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Discuss: A Mind in the Water

Editor's Note: Author D. Graham Burnett sent this note as a follow-up to his May-June 2010 Orion article, "A Mind in the Water."

One of the things I didn't really get into in my Orion essay was the way Lilly's dolphin work reverberated through the "Save the Whales" movement of the 1970s. In fact, in the book I have coming out (a study of the human relationship to whales and dolphins in the twentieth century), I argue that Lilly is basically responsible for that sudden explosion of interest in cetaceans. That rolling cultural phenomenon, which in many ways shaped the modern global environmental establishment, is probably Lilly's most important "legacy," in that it was substantially led by Lilly-inspired activists who hoped to preserve a spiritual, peaceful, and alternate intelligence in the deep sea.

Reasoning analogically (a fallacy here, but never mind), the consciousness of a Tursiops, with its three pounds of brain, paled beside that of its giant cousin the sperm whale, which carried the largest aggregation of neural tissue on the planet inside its blunt and massive head—nearly twenty pounds of gray-matter. What went on in there became a central preoccupation of a newly radicalized and spiritualized environmental awareness. For instance, it was a former Lilly acolyte who, using Lilly-esque techniques of phonemic analysis on Navy-recorded whale phonation in the early 1970s, identified the repetitious patterns that would come to be known as the "Songs of the Humpback Whale," those mournful and squeaking whines that would become the soundtrack of worldwide consciousness-raising. (Stirring the old cocktail of interspecies communication, these sounds would be sent into outer space a few years later, engraved on a golden phonograph disk aboard Voyager I and II). And it was Lilly's vision of interspecies communication that drove a rag-tag bunch of beatniks and Quakers out of Vancouver aboard the Phyllis Cormack in 1975 to confront Soviet whaling vessels in the North Pacific. The group, known locally as Greenpeace, was led by a Lilly clone: a renegade brain scientist named Paul Spong, who had outfitted the vessel with hydrophones and a transducer that would permit him to play the flute for his underwater brothers.

This is not an account of the deep origins of the campaign to end commercial whaling that everyone would agree with, but I think the evidence is there that Lilly's work on dolphins reverberated through those debates.

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1 David Rothenberg on Apr 20, 2010

Hi Graham:

Congratulations on a fine article, but I wonder from the above paragraph, do you think that the sounds of humpbacks are more whines and squeals than they are music?  Are all the people who were so moved when they heard these sounds misguided and misinformed?  To me it seems a bit odd to equate the public’s love of whale sounds with Lilly’s more outlandish claims and often irresponsible research practices.  Looking forward to the whole book!

2 Calvin C. French on Apr 21, 2010

I think you meant J. Edgar Hoover, not Herbert Hoover, as the notable who knew Lilly.

3 Suzanne Duarte on Apr 21, 2010

I found this article to be utterly fascinating, not least because of its literary style.  But I was also one of those people in the 60s who was inspired by Lilly’s dolphin research and speculations, so the history was delightful to read, including the many ironies that Burnett articulates.  I agree that Lilly opened up new awareness and appreciation for cetaceans and can be credited for much of the activism to protect them.  Yes, Lilly was obviously a complex character, a little too far out even in his own time, but it often seems to take extreme measures to break through encrusted cultural conditioning, and Lilly definitely did break through.  His influence persists in benign ways and we should be grateful.  I’m also grateful to Burnett for his research and writing.

4 Henry McHenry Jr. on Apr 21, 2010

I think part of the the article’s import is its uncovering the water we all swim in: the Navy, immersed in its own self-interested machinations; the Cold Warrior, his lens tinted by a still-familiar us-vs-them; the scientist’s (and historian’s?) attempt at dispassionate appraisal. I love the latter, though, and wonder why.  Was my father more scientist/historian than warrior?  my early schoolteachers? How did I come to absorb their influence in a particular way and not another? Our interpretations bubble up like underwater exhalations, but there seems no alternative for groping our way forward.  We never break through into something else than water, but some water is ‘clearer’ than some other, feels genuine, right, authentic…  Where does that clarity come from?

5 D. Owens on Apr 21, 2010

I read thoroughly of John Lilly and Alan Watts in the 60s.  I’m still waiting for humans to realize that the superior consciousness on this planet is the cetaceans. I would guess the whales are waiting also.

6 Josh Horwitz on Apr 21, 2010

As always, great good fun reading your prose, Graham. What struck me while reading your essay was that Lilly’s initial attraction to cetaceans was a brain fetish on the part of a brainy neurophysiologist. While his peers were intrigued by dolphins’ echolocation or hydrodynamic talents, Lilly was seeking a brain he could decode and ultimately meld with. Envisioning Lilly floating in his isolation tank—a “brain in a vat” a you say—intrigued by dolphins’ big-brained genius for social communication, one gets the feeling he was largely driven by loneliness, a loneliness that came from being bigger brained than most of his peers (certainly bigger-visioned) and longing to to find a neural soul-mate. A final irony I can add to your addendum about Lilly igniting the Save the Whales movement: Despite his clear role in spawning Greenpeace and other groups, if you speak to cetacean researchers inside the humane and animal rights movement today, they can’t forgive Lilly for his early inhumane experiments on monkeys and dolphins. So in the end, his contributions to cetology were disavowed by both his military-funded colleagues and their antagonists.

7 Amerigo on Apr 23, 2010

You should have referenced that you “borrowed” the title from Joan McIntire’s out of print book.  That way your ideas will be classified more as homage than plagiarism.

8 D. Graham Burnett on May 01, 2010

Thank you all for these comments; and thanks to _Orion_ for putting the piece out there in the world! Just a few quick thoughts. As far as David’s question: I think it is important to recover historically that humpback phonations had been recorded and listened to for a long time (and by a fair number of folks) before they were “heard” musically. It is my contention that this kind of hearing was conditioned by the cultural reception of Lilly’s work. You suggest I am “equating” disparate things. That’s not the idea. The idea is that: 1) McVay and Payne’s actual analysis of the humpback whale sounds was indebted to Lilly’s work with dolphin “language” and the sound spectrograph (this I deliver on in more detail elsewhere); and 2) the larger popular reception of their _Science_ paper owed something to Lilly’s success in popularizing the idea that cetaceans (here including both dolphins and whales, of course) were intelligent and capable of sophisticated communication. I make these arguments at greater length in the book I have coming out on science and whales in the twentieth century. BTW: those of you who do not know, David has a great book out there about making music with whales, _Thousand Mile Song_. A special thanks to Josh Horwitz for the interesting observation about “loneliness.”  It is a very important theme.  For more on this, check out Loren Eiseley’s essay from the _American Scholar_ (circa 1960), entitled “The Long Loneliness.” It’s sort of about Lilly. Amerigo is right to point out that it would have been better to indicate that the title riffs on Joan McIntyre’s watershed “celebration of the consciousness of whales and dolphins” from 1974/75. I discussed the book in an earlier draft of this essay and that section fell out in edits. In my book manuscript Joan’s work gets a fair bit of attention, and I am pleased to say that she was very gracious and helpful when I tracked her down in Hawaii for some oral history.  Many thanks for the other comments and especially the correction! - DGB

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