An Open Letter to Dr. Blair Irvine, of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

The famous graphic artist R. Crumb expresses well my sentiments.

October 12, 2020

Dear Dr. Irvine,

Please forgive me for not reading your mind on that cold morning in March, 1971, when the head dolphin trainer at Floridaland, Robert Corbin, introduced us. I’m really, really sorry I said something that upset you so much, but only dolphins and a few other “lower” animals have given me the privilege of mental telepathy with them, and you just weren’t on my short list that morning. What can I say, at this late date, to make it right with you?

I’m sure you have long since forgotten the incident, but I haven’t, not only because you treated me like a non-person, but because you implied I was also very stupid, even though you had only met me for about 2 minutes. Let me jog your memory. You had run out of fish for Simo, the poor dolphin trapped in your worthless circular tank shark experiments. (More on that, and why your reputation is undeserved, later.) So you came down to Floridaland, where I was pursuing a independent study project at New College photographing the dolphins for a proposed book about them. And our paths chanced to cross outside the freezer shack, where Robert kept the fish.

Robert introduced us. I had, of course, heard of the experiment you were conducting for the US Navy at Mote Labs; everybody in town had heard about it, following your efforts to tag dolphins by burning holes in their dorsal fins and affixing plastic plaques, a rather crude and ineffective technique. Robert mentioned that I was a student who was very interested in dolphins. I told you a little bit about my project, and you seemed very enthusiastic about it at first. I remember you — oddly, in view of what happened — actually smiling, but it might just have been indigestion making you wince. A long time has passed, hasn’t it? Far too long for anybody except a real weirdo, like me, to still resent it, but I do.

Those first impressions, they are a bitch, aren’t they? It works both ways, Dr. Irvine. Both ways.

And then you asked the fateful question: “What books have you read?” If I had been able to read your mind then, I would not have given the answer that I did. Please believe me on this, is was the lack of clear, decipherable telepathy with you that ultimately let me down. I failed nobody but myself, there.

The answer I gave you was unfortunately honest, forthright and sincere. “Well, all of John Lilly’s stuff…” I started to say, preparing to explain how New College had a lousy library and it was difficult to get research papers there. But I never got a chance, because, as cold as it was that morning, the air between us froze, and you, in an instant, on a dime, in a New York minute, turned from a friendly, somewhat fatherly researcher with an interest in my work (admittedly a liberal arts approach to dolphins) into a lethal polar bear, moving in for the kill. The smile on your face disappeared, to be replaced in an instant with an expression of profound disgust, as if you had just stepped in dogshit — Great Dane dogshit. Something I’d said had obviously triggered you, and this was decades before pop psychologists began abusing that term. What could it be?

Could the mere mention of Dr. John C. Lilly’s name…? Could it? Really? How misfortunate for me, to mention the ONE NAME that would trigger you that morning! And how doubly misfortunate not to have read your fucking mind before hand, so that I’d be forewarned and not make the one mistake that would send you plunging off the end of the dock, dragging me with you! It was there, in the air over your head, clearly flashing red letters that said WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T MENTION JOHN C. LILLY’S NAME TO THIS MAN, HE’LL FREAK OUT — and I chose to ignore it. Or I just didn’t see it. I certainly didn’t mean to provoke you, we’d only just met!

When you spoke, even your voice was different. There was an edge of threat or menace in it when you said “That man is either 50 years ahead of his time, or crazy, and most of us think he’s crazy! Good day!” By “us” I took it that you mean marine mammalogists at large — speaking for the community as a whole, I guess you were — and there may also have been something in there about you having worked with him, and that’s how you knew. Then you pivoted on your heel, got in your truck and drove away, and I never even had a chance to finish my sentence.

I will not describe how I felt as you drove away; instead, here are some of the things I thought about you:
• Rude, inconsiderate
• Abusive, abrupt

• Talks down at me, thinks he’s superior

• Explosive intermittent disorder (this is the modern diagnosis, I suffer from it too)

• Intolerant
• Must be hard to work with, being around a person so critical with a hair-trigger temper

• Doesn’t want to listen, close-minded

• Sociopath, only likes people who can help him out• No empathy with others… and so on. This is an incomplete list, but I’m sure you get the general drift.

As a result of that unfortunate meeting, I THOUGHT YOU WERE A REALLY FUCKED-UP PERSON, PERSONALLY, AND THE WAY YOU TREATED ME CAUSED ME TO HATE YOU. And I don’t like to hate things, it’s a waste of energy. But I do hate you, and I find I’ve hated you for 50 fucking years now. That probably says more about me than about you, and I admit I have anger management problems. But since then I’ve learned something important, and puzzling.

