From the Archives: Talking to the Animals (1980)

By Donald Finkel
Animals
Courtesy of High Times

The way things are going in outer space, it makes perfect sense to wonder what you’ll do when the first extraterrestrial terrenaut skitters out of his flying saucer into your own backyard. How will you know if he’s friendly, or if that’s a lethal instrument he’s pointing at you? Even with the kindest intentions on your part, will you be able to make him understand that all you really want to do is invite him in for a joint or a beer? Suppose, owing to the extremely thin atmosphere of his home planet, the visitor doesn’t use sound to communicate but expresses himself in subtle variations of color, in rippling violets and pulsing magentas? Will you even know he’s addressing you?

Alas, as yet not even the most distinguished universities have a Professor of Outlandish Languages on the faculty. But that isn’t to say nobody is working on the problem of communicating with nonhuman species. Even before Doctor Dolittle sang his song about wanting to “talk with the animals, learn their languages,” people have yearned to do just that, although most of the research, oddly enough, has been the other way around, in the direction of teaching certain animals to speak English. This is hardly practical. Dr. John C. Lilly warned in 1967: “If and when we encounter intelligent extraterrestrial communicating life-forms from other places in the universe, we will need results from communications research to apply there and then.” Lilly himself spent many years trying to establish communication with the bottlenose dolphin, a species almost as alien to man as our visitor from outer space but one already demonstrated to be intelligent, friendly to humans and possessed of a complex set of vocal signals. Dolphins communicate with each other by means of two orifices on either side of the blowhole, speaking underwater in a combination of clicks, whistles, blats, bleeps and farts. The question Lilly posed was whether they could be taught to produce a reasonable facsimile of English.

On the island of St. Thomas, in the Caribbean, Lilly built a remarkable facility, combining large saltwater pools and laboratories. For several months in 1965 one of Lilly’s young assistants, Margaret Howe, lived with a canny male dolphin, Peter, in a specially designed environment. At first, the object of the exercise was to teach Peter to speak by mimicking Margaret’s sounds. He did his best to oblige, raising himself out of the water to produce faintly recognizable noises in the air. But there was an unexpected result: a relationship developed between Margaret and the dolphin. Isolated as he was from females of his own species, Peter fell in love with his teacher and attempted to initiate sexual relations with her. He began by nibbling at her legs, a typical dolphin sign of affection, but that hurt her so much she was compelled to fend him off with a broom. Gradually he learned to be more gentle. He would rub his open mouth slowly and softly up and down her legs, and his long sleek body against hers, until he achieved an erection—at which point he might become so excited as to forget himself and literally knock her off her feet. Eventually, however, they arrived at a tacit understanding. Margaret wrote, “He slides very smoothly along my legs, and I can easily rub his penis with either my hand or my foot. Peter accepts either and again seems to reach some sort of orgasm and relaxes… It is a very precious sort of thing. Peter is completely involved, and I involve myself to the extent of putting as much love into the tone, touch and mood as possible. . . We cannot help but respect his happiness!”

A less tantalizing quote from Margaret Howe is her account of an episode in which she responded to Peter as if he were the teacher and she the student: “One time I let him ramble on and on, but I tried to copy all of his sounds. The tape was interesting. I was surprised at how well I was able to copy at least his pitch . . . and how he seemed to test me with new combinations of sounds. . . . ” Margaret clearly demonstrated her willingness to consider an alternative approach to communication, recognizing the possibility that the dolphin might become a more active partner in their interspecies adventure. Unfortunately, the project was not designed to follow up these implications of Peter’s actions as language instructor.

Lilly eventually suspended his dolphin research. “I closed the dolphin laboratory,” he said, “because I did not want to run a concentration camp for my friends.” Recently, however, he has been tooling up to resume his investigations, but with a significant shift in approach. Instead of trying to teach the dolphins English, he will attempt to work in terms of their own methods of communication. He reasons that dolphin language is probably based on “acoustic pictures,” similar to the sonarlike echoes by which dolphins “see” in their natural ocean environment. Dolphins transmit and receive information much more rapidly than humans, although they’ve tried in the past to accommodate themselves to our slowness, as well as to our lower-frequency range of transmission. To simplify matters for the dolphins, Lilly intends to utilize special sound transformers called “vocoders,” as well as high-speed computers. He has named his program the JANUS (Joint Analog Numerical Understanding System) project.

