There's no such thing as AN octopus
June 4, 2015 12:03 PM   Subscribe

The intelligence of octopuses is increasingly recognized, but nature is more creative than us glorified chimps ever realize on first blush. You see, octopuses are just full of neurons, but their nervous structure raises all kinds of uncanny questions--What is "intelligence" for an octopus? What is it like to be an octopus?--because most of them are in its arms.

Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith explores the question of how octopuses think on Alan Saunders' The Philosopher's Zone broadcast, exploring the anatomical differences that make these smartest cephalopods' brains so strange. One arm followed along imagining an intelligence so evolutionarily removed from the familiar is the concept that octopus intelligence is less "cohesive" and less centralized than human. Godfrey-Smith also speculates that an octopus may lack a sense of singular "self," instead having a plurality of "selves," or something much blurrier. Author Peter Watts runs right out of town with the idea.

Naturalist Sy Montgomery offers a different view, arguing that octopuses display theory of mind in exploring the motivations of other creatures in the complexity of their survival behaviors. Montgomery also notes the tragedy and absurdity of octopus intellect--that such clever creatures live such brief lives (some species only as little as six months) and descend into dementia with senescence--as well as a number of anatomical strangenesses (rather than eating tentacle to mouth, octopuses prefer to move food along suckers where their bodywide taste is most acute in order to enjoy their meals).

Of course, while it's always worthwhile learning more about ourselves by studying such strange things, some philosophers and artists see imagining the subjective experiences of totally alien organisms as valuable in itself. See Thomas Nagel's classic, "What is it like to be a bat?" and Jakob von Uexkull's wonderfully mind-stretching A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds for more.
posted by byanyothername (26 comments total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
 
Happy Octopus Intelligence Day!
posted by byanyothername at 12:04 PM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Octopus Intelligence Day? Dang, and I haven't picked up a card yet. Wait, is that a real thing, or something you just declared To Be So, like Zelda Day? I'm not against celebrating the other-worldly (or at least, unhuman) intelligence of these fine cephalopods, I just gotta know what I'm getting into here.

What I'm saying, this post is fantastic, and I'm just stalling when I should be reading the links.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:13 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


What is mostly arms, but not all thumbs?
posted by Kabanos at 12:15 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Came in here to post that Peter Watts story, happy to see it was already in the FPP.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:15 PM on June 4, 2015


good post!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:18 PM on June 4, 2015


So what I'm hearing is that octopi are ostensibly a squishy form of a Borg collective?

Resistance really is futile! *ominous suction cup noises*
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:19 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is my favorite kind of stuff! (And it was really hard for me to not shout that in all-caps.)

Thank you so much.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:20 PM on June 4, 2015


This thread is meaningless without a link to Paul the octopus.

or a link to the octopuses vs octopodes vs octopi video with that neat W&M editor
posted by k5.user at 12:26 PM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Red Wings fans: history's greatest monsters?
posted by theodolite at 12:34 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


k5.user that video you linked just soothed all the anxiety I was feeling toward the framing of this post and I appreciate that. I've been saying octopi in/correctly for years now.
posted by GrapeApiary at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


How do octopuses think? (one of the links):
So the neurons of an octopus, and there are many neurons in an octopus, roughly 500-million, which is a lot; they are much less concentrated in what we think of as the head, they're scattered through the organism and in particular the majority of an octopuses neurons are in the arms themselves.
Wikipedia: Enteric Nervous System:
The [human] enteric nervous system consists of some 500 million neurons, (including the various types of Dogiel cells), one two-hundredth of the number of neurons in the brain, and 5 times as many as the one hundred million neurons in the spinal cord.
....
The ENS is capable of autonomous functions such as the coordination of reflexes; although it receives considerable innervation from the autonomic nervous system, it can and does operate independently of the brain and the spinal cord.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:01 PM on June 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


Octopuses are wise enough to build their gardens in the shade, near a cave.

