Alastair’s Place

Software development, Cocoa, Objective-C, life. Stuff like that.

Whaling Resumes in Icelandic Waters

According to the BBC, Iceland has broken the 21-year-old whaling ban by killing a fin whale.

Lots of people will, of course, object on conservation grounds, or on the basis that Iceland shouldn’t be breaking bans imposed by the international community. My objection is different and has to do with intelligence and sentience, two properties that are easily demonstrated in cetaceans. These creatures are clearly self-aware, are possessed of complex communication capabilities that are at least akin to human language, and clearly demonstrate emotional relationships amongst their own kind. It is also apparent that they find us at least as fascinating as we find them.

There have been various arguments about the relative intelligence of creatures with large brain masses. Often we assume that we are the most intelligent species on the planet, though it is important to realise that it is not much more than an assumption. It is very easy to conflate intelligence with (for instance) tool use, something that we are well adapted for but that whales by and large are not. There is also an element of vanity involved; it is pretty obvious why people might choose to claim that their own species were the most intelligent even in the face of really quite substantial evidence to the contrary.

It does not help that the evidence is far from clear. On the one hand, whales’ brain masses are several times ours (a sperm whale brain, for instance, according to Wikipedia, masses about 7.8kg, vs our 1.5kg), and it is certainly true that creatures with larger brains are generally more intelligent, but it is equally true that there are many exceptions to this rule and that intelligence can be quite focussed on the specific tasks that a creature undertakes in its natural surroundings. There have been experiments, for instance, where parrots have outperformed chimpanzees at tasks that most would regard as intelligence related (counting blocks, for instance). There are also justifiable arguments against simply looking at smaller cetaceans such as killer whales and dolphins and assuming that the larger animals are at least as or even more intelligent; it doesn’t necessarily follow.

What I’m getting to is that I think there is enough evidence already available that they are intelligent self-aware creatures that makes killing them unnecessarily (and I would specifically include killing for commercial purposes in this, as there are plenty of ways to make a living without killing whales) morally repugnant. At the very least, it is quite clear that we are dealing with entities whose sentience is on a different scale to that of other “food animals” such as cattle or sheep.

So I’m dismayed and saddened, though not surprised, at Iceland’s actions.