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Against the Octopus

It’s not a crafty, soulful genius. It’s dinner.


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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

In mid-February, 2018 BBC America aired an episode of Blue Planet II  that British audiences had been raving about for months. The star of the show: a wily octopus that twice avoids predation by a pyjama shark. First, the octopus somehow weaves an arm into the shark’s gills and stops its breathing long enough to get away.

Later, when the octopus is caught outside its den, it suckers up a mess of shells and rolls itself inside them, like a seafloor party cheese ball. The bewildered shark pokes at this assembly, and the octopus jets off once again.

In a forest full of hungry mouths, superior wits allow this octopus to stay alive,” explains the program’s narrator, David Attenborough. Later, the cameraman who spent a year filming underwater to get these shots offers his assessment of the ’pus: “She’s a rock star, man.” He’s right. When the show aired on the BBC in 2017, the incredible, David-and-Goliath clip went viral. The Atlantic’s Ed Yong called it “as thrilling a bit of television as exists” and said the nature series as a whole was the greatest of all time.

The charming creature from Blue Planet II is just the latest “octopus Houdini” to spread her arms across the internet. In the spring of 2016, a creature in New Zealand—Inky the octopus—gained brief but worldwide fame for having pried off the heavy lid of his aquarium enclosure, crawled across the floor, climbed into a drainpipe, and slithered 150 feet to freedom. “I don’t think he was unhappy with us, or lonely,” aquarium manager Rob Yarrall told an interviewer in the aftermath of that escape. “But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what’s happening on the outside. That’s just his personality.”

Our fever for the octopus has helped the animal to clamber up above its fellow mollusks—clams and slugs and snails—on the ladder of morality.

Inky’s story, like the one from the British documentary, shows us how the octopus became the web’s second-most-beloved animal, after cats. We’re dazzled by its weird intelligence, tickled by its personality, and enchanted by its feline sense of mischief and tendency to muck things up. “They’re smarter—and much more rascally—than most of us realize,” a writer for the Washington Post explained in an emblematic paean to the octopus in January. Did you know they can walk upright on two arms, or hide inside a coconut, or pretend to be a fish? Did you know an octopus can change the color and the texture of its skin, and undo the lids of screw-top jars? Did you hear about Otto the octopus, the one in Germany that juggled hermit crabs? He once got so annoyed about the light above his tank that he squirted water at the bulb to short it out! How about the octopus that sneaked into another tank at night for secret meals of fish? Or what about the octopus that squeezed through a passageway the size of a quarter? Or the octopus that fell in love with Mr. Potato Head?

This endless spew of anecdotes and factoids has made the octopus the perfect object of our drive-by sense of wonder—the spirit animal for the age of I Fucking Love Science. This fascination isn’t just an online thing. The octopus’ quirky and elusive mind, so different from our own, has also spawned a bloom of science books. To pick out just a few from recent years: Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate (2010), Kraken (2011), Octopus! (2013), The Soul of an Octopus (2015), Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016); and, most recently, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods (2017).

Fascination breeds respect, and our fever for the octopus has helped the animal to clamber up above its fellow mollusks—clams and slugs and snails—on the ladder of morality. This ascent began, as a formal matter, in the early 1990s, when scientists in Naples, Italy, realized that a laboratory octopus could figure out how to choose a colored ball or pull a stopper from a jar just by watching other octopuses. In light of this discovery of social learning in invertebrates, the British government chose to name one species of the octopus an honorary vertebrate—i.e., the only organism without a backbone that would be covered by the nation’s animal-welfare law. Australia and New Zealand followed suit, protecting both the octopus and squid. And in 2010, the European Union added cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus) to its list of protected research species.

Rampant octophilia affects our diets, too, with some now calling for octopus to be added to the list of foods that people shouldn’t eat. “Octopus are too smart to be food,” Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on Instagram last March. “I had to stop eating them because I was so freaked out by it. They can escape from sea world and shit by unscrewing drains and going out to sea.”

For 10 years, I subscribed to this very point of view, forgoing any dish with octopus on account of the animal’s half a billion neurons, its sophisticated behavioral repertoire, and its apparent capacity for learning. How could one go on eating something so remarkable?