(Good luck getting the chorus out of your head.)
posted by delfin at 1:01 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


This sort of thing is why I find it endlessly frustrating when people talking about discovering "intelligent life" as if such life would by definition be interested in and capable of, say, building a spaceship or a radio transmitter. It projects such a human-centric view onto what the nature of intelligence is - and meanwhile we have the octopus RIGHT HERE, we are actually related to it, and yet we know it has a form of intelligence and a set of motivations entirely alien to our own.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:09 PM on June 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


I am always fascinated about octopus intelligence and this just made my day. The theory about the loss of a shell being the driver for it is something I hadn't heard before. If only they lived longer.
posted by tommasz at 1:44 PM on June 4, 2015


Is it immoral to eat an octopus?
posted by cell divide at 1:47 PM on June 4, 2015


.
posted by Samizdata at 2:14 PM on June 4, 2015


Cell divide: I dunno, they seem to do it. Must be ok.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 2:45 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Octopus Intelligence Day? Dang, and I haven't picked up a card yet.

Per the FPP, you will have to pick up several.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:08 PM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Wait, is that a real thing, or something you just declared To Be So, like Zelda Day?

It's the latter, sadly. This post just happened to line up with NoraReed's over here (where ryanshepard beat me to the punch on one of these links), soooo...
posted by byanyothername at 3:09 PM on June 4, 2015


One of the problems with trying to find intelligent life off-Earth is that it presupposes a degree of technology capable of generating detectable signals unlikely to be natural. These don't have to be radio signals - anomalous infra-red, for example, or even chemical signatures in planetary atmospheres, are also plausible things to look for.

But if you're a marine organism, you're unlikely to develop that sort of technology nearly as easily. Radio doesn't work underwater, and electricity is much harder to discover and control. We had all sorts of problems nailing electricity down in air, because we didn't understand factors like humidity that affected experiments. Likewise, you don't get the whole fire thing happening when you rub two sticks together, or see lightning strike dry brush, or whatever. Octopus scientists would just not see a whole raft of phenomena as easily as we do.

There is fire underwater, of course, through volcanic activity and the like, so it's not as if it's impossible to start to understand and harness energetic processes. We know octopuses can move across land and use tools, so they could have their own reverse Cousteau or Armstrong moments. It took us two million years (or whatever) to get going, though, so no guarantees the universe isn't full of underwater genius happily engaged in advanced base-8 mathematical pursuits and with no particular chance of ever revealing themselves.
posted by Devonian at 3:56 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Is it immoral to eat an octopus?
cell divide

In my opinion, yes.
posted by seraphine at 6:30 PM on June 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


> Is it immoral to eat an octopus?
cell divide

In my opinion, yes.
posted by seraphine


I feel that way too, yet when I went to a chinese buffet, I couldn't help myself. Me:octopus::ZapBranigan:poplers
posted by 445supermag at 7:54 PM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


showbiz_liz: "This sort of thing is why I find it endlessly frustrating when people talking about discovering "intelligent life" as if such life would by definition be interested in and capable of, say, building a spaceship or a radio transmitter. It projects such a human-centric view onto what the nature of intelligence is - and meanwhile we have the octopus RIGHT HERE, we are actually related to it, and yet we know it has a form of intelligence and a set of motivations entirely alien to our own."
-------------------------------

Which reminds me of this Terence McKenna quote:

"For instance, the question of contact with extraterrestrials is a kind of red herring premised upon a number of assumptions that a moment's reflection will show are completely false. To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant. And yet, this has been chosen as the avenue by which it is assumed contact is likely to occur."
posted by symbioid at 8:24 PM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Which reminds me of this Douglas Adams quote:

"A notable use of Bistromathics is the Bistromathic Drive, a power source and engine much like the Heart of Gold, except resting on the science of Bistromathics instead of improbability drive. There is, inside the ship of the Bistromathic I what appears to be a small Italian bistro. Everything in the bistro is mechanical, including waiters, customers, and tables, all of which act together in a complicated routine to power the ship. Things such as stirring one's coffee, arguing with the robotic waiter, returning your steak, insisting for a better cooked steak, and arguing about the noise from the robotic party across from you park, power, create, and move the Bistromathic I, in a mind-numbingly complex work of science and manipulating the nature of the universe."
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:51 PM on June 5, 2015




Fuck it. I'm going to start saying "octospus" for the plural. Like "attorneys general."
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:05 AM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


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