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Humans And Whales

Once monsters, now majesties – we go deep with the history of humans and whales.

A sperm whale calf swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales June 15, 2001, about four miles off the coast of the Agat Marina in Guam. Sperm whales have learned to pluck sablefish from fishing lines being hauled from the depths of the Gulf of Alaska, showing a dexterity that belies their enormous size and toothy, underslung jaws. (AP)

A sperm whale calf swims next to its mother and a pod of sperm whales June 15, 2001, about four miles off the coast of the Agat Marina in Guam. Sperm whales have learned to pluck sablefish from fishing lines being hauled from the depths of the Gulf of Alaska, showing a dexterity that belies their enormous size and toothy, underslung jaws. (AP)

Today, most people see the great whales of the sea as something quite extraordinary.  Intelligent, majestic, beloved, even cosmic.

A century ago – still on the eve of the greatest whale slaughter ever, in the Antarctic – whales were just great blimps of meat and oil in most people’s minds.  Factory ships dragged a staggering number from the seas, and chopped and boiled them into almost anything.  Margarine.  That transition, from meat bag to majesty, says a lot about us.  How we see the world.  Nature.

This hour, On Point:  We’re going deep on the human learning curve, and whales.

-Tom Ashbrook


D. Graham Burnett, science historian and professor of history at Princeton University. Author of The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century.

Joe Roman, marine ecologist, conservation biologist, and professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Telegraph “Rather, this leviathanic version of an Airfix model, hanging from the roof of the Whale Hall, commemorated the fact that in the Twenties and Thirties, Britain, with Norway, was the world’s greatest whaling nation. In fact, it was commissioned by Sidney Harmer, director of the museum, to publicise the work of the Discovery expeditions being undertaken in the South Atlantic – the dramatic starting point for D Graham Burnett’s revelatory book, itself an epic work. ”

Huffington Post “Quiet oceans make for calmer right whales, new research suggests. When fewer ships sail the Bay of Fundy, the big baleen whales are less stressed — as evidenced by hormone levels in their poop.”


“The Greenland Whale Fisheries” by Paul Clayton
“The Last Leviathan” by The Revels

Excerpt: The Sounding Of The Whale

The End is Nigh

In the summer of 1980, my parents, then junior professors of French literature at neighboring universities in the Midwest, rented a cottage on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, not far from Hatteras, where Remington Kellogg and his Hopkins collaborators quietly opened an era of American research on cetaceans back in 1928. I had just turned ten, and the Tursiopsthat (still) moved in arcing pods though the surf in the evening were the first marine mammals I had ever seen. It was the summer of one of the greatest tennis matches of all time: the Wimbledon final that pitted ritually grizzled Bjorn Borg against a mop-topped and emotionally incontinent John McEnroe in what would became a legendary five-set marathon. We watched it unfold in the peak-ceilinged living room with a visitor who dropped by, some older friend or colleague of my mother’s who pulled up in a convertible looking tanned and comfortable and spoke volubly about politics while drinking a beer. His subject was Ronald Reagan, I recall, and the importance of a strong national defense, but I remember him most clearly because he had a bumper sticker on his car that read “Nuke the Whales.” This made an impression on me. Nuke the whales? Why?

I must confess that when I first began thinking about this book, there were moments when I imagined the whole project as a kind of Borgesian effort to trace every thread in the history of the twentieth century that could be understood to be wound up into the tight knot of this sloganeering provocation. In those daydreams I wondered what would happen if one went about treating this paper-thin cultural residue as nothing less than the culmination of all the forces and preoccupations, the technologies and anxieties, the illicit pleasures and the licit violence of the last hundred years. After all, that little irruption of savage Dada hyperbole seemed, as I rotated it in a mind still largely free of whale knowledge, to shiver with the presence (or was it the absence?) of the gravest questions of the age: nuclear war, the end of nature, the politics of nihilism, that peculiar train wreck of hysterical apocalypticism and insouciant ironizing that one could call modernity. And then, too, there was the way those three words (commandment? exhortation? prophecy?) could be read as a kind of three-syllable ultra-haiku on some central and perennial problems in American literature and culture: here was the machine in the garden projected to planetary scale; here was mad Ahab at the helm of a Trident submarine; here was Swiftian satire reborn on our shores as Hollywood excess; here was the hortatory sublime played as a burlesque that was neither quite serious nor quite in jest—and that right there seemed to be a plausible epitome of this wonderful and deranged country.

