SPYING ON WHALES: THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF EARTH'S MOST AWESOME CREATURES (PENGUIN, 2018) by noted paleontologist NICK PYENSON, curator of fossil marine mammals at the SMITHSONIAN's MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY in WASHINGTON D.C., is a compelling journey through the process of SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY and the individuals that participate in the learning and uncovering of the hidden ECOLOGICAL, EVOLUTIONARY and CULTURAL secrets of these celebrated majestic animals.
throughout the book there is much effort made to stress the importance of PHYSICAL EVIDENCE and the COLLECTION OF DATA in the generating of suppositions regarding the history of WHALES and their role in various ecosystems within the water column. as new specimens are collected and technological modeling methods perfected, more nuanced HYPOTHESES are rendered and informatively debated among experts. what is presented in SPYING ON WHALES in essence is an intelligent and complex lineage of animals who have evolved physically and tactically to exploit their unique placement in the food chain.
one aspect of such is the GIGANTISM of some species, namely the BLUE and FIN WHALES, whose size is a hypothesized reaction to being able to efficiently travel long distances at depth and take advantage of seasonal feeding grounds hemispheres away. their size also renders a sense of PROTECTION as they are essentially apex predators in that would-be predators seek easier prey that require less energy to submit to their will.
another aspect presented is the CULTURAL and interpersonal relationships among WHALES that utilize language and, in the case of ORCAS, coordinated pack maneuvering. unfortunately since we do not speak their LANGUAGE or have any insight into their coded communications, the idea of the true depths of their CULTURAL INTERACTIONS with one another is a tantalizing off-limits as of now.
the aspect i found most interesting included the ECOLOGICAL significance of BLUE WHALES in that they spread nutrients throughout the water column and serve as an integral part of multiple ECOSYSTEMS. through their feces they spread nutrients near the surface that were originally taken at depth. likewise when they perish and fall to the ocean floor as a WHALE FALL (great band name!), their carcasses serve as fuel for a whole series of creatures at various points in its DECOMPOSITION. in essence the connect the oceans and spread vital nutrients to various shareholders.
which makes CLIMATE CHANGE, WHALING and ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION by the hands of humans such a sad point of reality in the book. as conditions change and deteriorate rapidly, many of these less flexible WHALE iterations are seemingly doomed to perish and become extinct as they are perfectly evolved for a past set of ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURES. it seems doubtful that benevolent efforts by mankind will undo the damage our industry and petroleum-based economy has done unto the globe and its myriad of interconnecting ecosystems.
sadly this book feels like a EULOGY. at the same time the more flexible and coordinated of the WHALE species will find a way to survive. what is hopeful is that there are a series of committed scientists, like PYENSON, that are seeking to investigate and learn as much as possible about WHALES, their relatives and their vital role in the ocean (both past and present) for the sake of posterity.
INTO THE WILD (VILLARD, 1996) by JON KRAKAUER is the type of book that follows and gnaws at you long after you finished reading it. this nonfiction account of the forces, both personal and cultural, that led to the demise of CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS in the ALASKAN bush makes the reader consider what it means to live a fulfilled life.
MCCANDLESS is a complicated, controversial and deeply confounding figure who seemingly both taps into an ingrained exclusively AMERICAN pioneer spirit that celebrates personal freedom and self-reliance through communion with nature in the tradition of RALPH WALDO EMERSON, HENRY DAVID THOREAU and JOHN MUIR while also serving as a tragic symbol of incompetence that could only be derived from an entrenched sense of WHITE PRIVILEGE and EXCEPTIONALISM.
and that mystery regarding why MCCANDLESS, who for all accounts and purposes harbored a deep curiosity and a supremely astute and literate mind, entered that harsh terrain so unprepared is essentially the beauty of this book. was it ego-driven? was it to escape the pressures of adulthood and family?
moving past the particulars of his death, as a reader you are dealt with the broader implications surrounding the question of why people, especially young people, partake in risky behavior in general. as a social species are we predisposed to engage in risky activities as a means of proving something to ourselves? others?
