In 1961, the great scientist Carl Sagan joined a semi-secret society called the Order of the Dolphin, which hoped to establish communication with intelligent extraterrestrials. Among the society’s members was a neuroscientist named John Lilly, who had made a name for himself popularizing the idea that dolphins have their own language, as well as a kind of super-intelligence that rivals our own. Crack the code of dolphinese, argued Lilly, and we will be able to decipher any alien language we might encounter.
The order’s members—including the astrophysicist Frank Drake, the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane and the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Melvin Calvin —took Lilly’s idea about human-dolphin communication quite seriously. As the Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett has noted, they wore insignia shaped like bottlenose dolphins and sent each other coded messages to hone their dolphinese and alien-language-decoding skills.
Cute, but then Lilly started feeding the dolphins LSD.
Justin Gregg, author of the article and also of Are Dolphins Really Smart?: The Mammal Behind the Myth, views Sagan as a great scientist and tells the story like Lilly was the only one who was off the rails. Somehow I doubt that. Sagan (1934–1996) seems to have been a talented self-promoter with a genius for knowing what a large public, slowly embracing naturalism and scientism, would see as “science.” As if.
Nothing wrong in principle with getting ahead in life, but let’s keep our categories straight here.
Anyway, dolphins really are intelligent animals but notice how Darwinian thinking promotes two false ideas:
First, as noted earlier, it implies that there is some kind of “tree of intelligence,” akin to the now-toppled “tree of life,” with the primates at the top. Not really. Crows, we see, are “feathered primates.” Crocodiles use tools. Some reptiles are as smart as some birds and can solve problems not seen before. Octopuses are surprisingly smart molluscs. Slime molds can in fact “think”, as a temporary colony.
We really don’t know how independent intelligence gets instantiated to a great degree in one life form and a lesser degree in another. And second, none of it is much like specifically human intelligence.
It would surely be fun to research these things as they really are and not as the propaganda for dead theories makes them out to be.
– O’Leary for News