Thinking Like an Octopus

Still from “My Octopus Teacher.” (Netflix)

Just over five years ago, Inky the octopus became a folk hero because of his escape from a New Zealand aquarium. After squeezing through a narrow chink in his tank, he crawled across the floor and found an opening to a 164-foot-long drainpipe that led to the ocean. As much as I enjoyed the film based on Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, which climaxes in Tim Robbin’s daring prison break, I only wish that a gifted animation team like the one that made “How to Train Your Dragon” could tell Inky’s story.

At the time, I made a mental note to myself to learn about octopuses. From the time that I read about Inky, interest in the creatures has increased dramatically with this year’s Oscar for documentary going to “My Octopus Teacher.” Nearly everybody who spends time looking at octopus YouTube videos, or going further and reading books about them, will be struck by both their intelligence and inscrutability.

This article will discuss Sy Montgomery’s best-selling “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.” It will also review “My Octopus Teacher.” Despite the inclusion of the word “consciousness” in both titles, there are vast differences between the two. Montgomery’s focus is on the interplay between humans and the octopus taking place in aquariums just like the kind that Inky fled, while Godfrey-Smith applies neuroscience and Darwinism to a creature that seemingly defies what these disciplines hold as sacrosanct. In either book, you’ll discover that both authors have the kind of love for the octopus that other authors had for the chimpanzee or the wolf. I, of course, am referring to Jane Goodall and Farley Mowat respectively.

When I was young, there was not much love for the octopus, especially in Hollywood films. In the screen version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Kirk Douglas battles an octopus (or perhaps a squid) that is trying to overwhelm and destroy Captain Nemo’s “Nautilus,” a submarine that is on a mission to ram and sink munitions-carrying ships. As it happens, Nemo’s vessel is named after another cephalopod. The nautilus, which Godfrey-Smith analyzes in great detail, has both tentacles like the octopus and a shell. Hundreds of millions of years ago, a similar creature found that abandoning the shell would allow it to adapt better to its underwater surroundings even though it lost some of its protection. As an invertebrate, the octopus compensated for the loss by developing a brain that can compete with other “smart” animals such as the dog or the parrot. However, the octopus reached this level of intelligence 270 million years ago while the other animals in its league got brainer many millions of years later. In fact, the octopus became the smartest kids on the block during the Cambrian Age that preceded the Mesozoic Age’s dinosaurs. Talk about being ahead of the curve!

As a general introduction to the octopus, Sy Montgomery’s can be recommended but not really deserving the rave reviews that turned it into a best-seller. Despite the first name, Montgomery is a female author who has written 26 books, mostly about wildlife, including 15 for children. The afore-mentioned Farley Mowat paid tribute to her: “Sy Montgomery has insight into the Others that every nature writer on this continent envies. I am no exception. Clear, emotionally telling and always right to the point, her accounts of the other forms of life are without peer.”

Her book is structured as encounters with octopuses at the New England Aquarium and other research centers. In the first chapter, we meet Athena, a forty pound female giant octopus from the Pacifica Ocean, their natural habitat, that takes a liking to Montgomery who offers her arm to Athena as if to shake hands with a person you’ve just met. Fortunately for her, Athena was receptive. Given her ability to lift 35 pounds with one of her larger suckers, she could have easily dragged the author into the tank if the spirit moved her.

How do you truly understand the intentions of an octopus? Montgomery comes down on both sides of the question. She cites Ludwig Wittgenstein who said, “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him” and adds that with the octopus, the opportunity for misunderstanding is greatly magnified. Throughout the book, there is tendency for her to make her subjects more understandable even if at the expense of anthropomorphizing them. She describes how Athena reacts to being fed by Bill Wilson, the aquarium’s octogenarian “octopus whisperer”:

Once Athena finishes eating her fish, she plays gently with Wilson’s hands and forearms. Occasionally the tendril-like tip of an arm curls up to his elbow, but almost lazily; mostly her arms twist weightlessly in the water, her suckers gently kissing his skin. With me, before, her suction had felt exploratory, insistent. But with Wilson she is completely relaxed. As I look at the man and the octopus touching each other, they remind me of a happy older couple, many years into a loving marriage, tenderly holding hands.

Such metaphors permeate “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and make it a more pleasurable read than a more textbook approach. Ultimately, the title might have been amended to read “The Soul of an Octopus and the Naturalist Who Loved Them” without ill intentions. Trying to make sense out of an invertebrate that rivals a poodle in terms of intelligence would challenge any author. If you can accept the writerly need to anthropomorphize the 270 million year old species, you will also get a great deal of solid information about a creature that might survive our wicked ways for another 270 million years from now.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” is an attempt to go beyond Wittgenstein’s warning about the talking lions. It is not as if he is trying to describe what makes an octopus like a poodle but what intelligence means for a creature that followed a distinctly different evolutionary path.

Much of the book is an attempt to rethink Darwinian evolution through an upside-down tree metaphor. If life began in the ocean with blind and brainless single-cell organisms darting about a billion years ago, there were two distinct branches that eventually laid the groundwork for life on earth today.

