John Lilly: Taking Fascination Too Far for Science

John Lilly, a physician and neurophysiologist, became fascinated with dolphins in the early 1960s. He studied their brains, trying to understand how dolphin’s brains controlled their complex sounds. By chance, Lilly once heard a dolphin imitate some of the sounds in a conversation it overheard.

Lilly was hooked.

He began to study the ability of dolphins to imitate human speech, slowing down tapes of dolphins and claiming he heard clear repetitions of human words and phrases. Only some observers could understand words in these vocalizations, and even among those, interpretations varied.

Lilly also found the relative size and anatomical complexity of the dolphin brain remarkable. He began to state publicly that the brain size indicated dolphins possessed a language as rich as human language, and that we could carry on intellectual and philosophical discussions with them if we could only learn to speak a common tongue. In his books, he leaps from “[Human] knowledge of cetacean intelligence and computational abilities, and of the necessities for survival in the sea are primitive and incomplete,”—with which few scientists would argue—to “The Cetacea are sensitive, compassionate, ethical, philosophical, and have ancient ‘vocal’ histories that their young must learn.”

John C. Lilly

Photo: Wikimedia

This was too much for scientists. Lilly’s science had become a belief system. Whether scientists felt Lilly’s speculations were extremely unlikely or merely completely unsupported, Lilly ceased to be an effective member of the community of marine mammal scientists.

His ideas, however—communicated first through his 1961 Man and Dolphin—affected the public perception of dolphins greatly, generating a popular belief that dolphins are particularly intelligent among animals and perhaps that animals in general have languages like human language. While Lilly’s work may have increased public awareness of the need to protect and conserve dolphins, it did so at the cost of public understanding. Dolphins—and for that matter any animal—need not be like humans to be worthy of our respect.