Well, it was always an absurd notion, and thus to have failed in the execution of such a work may perhaps be accounted a credit. Still, there is a way in which this book has indeed tugged on at least one of the taut cords that gave this slogan its strange resonance in the early 1980s—a resonance I could not feel at the time, but which, in the course of this research, I have come to sense quite keenly. We have seen, in the last chapter, the peculiar way in which, for a growing cohort of activists, reformers, and visionaries in the 1960s and 1970s, cetaceans came to represent—even to embody—an alternative mode of intelligent being, and thus an aspirational ideal for humans, who were in these years in several respects (sociobiology, science fiction, primatology) reimagining themselves as the violent ape-kings of creation. Homo insapiens dissembled and escalated; cetaceans saw through each other in a perpetual detente of transparency. We used our hands to make tools and weapons; they used endless play to build relationships and communities. We fought wars and pillaged; they made love and music. We bit the dust that was the residue of death; they stayed in the watery womb that was the cradle of life. We were territorial cave dwellers, born to tribalism; they used the deep sea for long-range communication, reifying the fantasy of a global village. And there was, moreover, a specifically military dimension to all this, as I have also tried to demonstrate. The story of John Lilly, CRI, Forrest G. Wood, and the navy Marine Mammal Program—and the leakage of that story into the larger cultural preoccupation with thermonuclear Armageddon via best seller and silver screen—must go some way toward accounting for that bumper sticker’s bizarre juxtaposition of thermonuclear weaponry and lumbering sea creature. But does it go all the way? Clearly not. The harder one looks, the more perfectly overdetermined that juxtaposition begins to feel. Leo Szilard’s improbable 1961 Lilly-inspired marriage of cetacean intelligence and nuclear war (in “The Voice of the Dolphins”) yoked the mindful whales to the problem of the bomb in a way that proved oddly durable. Perhaps not so strange, then, that Scott McVay headed off to the Pugwash Conference of 1970 to pontificate on whale conservation in a (Melvillean) presentation that would headline in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the community of nuclear intellectuals representing, as they did, the dominant scientific statesmen of the day. And maybe not so odd that Joan McIntyre could be quoted in the Washington Post in 1973 likening the moratorium on whaling to the nuclear test ban treaty; her larger claim was that “if we can save the whales we can save ourselves,” and doing so would require “a win on the international level.” And one cannot really be all that surprised to read in The Whale Problem of 1974 a cohort of genuine hip-booted cetologists positing that (assuming adequate samples of whale tissue kept coming in) the cosmopolitan cetaceans, giant bioaccumulating filter systems, could serve as very useful monitors of “radio-nuclides and other fallout products” in the world’s oceans. Aft er all, everyone was interested in radioisotopes in those years, why not the whale biologists? Especially the old guard, not quite ready to hang up their flensing knives.

And there was also the way, of course, that Greenpeace transformed itself, in the early 1970s, from a loose aggregation of antinuke agitators into the shock troops of the “Save the Whales” campaign, leaping to international prominence in the process. But could they have asked for a more perfect convergence of their preoccupations than the emergence of the rumor that one of the privileged uses of sperm whale oil lay in the lubrication of precision mechanisms in the rockets and missiles of the United States and the Soviet Union? It is not clear to me exactly when this notion first emerged in the whaling debates, but it would appear to have been around 1971 and to have been closely linked to the controversy surrounding the listing of the large whales as endangered species under US law. Walter Hickel gave himself a starring role in a conversation along these lines that purportedly occurred in his office with a pro-whaling visitor from the State Department, who is supposed to have blurted out, as a last-ditch effort to derail the listing, “We have to have whale oil for the space program.” To which Hickel quoted himself retorting, “What are you going to use when the whale is extinct?”