as for myself i have taken jobs in countries of questionable security such as MYANMAR, VENEZUELA and ALBANIA and traveled to similarly sketchy places like BRASIL. i can honestly say that my main motivation was curiosity about the lives and cultures of others. if these efforts were later validated or questioned by others, i would ignore such just the same with equal vigor. for some reason, and this may be pure projection on my part, i see MCCANDLESS as someone seeking to test himself and push his boundaries. risking his personal health with no security net in itself was the point. he was all in and new the risks. emotionally i get it the romanticism of that ideal, but intellectually it is difficult to justify the suffering he inflicted on his loved ones, even those he was estranged from. it just seems needless, excessive and ultimately selfish.
but the more i think about him the more i am torn, which again is probably the point of the book. he is an ideal RORSCHACH TEST to project your own values and sense of what constitutes a well-lived life. for my part i see service to your community, however wide or narrowly you define such, as the optimal measure of the value of one's existence.
ultimately i feel like he was acting in service of his own ego. its impossible to justify his actions due to the suffering he inflicted, but then again he knew the risks and he paid them with his life. he paid the price of servicing his ego and not his community. but i dont know. its complicated. he lived the life he wanted and made his decisions without fear or influence. this was just an unfortunate outcome.
this is an interesting book that continues to confound me. well worth reading and i recommend it highly. wish i taught this book during my teaching career. i can only imagine the discussions.
OCTOPUSES are cool. and yes, i said OCTOPUSES, not OCTOPI which is incorrect (as you can't add latin suffixes to greek-derived words for all you grammar nerds out there).
years ago when i was working in VENEZUELA i had the great privilege of scuba diving in the LOS ROQUES archipelago. not once but twice. saw lots of fish, sharks, eels, crabs and other sea-life, but sadly not one OCTOPUS. which was a bummer no doubt. been fascinated with them since childhood.
naturalist SY MONTGOMERY in her book THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A SURPRISING EXPLORATION IN THE WONDER OF CONSCIOUSNESS (ATRIA, 2016) goes about exploring the inner world of several captive OCTOPUSES at the NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM in BOSTON. while the book does give insight into the almost alien capabilities of these amazing cephalopods (i.e. tasting through skin, having appendages that are semi-autonomous from the brain, intelligence derived in evolutionary terms not from group relations but in isolation), what make MONTGOMERY's book compelling is her exploration of the emotional and spiritual ramifications of these abilities. what can an OCTOPUS discern about us via tasting our complex chemical signatures via its touch? what hidden knowledge do they possess about CONSCIOUSNESS and the nature of reality
this book questions the very idea of what constitutes intelligence. even the very nature of CONSCIOUSNESS. it feels that our own tools of discerning reality are limited in comparison. some might mock such consideration as merely uniformed conjecture at best and ANTHROPOMORPHISM at worst, but increasingly science is becoming more open to the possibility that the nature of CONSCIOUSNESS is more complex and less understood than we have defined such in the past. its incredibly interesting stuff.
and what is particularly mystifying about the evolution of said intelligence in OCTOPUSES is that 1) such came from an INVERTEBRATES unlike all other similar organisms (such as VERTEBRATES like horses, dogs, apes, dolphins and humans) and 2) such capacities were not promote and rewarded within a group context (as in all other cases) as OCTOPUSES are defiantly solitary creatures. MONTGOMERY gets into the THEORY OF MIND capacity of being able to mirror empathy an thought processes of other animals in nature and how the OCTOPUS developed such as a defense mechanism, unlike VERTEBRATES who do such to coordinate attacks and develop social relationships with their kin. OCTOPUSES are singular creatures of great intelligence with an entirely unique evolutionary path to the cognitive abilities. they are the closest thing we have to an alien species. just incredible and stimulating to consider.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book, not only for its informative deep dive into anatomy, behavior and rituals of these mysterious solitary, shapeshifting creatures, but for its deeper consideration of our own connection to the natural world. not just as stewards of nature, but as partners since it seems we have much to learn from these secretive and seemingly mystical invertebrates.