Dubious Science: The “Talking Killer Whale”

Scientists in France have taught a killer whale named Wikie to make sounds in mimicry of “hello” and “bye-bye” and other human syllables.

An authority is quoted as saying, “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture … The subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly.”

Um. So what?

This gimmick advancement in human-whale relations is supposed to support a hypothesis of social learning in mimicry among wild orca populations.

But really, it seems to me a silly trick, like making a parakeet wear bunny ears or something, just because we can. It reminds me of those disrespectful photoshopped images that goofify furry critters. You know what I’m talking about. People try to make mammals look cuter by morphing their muzzles into smiling lips. Usually with a sappy caption that no self-respecting nonhuman animal would ever “say.”

I mean, animals are brilliant on their own, without needing to jump through our stupid hoops. And they’re plenty beautiful without benefit of Photoshop.


Photo by “JellyBean” via Flickr Creative Commons

I think of the book by esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal, titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and the answer seems to be: No.

Must we demean a noble species by teaching it to twist its vocalizing apparatus in a semi-successful attempt to sound like us? Is that a good use of research dollars? Surely the orca has its own intricate and elegant communications genius, of which the audible variety is only one method. (Echolocation, body language, telepathy?)

If you look up “threats to orca” you find lists like this: habitat loss, chemical pollution, loss of food supply due to hydroelectric dams and other human encroachment, etc. Not to mention being captured for marine mammal parks like the one where 14-year-old “Wikie” lives. 

I won’t lie, I was thrilled with Shamu the Killer Whale as a youngster visiting Sea World. The tricks! The jumps! The splash! But … haven’t we all grown up a bit since the 1980s?

The orca who learned to “speak” lives at MarineLand in Antibes, France, which has been the target of protests and investigations for mistreatment of the sea mammals.

“Bye-bye,” indeed.

Surely we are the ones who could stand to learn from our wild cousins. An apex predator like the orca: Does it kill more than it needs to fill its belly and care for its young? Or does it live in balance with its habitat, like every other creature on the planet with the exception of homo sapiens?

What a step for humankind it would be, if we humbled ourselves enough to consider the possibility of mimicry in the other direction.