But, reader, I’m no longer having it. Or rather, I should say that in the past few years I’ve been having it every way I can: raw on sushi rice, braised with black olives, grilled with garlic and a pinch of Spanish paprika, etc. You see, as the cult of octopus intelligence has taken on adherents, I’ve begun to have my doubts. A slimy, brainy, eight-armed sea snail has been rebranded, uncritically and all at once, as the soulful “genius of the ocean.” But are Inky, Otto, and their ilk really what they seem—or could it be that we’re the suckers in this story?

* * *

Just a week into the global frenzy over Inky and his Shawshank-like escape from New Zealand’s National Aquarium, another, smaller item made its way into that country’s nightly news. On April 18, 2016, the program Seven Sharp announced it had received a tip from an unnamed source with inside knowledge. The octopus did not break out from his tank, this person said. Inky’s flight had been a fantasy.

The aquarium’s manager, Rob Yarrall, denied the charge of fraud. Inky really had escaped, he told Seven Sharp. But in the face of tenacious questioning, certain aspects of his story came undone. In earlier media appearances, Yarrall had told reporters that “Inky’s been with us since about 2014,” and that he was “a very popular octopus with the staff and the public.” Now he admitted this was false: The Inky that arrived in 2014 had passed away some time earlier, and a second octopus named Inky had been put into its tank just a few weeks before the alleged escape. Yarrall claimed it was Inky 2, not Inky 1, who’d crawled and climbed his way to freedom. But according to the program’s nameless source, even this could not be true: Inky 2 had also died, and the tank in question had been given over to an eel.

We may never know what really happened on that night at the aquarium two years ago, though it’s telling that the tale of octopus escape would spread around the world, while hints of its debunking never left New Zealand. For the moment, then, I’m inclined to be an Inky Truther, and an adherent to the theory that the mere absence of an octopus is not evidence of octopus intelligence.

Before I turned into this tako-munching skeptic, I was something of an octopus obsessive, spellbound by the creature’s arms. In the early 2000s, I was working as a graduate student in neurobiology with a focus on control of movement. I knew that for a human, even elementary gestures draw on fancy computations in the brain. Our arms can move in seven different ways: We have three degrees of freedom at our wrists (up and down, side to side, and twisting), one more at the elbow, and another three at the shoulder. When we make a simple reaching movement—never mind the intricacies of grasping with the hand—our mind must calculate a path through space that accounts for all these joints, and then correct the errors in our movement as we go.

While we have a finite set of joints and motions in our limbs, the octopus’ arms are more like tongues—“muscular hydrostats”—that bend and twist and stretch at any point along their length. And while we only have to work a pair of rigid arms, an octopus must manage eight at once, avoiding knots or tangles in spite of all their sticky suckers. This struck me as amazing, that an octopus could make this system work and use its arms to swim around, hunt for prey, or hug a Mr. Potato Head.

But it wasn’t long before my wonderment began to wane. In 2007, a few years after I’d quit doing science and started my career as a journalist, I paid a visit to the world’s leading expert on the control and coordination of octopus arms: Binyamin Hochner, a man who has published more than 50 papers on the subject. As I toured his lab at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, we chatted about how he’d come to study octopuses. I was hoping for a story from his childhood—some dreamy recollection of the lazy days he’d spent scavenging for seashells and contemplating fauna of the Red Sea. The truth was rather more mundane. Hochner told me he’d started as an expert on the cockroach, then later realized that the octopus had more sex appeal to funders. By the 1990s, he had a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which has for years expected that a better understanding of the octopus might someday help us to design underwater robots with flexible arms.

Maybe we’d been grading these creatures on a curve, such that even signs of their simplicity would be taken as amazing facts.

Hochner and his colleagues made several big discoveries, among them how the octopus controls the nearly infinite degrees of freedom in its arms. In short, it simplifies the task and does its best to dumb things down. Instead of waving all those arms around willy-nilly, the octopus falls back on a narrow set of “motor primitives.” When it reaches to a piece of food, for example, it aims the base of its arm in the right direction and then elongates and unfurls along its length. When it needs to bring an object to its mouth, it bends its arm in three specific places. And when the octopus crawls along the ocean floor, it works its arms like worms: One or two will shorten up, sucker to the ground, and then push off, always with the same amount of force.

