Roger Payne is best known for his discovery that humpback whales sing songs, and for his theory that the sounds of fin and blue whales can be heard across oceans. Dr. Payne has studied the behavior of whales since 1967. In addition to his discovery about humpback whales, he theorized correctly that the sounds of fin and blue whales are heard across oceans. He has led over 100 expeditions to all the Earth’s oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research in America and abroad. He directs longterm research projects on the songs of humpback whales, and on the behavior of 1,700 individually known Argentine right whales — the longest such continuous study.
You can read some of Dr. Payne’s writings below.
Dr. Roger Payne: Three Letters to my Granddaughter
I wrote the following blog in response to a beloved 14 year-old granddaughter, wise beyond her years, who emailed me to say that her latest school assignment was to ask a grandparent to describe two of the most memorable, historical, world or national events that they had encountered in their lives. With minor edits, this is what I wrote:
Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 1
One of two most memorable, historical, world/national events that has occurred in my life was hearing that Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island prison and was working with what I thought of as the racist, South African, apartheid government to end apartheid.
I had been in South Africa in 1974 and experienced Apartheid first-hand—up close and personal. The experience shocked me to the core. I had no idea how savage human beings could be to each other about something so infinitesimal, so inconsequential as the amount of pigmentation in another person’s skin. How could a species—ours—do so much damage when the motive was based on a set of assumptions so unexamined, ignorant, vicious and wrongheaded? I can’t think of anything that we could do that could cause so much damage for so little effort as racism causes. Is there any action you can think of, or way of expression that could hurt so many others for so little effort and so little reward and also rely entirely for its adoption of such an absurd motive?
If a person wishes the world to think of them as entirely ignorant I see no simpler way to accomplish that than to express racist sentiments publicly. Do it once; it will destroy your life. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the appalling fact that we have named our own species Homo sapiens—Latin, of course, for “wise man.”
Wise, my ass.
Not when it comes to our regard for ‘The Other’: other populations, other religions, other sexual preferences, other countries, other races, or, God help us… other, species than our own. But here was Nelson Mandela, a distinguished, dignified man, who wasted neither time nor words complaining about the massive indignities he had suffered from blindingly ignorant racists during his 26 years of imprisonment—a man so clearly more worthy than all of his detractors—the most distinguished statesman of my long life—more honest than Churchill, a braver champion of change than Roosevelt, the embodiment of courage—the best that humanity can boast… walking integrity.
As I watched Mandela in 1990 address a massive crowd in Boston I felt that here was the embodiment of what we might all aspire to be, and that the problem against which he had spent his entire life fighting was the ultimate symbol of ignorance and failure—the thing that keeps humanity small, deformed, twisted; the force that damages its practitioners even more than it damages their victims; the terrible gift that, keeps on giving; The hate that dare not speak its name—racism.
Sorry Luna, I am surprised (shocked?) to find I’m so angry about this topic. I didn’t fully realize how enraged racism makes me feel until I started to address your request. Thank you for the opportunity. I think that part of my anger comes from the fact that one of my closest friends in life was John Marshall, who spent all of his time and resources promoting the future of the San people of Southwestern Africa—the so-called bushmen—the speakers of a click language with whom your uncle John and his wife Annie lived for some years while learning that language, and on whose behalf your aunt Holly negotiated. I visited John and Annie there, along with John Marshall and found the Bushmen to be the most truly happy, well-adjusted people I had ever encountered. Their children spent entire days just jumping, jumping, jumping up and down in play—and, as far as you could tell, simply because they were happy—not how I’d characterize childhood for most of the children here in the US-of-A. And yet, whenever the San people end up in towns they go straight to the bottom of the social heap—where they were treated as if they were the very dregs of humanity—the most despised and disrespected of peoples—whereas, as even a blind person could see, they, as family men and women, are perhaps the best humanity has yet achieved. Or, well, to be more accurate: the best that other, racist/prejudiced humans have not succeeded in wiping out…yet.
Sweet Christ , what the Hell sort of a species are we?
Letter To My Granddauighter: Part 2
This blog takes up where the previous one left off. It is the second part of what I wrote to my granddaughter when she asked me to answer two questions that her school had assigned for her to ask of a grandparent.
