An upcoming documentary on John Lilly’s famous dolphin-masturbation and LSD experiments from the 1960s is making headlines this week. These experiments involved a woman – Margaret Howe – living alongside a dolphin named Peter in a flooded house on St. Thomas in an attempt to teach Peter to speak English. Not all of the recent coverage of this experiment is accurate: it was not really a NASA experiment as some headlines claim, nor did Howe “have sex” with the dolphin as some are reporting. More accurately, NASA was one of many US government agencies that funded Lilly’s research, and Howe did not have intercourse with the dolphin, she “just” masturbated him to “relieve his urges.” This is a rather bizarre thing to do in the context of an animal cognition experiment and helped lead to Lilly’s scientific demise, in addition to tarnishing the field of dolphin behavior/cognition research for decades to come. Keep in mind, however, that there are thousands upon thousands of people collecting semen from animals (e.g., bulls, dogs, elephants) for artificial insemination purposes every day, and I doubt they’d consider themselves to be “having sex” with their animal subjects. But let’s not get bogged down in semantics – this was still a rather unconventional experiment and the documentary looks like it’s going to give us some great detail about how it all went down. If you are itching for more, check out this excerpt from my book (Are Dolphins Really Smart?) where I discuss Lilly in more detail:
Lilly was a medical doctor and neurophysiologist with the National Institute of Mental Health. In his early research career he specialized in invasive cortical vivisection, which involved implanting electrodes into primate brains in order to monitor or stimulate the central nervous system. Lilly’s first encounter with a cetacean brain was in 1949, when he joined WHOI physiologist Pete Scholander on an excursion to examine the brain of a stranded pilot whale. Although the pilot whale’s brain was too badly decomposed to conduct an investigation, Lilly’s interest was piqued. On Scholander’s advice, Lilly contacted Forrest G. Wood at Marine Studios in Florida, which he visited with a team of scientists in 1955 with the intent to map the dolphin cortex using the same techniques he had applied to primates. But his attempts at anesthetizing the dolphins failed – dolphins are conscious breathers, meaning that a fully anesthetized dolphin will rapidly succumb to asphyxiation as its brain loses communication with its diaphragm. Consequently, Lilly inadvertently euthanized five dolphins on this initial research excursion. But Lilly returned to Marine Studios in 1957 and again in 1958, having devised a method of inserting electrodes into the brain of a fully awake/conscious dolphin without killing it, and thus allowing his cortical mapping work to go forward. He could then stimulate either the pleasure or the pain centers of the dolphin’s brain as required by the experiment. This might sound barbaric to the modern reader – especially considering that these types of invasive procedure on marine mammals are no longer legal in the United States and a number of other countries. But keep in mind that at present, vivisection is routinely performed on many other animal species in US laboratories – from fruit flies to primates – so Lilly’s techniques are not quite as outdated as they initially appear.
It was during one of these vivisection experiments that Lilly had his Eureka moment, which would result in a fundamental shift to how he – and the rest of the world – would relate to dolphin kind. After reviewing slowed-down recordings of vocalizations produced by one of his dolphin subjects that had been making an awful lot of noise while having its brain stimulated just before it died, Lilly became convinced that the animal was attempting to communicate with the human experimenters by imitating the sounds of their speech. He also noted that when an injured dolphin was reunited with its tank mates, it “called’ to them, and promptly received help/care – something Lilly argued was evidence of an intraspecies language. Lilly also observed that dolphins, unlike primates, did not become violent when having electrodes inserted into their brains – something he attributed to a sophisticated ability to control their emotions. The conclusion Lilly drew from these observations was that lurking inside the misleadingly piscine dolphin body was an undiscovered intelligence and capacity for language that could rival humankind.
