Some cetaceans show signs of grief, carrying their dead calves around for days and weeks. Others care for their old and sick. The value of what a whale knows is so high that old females of many species undergo menopause, avoiding the risks of motherhood to guide their pods through danger. These cultures could well be much older than any of our own. They have likely been singing and chattering in the sea in their tribes far longer than we have been talking on land in ours. I find this all astonishing. Why search for extra-terrestrial intelligence when fellow cultured animals swim in the seas alongside us all this time? It is an awful realisation when you think of what has already been lost: we have not just been killing species, or reducing “biodiversity”, but also wiping away individuals, personalities and cultures.
Ironically, our recent human cultures have been very resistant to the idea that any other earthbound species could have songs, cultures or names at all.
Why search for extra-terrestrial intelligence when fellow cultured animals swim in the seas alongside us?
In the British legal system, and most other places, animals are considered “things”. There are laws to define how they are to be fed, housed and slaughtered, but they have no legal rights like humans do, like a right to life. In part this is a function of power, we can do these things, so we do. But it is also a legacy of our belief that we are profoundly different from other animals and special. That we sit at the top of a scala natura, or natural hierarchy. This allows us to grant ourselves moral licence to eat other animals and use them for our clothing and furniture coverings. But the old beliefs are waning in Britain. A recent UK census revealed 22 million of us have “no religion”. Without a divine stamp of approval, human exceptionalism rests on the evidence that we are unique and special. The more we look into the lives of other species, the shakier this evidence seems.
Parrots have been found to understand abstract concepts and coin new words, octopuses to solve puzzles and dream, fish to recognise human faces, vocalise and have distinct personalities. Other species cooperate and plan ahead; some memorise hundreds of words and do simple mathematics, some kiss with tongues and experience mental illness, others use syntax, fall in love, feel jealous and make friends. They feel pain, pleasure, perhaps love and awe and “spiritual” experiences, they gossip, kill for pleasure, exhibit morality, act altruistically, create art, dance to the beat, laugh when tickled. They feel pain when they see others in pain, they manipulate and deceive, rescue and comfort.
What were long-assumed absolute boundaries between humans and other species seem more now to be matters of degrees. In the words of the Yosemite ranger who tried to explain why it was hard to design a rubbish bin that bears couldn’t get into: “There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.”
The primatologist Frans de Waal uses the term “Anthropodenial” to describe our inclination to dismiss another animals’ behaviour when it seems able to do something a human can do. It is a powerful force. Perhaps the apex of our anthropodenial is in our reluctance to believe that other species might be able to communicate in ways like we do. For the philosopher Descartes, to speak and so display our unique human gift for rational thought is what ultimately sets us apart. But is it really just human beings who speak? I have been struck by how many philosophers and linguists have repeated the line that only humans have language, despite having only studied humans. How can they be so sure?
We have not just been killing species, but also wiping away individuals, personalities and cultures
The evidence from studies on chimpanzees and other captive species has been mixed. But this is perhaps not surprising given that we have mainly been trying to teach laboratory animals, removed (often at birth) from their cultures and wild lives to master human languages or ersatz symbolic communication systems. We are also trapped in human brains with human ideas of language. This could make it hard for us to perceive it in species who wield it differently.
However, a big blow to our anthropocentrism may be about to arrive, courtesy of forces we do not fully understand. Many of the powerful AI tools developed to discover patterns in human behaviours are now being turned to investigate animal lives. One of the most promising fields is the analysis of language, where algorithms fed huge datasets can discern hidden patterns within human languages and learn to translate between them without the need for dictionaries (this is how Google Translate works).
Right now, massive research effort is underway in the waters off Dominica to use huge rigs of hydrophones, drones and robot fish to capture the biggest animal behaviour dataset of all time from the resident sperm whales, tailormade for AIs’ attempts to crack the codes of their communications. Project CETI aims to try and speak to the whales in 2026. This is just one expedition, and the tools it develops will be shared with those trying to crack the conversations of bats, crows, elephants and baboons. The datasets will keep getting bigger and the tools will become more sophisticated. What patterns we will discover in animal lives with these tools is uncertain, but many researchers I’ve interviewed believe they are already revolutionising biology. In biochemistry, for example, the AlphaFold AI in 2020 “solved” protein folding at a stroke: predicting the shape of every known protein, essentially completing an entire discipline of science.
If we decode the communications of other species, what would this mean for them?
Many of the researchers doing this science are motivated by the hope that gaining these windows into animal lives – becoming privy to their conversations and, perhaps, to speaking with them – could catalyse a healing in our broken relationship with nature. Imagine subtitles on wildlife films or in abattoirs. One described the power to me as “machines for making vegans”. In the history of law, the path to legal recognition for disempowered humans has often followed the recognition of their voices. Could this hold true for non-human rights if other species’ feelings were made explicit via machine translation?
And, if so, what would it mean for us? Would we face an identity crisis as the mainstay of our exceptionalism crashes; or would we seek a way to mitigate findings and cling on to our sense of pre-eminence? Would you still love your dog if he told you he preferred your neighbour? There are potentially dark outcomes too. To understand the communications of other species gives new powers to exploit them and each other. We already have a terrible record of first contacts among our own species. Before we “speak” to animals, we will be able to generate what sounds to other creatures like their communications, without actually knowing what messages we’re transmitting. We will be able to deepfake whale-speak. So there’s an ethical issue around not messing up animal cultures before we even know the true nature of what we are destroying. Before many of us believe such cultures even exist.
For my own part, I am optimistic about the impact of what these machine intelligences will help us to perceive. When hydrophones revealed to us that humpback whales sang, it galvanised the nascent environmental movement to cease their slaughter and helped save other species from extinction. Having closely observed recent breakthroughs in inter-species communication, I believe we have to take this fanciful-sounding idea very seriously: that whales might speak, and that very soon we will be able to speak whale (or at least an approximation of whale). And we need to decide how we do so. How to listen with the most scrupulous care and think before we, in turn, speak to them.
Tom Mustill is a biologist turned filmmaker and writer. His award-winning films include many collaborations with Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. His book “How to Speak Whale: a Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication” is out now