Saturday, December 20, 2014

Does the orca teach us something about socialization and individualism?

I found a Wordpress blog entry on “The Raptor Lab, Devouring Science, One Post at a Time”, that makes a very important point about the “biology” of individualism and, to its opposite, socialization and “the common good”. The post is “Inside the mind of a killer whale: A Q+A with the neuroscientist from ‘Blackfish’”, link here.  For reference, see the review of the film “Blackfish” on my Movies blog, July 29, 2013. It will air on CNN in early 2015.
The orca, or killer whale is a dolphin, although much larger than the familiar bottlenose. The orca (as well as some other dolphins) may be the most intelligent animal on earth besides man, probably outflanking the chimp.  But it comes from the line of herding animals (that include elephants, also very intelligent).  The biological complexity of the orca brain shows that convergent evolution works:  given the right circumstances, extreme intelligence and sophistication is likely to evolve in the universe repeatedly in different way.  Orcas are the “aliens” among us.  We should definitely respect their lives as if they were human. (And, remember, the 19th Century economy depended on whale oil!  No wonder we had a novel like "Moby Dick" which will generate an important film in 2015.) 
The interesting point in the article is that the orca brain seems to have a limbic area processing emotions that has no real counterpart in humans, or primate or even carnivores.  The experience of being an orca is indeed bizarre to a human (more than “Being Malkovitch”).  An orca experiences more than his or her own individual self; it seems to organically connect to its social group and share the fate of the group that is indeed alien to humans.  Of course, it’s also interest that the sonar or whales and dolphins have what amounts to a biological telecommunications network or “Internet”, something that these animals needed to grow biologically because they don’t have hands to make tools easily (and, no, like competitive swimmers, they don’t have chest hair).  Some can sleep with one-half of their brain at a time, which sounds weird.
There may be other biological analogues on socialization:  dogs (and wolves) are much more social than cats (except for lions).  But some insects are very social (bees and ants) to the point that conscious awareness may exsit in the colony but not the individual.  Social loyalty seems to be an important biological adaptation that helps the species as a whole have a future, and it raises “moral” questions for humans. For humans, rooting interest in an athletic team may be a weak analogue to cetacean socialization. So could family and fellowship, which always creates tension with individualism.  Orcas probably have biological genetic variations that make some individuals less "social" (and perceived as weaknesses in the cohesion of the group when facing common threats) just as humans do, so I wonder how pods handle this issue!  We could learn a lot from them. 

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