Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

by Philip Hoare

In many situations, I've contended that so-called ethical arguments for prohibition of killing animals are biologically unsound, because unless you can photosynthesize you have to kill something else in order to live. (And if you can imagine that chickens suffer in a comprehensible way, is it such a big leap to realize plants might not enjoy their experience of farming either? But I digress....) I even argued once that a few countries continuing sustainable, compassionate (as possible) harvest of whales is not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I still don't worry much about the fate of chickens, but this book really changed my mind about whales. Not that it's a call to action or anything. It's actually a wide-ranging and mostly dispassionate (despite the author's passion for learning about whales) exploration of many aspects of whales and whaling in literature, history, ecology, mythology, and more. But the listing of the numbers and kinds of whales slaughtered in the startlingly short heyday of the whaling industry does not require any bluster: it is a staggering, heartbreaking and obvious case of genocide. Even allowing that most people in the 19th century believed Nature to be inexhaustible, even considering what was not (and still is not) known of whale physiology (not to mention the likelihood of whale psychology), the mind reels at the sheer number of animals killed and the manner in which they were hunted and murdered.

But don't get me wrong — it's not all gloom and doom. The book is, as I said, wide-ranging in subject, despite ultimately being all about whales. It's fairly long, but somehow never dry or boring, in that way of good books about everything and nothing. You needn't be particularly interested in cetaceans or Melville or history to enjoy reading this book, you need only be curious about the world and willing to plumb the depths of your unknowing.

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