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Learning From Orca Menopause

Can we evolve to the moral heights of Orca society?

Orca Network, used with permission.
Source: Orca Network, used with permission.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. - William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act I, Scene 5)

Menopause is a subject that variously provokes jokes, distress, and disorientation. But, among cetacean researchers, it poses a formidable conundrum. Besides humans, there are only two other species, both cetaceans, known to follow these hormonal rhythms: Pilot Whales (Globicephala) and the magnificent black and white Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). Although some cease to bear young because of frailty or disease, the females of other species remain fertile throughout their lifespans. Biologists posit that because menopause takes a female’s future investment out of the gene pool, it confers a substantial disadvantage. The idea is that if your genes are no longer in the running, then you and your lineage will tend to lose out. So the question is, why? Why would the selfish gene do something seemingly opposed to evolutionary success?

The hypothesis was that the depth of experience accumulated by older females makes up for infertility. Reproductive energies could be redirected to help out the rest of the family. But, now a recent study asserts that the reason for menopause is “darker.” Older females, researchers claim, bow out because they are effectively pushed out of the reproductive race: they lose fights over resources with their enceintes and nursing daughters. “A mother whale needs some 42% additional sustenance to nurse her calf,” and “because orcas share the food they catch, she can get those calories by demanding a bigger share.” Even though the much more socioecologically savvy matriarch “probably finds and catches most of the salmon. . . .her daughters and grand-calves likely end up with most of it on their plates, possibly through fighting and hoarding.” [1, 2]

Orca Network, used with permission.
Source: Orca Network, used with permission.

On the surface, the reproductive conflict theory appears to solve the Whale menopause puzzle. But when Orca society is viewed more carefully through the lens of neuropsychology, from the inside out, a very different picture, and one consistent with the vast accumulation of Orca and other animal natural history data, emerges. It starts with exploring who Orcas really are and how their sense of self and morality develop.

First, before delving into Orca waters, take a minute to reflect on your own sense of self. For example, think about how you might answer a stranger who asks: “Who are you?” Your first response might be your name (“Madeline Harrison,” “Peter Beckworth”). Or you might refer to your profession (“student,” “plumber”) or ethnicity (“Italian,” “Maori”). Your answer may also depend on location - at an after work baseball game (“the pitcher”), community hall (“the neighbor two doors down”), or a party (“Jimmy’s brother”). All these responses reflect self-awareness – facets of your sense of self. But they reveal something else.

Directly or indirectly, every answer to the question “Who are you?” relates you to another person, whether an individual (“Jimmy’s brother”) or a group (“plumbers”). Even your name relates you to someone – your family. We know who we are by those with whom we are associated and also by those whom we are not. “I am female (not male)” or “I am Maori” (not American). “I am a plumber” (not a farmer), and so on. A sense of self is intrinsically relational. Inception and in and ex utero development is plural. It takes at least two to tango: whether a sperm and egg or mother and infant.

Orca Network, used with permission.
Source: Orca Network, used with permission.

Like us, a Killer Whale’s sense of self, brain, and mind are shaped through attachment and the ebb and flow of successive interpersonal connections from infancy onward. But unlike most urbanized, industrial and technological progeny, babies who hail from ancient collectively-directed cultures such as Orcas, Elephants, and tribal humans, are born into a complex of nested, matryoshka-like relationships spanning space and time. Natal Orca relatives maintain strong bonds and they are never apart from each other more than a few hours. The young remain nurtured and protected within this prosocial cocoon. Orca “I-ness” is seamlessly integrated in a web of interleaved social, ecological, and cultural patterns, wherein the community’s entire collective history, DNA, and experiences live on in every individual. Mind, self, culture, and ecology are co-evolved processes in dialogue through epigenetic interaction. Orcas live and breathe in, “a dynamic space where the whole community of beings that exist in the world lives; this includes humans, plants, animals, the mountains, the rivers, the rain, etc. All are related like a family.” [3] The self, therefore, is implicitly infused with the values and traditions of the culture in which it is embedded. An Orca’s self-embodies Orca morals - Killer Whale regles du jeu.

Orcas are well known for strict within-community rules of conduct. For example, aside from two exceptions—L98 (Luna) and A73 (Springer)—there is no record to date of any individual who permanently departed from the Pacific Northwest Southern Resident matrilines (lines of common descent from a particular female traced through individual orca mothers, across generations). Members simply do not disperse. They never leave their social home and associate exclusively with other matrilines within their pod and community. Sociologist Howard Garrett, who, with Susan Berta, co-founded the non-profit Orca Network, describes Southern Resident cultural mores:

Orcas are creatures of rules. They act according to very deeply engrained traditions. They exist in the envelope of their cultures and are tuned in to each other all the time. They are above emotional outbursts and unconscious destructive acts. Orcas don’t fight, they don’t joust, there are no squabbles or demands for authority, and they don’t kill each other. They care for each other, and teach their children this understanding and respect generation after generation. They are always in acoustic contact, talking back and forth. We see the matriarchs giving commands and guiding family. They are so well connected that in an instant, they can all change direction, completely synchronized. They are making and sharing meanings with each other and the group that convey very sophisticated sensory and cognitive information. Their sensitivity and keen intelligence are astounding. [4]

 Robert Pittman
Source: Source: Robert Pittman

This description resonates with what Notre Dame moral neuropsychologist Darcia Narvaez refers to as an engagement ethic.

