Humpback whales have been reported actively protecting seals from sophisticated and coordinated attacks of killer whales in the Southern Ocean according to Natural History Magazine. Such inter-species acts of compassion are key to understanding altruism since they are free of any kinship or genetic relationship. As such, scientists can find no underlying selfish motive for the behavior.
This is an example of the purest form of altruism known as Giving Altruism. It is driven by the concern for the positive welfare of someone or something else. This may be because of a projected empathy or love, concern for others, motivated by a sense of justice or morality. The fabled history of the dolphin is filled with stories of sailors and swimmers being saved by dolphins.
Ordinarily (when one is not confronting the world’s apex predator) the Dalai Lama refers to these acts of selflessness as ‘wise selfish’. According to the Dalai Lama, we should “be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish. That means taking care more of others. Then you get the maximum benefit. Taking care of oneself and forgetting others, you lose. That is the foolish selfish. Taking care of others is first to benefit yourself. That is true. That is fact.“ His Holiness refers to the spiritual, emotional, physical and karmic well being that accompanies compassion and altruism.
Orca whales or killer whales are the world’s apex predator. They can measure 32 feet in length and weigh up to 20,000 pounds. Orcas have been known to swim 28 miles per hour and can dive to depths of 900 feet. They travel in pods of up to 100 whales and can use sophisticated echolocation to locate and sonar blasts to subdue prey. A line of seven or more orcas simultaneously crash into the ocean simultaneously creating a massive wave to dislodge seals from their perch above the ice floe.
“When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.” ~ R. L. Pitman and J.W. Durban
According to John Crockett, “It seems likely to me that other animals are perfectly capable of acting out of compassion. I would not be surprised if the seals communicated their distress to the larger whales. Last year we saw interspecies communication at work in the case of Moko the dolphin who saved two pygmy sperm whales who had beached themselves in New Zealand.
We seem to find it hard to believe that a non-human animal is capable of flexible behavior. We humans sometimes act compassionately toward other animals, and sometimes we eat them. Why should we think other animals behave any differently?
Whales have been living on Earth with their large, complex brains about a hundred times longer than modern humans. Maybe they are the more mature species, and we have a thing or two to learn from them about living on Earth with grace, balance, and compassion.
This is my hope for the year(s) ahead. That we humans will begin to see other beings not as objects to be studied or exploited, but as co-equal creatures, creators and creations both, of this amazing, rich, vibrant, living Earth.”
I would not be shocked to find out that the whales can feel compassion and a whole range of human emotions. Whales do have very large brains which are capable of very complex thinking.
Eric Michael Johnson writes, “In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy helps survival. “The nasty, brutish existence dominated by ‘savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit’ … is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups.
They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.”
He continues, “In this same way, de Waal argues that the evolution of empathy is the end product of natural selection’s promotion of these altruistic groups. When chimpanzees help strangers attain food or when dolphins help to carry an injured comrade to safety, they are responding to an impulse that has allowed their ancestors to thrive throughout evolutionary history. “Social Darwinists may disagree,” he writes, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a ‘social motive’ in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”
One study using magnetic resonance imaging shows that altruism is “not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.” In other words, it feels good. Furthermore, the specific structure of the brain activated by an act of compassion is the subgenual cortex/septal region, the self same area associated with social attachment and bonding in animals.
So it looks as though both man and animals may be hard wired for compassion. This should come as no surprise to Buddhists familiar with Buddha Nature, the innate ability of all beings to achieve enlightenment. And nowhere is animal altruism more evident than interspecies lifesaving. Saving the life of another species serves no other purpose than gratifying a highly developed compassion center in a highly social and highly developed being. Empathy is far older than our own species, Homo Sapiens, and we should keep this in mind because how we view the world is deeply influential to our feelings, thoughts and actions. That’s why the Dalai Lama says, ”Seeing others as basically compassionate instead of hostile and selfish helps us relax, trust, live at ease. It makes us happier.”