world.

The thing about lions is, they cause a lot of suffering themselves. Of course they are merely expressing their lion-ness, and we can expect no more. We can’t blame them for their means of survival. However, the world would be a better place if they had a little compunction in how they killed their prey. Herbivores go down in a blaze of neurons, and they don’t have to be dead for the feasting to begin. Then there’s the way they separate the men from the boys, and their fanatical devotion to napping.  They’re not going to do anything about climate change.

And maybe this is fundamentally why some people are OK with raising a white lion, semi-taming it, then blowing it away for cash. What’s the difference between this and doing it to a food animal? What are our choices? The McBrides must have seen this one coming., and they probably still find it hard to answer. 

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No coda for the cockroach

Why do I loathe the cockroaches that par occasion bypass my wooden floors?

I loathe them because I see them.

If it were mice droppings I’d be unpleased. But a roach I resist with all my urban biology.

I like spiders and all that. That’s easy.

In a zoology prac we once dissected roaches. I enjoyed this less than plucking the kidney out of a gassed rat. I had feelings for the rat. The cockroach was just a lump of gross with an egg sac coming out of it. And I felt shameful. My higher feeling had deserted me.

I shriek for cockroaches. In reality they are the Oriental type and they can’t get vertical onto surfaces. They aren’t in my foodstuffs. They can’t harm me, but they unhinge me something terrible. I have a man comes round, George, who seals my cracks. He sprays and patches up millimetre thin crevices with a crude paste. This is useless.

All the time in the world. Pal.

I have semi Buddhist sensibilities: I avoid killing anything, but I’m not sure about the purpose attributed to all beings. I killed my first roach about a year ago. I don’t even know what it takes for the creatures to die. I don’t know what the difference between life and death is for a cockroach. It seems you have to physically obliterate their molecules so that post-cohesive, the roach just isn’t there anymore.

If I get an infection I have my own cohesion to consider, so I stop the breeding of bacteria with chemicals. Well, you can’t really kill bacteria, just slow them down. The roach is equally solid. It doesn’t get bleed, get cancer, have agonising childbirth. Neither do plankton, but we need the plankton.

I think the cockroach has a good thing going. I wonder if it has quality of life in the dark, the close. His power is that of the swarm, but the last roach alive will hang out a goodly long time and probably never yearn for the touch of his kin.

Then again, listen to Lydia Davis.

“It is in his moment of hesitation that you sense him as an intelligent creature. Between his pause and his change of direction, you are sure, there is a quick thought.”

In the company of animals. James Serpell

JS has a big line in companion animal research. He once helped a New York Times journalist overcome her pet co-dependency. His 1986 review is an excellent primer to the dilemma of domestication.

There’s a ton of history in this book. It builds up to the conflict in which we personally invest, with the tenderest of hearts, in certain species and not others. Check out the levels. There have been almighty animal gods, and we still revere non-humans in documentaries, wildlife safaris and ladybird on a dew dropped leaf screensavers.  This could be a sort of worshipping by proxy. At the bottom of the pyramid are the animals we incorporate into our own cells. They arrive on the plate via a largely invisible chain of events. And in the middle, in the home and alive, are the animals we touch, feed, and talk to. Some say pet keeping is parenting by proxy.

So all three levels remove humans from nature. In this argument, keeping pets is as unnatural as keeping sows in oversmall pens.

This is where my thinking becomes increasingly circular and tormented.

Serpell’s message in this text is our moral anguish at our distance from nature. But it’s the distance from nature that has given us more moral latitude in the first place.

When we were dying in the jaws of animals, we didn’t have to feel so bad about killing them too. But things got complicated as we got more imaginative. There were animal totems, tabus, things you could and couldn’t do to another living being. Rituals you had to do to purify your carnist appetite. Lions STILL don’t do this when they’re ripping the near-term foetuses out of a warthog’s belly. (True story)

Where did the guilt come from? It was there since forever, and we outstride it somehow, but not indefinitely. We’re such adolescents.

Anyway, we domesticated things for use, suckled their young for kicks. Kids saw themselves mirrored and laughed. We liked the animals, especially the tame ones who stayed babylike and cute in the face.

And now we think about it all the more. We empathize, study the culture and needs of the beast in the bed, and we worry, and we wish we’d never stopped being an animal so we didn’t have to feel so torn in our age of biological destruction.

Subplot of a big story. This is the way it is, and it’s something to work with.

Great book. Thank you James.

That raptor, the rogue

Aunty Pam skyped me from Hillcrest, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. First she was skyping her grandson Troy. Troy saw my green light and said “That dude is on.”

“What dude?” asked Pam.

“That London dude.”

So Pam rang off and called me.

She told me that a crowned eagle got hold of her prize Yorkie bitch, which was pregnant but miscarried in the scuffle. Uncle Mike witnessed the event and roared at the eagle. It released the dog, and the dog lives. The eagle perhaps flew home empty-taloned to its nestling, by now receiving a good education in the Sucks department of being non-human.

It's tough being a kid.

Let’s examine this manifold tissue of events. Culture (human) vs nature is what anthrozoology is built on. Gods and government always knew that nature would be the last bad guy. And nature can take your eye out. And the peasant man knows that if you’re lost in the woods, don’t dance round the toadstools. Don’t sex with the weasel. Because you’ll get incorporated. “There’s piskies up to Dartmoor, and t’idden gude yu sez there b’aint!” — Cornish feudal servant ca 1600.

Incorporation and the corpus. The living dogs husbanded by Aunty Pam and the near-corpse of the snatched up bitch. Aunty Pam invests commercially in Yorkshire terriers. Each puppy sells for a whack of SA Rand. They go to breeders, families, retired folks who’d like to subsume another round of kids. Another stock opinion from the AZ lit : the animal is “petrified” – incorporated into human existence and sacrificing its dogness for a lap. It’s not complicit in the exchange – it just is.

The eagle in KZN preys largely on vervet monkeys. A heavily pregnant small companion animal may be an easier target. Eagles catching dogs and cats is stock urban legend where I grew up. This is the first genuine report I’ve heard. That these worlds are colliding without fission astonishes me. I need to know more. I haven’t heard about any disgruntled dog breeders poisoning crowned eagles, but you never know.

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