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Young girl playing with dolphin in Xel-ha park, Rivera Maya, Mexico

The Surprising Role Dolphins Have Played in the Search for ET

Dolphins, with their apparent alien intelligence, have been seen by scientists interested in ET as a stand-in

In a recent essay, Thomas Moynihan, a researcher with Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, puts the explosion of interest in dolphin intelligence in context: It began during the Space Race (1957–1998) — which helped fuel and fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligences. Its development also coincided withe Cold War (1946–1991) between the US and the USSR. In 1961, amid the growing tensions, neuroscientist John C. Lilly claimed that he had made contact with the first “alien” intelligence. But, as Moynihan says, Lilly “wasn’t talking about little green men from Tau Ceti, he was talking of minds much closer to home: bottlenose dolphins.”

Why dolphins? As Moynihan recounts, from ancient times, mariners knew that dolphins were intelligent and modern zoologists like Frédéric Cuvier tended to agree. But there’s more to the story:

Moynihan, author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction (MIT Press, 2020), shows that dolphins were seen as both a stand-in for ET and a possible weapon in the Cold War. Lilly had high hopes, stemming from his own work with dolphins:

He foresaw dolphins being deployed as deep-sea rescue teams or ocean-floor cartographers. Perhaps they could wage ‘psychological warfare’ on enemy submarines. Lilly even spoke about the potential for interspecies ‘psychoanalysis’…

Adding more urgency, he suggested pushing his ‘research programme to its ultimate extreme speed’, so that we have some grasp of interspecies communication before the real challenge comes: contact with extraterrestrials. We need to be certain that our interspecies diplomacy is up to scratch before contacting genuine aliens. Talking with dolphins provides a dry run. Given the potential consequences of miscommunication with another civilisation, neglecting this ‘might be more devastating … than was neglect of the political implications of the atomic bomb’.

Thomas Moynihan, “Thanks for all the fish” at Aeon

Lilly made the acquaintance of Frank Drake, who authored the famous Drake Equation for estimating the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligences, and Carl Sagan, who popularized the idea that, in a teeming universe, Earth was a pale blue dot and contact with ET was inevitable, if not imminent. The dolphin figured so much in the thinking of some prominent scientists interested in ET that they founded the Order of the Dolphin at an unpublicized meeting in 1961 at the Greenbank observatory, which was pioneering radio telescopes at the time.

The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm discreet ways of searching for alien intelligence. But as Frank Drake recounted later, Lilly’s stories of dolphin intelligence were received with such enthusiasm that the seemingly alien intelligence of the dolphin became a symbol, a mascot of their enterprise:

Lilly’s research generated so much excitement that, by the end of the conference, the attendees called themselves the Order of the Dolphin. Calvin, in his post-Nobel joy, even went on to send commemorative pins to the attendees. “He caused to be made these little pins which had silver dolphins on them, which he sent to all of us,” [Philip] Morrison told David Swift, author of the book SETI Pioneers. “It wasn’t that we ever had meetings or chose officers of the Order of the Dolphin. It was just a souvenir of the particular time together.”

John Wenz, “The Order of the Dolphin: SETI’s Secret Origin Story” at Discover Magazine (October 10, 2018)

However, they did really get into it at the time: “As the Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett has noted, not only did they wear the pins, they “sent each other coded messages to hone their dolphinese and alien-language-decoding skills.” (Justin Gregg, Wall Street Journal, 2013)

The Drake Equation was developed at that same meeting. Enthusiasm was likely buoyed by the fact that one attendee was plant biochemist Melvin Calvin, whose Nobel Prize was announced at that time.

There was much talk of “dolphinese” and about imminent contact with ET in a Milky Way that was a “cloud of thinking stars.”

But then it all began to drift apart.

First while dolphins are certainly intelligent mammals, they simply aren’t doing what humans are doing — though there is a natural temptation to assume so:

“In retrospect,” Drake wrote, “I now think that Lilly’s work was poor science. He had probably distilled endless hours of recordings to select those little bits that sounded humanlike.” He wasn’t alone.

“At that time we were quite enthusiastic about it because John Lilly came and told us about communications with dolphins,” Morrison told Swift. “Within a few years, the subject had pretty much dissipated, and Lilly’s work was not found to be reliable.”

John Wenz, “The Order of the Dolphin: SETI’s Secret Origin Story” at Discover Magazine (October 10, 2018)

And space exploration was less promising than hoped. Moynihan recounts, “As the 1960s opened, the Order of the Dolphin was dismayed as it became clearer that the Milky Way was no cacophonous cloud of thinking stars.” So far, we have not found life of any type anywhere but on Earth.

But the interest in dolphins as a stand-in for ET did two important things: The fallout sparked public concern about the inhumane treatment of intelligent animals in poorly thought-out experimentation.

Second, dolphins haunted some scientists during the Cold War, Moynihan suggests, because they raised a critical question: Had we been marine mammals without hands, we might have had great intelligence but little technology and thus much less fear of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Why should we equate intelligence in general with the development of technology and with inevitable benefit? Douglas Adams (1952–2001) picks up the theme in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1980s), where dolphins survive the cataclysm — but humans don’t.

The early controversies developed into hypotheses about extraterrestrial life: The Ocean Worlds hypothesis suggests looking for ET in oceans beneath the surface of planets. But that type of life might be intelligent without being technologically minded. Meanwhile, taking a cue from Cold War concerns, the Berserker Hypothesis warns that a highly technological civilization will end up being destroyed by its intelligent machines.


You may also wish to read: Dolphinese: The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down strange paths.


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The Surprising Role Dolphins Have Played in the Search for ET