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

Michael Grasso / July 19, 2018

humpback whale“We took a break for beer and herbal refreshment, then stood out on the deck, watching the sun set into the Pacific. Jeff said he could see the whales migrate down the coast at certain times of the year. He began to talk about John Lilly, the medical doctor and scientist who has done stunning work with dolphin communication… Jeff Bridges gets excited about the possibility of inter-species communication. “I get so jazzed my voice raises in pitch. Lilly says an incredible thing. He says he’d like to hear the whales tell their history of the world, their legends and tales. He thinks that if beings from outer space have landed here, they probably wouldn’t bother with the land and all these hostile motherfuckers on it. They’d go to the ocean, they’d talk to those people. Now, what do those people know about that?”
—Interview with Jeff Bridges, Rolling Stone, 1977

“Admiral, if we were to assume these whales are ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused their extinction.”
“What else did you learn from your mind meld?”
“They’re unhappy at the way their species has been treated by man.”
“They have a right to be.”
—Spock and Kirk, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986

Part One of this series
Part Two of this series

Dolphins, of course, were not the only cetaceans that were of concern to environmentalists in the ’70s and ’80s. Whales, the victims of a mass, human-engineered extinction since the Age of Sail, were also being studied, the intelligence in their massive brains quantified. In the post-World War II era, as we saw in Part Two of this series, the nations of the world (with a few notable exceptions) made efforts to ban large-scale whaling. On the scientific front, American marine biologist Roger Payne was doing similar work to Lilly’s on the open waters. Payne had a epiphanic experience in 1964 while he was working at Tufts University outside of Boston. As he was anxious to study cetaceans for their echolocation capabilities, a radio news report pointed him to a beached porpoise at nearby Revere Beach. What he saw there changed his life forever:

The sleet had turned to rain when I reached the place. Many people had come to see the whale earlier but there were only a few on the beach when I arrived and by the time I reached the tidal wrack where the whale lay, the beach was deserted.

“It was a small whale, a porpoise about 8 feet long with lovely subtle curves glistening in the cold rain. It had been mutilated. Someone had hacked off its flukes for a souvenir. Two other people had carved their initials deeply into its side, and someone else had stuck a cigar butt in its blowhole. I removed the cigar and stood there for a long time with feelings I cannot describe. Everybody has some such experience that affects him for life, probably several. That night was one of mine.

songs of the humpback whale flexidisc 1979Submarine listening stations, on the lookout for Soviet subs, had heard mysterious underwater moaning sounds all throughout the Cold War. A Navy engineer named Frank Watlington sent Payne a set of recordings of these whale sounds in 1966, and Payne later took to the seas to record and analyze the “music” of the humpbacks. Payne and his co-researcher, his wife Katy, discovered that these whale songs had discernible patterns of tone, rhythm, and pitch, and that they even evolved from season to season, with whales adding to songs in response to their counterparts. Not only could these songs be considered a “Porpoise Corpus” of epic poetry or song, but they also clearly demonstrated communication, as whale songs were able to travel hundreds of miles—perhaps even thousands, Payne theorized—before human noise pollution caused by shipping cluttered the seas.

In 1970, Capitol Records released an LP of Watlington’s and Payne’s recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale. It quickly became the best-selling field-recorded album of nature sounds ever released, and started a vogue for recreational listening to whale songs among that very same human potential movement, where it has inspired practitioners of meditation and communion with nature for decades since. A later, shorter release of whale song on Flexi-disc included in a 1979 issue of National Geographic reached over 10 million readers. Dolphins and whales and their songs helping humanity to relax and become one with the Earth thus became emblematic of the nascent “New Age” music genre in the 1970s and beyond, their images often appearing on album covers and their songs and sounds frequently included in the music.

Whale songs and Payne’s research on them were featured in Episode 11 of Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos (and in Chapter 11 of the accompanying book), “The Persistence of Memory.” In this chapter, Sagan explains Payne’s theories about whale songs being a method of cultural communication, and his idea that human noise pollution has curtailed their communication range. Sagan then goes on to explain that whale slaughter is still tacitly practiced, in contravention of international treaties, by many countries at the end of the ’70s:

Many nations understand why whale murder is monstrous, but the traffic continues—-chiefly by Japan and Norway and the Soviet Union. We use “monster” to describe an animal somehow different from us, somehow scary. But who’s the more monstrous? The whales, who ask to be left alone to sing their rich and plaintive songs? Or the humans, who set out to hunt them and destroy them and have brought many whale species close to the edge of extinction? We’re interested in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Wouldn’t a good beginning be better communication with terrestrial intelligence: with other human beings of different cultures and languages, with the great apes, with the dolphins, but particularly with the whales?

