Field of Science

Compassionate whales?

When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.
In Natural History we are told the story of Humpback Whales coming to the rescue of seals on the run from Orcas. The quote above is how the authors conclude the article, in which different Humpbacks saved different seals on three occasions. I believe, as opposed to know, that the whales can feel compassion and a range of "human" emotions. And that's not a 50/50 guess, but one that rests not only of observations like these with the seals, but also on the fact that the whales do have very large brains (not thereby saying that size is everything, even though it clearly does matter).

We don't know for sure, but I think that when dealing with whales and other animals (e.g. elephants and dolphins) that clearly show what we call empathy, sorrow, and compassion in humans, we should assume that they feel it. Otherwise we might make the same mistake as Europeans did with Africans and Native Americans, and end up hurting them to an extent we will come to regret.

1 comment:

  1. You know that dolphins are the only other species to have been shown to exhibit self-awareness? (Using the mirror test, which you can look up). When I say other, I mean non-primate. Dolphins, like whales, are cetaceans, and it stands to reason that perhaps most cetaceans have self-awareness. (These experiments to show self-awareness are difficult enough to do with dolphins). What if compassion is an emotion that is directly related to the ability to be self-aware? Simply because the idea of self implies the ability to have empathy, that is, to understand that others like you have the *same* concept of self? That would be very interesting!


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