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Inadvertant Altruism or Intelligent Community Preservation?

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I read an article today, which is relatively recent, but which touched me as a human.

 

Humpbacked whales apparently save seals by fending off killer whales and it seems as if the behaviour is deliberate.

 

I have copied parts of the article below and I would expect the Darwinian reply, but is there an alternative?

 

First, excerpts from the article (bold emphasis is mine):

 

When did you realise the whales were doing more than just driving a predator away?

Well, a couple of days later we saw some killer whales attacking a Weddell seal on an ice floe and there were a couple of humpbacks in the vicinity. We could tell they were agitated because we could hear them bellowing – it’s an impressive sound. The killer whales washed the seal off the ice and it started swimming into open water. Then, suddenly, one of the humpbacks comes to meet the seal and, just as it gets to the seal, rolls over on its back and the water washes the seal onto its chest. The whale lifts its chest up out of the water with the seal on it.

 

That sounds like pretty unusual behaviour for a whale…

Yeah – we were amazed to see it. But we immediately thought maybe the whale didn’t know the seal was there, maybe this was all just coincidence. Then we looked at the BBC footage, and we saw that at one point the seal had started to slip off the whale’s chest. The humpback used a 5-metre-long, 1-tonne flipper to gently nudge the seal back up onto its chest. Once we saw that, we knew it was no accident and something was going on.

 

What did you think was happening between the humpbacks and the seal?

It looked like altruism – as if the whales were acting out of concern for the smaller animal. But we are not talking about humans here, and when animals do something that appears to be altruism, I try to come up with rational explanations for it. But the reason wasn’t obvious because, as best we know, animals always act in their own self-interest. “This needs an explanation,” I thought.

 

What about other cetaceans — does their behaviour offer clues as to what was going on?

There are lots of anecdotes about dolphins helping other animals in distress, including humans. But that’s different from the humpbacks: they were going in to help an animal being attacked by an apex predator.

 

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23230950-700-i-saw-humpback-whales-save-a-seal-from-death-by-killer-whale/

The scientist involved, Robert Pitman ( a marine ecologist) offered a Darwinian approach to the apparently altruistic behaviour of the humpbacked whales.

 

Pitman believes that the behaviour is designed to chase off the killer whales from attacking humpbacked calves, which may be related to them genetically, and therefore they are acting in their overall self interest with the seal-saving being an offshoot to the self preservation of the humpbacked whale community.

 

Now, is there an alternative explanation for why humpbacked whales actively save the seals? I would volunteer a couple of alternative explanations. Cetaceans might have an emotional sense of community and are preserving the lives of other animals in their community which are not food, or a threat. Alternatively, they are actively preventing the killer whales from feeding in their communities, thereby removing the threat of the killer whales feeding on humpbacked calves. However, do the humpbacked whales have a form of deductive logic similar to other limited numbers of species?

 

Do others have opinions on this touching behaviour?

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I've read about such behavior before, dolphins rescuing dogs from sharks and the like. In my aquariums I've seen unlikely individuals form what appeared to be friendships. A Yellow Tang and a Panther Grouper come to mind... To be honest IMHO animals are capable of thought and it can drive their actions much like humans. I know it's not a popular view but I've seen it many times and no other explanation seems to work. Octopus seem to be able to carry on friendships with divers, specific divers, and many large reef fish, even dangerous ones like Moray Eels like a human, sometimes a specific human... Oh yeah there was a wild bull elephant that recently sought out help for a festering bullet wound to the head, really hard to explain.

Edited by Moontanman

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I've read about such behavior before, dolphins rescuing dogs from sharks and the like. In my aquariums I've seen unlikely individuals form what appeared to be friendships. A Yellow Tang and a Panther Grouper come to mind... To be honest IMHO animals are capable of thought and it can drive their actions much like humans. I know it's not a popular view but I've seen it many times and no other explanation seems to work. Octopus seem to be able to carry on friendships with divers, specific divers, and many large reef fish, even dangerous ones like Moray Eels like a human, sometimes a specific human... Oh yeah there was a wild bull elephant that recently sought out help for a festering bullet wound to the head, really hard to explain.

I don't think that animal cognition is identical to human cognition, but I do think that many people react against that idea by going too far in the other direction and vastly underestimate animals and especially their ability to form relationships outside of strictly familial and mating bonds.

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Could they be reciprocating beacons to food supplies, or other information? I'm inclined to think there's some kind of symbiosis going on.

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The instinct to protect a vulnerable creature from attack doesn't require human thought.

In fact, many people act first, without thinking, and lose their lives protecting something.

People die trying to save dogs from drowning and it's not always their own dog. The dog later gets out of the water.

It's quite a common thing.

So it's an instinct, not a thought out action.

There's no reason why whales shouldn't act on the same instinct.

 

Evolution puts those pre-determined instincts in our brains.I don't think it's something we learn.

There's good evolutionary reason for social animals to protect the vulnerable. In the case of animals who live in social groups, the vulnerable creature under attack could very likely be carrying many of your own genes. So if you protect it, you are helping your own genes to survive.

Of course, it's wasteful to protect everything against attack, even when it's not related. So we have a mechanism to restrict our altruism to our own species. But nothing's perfect. And that mechanism is stronger in some individuals than others.

So it's not an unexpected thing for whales to do. But it's likely to be only a few that have a strong protection instinct, and a weak "own species" restriction, that would do it.

 

I feel the same thing, when I watch an Orca toy with a seal. I'm rooting for the seal. That's probably how the whale feels.

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^

 

The humpback whales and killer whales are both members of Order Artiodactyla, infraorder Cetacea whereas pinnipeds (seals) are members of order Carnivora. The humpback stole a perfectly good meal from his Cetacean friends... err, niche stealing competitors.

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I think it's possible the humpbacked whale in question just doesn't like orcas and is willing to thwart them whenever it can. I imagine a whale might have free time on it's flippers to spend doing fun or obnoxious things (point of view here) to while away its day. I have never bought the idea of animals as not being thinking and feeling creatures.

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IMHO I consider that the apparent altruism is not inadvertant but, significantly, posits a theory of mind in cetaceans. This is not a new proposition - there may be a sense of self-awareness that also involves some emotion. Although controversial, I would further suggest that the presence of spindle neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10661-whales-boast-the-brain-cells-that-make-us-human/) allow cetaceans to have a sense of empathy towards other animals in their community which then manifests as a protective behaviour from a perceived enemy. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise elements of the whales' behaviour but I don't see an alternative. I see the protective behaviour with the seals as deliberate and empathetic. Cetaceans have been on the Earth for longer than humans and may have developed these behaviours for longer than us "sentient" beings.

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That might be true, but it's best not to lose sight of how and why our minds evolved, and those of whales.

Mind and body evolved to reproduce our own genes. Anything else is a byproduct.

Our own instincts to protect other species are their because they spill over from our instinct to protect related members of our own species.

It happens more in long-lived social animals which don't produce large numbers of offspring. But not exclusively.

There's an instinct to protect the young in a lot of mammals, even surprising ones.

I've seen video of lionesses protecting a fawn after killing it's mother, also leopards protecting baby monkeys.

It's usually females, and it may happen when their female hormone levels are high.

 

It's not always the mind in isolation that drives behaviour, sometimes the hormones can drive the mind.

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