Delv­ing into mys­te­ri­ous in­tel­li­gences of the deep

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter God­frey-Smith Tim Flan­nery David Brear­ley

In all the his­tory of life on Earth, evo­lu­tion has given rise to large brains on just three oc­ca­sions. The first oc­curred in the lin­eage lead­ing to the ver­te­brates (in­clud­ing our­selves), the se­cond in that lead­ing to the oc­to­puses and the third in that lead­ing to the cuttlefish.

Be­cause oc­to­puses and cuttlefish evolved their large brains in­de­pen­dently from our­selves, and from each other, their in­tel­li­gence can be viewed as gen­uinely alien, and for Aus­tralian philoso­pher Peter God­frey-Smith, who is in­ter­ested in the evo­lu­tion of the mind, that makes them ir­re­sistible sub­jects for re­search.

One great ad­van­tage oc­to­pus and cuttlefish have for re­searchers is that, be­cause they dis­play their emo­tional state on their skin, they are easy to read. So il­lus­tra­tive and in­stantly re­ac­tive is the skin of a cuttlefish that God­freySmith refers to it as a “video screen”. When an­gry, cuttlefish can put on mur­der­ous-look­ing dis­plays, ap­pear­ing rust-red and all “horns and sick­les”. But they also can re­flect cu­ri­ous, elu­sive or qui­etly thought­ful states that, with ex­pe­ri­ence, re­searchers can recog­nise.

How in­tel­li­gent are oc­to­pus and cuttlefish? Lit­tle is known of cuttlefish in­tel­li­gence, but since the time of Pliny the El­der oc­to­pus have been re­spected as crafty crea­tures. For al­most two mil­len­nia — un­til video cam­eras recorded an oc­to­pus in a lab­o­ra­tory leav­ing its aquar­ium to at­tack prey in other aquar­i­ums — Pliny was dis­be­lieved for his record of oc­to­puses leav­ing the sea to raid the fac­to­ries where an­cient Ro­mans made their fish sauce.

Such be­hav­iours can eas­ily be an­thro­po­mor­phised, and in­deed in Other Minds: The Oc­to­pus and the Evo­lu­tion of In­tel­li­gent Life, God­frey-Smith talks about the oc­to­pus and cuttlefish he stud­ies in very hu­man terms. They can be “friendly” or “cu­ri­ous”, and he says of one oc­to­pus that it of hunger where it will do any­thing to get some food, in the end are you still work­ing with a mon­key, or have you func­tion­ally re­duced it to some­thing more prim­i­tive, hav­ing then de­feated the rea­son that you are us­ing mon­keys in the first place?

This was a philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion posed by a man of science, and Gluck took it “as a kind of in­tel­lec­tual gift”. With­out quite re­al­is­ing why, “looked up at me with an ex­pres­sion that I can­not de­scribe at all ex­cept to say that he seemed deeply unim­pressed”. God­frey-Smith is hardly alone in do­ing this. In­deed, there is a grow­ing trend to view oc­to­pus as fel­low in­tel­li­gences, and at the very least to re­move them from our menus.

De­spite the fact God­frey-Smith’s book bears an im­age of an oc­to­pus on its cover, it is about far more than oc­to­puses. Above all, God­freySmith is in­ter­ested in the emer­gence of con­scious­ness — which he de­fines as mean­ing that life feels like some­thing — and large parts of the book are tech­ni­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions of this elu­sive phe­nom­e­non.

An­i­mals, he ex­plains, can do highly com­plex things but this does not mean they are con­scious. Be­cause God­frey-Smith thinks con­scious­ness is a “mixed-up and overused but use­ful term”, he tends to con­cen­trate on the de­gree to which a crea­ture’s ner­vous sys­tem is in­te­grated. In­te­gra­tion is a pre­con­di­tion for con­scious­ness, and its ex­tent in var­i­ous crea­tures can be demon­strated ex­per­i­men­tally.

For ex­am­ple, oc­to­puses trained to do a task us­ing just one eye can­not, at least with­out Gluck found him­self spend­ing less and less time in his own lab­o­ra­tory. Singer’s book was reach­ing a wider au­di­ence and hav­ing the de­sired ef­fect, notably when congress tight­ened the An­i­mal Wel­fare Act in 1985.

The heart of Gluck’s book de­scribes his shift from pri­mate re­search to bioethics, his emer­gence from the dark for­est where the straight path was lost. Like Dante’s, his own story must have been painful to tell. Emo­tional cal­louses great rep­e­ti­tion, do the task us­ing only the other eye, in­di­cat­ing that the two halves of their brain are not well in­te­grated.