The listing went forward, with the understanding that stockpiled product would suffice for some time. “Space program” may well have been understood euphemistically, since Rex Weyler reports a conversation in Vancouver in December 1972 between Farley Mowat and Paul Spong in which the former told the latter, “The Russians lubricate their ICBMs with whale oil.

So do the Yankees. It’s a disgrace.” While the vast majority of the sperm-derived lubricants were in fact going into much more innocuous industrial uses (such as automotive transmissions), the link between the transcendent mind in the waters and the transcendent mechanism of destruction was a gift for those promoting whale conservation as one half of a pincer movement against the masters of war. Thus, with “brainwashed” dolphins doing duty in the mangrove swamps of Vietnam and military ordnance being used to slay their larger cousins on the high seas, the conditions were set for a community of true believers to raise a rainbow fl ag over the cetaceans and declare themselves the party of peace and life, standing (in a bobbing Zodiac) against the culture of death. “For a long time now,” wrote one of the activists in 1977 in the New York Review of Books, “man’s awe has been confined to his own capacity for self destruction”; the whales, by contrast, were giving us an opportunity to learn “to revere life.” And by 1980, one of the early Greenpeace members could state this position in its most extravagantly dialectical form: “Cetaceans,” Michael M’Gonigle would claim boldly, “stand in poetic contrast to human history.” That history was the history of war.

Every dialectic, of course, is a contrapuntal conflict waiting to be aufgehoben, and that brings us to the Junior Common Room of Kirkland House at Harvard University on 13 April 1979, where a Ramones-inspired punk band called Supreme Pontiff (descendants of The European Liquidators, succeeded by Kid Sonic and the Boom), under the leadership of a Harvard senior who played bass as Tod Venice (he was Robert A. Falk, born in Brooklyn), ground out their new one-minute-and-thirty-nine-second anti-paean “Nuke the Whales,” composed by Falk the previous autumn. He and a bandmate (lead singer John Cole, aka “Jean Baptiste”), sensing they had a dance-party sensation on their hands, had gone so far as to buy asilk-screen kit and make up several dozen T-shirts for the gig, emblazoned with the refrain of their kick-over-the-speaker-tower frontal attack on the world of good intentions:

If grapes aren’t union picked don’t eat ’em
Boycott J. P. Stevens, we can’t beat ’em
Water causes cancer, and cancer causes death.
Jesus Christ, I’m scared to take another breath.
Everybody’s got their favorite cause,
Tryin’ to pass restrictive laws.
I say can your sad old tales,
And **** it! nuke the whales.

Sophomoric? To be sure. But generational? Yes, also. Falk—a major in visual and environmental studies—had hit a nerve, and his catchphrase indictment of the suffocating righteousness of left -liberal orthodoxy, delivered as Frye boot in the ass of the Woodstockers, moved with electrical speed across North America. That very summer it could be found as a bumper sticker in the Deep South as well as on the lips of a quirky non-whale-hugging bluegrass musician named Duck Donald playing the Canadian summer folk circuit (to spasms of dismay). By the following year—when the Pontiff s were no more, but their successor band was finetuning another Reaganite non-parody (the underground classic “Nancy Packs a Piece”)—there was an actual “Nuke the Whales” country-rock band lighting up the stage in Huntsville, Alabama, and the phrase could be found as a graffi to on bathroom walls at UC Berkeley. And that was also the summer I saw it, while standing in the saw grass dunes of a mid-Atlantic barrier island. Which is to say, the viral phrase had quite literally gone coast to coast. It would not be all that crazy to say that Robert A. Falk, sitting in his dorm room in Kirkland, wrote the epitaph for the two decades that get called “the sixties,” and that he did so by writing a bumper sticker for America in the Age of Reagan.

Reprinted with permission from The Sounding of the Whale, by D. Graham Burnett, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2012 D. Graham Burnett. All rights reserved.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Patrik

    Amazing, ancient creatures.  I look forward to hearing the show.

