Review: “The Sounding of the Whale” by D. Graham Burnett is a Stupendous Book

To start out with, I liked it.

It seems a diminutive way to begin reviewing a book of this order, but I begin with this fundamental criticism, my opinion, to introduce D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago, 2012). Because it is compendious and profound, and daunting to read and review.

The book is engaging, easy to fall into, fast-paced. Most readers will be familiar with exactly none of the scientific and quasi-scientific researchers, industry insiders and regulators that populate the book, but this doesn’t present a difficulty, since the book efficiently glosses the careers of the main characters: Remington Kellogg, Neil Alison Mackintosh, and John C. Lilly, and many of the minor character as well, such as Sidney Harmer.

These biographies illustrate the paradigm shift from the “hip-booted cetology,” (Burnett’s coinage) practiced by early 20th century scientists in the naturalist tradition, largely in line with whaling industry priorities, to the near-contemporary state of the whale as ecological trope, touchstone of the environmental movement. I say near-contemporary because I have become aware of an increasing emphasis on wildlife refuges and habitat preservation in the conservation movement.

The material that is most shocking to me is how some scientists seemed to think an evolution of human consciousness could be achieved through contact with “the mind in the waters,” i.e. whales and dolphins. In fact, this section illuminates what seems to me to be a synthesizing trend in the sciences in the 1960s that is new to me and really fascinating.

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About aquaticbiology

I'm a person from the San Francisco Bay Area. I like reading, the movies, my family, and biology. I think the science blogosphere is really fantastic and this is my blog about aquatic biology and the life sciences - along with digressions into science-art and commentary. Enjoy!
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