Sean Hanser, PhD.

Marine Biologist

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Education, Environment

Dr. Sean Hanser is a marine biologist who has made exciting discoveries regarding humpback whales and animal communication. During our interview, he shared what he's learned about the whales; why he looks for the higher and spiritual principles in science; how he applies "render unto Caesar" to his work as a scientist and in relation to evolution; how important it is to appreciate ideas or animals for what they are rather than limit them; and much more.

Sean, you've spent years working with and studying humpback whales. Where are you in the process?
I just finished my doctoral dissertation in December. It is on the acoustic ecology of humpback whales. There are three different parts to my research: (1) examining the social relationships of the whales, which I studied in Southeast Alaska, and characterizing relationships within the population; (2) looking at methods for identifying whales individually by certain features in their vocalizations (similar to how people can recognize each other by hearing their voices); (3) studying the effects of noise from boats on humpback whales, not at a loud level, but at a moderate level, similar to a noisy room. Could they communicate, how, and why?

What did you find?
I discovered that whales may be identified by acoustic features in their vocalizations, much like humans can. I also found that the whales do communicate differently in the presence of noise. When they forage together, if there is environmental noise, the whale responsible for vocalizing adds extra vacant spaces between sounds so that the other whales can tell the difference between a boat's noise (or wind or rain) and the whale's noise. [Click here to learn how whales communicate during bubble-net feeding.]

That's tremendous! What have you learned about yourself or your work that's been exciting?
What excites me about what I do has changed a little bit over time. You know Jesus' response to paying taxes -- asking whose face was on the coin and explaining, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17 KJV)? I've been learning what part of science I can render unto Caesar, what I can let someone else work on because it doesn't quite live up to my highest sense of principle -- like studying disease or devastation, or examining why disasters occur, or looking at negative environmental factors.

I have become interested in studying the principles that are manifested across the natural world and in getting a proper sense of infinity, which is an idea Laurance Doyle shared with me. Getting a proper sense of infinity truly points to everything being tied together with one Mind and one Principle. So I've learned that what's behind my drive and interest in science is seeing the greater principles that are expressed widely in God's creation and not necessarily studying to know the nitty-gritty details of an organism.

So what greater principles are you seeing?
Laurance Doyle and I have worked together on examining communication in animals. There are overarching organizational rules, for lack of a better term, that seem to be guiding the natural development of communication systems. The belief is that we see these principles expressed more highly in more intelligent beings (human beings are seen as the most intelligent). It's neat to see that there's a common thread characterized by math (not applied in a conscious manner) that is consistent on many levels throughout the animal kingdom (including humans), whether written or spoken.

There are so many things that have been misjudged and limited. Some said that bees were not capable of complex communication because they don't have certain neurons or physical structure. Being controlled by the queen bee also made bees appear simple and even stupid. But bees have figured out a different way to be sophisticated. They have a waggle dance that they use to communicate with each other about the source of nectar, how to find it, and how many bees need to go get it. They can do some really complex things.

This misjudgment is a comment on how limited we are in how we look at things. Such discoveries break down labels and preconceived ideas -- in all areas of science. For instance, what physicists have found is that when you examine the components of matter up close, there's a lot of space; matter doesn't seem quite so solid.

Are there any Bible stories that have inspired or helped you with your work?
The Bible is full of examples of people taking actions under God's direction, overcoming obstacles, and leading effective and productive lives (which I share with my high school Sunday school students). There's no question that maintaining integrity, continuing on in the face of adversity, or persisting when it's the unpopular but right thing to do are all very good things we need to do today.

As a scientist, how do you turn to God for direction?
Scientists have questions they would like to answer. We have a hypothesis and go about collecting data in a lab or in the field. We try to look at the data rigorously and without bias. We don't always know where the data will lead us. The people who provide funding for the research sometimes want an answer in a particular direction, so there can be the temptation to be biased towards that outcome. There needs to be a certain sense of trust that we're moving in the right direction and doing the right thing.

I like thinking of being led by God, like Moses who was going on a big mission that God had asked him to undertake. Moses felt quite a bit of uncertainty, but he was following directions and was assured of success. He met fairly big challenges along the way -- the army of Egyptians, the sea, the people who were grumbling because it took a long time to get to their destination. But there was a final goal. Sometimes we just have to trust that things will work out despite the obstacles. Sometimes we're out in the field taking data, and we're not sure which method to use, or the equipment breaks.

How do you trust when you're faced with such challenges?
It's important to listen to the "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12); to let go of ego or personal agenda; to "lean not unto thine own understanding" (Prov 3:5); and to let things unfold. When there's the temptation to force something, I look to the Bible at the people who did things without always knowing why -- Noah building an ark, or Abraham leaving his home in Ur, or Saul going on the road to Damascus when he was suddenly blinded and then healed and transformed to "Paul" by someone who didn't really want to heal him, or John receiving his revelation.

Is there a connection between unfolding and revelation?
I think so. I sometimes wonder what John was thinking as he wrote the revelation on the island of Patmos where he had been exiled, living in pretty meager circumstances. He was downloading a vision that is very forward looking, and I don't know if it would've been crystal clear to him at the moment; it may have needed some unfolding for him.