    • Saber4x

      I find it amazing that the show takes calls by listeners. sometimes they are profound.
      However I hear the show at night so cannot participate.
      So, would it be possible to announce the subjects a day early so I could offer phoned in comments?

      • Terry Tree Tree

        You can comment on here, from 1:00 A.M., or so.  Tom reads some on the show.
           When you check this comment board, and the next day’s show is shown, upper right, you can usually make a comment.

  • Lyndon F. Charles Jr.

    With a title called “Humans and Whales” I would think there would be an evolutionary biologist listed on the panel. That aspect should definitely be in the discussion. I will wait to hear.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Do some people just have the obsession to KILL anything bigger than we are, just because we have the technology?

    • Mr. Trees

      I think that it really come down to ignorance and the economy of food.  Whales are HUGE! One kill = lots of food.  In many societies, one whale kill was sustanance for the forseeable future.  I don’t think that “trophy” whale hunting is very prominent.

      • Heaviest Cat

        Mr. Trees, i feel, it comes down to profit driven greed.

        • Modavations

          Please refrain from the word Greed around TTT.

    • Heaviest Cat

      Good question, Terry. t throws into relief our perverse need to dominate and control.

  • Anonymous

    For me a whale represents the notion that the earth exists at a super-human scale.  To see a whale, to imagine the whale as we hear it sing, is a humbling experience.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    “That transition, from meat bag to majesty, says a lot about us.”

    Not all countries that have not made that transition and still consider whales as meat bags – and profit.

    • Heaviest Cat

      it implicates us as a species that must learn humility in the face of nature and the cosmos.

      • Anonymous


      • Modavations

        Look up the word Anthropromorphic(?)

  • Yar

    Have more whales been killed by habitat destruction than by direct ‘harvest?’  I would like to be able to ask a whale what they think of human ‘civilization.’
    What is the price of sperm whale oil per gallon it today’s currency?  1854 $3.84 per gallon.  It was mostly used for light.  Think how cheap energy is today.

  • Emma W Wyatt

    When I was about 12 yrs old (I am 32 now), I “adopted” a whale through the wwf. I still remember his name! I no longer see humpbacks on the wwf list for adoptions. Have we moved on? If humpbacks were available I would adopt one for my son, who has become a whale lover through osmosis.

  • Gary in Medford

    It’s great that we have (mostly) come to consider a whale as an animal not to be slaughtered. Now, what about the pain, suffering, and slaughter of cows, pigs, and other animals used only as meat?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      They taste good.  And there’s no good substitute for leather.  Your point?

      • Heaviest Cat

        many subs for leather.

  • john

    Glad John Lilly was brought into the discussion. Once again the impact of psychedelics on human consciousness is brought to light. This cannot be underestimated as an influence in our shift in perception of cetaceans. Surfers too, experimenting with “mind-expanding” drugs became very respectful/fond of “the people of the sea” who also rode waves seemingly for the pure pleasure of it.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Yup, psychedelics are a smack to the brain, but what exactly does a druggie have to teach us?

      • john

        look to francis crick, carl sagan or steve jobs for the answer to that question.

        • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

           My point is that the drugs and their effects don’t teach us profound ideas.

          • john

            aldous huxley would, if he were still alive vehemently disagree. As openers of the “Doors of Perception” they have opened many great minds to very, very “profound ideas”. To you I would quote Jimi Hendrix, “Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.”

          • Modavations

            Remember Owsley of LSD fame.He just died last year.He said he never ate anything but meat.He died last year in Cairns at age 70.He was a whack job,but a hero of mine.

          • Anonymous

            That explains a lot.

          • Modavations

            What’s the point,or as usual just looking for a fight?

          • God

            Your responses are typical….find another outlet for chat.  perhaps the fox new channel.

          • Modavations

            I donatetoNPR and am excercising free speech

  • Modavations

    Giaist nonsense.Orientals look at us like nuts.It’s cultural

    • Heaviest Cat

      cultural my foot. it’s profit driven. That’s how slughter is justified, reduce the animal to a commodity.

