Thanks for all the fish

Thomas Moynihan in Aeon:

The year is 1961. As Cold War tensions crescendo, an American neuroscientist named John C Lilly makes a bold claim. He announces that he has made contact with the first ‘alien’ intelligence. But Lilly wasn’t talking about little green men from Tau Ceti, he was talking of minds much closer to home: bottlenose dolphins.

Lilly had spent the previous decade hammering electrodes through animals’ craniums, attempting to map the reward systems of the brain. Having started probing the grey matter of macaques, he was shocked when he acquired some dolphins to test upon. Swiftly, he became convinced of their smarts. Upon hearing dolphins seemingly mimic human vocalisations – in their ‘high-pitched, Donald Duck, quacking-like way’ – he became certain that they also spoke to each other in ‘dolphinese’.

Lilly was the first to really demonstrate how socially intelligent these beings are. Of course, others had long made similar claims. Ancient Greek authors celebrated the nobility and philanthropy of the cetacean, recounting tales of human-dolphin companionship. But, in the modern era, the aquatic mammal fell into disrepute. One 19th-century captain referred to them as ‘warlike and voracious’. In 1836, the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier remarked on this fall from benevolent angel to carnivorous brute, deeming the wild dolphin a ‘stupid glutton’. But, given their prodigious brains, he was certain of the potential for intelligence. They have no natural competition, thus they have no need to cultivate their intellect. Venturing that humans raised in the same state would also be feral, Cuvier suggested that we civilise dolphins – thereby unleashing their potential for rationality.

More here.