From Blubber and Baleen to Buddha of the Deep: The Rise of the Metaphysical Whale

in Society & Animals
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Abstract

Human attitudes to various nonhuman animals have varied considerably across cultures and throughout time. While some of our responses are undoubtedly instinctive and universal—a visceral fear of large carnivores or the feeling of spontaneous warmth for creatures exhibiting high degrees of neoteny—it is clear that our attitude toward specific species is largely shaped by our innate anthropomorphism: that is, when we think about animals, we are also thinking about ourselves. There are few better examples of this than the shifting attitudes toward whales and dolphins throughout the 20th century, particularly among citizens of Western democracies. This article narrates the cultural history of this development and demonstrates how the current enchantment with whales and dolphins is primarily the result of two broad—and related—cultural developments: the modern entertainment complex, particularly cinema, television, and aquatic theme parks; and the 1960s counterculture, with its potent blend of holistic ecology, speculative neuroscience, and mysticism. The result was the creation of what we might think of as the “metaphysical whale,” a creature who has inspired the abolitionist stance toward whaling.

Society & Animals

Journal of Human-Animal Studies

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3.

Burnett (2012) convincingly argues that dolphins (and I would add, killer whales) became, in the public mind, stand-ins for cetaceans as a whole.

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