John C. Lilly Interview, Part 2: “Your god isn’t big enough!”

Dr. John C. Lilly has dolphins on his mind. Project JANUS is an attempt at interspecies talk.

John C. Lilly Interview, Part 2, Future Life, August 1980

In Part 1, Lilly described early work with the sensory isolation tank that led to his interest in the dolphin mind, and his attempt to bridge the human-dolphin communications gap with (then-current) high speed computers, Project JANUS. Here, he continues to describe the project.

MB: So you don’t anticipate nearly as much trouble on the dolphins part as it would be to phonate in air, as you were doing earlier?

JL: Oh no, this is all underwater. Though they have started to phonate in air, mimicking JANUS’s output. Apparently they’re eager to learn.

MB: Have you received widespread public support for Project JANUS?

JL: Enough. We’ve always had just enough money to keep going, never too much. I’m glad we didn’t have too much. I found out long ago that if there’s too much money available for something, all sorts of people move in on it and waste time. If you have just enough to go on, you eliminate all the people that aren’t really dedicated to it, because they feel they can’t afford to stay in it, and they can’t. So the people left in the JANUS Project are the people who feel they can afford do sacrifice large salaries and affluent living just to be able to do this program.

MB: One question raised by Ian Watson’s novel The Jonah Kit is whether there might not be dangers in interspecies communication, specifically dangers for the dolphins in contact with the alien human mind. Look at the history of slavery, or the American Indians, for instance; take away their food source and their land, their power base, and you render them ineffectual. lMight we not “ghettoize” the dolphins, the way we have other human races?

JL: Well, there’s quite a difference, isn’t there? There’s a limited territory on the land; and land is only 29 percent of the total surface of the planet, and of that only 10 percent is inhabited by humans. So humans take up only 2.9 percent of the planet, and of that 2.9 percent there are very stringent requirements for survival of people. You have to have agriculture and manufacturing and so on for human survival. When you contrast that with the 71 percent of the of the planet that is inhabited by cetaceans, you have a freedom of territory — or a lack of territory, more like it — freedom of travel — that none of the terrestrial mammals have ever had. It’s an entirely different universe, so there’s no way to compare it with restrictive human depredations on humans and territorial aspects. The whole territorial concept kind of disappears.

MB: Yes, but obvious our pollution of the sea must represent a threat to their existence. The whole problem with the dolphin kills at Iki, Japan, comes from the fact that the northern waters got pollute, forcing those populations south. Could the day come when the sea w9ill no longer support dolphins, and they’ll be dependent on humans for their existence?

JL: I don’t know. I don’t have the global view yet. I think we’re overrating our abilities to pollute the oceans. Once we thought the oceans were an infinite sink for all our wastes. Local effects, yes. Off large cities with huge manufacturing and all that, you can poison the fish with mercury, but it’s still a very shore-based view of the oceans; an ocean is a big place. You just fly across the Pacific from here to New Zealand and look at all that water! I think it’s rather egomaniacal to think we can influence that very much, especially if we can get our awareness up to the dangers of certain kinds of chemicals and reduce that. I go along with one of the biologists, John D. Isaacs, who was writing about so-called “pollution.” What are our concepts of pollution? One of them is sewage. I’m not talking about industrial waste, now; I’m talking about human shit. What is it? Mainly a culture of Escherichia coli, the colon bacillus, and according to the biological view the colon bacillus is a universal symbiotic inhabiting the colons of all mammals. Now, whales and dolphins all shit in the sea; the colon bacillus seems to be one of the basic substratum for the perpetuation of life. So you can look at it not as a contaminant, but as a substrate for the building up of bacteria, of protozoans, plankton, krill and hence, finally of multicellular life such as mammals. So if you look and a much more thoroughly biological viewpoint about the turnover of life on the planet, the colon bacillus is somewhere near the bottom of it, and is essential.

