A Primordial Commonality

“When we imagine that mother whales love their calves, or that juvenile sea lions just wanna have fun, maybe we’re sensing our common origins in an evolutionary past.”

July 22, 2006

By Lee Anna Sherman

ONE BREEZY AFTERNOON while we were anchored in San Ignacio Lagoon, a passenger came out on deck, asking if anyone had seen her jacket. After she decided it must have blown overboard, one guy gazed across the chop and remarked, “Somewhere out there is a whale wearing a lime-green windbreaker.” Added another, “Yeah, and his pal is saying, ‘Dude, where’d you get the Patagonia?'”

People are prone to anthropomorphizing. Our penchant for attributing human traits to animals begins in our cradles as we listen to stories about bears that eat porridge, cats that wear boots, and fishes that grant wishes. Since Mickey Mouse became a household word in the ’30s, our popular culture has been inundated with make-believe animals endowed with ideas, motives, emotions and names that everyone knows — Big Bird and Barney, Chewbacca and Clifford, Snoopy and Nemo.

When we grow up, we’re supposed to leave Winnie-the-Pooh and his all-too-human habits behind. Yet on a whale expedition, you see middle-aged women and men — sensible, smart, successful adults — bursting with tender feelings for the barnacled behemoths from the briny deep. Where does that improbable affection come from? Is it just a sentimental holdover from the nursery? An immature lack of objectivity? An unscientific sloppiness of thought?

Or is it something else, something ancient and subliminal? When we imagine that mother whales love their calves, or that juvenile sea lions just wanna have fun, maybe we’re sensing our common origins in an evolutionary past. When we see traits in other creatures that we like to claim as uniquely human — curiosity, affection, playfulness — maybe we’re acknowledging our shared ancestry in the primordial ooze, realizing (or feeling, on a gut level) that there is no clear demarcation between “us” and “them.”

Forgetting that we, too, are biological organisms — that what we share with other species is much greater than what separates us from them — is a conceit that Homo sapiens can no longer afford. So when a young whale, drawn by the drone of an idling outboard motor, swims onto his mother’s back to get a better view of us — a huddle of fragile human animals bobbing in a skiff, shielded from sun, sea, and salt spray by lifejackets, hats, Gore-Tex, Ray-Bans, and SP40 sun block — who’s to say he’s not communicating something like this: “Hey, Mom, what are those? Can I go over there and see? Pleeaasssse!”

And when he ventures to the side of the boat and raises his head, the distance between our species slams shut. The instant this month-old whale looks up at us, odd intruders into his watery birthplace, and lets us stroke his smooth, rubbery nose, the distinction between “human” and “animal” traits dissolves into irrelevance. In that moment, we understand that human beings and gray whales — Homo sapiens and Eschrichtius robustus — are, in the end, simply Earthlings. And, as such, we are forever linked.

Writer’s Note: A few weeks after I wrote this, I found a passage in Dick Russell’s 2001 book Eye of the Whale that bears an uncanny similarity to my words. Posing the question, What might the whales of San Ignacio Lagoon be trying to “say” to us, here’s what Russell concludes about grays and humans: “The commonality is primordial. We are molded of the same clay. Eschrichtius robustus. Homo sapiens… What is hurting them is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we.” L.S.

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