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Must-Read Book Club: “The Sounding Of The Whale”

January 11, 2012

For anyone interested in whales and dolphins, this book looks fascinating: “The Sounding Of The Whale: Science And Cetaceans In The Twentieth Century.” It’s a masterwork by D. Graham Burnett, a professor of history of science at Princeton that explores the extensive–and sometimes brutal–history of humanity’s interaction with, and understanding of, cetaceans.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.

In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. When Burnett opens his story, ignorance reigns: even Nature was misclassifying whales at the turn of the century, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed, or widely flouted, by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day. The book closes with a look at the remarkable shift in public attitudes toward whales that began in the 1960s, as environmental concerns and new discoveries about whale behavior combined to make whales an object of sentimental concern and public adulation.

A sweeping history, grounded in nearly a decade of research, The Sounding of the Whale tells a remarkable story of how science, politics, and simple human wonder intertwined to transform the way we see these behemoths from below.

This finback whale, found dead in the Baltic in 2006, was pulled from the sea by Greenpeace and dumped in front of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin as an anti-whaling protest. (Credit: Danny Gohlke/Agence France-Press — Getty Images)

And here is a passage from the New York Times review, which featured the above image, that in particular caught my attention:

From the likes of Hjort and Harmer and others, Burnett leads us to the superhumanly curious American A. Remington Kellogg, “the Prince of Whales.” Kellogg is perhaps the book’s most intellectually intriguing character, acting as a bridge between the gentleman scientists of the 19th century who had the luxury to leisurely catalog the world’s natural abundance and the conservation-minded biologists of the 20th who could see their research subjects vanishing before their very eyes. For Kellogg, the process of awakening to cetacean exceptionality was a grisly one. He was among the first to commission “vivisections” on porpoises even though, in his own words, “a live porpoise can be handled about as readily as a satchel of dynamite.” This did not deter the intrepid scientists who “fell to the unlovely task of restraining the furiously squealing animal in order first to expose the skull and then to saw into it to expose the brain.” When these operations were performed, Kellogg was witness to “a strangely large brain, one with elaborate patterns of convolution such as were generally thought to be more or less unique to human beings.”

Kellogg’s cruel-sounding investigations into cetacean morphology were paired with truly kind and selfless lobbying on whales’ behalf. In tracking Kellogg’s journey from naturalist to activist, Burnett makes good on his promise to show that “a history of whale science can shed considerable light on the changing understanding of nature in the 20th century.” Not only did Kellogg operate in a policy sphere, lobbying to create the Council for the Conservation of Whales, he also assiduously wooed the popular zeitgeist, most notably by working to produce the National Geographic article that would start to shift the general public’s perceptions of what had been largely maligned creatures. For any writer who has ever dealt with that hallowed magazine’s combination of nitpicking and bluster, the record of Kellogg’s editorial squabbles with National Geographic is worth the price of admission. “Left and right, he fought off editors’ desires to sensationalize cetacean ‘monstrosity,’ ” and at one point wrote to a colleague, “ ‘The publisher has the idea that all the pictures should be exciting, such as a whale running its head though a steamer and then winking its eye at the astonished crew.’ ” When the editors wanted to call the piece “Whales: Lions of the Sea,” Kellogg responded: “ ‘Whales are very distantly, if at all, related to the cat tribe. . . . Except when mortally wounded,’ they ‘are inoffensive and noted for their timidity.’ ”

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