Let's Reminisce: Some animals are smarter than we think
By Jerry Lincecum
Sep 26, 2017
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As a species, we humans tend to be arrogant about claiming our superiority to other creatures.  Until fairly recently, we thought that language and culture were uniquely human. But new studies show that a wide range of animals, from birds to bees to chimpanzees, can pass on information and behavior patterns to their descendants.  Let’s start with a large example: whales.


Wall Street Journal writer Alison Gopnik wrote a column recently about the fact that whales have some very impressive kinds of culture, which we are just beginning to understand, thanks to the phenomenal efforts of cetacean specialists. (That’s what whale researchers are called.)


One of the new studies, by scientists in Scotland, looked at humpback whale  songs.  Only males sing them, especially in the breeding grounds, which suggests that music is a part of courtship for whales.  Lasting as long as half an hour, whale songs have a complicated structure, much like human language or music. They are made up of larger themes constructed from shorter phrases, and they even have the whale equivalent of rhythm and rhyme. Perhaps that’s why we humans find recordings of whale songs so interesting and beautiful.


The songs of whales also change as they are passed on, like human songs. All the males in a group sing the same song, but every few years the songs are completely transformed.  Researchers have followed the whales across the Pacific, recording their songs along the way.  The whales learn new songs from other groups of whales when they mingle in the feeding grounds.


The study by Scottish scientists also looked at an unusual set of whales that produced rare hybrid songs—a sort of mash-up of songs from different groups.  Hybrids showed up as the whales transitioned from one song to the next. The hybrids suggested that the whales weren’t just memorizing the songs as a single unit. They were taking the songs apart and putting them back together, creating variations using the song structure.  That is a rather sophisticated approach, like something humans would do.


A second whale study, this one by a Canadian scientist, looked at a different kind of cultural transmission in another species, the killer whale. The humpback songs spread horizontally, passing from one young male to the next, like teenage fashions.  But the real power of culture comes when caregivers can pass on discoveries to the next generation. That sort of vertical transmission is what gives human beings their edge.


Killer whales stay with their mothers for as long as the mothers live, and mothers pass on eating traditions. In the same patch of ocean, you will find some killer whales that only eat salmon and others that only eat mammals, and these preferences are passed on from mother to child. Even grandmothers sometimes play a role, and those old females help to ensure the survival of their descendants.


Moving now from whales to insects, and going back in time a century and a half, my ancestor Dr. Gideon Lincecum (1793-1874) studied Texas harvester ants (the common red ant) closely for more than 25 years.  He recorded in great detail what he saw as their social life, structure of government, and reproductive patterns.  He attributed to them intelligence and even courage, and he contended that the ants even planted and harvested their favorite grain.


Gideon was too far ahead of his time to have his theories about ant culture accepted by the “high lads,” as he called the academically-trained scientists, and they labeled his observations “the Lincecum myth.”  In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Gideon’s ants, and his observations have been revisited by a younger generation of scientists.  His idea that ants are intelligent and capable of transmitting a culture from one generation to the next may soon join the new discoveries about whale songs as indicative of ways humans failed to understand the abilities of other living things.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at