Lilly expects that he’ll soon be able to begin transmitting to dolphins in sonic code comprising 64 basic signals. Because of the difficulty of attracting and sustaining the attention of dolphins in the wild, Lilly says he’ll first have to do a couple of years’ work with captive dolphins in oceanariums, in either California or Florida, perfecting his equipment and techniques. But his ultimate aim is to communicate with dolphins in their natural context. He says there are a lot of bored dolphins in captivity for whom he might be able to provide a certain amount of distraction and intellectual challenge. Lilly has been careful in the past not to criticize the oceanariums publicly, because of the profound influence they’ve had in educating the general public, making it aware of the existence and the intelligence of dolphins, though in a circus atmosphere. “If it weren’t for the oceanariums,” he has noted, “I would not have been able to do my initial work.”

Back in 1977, I received the text of a proposal by another enterprising organization, calling itself Dolphin Embassy. It quoted the words of the well-known astronomer Carl Sagan: “Though the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may take a very long time, we could not do better than to start with a program of rehumanization by making friends with the whales and dolphins.” The group was seeking financial support for the construction of a special ferro-cement craft, not so much a boat as a “floating communications station conceived to maximize close human/dolphin interaction on a long-term basis in the open sea environment.” They intend to set up this station on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, whose waters are populated with numerous species of whales and dolphins. They plan to employ a crew of men and women with experience not only in the fields of electronics, marine biology and oceanography, but in art, music, film and videotape as well. Such an ambitious and multifaceted program had never been proposed before. Curtis Schreier, the architect who designed the communications station, told me that, though they had attempted a few smaller experiments (one of them playing music on specially constructed percussion instruments to dolphins off the coast of Baja California), they are still trying to gather adequate funding for their major project.

The recent quickening of interest in dolphin and whale behavior is due in part to Lilly’s pioneering research and to the work of Roger Payne, who has recorded the songs of the humpback whale as well as the voices of blue and white whales. The continuing struggle of organizations like the Greenpeace Foundation to publicize the plight of these remarkably intelligent sea mammals, and to prevent the extinction of many species by commercial whaling and fishing interests, has dramatically underscored the need to step up such research.

A few years ago, Dr. Louis Herman of the University of Hawaii developed a 12-word sonic language. He was on the verge of establishing two-way communication when two of his former assistants set free the dolphins with which he had been working, because the assistants had begun to entertain doubts as to the morality of experimentation on captive creatures. At Marineland in St. Augustine, William Langbauer carried out several experiments with dolphins, using magnetized symbols displayed on the side of the tank, beneath the surface of the water. However, the amount of research focused primarily on the problem of communication has been relatively slight.

One explanation for the curious reluctance of many scientists to venture into this fascinating area is the potentially threatening nature of what may be found there. One of the fundamental assumptions of Western culture has always been that Homo sapiens alone has the capacity for language. Indeed, it is believed that it is this very capacity that distinguishes humans from the rest of animal creation, enabling us to transmit information, whether technological or cultural, from one generation to the next. For many years, as writer Emily Hahn discovered when she began investigating recent achievements in animal communication, this belief continued to appear valid. In spite of repeated attempts, including the well-known cases of apes raised in human households, no one had ever actually succeeded in getting any primate to talk. Then came the breakthrough discovery that this failure was due to the fact that although the primates, particularly chimpanzees, have faces that closely resemble the human face, the internal anatomical construction of the chimpanzee vocal apparatus differs in crucial ways from ours. In fact, the anatomy of the chimpanzee’s throat makes it impossible for a chimp to form the sounds necessary for human speech.

It then occurred to some scientists at the University of Nevada that the inability to communicate by vocal sounds might not necessarily mean that a chimp could not grasp the fundamentals of verbal communication, once the words had been translated into—for example—the language of gestures widely used by the deaf. And so, about 15 years ago, B.T. and R.A. Gardner and Roger Fouts began to teach a young female chimpanzee named Washoe the American Sign Language (Ameslan), with gratifying results. Because of the enormous strength and reputed belligerence of males at sexual maturity, most of the early experimental chimps were female. Fouts reports that the difficulties encountered by conventional researchers working with even mature females has led most specialists to assume that it is extremely dangerous to work with them after about the age of eight, although Fouts claims these fears have been greatly exaggerated and are the result of the essentially inhumane conditions imposed on the chimps under ordinary laboratory conditions. Because of this fear, however, investigators concerned with communication have found it difficult to obtain funding to carry on their work with the chimps once they have reached maturity.

The Gardners had acquired Washoe as an infant. She lived in a house trailer in their backyard. Whenever they spoke to her they used sign language, going so far as to use it to communicate with each other when she was present. Washoe was never left alone during her waking hours. As she climbed trees, played in her sandbox and went through her daily routines, she was always accompanied by at least one member of the research team, who chatted with her in Ameslan. In a remarkably short time Washoe was able both to recognize and to use the Ameslan signs she had been taught. She soon progressed to using sequences of signs in order to communicate her needs; for example, instead of banging on a door she wanted opened, Washoe would sign, “Hurry open door,’’ or, “Open gimme key.” She and other experimental animals have since surprised their teachers by combining known signs for familiar objects into new and often oddly expressive phrases to describe unfamiliar things—a Brazil nut is a “rock berry,” watermelon is “candy drink” or “drink fruit,” and chewing tobacco is “string pipe food.”

