“The Sounding of the Whale” — Book Review

Written by D. Graham Burnett, published by the University of Chicago Press, January 2012.

Book cover of The Sounding of the Whales“The Sounding of the Whale is a remarkable book, an astounding piece of research that presents subtle, original arguments in a stylish and readable (if sometimes mannered) prose. Burnett’s subject is the development of whale science in the 20th century, which takes in the work of zoologists, palaeontologists, biological oceanographers, ecologists, neurologists and mathematicians, among others. The individual scientists are brought to life and their work is beautifully contextualised. Burnett shows us the many ties that bound whale scientists, disastrously, to the whaling industry. He also does a wonderful job of placing the science of cetology in its institutional settings, both academic and political.

“Some of the most dramatic pages in the book are concerned (unlikely as this must sound) with the committees to which Burnett’s main characters devoted so much time. Historians of science and medicine have long written about the importance of place — the laboratory, the clinic. What Burnett writes about committees and their workings is a distinguished addition to the literature. This is a major work in the history of science, but it is also an environmental history, a study in decision-making and a contribution to the growing genre of ocean history. Any overview of the book’s virtues should also note how well the author weaves the popular image of cetaceans into his narrative. In the 1920s and 30s this was largely a matter of print culture; by the 40s we have The Whale that Wanted to Sing at the Met, Walt Disney’s sequel to Bambi; and by the 60s marine aquariums and TV shows provide the context for a new generation of whale scientists.

“When we think about whaling it is Moby-Dick that comes to mind — harpooning whales by hand from a sailing ship. That worked with sperm whales and right whales, doing major damage to stocks, but it left the powerful rorquals (blues, fins) untouched. The Norwegian invention of the grenade harpoon fired from a cannon, plus steam power, brought a new era of whaling in the 1860s, first in the north Atlantic, then — from the start of the 20th century — in the sub-Antarctic southern Atlantic. That is where Burnett’s story begins. The 3m square miles of the Falkland islands and their dependencies hosted many coastal stations where whale carcasses were moored (up to 40 at a time), then hacked to pieces, described here in stomach-turning detail.

“The industry was lucrative. A whale provided jobs, money and fertiliser, “while in the water it is of value to no one”, said the managing director of the Southern Cross Whaling Company. The governor of the Falklands agreed that there was no risk of reducing overall numbers. Others were more concerned, such as the zoologist Sidney Harmer, who became director of the British Museum (Natural History) in 1919. Together with fellow scientists and colonial officials he established the Discovery programme of whale research, launched in 1923. The emphasis was on conservation and the need for more research. Newspapers talked of “an effort to save the whales”. One, grasping for an analogy, imagined a future of licences and hunting seasons that turned the whale into “a sort of marine pheasant”.

“There was still great ignorance in the early 20s about whales — their age of sexual maturity, rates of growth, longevity and migration patterns. The Discovery findings filled many of these gaps over the following quarter-century, but at a price. Both aspects of the programme — direct work on whale physiology and the marking of whales — led “hip-booted” whale scientists to identify too closely with the industry. The relationship grew more dependent when the rise of factory ships sharply reduced the tax revenues from coastal whaling stations that had provided the early Discovery committee with its “nice little nest-egg”. Whale biology “was being sucked into the belly of the beast”, concludes Burnett.

“It is impossible to convey the subtleties of a 166-page chapter as long and rich in detail as many books. That is no less true of what follows, when Burnett turns to US whale science in the interwar years. The central figure here is Arthur Remington (“Remmy”) Kellogg, who came circuitously to his position as the leading American whale expert. While writing his PhD at Berkeley, the Midwesterner Kellogg was exposed to Californian debates over the historic extinction of marine mammals, debates invigorated by local petroleum exploration that uncovered large fossil remains. He turned to palaeontology. It was while researching whale ears that he became interested first in data on whale strandings, sightings and catches, then in larger questions of whale physiology and evolution. That was what made his name.

“Burnett deftly traces the personal and institutional reasons that set Kellogg on this path, and shows how important questions of whale evolution and ecology were — not just among specialists (the polyphyletic versus the monophyletic interpretation of aquatic adaptation, anyone?) but more broadly. The mid-20s saw the Scopes “monkey trial”, where whales also featured in the testimony about evolution. And this was a time when Kellogg’s growing concerns about whale populations matched the fears of many American naturalists about the impact of anthropogenic change, not least the threat posed by Federal wildlife control programmes. Kellogg belonged to a larger conservationist movement even if his focus was very specific. In articles for the National Geographic on the “giants of the sea” and in the Council for the Conservation of Whales, a pioneering organisation he co-founded, Kellogg used his standing to publicise the “plight of the whales”.

“Kellogg was an American engaged in very American debates, but he had a network of scientific correspondents from Scandinavia to New Zealand and represented the US at European conferences on whaling in the 30s. The entry of Germany and Japan and the growing number of factory ships operating beyond territorial waters made whaling an international issue. Kellogg proposed global quotas in 1938, without success (“the commercial aspects seem to have outweighed the biological”). In 1946 he helped found the International Whaling Commission, established in a spirit of postwar optimism. The US, with little stake in whaling, provided crucial leadership. (This is an environmental history in which the Americans are the good guys and the villains turn out to be Dutch and Norwegian.) Burnett devotes two chapters to the IWC, a “byword for failure and irresponsibility”. Some of the reasons he gives for that are familiar: the IWC budget was small, there were no national catch quotas, and scientists deferred to whalemen. But Burnett’s analysis has novel and sophisticated elements. Despite a few industry stooges such as the Dutchman EJ Slijper, the scientists were not simply “captured”; it was more that contentious issues — sanctuaries, quotas, penalties — were shunted off to a scientific sub-committee to prevent open discord. Burnett shows in general how scientists muzzled themselves in order to establish their bona fides, bending over backwards to avoid “political” proposals, and he shows in particular how scientific uncertainty about whale populations weakened regulation instead of prompting what we call the precautionary principle.

“After a study of catch data based on new mathematical methods, the IWC scientific committee finally concluded in 1963 that the Antarctic whale population was in free-fall. This is often portrayed as a victory for the scientists, undercut by political self-interest. Burnett turns this on its head. The study turned out to be flawed; its great achievement was in fact political — by removing the fig-leaf of scientific uncertainty, it forced the whaling nations to acknowledge their economic motives and exposed them to the court of world opinion. The changed status of the whale in the 60s and 70s, prelude to the whaling moratorium of 1982, is the subject of the final chapter. Greenpeace was the dramatic face of shifting opinion, but Burnett explores especially well the new wave of interest in the cognitive and affective qualities of the whale and its smaller cetaceous cousin, the dolphin. He shows how the whale completed its journey from the lumbering monster filled with useful oils to the creature “symbolic of life itself”.

“In scale this work resembles a 19th-century novel, although more knowing and even fey in tone. It is a book full of detail, full of intelligence, full of wit, and sometimes full of itself. Burnett avoids jargon and moralism. He writes about a tragedy in ways that allow for the role of irony and he does justice — this above all — to the complexity of his subject. This book has its flaws but it is a great book.”

Book review source: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/12/david-blackbourn-graham-burnett-whales

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