Some of My Best Friends Are Dolphins

The first scientific conference on the subject of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence was a small affair sponsored by the U. S. National Academy of Sciences in Green Bank, West Virginia. It was held in 1961, a year after Project Ozma, the first (unsuccessful) attempt to listen to possible radio signals from civilizations on planets of other stars. Subsequently, there were two such meetings held in the Soviet Union sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Then, in September 1971, a joint Soviet-American conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence was held near Byurakan, in Soviet Armenia (see Chapter 27). The possibility of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence is now at least semirespectable, but in 1961 it took a great deal of courage to organize such a meeting. Considerable credit should go to Dr. Otto Struve, then director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who organized and hosted the Green Bank meeting.

Among the invitees to the meeting was Dr. John Lilly, then of the Communication Research Institute, in Coral Gables, Florida. Lilly was there because of his work on dolphin intelligence and, in particular, his efforts to communicate with dolphins. There was a feeling that this effort to communicate with dolphins - the dolphin is probably another intelligent species on our own planet - was in some sense comparable to the task that will face us in communicating with an intelligent species on another planet, should interstellar radio communication be established. I think it will be much easier to understand interstellar messages, if we ever pick them up, than dolphin messages (see Chapter 29), if there are any.

The conjectured connection between dolphins and space was dramatized for me much later, at the lagoon outside the Vertical Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy, as I awaited the Apollo 17 liftoff. A dolphin quietly swam about, breaking water now and again, surveying the illuminated Saturn booster poised for its journey into space. Just checking us all out, perhaps?

Many of the participants at the Green Bank meeting already knew one another. But Lilly was, for many of us, a new quantity. His dolphins were fascinating, and the prospect of possible communication with them was enchanting. (The meeting was made further memorable by the announcement in Stockholm during its progress that one of our participants, Melvin Calvin, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. )

For many reasons, we wished to commemorate the meeting and maintain some loose coherence as a group. Captured as we were by Lilly's tales of the dolphins, we christened ourselves "The Order of the Dolphins." Calvin had a tie pin struck as an emblem of membership; it was a reproduction from the Boston Museum of an old Greek coin showing a boy on a dolphin. I served as a kind of informal coordinator of correspondence the few times that there was any "Dolphin" business, all of it the election of new members. In the following year or two, we elected a few others to membership - among them I. S. Shklovskii, Freeman Dyson, and J. B. S. Haldane. Haldane wrote me that membership in an organization that had no dues, no meetings, and no responsibilities was the sort of organization he appreciated; he promised to try hard to live up to the duties of membership.

The Order of the Dolphins is now moribund. It has been replaced by a number of activities on an international scale. But for me the Order of the Dolphins had a special significance - it provided an opportunity to meet with, talk with, and, to some extent, befriend dolphins.

It was my practice to spend a week or two each winter in the Caribbean, mostly snorkeling and scuba diving - examining the non-mammalian inhabitants of the Caribbean waters. Because of my acquaintance and later friendship with John Lilly, I was also able to spend some days with Lilly's dolphins in Coral Gables and in his research station at St. Thomas in the U. S. Virgin Islands.

His institute, now defunct, unquestionably did some good work on the dolphin, including the production of an important atlas of the dolphin brain. While I will be critical here about some of the scientific aspects of Lilly's work, I want to express my admiration for any serious attempt to investigate dolphins and for Lilly's pioneering efforts in particular. Lilly has since moved on to investigations of the human mind from the inside - consciousness expansion, both pharmacologically and non-pharmacologically induced.

I first met Elvar in the winter of 1963. Laboratory research on dolphins had been limited by these mammals' sensitive skin; it was only the development of plastic polymer tanks that permitted long-term residence of dolphins in the laboratory. I was surprised to find that the Communication Research Institute resided in what used to be a bank, and I had visions of a polystyrene tank in each teller's cage, with dolphins counting the money. Before introducing me to Elvar, Lilly insisted that I don a plastic raincoat, despite my assurances that this was entirely unnecessary. We entered a medium-sized room at the far corner of which was a large polyethylene tank. I could immediately see Elvar with his head thrown back out of the water so that the visual fields of each eye overlapped, giving him binocular vision. He swam slowly to the near side of the tank. John, the perfect host, said, "Carl, this is Elvar; Elvar, this is Carl." Elvar promptly slapped his head forward, down onto the water, producing a needle-beam spray of water that hit me directly on the forehead. I had needed a raincoat after all. John said, "Well, I see you two are getting to know each other" - and promptly left.