At Emory University in Atlanta, Duane Rumbaugh tried another approach. He kept a chimp named Lana in a Plexiglas enclosure furnished with a computer console. By pressing the right keys in the correct order, Lana learned to manipulate a bank of food and drink dispensers, a tape player and a film projector. By punching such messages as “Please machine make music,” Lana could turn on a few minutes of the Rolling Stones; or she could ask to be shown a segment of the film Primate Growth and Development (her favorite flick). Within a couple of years, Lana could carry on extensive conversations through the computer, not only asking for food or entertainment but responding directly to such queries as “What is this?” when the investigator, outside her enclosure, held up a shoe, a banana or some other object. Unfortunately, both her responses and the expressions initiated by her were severely limited by the programming of the computer. Computer technology does not leave any room for creativity, whether man’s or chimp’s, once the machine has been programmed.

Somewhat similar experiments with a different chimp, Sarah, were going on under the direction of David Premack at Santa Barbara. Using metalbacked plastic symbols on a magnetized board, Sarah learned within a year to construct such complex sentences as “If Sarah give red card to Mary, then Mary give candy to Sarah.” After Sarah reached sexual maturity, Premack decided to try substituting an immature male chimpanzee, named Walnut, for the candy. Walnut was the first male of her species that Sarah had seen since she was about nine months old, and her response when they were first introduced was to embrace him and take his penis in her mouth, to their evident mutual enjoyment. “If Sarah is good, then Mary give Sarah Walnut,” they wrote on the board outside her cage. Alas, Premack reported, although such procedures improved Sarah’s work habits, it was necessary to tear the two screaming animals apart after a few minutes to get on with the lessons, and the use of prepackaged sex was abandoned “on grounds both of possible injury to Walnut and of its repugnant character.” Nobody thought to ask Sarah how she felt about that.

Another chimp, Lucy, reared in the relatively permissive atmosphere of psychotherapist Maury Temerlin’s household, was luckier. She managed to form a one-sided liaison with a Montgomery Ward vacuum cleaner, which she learned to switch on whenever she felt horny. She would run the nozzle back and forth over her body, especially her turgid pussy, switching from suction to blowing, until she achieved orgasm. Lucy also discovered the pleasures of alcohol. “In some ways,” Temerlin remarked in the book he wrote about the project, “Lucy is an ideal drinking companion. She is very appreciative, always making sounds of great delight when offered a drink. She never gets obnoxious, even when smashed to the brink of unconsciousness. Alcohol relaxes her, and it improves her sense of humor, for she laughs and laughs, tickling herself, posturing before a mirror, and making ‘crazy’ faces and laughing at them.” Although Emily Hahn writes that Lucy recently switched to martinis, like many human imbibers she used to prefer gin and tonic in the summertime and whiskey sours or Jack Daniels with (yeccch!) 7-Up in the winter. She’d stretch out with a cocktail and a magazine, preferably Playgirl (she loved the nude male centerfold); lacking that, she’d settle for a National Geographic or Psychology Today, turning the pages slowly and commenting to herself from time to time in Ameslan. As she came to each photo of a male nude in Playgirl, her excitement visibly increased, and she’d stare at the penis, or scratch at it with her finger, emitting a low, guttural ‘‘uh-uh-uh-uh.”

A good number of chimps have discovered the pleasures of tobacco. At the institute, I watched one burn off a pipeful in three or four humongous drags, holding her breath after each one so that hardly a trickle of smoke escaped—all the while standing on her head in the red Oklahoma dust. When I tried to pick up the pipe, I found it almost incandescently hot. As a matter of fact, chimps have a much higher pain threshold than humans and sometimes injure people unintentionally, after which they are profusely apologetic. One of the researchers at the institute told me that when he was working with Lucy several years ago, she bit his hand a little harder than she’d intended, in an access of excitement, necessitating several stitches. When he saw her again several weeks later, she hurried over to him and solicitously examined his wound. ‘‘What’s that?” he signed to her, wondering if Lucy really recalled the incident. “Lucy hurt Bob,” she signed back. “Why Lucy hurt Bob?” he persisted. “I don’t know,” she replied, which was obviously the truth. Every time she saw Bob thereafter, once even after a year’s interval, she’d request to see his scar, signing to him, “Lucy hurt Bob,” and “Lucy sorry. ”

Lucy’s facility with Ameslan (her teacher was Roger Fouts) was at least as remarkable as Washoe’s. By now there are numerous chimps around the country who are adept at using Ameslan. And at Stanford University, Penny Patterson claims to have taught a gorilla, Koko (now about eight years old), to use about 375 signs. Like the chimps, Koko has invented her own ingenious names for various objects, calling a ring a “finger bracelet” and her Pinocchio doll “elephant baby.” Contrary to popular belief, gorillas, though enormously powerful, are essentially gentle, shy and tractable creatures, perhaps even milder than chimpanzees.

