Summer 2010

Off the Dolphin Deep End

– The Wilson Quarterly

Up until the late 1950s, no one thought of dolphins as intelligent, peaceful, or uninhibited.

With less than five miles between them, San Diego’s SeaWorld and the Bayside campus of the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) present sharply contrasting pictures of Tursiops truncatus, better known as the bottle-nosed dolphin. At SeaWorld, visitors can feed little fish to this “mainstay of aquatic ecotourism, beloved water-park performer, smiling incarnation of soulful holism . . . a cetacean version of our better selves.” Just down the road at SPAWAR, the Navy manages a pod of about 75 dolphins trained to perform military functions. But as different as these two dolphin personas may seem, they both trace their roots back to one man, John Cunningham Lilly, “the spiritual grandfather of both the new age dolphin and its military alter ego,” writes D. Graham Burnett, a historian at Princeton University.

In the 1950s, before Lilly’s work found its way to the limelight, no one thought of dolphins as intelligent, peaceful, or “erotically uninhibited.” If they were thought of at all, it was by fishermen who saw them as a nuisance. But in May 1958, Lilly presented a paper before the American Psychiatric Association in which he made “dramatic claims for the intelligence and linguistic abilities” of bottle-nosed dolphins. Despite “small and entirely anecdotal evidence,” newspapers on both coasts ran with the story. In short order, Lilly received a string of prestigious federal research awards with which he built a dedicated dolphin laboratory on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and founded the Communications Research Institute. At the peak of his renown, Lilly received upwards of half a million dollars a year in grant money.

In 1961 he published Man and Dolphin, which included “headline-ready” claims about the future of human-dolphin interactions alongside passages of “startling weirdness . . . buttressed by pseudo-technical appendices on neuroanatomy and illegible sonographs of [dolphin] phonation.” A photo spread in Life magazine followed, and Lilly’s fame grew. America swooned with full-fledged dolphin fever with the 1963 release of the movie Flipper. Dolphin mania reached across the Atlantic as well: British anthropologist Gregory Bateson theorized in a letter to Lilly that because dolphins lacked hands and were therefore unable to manipulate the material world, they hadn’t developed the same petty concerns as humans. Bateson continued, “If I am right, and they are mainly sophisticated about the intricacies of interpersonal relationships, then of course (after training analysis) they will be ideal psychotherapists for us.”

The Navy too got on board with dolphin enthusiasm, establishing research programs to train the smiley swimmers to work as undersea messengers. A Navy promotional film depicted researchers using a “Human-Dolphin Translator,” which shifted human voices into higher registers better suited to dolphin hearing. Burnett smirks, “The Navy scientists ultimately decided to try speaking to them in Hawaiian, on the grounds that this language seemed likely to be closest to their own.”

THE SOURCE: “A Mind in the Water” by D. Graham Burnett, in Orion, May–June 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Brian Wilson