I was ignorant of the amenities in dolphin/human social interactions. I approached the tank as casually as I could manage and murmured something like "Hi, Elvar." Elvar promptly turned on his back, exposing his abraded, gun-metal-gray belly. It was so much like a dog wanting to be scratched that, rather gingerly, I massaged his underside. He liked it - or at least I thought he liked it. Bottle-nose dolphins have a sort of permanent smile set into their heads.

After a little while, Elvar swam to the opposite side of the tank and then returned, again presenting himself supine - but this time about six inches subsurface. He obviously wanted his belly scratched some more. This was slightly awkward for me because I was outfitted under my raincoat with a full armory of shirt, tie, and jacket. Not wishing to be impolite, I took off my raincoat, removed my jacket, slid my sleeves up onto my wrists without unbuttoning my shirt cuffs, and put my raincoat on again, all the while assuring Elvar I would return momentarily - which I did, finally scratching him six inches below the water. Again he seemed to like it; again, after a few moments, he retreated to the far side of the tank, and then returned. This time he was about a foot subsurface.

My mood of cordiality was eroding rapidly, but it seemed to me that Elvar and I were at least engaged in communication of a kind. So I once again removed my raincoat, rolled up my sleeves, put my raincoat on again, and attended to Elvar. The next sequence found Elvar three or four feet subsurface, awaiting my massage. I could just have reached him were I prepared to discard raincoat and shirt altogether. This, I decided, was going too far. So we gazed at each other for a while in something of a standoff - man and dolphin, with a meter of water between us. Suddenly, Elvar came booming out of the water head first, until only his tail flukes were in contact with the water. He towered over me, doing a kind of slow back-pedaling, then uttered a noise. It was a single "syllable," high-pitched and squeaky. It had, well, a sort of Donald Duck timbre. It sounded to me that Elvar had said "More!"

I bounded out of the room, found John attending to some electronic equipment, and announced excitedly that Elvar had apparently just said "More!"

John was laconic. "Was it in context?" was all he asked.

"Yes, it was in context."

"Good, that's one of the words he knows."

Eventually, John believed that Elvar had learned some dozens of words of English. To the best of my knowledge, no human has ever learned a single word of delphinese. Perhaps this calibrates the relative intelligence of the two species.

Since the time of Pliny, human history has been full of tales of a strange kindred relation between humans and dolphins. There are innumerable authenticated accounts of dolphins saving human beings who would otherwise have drowned, and of dolphins protecting human beings from attack by other sea predators. As recently as September 1972, according to an account in the New York Times, two dolphins protected a twenty-three-year-old shipwrecked woman from predatory sharks during a twenty-five-mile swim in the Indian Ocean. Dolphins are pervasive and dominant motifs in the art of some of the most ancient Mediterranean civilizations, including the Nabatean and Minoan. The Greek coin that Melvin Calvin had duplicated for us is an expression of this long-standing relation.

What humans like about dolphins is clear. They are friendly, and faithful; at times they provide us with food (some dolphins have herded sea animals to fishermen); and they occasionally save our lives. Why dolphins should be attracted to human beings, what we do for them, is far less clear. I will propose later in this chapter that what we provide for dolphins is intellectual stimulation and audio entertainment.

John was replete with dolphin anecdotes of first- or secondhand. I remember three stories in particular. In one, a dolphin was captured in the open sea, put aboard a small ship in a plastic tank, and confronted his captors with a set of sounds, whistles, screeches, and drones that had a remarkably imitative character. They sounded like seagulls, fog horns, train whistles - the noises of shore. The dolphin had been captured by shore creatures and was attempting to make shore talk, as a well-brought-up guest would.

Dolphins produce most of their sounds with their blow hole, which produces the spout of water in their cousins the whales, of whom they are close, miniature anatomical copies.

In another tale, a dolphin held in captivity for some time was let loose in the open sea and followed. When it made contact with a school of dolphins, there was an extremely long and involved sequence of sounds from the liberated prisoner. Was it an account of his imprisonment?

Besides their echo-location clicks - a very effective underwater sonar system -dolphins have a kind of whistle, a kind of squeaky-door noise, and the noise made when imitating human speech, as in Elvar's "More!" They are capable of producing quite pure tones, and pairs of dolphins have been known to produce tones of the same frequency and different phase, so that the "beat" phenomenon of wave physics occurs. The beat phenomenon is a lot of fun. If humans could sing pure tones, I am sure we would go on beating for hours.

