Imagine this. Jay, an eight-year-old autistic boy, whose behaviour has always been agitated and uncooperative, is smiling and splashing in the pool. A pair of bottlenose dolphins float next to him, supporting him in the water. Jay’s parents stand poolside as a staff member in the water engages him in visual games with colourful shapes. She asks him some questions, and Jay, captivated by his surroundings, begins to respond. He names the shapes, correctly, speaking his first words in months. With all this attention Jay is in high spirits; he appears more aware and alert than ever before. A quick, non-invasive EEG scan of his brain activity shows that it is indeed different from before the session.
Jay’s parents, who had given up hope, are elated to have finally found a treatment that works for their son. They sign up for more sessions and cannot wait to get home and tell their friends about the experience. They are not surprised to find that dolphins have succeeded where mainstream physicians have not. Everyone believes that dolphins are special — altruistic, extra gentle with children, good-natured. And any concerns the parents might have had about the welfare of the dolphins have been allayed by assurances from the trainers that they are happy and accustomed to the role they are playing. After all, as the parents can see for themselves, the dolphins are smiling.
‘Jay’ is a composite character drawn from the dozens of testimonials that appear on dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) websites, but stories like his, stories about the extraordinary powers of dolphins, have been told since ancient times. Much of our attraction to these creatures derives from their appealing combination of intelligence and communicativeness, and the mystery associated with the fact that they inhabit a hidden underwater environment. Dolphins are the Other we’ve always wanted to commune with. And their ‘smile’, which is not a smile at all, but an anatomical illusion arising from the physical configuration of their jaws, has led to the illusion that dolphins are always jovial and contented, compounding mythological beliefs that they hold the key to the secret of happiness.
The mythic belief in dolphins as healers has been reiterated down the ages from the first written records of encounters with these animals. In Greco-Roman times, dolphins were closely linked with the gods. Delphinus was a favourite messenger of Poseidon, who repaid him for his loyalty by placing an image of a dolphin in the stars. The Greek poet Oppian of Silica declared around 200 CE that ‘Diviner than the Dolphin is nothing yet created.’ Aristotle was the first to recognise that dolphins are mammals. Indeed, the root of the word dolphin, delphus, means womb, and underscores the long-standing belief in an intimate (even chimeric) connection between dolphins and humans.
In ancient Rome and Mesopotamia, dolphins adorned frescoes, artwork, jewellery and coins, and in ancient Greece the killing of a dolphin was punishable by death. The Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, dated to 1900—1300BC, contains one of the earliest and best-known ornamentations depicting dolphins in a fresco on the wall of the queen’s bathroom. In Greek mythology, Taras, son of Poseidon, was said to have been rescued from a shipwreck by a dolphin sent by his father, hence the image of the boy on a dolphin depicted on historical coinage.
The perception of dolphins as lifesavers is connected with beliefs that they possess magical powers that can be used for healing. The ancient Celts attributed special healing powers to dolphins, as did the Norse. Throughout time, people as far apart as Brazil and Fiji have traded in dolphin and whale body parts for medicinal and totemic purposes. Despite being saddled with these dubious supernatural attributes, there actually are several well-substantiated modern reports of dolphins coming to the aid of humans. In 2007, for example, a pod of bottlenose dolphins saved the surfer Todd Endris, who had been mauled by a great white shark off Monterey, by forming a protective ring around him, which allowed him to get to shore. But these instances are related to dolphins’ ability to generalise their natural anti-predator behaviours to another species, not to anything supernatural.
The intelligence and sophistication of dolphins is not just mythological, of course. Decades of scientific research has confirmed that they possess large and highly elaborate brains, prodigious cognitive capacities, demonstrable self-awareness, complex societies, even cultural traditions. In 2001 my colleague Diana Reiss and I provided the first definitive evidence for mirror self-recognition in two bottlenose dolphins at the New York Aquarium. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this study demonstrated, along with many others since, that dolphins have a level of self-awareness not unlike our own.
Yet in the face of this evidence for their very real brainpower, dolphins have been imbued with religious and supernatural qualities and remade into the ultimate New Age icon.
The person most responsible for fuelling modern, New Age notions of dolphins as morally superior spiritual healers is the late neuroscientist John C Lilly, who pioneered research with captive dolphins in the 1960s. Lilly’s early work on dolphin brains and behaviour, conducted in laboratories in the US Virgin Islands and in Miami, was groundbreaking, bringing to light important knowledge about the species’ large, complex brains and keen intelligence. Lilly also provided evidence for dolphin sophistication in the realm of communication, reporting that dolphins could mimic the rhythm of human speech patterns.
In a paper published in Science in 1961, Lilly reported in detail on the range of ‘vocal’ exchanges between two dolphins in adjacent tanks, each equipped with a transmitter and receiver — Lilly’s dolphin ‘telephone’ — and noted how their ‘conversation’ followed polite rules; for example, when one ‘spoke’, the other was quiet. Lilly drew up a dolphin lexicon showing that dolphins used a variety of communication methods, from blowing and whistling to clicking. Convinced that dolphins had a sophisticated language of their own, he suggested that the species might provide the key to unlocking humanity’s potential to commune with extraterrestrials. He became part of the initial SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) group of radio-astronomy pioneers, who were so impressed with his tales of dolphin intelligence that they voted to call themselves ‘The Order of the Dolphin’.
However, Lilly and his followers eventually began mixing their own quasi-spiritual beliefs with their scientific work. They also began engaging in scientifically and ethically questionable research, including giving captive dolphins doses of LSD. In one ethically dubious experiment dating from 1965, Lilly’s research assistant Margaret Howe spent 10 weeks living with a dolphin named Peter in a tank rigged up to contain just enough water for the dolphin to swim in and for Howe to wade in. Within weeks, it became clear that Peter was less interested in Howe as a room mate than as a conjugal mate, and to stave off his increasingly aggressive behaviour, Lilly encouraged Howe to relieve the dolphin’s erections.
Lilly’s claims about the superior nature of dolphin spiritual and moral qualities soared well beyond any legitimate data. ‘We can presume that they have ethics, morals and regard for one another much more highly developed than does the human species,’ he wrote in The Dyadic Cyclone (1976). On the back of this conviction, he attempted to set up a formal but overly expansive programme of interspecies communication and co-operation between humans and dolphins called the Cetacean Nation, which was, needless to say, never fully realised.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his controversial activities, Lilly became a counter-cultural guru and was very influential in promoting the use of dolphins in captive research. His informal studies of dolphins interacting with autistic children led him to make outrageous claims about the psychic powers of dolphins, which have since become the basis for many pseudoscientific claims made by DAT facilities.
Excerpt from an essay by Lori Marino
Read full essay: Aeon