The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Thanks for the Octopus
Over the past couple of weeks, I've found fascination and delight as I learn more about octopuses. In this Thanksgiving season (in the USA), I'll even go so far as to say that I'm feeling thankful for this marvelous, surprising part of God's creation.
I'd heard about octopus intelligence before, but I got a better taste of the topic through a recent article in Orion Magazine. (The wonderful Orion article seems to have caught lots of people's attention. That has been a flurry of on-line reports and blogs on the subject this month, all making reference to the Orion report.)
Why do we find this critter so intriguing? I think it is the surprise that a "simple" animal shows all the signs of high intelligence. A mollusk -- a close relative of a clam that has no brain at all; an organism that is far, far down our hierarchical models of development -- can learn, plan, use tools, play, and shows signs of a distinct personality.
It catches our attention when something utterly different from us does the sort of things that we humans have named with pride as signs of our unique talents and wisdom. One researcher wrote, "Meeting an octopus is like meeting an intelligent alien." That encounter with something that is both thoroughly other and strikingly familiar can lead us to reflect on our own species in fresh ways. Octopuses -- along with "higher" animals like chimps, whales, dogs and crows -- make us re-think what we mean by intelligence, communication and consciousness.
An eight-legged, boneless blob in a tank can stretch our thinking and our appreciation for the wonders of this world. Reading stories about the behavior and antics of octopuses reinforces my theological notions about "the integrity of creation" -- that there is inherent value and goodness in every part of this marvelous world.
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There's one story from the Orion article that I've been telling frequently.
Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One [octopus at the Seattle aquarium], Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn't squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.
1800 years ago, Claudius Aelianus probably would not have been surprised by that feisty behavior. The Roman scholar of natural history wrote, "Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature."
Then, there's a famous story (reported in Scientific American) "from the Brighton Aquarium in England 100 years ago that an octopus there got out of its tank at night when no one was watching, went to the tank next door and ate one of the lumpfish and went back to his own tank and was sitting there the next morning. The aquarium lost several lumpfish before they figured out who was responsible."
These sorts of stories surprise and delight us. A semi-scientific article, "Octopuses are smart suckers?!" by two of the leading researchers in the field describes many of the famous experiments and observations. The article is academic in style and is well footnoted, but Mather and Anderson can't refrain from using exclamation points (or even two!!) when telling their stories.
There are the studies where octopuses -- "octopi" is fun, but not linguistically correct, I hear -- are given complex problems to solve, like opening a series of latches on boxes. They learn quickly, and remember how to do it. They will adapt their behavior, using different approaches to pry open different kinds of shells for food, and changing strategies when the researchers wire shut a generally easy-to-open kind of shell.
Some of these cephalapods have been seen to play with pill bottles floating in their tanks, or have "fun" riding on bubbles. They've been observed moving intentionally in and out of a den to gather specific rocks that will provide a safe barrier in front of the hole so that they can take a nap. And octopuses seem to be unique among non-vertebrates in sleeping, and perhaps even dreaming.
"The same thing that got them their smarts isn't the same thing that got us our smarts," says Mather, "because our two ancestors didn't have any smarts." Far back in our shared evolutionary history, nothing had what we'd call a brain. Octopus and human intelligence evolved independently, probably because our two species had similar needs, not similar biology.
Mather (this time in Discover Magazine)
proposes "a foraging theory of intelligence." She says that animals like octopuses (or humans) that pursue varied food sources in changeable, perilous habitats must develop a wide range of hunting and defensive strategies. That takes brainpower. "If you find yourself foraging in a complex environment, where you have to deal with many kinds of prey and predators," she says, "it makes sense to invest more in cognition." Temperamental variation—call it personality—also helps a species survive in a volatile, supercompetitive milieu by ensuring that different individuals respond differently to changing conditions, so some will thrive.
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Those who are bored by nature, and those who only look at this amazing planet in terms of what resources are there for our use, are not inclined to respect the integrity of creation. They are unlikely to care much or well for our ecologically interconnected world.
Reading about octopuses -- and watching videos of octopus camouflage that would put a chameleon to shame -- has renewed my sense of wonder. I am amazed and humbled by the wonders of creation. I am inspired to cherish and protect Earth's astonishing diversity and complexity.
Our celebration of Thanksgiving can be trite and superficial if we just give thanks for having lots of stuff. We do a bit better when we give thanks for the blessings of family and community. But this year, as the relatives gather for turkey and pumpkin pie, shake up the conversation a bit. Give thanks for the octopus, and all of the other surprises of this world.
By the way, the entire staff of Eco-Justice Ministries will be on vacation for the holiday next week. We'll send out Notes again on December 2.
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