It should be no surprise that one of the nature recordings Sagan and the rest of the Voyager project team sent to space on Voyager‘s Golden Record in 1977 was a recording of whale songs.

Sagan’s work on the Voyager project was used as the plot MacGuffin for the first Star Trek feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in 1979. In that film, a later Voyager probe, “Voyager 6,” returns to Earth after having been consumed by a machine intelligence. The new entity, called V’Ger, has come back seeking some new purpose after exploring the galaxy. A plot very similar to this one was used for 1986’s sequel, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but this time, the probe threatening Earth has a very specific and peculiar demand: to speak with the humpback whales. Spock notes that these creatures “have been extinct since the twenty-first century,” sending the crew of the Enterprise, aboard their purloined, cloaked Klingon cruiser, to 1986 San Francisco to rescue a pair of humpbacks and bring them forward to the 23rd century to communicate with the probe. In the process, Star Trek IV becomes a charming fish-out-of-water tale with an ecological message for the film audience. Spock’s ability to mind-meld holds him in good stead with the pair of humpbacks kept at the marine research institute where they’re being rehabilitated before being released back into the oceans. Like a half-Vulcan John C. Lilly, Spock is able to convey the whales’ decidedly mixed feelings about mankind to both Kirk and the present-day marine biologist, Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks).

Another 1980s film with a nod to John C. Lilly in a context of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is the 1984 sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. In 2010, Roy Scheider plays scientist Heywood Floyd (the role originated by William Sylvester in 2001). Since the discovery of the Monolith in the Tycho crater on the Moon and the disastrous mission to Jupiter in the first film, Floyd has retired to academia and works on a vast array of radio telescopes dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, much like Frank Drake, Sagan, and the rest of the Order of the Dolphin. Floyd’s second wife, Caroline, is a marine biologist, and the Floyds’ seaside home is a virtual copy of Lilly’s Virgin Islands lab, with pools and conduits leading from the ocean to allow dolphins to regularly visit the human beings who live within. The inclusion of the dolphins seems a deliberate nod to both Lilly and his participation in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

burgess meredith john c lilly 1980

Burgess Meredith with John C. Lilly at the JANUS project, circa 1980. Source: John C. Lilly Facebook

This quick trip to Hollywood brings us full circle back to John C. Lilly. When we last left him in the late ’60s, he’d gone to California to visit the Navy Mammal Research program. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Lilly joined the human potential movement in California, teaching courses at Esalen and diving deeper into personal experimentation with sensory deprivation (which he’d started in the ’60s at his Communication Research Institute in the Virgin Islands) and LSD. Merging these techniques with both Eastern philosophy and Western cybernetics, he wrote two books—Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (first released by CRI in 1968) and The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space (1972)—that explored his personal research into these topics. These books made fans of people like Robert Anton Wilson (creator of the Illuminatus! trilogy discussed in Part Two), while Lilly’s isolation tank treatments made followers of Hollywood actors Burgess Meredith (who wrote the afterword to his The Scientist autobiography), and father and son Lloyd and Jeff Bridges (both of whom had worked on late ’50s/early ’60s underwater adventure series Sea Hunt). But in 1974—in the very same year science fiction author Philip K. Dick, then living in Southern California, was having his own (perhaps drug-induced) mystical contact with an alien intelligence in the form of a “pink beam of information” that later informed his “VALIS trilogy“—John C. Lilly also was experiencing a catastrophic mental break with reality.

Much like Dick’s hallucinations and paranoid suspicions, Lilly’s mystical fantasia revolved around an alien intelligence guiding him to wisdom with information he could not possibly know on his own. This intellect, called the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or E.C.C.O., haunted Lilly for much of 1974, as did its evil Gnostic counterpart, the Solid State Intelligence (or SSI). The E.C.C.O. helped humanity, according to Lilly, by pointing out places where coincidence and serendipity had led human beings to make correct decisions; Lilly naturally used E.C.C.O. to explain all the events in his life where he’d accidentally stumbled onto the correct path. The evil Solid State Intelligence, meanwhile, seemed to embody all of Lilly’s fears about modern technology, at times resembling recent ideas of an eventual human-birthed artificial intelligence “Singularity.” In The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography, Lilly explains that human-created machines would increase in computing power and reach (thanks to the networked world) and would find themselves straining to survive and thrive on a planet Earth that was not made for their optimal operation. Eventually, the Solid State Entity in this future timeline would set aside Earth-like preserves for the remaining humans, like zoos or captive habitats, while the machines turned Earth into an environment more congenial to their continued operation—but utterly deadly to humans. Eventually, the machines decide to dispense with humanity altogether, taking the Earth on a journey through the stars to find other machine intelligences (again, reminiscent of both Star Trek I and IV). How much of this future scenario posited by Lilly was triggered by the awareness of what humanity was doing to species like dolphins is left as a speculative exercise, but the echoes are obvious.

