In my early life I was deeply impacted by the work of physician and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly. I still have my dog-eared copies of The Mind of the Dolphin (1967) and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer (1968). Lilly's work, with dolphins and the development of the sensory deprivation tank, has formed the basis of movies, music and television productions.
In the 1972 novel The Listeners, (a science fiction novel centered on the search for interstellar communication), Lilly and the other scientists - members of the Order of the Dolphin - are mentioned as pioneers who formed the search for extraterrestrial intelligence project (SETI) in 1961.
The Order was so-named after Lilly's work on interspecies communication which he began in the 50's. During the early 1960's, Lilly published several papers reporting that dolphins could mimic human speech patterns.
In the 1973 movie The Day of the Dolphins, George C. Scott portrayed a Lilly-esque scientist who succeeded in teaching a dolphin to speak elementary English. In the 1980's Lilly directed a project which did attempt to teach dolphins a computer-synthesised language.
Researchers in the United States and Great Britain have made a significant breakthrough in deciphering dolphin language in which a series of eight objects have been sonically identified by dolphins. Team leader Jack Kassewitz 'spoke' to dolphins with the dolphin's own sound picture words. Dolphins in two separate research centers understood the words, presenting convincing evidence that dolphins employ a universal "sono-pictorial" language of communication.
The team was able to teach the dolphins simple and complex sentences involving nouns and verbs, revealing that dolphins comprehend elements of human language, as well as having a complex visual language of their own.
It seems that this work begins to close the circle of Lilly's life work - the search for intelligent life in the universe and human-dolphin communication.
As Kassewitz says: "Our research has provided an answer to an age-old question highlighted by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, 'Are we alone?' We can now unequivocally answer, 'no.' SETI's search for non-human intelligence in outer space has found right here on earth in the graceful form of dolphins."