There is little doubt that the whistle noises are used for dolphin communications. I heard what seemed to be (I may be anthropomorphizing) very plaintive whistles on St. Thomas from a male adolescent dolphin named Peter, who, for a while, was kept in isolation from two adolescent female dolphins. They all whistled a lot at each other. When the three were reunited in the same pool, their sexual activity was prodigious, and they did not whistle much.

Most of the communication among dolphins that I have heard is of the squeaky-door variety. Dolphins seem to be attracted to humans who make similar noises. In March 1971, for example, in a dolphin pool in Hawaii, I spent forty-five minutes of vigorous squeaky-door "conversation" with several dolphins, to at least some of whom I seemed to be saying something of interest. In delphinese it may have been stupefying in its idiocy, but it held their attention.

In another story, John told how it was his practice with dolphins of adolescent age and sexual proclivities to separate male and female over the weekend when there would be no experiments. Otherwise, they would do what John, with some delicacy, described as "going on a honeymoon" - which, however desirable to the dolphins, would leave them in no condition for experimentation on Monday morning. In one case, dolphins could pass across a large tank, from one half to the other, only through a heavy, vertically sliding door. One Monday morning John found the door in place but the two dolphins of opposite sex, Elvar and Chi-Chi, on the same side of the barrier. They had gone on a honeymoon. John's experimental protocol would have to wait, and he was angry. Who had forgotten to separate the dolphins on Friday afternoon? But everyone remembered that the dolphins had been separated and the door properly closed.

As a test, the experimenters repeated the conditions. Elvar and Chi-Chi were separated and the heavy door put in place amid Friday-afternoon ceremonies of loud goodbyes, slammings of building doors, and the heavy trodding of exiting feet. But the dolphins were being observed covertly. When all was quiet, they met at the barrier and exchanged a few low-frequency creaking-door noises. Elvar then pushed the door upward at one corner from his side until it wedged; Chi-Chi, from her side, pushed the opposite corner. Slowly, they worked the door up. Elvar came swimming through and was received by the embraces ("enfinments" is not the right word, either) of his mate. Then, according to John's story, those who lay in waiting announced their presence by whistling, hooting, and booing -whereupon, with some appearance of embarrassment, Elvar swam to his half of the pool and the two dolphins worked down the vertical door from their opposite sides.

This story has such an appealing human character to it - even down to a little dollop of Victorian sexual guilt - that I find it unlikely. But there are many things that are unlikely about dolphins.

I am probably one of the few people who has been "propositioned" by a dolphin. The story requires a little background. I went to St. Thomas one winter to dive and to visit Lilly's dolphin station, which was then headed by Gregory Bateson, an Englishman of remarkable and diverse interests in anthropology, psychology, and human and animal behavior. Dining with some friends at a fairly remote mountaintop restaurant, we engaged in casual conversation with the hostess at the restaurant, a young woman named Margaret. She described to me how uneventful and uninteresting her days were (she was hostess only at night). Earlier the same day Bateson had described to me his difficulties in finding adequate research assistants for his dolphin program. It was not difficult to introduce Margaret and Gregory to each other. Margaret was soon working with dolphins.

After Bateson left St. Thomas, Margaret was for a while de facto director of the research station. In the course of her work, Margaret performed a remarkable experiment, described in some detail in Lilly's book The Mind of the Dolphin. She began living on a kind of suspended raft over the pool of Peter the dolphin, spending twenty-four hours a day in close contact with him. Margaret's experiment occurred not long before the incident I now speak of; it may have had something to do with Peter's attitude toward me.

I was swimming in a large indoor pool with Peter. When I threw the pool's rubber ball to Peter (as was natural for me to have done), he dove under the ball as it hit the water and batted it with his snout accurately into my hands. After a few throws and precision returns, Peter's returns became increasingly inaccurate -forcing me to swim first to one side of the pool and then to the other in order to retrieve the ball. Eventually, it became clear that Peter chose not to place the ball within ten feet of me. He had changed the rules of the game.

Peter was performing a psychological experiment on me - to learn to what extreme lengths I would go to continue this pointless game of catch. It was the same kind of psychological testing that Elvar had conducted in our first meeting. Such testing is one clue to the bond that draws dolphins to humans: We are one of the few species that have pretensions of psychological knowledge; therefore, we are one of the few that would permit, however inadvertently, dolphins to perform psychological experiments on us.