ecco the dolphin mega drive 1993This series of experiences seems to have been triggered by Lilly’s time at Esalen, his use of the animal tranquilizer ketamine, and his prolonged exposure to sensory deprivation. (Yet another Hollywood Lilly connection: these experiences with ketamine, isolation tanks, and the experience of “de-evolution” were the inspiration for Paddy Chayevsky’s novel Altered States and the later film adaptation starring William Hurt.) In his Manichean conception of the E.C.C.O. vs. SSI, Lilly was exorcising his own complicity in the rise of the technocratic consensus as a member of Cold War America’s academic, Defense-compromised elite. Lilly integrated his contact with the E.C.C.O. and Solid State Intelligence into his overall mystical philosophy as codified and explained in A Scientist: A Metaphysical Biography. And the idea of the E.C.C.O. would be resurrected nearly 15 years later in an unlikely place: the world of video games.

Ecco the Dolphin, released on the Sega Genesis/Master system in late 1992, was an explicit tribute to Lilly. Ecco’s creator and designer Ed Annunziata admitted to being influenced by Lilly’s work. In the game, the titular protagonist must save his pod and explore the oceans to find an answer to a mysterious Vortex (much like Lilly’s inner space “Cyclone”) that is turning the normally-placid seas into a chaotic maelstrom. Ecco draws from the entire corpus of Cold War dolphin iconography we’ve examined: aliens, Atlantis, time travel, ancient creatures slumbering under the deep sea, interspecies communication, cetaceans singing songs, and, of course, Ecco’s name (which simultaneously recalls Lilly’s E.C.C.O. and the prefix “eco“). In the end, a Star Trek IV-like plot is unveiled as Ecco must travel back into the past to retrieve an important artifact to destroy the Vortex, which it’s discovered is threatening to extinguish all sea life with its recurring “harvest.” As Sagan had intimated in Cosmos, to the whales and dolphins, we are the vastly more powerful aliens preying on the oceans. It seems clear that the alien Vortex threatening Ecco and his podmates is actually us. Ecco the Dolphin became a cult hit, inspiring other artists to explore these themes of harvest, ecology, and memory. Electronic musician Daniel Lopatin’s landmark 2011 remix album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 used Ecco iconography on its cover, and his latest release, 2018’s Age Of, sees a Solid State-style singularity/alien intelligence returning to Earth, fascinated by the folly of humanity revolving through successive ages of Ecco, Harvest, Excess, and Bondage.

For the remainder of his life until his death in 2001, Lilly was considered a guru by the younger generations who’d missed the ’60s and ’70s. In the late ’70s and 1980s,  following his profound mystical experiences, he worked again with dolphins, involving the computer revolution in his attempt to build a dolphin-to-English translator. In his JANUS program (aided by Burgess Meredith’s financial support), he used Apple II computers to help process and produce dolphin sounds to decipher their “speech” and language. Much in the same way hallucinogenic gurus like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna gained greater popularity among psychonauts, cyberpunks, and esotericists in the 1990s prior to their deaths, Lilly’s work also received a serious reappraisal prior to his death in 2001. His greatest legacy today is probably the popularity of sensory deprivation therapy, which would spread across the world and become a mainstream, if scientifically controversial, practice for mental and physical wellness.

All of the funhouse reflections of dolphin and whale research in pop culture that we’ve discussed in this series are ultimately the children of John C. Lilly. This piece is of course not an exhaustive list of such Cold War-era depictions of cetaceans; dolphins and whales were simply everywhere in Cold War-era sci-fi. They swam amongst us as symbols of both innocence and intelligence, as both tools and indictments of America’s expansionist Cold War policies and the perversion of science to political and military ends. Cetaceans are Cassandras, pointing out the folly in poisoning our waters and land, while at the same time offering themselves as sacrifices on humanity’s bloody altars of scientific research and commerce. They offer the hope of contacting an intelligence out there in the stars, and yet stand as a lonely testament to our inability to reach out to intelligence here on Earth. John C. Lilly and his myriad children in both science fact and fiction swim on ahead of us even now, navigating a future between excess and humility, between science and true spiritual understanding. At a time when our species was conscious of the real possibility of permanent extinction due to nuclear war, these creatures offered us something that the world desperately needed: a hope for survival and, perhaps, absolution.


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 Three)

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

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