'How to Speak Whale' by Tom Mustill, a book review by Brenda Walker

14th Mar 2024

How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication:  Amazon.co.uk: Mustill, Tom: 9780008363383: Books 

BNA associate member, Brenda Walker, shares her review of the book 'How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication'William Collins, 2022, Updated 2023




An unusual title for an unusual, fascinating volume that was chosen by The New Yorker as best book of 2022. Tom Mustill is not only a conservation biologist, but also a multi-award winning film director who has worked with David Attenborough and was made an ambassador for the World Cetacean Alliance for his services to whale conservation. However, his skill at writing about nature was also awarded, and justly so. The language he uses in the text illustrates his prose as vividly as if on film as the reader traverses the mundane, the factual, and the atmospheric scenes in which the life of the author moves. Mustill is well read and uses many interesting quotations from a variety of unexpected sources, as chapter by chapter, he develops his obsessive interest into animal communication. 

His introduction sums up the logic behind his own self-imposed journey. Starting in the 17th century with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s and Robert Hooke’s interest and inventive work on magnification that opened minds to previously unseen worlds, the author reminds readers of changes and inventions that our ancestors would never have deemed possible. ‘Brilliant students’ have been ‘scooped up’ to develop ideas that have led to forever growing communication systems and scientific or space projects. Much of what was once science fiction has become a reality. We now have voice recognition, and even facial expressions can be used to detect deceit. Our bodies or actions can be scanned, watched, tracked, tagged; cultures analyzed by artificial intelligence; unlimited data gathered over vast distances and AI machines translate invisible patterns in language, enabling translation from one language to another without ever being taught how to speak either of them. Mustill points out that even though the possible dangers of artificial intelligence have been recognised we are still accepting such changes, reminding us that we too are biological animals, producing patterns with our bodies, behaviours and communications and that such AI tools for recognising patterns can also be used on other species.  

‘This book is about some of these pioneers in this new age of discovery: the decryption of the natural world. It is a journey to the frontiers where big data meets big beasts; where silicon-based intelligences are finding patterns in carbon-based life. It focuses on some of the most mysterious and fascinating animals – whales and dolphins – and how recent technology has radically changed what we know about their hidden lives and their capabilities. It explores the way underwater robots, massive data sets, artificial intelligence (AI), and changes in human culture are combining to transform how biologists decode cetacean communications.’ 

‘How to Speak Whale’ not only covers his own personal adventure but how he becomes involved in ongoing extensive research into the Cetacean world.  In 2015, the author was involved in a freak accident in Monterey Bay off the coast of California, when a humpbacked whale breached onto his Kayak, nearly killing him and his friend. Unbeknown to him, a stranger who had been videoing nearby caught the whole scene and uploaded it to YouTube. The world-wide media soon became involved and Mustill became a well known figure to whom other scientists or the general public would send strange tales of cetacean behaviour. One comment from a whale specialist, a professor who had seen the video, mentioned that this particular whale, later jokingly named ‘Prime Suspect’, had breached in an unusual way suggesting it had been trying to avoid him.  

To a trained biologist like Tom Mustill, such reported incidents that demanded answers and explanations all pointed to the fact that whales and dolphins were not only interacting, but communicating with each other, with other species or even with people.  He was always aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism and popular theories about breaching, but it didn’t stop him wondering:  ‘What, if anything at all, was the humpback that leapt onto us trying to say? Did it really try to avoid us?’ 

The author takes the reader with him on each path of his journey and this takes time and patience. We follow detail after detail of him filming whales while others track, record and explore them with machine technology. He takes us step by step as he relates: results of whale dissections; actually feeling the clicks of unseen sperm whales as they scanned him; watching the MRI being taken of a recently unfrozen baby whale’s brain which was afterwards preserved, thus allowing comparison with the human brain. He allows the reader to share his moments of wonder and delight while swimming near whales and threads many interesting biological, historical, evolutionary, geographical, philosophical and anthropological facts throughout this record of his personal quest.  

