HELLO! out there in space

N.J. BERRILL August 21 1965

HELLO! out there in space

N.J. BERRILL August 21 1965

HELLO! out there in space

Here’s how we’re learning to talk to other worlds, by learning how to talk to insects and animals, like our friendly, gabby cousins, the dolphins, who may be as smart as we are—or even smarter


AS MAN penetrates farther into space, the next-to-ultimate achievement becomes a practical possibility rather than a figment of science-fiction invention. The ultimate is. of course, the actual meeting of earthmen and the inhabitants (if any) of other worlds. The next-to-ultimate is Commu nicating with them.

Astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Greenbanks, West Virginia, listened for signals from outer space for several months during 1960, although in vain. The Russians recently claimed, then disclaimed, having received signals from the vicinity of a particular star. Dr. John C. Lilly, the noted U. S. biologist, declares confidently, “Within the next decade or two the human species will establish communication with another species: nonhuman, alien, possibly extraterrestrial, more probably marine; but definitely highly intelligent, perhaps even intellectual.” Dr. Lilly happens to be one of the world's greatest authorities on dolphins, and his point is that understanding the communication system of dolphins and other porpoises and establishing contact with these obviously intelligent creatures, could be a challenging and necessary preparation for communicating with any inhabitants of another planet. If we cannot succeed with a fellow mammal, even though an oceanic kind, what chance have we with anyone alien to the earth itself?

Dolphins have captured man’s imagination from time out of mind — for their nimble mastery of the sea, their playfulness and obvious enjoyment of living, their social behavior, and their evident capacity for navigation. Brain-conscious modern man is even more impressed by the fact that the dolphin, w'ith a body no larger than the human, has a brain that outweighs and is more convoluted than his own. The dolphin consequently has become subject to intensive inquiry by biologists wherever dolphins are available in captivity. In fact the possibility that the dolphin may have a brain in some w'ays superior to the human has caught the fancy of scientists besides biologists, particularly physicists looking for some relief from the mental stress of their professions.

For instance, the late Dr. Leo Szilard, an eminent nuclear physicist at the Fermi Institute of the University of Chicago, who worked on the effects of atomic radiation on inheritance in micro-organisms, suggested in a recent book, The Voice Of 'The Dolphin, that the co-operative dolphin might lease his brain, so to speak, as a supercomputer for tasks the best man-made computers are unable to perform. And even more significantly, astronomers and other scientists mainly concerned with cosmic radio noises publish their less serious writings in a publication called Periodic Communications Of The Order Of The Dolphins. It was here that Dr. Frank Drake, of the Radio Astronomy Observatory at Greenbanks, offered an example of what a message from outer space might actually be like. The simplest and

most likely form of

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Dolphin talk: our next bilingualism?


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signals would be a series of radio pings and pauses corresponding to the zeros and ones employed in digital computers, rather than any more elaborate system such as a Morse code. His invented example (see page 26) shows how vital information could be transmitted and understood by any intelligence comparable to our own. The form and content of the message assumes, however, that whoever may be at the other end of the line has more in common with us than we would have any right to expect. Here the dolphin presents his challenge: “Here I am, a friendly fellow right at your doorstep. Talk to me if you can.”

The attempt to understand how animals communicate with one another, and if possible to enter the conversation, is one of the most fascinating enterprises of contemporary biological science. Dolphins and porpoises, which are small whales, and honey bees, offer great scope and interest. In both cases we have already learned much and have much to wonder at. They make an interesting comparison. Bees, as insects, are a form of life with no relationship with backboned animals and are as unrelated to us as any earthly creatures can be, yet they are creatures of the land and air like ourselves. Dolphins share our pedigree as airbreathing, warm-blooded, live-bearing suckling mammals that once walked with four legs upon the land, but they are now fish-shaped, oceanic creatures, even though still fully and typically mammalian in all ways other than their shape, their means of locomotion, and the medium they live in. Dolphins and humans seem to feel a kinship, which bees and humans certainly do not. Man and dolphin get along well together and truly enjoy one another’s company, although technically the contact between man and dolphin is extremely difficult for both sides: in the air we can hardly hear what these animals have to say, and in the water they can hardly hear what we have to say. To bees, man either does not exist at all or else he is a hostile object to be buzzed or actually attacked with a suicidal sting. Yet we already understand enough of the peculiar language of bees to be able to tell them in what direction to fly, how far to go, and what kind of flower to look for in order to find honey. The minute brain of the bee is marvellously accomplished and is a lesson to all, but the big brain of the dolphin may hold the greater mystery.