As in my first interview with Elvar, I eventually saw what was happening and decided stoutly that no dolphin was going to perform a psychological experiment on me. So I held the ball and merely tread water. After a minute or so, Peter swam rapidly toward me and made a grazing collision. He circled around and repeated this strange performance. This time I felt some protrusion of Peter's lightly brushing my side as he passed. As he circled for a third pass, I idly wondered what this protrusion might be. It was not his tail flukes, it was not ... Suddenly it dawned on me, and I felt like some maiden aunt to whom an improper proposal had just been put. I was not prepared to cooperate, and all sorts of conventional expressions came unbidden to my mind - like, "Don't you know any nice girl dolphins?" But Peter remained cheerful and unoffended by my unresponsiveness. (Is it possible, I now wonder, that he thought I was too dense to understand even that message?)

Peter had been separated from female dolphins for some time and, in the not too distant past, had spent many days in close contact, including sexual contact, with Margaret, another human being. I do not think that there is any sexual bond that accounts for the closeness that dolphins feel toward humans, but the incident had some significance. Even in what we piously describe as "bestiality" there are only a few species which, so far as I have heard, are put upon by human beings for interspecific sexual activities; these are entirely of the sort that humans have domesticated. I wonder if some dolphins have thoughts about domesticating us.

Dolphin anecdotes make marvelous cocktail party accounts, an unending source of casual conversation. One of the difficulties that I discovered with research into dolphin language and intelligence was precisely this fascination with anecdote; the really critical scientific tests were somehow never performed.

For example, I repeatedly urged that the following experiment be done: Dolphin A is introduced into a tank that is equipped with two underwater audio speakers. Each hydrophone is attached to an automatic fish dispenser catering tasty dolphin fare. One speaker plays Bach, the other plays Beatles.

Which speaker is playing Bach or Beatles (a different composition each time) at any given moment is determined randomly. Whenever Dolphin A goes to the appropriate speaker - let us say, the one playing Beatles - he is rewarded with a fish. I think there is no doubt that any dolphin will - because of his great interest in, and facility with, the audio spectrum - be able soon to distinguish between Bach and Beatles. But that is not the significant part of the experiment. What is significant is the number of trials before Dolphin A becomes sophisticated - that is, always knows that if he wishes a fish he should go to the speaker playing Beatles.

Now Dolphin A is separated from the speakers by a barrier of plastic broad-gauge mesh. He can see through the barrier, he can smell and taste through it, and, most important, he can hear and "speak" through it. But he cannot swim through it. Dolphin B is then introduced into the area of the speakers. Dolphin B is naive; that is, he has had no prior experience with underwater fish dispensers, Bach, or Beatles. Unlike the well-known difficulty in finding "naive" college students with whom to perform experiments on cannibis sativa, there should be no difficulty finding dolphins lacking extensive experience with Bach and Beatles. Dolphin B must go through the same learning procedure as did Dolphin A. But now each time that Dolphin B (at first randomly) succeeds, not only does the dispenser provide him with a fish, but a fish is also thrown to Dolphin A, who is able to witness the learning experience of Dolphin B. If Dolphin A is hungry, it is distinctly to his advantage to communicate what he knows about Bach and Beatles to Dolphin B. If Dolphin B is hungry, it is to his advantage to pay attention to the information that Dolphin A may have. The question, therefore, is: Does Dolphin B have a steeper learning curve than Dolphin A? Does he reach the plateau of sophistication in fewer trials or less time?

If such experiments were repeated many times and it were found that the learning curves for Dolphin B were in a statistically significant sense always steeper than those of Dolphin A, communication of moderately interesting information between two dolphins would have been established. It might be a verbal description of the difference between Bach and the Beatles - to my mind, a difficult but not impossible task - or it might simply be the distinction between left and right in each trial, until Dolphin B catches on. This is not the best experimental design to test dolphin-to-dolphin communication, but it is typical of a large category of experiments that could be performed. To my knowledge and regret, no such experiments have been performed with dolphins to date.

Questions of dolphin intelligence have taken on a special poignancy for me in the past few years as the case of the humpback whale unfolded. In a remarkable set of experiments, Roger Payne, of Rockefeller University, has trailed hydrophones to a depth of tens of meters in the Caribbean, seeking and recording the songs of the humpback whale. Another member, along with the dolphins, of the taxonomic class of Cetacea, the humpback whale has extraordinarily complex and beautiful articulations, which carry over considerable distances beneath the ocean surface, and which have an apparent social utility within and between schools of whales, which are very gregarious social animals.

The brain size of whales is much larger than that of humans. Their cerebral cortexes are as convoluted. They are at least as social as humans. Anthropologists believe that the development of human intelligence has been critically dependent upon these three factors: Brain volume, brain convolutions, and social interactions among individuals. Here we find a class of animals where the three conditions leading to human intelligence may be exceeded, and in some cases greatly exceeded.

