We in our society have been having a lot of really interesting conversations of late. At the core of some of the most important is the notion of “cultural competency.”

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

According to the American Psychological Association, cultural competency may be “loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.”

This ability is key to being a good ally or to just being a good human being.

The concept isn’t new; the APA has been actively engaged in the study of cultural competency for 50 years now. But the idea has become much more widely discussed and understood as of late.

Truth be told though, we still have a lot of work to do. Speaking for myself, just when I think I’ve sort of got a handle on it, I realize I have ever so much more to learn.

In my mind, cultural competency has always been framed in relation to other nations, faiths, communities – but fundamentally to other humans. Then I heard a story on an upcoming new documentary series from National Geographic, “Secrets of the Whales.”

The documentary is a wild collaboration between Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron and photographer Brian Skerry.

The culmination of three years’ worth of research, the documentary delves into the lives of several different species and groups of whales and arrives at the simultaneously obvious and startling conclusion that whales operate within their own culture.

This is kind of a big deal.

Skerry, a skilled diver, collaborated with various scientists around the world to capture intimate portraits of the lives of these extraordinary animals. In fact, Skerry managed to capture the first-ever photograph of a sperm whale calf nursing! While capturing images of an orca pod hunting, a young female orca offered to share her stingray snack with him! They witnessed and recorded an orphaned narwhal adopted by a family of belugas!

Yes, I know, that’s a lot of exclamation points in one paragraph, but this is really exciting stuff.

One of the neatest aspects of this film is the recording of the songs of young humpback males. As Skerry states during an interview on NPR’s “Living on Earth,” “These males will compete every year at the beginning of the year with a tune, and then one tune gets to be the winning tune. And they adopt it and everybody sings that same song, pretty much. They might add little bits and pieces here and there, but they essentially pass it across the entire ocean. It’s been described in scientific papers as the horizontal transmission of culture.”

Long assumed to be mating calls, the actual data does not seem to support that theory. Instead, the songs appear to serve another function – possibly, as Kerry theorizes, even keeping alive cultural memories and important information, such as hunting grounds.

Cameron notes about the project, “Before Brian started this, he’d seen what he thought was evidence of real culture. … Not just intelligence and not just that which natural selection has created.”

It seems likely, based in science, that we share our world with entire other cultures. Rich, fully developed, ancient cultures.

We humans make up a minuscule fraction of life forms on earth. It would behoove us to remember that and become culturally competent not only in relation to our fellow humans but with the myriad of other creatures on our planet. I am looking forward to learning more.

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