Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoughts from Adam Henne

Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.

I just picked up at the library, but have yet to read, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’sWild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. I’m intrigued by the way animal behavior researchers are letting go of their fear of anthropomorphising animals and beginning to acknowledge and investigate their social and even moral relationships.

Especially compelling about this whale story, beyond their social complexity and apparent morality, is the appearance of new relations with researchers. When a whale consciousness encounters human consciousness, what does that look like? There’s a now widely available essay by Derrida in which he discusses his relationship with his cat –L’Animal que donc je suis. His cat meets his eyes, his cat sees him stepping naked out of the shower, his cat is the archetypal alien Other. But! An Other undeniably engaged in a two-way relationship with Derrida, a relationship whose very nature is premised on the incommensurable difference between their species. What does it mean to be seen by your cat? Or, as it appears in the Times article on whales:

The baby gray glided up to the boat’s edge, and then the whole of his long, hornbill-shaped head was rising up out of the water directly beside me, a huge, ovoid eye slowly opening to take me in. I’d never felt so beheld in my life.

To me, the ur-text on understanding relationships between species is Donna Haraway’s recent-ish When Species Meet. Like everything she writes, it is brilliant, rigorous, fun, and impossible to summarize. Building off (way off) of her earlier Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway examines the nature and quality of relationships between humans and non-humans – in particular the way that history and power have interleaved with evolution and ecology to produce strange and sometimes beautiful hybrid assemblages. Like especially, of course, the domestic dog. What Haraway does that Derrida (not to mention Buber) do not is consider what kind of responsibilities emerge from the relationships we generate. What we as humans owe to dogs, for example, for having enrolled them in our 10,000 year co-evolutionary strategy.

What might this tell us about whales?

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