Walker Smith, Chapel Hill:’Watching Whales Watching Us’, New York Times

By far, the most interesting thing I read this year was a magazine article not a book.
Almost all of the books I read this year were about the recession and financial crisis or about the finance fundamentals I needed to learn in order to comprehend the economic crisis.  When I wasn’t reading books on economics and finance, I was reading blogs about economics and finance.  It reminded me why I chose cultural anthropology not macroeconomics as my undergraduate major.  My year was spent shaking my head in amazement over the extent to which so many economists just don’t seem to get it so much of the time.
On Sunday, July 12, smack dab in the middle of my self-tutorial on depression economics, I picked up The New York Times Magazine with a cover story entitled, “Watching Whales Watching Us.”  It begins with a familiar account of whales being driven to beaching themselves in acts of suicidal madness by the sonar tracking devices being used in military exercises.  Great, I thought, more ‘depression’ stuff to read, only ecology now.  But after recounting the court battles about this that culminated in a dismal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Navy , the story segues into something entirely new if not surreal, though very inspiring. 
Maybe, this article suggests, whales are actually reaching out to us to offer us something which we most assuredly don’t deserve — forgiveness.
Why do whales continue to seek us out despite all we have done to them?  Is it possible that they have the intelligence and emotional complexity to engage in a cross-species dialogue with us about reconciliation and absolution?  Are whales capable of bestowing grace on us?
Looking for humans

In Baja’s Laguna San Ignacio, New York Times writer Charles Seibert plies the waters with a group of biologists and whale watchers to discover what they have known for years through their repeated encounters with whales:
“Perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again…’It’s extraordinary,’ [marine mammal behavioralist named Toni Frohoff] said. ‘At precisely the time when you’d expect them to be the most defensive, they’re incredibly social. They’ll come right up to boats, let people touch their faces, give them massages, rub their mouths and tongues’…And yet for all of their inherent elusiveness, the gray whales of Baja baffle scientists for the opposite reason: They can’t seem to get enough of us humans.”
This is truly amazing, as Seibert notes:
“A fellow mammal breaking the boundary of its domain for a long look at you is beguiling in and of itself. Such behavior becomes downright otherworldly, however, when you consider the not-so-distant history of human-whale interactions in the birthing lagoons of Baja.”
The article describes what we have come to learn about whales’ incredibly complex and deep social structures, intelligence and communication abilities.  It is fascinating reading that makes you squirm with discomfort over the violence we have visited upon these sublime creatures.
Possibilities of transcendence

Eventually, Seibert raises the question – the possibility – that seems so surreal yet so inspiring to me: Have whales merely learned where they can safely approach us to indulge their instinctive animal curiosity, or are they approaching us where they can because they have consciously decided to forgive us?

“I asked Frohoff at one point if, given both the dark past of human-whale interactions in those lagoons and what we’ve now come to know about whale intelligence, there could possibly be some element of knowing forgiveness behind their actions. She took a deep breath and widened her eyes, making it clear that she wanted to be very careful about how she answered such a question.

” ‘Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn’t dare consider,’ she said. ‘But thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I’d say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount that possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility. And even if it’s not that exactly, I believe it’s something. That there’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology.’

Perhaps Seibert’s article just caught me on a day when I was worn down from my study of economic artifices like the “rational man” (although economists confess this ‘person’ is a construct, it nevertheless, continues to stand at the very center of their discipline) and financial failures like the subprime fiasco (also rooted in make-believe).  Maybe I was just vulnerable that morning to even the smallest hint of a suggestion of the possibility of transcendence. Perhaps.  But give it a read and see what you think.  It’s well worth an hour.  And maybe it will catch you in the right mood, too, ready to believe, ready to accept, ready to embrace the possibility that there is something beyond us that bring out the best in us if we will only give it a chance.

(The illustration at the top of the post is from the New York Times article, and is used with thanks.)

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