You asked me to name two major, memorable, historical, world or national events. The second one, Number 2, was when I first heard the songs of humpback whales and realized that they could melt the heart of anyone. I stopped what I was doing with Owls and began studying whales and working for their conservation. For the next seven years I was involved with a wave of extraordinary people who came and went (but many of whom stayed) as they let their interest in helping stop the wholesale extinction of non-humans take over their lives and their destinies.
For more than those seven years, that effort kept me in a kind of jubilance that came from seeing more and more people starting to take up residence in the company of wild species—dedicating their lives to protecting non-human lives. Our family moved to Patagonia, and helped to build a field station there, and lived with whales, and albatrosses, and Mora eagles, and sea lions, and cormorants, and lizards, and elephant seals and giant petrels and martinetas and calandrias. And I got to watch the health of the wild world flow into my children’s lives—including your mom’s. And later I got to watch her and her siblings spread out across the world while creating families and destinies of their own—fascinating lives that never could have existed for a family of our modest means in the years before my children were born.
That filled me with hope. But with age comes an increased comprehension of how hard an uphill battle it is to get others to do something, even when it’s clearly in their deepest interests to do it. Now, as I watch the world drifting towards the rocks, the hope that those years helped to build is becoming tinged with despair.
But with ever-fewer years of life ahead of me, I get wonderful glimpses, thrilling moments, whenever I see people of your generation rise to the challenge of doing something—any damn thing—on behalf of the wild world. Yet, I still fear that humanity is too blind, too selfish to save itself and with it the rest of complex, charismatic life. And I worry that because of its crafty, shifty, cleverness that our wiseacre species may manage to be among the last megafauna left standing.
However, if we achieve that we will also have triggered another problem that will kill us. It is based on the fact that we are entirely dependent on a suite of species that keeps the Earth habitable for us. Alas, we can’t name them all yet, but if we inadvertently bring any crucial member of that suite to extinction we won’t make it—even if it is some single-celled species that has never been named or even recognized.
I can imagine no way that complex life, no matter how alien, could exist without similar, interdependent species and so I propose that once a “smart” species has done as much damage to the stability of its planet as we have done to ours that it will find that it has destroyed the ability of its life-maintaining species to keep its planet habitable for complex life.
If such fates await earthlings and smart-species in other elsewheres in the universe, then no wonder we have so far failed to contact any intelligent, non-human life—even though love the attempt to do so and think of it as one of our most far-seeing moves.
As I see it, it only took our species about 500 years to develop and exploit the benefits that science can bring our species while at the same time devastating much of world with overconsumption. Therefore, I think it is likely that complex life on any planet that eventually includes a big-brained adopter and practitioner of the scientific method, will probably require something like 500 years to get to a similarly chaotic point in their history as we have already reached in ours.
However, even if that comes to pass and the world goes back to single-celled life or even early multicelled life, I suspect that after several tens, or hundreds of millions of years the world will produce another Eden of wildness in which there will be a very different, smart species. But because that species will inevitably be shaped by the selfishness for which blind evolution selects, I fear that it may turn out to be just as incapable of avoiding the short-term benefits of destroying its less-heedful neighbor species as we are, and have ever been, and that it therefore will shatter the complex life that developed along with it. And because it will be entirely interdependent with that life, just as we are with non-human life, its fate may be the same that I fear is most likely to be ours — self-destruction.
The reason for this gloomy prediction is that the power of the scientific method to reward its practitioners will always be apparent long before the slow, long-term, negative consequences of such short sighted behavior become menacing enough to compel “smart” species to awaken to the need to change their behavior. If I am right, it is likely that no smart species anywhere is likely to be able to survive a largescale adoption of the scientific method for much longer than our species has—i.e., about 500 years.
Howerver, in comparison with geological time 500 years is a brutally short time—the history of life is at least 7 million times longer. So if you think that a thousand years is a fairer estimate of how long it may take for the scientific method to enable smart species to destabilize its natural world, I’m glad to accept that number; it does no significant damage my argument; a thousand years is but 3.6 millionths of the history of life on Earth.
But no matter how you look at it, there is a vanishingly small chance that two such relatively short time periods would co-occur on Earth and on some planet circling a nearby star—a star close enough for earthlings to detect evidences of the existence of the aliens on that planet. Close enough means it would have to be one of only a handful of stars, for there are only a few close enough to the sun to enable anything that might be considered practical communication. The problem is the requirement that smart earthlings and smart planetings would both have to be in the final few years of the roughly 500-1000 year period when both had arrived at enough understanding to make serious attempts to look for evidence of each other, but before either had caused enough chaos on their home planet to render it incapable of supporting the stable infrastructure and well-ordered civilization required for any serious attempt at interplanetary contact. That is pretty much the same as saying that each civilization must be at the same point in their intellectual and social development at the same moment in universal time. Pretty big requirement!
