The Democratic Movements of Sperm Whales, and a Victory for Non-Human Rights

7:36 minutes

A sperm whale. Credit: Shutterstock
A sperm whale. Credit: Shutterstock

In non-election-related news, animal advocates are celebrating something major this week: a judge in Argentina has declared that a chimpanzee named Cecilia has the right to be free. Non-human rights activists have previously argued that chimps possess sufficient cognitive complexity—self-awareness, memory of the past, imagining the future—and that they deserve some of the same legal rights as people. It’s the second time a primate has won the legal right to be free; in 2014, an Argentine court agreed to recognize an orangutan named Sandra as a “non-human person” who could not be unlawfully deprived of its freedom. Science writer Brandon Keim joins Ira to discuss the potential impact of the case. Also, how the movements of sperm whales may perfectly illustrate the democratic process.

Segment Guests

Brandon Keim

Freelance journalist Brandon Keim is a blogger for Anthropocene Magazine based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Human rights has been a hot topic this election season. But what about nonhuman rights? Well, this week, while we’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a bitterly fought election, animal advocates have secured an important victory for primates. And Argentinian court has declared that a chimpanzee named Cecilia has the right to be free. Joining me to discuss this and other short subjects in science, election week edition, is my guest Brandon Keim, freelance journalist and blogger for Anthropocene magazine. Brandon, welcome back to Science Friday.

BRANDON KEIM: Great to see you again, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So given all this stuff going on this week, I’m not surprised this victory went under the radar. Right? Give me a little thumbnail of what happened.

BRANDON KEIM: Well, reportedly– and I say reportedly because I haven’t seen the legal documents. And the stories as I’ve see it have been translated from the Spanish. And it’s possible that some of the legal nuance got lost in the wash. But what we believe happened is that the judge said that Cecilia has a right to be free, or at least not to be kept in a zoo. And if this is the case, it’s truly a landmark decision.

And the legal argument is actually one that’s been pioneered by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project. And they have filed suit on behalf of three chimpanzee plaintiffs here in the United States in the state of New York. And what they argue is that there is overwhelming scientific knowledge of chimpanzees as deeply intelligent and emotional and self-aware, able to remember the past and think of the future and that all of these cognitive capacities are what underlie what we and humans value as our autonomy, our free will.

And that raises the really interesting ethical and legal question of where do rights come from. Are they rooted in what’s in our minds and in our hearts? Or do they just come with a species tag?

IRA FLATOW: And what was the counter-argument made by the judge up until this recent case?

BRANDON KEIM: So here in the US, the argument that’s been made is that rights come from the ability of someone to fulfill their duties in society, that a chimp can’t fulfill duties in a human society. And therefore, they can’t have rights. And then the rebuttal to that is that well, very young children or elderly people with dementia, we don’t expect them to recite the Constitution on demand, but certainly, we do give them rights.

IRA FLATOW: So if this is true and you’ve read reports correctly, does it have wider implications for other animals, other zoos?

BRANDON KEIM: I think it very well could, if not as a narrow legal precedent outside of Argentina, certainly as a statement of what is possible and what a reasonable person can think.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to the relatively good news in the area of climate change. Scientists have figured out that some birds are actually adapting to it. How do they know that?

BRANDON KEIM: So this comes from research that was conducted by Molly McDermott and Lucas DeGroote at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. And what they had was this extraordinary data set of 53 years of bird counts of 21 species. And so we’re talking perching birds here, chickadees and thrushes and goldfinches and what have you.

And what they did is they cross-referenced this with weather. And what many scientists have worried is that as springs come earlier and they’re warmer, it may be more variable that the birds’ breeding cycles would get out of sync with this. They wouldn’t lay eggs at the right time when there was food on the landscape. But so far, at least from this data set in Western Pennsylvania, what we see is that birds are having families when the weather is good. And they have been able to adapt so far.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And for these birds, they did seem able to track the changes in the weather? And when you say they were able to adapt, how do bird adapt?

BRANDON KEIM: Oh, I think sometimes we think that birds’ decisions are just purely instinctive and there is no thought. But actually, if you’re a bird, maybe you wait until there’s bugs hatching in the trees before you decide to have your family. This is a rational decision that you make. And I’m speculating here. The scientists dien’t look at that question. But that’s what one would say.

IRA FLATOW: Or you could see when they’re laying their eggs or stuff like that.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, if summer is long enough, maybe you have a second brood of eggs.

BRANDON KEIM: Exactly. And this does come with caveats. We’re talking these 21 species, not all birds. And this is in one place. But I think if it as a very hopeful note. And we can think of it as Mother Nature’s resilience giving us a chance to do everything else we could be doing to help birds.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ve seen other animals. There is talk of coral, that water gets too warm for regular coral that we know, but maybe some other warm water hardy coral are beginning to adapt to that.

BRANDON KEIM: Yeah, Mother Nature is clever.

IRA FLATOW: Is there is there any evidence to suggest that there will keep on adapting? Is there a limit? There’s got to be a limit somewhere.

BRANDON KEIM: There probably is. And I think this is not an excuse to say, we don’t need to worry about climate change, but rather that we haven’t hit that limit yet. And let’s make sure that we don’t.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, there is no evidence for this yet. But there is a theory out there that sperm whales make decisions democratically?


IRA FLATOW: Do the vote? What do you mean? What does that mean?

BRANDON KEIM: Well, that’s what blows my mind here. So the background to this comes from a scientist named Hal Whitehead, who’s really been a pioneer in investigating sperm whale names and culture and all these things.

And he tracked the movements of two sperm whale clans in the Galapagos. And what he saw is that when they moved as a group, they weren’t moving all at once, let’s say, like a flock of starlings. But they were actually moving in a sort of herky jerky, messy way. And this turns out to be a movement signature of groups that make decisions democratically.

And so that blew my mind when I heard it because how do they count the ballots, right? But democracy at its root, it’s simple. It’s just everybody’s voice is heard, and you make decisions collectively.

And this is just a hypothesis right now or a theory with some good evidence. But he’s not sure of it. But the movement patterns suggest it. And it turns out, actually, that there’s a number of species where democratic decision-making takes place. And it’s a good evolutionary strategy if everybody has something to contribute.

And in the case of sperm whales, you’re talking about dozens of individuals spread out across miles. And maybe one of them says, oh, you know, there’s an upwelling of warm, nutrient-full of water over here. And another says, hey, you know, I heard squid. We should go get a squid. And someone else says, well, the last time you heard squid, they tasted bad. And so they can work out amongst themselves where they want to go.

IRA FLATOW: I see. And they all take a vote because we all know they communicate with each other, right?

BRANDON KEIM: They do. And in a democracy, you don’t need ballots. You just need to listen to what everyone says.

And a really interesting wrinkle on this is so we know that sperm whale culture can vary from clan to clan. And it’s really fun to think of– maybe their democratic practices vary from clan to clan too.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I’ll have to find out. Thank you. That’s quite interesting, and very pertinent this week, Brandon.

BRANDON KEIM: Yes, let’s hope they have good conflict resolution mechanisms that we can learn from.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely…. Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist and blogger for Anthropocene magazine.

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