The Poetry of Whales

January 19, 2017 Carl Sagan


But because whales and dolphins have no hands, tentacles, or other manipulative organs, their intelligence cannot be worked out in technology. What is left? Payne has recorded examples of very long songs sung by the humpback whale; some of the songs were as long as half an hour or more. A few of them appear to be repeatable, virtually phoneme by phoneme; somewhat later the entire cycle of sounds comes out virtually identical once again.

I calculate that the approximate number of bits of information (individual yes/no questions necessary to characterize the song) in whale song of half an hour’s length is between a million and a hundred million bits. Because of the very large frequency variation in these songs, I have assumed that the frequency is important in the content of the song – or, put another way, that whale language is tonal. If it is not as tonal as I guess, the number of bits in such a song may go down by a factor of ten. Now, a million bits is approximately the number of bits in The Odyssey or the Icelandic Eddas.

Is it possible that the intelligence of Cetaceans is channeled into the equivalent of epic poetry, history, and elaborate codes of social interaction? Are whales and dolphins like human Homers before the invention of writing, telling of great deeds done in years gone by in the depths and far reaches of the sea? Is there a kind of Moby Dick in reverse – a tragedy, from the point of view of a whale, of a compulsive and implacable enemy, of unprovoked attacks by strange wooden and metal beasts plying the seas and laden with humans?

Excerpt from Cosmic Connection, Doubleday 1973. 

Photo credit Wilfried Niedermayr.