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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Extending human rights to whales?

"Whales may share our kind of intelligence, researchers say after discovering brain cells previously found only in humans and other primates." Whales have bigger brains and more of those special brain cells we have before considered unique to primates.

According to this article in New Scientist, the kind of nerve cells in the human brain associated with complex social behavior and previously thought to define humans and great apes as different from other mammals has now been found in whales. More importantly, the number of these specialized cells is greater in whales even given that the whale brain is larger than the human brain.

"The cells occur in parts of the human brain that are thought to be responsible for our social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid “gut” reactions (see The cell that makes us human)." says New Scientist.

The article quotes Patric Hof of Mount Sinai Medical School in New York as saying, “They communicate through huge song repertoires, recognise their own songs and make up new ones. They also form coalitions to plan hunting strategies, teach these to younger individuals, and have evolved social networks similar to those of apes and humans.”

It is thought that whales developed these brain cells long before humans and other primates evolved theirs.

Like the development of the vertebrate eye in octopuses which are related to shell fish, this brain cell development in both whales and humans appears to be a case of "convergent evolution" and not the result of evolution from a common ancestor.

This finding is certain to raise many questions about what makes humans human as well as whether killing whales falls into a category more like murder than hunting. My grandmother used to say, "If it looks like a noodle, tastes like a noodle, cooks like a noodle, and feels like a noodle it is probably a noodle." So if it thinks like a human, acts like a human, feels like a human - is it a human?

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I live on the Pacific slopes of the Talamanca mountain range in southern Costa Rica. My adult children live in the United States. I have a Masters Degree in Gerontology but have worked as a migrant laborer, chicken egg collector, radio broadcaster, secretary, social worker, research director, bureaucrat, writer, editor, political organizer, publicist, telephone operator, and more. My hobby of photography has garnered some awards.

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