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Why did a humpback whale save a seal's life? (2016) (sciencemag.org)
124 points by mnem 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments

So, as in many cases when scientists (or science writers) discuss the motivations of mammals with big brains, they go to a lot of effort to avoid the obvious conclusion, which is that the humpback did it for a similar reason to why a human might make a coyote lay off an attack on a raccoon or possum. We wouldn't always, but plenty of humans would, and it wouldn't be for any particularly abstract or intellectual reason, it's more like, "the coyote is being mean, make it stop because I can."

Sometimes, scientists remind me of mid-20th century behaviorists trying to explain human behavior.

Isn't the entire idea of "being mean" an abstract and intellectual idea? Furthermore that thought process would have a number of complex implications. Do whales equate eating another animal with "being mean"? Does that mean they view hunting as "wrong" in some way? Do they have guilt over continuing to hunt? Are there some whales that morally object to hunting? Is there some orca out there that feeds on plankton because it is the whale equivalent of a morally motivated vegan?

It is much cleaner to isolate the motivation and equate it with something more animalistic like "it is instinctually initiating a preemptive attack on a predator and the seal was just a lucky but coincidental bystander".

> Isn't the entire idea of "being mean" an abstract and intellectual idea?

Not really, it boils down to harm prevention.

I believe that, as humans, we greatly overestimate our own reliance or abstract ideas.

If we notice someone is harming another, and we intervene, we simply act.

The explanation for our behaviour (someone was being mean) comes later as post-hoc rationalisation.

Ironically, we then further rationalise and extrapolate from this incorrect idea that human behaviour comes from a fount of abstract values and ideas, and use it to devalue animals and their behaviour (assuming they have no complex cognition, and so must be dumb).

I've lived with dogs and birds and seen dogs intervene when other dogs fight, birds intervene when other birds fight and dogs intervene when birds fight.

I don't think stopping aggressive acts in one's vicinity requires more reasoning ability than plotting to long term ruin the outlooks for other specific species X, species Y is cute or some thoughts about the moral act of hunting. Most animals have some experience with others acting aggressively and would like that reduced. We don't think about who is involved either when we see a fight break out between humans or animals.

I just happened to come across a magpie that was fighting a mouse outdoors today, and the mouse got pinned in a hole in a tree where the magpie kept pecking. I don't know why but I walked over so that the magpie went up in a nearby tree and the mouse ran away. That same magpie then attacked some nearby other magpies before calming down.

A YouTube video I enjoyed several years back involved chickens (hens) breaking up a rabbit fight.

Edit: it proved surprisingly easy to find: https://youtu.be/D35uQCtr4EY

Physiologically it probably involves mirror neurones and what you describe shouldn't be all that surprising or require an internal philosophical discourse as parent might have suggested.

> > Isn't the entire idea of "being mean" an abstract and intellectual idea?

> Not really, it boils down to harm prevention.

Ask the fish whom that seal will subsequently eat how much harm is being prevented.

I'm not sure I understand the down votes. I posed the question in a flippant manner, but I ask the question in earnest.

The grandparent pointed out that the concept of 'being mean' can't easily be applied to animals. The parent asserted without argument (or even definition) that it comes down to 'harm reduction', and went on to pontificate about humans overestimating their exceptionalism. So are the humpback whales harming the orcas by depriving them of a food source? Are the orcas harming the seal by eating him? Are the humpback whales harming the smaller fish who the seal will eat?

> The grandparent pointed out that the concept of 'being mean' can't easily be applied to animals.

The complex cognition of 'being mean' might apply to an animal, or it might not. I'm not arguing that.

What I was trying to argue, was that complex cognitions aren't required for complex looking behaviour.

In this case a maternal behaviour that already exists in the whale, to protect it's offspring, seems to have been transferred to a seal.

I see no need for complex concepts or moral calculi to explain the whale's behaviour.