In his tree chart, you find octopuses grouped with more primitive forms of life, such as the jellyfish even though its brain rivals the size and intelligence of many mammals who belong on a far more advanced evolutionary branch. Godfrey-Smith explains how something close to a worm historically on the evolutionary tree ended up with an intelligence much more like dolphins:

Some insects and spiders engage in very complex behavior, especially social behavior, but they still have small nervous systems. That’s how things go in this branch—except for the cephalopods. These are a subgroup within the mollusks, so they are related to clams and snails, but they evolved large nervous systems, and the ability to behave in ways very different from other invertebrates. They did this on an entirely separate evolutionary path from ours.

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. [emphasis added.]

Furthermore, if intelligence is related to the amount of neurons in a creature’s brains, some attention must be paid to how they are located in an octopus’s body. Most are not in its head but in its arms. Each tentacle has millions of them that it uses to help in finding food but without the direct visual cues that go along with the eye-to-brain pathway. For an octopus, there are the usual experiments that measure a lab specimen’s IQ such as rats finding the shortest path to food in a maze or challenging a chimpanzee to place a round peg in a round hole, etc. Godfrey-Smith argues that it is much better to see an octopus’s intelligence in terms of its ability to reproduce itself in the ocean. One example is how this one carries around coconut shells that can come in handy fending off a shark’s bite.

Considering the fact that the octopus has done fairly well in its native habitat for over 270 million years, there is little doubt that it at least has very sharp street smarts.

To really get a handle on an octopus’s native intelligence, the best place to go is “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. It demonstrates how they can interact with human beings without the need to anthropomorphize them. It also shows how they can “invent” solutions to the problems they face on the ocean floor.

It is about the “relationship” formed between a veteran South African documentary filmmaker and an octopus he ran into in the underwater kelp forest near his oceanside home. Unlike most films about human-animal interaction, it is blissfully free of Walt Disney type schmaltz and will be of keen interest to children and geezers alike. It is reminder as well that in order for these tentacled space aliens to survive, they need to have optimum environmental supports such as the kelp forest that Craig Foster hopes to protect through his Sea Change Project foundation.

During one of his scuba diving excursions (without a tank that he found to inhibit his filming) in the kelp forest, he spotted a strange object that even seemed to mystify the fish swimming nearby. It appeared to be stack of seashells that somehow became cemented to each other as if magnetized. We then see the shells collapsing, only to reveal an octopus that had gathered them around his body like the coconut shells referred to above. It was this very octopus that became his teacher, which meant sensitizing him to the Other.

From that moment onward, Foster went looking for the octopus (a female belonging to octopus vulgaris) every day. Growing used to his presence, the creature eventually decided to extend a tentacle to Foster as if to say “nice to meet you.” His affinity with the creature allowed him to get striking close-ups of her changing colors, walking on two tentacles as a human being out on a stroll, and sprouting horns. It constantly changes shapes, at one point resembling a rock moving on its own across the ocean floor. Her familiarity with Foster eventually allows her to hitchhike on his hand as he swims to the surface.

Around an hour into the documentary, we see the octopus street smarts on full display. To evade the local pajama shark, named for its stripes, she wraps herself in kelp but keeps a slit open to keep an eye on it. As the shark closes in, she ascends rapidly to the surface and finds refuge on the shore. Obviously, she needs to return to the water and deal with the predator at some point. When she does, she collects a dozen or so empty shells and wraps them around her body just as she did with the kelp. She appears just as she did on the initial encounter with Foster. In footage that virtually defines octopus intelligence, you can see her still enclosed in the shells riding on the back of the shark as if he were a horse.

Although I recommend Montgomery and Godfrey-Smith’s books, they cannot come close to the documentary’s breathtaking shots of the shark being outwitted. Fish have about 50,000 neurons on average while an octopus has about 250 million. Meanwhile homo sapiens has over 80 billion. Obviously, we are “smarter” than the octopus even though what we are doing to the planet is about as stupid as a jellyfish.

In 2002, the BBC produced a speculative documentary based on the premise that the planet Earth had become inhabitable and rendered homo sapiens extinct. The series depicts our planet between five to two hundred million years in the future as new species evolve to rule the world. One of them is a squibbon that is an arboreal, highly intelligent, octopus-like creature that has a society much more intelligent than our own. A Fandom article on the imaginary beast describes the culture:

Squibbon society displays an intelligence closer to that of humans than anything that has evolved since the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic era. While the ability to operate tools and act communally reflects an intelligence ideally suited to life in the Northern Forest, it may be that a changing environment will encourage the development of even greater sophistication. Perhaps a reasoning type of intelligence will evolve once again.

I wouldn’t mind it so much if this was our future. All I really care about is that some living creature can keep the best of homo sapiens culture alive: Miles Davis, Charles Bukowski, Akira Kurosawa, et al. Maybe with their eight tentacles, they’ll be able to listen to, read and watch them all at once. That has to be better than Tucker Carlson, any day of the week. Of course, the best thing of all would be to overthrow class society and create one that seeks to preserve all living creatures for the billion years we have until our planet dies of natural causes rather than capitalist idiocy.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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