      • Modavations

        We eat Cows,Hindus revere them

    • john

      It’s Gaia not “Gia”… jeez, don’t even know how to spell your own mother’s name!

      • Modavations

        Do you understand the point or is this nitpicking?

  • Andy_sajor

    How we look at the whale should give us pause on how we may be seen by extra terrestrials, we (humans) may be a future food source from beings unknown to us at present! Earth may be some other world’s “farm”

    • Anonymous

      I guess you never saw the Twilight Zone episode called “To Serve Man”


      • Modavations

        Did you ever see the adventure where the scientists hook a plant up to sensors,snip the flower and record a scream?Hey Wrongside I’m awaiting the answer about the Courtauld Gallery.The one you can’t google and lie about.When you look out the window to the right of their main ouevre.What do you see.Quit stalling

        • Anonymous

          I never said I was ever in the Courtauld.
          I only knew it was in London and I never got a chance to visit, I spent most of my time at the National Gallery and the Tate. What does that have to do with anything other than your lame ideas on art. I’m not going to debate painting with someone who thinks Velasquez is boring. To me that’s a waste of time and life is to short to waste on such absurdities.

  • Anonymous

    Have you discussed the threat of sonar to whales?

  • Modavations

    Propganda.No one even knows what goes on in the seas between Japan and Hawaii.These seas are  uncharted and huge(King Kong).They started looking into the North Mekong Delta a few years ago and discovered hundreds of hereto fore,undiscovered species.Just Giai nonsense

  • Dana Franchitto

    TO me ,whales are a symbol of life beyond humanity. we homo sapiens(what a misnomer) are not the only species on this planet.In our profit driven ignorance, we fail to appreciate the timeless beauty of the largest animals known to history and pre-history. The jaded fools who hunt them will reininvest their money, should hte whales go exticnt. But the rest of us lose something that can never be replaced.

  • Anonymous

    We preserve dirt, in the form of wilderness and national parks because it’s worth being able to experience the world in ways other than interstates, strip malls, airplanes, and warm homes.  “Wild” has to live somewhere, and it has intrinsic value.  The whale, I opine, represents a painstakingly evolved top predator, whose presence is essential to a healthy ocean and whose evolution is every bit as precious as our own.  Wild lives in the life of each species, and the ones with extreme intergenerational times are at a large disadvantage once humanity connives a use for their bits.  We should preserve them just for the sake of having them in our world.  There truly are things like this… things that are riches because they exist, and not because we can get something from them.  Killing off everything simply because we can gains us nothing.  

  • Jeannie

    Fascinating subject.

    One of the concepts brought up in today’s discussion was why the different perceptions of whales by Western and Asian peoples. Why do we revere some animals while to others these very same animals are to be killled? Dr. Melanie Joy, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has addressed this phenomenon in a much broader context of carnism through her book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows.”

    • Modavations

      Go to  the beach in Goa.Watch where you walk,because of Cow crap.Westerners eat cows,Hindus revere them

      • Jeannie

        That is exactly the point! “Carnism” is a belief system that Dr. Joy explores in how and why people make their decisions about animals.

        • Modavations

          Carnism,hmm.I’ll have to grab my dictionary of “Leftist Gobble de Gook’.I’ll be right back.
          Pg. 22 says Socialist Piffle word used by the Birkenstock crowd to show how cool they are.      When the body breaks nutients down to amino acids it does not differentiate between animal and vegetable.Do you understand why you have Canine teeth,why you are born with incisors.Is it cooler to be a buggatarian,or a  vegetarian.This is the folly of an affluent society,that we even think of this stuff.

          • Anonymous

            Humans are omnivores. like dogs, bears and some of the apes.
            You are the very definition of an ignoramus, more like the poster boy.

          • Modavations

            Here to pick a fight.Omnivores eat meat and veggies”wrong side”.They’re like you Ac/Dc.Tell me about Courtauld.When you look at the main Ouevre,what do you see out the window to the right

          • God

            Mankind will eventually kill itself and unfortunatly take most other species with it.  Aren’t you glad to be a part of the group!!