You are of course correct that it fails at reducing harm down the line, but that's what makes it tragic, and interesting.

There are Orcas that eat seals and orcas that eat only fish and this is split across pod boundaries that haven’t interbred in hundreds of years or more but are physically capable.

Point of interest: It's not clear, but it looks from your grammar structure like you're calling the Orca a whale. Orca are dolphins, calling them whales isn't wrong, per se, like calling a bottle-nosed dolphin a whale isn't wrong; they're cetaceans too; both belong to the taxonomic family 'dolphins'.

I gather we call them "killer whales" because of a mistranslation of "whale killers".

> I gather we call them "killer whales" because of a mistranslation of "whale killers".

I thought this was a stupid assumption so I set out to prove you wrong. I was wrong [0]. I could use practice humbly admitting that more often. Wiktionary, for what it's worth: Calque or mistranslation of Spanish asesina-ballenas (whale killer), referring to their tendency to hunt whales.

[0] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/killer_whale

Thanks for that interesting tidbit, I didn't know the taxonomy. But hey, at least I didn't call it a fish.

I expect seals and humpbacks enjoy interacting with each other and that supportive feelings accompany their relationship. Humpbacks don't as individuals try to protect their babies in order to pass on their genes and survive as a species, they love them. Its only a tenuous academic exercise to suppose that they do not have a complex appreciation of their neighbors - as though they might be operating with little consciousness, like microbes. There is no great argument that we should reduce the appearance of friendliness between intelligent and emotional species, to clinical survival strategies. Its perhaps a trend left over from recent history when animal psychologists conducted cruel experiments in the name of science.

>Isn't the entire idea of "being mean" an abstract and intellectual idea?

If it is then whales likely know more about it than us. Our brain structure is a subset of theirs and their extra parts are devoted to emotional processing.


A cetacean citation even!

Perhaps the reasoning occurs at a more primitive level. For example, the whale may have had a previous fearful experience. Sensing fear in the seal triggered that feeling in the whale. By helping the seal, the whale may have been helping itself.

So like us, then.

Yes, but as humans we can also empathise without a prior related trauma.

Well imagine is some apex predator killed off 25% of human babies. I'm sure that humans would expend significant effort to prevent that predator from living, feeding, or reproducing across the entire planets surface.

Is it so hard to believe humpback whales are smart enough to know killer whales kill humpback babies? The humpback whales might well understand that if killer whales eat the less, they reproduce less, which will result in less humpback whales dying?

I thought about this too, but then you consider whaling which killed much more and yet it doesn't seem that whales set up a persistent and organized resistance effort.

It sends me back to believing there is some sort of instinct triggered by the stimulus of killer whale attack.

> and yet it doesn't seem that whales set up a persistent and organized resistance effort

Historically, they did. One famous example is the Essex, which was sunk in 1820 by the spontaneous attack of an unusually large male sperm whale soon after pursuing a pod of whales.

The difference today is that it's effectively impossible for a whale to put a hole in a steel-hulled ship.

Whales have to breath and are hunted by huge fast ships, basically floating factories. They are hunted with radar, radio, binoculars, microphones, and high power harpoons.

Even with whales smarter than humans, how exactly are they supposed to resist... beyond communicating about where the hunting ships are, which they may well be doing.

Not exactly a fair fight, or proof that they aren't smart.

Being from the town Moby Dick gets going in, I was thinking of the 18-19th century variety, where the whale boats were entirely vulnerable.

The variety employed in the last 100 years, you're right there's nothing they can do.

Persistent and organized resistance? Not even the Native Americans and First Nations could manage that. There were a couple attempts to organize that were cut tragically short. I wouldn’t expect whales to be better at this than humans.

The aztecs did fairly well actually until their population was heavily atrophied due to newly introduced diseases.

edit Specifically La Noche Triste. It was only after small pox killed about 40% of the population leaving most of the remainder to deal with disease caused sever disfigurement, disability, senility and starvation that the spanish really began to gain the upper hand.

