Blog Post

Ripped from the Headlines: Fantasies of Interspecies Communication

Over the last few days, a story has been making the rounds about a whale who learned how to “talk.” The caps-lock-named MOC is a beluga whale, captured in 1977 and subsequently conscripted into the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. Seven years later, he started to make sounds that imitated human speech—potentially telling a diver, “Out,” as in, “Get out of my enclosure,” or, more likely, “Get me out of here.” But with no one answering back, NOC gave up and went back to sounding “like a whale” 4 years later.[1]

This coverage of NOC immediately called to mind some previous attempts to communicate with ocean mammals, especially the work of Winthrop Kellogg and John C. Lilly. Kellogg is certainly most (in)famous for raising a chimpanzee alongside his own son in the 1930s, but in the 1950s and 60s he conducted groundbreaking studies on dolphin echolocation and problem solving. In a posthumous assessment of his career, Ludy T. Benjamin and Darryl Bruce note that while the published results of his dolphin studies were rather straightforward, his journals and notes reveal that he was also interested in the animals “from an emotional and a communicative perspective.”[2]

One man who was more deeply invested in dolphins “from an emotional and a communicative perspective” was John C. Lilly. Lilly was a physician who in the 1950s and 60s was basically doing two things: taking LSD and trying to teach dolphins how to speak English. In another example of curious cohabitation, he oversaw an experiment where a woman named Margaret Howe lived with a male dolphin in a partially water-filled apartment for 10 weeks. In addition to trying to teach Peter simple words, she also had to fend off the young dolphin’s sexual advances (though she eventually acquiesced to them).[3] While Kellogg and Lilly were contemporaries of each other, they show little awareness or engagement with each other’s work that I’ve found.

However, both Kellogg and Lilly had full-length records of their audio material released commercially by Folkways Records. Sounds of Sea Animals, Vol. 2: Florida, was recorded in 1955 by Kellogg at the Oceanographic Institute of Florida State University; the liner notes for the album are a reprint of Kellogg’s article “Porpoise Sounds as Sonar Signals” from the March 3, 1953 issue of Science. Lilly’s record came out as Sounds and Ultra-Sounds of the Bottle-Nose Dolphin in 1973, and includes dolphin “vocalizations.” You can buy both of these albums online (here and here) or listen to them for free on Spotify (here and here).

Obviously, even these very brief descriptions raise much larger academic and theoretical questions about animals and communication—and how the desire to speak to them might correlate with other kinds of communication fantasies. John Durham Peters’ work has been really influential on my thinking in this regard; see especially “Machines, Animals, and Aliens: Horizons of Incommunicability,” which is chapter six in his book Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). As the title suggests, that chapter traces the connections between underwater communication experiments and experiments in extraterrestrial contact such as SETI and the Voyager Golden Record.

Finally, though, we have to consider that NOC is a fundamentally different example than the animals in these research studies because he was not explicitly “taught” or “studied” for communication purposes—he seems to have developed this capacity (and then abandoned it) totally spontaneously and on his own.

I’d love to hear any thoughts from people interested in or doing research on animals, communication, sound, etc.

  1. See coverage in The Independent, among other places.  ↩

  2. Ludy T. Benjamin Jr. and Darryl Bruce, “From Bottle-Fed Chimp to Bottlenose Dolphin: A Contemporary Appraisal of Winthrop Kellogg,” The Psychological Record 32 (1982): 461–482.  ↩

  3. Howe’s research notes discussing this have been published online here.  ↩


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