Why was a project teaching dolphins to speak called the worst experiment in the world?

Stories of sex and LSD didn't help, says film-maker Christopher Riley

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Why was a project teaching dolphins to speak called the worst experiment in the world?
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Have you heard the one about a dolphin called Peter and a woman called Margaret who tried to teach him to speak English? It sounds like a joke but it isn’t. It’s a true story from the 1960s about a bona fide Nasa-backed experiment that had all the ambition and vision of the Moon shots, but sadly ended in tragedy.

The 60s was a remarkable decade. Technological breakthroughs that still dominate our lives were forged; our imagination knew no bounds, as the dawn of spaceflight propelled us to explore another world. The people who made these giant leaps were visionaries, who dreamt dreams and then made them happen. Odd as it seems today, the idea of teaching dolphins to speak English was not so strange back then.

I first heard about the experiment from BBC Science’s executive producer Mark Hedgecoe, who’d stumbled across it during the making of Inside the Animal Mind. It had apparently ended in scandal, with rumours of a sexual relationship between Margaret and Peter and the use of LSD on the dolphins. Most curiously of all, it seemed that Margaret hadn’t spoken about it for nearly 50 years.

Margaret Howe Lovatt is in her 70s today and living in the United States. I met her in Los Angeles to find out why she’s remained silent for so long. As we sipped genteel glasses of Arizona iced tea together, she told me why.

“I’d never heard of Hustler magazine,” she explained, referring to a 1970s soft porn magazine that had first publicised the salacious gossip over a decade after the experiment was ended. “I think there were two newsagents on the island where I lived. And I went to them both and bought up all the copies I could find.” Despite Margaret’s attempts to put a lid on it, the story was out there and twisted accounts of what went on continue to circulate to this day.

“It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she acknowledged. “The worst experiment in the world, I’ve read somewhere, was me and Peter. That’s fine, I don’t mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it.”

So how did she first get involved in this extraordinary experiment, and what really happened? As is often the case, the real story is even more remarkable than the scurrilous gossip that surrounds it.

In her early 20s, Margaret was invited to work as a volunteer on the interspecies communication project, which was the brainchild of American neuroscientist John Lilly.

By the middle of the 20th century it was known that dolphins had larger brains than us, and an inkling of their sophisticated social relationships was emerging. Unlike the great apes, dolphins could make human-like sounds through their blow-holes.

Such traits had been highlighted for Lilly when, in 1957, he’d noticed that one of the dolphins he and his team were working with seemed to be mimicking what they were saying. Interpreting this as an attempt to communicate with the humans around them, Lilly felt that the next logical step was to try to nurture their desires by coaching them to speak.

When astronomer Frank Drake heard of Lilly’s ambition, he immediately saw a connection with his own interests in life beyond Earth. Drake had recently attempted the first search for signals from intelligent extra-terrestrials elsewhere in the galaxy, using a large radio telescope. Lilly’s bid to communicate with another, apparently intelligent, big-brained, non-human species on Earth had interesting parallels.

With financial backing from Nasa and other government agencies Lilly opened a purpose-built laboratory on the US Virgin Island of St Thomas in 1963 to conduct the work. His ultimate vision was to create a bi-species society where dolphins and humans could coexist in more enlightened communities.

Margaret, who was working on the island at a hotel, heard about the project and, out of curiosity, paid a visit to the lab the following year. Impressing the staff there, she was invited back whenever she wanted to help, and soon began to work on Lilly’s grand vision to teach the animals to speak.

For the first few months Margaret gave the dolphins regular English lessons, using props to teach them new vocabulary. But, frustrated at the slow progress, she soon suggested taking the research to a new level, proposing to Lilly that she flood the building and live there around the clock with one of the animals called Peter. The idea was to teach him English like a mother teaching a child to speak.

Much of what unfolded there was captured on more than 3,000 audio tapes that are preserved today at Stanford University. With the assistance of the staff there I began the task of sifting through this unique archive to piece the story together. No one had listened to the tapes in almost 50 years.

What these recordings reveal is just how far the experiment went, and how good Peter got at mimicking Margaret. Within a few months of them co-habiting he could say, “Hello Margaret” and could copy her counting up to the number seven. His intonation wasn’t good, said Margaret, “but the inflection and timing between words, and the number of words: that’s what he got really good at.”

In the end their close-contact experiment only ran for nine months. In the absence of real results, and with Lilly sidetracked by the LSD culture, project members left and funders pulled out. Margaret still feels that if she’d been given longer then Peter could have progressed further.

Combined with first-hand accounts from Margaret and other witnesses to the experiment and a rich photographic archive from the time, which we gathered from across America, the documentary presents the real story of just what happened back in the 1960s, when we dreamt of talking to animals, and then tried to make it happen.

For Margaret it’s time to set the record straight. Determined to leave an accurate account of the experiment for her children, she told me she has been writing about it herself. “They think what I did was unusual and should be known,” she said. And that’s also why she agreed to talk to me on camera, so that others can also finally know the truth.

The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins Tuesday 9.00pm BBC4