To people who like clean bathrooms, and don’t like shit around, and object to other people throwing it around, this may sound like a radical point of view, but it isn’t; it’s basically scientifically correct as far as I can make out. So when we confuse pollution with the whole basis of life, that shows how far away from nature we really are, and how far away from nature most of our knowledge is. The shore areas are where we know most because that’s where man is. I can’t speak for most of the sea. If you can get floating cities, and really look at the ecology, and get people who live at sea, not in the usual vessels we use to cross oceans, but the kind where you can live in intimate contact with the sea creatures, I think we’ll know a lot more. Farming the sea would be a much better way to approach it; encouraging the organisms that are essential to other organisms. The oxygen on the planet depends on it.  Somebody was saying the other day that three-quarters of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by photosynthetic organisms of the sea, as opposed to those on land, so the essential support of the atmosphere depends on the sea, for the absorption of carbon dioxide and the creation of oxygen which is necessary for all for of aerobic life. Of course, the anaerobes could take over, as they do in a stagnant lake…

MB: You have observed that the dolphins seem to be a as interested in communicating with us as we are with them. Do you think that, in the future, they will be interested in cooperating to help us run the planet?

JL: Well, that’s a question I’ve stopped asking. There are lots of questions I’ve stopped asking with the prospect of being able to ask them of the proper people — the dolphins and whales. At the time you open a new doorway, as we are hoping to do, you stop asking questions about what you’re going to find on the other side because you’re waiting to find it.

I don’t know that we’re bring enough to do this, to work out means of communicating with the dolphins; then after we work out the means, are we bright enough to understand an alien mind? I don’t know, but we’ll give it a good try. And hope that we get some really bright people who will exert their best efforts in this area. Not just in our group. I think orcas are going to be very interesting…

MB: There are reports of unusual psychic experiences with dolphins., are you investigating those avenues of communication?

JL: Not at present; they’re not reliable enough. Nobody has yet worked out a way of giving good, solid demonstrations of network of mind, except through physical means of communication. This depends on your basic belief system about mind. Is mind a universal network all over the planet, of which we’re only vaguely aware, or is mind going from one isolated mind contained in a brain to another one? I have no way of making a choice. As I keep explaining to audiences that keep asking about ESP and mental telepathy, in the people I’ve come in contact with it’s either a “wild talent” without much discipline or it’s a mediumistic sort of thing. Whereas communication by sound is universal in both our species, and if we can work out the proper means, anyone can use the method.

MB: Has the work of any science fiction authors influenced you in any way?

JL: When I was doing the early tank work, I began to look for people who had the freedom and imagination I was finding. And people like Olaf Stapleton and Frank Herbert were obviously getting into the same realms of thinking and experience that I was already in. So I used them as examples. Herbert’s now on the Board of Advisors of the Human-Dolphin Foundation. I also asked the staff of Project JANUS to go see the movie Alien, because it presented such an alien alien. Something utterly un-human. (Nothing like a dolphin, of course.)

MB: Then you find yourself on common ground with certain science fiction authors?

JL: I don’t know what “common ground” means, we’ve been talking about infinities! Openness to new domains is more like it. In The Star Maker I felt Stapleton had finally gotten a god that was big enough. Like the old story about the minister and the astronomer. The astronomer is showing the minister the Andromeda Galaxy, and the minister looks up from the telescope and says, “Now doesn’t that prove the existence of God?”

And the astronomer says, “That’s not the problem. The problem is, your god isn’t big enough!” Stapleton’s god was big enough.

MB: What is your dream or hope for the future of interspecies communication?

JL: To get it going…

(The End)


(The opinions expressed here are those of the respective parties, and publication of this interview doesn’t necessarily mean endorsement of those opinions.)

Not to boast, but Lilly later told me he thought this was the best interview anyone had done with him. I felt very proud hearing that!

John C. Lilly, a fascinating combination of characteristics, had the mind of a scientist, the heart of a mystic and the vision of a genius. Unfortunately, it never really came together.

 Ric O’Barry, Behind the Dolphin Smile, 1988

Read Part I here


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