Tourists have, indirectly, had much to do with making possible the work on porpoises in general, including dolphins which are but one kind of porpoise. Following World War II, large, visitor-attracting, marine aquaria were established at Marineland, Florida, and at San Diego, California, and later at Miami, Bimini and. most recently. at Makapuu Point near Honolulu. Porpoises can only be kept in captivity in aquaria or salt-water enclosures such as these. Florida’s Mha-

rineland led the way, with the first reported study of a captive bottlenose dolphin in 1948, made by the director, the late Arthur MacBride, and by Donald Hebb, now the internationally known psychologist of McGill University, who discovered that the animal used an echo system, somewhat like the echolocating system of bats, for manoeuvring in cloudy water. Since then the investigation has probed far and wide, ranging geographically from Dr. John C. Lilly’s Communication Research Institute in the Virgin Islands to the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii, with Florida State University and the University of California at Los Angeles in between.

Dolphins, other porpoises, and many larger whales, produce a variety of undersea sounds that serve for echolocation in capturing fish and avoiding obstacles, and also for communication among themselves. Questions that arise concern how the sounds are produced, directed and analyzed, what is the nature of the various sounds produced, and which sounds are employed in locating and which constitute some sort of language. Is there language in common among different kinds of porpoise, or does each kind have its own dialect?

The million-year barrier

All in all, what we are trying to do is that most difficult exercise, putting ourself inside the skin of another creature. This is hard enough even when the other creature is another human being speaking the same language; it’s more so when there is a language barrier. It is far more so when the other fellow is a mammal whose evolutionary history diverged from ours many million years ago, who is now “ocean-centred” instead of “continentcentred,” with four fifths of the earth’s surface without boundaries and at his disposal, a fellow without legs, with flippers but no hands, with restricted vision and little to see.

Humans and their nearest relatives have a remarkable sight-and-hand type of brain and behavior, responsible for most of our accomplishments and predicaments. Dolphins and their nearest relatives have a sound-and-body brain. All of the body is shaped and powered for speed and manoeuvring in water; while according to one investigator, Dr. W. N. Kellogg of Florida State University, in his book Porpoises And Sonar, the head of the bottlenose dolphin appears to be literally “built for sound.”

Communication between animal and animal may be by any one of various means. Any particular sense may serve, but sight and sound serve the best and over the greatest distance, with sound more suitable as a basis for a complex repertoire of signals than visual signs. Among land animals the voice, the instrument of sound language, is best developed in birds and certain mammals, particularly the anthropoids to which we belong. In both cases the lungs serve as bellows, the windpipe for a column of air, and a voice box to vary the sound as the

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air column is forced through. In mammals, as in ourselves, the voice box is the larynx at the top of the windpipe, where it seems natural for it to be. Yet in birds the sound of song starts at the bottom, in the syrinx, more like an organ pipe. One of the questions which have been difficult to answer is how do dolphins and such produce their special sounds? However it is done, they have their own way of doing it.

Dolphins and other porpoises spend most of their time under water and surface only momentarily to breathe. They keep their mouths closed most of the time and they open their blowholes, or nostrils, only when they are exposed for the second or two they are above the water. The sounds are produced usually when both mouth and blowhole arc closed, and apparently not from the larynx in the throat at all. The problem and the performance can be appreciated to some extent if you keep your mouth shut and your nose tightly closed between your fingers, and then attempt to make meaningful or expressive sounds. You can make some sounds in your throat and in the back of your nose, but you cannot even hum. Yet the dolphin produces whistles, clicks, and sounds described as rusty-hinge or creakingdoor sounds.

Moreover, a dolphin can whistle from one side of its head and click from the other side, and do so simultaneously. The whistles each last for about one-half second, are in the upper range of our own hearing (that is, they have a frequency from seven thousand to fifteen thousand cycles per second), and take various forms, such as rising or falling. The clicks and the creaking sounds are a single type of sound produced at different frequencies — heard as clicks when produced at fewer than twenty per second and as bursts of creaking noise as the rate becomes much faster. The clicks and creaks appear to be the

sounds produced for echolocating, whether for locating prey, recognizing the position, antics and possibly the shape of a companion, or spotting the presence and direction of some more distant object. One of the more remarkable features of this sound is that it is sent out as a narrow beam directly forward from the forehead, like a searchlight except that sound takes the place of light.

Such a beaming of sound requires much the same sort of directional apparatus as the searchlight. In fact much of the peculiarity of the head of dolphins, other porpoises and larger whales is explained by this. The creatures appear to have a bulging forehead. The bulge, however, consists of an oily tissue outside the skull. The whole structure appears to be a sound lens; the concavities of the forepart of the skull have the form of parabolic reflectors and the soft bulge serves in ways not yet fully understood. Apparently different sounds are emitted from the two sides of the head or directly forward. Experiments are now being made, mainly by Dr. Ken Norris and Dr. Kellogg at the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii and the Marine Laboratory of Florida Slate University respectively, to identify the actual sound-producing apparatus and the parts of the head surface from which the various sounds are emitted.