He alerts the reader to research in 2006, when it was discovered that apes, elephants and cetaceans also possessed elongated von Economo neurons (VENs) - once thought uniquely human. Although unsure what these cells can actually do, they have recently been found in other species too, such as cows, sheep, deer, horses and pigs suggesting these animals also have the neural hardware for social intelligence and thinking about others.  In 2007, a compilation of all current research was published by Lori Marino et al, entitled ‘Cetaceans Have Complex Brains for Complex Cognition’. This highlighted the brain evolution and theorized that during this period when cetacean brain size increased, behaviour grew in complexity and a greater social life emerged through ‘song repertoires’ and ‘hunting plans’, evolving social networks similar to primates. 

 Since 2012, a science convention at the University of Cambridge issued a declaration drawn up by attendees from a range of disciplines that read:    “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”  More scientific studies followed that Mustill believes slowly increased our empathy for other species and started the erosion of our anthropocentrism and the increase in vegetarianism. 

Not only are his exciting moments shared, but also decades of ‘Dr. Doolittle’ type derision, the doubt, the joy of discovery, and finally again the doubt as to whether the human race is really ready for more ethical minefields, the protection of non-human cultures and ‘the digital rights of nature in the age of AI’. In this way, readers must share the author’s early endeavours, but when the doors of possibility really open, the excitement builds. One of his key stumbling blocks is the search for a true definition of the word ‘Language’.  

Whenever Mustill ponders over contrasts between human and animal sensory abilities, he highlights our human deficiencies in the range of hearing and sight posing many questions. The lists he provides of things animals can do but the human race cannot are long. He questions whether animal communication channels are neglected because humans love words giving us the power ‘to invent abstract concepts and fictions and transmit them to one another’. Do we humans consider ours the only language because we have not yet found it in the animal kingdom? In 1958, Charles Hockett published a linguistic textbook, including a section on “Man’s Place in Nature”. His list became known as the ‘design features’ of language, and I quote: ‘...such as semanticity, (units with meaning); discreteness, (words transmitted in ‘chunks’ with gaps between them; productivity (new words for things must be made up and used); displacement, (communications that can transmit information about things happening somewhere else, or in the past or the future)’.  So if you were looking for animal communication ALL these aspects had to be present. Such an influential text set natural language apart from nonhuman communication systems, yet would allow comparison between them. Hockney knew that some animals such as birds used a number of design features utilizing semanticity, and that honeybees dancing revealed the use of displacement. However, ‘Cultural transmission’ and ‘prevarication’ were apparently not considered. Meanwhile, some pioneering scientists felt they could not rule out the possibility of language in other species and it is interesting to read the author’s detailed descriptions of their efforts. 

For some years now AI has been able to by-pass human intelligence with Machine learning (ML), that can produce animal inspired ‘artificial neural networks’ (ANN’s), and produce layered cascading connectivity chains known as Deep Learning (DL). Such computerisation enables AI to learn, adapt from experience and find patterns at record superhuman speed. Mustill gives examples where such complicated algorithms have successfully found patterns humans had missed. As other inventions and programmes, such as bugging the sea are utilised, the possibilities of discovering whales’ and dolphins’ cognitive abilities and how they communicate, begin to grow. Mustill despairs at the disturbed ecosystems and the destruction of habitats on land or at sea. He discusses our human supremacy, and being responsible for setting many species en route towards mass extinction. Many of those head-hunted ‘brilliant students’ are now pioneers in their fields, but the author questions whether future researchers will be willing to share their work with open access for the benefit of all. Lastly, and most importantly, he asks himself whether such communication could possibly place nature’s creatures in danger. 

It would be a shame to précis the climax of this exciting volume, half novel/half informative biological text – a sheer delight to read. However, I will hint at the conclusion by adding that when the two nature-loving famous millionaire technologists, Aza Raskin and Brett Selvitelle bring together like-minded project leaders, scientists, technicians, marine biologists, linguists and others with inventive minds, the answers to Sam Mustill’s questions appear to near fruition.  The Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) started in 2019. Keep your eyes open for news in 2026!  

Brenda Walker

January 2024

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