The cultural evolution of humpback whale song in the North Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans
: a study of cumulative culture, fine-scale evolution, and public engagement

  • Natalie Catherine Sinclair

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This PhD thesis explores humpback whale song research, cumulative cultural evolution (CCE), aesthetics, and public engagement. It comprises five chapters, each offering a comprehensive analysis of these topics. Chapter 1 outlines humpback whale song research and its relevance to CCE and vocal learning debates. It emphasises the effective use of whale song in public engagement for science and conservation. Chapter 2 presents a conceptual analysis of the compatibility between CCE and aesthetics. Interdisciplinary discussions explore challenges in reconciling aesthetic culture with prevailing philosophical views. The chapter also highlights tensions between cultural evolution in aesthetic and technological domains, contributing to debates on reconstructive and preservative theories. Chapter 3 tracks the evolution of a specific humpback whale song unit type across different themes within a song type over a breeding season. Methodological efficiencies enable a larger dataset analysis, providing insights into vocal production learning hypotheses. Chapter 4 expands on Chapter 3 by examining the evolution of a song unit type over two seasons and in a different ocean basin. Matching song types across locations reveals the extraordinary scale of humpback song cultural evolution. Evidence supports the vocal production learning hypothesis and challenges the notion of an innate template. Chapter 5 diverges thematically and methodologically, focusing on two case studies in public engagement. An interactive science exhibition and a community science event demonstrate successful engagement and impact on low science capital public groups. This thesis contributes to understanding humpback whale song research, CCE, aesthetics, and public engagement. It offers interdisciplinary perspectives, empirical investigations, and valuable insights into cultural evolution complexities. The thesis emphasises the importance of engaging the public in science while showcasing the impact on both the public and the researcher.
Date of Award12 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorLuke Edward Rendell (Supervisor)


  • Whale song
  • Cultural evolution
  • Cumulative cultural evolution
  • Public engagement evaluation
  • Cumulative cultural evolution and aesthetics

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