It was 1983. February, I think. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area to see friends. This particular evening I was visiting my friend Mike in Palo Alto.
Mike’s a really great guy. The previous year he and his roommate had let me sleep on the floor of their tiny apartment at Stanford for several weeks while I worked on Project JANUS, John Lilly’s dolphin communication effort. Mike had moved out of that apartment, though, and was now renting a room in the home of his employer, Joan, who ran a computer literacy program for grade school kids.
Joan’s last name was Targ1. Mike had told me this. But it didn’t occur to me that she might be married to Russell Targ, even though I’d read one of Russell Targ’s books, and even though I knew he worked at Stanford Research Institute. I didn’t make the connection until I was actually in Russell Targ’s house and Mike was introducing me to him.
So I knew who he was, but of course he didn’t know me from Adam. And in any case he was busy making yogurt, and paying a lot more attention to his cultured dairy product than to the stranger in his kitchen. I said that I’d read his book, but that didn’t seem to make much of a dent in his consciousness. He just asked if I was a student. Which of course I wasn’t, having graduated from college six years prior.
By way of introduction, Mike mentioned that I’d been working on John Lilly’s project. THAT got a reaction. Targ said, “John Lilly’s a crackpot. There’s no reason to think that dolphins could ever use language.“
I didn’t feel like disputing the point, partly because his mind was obviously made up, and partly because I really had no idea myself whether dolphins could learn to use language. I had an open mind on the question, but I actually hadn’t seen much evidence one way or the other while working on Lilly’s project. So I just let it go, and Mike and I left Dr. Targ to his yogurt.
Well, so what, you may be thinking. Lots of people would feel that trying to teach dolphins a language is a nutty idea.
But here’s why this incident struck me as weird and slightly humorous: Russell Targ’s own field of study is the paranormal. You know, ESP. He had published at least half a dozen books on the subject. The one I’d read was called “Mind Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Ability.” In it, Targ talks about experiments he’s done with what he calls “remote viewing.” One person goes off somewhere across town and randomly chooses some scene to look at — a bridge, say — while another person sits in the laboratory and tries to “receive” what the first person is seeing. Targ claims that the receivers, who are just ordinary, untrained blokes like you and me, are able to draw pretty accurate renditions of what the senders (also just regular joes) are looking at. Pretty interesting stuff – although to my knowledge, nobody has ever replicated Targ’s results. I tried it myself a couple of times with a friend who shares my interest in how minds work, and we got zilch.
As for dolphin language: Dolphins have large brains, much larger than those of the apes that have been taught a form of sign language, and their brain to body weight ratio is second only to humans. They demonstrate their intelligence in many ways, they obviously communicate with each other, and the sounds they make are mathematically as rich in information content as human speech. And to date we have made very little progress in understanding dolphin vocalizations, or how and what they communicate to each other.
None of this proves that dolphins do or can use language comparable to human language, but it does leave the question wide open.
Anyway, it struck me as strange that Russell Targ, of all people, would be so close-minded about dolphin language as to believe that the question isn’t even worth considering. Talk about people who live in glass houses.
So why would he say such a thing?
One possibility that comes to mind is that it was a defensive reaction. His own research puts him so far out on a limb that his credibility as a scientist is pretty tenuous, so he avoids at all cost any appearance of being remotely associated with anything else that might seem flakey.
In any case, it’s another example of a scientist succumbing to the very human tendency to hold firm beliefs based on little more than a popular preconceived notion. Science dogma, in other words.
Here’s Russell Targ in a short video titled “An Open Mind”.
You can read more about Targ’s work and see videos of him speaking at his web site, ESPresearch.
- I later learned that Joan Targ was the older sister of chess champion Bobby Fischer. Which has nothing to do with this story; it’s just an interesting tangent. [↩]