Podcast: Philippa Brakes and Carl Safina discussing animal culture and their work

This podcast, a conversation between Charlie Moores and marine conservationists Philippa Brakes and Carl Safina, is the fourth in a short series of posts on animal culture – which is perhaps most easily thought of as “if behaviour is what animals do, then culture is how they do it”: it’s about social learning, the passing on of knowledge, and that may be as important as genetic adaptation for survival.

We began the series with a podcast with Philippa Brakes, a Research Fellow with the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, looking at how a new awareness of Animal Culture could or should be taken into account when working on marine mammal conservation. We followed that with a short blog looking at what acknowledging culture in animals might mean in our efforts to help tackle the war on wildlife – because to put it simply, we believe that coming at injustices and cruelty from as many different angles as we can is the best way to tackle that war. And yesterday we posted a review of Carl’s new book ‘Becoming Wild’, which is a wonderful read, as lyrical and poetic as it is thought-provoking.

This recording, hosted by Charlie, took place with Carl (in New York) and Philippa (in New Zealand) just days after the horrendous murder of twelve rangers in Virunga National Park, which took the conversation into a discussion about front-line conservation. We also referenced the lockdown and Covid-19 of course; talked about why it has taken so long for us humans – who pride ourselves on our powers of observation – to recognise culture in animals; and being curious…

Charlie began though by asking Carl and Philippa about a line in ‘Becoming Wild’ that had really struck him: it was in a section about Sperm Whale families and concerned the remarkable conservationist Shane Gero, a young researcher who has spent the past few years following Sperm Whales and getting to know them as individuals, fretting about their survival, and doing whatever he can to explain to audiences around the world the importance of culture to the whales. On a boat trip the famed explorer and defender of the ocean Sylvia Earle had turned to Shane in a moment of great understanding and realisation and said to him “You feel the burden of the trust these whales have placed in you.”

With everything they know, with the knowledge that cultures are disappearing all around the world as we push wildlife towards extinction, Charlie wondered whether Carl and Philippa also felt that ‘burden of trust’, that heavy sense of responsibility…


“…we haven’t found any other life anywhere else in the universe – we live in a miracle – and we’re not even curious about it most of the time…”

Philippa Brakes and Carl Safina | On Animal Culture
May 2020


There are fascinating articles co-authored by Philippa on animal culture online, and you can find Whale and Dolphin Conservation at uk.whales.org and on Twitter at whales_org.

Carl runs the Safina Centre which is online at safinacenter.org and his latest book (his eighth) ‘Becoming Wild’ is published by Henry Holt and Company and is available – hopefully – everywhere.

If you’d like more on this subject please search animal culture on The War on Wildlife Project website.

  • Thankyou to Ed Fox at Whale and Dolphin Conservation for helping set this podcast up. Header image Sperm Whale by Douglas Hoffman.