Whale Vocal Displays Make Beautiful Case for a Creator
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
A few weeks ago, I did something I always wanted to do. I listened to the uncut, live version of the Allman Brothers’ Mountain Jam from beginning to end. Thirty-four minutes in length, this song appears on The Allman Brothers’ live At Fillmore East album. Though The Allman Brothers are among my favorite groups, I have never had the time and motivation to listen to this song in its entirety. I like listening to jam bands, but a thirty-four-minute song . . . in any case, a cross-country flight finally afforded me the opportunity to give my undivided attention to this jam band masterpiece. What an incredible display of musicianship!
Humpback Whale Acoustical Displays
Rockers aren’t the only ones who can get a bit carried away when performing a song. Humpback whales are notorious for their jam-band-like acoustical displays. These creatures produce elaborate patterns of sounds that researchers dub songs. The whale songs can last for up to 30 minutes, and some whales will repeatedly perform the same song for up to 24 hours.
Humpback whale songs display a complex hierarchical organization. The most basic element of the song consists of a single sound, called a unit. These creatures combine units together to form phrases. In turn, they combine phrases to form themes. Finally, they combine themes to form a song, with each theme connected by transitional phrasing.
Researchers aren’t certain why humpback whales engage in these complex acoustical displays. Only the males sing. Perhaps their singing establishes dominance within the group. Most researchers think that the males sing to attract females. (Even for whales, the musicians get the girls.)
Humpback whales in the same area perform the same song. But, their songs continually evolve. Researchers refer to the complete transformation of one whale song into another as a revolution. As the songs evolve, each member of the group learns the new variant. When one group of humpback whales encounters another group, the two groups exchange songs. This exchange accelerates the song revolution. As a result of this encounter, members of both groups develop and learn a new song.
How Do Humpback Whales Learn Songs?
Researchers from the UK and Australia wanted to understand how humpback whales learn new songs.1 Their query is part of a bigger question: How do animals transmit culture—learned information and behaviors—to other members of the group and to the next generation?
To answer this question, the research team recorded 9,300 acoustical displays over the course of two complete song revolutions for the humpback whales of the South Pacific. Among these recordings, they discovered hybrid songs—vocal displays comprised of bits and pieces of both the old and the new songs. They concluded that these hybrids songs captured the transition from one song to the next.
These song hybrids consisted of phrases and themes from the old and new songs spliced together. The structure of hybrid songs indicated to the research team that humpback whales must learn songs in the same way that humans learn languages, by learning bits and piecing them together.
The Creator’s Artistry
Sometimes, as Christian apologists, we tend to think of God solely as an Engineer who creates with only one specific purpose or function in mind. But, the insights researchers have gained into the vocal displays of the humpback whales reminds me that the God I worship is also a Divine Artist—a God who creates for his enjoyment.
Scripture supports this idea. Psalm 104:25 states that God formed the leviathan (which in this passage seems to refer to whales) on day five to frolic in the vast, spacious seas. In other words, God created the great sea mammals for no other purpose than to play!
Artistry and engineering are not mutually exclusive. Engineers often design cars and buildings to be both functionally efficient and aesthetically pleasing. But sometimes, as humans, we create for no other reason than for our pleasure and for others to enjoy and be moved by our work.
Nature’s Beauty and God’s Existence
The humpback whale exemplifies the remarkable beauty of the natural world. Everywhere we look in nature—whether the night sky, the oceans, the rain forests, the deserts, even the microscopic world—we see a grandeur so great that we are often moved to our very core.
Watching a humpback whale breach or hearing a recording of its vocal displays is more than sufficient to produce in us that sense of awe and wonder. And yet, our wonder and amazement only grow as we study these creatures using sophisticated scientific techniques.
For Christians, nature’s beauty prompts us to worship the Creator. But it also points to the reality of God’s existence and supports the biblical view of humanity.
As philosopher Richard Swinburne argues, “If God creates a universe, as a good workman, he will create a beautiful universe. On the other hand, if the universe came into existence without being created by God, there is no reason to suppose that it would be a beautiful universe.”2 In other words, the beauty in the world around us signifies the Divine.
But, as human beings, why do we perceive beauty in the world? In response to this question, Swinburne asserts, “There is certainly no particular reason why, if the universe originated uncaused, psycho-physical laws…would bring about aesthetic sensibilities in humans.”3 But, if human beings are made in God’s image, as Scripture teaches, we should be able to discern and appreciate the universe’s beauty, made by our Creator to reveal his glory and majesty.
In short, the humpback whales’ acoustical displays—a jam band masterpiece—sing of the Creator’s existence and his artistry.
- “An Inordinate Fondness” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Question of the Week: Why Did God Create Hominids? By Fazale Rana (YouTube video)
- Ellen C. Garland et al., “Song Hybridization Events during Revolutionary Song Change Provide Insights into Cultural Transmission in Humpback Whales,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 114 (July 25, 2017): 7822–29, doi:10.1073/pnas.1621072114.
- Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 190–91.
- Swinburne, Existence of God, 190–91.