Joel Reynolds (left) and Ken Balcomb, central heroes in War of the Whales When I asked Reynolds in an interview what provoked his involvement, he traced his commitment back to becoming a lawyer, but explained how it became far more than that as he learned what was happening in the world's oceans:
"I went to law school not because I love the law, but because I hoped to affect for the better people or things that I care about. In other words, law is compelling to me not for its own intellectual challenges but because of what it can accomplish -- for its capacity to redress injustice, protect special places, or stop abuses of power. This is what got me started as a public interest lawyer in 1980, and it's what has kept me going ever since."
"I came into contact with whales and other marine mammals indirectly -- not as a focus of study or special interest but as a casualty of avoidable harm caused by human activity. Underwater explosives testing, industrial development, scientific and military testing with high intensity sound in the oceans. I used my legal skills to stop these activities and protect the whales and other marine mammals needlessly harmed by them. As I became more and more immersed in this work over time, my appreciation both for the magnificence of these animals and the need for people to defend them grew. At Laguna San Ignacio -- a World Heritage Site targeted to become the world's largest industrial salt works -- I had the opportunity each winter to come into close contact with Pacific Gray whales: 40 ton, 45-feet long wild animals that have somehow forgiven humans for hunting them almost to extinction."
"I became deeply immersed in the problem of human-generated noise in the ocean --one of the most sweeping forms of pollution in terms of geographical scope. The idea of inundating the habitat of these animals with unbearable levels of sound seemed to me so outrageous and so inexcusable that I had to do something about it, and I've been working on it ever since -- now for two decades."
Empathy as defined by Dr. Martin Hoffman, in his landmark book Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2001), is "an affective response more appropriate to another's situation than to one's own." Hoffman is a respected clinical and developmental psychologist at New York University who's spent his career studying social and emotional development, especially the relationship between empathy and moral development.
Hoffman told me via email, "I think humans can become extraordinary change agents after having profound empathic responses to injustice. Examples are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyndon Johnson, and others whose empathy led to actions that changed laws and societies."
But can those same powerful empathic responses be triggered by whales or other animals? Dr. Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society (Crown, 2009) and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University thinks so. What's more, he knows it goes both ways.
"Empathy is a general mammalian trait that evolved first of all to care for offspring and to care for friends and cooperators," de Waal explained in an email. "But once in existence, it can also be stimulated by other species, even species quite different from us (even though more typically for fellow mammals than other species). Since it is a powerful driver of altruism and helping behavior, this means that under specific circumstances it also leads to interspecific helping, not just by us but also in the reverse, when dolphins help human swimmers or dogs drag children out of a burning house. This is empathy unbound, a wonderful trait."
There's no shortage of compelling evidence that humans have an empathic response to animals, especially mammals, and most especially the large, charismatic mammals like the ones de Waal mentions. But can these empathic responses incite humans to become heroes in much the same way -- perhaps via the exact same neural and emotional routes -- that people like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi became extraordinary change agents? If so, can the same response create everyday heroes that most of us never hear of, while some, through grace and grit, make a larger impact?
When asked if humans have some predilection to profound empathic response that is specific to whales, de Waal said, "It is curious how we have empathy especially with large mammals, like the elephants, dolphins, bears and whales. I am not sure I understand how and why this happens."
Paul Hawken has some ideas. Hawken is a renowned leader in social, entrepreneurial, and environmental justice, and the author of the groundbreaking bookBlessed Unrest: How the World's Largest Social Movement Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (Viking Penguin, 2007). He expounded on this question via email:
"I think cetaceans evoke deeper empathy than other creatures because of their accessible intelligence and, by many anecdotal reports, their compassion for their own and human beings. On top of that the cruelty and predation of whales and dolphins is a gut wrenching thing to watch on film or in person. Nevertheless, you see this empathy with primates in Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey. You see it with dogs and their owners ubiquitously. Arguably, empathy is the source of PETA."
"I think the key to empathic responses relates to two elements: first exposure, i.e. firsthand experience, and second, a general openness to life itself. The latter sounds obvious but in an urbanized world, that is not always present. It is a miracle "out there" (life) and it can transform one's consciousness, especially when people become aware that life itself is exquisitely aware and almost supernaturally connected. Ravens have two hundred distinct calls and sounds. They pass on the visual memory of faces to their offspring of people who have harmed them. Not even humans can do that."
"Charismatic species are the entry point to a vastness of intelligence that we, in the West at least, consigned to the realm of inferiority. What we now know is that we actually know very little about what is happening in the world of birds, animals, reptiles, cetaceans, canids, fish, etc."
I asked Hawken if extraordinary change agents like the ones spotlighted in War of the Whales are helping to usher in an international uprising, not just for whale justice, but for the harmonious stewardship of the oceans and planet. He responds:
"It's a good one question. I would say it is already happening. But it is not reported on, or reported that way. The fierce opposition to Keystone XL is very much about the sanctity of all living things. The focus on Tar Sands and pipelines is the story, but the motive is far reaching. And I would say it informs the movement I wrote about (in Blessed Unrest), no question."
If this kind of fierce, driving empathy that incites tenacity, commitment, and action, is so powerful and so effective at motivating sweeping beneficial social change, it's crucial in today's world to ask whether that empathy can be systematically fostered.
Nick Cooney is the author of Change Of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change (Lantern, 2011). He's also the Director of Education at Mercy for Animals, an advocacy group working to create a society where all animals are treated with compassion and respect. Cooney's work in advocacy is fueled by his deep understanding of how powerful experiences of empathy can trigger not only lifestyle choices, but also heroism.
"A lot of us are familiar with the experience we call the 'aha moment' -- that moment when suddenly something becomes clear to us that should have been clear all along. We get it, in a way that feels quite profound, and in a way that can sometimes be life-changing. When we realize on a sudden and deep level that an animal is an individual, a person, a ‘who', it can be one of those aha moments, and it can cause us to re-think our relationship with them and our life choices," Cooney said in an interview.
He adds, "... that powerful sense of empathy can indeed push people not just to cut cruelty out of their own life, but to heroically try to change public policies and public opinion."