Somebody else gave you the same information, and you reacted differently to him than you did to me. So I think I’m justified in asking “What did he do right that I did wrong?” or, “What was the difference in Dr. Blair Irvine’s approach to me and this other person?”

Dr. Randall Wells, as I’m sure you’ve heard, has been an acquaintance of mine since we met in a marine biology class at Riverview High School in Sarasota in 1968 or ’69. I had a lot of social problems in high school, but Randy wasn’t one of them; he was just a nice, affable, intelligent guy, and he didn’t seem to get picked on much, so we talked a bit. Over the years, my esteem for him has only grown, and I now donate monthly a small amount, all I can afford in my current circumstances, to the SDRP, because I know that 90% of that money will go to benefit the dolphins of Sarasota Bay, and the other 10% to buy beer for the boat crew worn-out from chasing, netting, examining and logging them all day. (Just kidding!) So it is Randy’s compassion for the dolphins, and the excellence of his research, his personal friendliness toward me over time and a belief in acting locally, that make me want to donate to the splendid organization that you and Randy created together.

Now, here’s my problem, Dr. Irvine, and it consists of two words you may have heard before: COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.

You see, Randy is an exceptional person, and I do not see him mentoring, or collaborating, or getting papers published, with somebody who was rude to him, browbeat him, talked down to him, insulted his intelligence, and dismissed him with a wave of your hand, all of which you did to me that frosty March morning. When Randy came to you with John C. Lilly’s name on his lips — he proudly displayed a copy of Mind of the Dolphin on the SDRP podcast last week as his first dolphin book — you reacted differently, very differently, to him than you did to me.

Was it the fact that you were renting your house from his folks that made you feel indebted to them and caused you to moderate your self-righteous anger with the lad, or did I see a side of you you don’t show to others in your profession? The sociopathic side, the side that steps on unsung grad students to get research published, the side that curses the dolphins for struggling when you burn holes in their dorsal fins to tag them? The side that decided I WAS A NON-PERSON SO YOU COULD TREAT ME LIKE SHIT THAT MORNING BECAUSE I DIDN’T READ YOUR MIND AND REALIZE, SOMEHOW, BEFORE THE WORDS LEFT MY MOUTH, THAT ME SAYING DR. JOHN C. LILLY’S NAME WOULD TRIGGER YOU INTO A RAGE OF BARELY-CONTROLLED ANGER?

What was it, Dr. Irvine, that made you react differently to Randy than to me? A short-term circumstance, I hope, something like “Sorry, I hadn’t had breakfast that morning,” or “Sorry, I didn’t get laid the night before.” Those would be comprehensible, if not excuses. Something like “My mother died the day before,” that would be an excuse. I don’t know, and for 50 fucking years your behavior toward me that morning has been like a big grub, festering in my brain, and it doesn’t go away, and if it does, I always come back to it eventually.

What you did, I should point out, was also bad news from a scientific point of view. With Randy you were apparently able to hold a polite discussion and explain to him what was wrong with Lilly’s work. He listened, learned, and grew from it. Me, you told to fuck off, and I hate you for it.

So there’s my cognitive dissociation, Dr. Irvine: which human are you? I cannot make the two images align, or even overlap: are you a kind, nuturing scientist that gets along with his colleagues or the rude, abusive (yes, ABUSIVE, when did you stop beating your wife abusive), short-tempered person I encountered that morning? And more importantly, for reasons that apparently have nothing to do with you, WHY ME? When open scientific discussions such as I presumed we were having get SHUT DOWN because someone dropped a name he wasn’t supposed to, that’s not science, that’s prejudice and bigotry. Let me remind you, you never got a chance to explain your POV to me either, and if that wasn’t your fault, it sure as hell wasn’t mine.

So all in all, Dr. Irvine, I don’t think very well of you, but I allow that I might be mistaken, because Dr. Wells likes you, I mean, you are his mentor and everything, and I don’t think, as I have said, Randy would work for very long with somebody who abused him. I am quite confused as to who you really are, and I hope you see fit to clarify the situation for me, as I find it very difficult to go forward with my own work like this, unable to rectify two polar-opposite views of you. So please tell me, if you will, why I saw the unpleasant side of the distinguished scientist that morning, and why Randy did not.

I’ve decided not to critique the famous experiments with Simo that Randy filmed for you, although I will say, in passing, that dolphins do not in nature swim in 6′ deep donut-shaped pools, and any evidence acquired thereby can only be applied to the behavior of dolphins in the wild by a rather thinly stretched interpolation.