The absurdly low possibility of co-occurrence in time between a close-enough star and Earth may even explain the famous Fermi paradox, first proposed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Enrico Fermi. The story is that during an informal meal with colleagues Fermi argued as follows:
- There are billions of stars in our galaxy similar to the Sun, many of which are billions of years older than the Sun and its planets.
- There’s a high probability that tens of millions of Sun-like stars have Earth-like planets (an assumption that has since received strong support).
- If the Earth is typical, then many non-Earth planets in our galaxy should have evolved civilizations that have adopted the scientific method and may also have mastered interstellar travel.
- And even if they have found no way to go significantly faster than we believe to be the practical speed limit, enough time has passed for some of them to have crossed the Milky Way galaxy, which means that even millions of years ago, the Earth could well have been visited by aliens from other-worlds—though there is no evidence yet that that ever happened.
Fermi was curious about the complete lack of evidence for such visits or the existence of aliens, and it was during this informal discussion that he asked, famously: “Where is everybody?”—the question now known as the Fermi Paradox.
My dear Luna, I am sorry this is so much of a downer, but I assume that you wanted to hear what I believe is the truth even though we both know my beliefs are very likely to be wrong or to contain only a moiety of truth. However, I do believe that anyone can deal with anything no matter how unpleasant, as long as it is presented as close to the truth as its advocates can offer it up.
To me the bottom line is that as of now I feel the chances we humans can save ourselves from our self-inflicted folly will only exist if we respond to the need to change with global urgency. That is why I hope that you and your generation will recognize and respond to what has been called “the fierce urgency of now.” For if you manage to achieve a global response, you will someday be able to boast that you saved the world from the blindness of that generation that preceded you… ours.
All love, dear Luna,
Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 3
Hi Dear Luna,
It was so late last night [4:00 AM] when I sent my email to you that I forgot to include the very essence of what I had wanted to say, which was to send you a short article and video about Greta Thunberg, a Swedish, 16-year-old girl who is changing the world. Rather than hear me rehash her successes, please have a look at this video:
It is one of the most powerful speeches I’ve heard; it fills me with hope. It is a classic example of how massive the contribution by women can be—even women in their teens. Her wisdom is extraordinary. She has created a movement that is already sweeping Europe and North America and, I would guess, will soon sweep across much of the rest of the world. Please have a look at the video of her speaking and tell me what you think of how well she focuses on the fierce necessity of taking action.
One of the most interesting outcomes of her movement is the adult leaders who have managed to trip over Greta Thunberg’s message and find themselves on the wrong side of the issue. The head of the EU in Brussels is an example as is Teresa May, prime minister of Great Britain, who made a fool of herself criticizing Greta Thunberg’s movement. And so did Diane Feinstein, a democratic congressperson from California who has done wonderful things over several decades in the US Congress, but completely blew it when a class of young students and their teachers occupied her office in an effort to get her to take stronger action on the environment. She spoke down to them, talking about how she had a lifetime of experience that they lacked and that they should learn to listen and to leave it up to her and her plans for a greener world. Here’s a 2-minute video of the unfortunate exchange:
After having thus blown it completely, Feinstein soon realized her mistake and by the following day was back-peddling madly, trying to spin her reaction at the meeting so her words would do less damage to her than they clearly are doing (damage that will dog her for a long time). I could only wish she had faced up to her mistake, admitted her guilt and requested forgiveness.
Very disappointing, but a wonderful example that the time for people my age has come, and been, and gone, while the time for people of your age is here—and not just people your age, but, particularly, young women of your age. Notice, for example that in these most important actions it is girls who are leading; you see damn few young boys of that age group (boys your age are most notable by their absence). So that’s the message that I managed to omit last night when my brain was fuzzed with fatigue: the time is here for your generation, and for your gender to lead.
So… Go For It!!
