Joanna-Marie Howes talks with director Christopher Riley about his latest documentary
John Cunningham Lilly was a neurophysician, scientist and writer, inventing the sensory deprivation tank and working closely with the American Navy and NASA. Yet he died disgraced among the shreds of his work. What went wrong? Lilly theorised that if humans could teach dolphins to understand the English language, then we could learn how to communicate with extra- terrestrial life. Rooted in idealism, the experiments eventually ended amidst rumours of animal abuse and drug-fuelled scandal.
Until now, those involved have not spoken publicly about the experiments. Recently however, producer and director Christopher Riley was given the opportunity to speak to the participants in this ground-breaking and ultimately career- breaking experiment. I talked to him about his documentary ‘The Girl who Talked to Dolphins’ to find out how an attempt to reach into the cosmos proved to be the rise and fall of John Lilly.
In the 1950s, Lilly began experimenting on dolphins. His wife noticed that the animals appeared to be mimicking the human voice. Lilly was convinced that the dolphins were not only mimicking, but trying to speak to the research team. Christopher says, “John Lilly’s idea of building an interspecies communication bridge was routed in the dream of enriching our culture with that of another species. It was a vision which Lilly extrapolated as far as a Cetacean Chair at the United Nations, where dolphins and whales could share their perspective on the planet with us. It might seem fanciful today, but then so does landing on the Moon, which we did manage to accomplish in the 1960s and early 1970s!”
Lilly believed that for the first time an equally- intelligent species was trying to make contact. His findings gained worldwide attention, including that of a team of astronomers from the ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ (SETI). At the height of the space race, Lilly’s ideas on inter- species communication interested astronomers anticipating language barriers posed by an intelligent extra-terrestrial race. NASA provided Lilly with financial support, enabling him to establish the Communication Research Institute, or ‘The Dolphin House’.
The Dolphin House was built to provide the best conditions possible for its animal inhabitants, straight from Marine Studios in Miami, with a pool directly linked to the sea to provide fresh water. Lilly had gathered a notable research team to help him in his task, including the Cambridge educated anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and
a resident vet to ensure the dolphins’ health. In 1964, a young woman, Margaret Howe, also came to investigate the rumours of this strange isolated building. She was granted access by Bateson who quizzed her on the animals’ behaviour. He was impressed with Margaret’s perceptiveness and allowed her free admission to the facility.
With Lilly travelling, much of the work was carried out by the rest of the team. Dolphins are quick to develop friendships with humans and those at the Dolphin House were no strangers to humans, having been in the original version of Flipper. Margaret was given the job of training Peter who was chosen because he’d had no previous language ‘tuition’.
Aside from communicating with each other underwater through clicks and squeaks, dolphins can make sounds by opening and closing ‘lips’ on their blowholes in the open air. Peter’s lessons included vowels, select words and counting to three. Though sometimes reluctant, he began to mimic Margaret’s voice. She asked him to repeat ‘One, two, three….’ with a raised intonation on ‘three’. Peter recognised the change in pitch and copied her words, although the work was monotonous and frustrating on both sides. Then Margaret had an idea: instead of leaving the dolphins alone every night when the researchers went home, she’d live with Peter. Lilly approved whole-heartedly and the Dolphin House underwent a major overhaul to create multi- level watertight accommodation for dolphin and human to coexist.
Throughout the following months, Margaret taught Peter as if he were a human child. Peter made progress, but was restricted in the sounds that his blowhole could physically make. Although Lilly was happy with Margaret’s progress, other members of the team were sceptical of the experiment’s validity. NASA too, after sending Carl Sagan to the facility, were dubious about the work’s merits. While Peter was copying sounds, he did not appear to actually understand the meaning of conversations. At this stage Bateson and NASA thought that inter-dolphin communication could tell them more than Lilly’s approach.
Yet Lilly stuck to his agenda, and Margaret continued her work. However, other problems were developing. Lilly routinely injected himself with LSD, convinced that it provided new insight into the workings of the brain. Though it may seem extreme today, as Christopher describes, “Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s… US-government sponsored programs used it on both human and animal subjects to better understand its potential benefits.” Now though, Lilly’s aim was to inject the dolphins with the drug in order to ‘free’ the mind and so facilitate his perception of the dolphins’ communication. Margaret wanted no part of the experiments and stalled Lilly’s plans. Though worried about his escalating drug use, this was not her only concern. Peter was a young male dolphin, and was becoming increasingly sexually precocious with Margaret. To relieve his urges, Peter was allowed access to the female dolphins. However, transporting him on the facility’s lift became more and more impractical. Margaret decided to take the unprecedented approach of manually relieving Peter herself. She stated, “It just became part of what was going on… Like an itch – we’ll scratch it and then we’ll be done… Just move on.” Although Margaret still believes that her time with Peter was too short to achieve any substantial results, by 1965, the experiment’s lack of progress had its funding bodies concerned and they began to withdraw their support.
Lilly was now desperate for results and injected the dolphins with LSD. Against his expectations, it appeared to have no effect on them. Lilly’s obsession eventually overrode scientific ethics and in a frantic and cruel attempt to provoke a response, he took a jackhammer and started to drill into the floor of the Dolphin House; a serious assault on the animals’ super-sensitive hearing.
For the rest of his team, this was the last straw. By then, Lilly’s money was gone and he was running up huge debts. As his interest in drugs grew, his interest in the dolphins waned. The animals were transported to another research facility. They were kept in tiny plastic tanks with rancid water and no natural light. Dolphins don’t breathe involuntarily but consciously choose to take each breath. Eventually, the stress grew too much for Peter, and he simply stopped breathing. “I’m pleased that I was able to help Margaret to redress all the misinformation and misreporting of exactly what went on at the Dolphin House, it’s important that there’s an accurate record of these events,” said Christopher in the interview.
In the following years, Lilly sank deeper into drug culture. LSD and ketamine took their toll on his mind, leading him to believe in cosmic entities which he dubbed the Earth Coincidence Control Office. However, he released his dolphins and campaigned for their wellbeing. Though his experiments are marred by scandal, and viewed as pure mimicry rather than inter-species conversation, it is partly as a result of Lilly’s efforts that dolphins are now protected, helping to cement a mutually-respectful relationship with these fascinating creatures.
Joanna-Marie Howes is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Biochemistry.