Whales prefer peace. How human is that?

K-Dog, trained by the US Navy to find mines an...

A bomb-sniffing dolphin trained by our navy. Image via Wikipedia

There’s mounting evidence that whales and dolphins, among the few mammals who can recognize themselves in the mirror, possess a sense of self similar to our own.

This has spurred scientists and philosophers to urge additional protections for these species–but with an argument that makes me wonder about the quality of human self awareness.

Sperm whales are armed with sonar so powerful they could use it to deafen other animals, but they choose not to, Hal Whitehead, a whale biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, said at a conference in Helsinki this morning.

“It’s like a group of human hunters armed with guns,” he told Reuters. “There’s a clear sense of how the sonar can be used.”

Does this seem like a good comparison to you?

Maybe it’s just because I live in Chicago, where tonight–the first hot night of this young decade–dozens of people will undoubtedly be shot by groups of human hunters armed with guns, but it seems to me that human beings don’t have a clear sense of how guns can be used. Except that we know what the trigger does.

So perhaps we should protect sperm whales and other cetaceans not because they have what Reuters calls a human-like sense of morality, but rather because they have a cetacean sense of morality to which humans ought to aspire.

I’m not an expert on evolution, but I suspect our thumbs have had more to do with our ascendancy than our morals.

Or, better, perhaps we should stop protecting other species based on comparisons to ourselves–although let’s not rule out any argument that works–and start protecting them based on their inherent value, which often includes a morality more consistently employed than our own.

Even if it comes, protection will arrive too late for some. Sperm whales, dolphins and other cetaceans face dire, immediate risk from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

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