Understanding the actual means of sound production is more difficult, for the mechanism appears to be a very complicated resonant structure of muscles, air spaces and bone in the front of the head, corresponding more or less to our sinuses. Proper investigation calls for examination of an anesthetized living animal and not just the dead anatomy. The trouble is that a dolphin or other porpoise cannot be anesthetized. Any attempt to do so kills it at once. Most mammals, including ourselves, go on breathing whether conscious or not, but these sea-going mammals apparently dare

not take a breath unconsciously and do so only at the moment of surfacing. Consequently the control of respiration seems to have become shifted from the brain stem to the cortex itself. Progress in working out this part of the sound and language system is therefore slow.

Yet this is only a part of the whole question and is merely a necessary, though elaborate, link between brain and brain, whether the brain is hearing echoes of its own voice or messages from another. The dolphin brain resembles the human both in actual weight and in the ratio of brain size to body size. It is different, however, in certain important respects, for it is considerably wider than it is long and the extra width is in that region on each side of the brain most closely associated with hearing and memory in humans. Any way you look at it, things heard and remembered appear to be overwhelmingly important in the dolphin brain, although some and perhaps a lot of the lateral expansion of the brain may represent skin sense for all the body surface, together with controls of the musculature so skilfully used in swimming. All we really have to go on are these two features, namely, that the dolphin brain is as large and apparently as complex as our own, and that hearing is the dominant sense. Beyond that we are guessing and may do so for a long while yet.

Dr. Lilly sums up the possibilities:

1 ) We are faced with a new class of large brain so different from our own that we cannot possibly understand its mental processes.

2) The dolphin brain may have no speech centre such as we have and may be doing something quite different from what our brains are doing.

3) Dolphins may be actually rather stupid animals no brighter than a dog, and the large brain may be mainly needed for the control of muscles, etc., in chasing small fish.

4) Even if intelligent enough, it may be impossible for these creatures to learn to speak any human language because of differences in the vocal apparatus, and likewise it may be impossible for us to speak their language or otherwise communicate with them, so that dolphins and humans in effect live forever in virtually separate universes.

Yet, Dr. Lilly really believes that they are highly intelligent and the various audible sounds dolphins can be trained to make through their blowhole when the head is out of water can be remarkable imitations of the human voice, even of particular words and brief sentences — better than imitations that are made by parrots and mynah birds. Most of his work with the dolphin is now being directed toward establishing as a fact this capacity for developing a new voice and using it for mimicking our own speech.

Dr. J. J. Drehrer and Dr. W. E. Evans, of the Cetacean Communications department of the Lockheed California Company, have been making an intensive and comparative study of the so-called language of four kinds of porpoises, including dolphins, presumably as a part of the overall effort of this extremely space-minded company to anticipate not only man’s eventual landing on other planets but communicating with any strange beings who may be present. Employing sophisticated computer analysis procedures in the study of communication sounds, as distinct from the echolocating sounds, they have already found that out of a total vocabulary of thirty-two distinct “words” so far discovered, about one third is common to all and the remainder constitute a special vocabulary for each kind. Three of the signals are used to about the same extent in two porpoise languages and the Lockheed investigators suggest that they may represent gram-

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mar or syntax with important function. They have also discovered that young animals use fewer and simpler sounds, which may be equivalent to baby talk, and that the adult vocabulary is slowly acquired.

A language of sorts undoubtedly exists, but what it fully signifies remains to be seen. When finally we do understand dolphin speech and mind, if the time ever comes, at least we will have the satisfaction and perhaps

the humility that comes from knowing what it is to be as another creature in another universe, even though his universe is the sea around us, and he himself may turn out to be not so bright after all.

In any case, as anyone who has watched dolphins in a marineland display will realize especially when they are left to their own devices, they arc extremely companionable with one another and with humans, are joy-

fully playful, capable of teasing, remarkably able to act in concert, and extremely and intelligently solicitous when mishap occurs. The pleasure of knowing them more intimately will be ours. Whales of all kinds, whether the friendly dolphin or a formidable giant such as Melville’s Moby Dick, are mammals, just as we are, but historically our ancestral paths diverged about one hundred million years ago, the one to become fishlike, in shape

and action at least, and the other to become a trapeze artist with an affinity for trees. The remarkable thing is that in' spite of this divergence into separate though adjacent worlds, we both now share qualities we like to think of as being human. For creatures so different as a small whale and a grounded, self-satisfied ape both to have acquired such a spirit of fun and solicitude speaks well for what may exist elsewhere in the universe. ★