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The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century

The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century [Kindle Edition]

D. Graham Burnett
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product Description


"The wait is over. We finally have a comprehensive, brilliantly written chronicle of science in the history of whaling-or whaling in the history of science. D. Graham Burnett's leviathanic opus covers everything you ever wanted to know-or didn't know you wanted to know-about the biology, conservation, politics, and history of what is perhaps man's most troubled relationship with wild animals. This masterly study eclipses every cetological work that precedes it. Well, maybe not Moby-Dick." -Richard Ellis, author of The Great Sperm Whale"

Product Description

From the Bible’s “Canst thou raise leviathan with a hook?” to Captain Ahab’s “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!,” from the trials of Job to the legends of Sinbad, whales have breached in the human imagination as looming figures of terror, power, confusion, and mystery.

In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius. When Burnett opens his story, ignorance reigns: even Nature was misclassifying whales at the turn of the century, and the only biological study of the species was happening in gruesome Arctic slaughterhouses. But in the aftermath of World War I, an international effort to bring rational regulations to the whaling industry led to an explosion of global research—and regulations that, while well-meaning, were quashed, or widely flouted, by whaling nations, the first shot in a battle that continues to this day. The book closes with a look at the remarkable shift in public attitudes toward whales that began in the 1960s, as environmental concerns and new discoveries about whale behavior combined to make whales an object of sentimental concern and public adulation.

A sweeping history, grounded in nearly a decade of research, The Sounding of the Whale tells a remarkable story of how science, politics, and simple human wonder intertwined to transform the way we see these behemoths from below.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 7156 KB
  • Print Length: 824 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (9 Jan 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0071ARU78
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #590,154 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Ultimately disappointing 7 Jun 2012
By DiveDoc
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is an unpleasant bias hidden in this superficially impressive work that denigrates the work of scientists: despite his protestations the author understands the political establishment and not, it would seem, the science which is neither explained nor evaluated. A marked distaste for the 1960s is apparent in the later section of the book, focussed on John Lilley. The context of the whale research reported in Burnett's book is distorted to make his point: by ignoring the work of scientists and conservationists in the 1970s and subsequent decades his description of the IWC, and the scientists, this book becomes a story of the politics of meat and not nature conservation.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, but for unexpected reasons 14 Feb 2012
By Michael W. Konrad - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a great book, but maybe not for the reason you think. I thought it was a book about whales (which it is literally) but it's really about humans. Humans hunted whales for money and whale scientists studied the whales. After a few years the scientists realized that the hunters were killing far more than was sustainable. However, the scientists became dependent on the whalers to supply whales for study, and they became convinced that they couldn't demand that the yearly catch be decreased because then the whalers would abandon the International Whaling Commission and there would be no hope of regulation. In the middle of the story most of the whales are killed, and the killing stops (or at least is greatly inhibited) because of a Walt Disney movie for children in which a whale is the hero. Americans (mostly, maybe because they were not hunting whales and thus it was no skin of their backs) launch a campaign to stop the killing, Greenpeace is launched, Lilly writes books about the intelligence of dolphins, and since there is no longer much money in catching whales, it grinds to a slow crawl. The important lesson of this book is that the history of the politics of whaling is very similar to many other international problems, such as cigarette smoking, acid rain, global warming, etc. At first the groups that benefit from the activity deny the facts, then finally come (or are forced) to modify their behavior. Of course the story of global warming has several decades to play out. The book is not an easy read; after the first hundred pages I almost skimmed to the end, but fortunately didn't. The author writes like an academic historian (which he is), and some times the footnotes are 2/3 rds of the page. But soldier on, you will be richly rewarded. Don't be afraid to skim a little (at almost 800 pages even reading half of it is a bargain for the price).
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Focused on history of science; quite academic 28 Jan 2012
By B. Jacobsen - Published on
Rating this by number of stars is difficult; I think the rating would depend on the reader. I'm rating it for the general reader, not an academic.
I purchased the book because it was given a good review in the NY Times book review. I hoped it would be a crossover book that might be of interest to the general reader. I do not think it is.
First, its major focus is really on the history of science, with the whale being the case study. This is overstating it a bit -- there is a lot of "whale" in the book despite the author's caveats about same -- but the author's focus is overtly on the history of science. Books I have enjoyed include Tuxedo Park, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Einstein, to the recent book about hedda gabbler, etc., but this book is a long book....with most of the focus on "history" for lack of a better term.
I must admit: Although I like "history of science" as a topic, I was hoping for more on "whale."
Second, the book is quite long. Any narrative "thrill" is gone when buried in 750 or so pages. And long sections on debates at the International Whaling Commission or whatever are far from spell-bounding.
Third, at least significant parts of it are written in a pretty academic, turgid style. As another indicator: Large quantities of footnotes (bottomnotes) on many pages.
So, for a general reader, it was quickly put down. For academics interested in a detailed, chronology of how science has interacted with both business concerns and now enivronmentalism: the book may be great. If professors or graduate students want to give it 5 stars, or 1, it's up to them. Obviously, the author is a tenured professor at Princeton, so some think highly of him. (though the ratings of his other books on amazon is far from stellar...).
For someone who hoped to read something to learn more about whales, and how our evolving scientific or ethical systems may have played a role -- no thanks. Lurking in here may have an interesting book of about 300 pages for a reader who enjoys science nonficition.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but stops short 15 Feb 2012
By Charles P Nicklin - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really looked forward to this book and pre ordered to get it as soon as possible. I enjoyed the read and got lots of great information about how we got to where we were in 1979, when I started covering research for National Geographic Magazine. The coverage of Remington Kellogg's role in early conservation efforts really opened my eyes. I just wish the last 20 years of the century were covered too. We have new tools and great researchers who have kept the study of living whales moving forward. Hopefully this work will be covered in a future book.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars an unpleasant book if you actually like whales 30 Dec 2012
By Schmendrick - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A number of previous reviewers, although not the Amazon-listed "official" reviews, state that this book is not primarily about whales, and I believe this is entirely correct. That itself did not disappoint me, since I knew before purchasing this that Burnett was not a biologist, much less a cetologist. There are numerous other books by non-scientists about whales, such as Philip Hoare's superb work, that I have read with greatest pleasure. The very odd aspect of Burnett's book, which in the end I found extremely unsettling, is that you often end up feeling that he actually dislikes whales, or perhaps just considers that much too much fuss has been made over them, when history (and presumably historians) are so very much more interesting. There are too many examples to cite but I will take just one. Toward the end of the book, Burnett is discussing the role that popularization of the vocalization of humpback whales (e.g., the recording "Songs of the Humpback Whale") played in public opinion and in the effort to preserve whales (as wide-scale whaling was still underway.) Burnett, over a number of pages, chooses to disparage the idea that the vocalizations are even songs. Indeed, he can only refer to the vocalization in disparaging terms: whining, to take one example, and worse. Note that he never actually discusses what his criteria would be for judging something as a song - he just, in a remarkably snide fashion, decides that an attack on the aesthetics of the humpback sounds is interesting, pertinent, and/or balanced. This same feeling permeates a considerable part of what turned out, for me, to be a book that was unsettling for chiefly wrong reasons.
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