On speaking with dolphins

17.32, Monday 20 Jul 2020 Link to this post

I just read Extraterrestrial Languages by Daniel Oberhaus and a comment about dolphins made me blink.

In 1961, a group of 10 scientists met to discuss communication with aliens. The conference

  • led to SETI – the continuing effort to search for extraterrestrial intelligence by listening for radio signals from stars
  • was opened by Frank Drake who presented the now-famous Drake equation – a framework for interrogating how many alien civilisations might be out there
  • and included John Lilly who was making an earnest attempt to communicate with dolphins.

From the book:

Lilly gained widespread recognition for his work through the publications of Man and Dolphin, in which he argued that dolphins may be as intelligent as humans and that communicating with them should be possible. Lilly ended up going to great lengths to speak to dolphins, including the questionable practice of injecting his cetacean subjects with LSD, but his attempts at interspecies communication were never successful.

This Guardian piece has more about Lilly’s work:

Man and Dolphin extrapolated Mary Lilly’s initial observations of dolphins mimicking human voices, right through to teaching them to speak English and on ultimately to a Cetacean Chair at the United Nations, where all marine mammals would have an enlightening input into world affairs, widening our perspectives on everything from science to history, economics and current affairs.

– The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong, The Guardian

The above article focuses on the Lilly’s assistant, a young woman, and the distinctly unethical goings-on in the lab.

It sounds like the human/dolphin sexual encounters garnered some media attention, and - on top of Lilly’s already unusual work, and the connection with aliens - dolphin communication made its way into public consciousness.


Honestly I don’t know how I’ve missed John Lilly’s work.

It must have made a big impression. There’s often a throwaway comment in sci-fi of a certain era about a dolphin ambassador, or a “background colour” mention about a breakthrough in speaking with cetaceans. Of course this is the kind of thing that I recall reading but is impossible to google, so I’m looking over my bookshelf wondering what to pick up.

In Suzette Haden Elgin’s feminist/linguistics/science fiction novel Native Tongue (1984), which I’m now re-reading, one storyline includes language learning facilities (the “Interface”) clearly inspired by Lilly’s lab, and also the use of LSD.

The Embedding by Ian Watson (1973; here’s a long review) - which is excellent - is also filed on my shelves under: science fiction; linguistics; unethically dosing children with psychedelics. I can’t remember if dolphins feature, but I think I might read this one next.


Okay so let’s pretend we could speak with dolphins. What would that mean?

I mean, not everyone would be able to speak with dolphins. I imagine that, to me personally, speaking with a dolphin would not be particularly accessible. So all I would hear would be through magazine interviews, or TV, or reddit Ask Me Anythings. It would be about as distant as an interview with Elon Musk.

There would be a particular lobby that would want the dolphins to speak for the oceans, and there would be an environmental protection agenda. Would that make a difference? Knowing that there are (human) tribes in the Amazon doesn’t stop us from cutting it down.

But is that what the dolphins would say? Maybe they would want to share information about where to go for the best fish. Or make us laugh with dirty bubble limericks.

I think that, without anything to trade, we’d run out of things to talk about. Without necessarily supporting a human agenda, what they said wouldn’t be reported. We’d forget that we could speak with dolphins at all.

By analogy: there are people who have extreme empathy with cows, but we don’t ask them about cattle farming. To them, cows can speak. See this paper about Temple Grandin and cattle empathy: Grandin’s biographies credit her autism with providing privileged access to bovine subjectivity … but do we, as a culture, pro-actively seek out oracles like this, and consult them about beefburgers? Maybe we should. Maybe we shouldn’t. But we don’t.

Anyway.