There was plenty of persistent and organized resistance. It is unlikely that European conquest of the Americas would have been as successful or rapid if European diseases hadn't killed of 90% of the native population.

Mistrust of nearby tribes was exploited over and over again by Europeans. The Aztecs were conquered because they managed to make enough coastal bands angry that they were totally willing to side with the new people with iron stuff. The French and Indian War had natives fighting each other on behalf of the English and (mostly) French. The Modoc War happened because they were living on a reservation with the Klamath -- who treated them so badly they decided to try and live on some lava beds instead.

Seriously, outside of efforts by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, and the way-too-late Ghost Dance movement, intertribal unity efforts weren't really there. They won many, many battles against Europeans, but could not strategize to win a long war. Thus, disorganized and sporadic resistance.

Sure, disease made the conquest possible. And it's not a values judgement. It's just the old tale, divide and conquer.

Organized is not the same thing as Unified.

It does rather sound like a value judgement when you bring it up the way you have.

> yet it doesn't seem that whales set up a persistent and organized resistance effort.

Well sure, if everyone knew about it it wouldn't be that successful now would it? Nothing to see here. No whales. Move along please.

You haven't actually explained the behavior, just restated it in simple terms. "Because they can" doesn't explain motive or reason, only opportunity.

Empathy for, and altruism towards, your in-group against your out-group (for whatever the current values are of in-group and out-group) seems to me to be a necessary consequence of kin selection.

You'd defend pretty much any human against an animal which was attacking them. You'd defend your country against other humans. You'd defend your family against others from your town. All of these are variations of "you're more likely to intervene in a conflict in favour of the side with a greater chance of being more closely related to you."

It's selfish genes all the way down.

(But from the point of view of the whale, the motivation is probably that the whales think orcas are mean and seals are OK. The genetic stuff just explains why whales are cool with seals but not orcas.)

Analogizing animal behavior to human motivations feels intuitive but requires really big assumptions which scientists know they can't really defend, so they just have to avoid that topic.

Which big assumptions would those be?

Mine go the opposite way: I assume that when I see a dog or a cat or a rat or a ferret or a pig (all with brain and body structure completely analogous to my own) show an emotion or performing an act I can immediately relate to, their internal state is fairly much as my own would be in similar circumstances.

Claiming myself and my kin to be qualitatively entirely different from every other living species, now that is an assumption I wouldn't be comfortable to make.

I think no bigger assumptions than when I am trying to interpret the behavior of other humans. Behaviorists in the mid-20th century tried to avoid thinking about other humans' minds for similar reasons, and it was an intellectual dead end.

It could simply be: starve predators who could harm your young.

Coming up with logical reasons for the behavior of social animals is I think wrong when you consider how evolution works.

Evolution doesn't do logical analysis.

I think there is also this trap that we want theories to be logically/mathematically complete without external side effects. If you're looking for that you want a neat tidy theory that explains why a humpback whale would save a seals bacon.

Evolution though doesn't care about that either.

And then there is a bias Westerners have towards zero sum analysis. (I think this is a legacy of the Victorian and Gilded Age) Reality is for an adult humpback whale messing with a killer whale costs him likely nothing.

If something has no cost evolution doesn't operate off it.

So you're just left with humpback whales like protecting their young, or anything else really. Especially from killer whales in particular.

> Evolution doesn't do logical analysis.

Sure, but it rewards and institutionalizes behavior that benefits the genes of the individuals.

... by the mechanism of emotions, for instance.

> why a human might make a coyote lay off an attack on a raccoon or possum

By having "harm prevention in peer group" instinct misapplied to members of other species?

> Sometimes, scientists remind me of mid-20th century behaviorists trying to explain human behavior.

Mid 20th century behaviorism casts a really long dark shadow into our times.

But then why is there an instinctive response to intervene?

