Speaking of community, it can be useful to turn to other species to learn about community. In his rich book, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina shares rich research and stories of three members of the animal kingdom, namely the sperm whale, the scarlet macaws (parrots in south American rainforests), and our close cousins, chimpanzees.
Safina establishes up front that we become who we are through genes but also by culture. “Culture is also a form of inheritance” which instructs us “not in gene pools but in minds.” We receive genes from our parents, but culture “from anyone and everyone” in our social group. We are not born with culture, yet culture improves survival and can lead us where genes must follow and adapt.
Humans learn how to live from other humans, but apes learn from apes, whales from whales, parrots from parrots and honeybees from honeybees. They have their ways of communication and they have their cultures. “Many animals must learn almost everything about how to become who they will be.”
Let us consider first the sperm whale.
Whales, like us, are mammals and they first evolved on land, and when some returned to the sea they became whales. They live nomadic lives, of epic breadth and depth.” Whales often travel over forty miles a day and over 20,000 miles annually and they spend about fifty minutes of every hour underwater. They “construct a remarkable sense of family.” The “click” sounds are their own language and they “can easily hear each other” even when miles apart in the sea, the water being a handy conductor of sound. “For them, being able to hear their family members counts as ‘together.’”
“For sperm whales, family is everything.” They signal their identity and a sense of belonging to a “bond group” by way of “codas.” They also alert about predators with a “coda” message. Clans communicate with each other by way of their codas. A single clan may consist of as many as 10,000 individual whales. Members of one clan never socialize with members of a different clan. “Sperm whale clans constitute a kind of national or tribal identity at a scale larger than any other non-human.”
Other animals don’t have human culture—but whales have whale culture and elephants have elephant culture, etc. Only in the 1950’s did humans begin to learn that whales sang. Whales are said to “give the ocean its voice, and the voice they hive is ethereal and unearthly.” Many people “burst into tears” on hearing whales singing.
It is said that learning about whales singing is what saved them from extinction. “Humans learned that whales are not a thing but, rather, neighbors living with us in the world. And so astonished were we by this realization that whales went from being ingredients of margarine in the 1960s to spiritual icons of the 1970s emerging environmental movement.”
See: Carl Safina, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, pp. xiii, 7, 9, 12, 30, 37f.
See Matthew Fox, “Animals and Compassion,” in Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 162-171.
Banner image: “A Humpback whale breaches, swimming up towards the surface until it continues into the air. Barnacles dangle from their anchor points on the whale’s chin. September 28, 2020, Monterey Bay.” Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash
What is your experience of community among beings other than humans? How can they teach humans to be better at community?
A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice
In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity.
“Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register