Save the Humans

This week in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE Charles Siebert wrote one of those articles you want to point all your best friends toward: “What Are the Whales Trying to Tell Us?”

Siebert is one of my favorite environmental journalists, one interested in writing about the hastily constructed, ever dissolving lines between our species and the millions of others we share the planet with.

What does it mean to be human? What actually is unique about our species? These are some of the questions Siebert often explores.

After you read one of Siebert’s pieces you find yourself thinking about the fences we’ve placed between the animal kingdom and human society and how maybe they just aren’t as high or as solid as we’d once thought.

Geneticists now tell us that the difference between the human genome and that of our closest species kin, the chimpanzee, is a mere 3 percent. What does a discovery like this mean to our concept of humanity?

Shouldn’t our survival be based not so much on exploitation and dominance as cooperation and sympathy?

Case in point: Siebert’s whales. On an excursion along the borders of the human/animal realms he goes to Baja to ride out in small boats with scientists to study whale behavior in the warm Pacific waters. It seems something strange has been happening in the whale birthing lagoons along the Pacific coast.

We all know the journey whales have been on. There hasn’t been much cooperation of sympathy with humans until recently.

Once mysterious “monsters of the deep,” whales were off-shore meat reserves for Native American tribes who hunted them. Then they were the 19th century equivalent of the Middle East-vast swimming oil reserves to be rendered for lamps and lubrication.

By the dawn of the 20th century we’d hunted almost all of their various species nearly to extinction.

Since the 1937 international ban on hunting, gray whales have staged a dramatic comeback. With a population once less than a 1000, there are now an estimated 18,000 gray whales plying the oceans.

Once the site of gray whale slaughter on a massive scale, the Baja lagoons have now become a field station for interspecies relationships.

What the scientists have found is that 40-foot whales in these protected waters are “sociable and extraverted.” In Baja scientists observe that “at precisely the time when you’d expect them to be most defensive… they’ll come right up to the boats, let people touch their faces, give them massages, rub their mouths and tongues.”

Whales are known to “…teach and learn.” They scheme. They cooperate, and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all our transgressions against them, they may even in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.”

The question though is can we learn to trust whales? They have a story so much different from ours and to discover its plot may be essential for our own survival.

We humans evolved on the savannahs of Africa, and whales evolved in the oceans of the world. We are both large mobile mammals with huge brains. (Siebert points out that a sperm whale has the largest brain on the planet, weighing 19 pounds.) Surely we could learn something from their story?

What could we learn from them about climate change? Scientists say gray whales are “resilient and adaptable.” They seem to be adjusting to their changing habitat. Maybe we can learn to adapt as well by limiting the use of fossil fuels and leaving another archaic form of energy behind, just like we did with whale oil.

After reading Siebert I always ask myself the same question: Can we humans ever get past this dominion fence we’ve constructed? It’s a high fence but the whales seem to know how build a ladder, if not bring it down.

The jury’s still out, but at least Siebert keeps bringing me the stories that help me see there are those out there asking the same question: who are those strange wild relatives of ours and what can we learn from them?

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