It was Lilly’s research that inspired the group’s name: If humans couldn’t even communicate with animals that shared most of our evolutionary history, he believed, they were a bit daft to think they could recognize signals from a distant planet. With that in mind, the Order of the Dolphin set out to determine what our ocean-going compatriots here on Earth might be able to teach us about talking to extraterrestrials.
Lilly’s work on interspecies communication has since gone in and out of vogue several times within the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community. Today, it’s back in fashion, thanks to new applications of information theory and to technological advancements, such as the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device, a submersible computer interface that establishes basic communication with dolphins. The return to dolphins as a model for alien intelligence came in 1999, when SETI Institute astronomer Laurance Doyle proposed using information theory to analyze animal communication systems, particularly the whistle repertoire of bottlenose dolphins.
Since Lilly’s initial experiments, researchers have found that a number of species communicate using something that approaches the complexity of human language. Whether it is appropriate to characterize animal communication systems as “languages,” in the same way that English or Mandarin are languages, is a matter of debate. The crux of the debate centers on defining just what constitutes human language.
For one, languages are not innate but acquired through culture. And according to linguists, generally most, if not all, natural human languages enable individuals to refer to abstract concepts or things not present in the immediate environment, to create new words, and to create an infinite number of grammatical sentences of infinite length. Most researchers believe that dolphin squeaks and whistles lack many of these linguistic characteristics. Nevertheless, Doyle argued, their communication is still useful as a model for alien communication. Bottlenose dolphins, for instance, use something called referential signaling, which means that certain communications signals (auditory, visual, or otherwise) correspond to particular aspects of their environment. Some argue that dolphin signals can even be used to convey things such as mood, sex, or age of the dolphin. Their utterances—or squeaks and whistles—may not be as linguistically intricate as ours, but they can convey abstract information.
When twelve men gathered at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to discuss the art and science of alien hunting in 1961, the Order of the Dolphin was born. A number of the brightest minds from a range of scientific disciplines, including three Nobel laureates, a young Carl Sagan, and an eccentric neuroscientist named John Lilly—who was best known for trying to talk to dolphins—were in attendance.