Although I think the instinctive reason is similarly obvious - for a creature with limited attention the safest environment is a calm one with nothing moving or acting (it is easy to process mentally). It makes a lot of sense for a large creature to intervene and break up other animals fighting so they can go back to scanning the environment for other threats without distraction.

I think the obvious conclusion is that humpback whales want to mess with orcas.

behaviorism is still ridiculously influential, unfortunately.

So the answer is simply:

Why not?

well said

The hypothesis at the end of the article assumes humpback whales are just acting instinctively. I think it is much more likely that the whales are able to reason that denying other prey to their babies' predator is a good thing. In addition to keeping the orca population in check and reducing the energy available to them, the humpbacks might also be fully capable of holding a grudge.

Instinctively? Dunno, whales seem pretty smart. They communicate, they take care of their young, have advanced feeding strategies, and interesting interactions with humans.

Seems quite plausible they understand the relationship between feeding, reproduction, and population growth. They are clearly aware that killer whales feed on baby humpback whales. Doesn't seem a stretch that humpbacks would do whatever they can to prevent killer whales from feeding.

I think holding a grudge is entirely reasonable. If crows are able to recognize faces of people who feed them or harm them and spread that information among themselves, it stands to reason that whales might have the same sort of social behaviors.

Agreed. “You’re a dick, no food for you” seems much more plausible than “seals are cute, so I’ll be nice”.

Where in the article does it state 'cute' was a factor?

You can also argue the other way round. Just let them have it would save their attacks on us humpback babies. Not humpback anyway.

Starving them with non-humpback, they might try ...

selfish conclusion should be not saving.

That is why this silly logic is just a non-answer.

I know somebody who studied orcas in school and she said that humpbacks tend to give orcas a hard time whenever they meet them. It’s understandable since orcas often attack their young ones.

Yes exactly, and thats what the article says.

The simple answer might be the right one, it just felt bad for the seal. Nobody really knows how intelligent humpback whales are.

I suspect they are much smarter than we give them credit for.

It is also why I feel commercial whaling (or in Japan's case "scientific research") is such a horrific thing to do.

Then you should be horrified by the way pigs are being held. They are very smart.

You’re not wrong- if someone treated their dog the way pigs are treated they would be immediately thrown in prison. It’s a double standard.

with that said, I suppose you don't eat pig or cow products?

I agree that we should all eat less meat and the way we treat "factory" animals is cruel. But with that said, would you really argue hunting chimpanzees is the same as killing pigs?

My point is, it's not wrong to apply different standards for different animals. GP says they feel whaling is wrong because they relate more to whales than they do with cows or pigs. If GP sees news articles on how cows are actively saving other helpless animals from getting hunted, maybe they'll start applying similar standards to cows too. You may find this illogical and annoying, but bringing up cows and pigs in this way is not constructive in my opinion.

I do eat pig and cow products. Damn, I guess I'm a hypocrite. You caught me. Congrats on winning an internet argument.

Or octopus.

Japanese commercial whaling doesn't target humpback whales.

Not much reason to believe the rest of the whale species are dumb.

Humpback whales have mirror neurons (the ones implicated in "theory of mind") so they might show "compassion". There is so much we still do not know about marine mammals...

I hate this tendency of trying to reduce the behavior of conscious living things (such as whales, dolphins etc.), who are capable of emotions to simple "inadvertent" rules.

That's like saying: I believe Mr. Pittman, who is otherwise capable of complex behavior, did not consider the meaning of his words before uttering them. What he said was simply an inadvertent response to being asked a question.

You wouldn't even say that about a dog following orders.

"If a lion could talk, we would not understand him."

I would differentiate being able to characterize the behavior from being able to 'understand' the behavior. If for the sake of argument, we assume orcas and humpback whales have higher brain functions around the level of humans, I would argue it's still impossible for us to understand the humpbacks motivation because his mind is completely alien to ours.