Overpopulation, the key to the human predicament
At the root of humanity’s biggest problems is the fact that there are too many of us. Yet there seems to be an unwritten law against even discussing how to find ways that are fair to stop the population explosion and to work towards a human population that the planet can sustain. Whenever I’ve raised this point, the standard objection has been that any step that reduces the world population will put most of the stress on the poor—those who have only just become poised to experience an improved standard of living. We don’t have the right to diminish their opportunity to enjoy the same sized families that we’ve had and that have enriched our lives so much.
The weakness of this argument is the assumption on which it’s based: that everyone wants as many children as they have. All of us are better at justifying after the fact the things that disappoint us, when it would obviously be to our detriment to complain of them. Assuming that a pregnant woman always wants a big family ignores the fact that her feelings may be quite different before and after she discovers she’s pregnant— particularly different if it is her third or fourth pregnancy and her first two children are healthy. She may even find the idea of a third or fourth pregnancy abhorrent. However, once her child is born, it is overwhelmingly likely that she will love it unconditionally.
My first wife, Katy, and I had four children, and I have experienced personally how differently one can feel before a pregnancy and after the birth that is its outcome.
Katy and I married young. We were both still at University and we wanted to delay childrearing. But it was back in the bad old days before The Pill had become widely available. There were, however, four commonly-used methods of birth control at the time, and we tried them all. They all failed.
Method One was tricky; we were careless; pregnancy followed. But when our eldest son, John, was born we loved him unconditionally. His presence neutralized our previous thoughts about wanting to delay starting a family.
Nevertheless it seemed like a good idea to postpone having more kids for at least a couple of years. Surely, Method Two would prove better than Method One. But soon Katy was pregnant again and Holly was born, and she stole our hearts blind.
OK two kids; That’s fine, but no family needs more than that. We tried Method 3; it didn’t work; Katy got pregnant and Laura followed, and again our pre-birth opinion was silenced by our love for a third child.
Well… now all that was left was Method 4, and it damn well had to work! But soon Katy was pregnant with our fourth child, who turned out to be Sam, and he too was, and is, adored.
It was time to do something different; something that might actually work. For a woman to have her tubes tied required a general anesthetic, whereas the equivalent for a man (a vasectomy) only required a local anesthetic. It was clear that it was best for the man to have the operation. So I got one of the earliest vasectomies—so early, in fact, that even though we were living in New York City, I couldn’t find a medical doctor who’d do it. And in the end, I got a vasectomy from a veterinarian.
We now had four children under the age of 3 1⁄2 with three in diapers (that we had to launder—disposable diapers being too expensive and not reliably available).
Did we want each child before Katy got pregnant? No. Did we want each of them after they were born? Yes. Absolutely. Once they appeared, we wanted each and every one of them with every fiber of our beings.
And since their birth, how have we felt about them? We have loved each of them completely.
But Katy bore a major cost; it was 6 years after our first child was born before she had enough time to begin working on the songs of whales, and it took a decade more before she had the time to study elephants and discover their sub-sonic vocabulary. Before those triumphs her pregnancies, nursing and infant care had stopped her from finishing a postgraduate degree on ant behavior that she’d started at Harvard under E. O. Wilson.
I suspect that worldwide there are probably hundreds of millions (if not billions) of women who didn’t want to spend so much of their youths pregnant, nursing babies and in infant care, and who were introduced to poverty or kept under its thumb by unstoppable motherhood. I suspect that many of them would have been happier having fewer children (or even none) even though they love fully every child they had.
I believe that my theory is strengthened by the fact that when couples have access to free birth control and are taught how to use it effectively, and the women have access to education and see that there are things they could do that would interest them as much or more than raising yet more children, the result is always the same—falling birth rates.