          • Modavations

            Australopithecusis 1.4 million years old.Modern man, one hundred thousand.It must be nice to be one of the gods who can predict the future.Pick a stock for me please

          • Anonymous

            So what, your diet is all meat. That explains a lot. Again, humans are omnivores. In fact we should not eat a lot of meat, it’s bad for for you in large quantities.

          • Modavations

            If you weren’t behind the cloak of anonymity and we were sitting at a bar,this guy would never dream of calling me,or anyone else,ignoramus.

          • Anonymous

            The truth hurts, you are an insipid man, one who is incapable of understanding anything, or so it seems.
            That is to me a definition of an ignoramus. You come on this forum and fill it with your diatribes and insults and when someone calls you out you get all hot and bothered.

            By the way if I heard you talking the way you do in a bar I would have no problems telling you to shut it.

  • Joyce Alton

    I am struck by the arrogance and selfishness of so many humans, this is even supported by some religious conventions that elevate mankind over the rest of the beasts.  There is not enough awareness that we are in fact part of and completely dependent upon the ecosystem and that as we destroy it we are making the world less habitable for ourselves.  The information that impressed me was that whales are important drivers of the ocean ecology distributing nutrients that affect survival of many other species.  If the ocean environment deteriorates badly enough, many populations of food species that people depend upon  could collapse.  And as human populations continue to grow exponentially, the pressure for resources from all of earth’s ecosystems will increase as will the toxins.  There is the  belief that human intelligence and technology can overcome all problems and that just might not be true. 

  • Hugh Bollinger

    Mr. Ashbook: I’ve listened to OnPoint for years here in SLC and always appreciate your program’s diversity. I mailed a DVD to your your Boston offices today. It is a 4-minute short film that screened at Sundance along with a documentary, Chasing Ice, about an old friend from Colorado and his climate change research. The Sundance programmers “paired” Song of the Spindle with Chasing Ice, which was in their documentary competition. The animated film is a conversation between a Human and a Whale. The animator is Drew Christie who lives in Seattle. I believe you and your staff will appreciate the content considering your conversation today. Regards, Hugh Bollinger

  • Jharrison1951

    The show was very interesting historically. I wish there had been more time with Joe Roman, though, to discuss what is going on now as far as efforts to make life in the ocean safer for the whales, in addition to those he mentioned briefly at the end of the hour. There are many devoted scientists who are working tirelessly to enact legislation to slow ship traffic, increase awareness of the presence of whales in shipping areas, and working with fishermen to use gear which is less likely to lethally entangle whales. Perhaps this is a topic for another show.

  • http://twitter.com/malcolmjackson ♡ Malcolm Jackson

    Thank god. We are evolving. Now lets put ourselves 200 years hence in our imagination and view the great leaps in ethical awareness we have gained. Then, come out of our imagination back to present day reality, and lets just skip the years in-between and raise ourselves to that new level of awareness right now. 

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/3ETFGMQ3B7VD4AAMILBBEVMCWE JasonA

      Indeed. Well said. Let’s also try that on the criminals who call themselves Republicans.

      • Modavations

        We should batter their brains in with ball peen hammers.No trials needed.You’re a viscous piece,kid

        • Modavations

          meant vicious,but viscous isn’t bad either

          • Terry Tree Tree

            Easy to convince us that you meant to be vicious, with such comments?

      • Dan Cooper

        Your democrat president just signed lifetime imprisonment without trial into law. 

  • http://www.nwphoto.com/ Nicholas Whitman

    See photos of an abandoned whaling station and whaleship here:

  • Saber4x@gmail.com

    The best show in the series, hands down.
    Please do a Part 2. Or a show on Lilly, the LSd-gobbling cetacean researcher

  • Ed

    One can’t be surprised at the carnage described if they only saw them as blobs of fat. Today one sees the unborn slaughtered, and in a number of years we will wonder that people could have done that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1010024587 Tony Dillof

    Well done! — Kid Sonic

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