All life on earth comes from the same competitive biology though. The motivations of all species and organisms follow some predictable trends and patterns.

The ROI of preemptively attacking a predator while the dolphins are busy/tired from hunting while also taking food away from them in the process isn't a giant mystery.

The chances of it being Occam's Razor competition being species is just as likely as it crossing some higher abstract threshold for actually caring about some other 3rd party specie's individual survival because they're 'nice' or disgusted by the site (as others in this thread have implied).

Ultimately they don't seem to face much personal risk while doing this as the Killer Whales aren't big enough to take them on.

I think Wittgenstein was probably wrong about lions.

Crazy that the commentators have to insist on selfish reason in the end. May be for one second even if unthinkable for human that whale has a good heart.

Good save.

Is letting the killer whales starve the act of a good heart?

Yeah, I'd believe more in the "it really hates killer whales" theory.

SETI pointed at the sky, with intelligent species abound at home.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Might be that they are feeling pressure in the environment making them more aggressive for whatever is remaining of their habitat. Also, a shrinking ice habitat will make it more probable that they will cross paths. This are just thoughts, not an expert.

Maybe they do it for similar reasons humans have for finding baby non human mammals cute and worth saving?

That said, do we know why we find baby non human mammals cute? I've always figured that it was a false positive based on features shared with human babies.

It may be a false positive on our part. But for animals that are likely to be in contact with humans it's a true positive.

Isn't it possible that a significant fraction of mature humpback whales have had bad encounters with killer whales when they were younger and just always mess with them when they can?

And why do killer whales never kill humans in the wild?

Orcas have also been know to cooperate with humans


Human beings don't really share the same habitats with orcas?

Maybe we don't taste good?

They eat deer and moose swimming by (transients), not to mention sea lions. There are a lot of divers in their waters world wide.


(Is this a setup for a joke?)

They were named 'killer' for some reason, but the only known attacks on humans are from Orcas in captivity. They're not innocuous and sweet, of course, but they got a bad rep for a couple decades and so weren't a 'charismatic' species to save, and their populations suffered greatly as a result. See "Blackfish" the documentary.

It’s incorrect to say that the only attacks have been in captivity. There have been a couple of documented “attacks” on humans in the wild. One which required extensive stitches. It is true that there there have been no documented deaths from Orca attacks in the wild.

Scientists believe the attacks are just a case of mistaken identity and that is why the damage has been minimal. As soon as the Orca realized that it was not a seal or something else they like to eat, they backed off.

'Blackfish' was an excellent documentary, and I came away from it fully believing that we shouldn't hold orcas in captivity. A chilling (and fascinating) point in the movie is that when one of the orcas nearly kills a trainer, the killer whale doesn't bite or buffet the trainer, but instead holds him underwater to drown him.

Whalers called them Killer Whales, perhaps originally Whale killers, from observation of their behavior

Because humans tend not to be the ice cold water that Orcas tend to inhabit?

Just one example, there are probably hundreds of divers in the ocean between San Francisco and Alaska every day, and there also hundreds of Orca in those same waters every day. And yet the record stands. And that's just one coast line.

They can do it, in fact.

True enough they can, but they don't.

We had discussed this here before, killer whales are a complex of species, comprising maybe four or five different species. Some species eat fish and other eat mammals.

Killer whale species that eat fish are smaller and either ignore people or will shown curiosity about people. They spy, play, snoop or even steal fish from people. They live in the coast.

Killer whale species that eat mammals are bigger, they hunt dolphins, seals, sea lions and fin whales. They can attack, and most probably they will attack people if they have the slighest opportunity. They gladly hunt polar bears that are bigger than any human and have much stronger fangs and claws

They are pelagic or live in arctic regions so if you fall to the water you are dead yet in any case.

The population of mammal eaters is growing quickly now around Vancouver. Stay tuned.

May be it could not see properly and thought seal was a baby whale.

"I thought it was my cousin."

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