Days of the Dolphin: Cetaceans in Cold War Science and Science Fiction (Part Two)

Michael Grasso / July 18, 2018

hitchhikers guide tv series 1980 dolphins“When the Porpoise Corpus is translated into human languages, it will advance our culture by centuries or more. It will be as if we’d discovered the works of a whole race of Shakespeares that had been writing for forty millennia.”
“On the other hand,” said Howard, “your civilizations may be demoralized by culture shock.”
“Not likely,” said Hagbard grumpily. “We’ve a few things to teach you, you know.”
“And our psychotherapists can help you over the anguish of digesting our knowledge,” said Howard.
—The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, 1975

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, 1979

In Part One, we examined the work of Dr. John C. Lilly and how his research with dolphins both captivated the imagination of the Cold War American public and gave rise to the widespread layperson’s belief that cetaceans are a form of human-level, yet alien, “intraterrestrial” intelligence. That realization, along with the work of environmental activists and advocates for the cetaceans, as well as the Pentagon’s use of trained dolphins for military research purposes, soon filtered into the larger culture. From the 1960s on, we saw a kaleidoscope of depictions of dolphins and whales in novels, films, and television as wise, immanent intelligences: co-existing on a planet with the rapacious homo sapiens, yet somehow more worldly and wise than the “superior” species. When Lilly and his extraterrestrial researcher colleagues chose to playfully call their group “the Order of the Dolphin” in 1962, they were not just paying tribute to Lilly’s work with the animals. In their hope to contact extraterrestrial civilizations, they were evoking an ancient tradition of the dolphin as an otherworldly being possessing preternatural intelligence, wisdom, and a capacity for peace.

The ancient Minoan culture seemed to revere them, as can be seen on the frescoes of Knossos. Hellenic Greek culture associated the dolphin with the cult of Dionysus through the tale of the Dionysiac bard Arion and his rescue at sea by a pack of dolphins. Dolphins were also associated with deities with aquatic profiles, such as Poseidon and Aphrodite. But the most prominent association of dolphins with a center of Greek cultic practice was Apollo’s temple and oracle at Delphi. There is the obvious etymological link between the two, evident to even modern observers, which was used as a poetic play on words in the Homeric hymn to Pythian Apollo. In the hymn, Apollo needs priests to staff his temple at Delphi. He searches the seas, finding a ship full of men from Knossos. Then, in the form of a dolphin (a “great and fearful monster”), he leaps upon the deck of the boat, thrashing about and shaking the timbers, paralyzing the men with fear, which allows Apollo to blow the winds into their sails to bring them to Delphi. When they arrive, Apollo asks them to forever enshrine this place as Delphi, so they remember how they were brought here:

in as much as at
the first on the hazy sea I sprang upon the swift ship in the form of a
dolphin, pray to me as Apollo Delphinius; also the altar itself shall
be called Delphinius and overlooking for ever.

Here is the origin of the ancient association of dolphins with prophecy, prayer, poetry, and prodigy. The Greek word pelor, used to describe Apollo the dolphin, thrashing about on the decks of the Cretan ship, means “portent” or monster, in the classical sense; the word also conveys the monstrous size and shape of such a creature. This association sets the stage for the simultaneously holy and uncanny associations with dolphins right up to the modern day.

With the rise to prominence of Lilly and his research, science fiction authors would take inspiration from his groundbreaking work. The first was Hungarian physicist and Manhattan Project emigré Leo Szilárd. Much like Lilly himself, in the years following World War II Szilárd shifted his research from the physical sciences to the life sciences. For Szilárd, this shift had to do with his involvement with the development of nuclear weapons and his sincere wish for world peace in the face of the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War. To this end, the titular story in his first fiction collection, The Voice of the Dolphins (1961), featured a near-future setting where the US and USSR come together on a dolphin research project, explicitly inspired by John C. Lilly’s work in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In the story, Lilly, whose “report made enough of a stir, at that time, to hit the front pages of the newspapers,” is cited as the intellectual predecessor for this future world’s Biological Research Institute (compare with Lilly’s real-life CRI, or Communication Research Institute) on the border of the Western and Eastern blocs in Vienna, Austria.