But even we in­du­bitably self-con­scious be­ings do not pos­sess en­tirely in­te­grated ner­vous sys­tems, as is il­lus­trated by the fact we do a great deal — from breath­ing to di­ges­tion — un­con­sciously.

In God­frey-Smith’s view, con­scious­ness has been built on the foun­da­tion of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences such as pain; be­gin­ning with life forms such as a jel­ly­fish that can co-or­di­nate it­self, but that he thinks is “a form of an­i­mal life that feels like noth­ing at all”. In his view there are no sharp di­vides in the evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness, only many gra­da­tions.

To re­turn to oc­to­puses, God­frey-Smith demon­strates that their brains, and hence their in­tel­li­gence, are very dif­fer­ent from our own. One fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence is that much of the oc­to­pus ner­vous sys­tem is housed not in their brain but in their ten­ta­cles.

This means that each ten­ta­cle can prob­a­bly act in­de­pen­dently from the crea­ture’s cen­tral con­trol sys­tem. It ap­pears un­likely, there­fore, that oc­to­puses have a sense of self any­thing were not eas­ily chafed away and pro­fes­sional pride not eas­ily sur­ren­dered.

Gluck’s ca­reer shift came at a great cost. The re­spect of his peers, per­haps now lost, had meant the world to him. They didn’t read his sci­en­tific papers, or not nearly as closely as he’d once be­lieved, and they might ig­nore his book.

Even so, there’s plenty here for the lay­man. While Gluck re­mains a sci­en­tist at heart and a master of its cold prose, he writes here like a real like our own. But even such knowl­edge can­not dis­pel the sen­sa­tion, when look­ing an oc­to­pus in the eye, that you are en­gag­ing with a sen­tient be­ing.

Oc­to­pus and squid have been around for 270 mil­lion years — long enough surely to de­velop an oc­to­pus civil­i­sa­tion. You might think that dis­play­ing your state of mind on your skin would be a huge ad­van­tage, for it’s the equiv­a­lent of hav­ing a com­plex and ready-made lan­guage sys­tem. Hu­mans, by com­par­i­son, are poorly en­dowed with means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Yet it is us, rather than the oc­to­pus, who have de­vel­oped or­gan­ised so­ci­eties. Oc­to­puses and cuttlefish have re­mained largely soli­tary, ex­cept dur­ing the mat­ing sea­son or in spe­cial cir­cum­stances where they are forced to share space.

Part of the rea­son that oc­to­pus so­ci­eties do not ex­ist may lie in the as­ton­ish­ing fact both oc­to­puses and cuttlefish ap­pear to be colour blind. This means they can­not see their own or each other’s dis­plays. Just why the dis­plays ex­ist re­mains mys­te­ri­ous. Per­haps they have some un­recog­nised means of “see­ing” colour, or per­haps their dis­plays solely serve other pur­poses, such as cam­ou­flage, and the re­flec­tion of their moods ex­ter­nally is in­ci­den­tal.

Both oc­to­puses and cuttlefish share one other great dis­ad­van­tage rel­a­tive to most ver­te­brates: they live ex­ceed­ingly brief lives. Even the gi­ant cuttlefish, which can reach al­most 2m in length, lives for only two years, and al­most all species breed only once, dy­ing shortly af­ter mat­ing and long be­fore their young have hatched from their eggs.

The dis­ad­van­tage of this sys­tem is twofold: they have lim­ited time to learn about their world and par­ents can­not teach their off­spring. The re­sult is that there is no oc­to­pus cul­ture, nor so­ci­ety. Just soli­tary, highly ca­pa­ble and in­tel­li­gent an­i­mals, the work­ings of whose minds re­main a pro­found mys­tery to us. will be a guest of the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, from May 22 to 28. is a sci­en­tist and au­thor. writer. His pref­ace and epi­logue, de­scrib­ing the eu­thanis­ing of three stump-tailed macaques, and a pas­sage in the book’s guts de­scrib­ing the week-long “sac­ri­fic­ing” of about 20 rh­e­sus mon­keys, are ren­dered with­out a sniff of mawk­ish­ness. At his best, his thought­ful style and pa­tient work­ing of dif­fi­cult ideas re­call the writ­ing of great nature es­say­ist Ed­ward Hoagland. is a Syd­ney-based writer.

A com­mon oc­to­pus hits a pur­ple patch

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