A lot of people don't necessarily get something all in one moment. I think revelation comes from working hard spiritually. Eventually you gain the knowledge and overview of how the parts fit together. It just takes sticking with it. As James says, "But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:4). We see this in Revelation. Some of Revelation is so brilliant and so comforting, but some portions can seem scary and have been grossly misinterpreted. Its meaning is still being unfolded or revealed to us.

Speaking of things unfolding, how do you, as a scientist who believes in and relies on God, look at the concept of evolution?
I "render … unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." I render the physical unto the physical and see what the idea of evolution has to offer: constant progress, ideas well-fitted for a purpose, living efficiently. It's amazing how well-suited organisms are for what they're doing. That's a pretty high concept and a wonderful sense of evolution. If people looked at evolution that way, it might not be that difficult for so many people to accept. The U.S. is one of the places on the face of the Earth where half of the people believe that evolution is just a theory and try to debunk it or wedge it into the wrong area.

What if we accept the physical as a limited or counterfeit view of reality and look for the higher meaning beyond the physical? The thing people are looking at when they look at fossils is a material mechanism that can just be left with matter. But if we look at the continuum of the expression of intelligence, we go beyond matter and see a divine principle at work.

So how do you look for the expression of intelligence?
Wouldn't it be neat if people studying different animals or organisms looked at each thing for its own merits, rather than focusing on how it has changed over time? It's a fact that a lot of things animals can do, we humans can't do; and things we can do, animals can't do. We're all very diverse, and we all align on the continuum of life. A sponge is really cool. You can put it through a strainer, throw it in the bottom of the aquarium, and it can reassemble. Squid communicate by changing color cells on their body. They can "divide their bodies in half" and carry on two "conversations" simultaneously.

These ideas are meeting their own challenges of life. We don't have to compare intelligence. If we fail to appreciate things for what they express, and instead just look at what little part or process they represent in the continuum of evolution, we get caught up in looking at the next step. We miss enjoying the beauty of the product. We read in the Bible, "For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:28). Then you harvest the fruit. We need to appreciate the "full corn," the fruits of the labor, the product.

How do you "harvest the fruit"?
If we're concerned about the next step, the next year, the next harvest, we're not harvesting what's ready to be reaped now -- all the wonderful ideas being manifested now. So often, people get caught up in where different species are going, how we are losing them, or where they were. We tend to make the whole thing try to fit a paradigm (an evolutionary or a religious one) when we could be saying that our fears, concerns, and narrow definitions are those things we can "render unto Caesar." Then we could spend our time looking for higher spiritual ideas.

Once we appreciate species as they are, it's easier to see a way of preserving them. The "dominion" spoken of in the first chapter of Genesis (1:26) didn't mean to use things until everything is squeezed out of them. Rather, dominion helps us to be stewards of our environment.

Humpback Whale Vocalization, Communication, and Bubble-Net Feeding -- Expressions of Intelligence

As mentioned in the main interview, Marine Biologist, Sean Hanser, PhD., focused his doctoral dissertation on the acoustic ecology of humpback whales:

  1. their social relationships;
  2. any unique, identifying features in their vocalizations;
  3. the effects of noise on their communication.

Sean shares more details on the second and third part of his studies:

For the second portion of my study, I was basing my research on what we know to be true of humans. There are features in how we speak that help us identify each other simply by our voices. I got some good results from my studies, suggesting that the same mechanism that's true for us is true for them in the higher harmonics of their vocalization. Just as people's voices are a result of how they are built, so are whales' voices. The resonant chambers may be small or big, and that tells whales apart. So it means that there's a natural way we can identify them.

In the third part of my study, I found out that whales do change their communication in the presence of noise. One of the things they do differently is to add an extra vacant space in between their vocalizations. They do this when they feed together in what is called bubble-net feeding. It's a really neat behavior that takes a lot of coordination. There's one individual who has the special role of vocalizing. We know for sure that the vocalization is to scare the fish to move into the bubble net created by the other whales.

We have reason to believe that there is timing in coordinating the other whales. We think that the gaps between the vocalizations are important. Usually, they're less than a second long, but we saw them increasing that time if there was a bunch of noise in the environment. The gaps were obvious. They need the gaps so they can identify the beginning and the ending of the communication, rather than perceive the vocalizations as continuous. They adjusted the rate at which they vocalize (the number of vocalizations per second); they slowed down in the presence of noise so they can tell the difference between them and the noise.

This is actually the same thing your computer does. In the 1940s, Claude Shannon explained the channel capacity for moving data along telephone lines for Bell Labs. He demonstrated that you can transmit info without errors if you slow down what you're trying to transmit in the presence of noise so that it matches what the channel can carry. The whales are doing this kind of adjustment. They leave themselves 20% error room, so they're below channel capacity by about 20%. With more noise -- boats, rain, wind, whatever -- they slow down further.

About Marine Biologist, Sean Hanser, PhD.

Currently, I have a post-doc station with SETI and with UC Davis, and I have a short part-time job working on the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge project: I monitor marine mammals (seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins) and let the authorities know if they have to hold up pile driving when the mammals show up; or if they turn up when something is going on, we keep a record of what's happening so can show the EPA the impact and how well everything is working. It's putting my work into action.

I taught for four of the seven and a half years I was in grad school. Grad students often teach the lab portion of a major course. Say there were 700 students in course, I would have 50 in a lab and grade their homework. Sometimes I lectured to larger classes. Some people get grants and fellowships to support them, but in some ways, going to grad school and never teaching is cheating, especially if you want to have an academic career.