Investigating Empathy in Southeast Alaskan Humpback Whales

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    June 1, 2020 - August 31, 2022

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Priority:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:


Director: Laurance Doyle

Institution: SETI Institute

In an apparent display of altruism, humpback whales have been documented putting their own well-being at risk to come to the aid of smaller species in mortal distress. This exhibition of altruistic behavior may be indicative of empathy. Directed by Laurance Doyle, this Diverse Intelligences project will employ acoustic playbacks of predatory species (killer whales), coupled with the distress sounds of imperiled sea lions, in an effort to use empirical science to test for evidence of empathy in a non-human species that is evolutionarily separated from humans by 65 million years. In doing so, Dr. Doyle’s team will expand the lens of knowledge pertaining to compassionate action (that in many traditions forms the ethical foundation for human societies), and extend this theoretical foundation to include non-human species in the context of their own natural systems.


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