The engagement ethic concerns the emotions of intimacy and interpersonal harmony in the present moment, which means the right brain is the dominating experience. Engagement as a ‘harmony morality’ is about love/care/attachment, enhancement, and elevation. The engagement ethic embraces the notions of worship and community feeling. Engagement is ‘here and now,’ it is experiencing full presence in the flow of life, connecting to others in the moment.[5]

Orcas also exhibit rigid rules of conduct outside their community. Despite their size, Orcas do not exercise violence except with those they eat. There is not a single incident where an Orca has harassed or harmed a human in all of known history, which includes the thousands upon thousands of years of aboriginal past from waters stretching from the Antipodes, to North America, Asia, and Europe. And in over forty years, there has only been one incident of intraspecific Orca hostility observed. Howard Garett:

We never see Orcas butting heads or ramming each other like Transients do when they take down a Sea Lion. There is only one instance, in 1993, when [Canadian Orca researcher] Graeme Ellis observed Orca-on-Orca conflict. He saw the J Pod beelining toward a cove south of Nanaimo. Aside from a grandmother, mother and newborn, the entire pod raced into the cove and beat up three Transient Orcas. Ellis saw ramming and flurries of water and the Transients fled. No one was killed. We have no idea of the cause or why it happened. What it does tell us, though, is that Orcas have developed conscious philosophical cultures and traditions to allow them to live virtually free of conflict. It also tells us that we only know a fraction of how Orcas communicate. It is a real lesson of how little we know and the depth of their intellect and cultures. [6]

Orca interpersonal relationships have served them well. The sheer strength of their familial and cultural ties has enabled Orcas to withstand the unrelenting onslaught by humans – but barely. Seven Orcas of the J Pod died just this past year. Three Orcas likely died of starvation as a result of dams and overfishing which have gutted their staple diet, salmon. A month before 105 year old J2 (also called “Granny”) disappeared, she showed marked weakening and emaciation.

Shelby Proie, used with permission.
Source: Shelby Proie, used with permission.

Orcas are succumbing to other lethal threats. J34 (nicknamed “Doublestuf”), a robust eighteen year old male, was found washed up on shore, his body severely abraded. The absence of internal damage suggests his cause of death might have been shock waves that are associated with military activities. [7] Then there is Tokitae (known as Lolita), a female who was captured and stolen from her family as an infant, brought to an aquarium where she has languished since 1970. [8] The dire situation of the Southern Residents has prompted their listing as endangered. However, the key issues, dams and overfishing, remain unaddressed.

The Southern Resident Orca culture raises some very important points for science and society. First, Killer Whales offer a moral exemplar to guide our species away from its violent, sociopathic path toward prosocial peace and respect for animal kin and each other. Second, the story of Orca menopause is an object lesson illustrating the dangers of making glib assumptions about the motivations of other cultures. The unthinking projection of modern humanity’s shadow on other species constitutes a profound ethical and scientific violation. Similar errors have been made by other evolutionary theorists who “assume that today’s human behavior is normal and normative and then try to explain it as adaptive.” [9]

As many tribal human cultures exhibit, and researchers have discovered, 99% of the human genus has functioned in caring companionship similar to the Orcas. Modern humanity may be guided by self-centered gain, but the vast majority of humans and nonhumans have not and do not. [9, 10] Animal prosociality as the driving force of evolution alternate to competition is not a new idea. In 1902, Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin published, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, where he elaborated on “mutual aid theory” outlined by zoologist Karl Kessler. Both scientists assert that cooperation, aid, and nurturance, not competition and conflict, permeate animal genes. Kropotkin saw this first hand during travels in Siberia and Manchuria:

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys. . .One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature. . .And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence. In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life.[11]

A final and third lesson from the Orcas is that there is much more to Orca philosophy than we currently are able to dream. And as the pathetic video of Tokitae in one of endless entertainment spectacles at the Miami Seaquarium illustrates, it is our species who is guilty of dark deeds, not the Orcas. When confronted with a culture far more evolved and sophisticated, we are best served to look and learn from the Whales so that one day our species can reach the heights of Orcinus orca wisdom.

Literature Cited

[1] Croft, D. P., R. A. Johnstone, S. Ellis, S. Nattrass, D. W. Franks, L. J. N. Brent, S. Mazzi, C. Balcomb, J. K. B. Ford, and M. A. Cant. 2017. Reproductive conflict and the evolution of menopause in killer whales. Current Biology.

[2] Morrell, V. 2017. Study suggests surprising reason killer whales go through menopause.…

[3] Justo Oxa quoted in Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).

[4] Garrett. H. quoted in Bradshaw G.A. 2017. Carnivore minds: Who these fearsome animals really are. Yale University Press.

[5] Narvaez, Darcia. Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology 26, no. 1 (2008): 95-119.

[6]Garret, H. In discussion with the author. January 2017.

[7] Berta, S. and H. Garrett. 2017. In discussion with the author.

[8] Orcanetwork, 2015. “Proposal to Retire the Orca Lolita to Her Native Habitat in the Pacific Northwest,”, accessed November 2015.

[9] Narvaez, D. 2013. The 99 Percent—Development and Socialization Within an Evolutionary Context. In Fry, Douglas, War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views.

[10] Ingold, T. ( 1999). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R. B. Lee and R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (pp. 399–410 ). New York: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Kropotkin, P. 1902/2012 Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. Courier Corporation.

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