The dolphins begin as subjects of the Soviet and American scientists’ research, but once communication between dolphin and man is achieved, the dolphins quickly use their superior intellects to take over the Institute and solve many of humanity’s problems. Human overpopulation and hunger are transcended with an aquatically-grown foodstuff called “Amruss,” which allows the world to be fed cheaply and easily and also acts as foolproof birth control. The dolphins become public intellectuals, bestselling authors, and television stars (hosting a global TV show called, yes, The Voice of the Dolphins). The story takes the form of a dry recitation of historical facts and events from the final four decades of this alternate 20th century. At the end of the story, the Institute, having fulfilled its function in bringing about permanent world peace, collapses. The dolphins fall victim to a deadly virus and the Institute’s archives are destroyed, leaving humanity once again at the helm of its own fate. After the dolphins’ extinction, humans soon doubt if the dolphins were ever even responsible for this new utopia. The dolphins are a literal deus ex machina, shepherding and delivering humanity from doom; much as they did in ancient myths, the dolphins drive humanity forcefully to wisdom and leaving a caste of priest-scientists in charge.

The defense research being performed by the U.S. Navy that was discussed in Part One found its biggest public pop culture exposure in the 1973 film The Day of the Dolphin. Created by The Graduate (1967) creative team of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry, and based on a 1967 French pulp thriller titled Un animal doué de raison (“An animal endowed with reason”), its plot can be fairly summarized by the classic quote on the film’s American poster: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States.” George C. Scott plays a dolphin trainer whose program becomes co-opted by a shadowy governmental agency for the purposes of placing a mine on the underside of the President’s yacht. (It’s worth noting that one of President Richard Nixon’s favorite retreats from Washington was yachting: the Key Biscayne Florida yacht club of Nixon supporter and financial advisor “Bebe” Rebozo was where Nixon usually sailed from, and it’s hard to imagine this reference would be lost on the contemporary 1973 audience, already deep into Watergate.)

Scott’s character in the film certainly seems to be based more on Lilly than on the dolphin trainers and military commanders from the Navy’s actual Marine Mammal Program. In the article “Adult Swim: How John C. Lilly Got Groovy (and Took the Dolphin with Him),” Graham Burnett notes that Un animal doué de raison author Robert Merle may have heard some of the gossip in the dolphin research community in the late ’60s, basing his protagonist’s tensions with the military-industrial complex on real-life rumors about Lilly: this was the time period during which Lilly’s CRI had been closed because of its unorthodox research, and former Marine Studios employee Forrest Wood found himself working for the Navy. Scott’s Dr. Terrell is a virtuous researcher who loves his dolphin Alpha (who calls himself “Fa” for short). In the film, Terrell has realized Lilly’s dream: literal dolphin-to-English translation, allowing Fa to speak directly to him. Terrell’s funding comes from a quasi-governmental organization known as the “Franklin Foundation”; eventually, the bill for his lab comes due in the form of turning the dolphins into assassins.

The Day of the Dolphin finds itself at the crest of a pair of definite cultural trends of the era. First, there’s the paranoid political thriller, which was at its peak during and after the Watergate-era classics The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). The Day of the Dolphin could also very easily be classified as a techno-thriller, which had become a solid, bankable genre with the early work of novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton in film adaptations like The Andromeda Strain (novel, 1969; film, 1971) and novels like Crichton’s pseudonymous Binary (1972), where a far-right businessman obtains a Defense-developed nerve agent to kill the President. The harsh reality in all these 1970s tales of paranoia and technology run amok is clear: that the defense establishment’s seemingly innocent support of pure (in both senses of the word) research in the Cold War would eventually be used for nefarious ends: military action and political assassination. In The Andromeda Strain, the state-of-the-art satellite Scoop program and Wildfire quarantine base were both expressly and secretly designed to find and test new bio-agents for the U.S. government; in The Parallax View, the shadowy Parallax Corporation’s sleeper agent recruiting seem to involve the same kind of around subliminals and mind-control we saw in the Korean War fears of brainwashing, with a Madison Avenue twist.