Sitting under a tree with Roger Fouts at the Institute for Primate Studies at Norman, Oklahoma, we discussed one of the most intriguing aspects of Fouts’s research: the possibility of the chimps’ using Ameslan to communicate among themselves. When Washoe was first introduced to the other chimps at the institute, she attempted to get them to share goodies with her by signing such requests as “Gimme berry” or “Gimme banana,” but to her dismay they paid no attention to her gestures. When she changed her tactics, signing instead, “Come hug,” she began to get results. Two younger chimps, Booie and Bruno, have often been observed signing to each other. Fouts is particularly interested in observing to what extent Washoe succeeds in teaching Ameslan to her offspring. Washoe has been living for the past few months with an adopted son, now about a year old, whom she has already taught several signs, which he clearly understands and has learned to use in the correct contexts. Other researchers have already determined that even lower orders of simians are capable of passing on new cultural information, such as new food-gathering methods, from generation to generation. Assuming that the acquisition of language would dramatically widen the horizons of chimpanzees, there is no telling what effect it might eventually have on their future evolution.

If animals share our capacity for speech, how do we know they don’t share the power of reasoning and the consciousness of self traditionally ascribed to humans alone?

Recently, Herbert Terrace of Columbia University, after four years of teaching the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky sign language, has reported that he now believes he overestimated the ape’s capacity for language. Much of Nim’s behavior, he concludes, was the result of responses to the teacher’s unconscious cues; he notes also that Nim rarely initiated signing on his own, and that he never comprehended the nature of two-way conversation. He now claims that the results of earlier experiments with apes were likewise unreliable.

Several researchers were quick to reply. Penny Patterson thinks Terrace’s findings are the result of the relative brevity of his project. Washoe’s original teacher, R.A. Gardner, believes it might take as long as 20 years to teach an ape true syntax. He continues, “The problem with all of Dr. Terrace’s claims is that he keeps changing his definitions. If Washoe signs after being asked a question, he claims that’s prompting. If she signs something she’s seen her teacher sign, that’s imitation. If she repeats something she said before, that’s a result of behavior reinforcement, and if she signs something only once, that’s an anecdote. If you use the same criteria to judge human children, you’d have to conclude that they don’t have language either.” A couple of years ago, in fact, the linguist John Limber made just such an assertion. “Washoe, like most children during their second year, has achieved a considerable degree of proficiency in using arbitrary symbols to communicate. This is not to say, however, that Washoe or most two-year-old children use a human language.” It would appear that some scientists will go to any length to avoid admitting that apes are capable of human language.

In spite of the Up service paid to Darwin’s theories of evolution, strenuous opposition still exists within the scientific establishment to any idea that threatens the credo that humans are somehow special, and that their position in the universe is central to it. If it can now be demonstrated that the single characteristic hitherto assumed to belong to Homo sapiens alone is shared by other animals, many new and threatening questions arise. If certain animals share our capacity for speech, how do we know they don’t share other traits, such as the power of reasoning and consciousness of self, that have traditionally been ascribed to humans alone? And if they do share these traits, how can we justify our continued dominance over them? Will we not then be obliged to consider animals “individuals,” entitled to “rights” similar to those guaranteed us by the Constitution? What will happen to medical research?

The scientific community continues to look on interspecies communication research with grave suspicions. Whatever the reason for this suspicion, the result is continuing lack of funds. It was lack of funds that cut short Dr. Terrace’s project involving Nim Chimpsky. Without funds, research comes to a standstill. John Lilly believes that if such research were undertaken it would indicate to an interested extraterrestrial civilization that Homo sapiens was ready at last to relinquish both “human chauvinism” and predatory attitudes toward other species. Until then, he warns off all such possible visitors. “With our depredations committed against one another and our depredations upon whales, making cat (and dog) food out of their bodies, I advise all extraterrestrial beings off this very dangerous planet,” he has written. It is to be hoped that terrenauts will heed Lilly’s words and stay out of our backyards until we humans manage to establish a better working relationship with the other intelligent species on our own planet.

High Times Magazine, February 1980

Read the full issue here.

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