A Review of “Cultural Confusion: Parsimony, Social Learning, and Humpback Whales” By Heidi Lyn


Humpback whales are well known for their elaborate vocal songs, but how do they learn these? Dr. Heidi Lyn – a comparative psychologist studying cognition and communication in non-human animals – has taken a look at how scientists have analyzed this type of communication. She has recently discussed a notable issue with Dr. Mercado’s (2022) parsimonious view on humpback whale song analyses.

Parsimony is the idea that the simplest explanation is often the best, and Mecado’s heavy reliance on two components of parsimony:

  • Parsimony of explanation
  • Parsimony of mechanism

But, these ideas don’t quite fit the ideas of how language can evolve and shift over time. Parsimony of explanation is when the simplest explanation is often the one preferred. Parsimony of mechanism is when the simplest of mechanism is preferred. Occam’s razor is a great place to start, when trying to understand the premise of parsimony and how it is applied to research. 

In contrast to Mecado’s idea surrounding whale song, Lyn provides evidence that social learning and culture may be factors that influence the formation and spread of whale songs. 

Social learning provides an evolutionary upper hand when animals such as the humpback whale can learn from conspecifics rather than having to learn from ground zero (evidence against Mercado’s idea). An example of social learning is imitation, where animals copy behaviors or sounds of another.

Dr. Lyn notes that culture is more difficult to be said as a certain factor, since the definition of culture is debated itself. A popular definition by Whitten et al. (1999) states “A cultural behavior “is one that is transmitted repeatedly through social or observational learning to become a population-level characteristic”. However, not all scientists use this definition. While research continues to clarify “What is culture?“, Dr. Lyn argues that we cannot eliminate this as something humpback whales experience.

Additionally, parsimony of mechanism may not always be the answer. The idea that one mechanism is better than two, does not cover what is expressed by vocal systems that commonly use more than one mechanism of change. These changes in vocal systems are consistent across language and stand in contrast to explanations based on parsimony. In other words, the simplest explanation is arbitrary when understanding vocal communication — it is complex.

Dr. Lyn shows that while parsimony can back explanation on many things, humpback whale song is complex and should remain so. In her publication, Lyn has provided strong evidence that explanations based on parsimony alone are often based on “rhetoric and strong man arguments” and should be taken with a grain of salt.

so what does this mean?

Whale songs are an incredible form of communication! Sometimes, simplifying a system that has many knobs and whistles, maybe simplifying it too much. When we reduce a process down to the bare bones, we can miss out on some really interesting information. If we want to learn more about how intelligent and complex these marine mammals are, then we must allow the idea that they are capable of building a complex system.

To read more, link below.

Reviewed by: Katie West with insight from Dr. Lindsey Johnson

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