Another, altogether more playful tale of conspiracy involving intelligent dolphins came in 1975 with the publication of the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Illuminatus! could be considered a grab-bag of all the esoteric, political, and historical conspiracies that were bubbling up by the middle of the 1970s, and thus the inclusion of a super-intelligent dolphin named Howard, who’s able to communicate in English thanks to the invention of a seemingly mad, charismatic technological genius (Hagbard Celine), seems not too out of place. In fact, it’s the role that Howard the dolphin plays in the trilogy that’s really interesting. He and his dolphin allies are constantly portrayed as more advanced and evolved than the brutish apes on the surface, who are rushing to “immanentize the Eschaton.” Howard and Celine spar over their respective species’ cultural development. The authors put the provocative (and Lilly-ian) idea in the mouth of Howard that perhaps humans aren’t as advanced as they think they are:

“There was a school of thought about twenty thousand years ago that envied humans. They were called the Original Sinners, because they were like the first parents of your human race who, according to some of your legends, envied the gods and suffered for it. They taught that humans were superior because they could do many more things than dolphins. But they despaired, and most ended up by committing suicide. They were the only neurotics in the long history of porpoises. Our philosophers mostly hold that we live in beauty all the days of our lives, as no human does. Our culture is simply what you might call a commentary on our natural surroundings, whereas human culture is at war with nature. If any race is afflicted, it is yours.”

But the dolphins in Illuminatus! are far from absolute pacifists. They are a proud warrior race; Celine notes that their preferred poetic style is epics. They protect their pods from sharks and other predators, and know the evils that dwell in the vasty deep (H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu being one; Howard’s very name also expressly recalls Lovecraft). They’re prepared to fight to keep their idyll safe, and, like Zen warriors, they do not fear death: “We neither look forward to death in fear nor back upon it in sorrow. Especially when someone has died doing something worthwhile. Death is the end of one illusion and the beginning of another.” They’re the perfect paragon race for Wilson’s anarcho-libertarian political orientation: no money, no social ills, but fiercely independent, confident of their utter cultural superiority, and willing to fight to the death to defend it.

j posadas

J. Posadas

Dolphins and the Cold War also collided in a strange Communist bloc political tendency that had its brief flower in the 1960s and ’70s: Posadism. Founded by an Italian-Argentinian labor organizer and Trotskyist who took the sobriquet J. Posadas, his movement split from the main branch of Trotskyism in the late 1950s over Posadas’s controversial support of a Soviet nuclear first strike that he argued would destroy capitalism completely. Michel Pablo, leader of the Trotskyist Fourth International in the years following the Second World War, had argued for a final “War-Revolution” between the West and Stalinism in the wake of the defeat of the Axis, but Posadas’s agitation for escalation to nuclear war was a bridge too far for mainstream Trotskyists. In the years that followed, Posadas and his followers developed more unorthodox, even esoteric beliefs. He stated in his 1968 essay, “Flying Saucers, the process of matter and energy, science and socialism,” that any species capable of interstellar space travel must obviously have perfected socialism as well. Posadas’s interest in dolphins can be traced to Soviet scientist Igor Charkovsky’s experiments with dolphin birth, hoping to apply the same principles to human birthing, a trend that found fertile ground in the human potential movement in the West in the 1970s and after. Posadas reportedly believed that learning about water birth from dolphins would enable human beings to successfully reproduce in zero-g environments. While Posadism today is mostly adhered to in an ironic fashion by contemporary socialists who appreciate the decadent Cold War aesthetic and memetic gestalt of nuclear war, UFOs, and dolphins, its small but dedicated cadre during Posadas’s lifetime demonstrates that esoteric ideas around dolphins as saviors of mankind were not limited to the West during the Cold War.