In closing, Dr. Irvine, I hope I have expressed myself clearly, and that you now know the reason for my impertinence in mentioning Dr. Lilly’s unspeakable name to you on that sorry morning. It WAS totally my fault that I failed to read your mind, and for that I can only offer sincere, if abject, apologies. Let me finally say to you the words that I have been wanting to say for 50 long, sad years: EAT SHIT AND DIE, YOU WORTHLESS WASTE OF PROTOPLASM! FUCK YOU AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON. I THINK YOU’RE A BUNKO SCIENTIST, AND IF YOU WERE CRUEL TO ME, WHO ELSE WERE YOU CRUEL TO? WHAT OTHER NON-PERSONS DID YOU STEP ON TO GET WHERE YOU ARE? I am sure they remember the encounters, even if you don’t.

Thank you for reading this letter. I will continue to donate to the SDRP because I believe in and trust Randy, not you. I hope I have made myself clear, and have a really fucked-up day.

Most sincerely, Malcolm J. Brenner, author of Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover and other books.

Interview: John C. Lilly, M.D. (Part 1)


An Interview with John C. Lilly


John Cunningham Lilly is that rare breed of scientist willing to talk openly about his belief in God—or, more precisely, his belief in his mind’s ability to simulate God with a reasonable degree of accuracy. An M.D. with psychiatric training, Lilly is best known for his sometimes controversial research on interspecies communications with bottlenose dolphins, a study he’s pursued for over 25 years (Man and Dolphin, Mind of the Dolphin, Lilly on Dolphins, Communication Between Man and Dolphin).

A self-described “permissionary” possessed of a sometimes dangerously insatiable curiosity about the workings of the human mind, Lilly has also immersed himself in sensory isolation tanks (Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, The Deep Self), experimented with hallucinogens and Sufi mysticism (Center of the Cyclone), deep dyadic relationships (The Dyadic Cyclone with Antoinette Lilly), and explored the fringes of his own consciousness in The Scientist, a “novel autobiography. ” With Antoinette Oshman Lilly, his wife, partner and “soulmate,” he has started the Human-Dolphin Foundation headquartered in Malibu, CA.

Lilly is currently conducting tests at a California oceanarium on a new computer program designed to overcome the difficulties of human-dolphin communication, Project JANUS (Joint Analog-Numerical Understanding System). Dr. Lilly was interviewed during the Second Annual Mind Miraculous Symposium of the Church of Religious Science in Seattle.

MB: How did the sensory isolation tank work you did at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early ’50s lead you to the dolphins?
JL: I began that work at the National Institute of Mental Health, just wondering what would happen if you freed yourself up from a lot of external stimulation, and lowered all the inputs to the lowest possible level; what would happen to your mind under those conditions? It was just curiosity, just that sort of extracurricular activity one does in one’s general research; they didn’t even know I was doing it on my own time. I was working on monkey brains, and I’d go off to the tank and come back to the lab with a different perspective.

When they got wind of this, they asked me to get deeper into it. I was floating around in the tank in 1954 and started wondering about these things. I was beginning to find that my freedom of thinking was immensely increased, freed up from the necessity of temperature and gravity and light and sound and all that. There was this huge freedom of imagination, of experiencing things inside, which isn’t there any other way that I know of. And I was just wondering whether there wasn’t somebody floating around 24 hours a day their whole life who might be experiencing this all the time, and who would consider it absolutely normal.

So I began to talk to various people about dolphins, Pete Scholander and various others, and got interested. And then the brain thing came in, looking at their brains, seeing if the substrate for mind was there. And it was.
MB: When you were doing that early tank work, did you have any of the type of apparent “contact” experiences with other civilizations or creatures from other planets or dolphins you wrote about in Center of the Cyclone?
JL: No, there was a period there from ’54 to ’58, when I left NIMH, where the dolphin work and the tank work were overlapping. I began to see that the dimensions of mind were far greater than I’d been assuming they were, and were assumed by psychiatrists and psychologists. And I didn’t own up to it at the time it was happening. I didn’t own up to it until I was free to set up a tank in the Virgin Islands without all this government support and financing.

