Trust me. This is going to be a rave review for a new book about animal-human communication by naturalist, filmmaker, and writer Tom Mustill. But first ….
I read a lot of pop-sci books about animal communication and behavior. This month, I read one in which the author explained to readers that scientists have long followed a general rule of trying not to assign human motivations and emotions to observed animal behavior. It’s true; they have. However, the author also said that now many “leading scientists” consider anthropomorphizing a perfectly fine thing to do. Having assured readers that the times they are a-changin’, the author of this pop-sci book proceeded to ascribe human motivations and emotions willy-nilly to observed animal behavior. As part of this wither-goest-my-heart-so-goest-my-explanations approach, she “enlightened” her dear readers about male bowerbirds, who she said build elaborate bowers and decorate them with bling “for love.” To be clear, as a rule, male bowerbirds do build elaborate bowers and do go to great lengths to decorate them. They are also, however, famously promiscuous. They build bowers to attract females willing to mate and then leave. Females must build their own nests and raise their young alone. Post mating, as soon as the female has flown away, the male can mate again and again. And again. If you want to anthropomorphize about bower-building, think “he’s constructing a screw shack,” not “he’s building a honeymoon house and filling it with jewels that will be hers forever.” The female doesn’t get to keep the bling. That stuff is just honey in a honey pot. Tina Turner may have had bowerbirds in mind when she sang, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Fortunately, the very same week that I read about bowerbirds in love, I also got to read the book I’m reviewing here. It’s Tom Mustill’s How to Speak Whale. It is anything but a fuzzy thinking pop-sci book. It’s more like a first-class nature film put on paper. It does not anthropomorphize animal behavior and it steers very clear of injecting human bias into discussions of animals’ intentions. Indeed, it is a reasoned, entertaining, and fact-filled inquiry into the particulars of animal communication and the possibilities of humans ever talking to any animals.
Mustill’s particular interest is in whales. His first chapter relates a horrifying incident in which he and a friend narrowly escaped death when a 50-ton humpback whale breached the ocean surface and landed on their kayak, releasing the energy equivalent of about forty hand grenades. Mustill’s experience as a naturalist, filmmaker, and writer have made him exceptionally qualified at relating both the terrifying and intriguing details of that scene.
Because of his years of investigating animal behavior and communication, Mustill has formed friendships with scientists of many stripes. After his whale incident, and looking for meaning in his near-death experience, he wondered in correspondence with anatomist Professor Joy Reidenberg at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York about how it came to pass that a whale falling on their kayak hadn’t killed him and his friend.
Professor Reidenberg viewed the You-Tube video of the event. As Mustill explained,
“ Joy has spent her entire life studying [whale] anatomy. From her laboratory seventeen floors above Central Park, surrounded by the skulls of killer whales … she wrote that the breach the whale had executed seemed weird — that it started out going one way, and then appeared to change its course in the air above us. Instead of landing on us, it twisted and veered away, only clipping us with its fin. ‘I think you two survived because the whale cared about trying not to hit you,’ she wrote.”
Astonishing. The whale may have “cared” about humans. Now, note that I’ve already flagged Mustill as someone who is very careful not to anthropomorphize about animals.
Meanwhile, not all whale experts with whom Mustill consulted agreed with Professor Reidenberg’s point of view. At least one suggested that the whale had aggressively attacked the kayak. The lack of resolution left Mustill wishing that he could just ask the whale. He even knew which whale to ask. Amateur whale sleuths had already identified it by using huge, web-based photo databases and a computer algorithm. Knowing full well that any fulsome conversation with Prime Suspect (as the sleuths had dubbed it) was far beyond the realm of possibility, Mustill became curious about how and when humans and whales might ever come to genuinely communicate thoughts, emotions, intentions, and ideas.
And so he began writing a book that looks carefully and respectfully at the science of animal-human communication. Like many a good documentary film, the book tells intriguing stories about a handful of researchers asking questions and looking judiciously for answers. They examine communication among dolphins, porpoises, prairie dogs, horses, fish, chickens, chimps, baboons, parrots, and bowerbirds. Most of the book’s focus, however, is on whales and whale song. According to Mustill, scientists are using traditional research methods like tagging as well as more recent technologies including underwater robots, cameras, and microphones to collect and analyze enormous data sets. Their hope is that, one day, humans may be able to “speak whale.”
“Big data meets big beasts,” Mustill has quipped about the methods currently being used to decipher whale speech and animal speech in general. Fortunately for him, many researchers are pursuing some of the very questions that his traumatic encounter with a humpback imprinted on his psyche. How can we collect and decode the majority of sounds that any given species makes? How can we understand the way non-human animals perceive the world? How can we see past our cornucopia of human biases to know what is important to an animal from another species? How can we listen to and make their sounds in a way that engenders trust and dialogue?
How to Speak Whale is not a primer on whale speech. It is an almost filmic look at the world of whales and at animal behavior and communication in general.
How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication
Tom Mustill. $29. Grand Central Publishing (384 pages). September 2022.