Reciting such a result may make me sound to you like an arrogant prick who thinks that he’s dispensing candied drops of wisdom like jelly beans to the masses. But what I am fumblingly trying to impart is a fact that scientists have discovered that impressed me greatly, and as a scientist myself I’m likely to be somewhat ham-handed at getting it across, because one of the main tenets of science that you learn early and often is that life doesn’t operate and is not understood on the basis of absolutes it operates and is understood on the basis of probabilities. What you can deduce is not absolutely known it is known to some extent that you hope to measure and to take into account. When I describe the effects of offering women an education as well as free means of birth control I do not think that all the women responded by reducing their family size; I am confident that there was a huge variety of responses that probably varied across a spectrum that went from absolute rejection, through disgust to “well OK,” to gratitude. But speaking probabilistically the thing that fascinates me as a scientist is that if you provide women from the most diverse backgrounds (from people who live in felt houses on the Mongolian Steppe to ladies in haute couture, breezing down some of the world’s most sophisticated avenues) with an education and free means of birth control which someone who knows the uses and limitations of those means teaches them to use effectively, you get the same result: lowering birth rates. I find that a fascinating and useful outcome that could have a positive effect in alleviating what I consider one of humanity’s biggest problems. How different would it be if some non-scientific elders told a thousand young women to read an ancient text about raising sheep and gave them free condoms and told them how to use them most effectively, whereupon although some of them were disgusted and insulted that the elder’s texts were so out-of-date, just enough others reduced their family size that that the overall birth rate of the group of 1,000 women fell. Would you not be interested in that result? Would it mean that the elders were charlatans who were sticking their noses into things that were none of their business and thereby denigrating those young women? I would think that the elders somehow had an effect on people which, though I didn’t understand how it worked had resulted in a positive overall outcome and if none of the young women had been tricked or coerced I would think it was a useful technique to lower birth rates, even if I had no idea why it worked as it did.
I realize, of course, that men would also presumably benefit from being educated about the subject of family-begetting and family-raising, but whether they would benefit as much as they ought (or as women seem to) seems doubtful to me given that men have a far lower investment in their children than do women (men can beget hundreds of children whereas the record for women is in the low 20s). Because of that we men seem to spend much of our fertile years struggling with the effects of testosterone poisoning. And just as it is not very realistic to try to get socially acceptable behavior out of a male elephant in musth, I suspect that although it is useful to educate men that it will prove to be less successful in lowering populations than has been shown to result from educating women.
Another important aspect of this surprising path to reducing birth rates is the fact that it is voluntary, not punitive. As I have written before, it is not like China’s now-revoked policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. It works without anyone forcing anyone to do anything. There’s nothing mandatory about it. Each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use contraceptives. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.
The all too human reason this approach works is the natural inclination of women and men everywhere to want to do more with their lives than raising ever more children. So if young women get an education and have access to free contraceptives, it turns out that a significant number of them will use the opportunity to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the birth rate falls.
Another factor that contributes to the success of this approach is surely the satisfaction of being able to bestow greater benefits on each of your children if you don’t have to divide your resources among so many.
I realize, of course that one of the probabilistic aspects of the approach I am promoting is that the power to make decisions of many women is not equal to the power that men keep for themselves in their families and so, in many cases, women are culturally overridden by men and by religion. For example, it is known that the technique I describe doesn’t work in cultures in which men prevent their partners from using birth control because much of their street cred is based on how many children they’ve fathered. But in global terms such cultures are small and are under pressure to modernize. And anyway; show me any approach to any problem that works without exception and I’ll show you that you haven’t examined it closely enough.
It is also true that some backwards religions have major objections to contraception, thereby condemning their poorest parishioners to the consequences of uncontrolled fecundity. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two EU countries with the lowest birthrates are 99 percent and 90 percent Catholic.
I was raised in a culture that gave me all of the benefits of a healthy, well-fed, well-educated, comfortable, secure life. Nevertheless, I fathered more than my share of children. Whenever I suggest publicly that the human population is too high, I am laughed at, even by those who share my feelings that overpopulation lies at the root of humanity’s major problems. The laughter is based on the false assumption that if you have made a mistake, any advice you have to offer on that subject is worthless.
I have thought a lot about having had so many children and even though I love each of them entirely, I can see that having so many was in some deep sense selfish and shortsighted. But I can also see that my advice about having so many children is not laughable. I have spent a lot of my life at sea and I would much rather have advice about a dangerous reef from someone who put his boat on that reef, and who has since thought long and hard about his mistake and what he should have done to avoid it—and who also respects the reef because he knows how easy it would be to fail again (this last point being, perhaps, the best indicator of an opinion that may be of value). I find advice from such a source far more useful than advice from someone who has never gone aground on any reef and who thinks that reefs are easy to avoid, and that people who hit them do so because they conform to a careless, daredevil type.
Because having a child is such a profoundly involving and moving experience, one may greatly benefit from considering as deeply as possible the complex consequences of deciding not to have a child or of adopting a child who can profit so much from the support that family life provides.
I believe that by considering the question deeply and thoughtfully, one is likely to identify several paths to fulfillment in their life—and find several alternative answers to what can benefit the future, and that each such answer offers different advantages.