In fact, none of the tank work was ever directly supported by government grants; it was all done extra-curricularly. And I didn’t realize how important it was until I began to see how my thinking was changing as a consequence of these experiences, and the kind of vastness of the whole business. The mysteries of the mind… I was really immersed in them. And I began to see that the dolphin mind was probably far greater than our consensus reality allowed our minds to be. That’s why I want to communicate.
MB: In the early ’60s, you got a lot of publicity from media like Life and Newsweek, and there was a big surge of interest in the possibility of interspecies communications with dolphins. Did that make your work more difficult? Did it make other scientists more skeptical of you because you’d “gone public” before your results were confirmed?
JL: That was unplanned; the results began to come out in sources like The Journal of Acoustical Research & Engineering, and the media got interested. They were reporting on what we were doing; we weren’t seeking them. Now, as to what you mean by “other scientists,” I don’t know.
MB: Other marine mammalogists.
JL: Well, I’m not a marine mammalogist. Never have been. I’ve never been a cetologist or a delphinologist in the narrow sense that those people call themselves. I’ve never approached dolphins that way; I’ve always approached them from the standpoint of mind. They won’t even assume dolphins have a mind, so right off the bat we’re in entirely different domains of discourse. I’ve never felt that conflict they’ve felt; it’s their conflict, not mine.

MB: Between the period in 1968 when you released your dolphins and the beginning of Project JANUS, did you get discouraged about your dolphin research?

JL: Well, the time wasn’t right. The computers weren’t fast enough, small enough, and didn’t have large enough memories to do the job I wanted them to do.
MB: Between Aristotle in 350 B.C. and the resurgence of dolphin interest in the ’50s, due largely to your work, we have a terrible gap in our curiosity about these creatures. Why? How did we lose that closeness with the dolphins that the Greeks and some other ancient peoples had?

JL: The Mediterranean was much warmer in the time of the ancient Greeks, and they were much closer to the sea. And Aristotle was, I think, a kind of observing genius who got in contact with fishermen and people who were in close contact with the dolphins. And they must have had dolphins in captivity, caught in shallow pools or something like that, and they just were free with them, spoke to the dolphins, and the dolphins spoke back. It was this intimate contact, which we reproduced in experiments back in the ’50s and ’60s, which led to Project JANUS. In the modern oceanaria there isn’t much of this. It’s beginning, but it’s not there yet.
It’s shallow-water intimacy with the dolphins. Humans in deep water are pretty ineffective; dolphins in extremely shallow water are pretty ineffective, but you have to balance those two things together, and I think that just by chance the Greeks did that.
If you follow the history of humans since then, they got away from that, away from the sea. They stuck to deep water when they went to sea, and this tidepool thing just disappeared. The whole attitude—the belief systems and so on—were counter to it. The Jewish-Christian-Muslim ethic took over, and we totally moved away from that free-floating thing the Greeks had. The interest in dolphins as reincarnated humans and all that disappeared.
MB: One point Robin Brown makes in his book The Lure of the Dolphin is that, in terms of their morals and their scruples, the Greeks actually placed the dolphins above their own gods! One can detect a lot of the same thing in your writings—that there is a morality in the dolphins that prevents them from harming humans, under most circumstances.

