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Cetacean Dreams

A Column by Charles Miller

I just woke up from a pretty weird dream. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to relate some mystical experience; rather, it was a dream that started me thinking about another topic. In my dream, I was at the beach (my favorite place), enjoying the sun, surf and sand. I reclined in the sand for hours at a time until I became too hot, then plodded to the water and submerged myself for a few hours--this is not at all unusual from my real life--and when I became waterlogged, I'd return to the beach to sun myself. Granted, my dreams are not as fantastic as those of some people (but mine are in color).

In the course of traipsing back and forth at the water's edge (in this dream), a crowd of spectators happened by--tourist types--led by what appeared to be a naturalist tour guide. They all stopped and observed me entering and exiting the water for a long time, as this naturalist explained that I was "obeying ancient migratory instinct," dating back to when I was in "evolutionary transition" from sea creature to land creature.

At this point, I awoke with the strange sensation of having a mouthful of seawater; however, as I became fully conscious, I realized that this sensation was just an artifact of the dream, and that I actually had no seawater in my mouth at all. So I didn't bother to spit it out.

But, all dreaming aside, this started me considering a new angle on another, not wholly-unrelated topic: The reason why whales and other cetaceans "mysteriously" beach themselves. Perhaps I've merely had an uneducated glimmering of long-accepted cetacean biology, so this is quite new to me. The notion makes sense, even by the precept of Occam's Razor: That cetaceans, which are accepted by science as former land-dwellers, sometimes attempt to follow old migratory paths, from a far-flung time when they still moved en masse between the dry land and the sea and back again.

Granted, this does entail that you accept "genetic memory," and that's not too much of a leap of faith for anyone who has read this far. I think it's safe to say that genetic memory is a "given" in some areas of science, particularly in the study of embryonic development. The embryo of a mammal, as you probably know, passes through several very non-mammal phases, from single-celled to fish-like to amphibian-like to reptile-like and finally to the much more comfortable and politically correct mammal phase.

Sometimes--explicable only through a theory of physical "genetic memory"--babies are born with tails and/or gills. Fortunately, these superfluous accessories are non-functioning the majority of the time and can be surgically removed. But the fact remains that our physiology retains a "memory" of the evolutionary progression.

What is less accepted is that we and other creatures might retain a deep neuro-genetic memory--a superfluous memory of patterns of behavior dating back to the dim recesses of evolutionary history. In its most shallow and diluted form, behavioralists accept this as "instinct," but instinct sometimes becomes uncomfortable and politically incorrect when pursued to its logical depths.

In the case of cetaceans, it seems rather clear that these big mammals once tread upon the dry ground, but gradually found a more plentiful food source in the ocean. Their metamorphosis from land dweller to ocean denizen did not take place in a day or a year or a thousand years, but over long ages of seasonal ebb and flow, during which time they no doubt migrated from the land to the sea and back many times.

Given that the cetaceans still retain a physical genetic memory of their long-ago visit upon dry land (metacarpal and metatarsal digits within their fins), might not these big creatures retain a neuro-genetic memory of their migratory paths between land and sea? Might not a few of them still attempt to beach themselves, obeying a genetic memory of migration, despite the fact that they can no longer negotiate the high ground? Sure they might.

Copyright 1999 by The Anomalist.