Lilly presented his ideas on these subjects in short order at two scientific conferences in San Francisco in 1958, which drew the interest of Earl Ubell, the Science Editor at the New York Herald Tribune. Ubell organized a news conference for Lilly, which resulted in the dissemination of Lilly’s novel ideas (which were eventually published in the American Journal of Psychiatry) across the globe, and forever changed the nature of the relationship humanity had with the aquatic environment. The US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 – a landmark piece of legislation that banned “the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal” – was due in no small part to Lilly’s writings on the dolphin mind, and the effect his ideas had on public opinion. Here is an excerpt from Ubell’s original article published soon after the news conferences of 1958, which likely constitutes the very first popular report of dolphin über-intelligence and the existence of dolphin language:
“Dr. Lilly believes they [dolphins] may be the only other creature besides man to be able to transmit complicated ideas by a kind of speech. And indeed they may be the only creature capable of learning true human speech. Next to man, it has the most complicated nervous system in the entire animal kingdom.”
After the flurry of media attention following his presentations, Lilly received grants to study dolphin behavior from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and NASA. The potential implications of Lilly’s work as it pertained to controlling dolphin (and human) behavior via implanted electrodes caught the attention of the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department, and J. Edgar Hoover, with Lilly being involved in classified security meetings to learn how, at the height of the Manchurian Candidate scare in the late 1950s, his research could apply to brainwashing and mind control. Although many scientists had initially criticized Lilly for going too far with his speculations concerning dolphin language and intelligence, the simple fact that the US government was interested in his work, which would eventually lead (as Lilly had correctly predicted) to the use of dolphins for mine hunting and other war-time applications under the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, lent him considerable legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Lilly’s scientific prominence was confirmed three years later when he attended a conference together with Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and a dozen other leading scientists and deep thinkers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. This history-making conference established the field of SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) and the Drake Equation. The attendees became known as the Order of the Dolphin – presumably in deference to Lilly’s influential ideas of communicating with other species – be it dolphins or aliens.
By 1960, Lilly had set up a dolphin research facility (the Communication Research Institute) on St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, and promised the world (and his financial backers) that he was on the verge of an inter-species communication breakthrough. But this breakthrough never happened, and Lilly’s subsequent peer-reviewed publications were both sparse and underwhelming. By 1967, his funders had lost faith in both his ideas and his methods, and his financial support dried up. Lilly’s critics from the scientific community – who had once described his highly influential 1961 publication Man and Dolphin as an example on “how not to do scientific research,”and suggested that the book did not present “a ‘single observation or interpretation’ that could withstand scrutiny”– were somewhat vindicated by the ultimate fate of Lilly’s research trajectory.
In his attempts to understand the dolphin mind at the Communication Research Institute, Lilly’s experimental techniques became increasingly unconventional. He spent hours floating in an isolation tank under the influence of LSD, and even injected his dolphin subjects with LSD to see what would happen – a ludicrous notion to the modern reader, but perhaps only slightly unconventional in the zeitgeist of 1965. In his infamous experiments teaching Peter the dolphin to speak English, Peter was manually brought to sexual climax in order to satisfy his “sexual needs” and make him more cooperative – something that is considered well outside the norm in animal behavior research, even for the 1960s. Lilly’s exit from mainstream science saw him releasing three of his dolphins back into the open ocean (the other five having purportedly died of neglect), closing his lab on St. Thomas, and retreating to the West Coast, where he became one of the spiritual leaders (together with Timothy Leary) of the 60s and 70s counter-culture. Lilly was still involved in research projects involving dolphin–human communication (notably project JANUS in the late 70s and early 80s), but these projects did not resonate with the scientific community, nor result in any noteworthy scientific discoveries. He continued to publish hugely popular books weaving together his New Age ideology with dolphin science, providing the public with tantalizing yet wholly unsubstantiated statements like “these Cetacea with huge brains are more intelligent than any man or woman” and “the Cetacea are sensitive, compassionate, ethical, philosophical, and have ancient vocal histories that their young must learn.”Lilly is regarded by many as an unparalleled mythmaker (i.e., the man who planted “the ‘mindbomb’ of whale-dolphin intelligence”), and is uniquely responsible for the emergence and intractability of many (if not most) of the ideas that will be scrutinized in this book.
For more info on Lilly and the prospect of inter-species communication, check out Are Dolphins Really Smart? or read D. Graham Burnett’s amazing research on Lilly in his book The Sounding of The Whale (the source I used for much of my research on the topics presented above).