JL: Ethics. It’s taught. The Greeks worshipped dolphins; they had a dolphin cult. Temples to them were found in the Negeb desert in Jordan, for instance. It was a very, very different socialized belief system which disappeared. And the modern point of view, which we started going after, was just sort of empirical approaches to them based on all sorts of considerations the Greeks didn’t have, such as their large brains, their behavior in captivity—those sorts of things.
MB: Do you think the Greeks kept dolphins in captivity for religious purposes?
JL: Yeah, I think that the original Delphic oracle, before the gal who was breathing vapors from a vent in a volcano, was probably a seaside thing that was never written up, in which certain people began to use dolphins speaking in air as oracles—spiracle oracles, you might say. But that’s speculation.
MB: You said earlier that you weren’t expecting a “breakthrough ” at this stage of Project JANUS. Is it fair to ask what you are expecting?
JL: A lot of hard work, one step after the other. For a while we’re going to have to be really restrictive, because it’s going to be a lot of hard work by a very few people. It’ll be a while before we can get our feet on the… get our feet wet. We don’t talk about “getting our feet on the ground’’ any more.
MB: What level of communication do you think you can achieve with the equipment you now have?
JL: I don’t know; that’s open-ended. Imagine starting out with humans, say, somebody that didn’t know your language, with the JANUS program. Now, in the JANUS software there is a program which chooses alternate tables of frequencies; one for the dolphins, based on their frequency discrimination curve, and one for humans, based on ours, and we’ve been working with humans on this. Turns out that there are new gestalts that develop. For instance, if you type H-E-L-L-O and activate JANUS, it comes back with the frequency for H, and the frequency for E, the frequency for L, and repeats it, and the frequency for O. This makes a little tune. And that word has been used so many times around the lab that everybody knows when the computer’s saying “hello!”
MB: Like the tones on a touch-tone phone?
JL: No, it’s not, because the touch-tone phone is designed so you can’t do that. Each button has two tones, so a pure tone won’t affect it; they’re fouling you up on that. It doesn’t have the clarity it would if they were pure sine waves. The basic idea is quite different, actually. What does the phone have—12 buttons?—of which we only use 10 for normal dialing. And we have 48 buttons, each one of which gives you pure sine waves, and each of which you can remember, without trying to untangle multiple frequencies. So you’re hearing pure tones the way you would keying a synthesizer with only one oscillator instead of three.
MB: But you type in ”hello” and what comes out is a characteristic tune?
JL: A gestalt, right. An easily recognizable acoustic gestalt. It looks as though we will be doing a very peculiar job, which reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Bead Game in Magister Ludi, in which they’re combining mathematics, logic and music in a very complex game. And that’s what we’re doing, really—developing a whole new vocabulary in the acoustic sphere which is representable by ordinary typewriter script. John Klemmer came up and started playing with it, and he wants to write music this way. So now you can type out music on an ordinary typewriter. For instance, we worked out what that theme they used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind means, where they start communicating with the aliens. You have these five notes. Well, it turns out that on the JANUS program those are S, U, Q, B and K.
MB: Not much of a message…
JL: Yes it is, because anybody who’s seen CE3K recognizes it instantly. So you’ve got all these new degrees of freedom in the acoustic versus the symbolic typing. For instance, we can type out a very long message on JANUS, put it through a phone line, bring it back into JANUS, and JANUS will type out what those sounds mean.
MB: Why did you decide on a computer system, rather than a frequency-shifting real-time vocoder, as described in Mind of the Dolphin?
JL: I wanted a system that is more easily, reliably reproducible than a human talking.
MB: Punch a key on the computer and you always get the same sound out the other side?
JL: Right. It’s an elementary approach where you have a chance of learning new things about the dolphins’ perceptual systems. Then you can eventually design something that’s much more sophisticated, based on the basics you discover with this approach.

It’s what you might call a survey apparatus. You’ve got a general purpose computer you can reprogram; general purpose interfaces you can reprogram through the computer so the voice can be reprogrammed, the ear can be reprogrammed. So you can try different approaches. We’re initially starting with pure sine waves as the output to the dolphins, from about 3,000 to 40,000 Hz., and varying the duration. We’ve had to modify our initial guesses to match their frequency-discrimination curve a little better. We may then add clicks, continuous FM whistles and tones.
This is just the initiation, the opening-up of the whole field. JANUS is the first system that has total round-trip feedback, where the computer has a voice and ears, instead of dictating to the dolphins, as some other researchers are doing. They ignore what the dolphins have to say, mainly because they don’t have the sophisticated approaches that allow the computer to hear and interpret the sounds.
MB: Will the computer have a memory system that will allow it to build up a vocabulary of dolphin sounds?
JL: Not initially, though we will be building that up through the transitional symbolic vocabulary. We’re starting with 48 symbols, which is a sufficiently large population so we can get a large number of different strings. English has 44 phonemes in it. That should appeal to the dolphins; they like long strings and complex strings, a great variety of sound. And we’re covering their frequency-discrimination curve where they’re best at it, the way English covers the human curve.
MB: So the objective of JANUS is to set up an intermediary language between humans and dolphins?
JL: Yeah. Now language… we’ve set up a code system to develop any number of languages, and we’ve tried to arrive at a reproducible standardized system, which you can’t do with a vocoder, because of the variations in individual voices… yet vocoders have degrees of freedom this doesn’t have. The vocoder will respond to different kinds of voices, and the dolphins will answer in different voices. But here, we’re requiring a rather narrow slot in performance on their part, which we can record and follow.

So at one end of the spectrum you have this rather rigid system we’ve devised, and at the other you have a somewhat more flexible system. We’ll probably meet in the middle somewhere, so there’s more flexibility and it’s more like a voice.
MB: Now, if I were a dolphin inputting into JANUS, would I have to input in the same pure sine wave tones JANUS puts out to me?
JL: Well, we had a gal who put a pair of headphones on—we used the human scale on this —and she had a Moog synthesizer, the keys on it marked like a typewriter, so you can tell just what you’re typing out. She was typing things in, listening to the tune, then singing it back into JANUS through a microphone. And she could make the transfer; she would type out words on the synthesizer, hear them, then with her own voice sing to JANUS, and JANUS would type out the same thing. But she’s an expert singer.
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.


Read Part 2