But because whales and dolphins have no hands, tentacles, or other manipulative organs, their intelligence cannot be worked out in technology. What is left? Payne has recorded examples of very long songs sung by the humpback whale; some of the songs were as long as half an hour or more. A few of them appear to be repeatable, virtually phoneme by phoneme; somewhat later the entire cycle of sounds comes out virtually identically once again. Some of the songs have been commercially recorded and are available on CRM Records (SWR-II). I calculate that the approximate number of bits (see Chapter 34) of information (individual yes/no questions necessary to characterize the song) in a whale song of half an hour's length is between a million and a hundred million bits. Because of the very large frequency variation in these songs, I have assumed that the frequency is important in the content of the song - or, put another way, that whale language is tonal. If it is not as tonal as I guess, the number of bits in such a song may go down by a factor of ten. Now, a million bits is approximately the number of bits in The Odyssey or the Icelandic Eddas. (It is also unlikely that in the few hydrophone forays into Cetacean vocalizations that have been made to date, the longest of such songs has been recorded.)

Is it possible that the intelligence of Cetaceans is channeled into the equivalent of epic poetry, history, and elaborate codes of social interaction? Are whales and dolphins like human Homers before the invention of writing, telling of great deeds done in years gone by in the depths and far reaches of the sea? Is there a kind of Moby Dick in reverse - a tragedy, from the point of view of a whale, of a compulsive and implacable enemy, of unprovoked attacks by strange wooden and metal beasts plying the seas and laden with humans?

The Cetacea hold an important lesson for us. The lesson is not about whales and dolphins, but about ourselves. There is at least moderately convincing evidence that there is another class of intelligent beings on Earth besides ourselves. They have behaved benignly and in many cases affectionately toward us. We have systematically slaughtered them. There is a monstrous and barbaric traffic in the carcasses and vital fluids of whales. Oil is extracted for lipstick, industrial lubricants and other purposes, even though this makes, at best, marginal economic sense - there are effective substitute lubricants. But why, until recently, has there been so little outcry against this slaughter, so little compassion for the whale?

Little reverence for life is evident in the whaling industry - underscoring a deep human failing that is, however, not restricted to whales. In warfare, man against man, it is common for each side to dehumanize the other so that there will be none of the natural misgivings that a human being has at slaughtering another. The Nazis achieved this goal comprehensively by declaring whole peoples untermenschen, subhumans. It was then permissible, after such reclassification, to deprive these peoples of civil liberties, enslave them, and murder them. The Nazis are the most monstrous, but not the most recent, example. Many other cases could be quoted. For Americans, covert reclassifications of other peoples as untermenschen has been the lubricant of military and economic machinery, from the early wars against the American Indians to our most recent military involvements, where other human beings, military adversaries but inheritors of an ancient culture, are decried as gooks, slopeheads, slanteyes, and so on - a litany of dehumanization - until our soldiers and airmen could feel comfortable at slaughtering them.

Automated warfare and aerial destruction of unseen targets make such dehumanization all the easier. It increases the "efficiency" of warfare because it undercuts our sympathies with our fellow creatures. If we do not see whom we kill, we feel not nearly so bad about murder. And if we can so easily rationalize the slaughter of others of our own species, how much more difficult will it be to have a reverence for intelligent individuals of different species?

It is at this point that the ultimate significance of dolphins in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence emerges. It is not a question of whether we are emotionally prepared in the long run to confront a message from the stars. It is whether we can develop a sense that beings with quite different evolutionary histories, beings who may look far different from us, even "monstrous," may, nevertheless, be worthy of friendship and reverence, brotherhood and trust. We have far to go; while there is every sign that the human community is moving in this direction, the question is, are we moving fast enough? The most likely contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is with a society far more advanced than we (Chapter 31). But we will not at any time in the foreseeable future be in the position of the American Indians or the Vietnamese - colonial barbarity practiced on us by a technologically more advanced civilization - because of the great spaces between the stars and what I believe is the neutrality or benignness of any civilization that has survived long enough for us to make contact with it. Nor will the situation be the other way around, terrestrial predation on extraterrestrial civilizations - they are too far away from us and we are relatively powerless. Contact with another intelligent species on a planet of some other star - a species biologically far more different from us than dolphins or whales - may help us to cast off our baggage of accumulated jingoisms, from nationalism to human chauvinism. Though the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may take a very long time, we could not do better than to start with a program of rehumanization by making friends with the whales and the dolphins.

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