By the late ’70s, the idea that dolphins were preternaturally wise beings that could save us all from our own political and environmental destruction was widespread. In Douglas Adams’s 1978 radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and in the 1979 novel adaptation and 1980 television adaptations), a race of brutal galactic bureaucrats, the Vogons, demolish Earth and wipe out humanity (with the exception of protagonist Arthur Dent, who manages to hitch a lift off-planet) in the very first episode. Later on in the story, Adams twists the knife by explaining that poor, extinct humanity wasn’t even the most intelligent species on the planet Earth, but the third. The hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who’d built the Earth millions years ago as a giant computer (Adams’s clever subversion and satire of the Cold War-era cybernetic view of the Earth as a self-regulating machine) and dwelled on the planet in the form of mice performing “experiments” on humans were the most intelligent. Adams’s omniscient narrator notes that the second-place dolphins firmly believe in their superiority of intellect and culture to humans, much in the manner of Illuminatus! dolphins: their ethos of play and joy in direct opposition to man’s traditions of misery and war. Even the dolphins’ solemn goodbye to humanity, “So long, and thanks for all the fish,” is misinterpreted as a petty trick by dolphin trainers: “a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner.'” In the universe of Hitchhiker’s, Lilly-like communication with the dolphins is not possible, as the dolphins even seem to subtly mock the American military-industrial complex in their message that humanity is doomed.

so long and thanks for all the fish 1985

In the fourth volume of the Hitchhiker’s novel series, titled So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1984), Dent hitches a ride back to Earth, which seems to have been restored in the decade he’s been hitching across the Galaxy. Coming back to his mysteriously-undemolished home, Dent discovers a fishbowl with the first four words of the dolphins’ parting message. Dent and his new girlfriend Fenchurch discover they both possess one of these fishbowls, as does a California mystic and dolphin researcher called “Wonko the Sane,” yet another fictional Lilly analogue. Wonko misses the dolphins, who all mysteriously disappeared the day of the Vogon attack. (Conspiracy theories about the Vogon attack are rife on this new Earth. Stories about “CIA agents found floating in reservoirs” are concocted to explain away both the Earth’s “demolition” as a hallucination and the dolphins’ sudden mysterious disappearance.) He tells Arthur and Fenchurch that the fishbowl “is a farewell gift from the dolphins, the dolphins whom I loved and studied, and swam with, and fed with fish, and even tried to learn their language, a task which they seemed to make impossibly difficult, considering the fact that I now realize they were perfectly capable of communicating in ours if they decided they wanted to.”

Wonko asks Arthur and Fenchurch to put their ears to the fishbowl, and they have a preternatural sensory experience of what actually happened: the dolphins engineered a replacement of the demolished Earth from an alternate time/probability line elsewhere in the multiverse, and end their message something like an environmental television PSA: “This bowl was brought to you by the Campaign to Save the Humans. We bid you farewell.” Adams in later years became a great proponent of environmental causes, producing a radio series and penning a book Last Chance to See (1989) about imminent animal extinctions. The idea of the dolphins actually saving the humans after all the harm and experimentation perpetrated upon them fashions the dolphin into a kind of collective Christ-figure, forced to leave the new Earth for the sins of humankind.

In the third and final part of this series, which will run tomorrow, we’ll look at human communication with whales in the Cold War period, some of the science fiction of the 1980s and early ’90s that featured cetaceans, and the fate of John C. Lilly himself, after his transition from fringe scientist to dolphin guru.


Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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2 thoughts on “Days of the Dolphin: Cetaceans in Cold War Science and Science Fiction (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Days of the Dolphin: Cetaceans in Cold War Science and Science Fiction (Part Three)

  2. Pingback: Days of the Dolphin: Cetaceans in Cold War Science and Science Fiction (Part One)

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