Trust me. This will be an enthusiastic review for a new book on animal-human communication by naturalist, filmmaker and writer Tom Mustill. But first ….
I read a lot of pop sci books about animal communication and behavior. I read one this month in which the author explains to readers that scientists have long followed a general rule of not attributing human motivations and emotions to observed animal behavior. It’s true; They have. However, the author also said that many “leading scientists” now think anthropomorphization is a perfectly good thing. After assuring readers that times are changing, the author of this pop-sci book went on to attribute human motivations and emotions to willy-nilly observed animal behavior. As part of this wither-goest-my-heart-so-goest-my-explanations approach, she “enlightened” her dear readers about male bowerbirds, which she said build elaborate arbors and them with jewelry “for love.” decorate. To be clear, male bowerbirds tend to construct elaborate arbors and go to great lengths to decorate them. However, they are also notoriously promiscuous. They build arbors to attract females willing to mate and then leave. Females must build their own nests and raise their young on their own. After mating, once the female has flown away, the male can mate again and again. And again. If you’re anthropomorphizing the arbor, think “he’s building a screw hut,” not “he’s building a honeymoon house and filling it with jewels that will be hers forever.” The female may not keep the bling. That stuff is just honey in a honey pot. Tina Turner may have bowerbirds in mind when she sang “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
Fortunately, in the same week that I read about bowerbirds in love, I was also able to read the book I am reviewing here. It’s Tom Mustills How to pronounce whale. It’s anything but a fuzzy-thinking pop-sci book. Put on paper more like a first class nature film. It does not humanize animal behavior and avoids introducing human bias into discussions of animal intentions. In fact, it’s a reasoned, entertaining, and fact-packed exploration of the ins and outs of animal communication and the possibilities that humans might ever be able to talk to animals.
Mustill has a particular interest in whales. Its first chapter tells of a horrifying incident in which he and a friend narrowly escaped death when a 50-ton humpback whale broke the ocean surface and landed on their kayak, releasing the energy equivalent to about forty hand grenades. Mustill’s experience as a naturalist, filmmaker, and writer has given him an exceptional ability to narrate both the chilling and fascinating details of this scene.
Because of his years of research into animal behavior and communication, Mustill has made friends with scientists of all stripes. Following his whale incident and searching for meaning in his near-death experience, he exchanged letters with anatomist Professor Joy Reidenberg of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, wondering how a whale could have landed on their kayak fell had not killed him and his friend.
Professor Reidenberg watched the YouTube video of the event. As Mustill explained,
“ Joy has spent her whole life studying [whale] Anatomy. From her lab, seventeen stories above Central Park, surrounded by orca skulls… she wrote that the breach the whale had performed appeared strange – that it first went in one direction and then seemed to change course in the air over us. Instead of landing on us, it twisted and turned, just cutting us off with its fin. “I think you both survived because the whale took care not to hit you,” she wrote.
Astonishing. The whale may have “taken care of” humans. Note that I have already flagged Mustill as someone who is very careful not to humanize animals.
Meanwhile, not all of the whale experts with whom Mustill consulted agreed with Professor Reidenberg’s point of view. At least one indicated that the whale had attacked the kayak aggressively. The lack of determination made Mustill wish he could just ask the whale. He even knew which whale to ask. Amateur whale trackers had already identified him using huge web-based photo databases and a computer algorithm. Knowing that any rambling conversation with the prime suspect (as the detectives had called it) was far beyond the realm of possibility, Mustill became curious as to how and when humans and whales might ever come to truly communicate thoughts, feelings, intentions and ideas.
And so he began writing a book that carefully and respectfully examines the science of animal-human communication. Like many good documentaries, the book tells fascinating stories about a handful of researchers asking questions and cleverly searching for answers. They study the communication between dolphins, porpoises, prairie dogs, horses, fish, chickens, chimpanzees, baboons, parrots and bowerbirds. However, the main focus of the book is on whales and whale songs. According to Mustill, scientists are using traditional research methods like tagging as well as newer technologies like underwater robots, cameras and microphones to collect and analyze enormous data sets. Her hope is that one day humans will be able to “speak whales”.
“Big data meets big beasts,” Mustill quipped about the methods currently used to decipher the language of whales and animals in general. Luckily for him, many researchers are exploring some of the questions his traumatic encounter with a humpback whale imprinted on his psyche. How can we collect and decipher most of the sounds a certain species makes? How can we understand how nonhuman animals perceive the world? How can we look past our cornucopia of human prejudices to know what is important to an animal of another species? How can we hear and create their sounds in a way that creates trust and dialogue?
How to pronounce whale is not a primer of whale language. It’s an almost cinematic look at the world of whales and animal behavior and communication in general.
How to Speak Whale: A journey into the future of animal communication
Tom Muestill. $29. Grand Central Publishing (384 pages). Sep 2022.