Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mr. Know-It-All: Can Whales Be Autistic?

by Jon Mooallem)

Christoph Niemann

Can whales be autistic?

I put this question to Laurel Braitman, author of the forthcoming Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Her book chips away at the prejudicial idea that humans are the only animals to feel and express emotion in complex and surprising ways and shows that animal minds can be just as diverse as our own.

“Why not?” Braitman answered gleefully. This was followed by a long chain of other, more nuanced thoughts and historical anecdotes. And then, finally, Braitman told me about A27.

A27 was an orca, one of 32 that a marine biologist named Naomi Rose studied for several years in British Columbia while investigating the social dynamics of male orcas in the wild. There was something very different about this guy. He behaved oddly—inscrutably. Rose explained, for example, that he’d go on “tail-slapping jags” for several minutes, repeatedly smacking the water with his rear fin. Orcas are normally extremely social animals. But A27 didn’t interact much with other orcas except his mom. “I ended up thinking he was developmentally stunted,” Rose told Braitman.

So, was A27 autistic? Who the hell knows? Does the story of A27 present only the most excruciatingly thin evidence that a whale could be autistic? Yes, it sure does. But as Braitman asks, what would it even mean to apply a human label like “autism” to an animal? We have only the most hesitant understanding and definition of autism in our own species, and the barest concept of the inner lives of nonhumans.

So listen, here’s your answer: The world is full of difference and mystery. Certainty surfaces only intermittently, like blackfish spouting from beneath a deep blue tide.