From a scientific point of view, these facts are very interesting: They tell us how the octopus evolved to handle its outrageous anatomical complexity. But from the octopuses-are-amazing point of view—the perspective that might inspire you to get octopus tattoos, buy octopus best-sellers, or watch octopus-related content on TV—these facts seem a little sad. Sure, it makes a lot of sense for the octopus to use simple motor programs to control its arms instead of calculating every bend and twist of eight muscular hydrostats. But wouldn’t it be a little more impressive—wouldn’t it be cooler—if the octopus really did those calculations?

The more I thought about the octopus, the more it disappointed me. I felt like maybe we’d been grading these creatures on a curve, such that even signs of their simplicity would be taken as amazing facts. Indeed, when Hochner and his colleagues first described the uncoordinated, wormlike movements of an octopus’s crawling, their finding was repackaged as a marvel. “There is a beautiful simplicity in the rhythmless dance of the octopus,” said the Journal of Experimental Biology, adding that the very automaticity of the process is “what makes the octopus truly unique.”

There are other studies, too, that seem like they ought to count against the octopus’s brainy reputation. In one recent experiment, Hochner’s group put octopuses inside a plastic box and made them reach their arms into a hole to get a piece of shrimp. In spite of their purported brilliance, the study found that octopuses did not learn to do the task any better over time. (They’re slow learners in other contexts, too.) And what about the classic research from the early 1990s, which suggested an octopus could learn to choose a colored ball just by watching other octopuses? That behavior, which helped make the octopus an “honorary vertebrate” for the purposes of British law, isn’t so extraordinary, even for invertebrates. Bumblebees, for example, can learn to choose between green and orange flowers after watching other bumblebees. Yet no one ever calls the bee “the genius of the garden.”

I guess it’s easy to write off bumblebees, since they seem so much the same. The octopus, on the other hand, delights us with its special talents and funny personality. We hear Inky was “a curious boy,” that Otto was prone to getting bored, that Ozy was a whiz with jars, that Paul would sometimes share his thoughts on soccer games. But this focus on the octopus’s temperament and character might also be a canard. While research published in the early 1990s found some hints that octopuses might have personalities, their patterns of behavior didn’t even seem to hold across the two weeks of the study. A more recent paper, out in 2010, suggested an octopus doesn’t have an overarching disposition. (There is better, formal evidence for personality in cuttlefish and squid.)

Octopuses don’t even score that highly on classic measures of an animal’s IQ. Even Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of the very thoughtful Other Minds, acknowledges that, as a rule, octopuses haven’t really “show[n] themselves to be Einsteins” in the lab. In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, primatologist Frans de Waal observes that “even if the octopus stands out among invertebrates, its tool use is rather limited, and its reaction to a mirror is as perplexed as that of a small songbird. It remains unclear,” he says, “whether an octopus is smarter than most fish.”

I’m not sure anyone has ever tried to pit the octopus against a fish, head to head; indeed, such comparative experiments are very rare in the field of animal cognition. There are some other, cruder indices of an octopus’s intelligence. Vanderbilt neuroanatomist Suzana Herculano-Houzel has figured out a way to count the neurons in a creature’s brain, a number that seems to correspond, to some extent, with an animal’s problem-solving skills. According to this method, the octopus, with about 500 million neurons, ranks at about the level of a raccoon or a striped hyena. Some mammals have far fewer neurons—a hamster’s brain, for example, has just 90 million; and some have much more—the agouti, a kind of rodent, has 857 million by her count. Meanwhile, the human brain has 86 billion, of which 16 billion can be found in our cerebral cortex. (Elephants have much bigger brains with more than 250 billion neurons total, but only 5.6 billion in the cortex.)

In any case, proponents of the octopus—including Slate’s own Jacob Brogan—say this research may be biased against their beloved animal, as it relies on some very human-centric definitions and assumptions about what intelligence even is. They point out that if an octopus isn’t smart enough to master opening a jar inside the lab, it could be that it’s not used to relying so completely on its vision. When an experimenter smears the outside of a jar with herring mucus, allowing the octopus to smell its food, the animal’s intelligence reveals itself at once. We might take this as a cautionary tale, to remind us that cleverness and problem-solving needn’t look the same for monkeys, parrots, ravens, fish, and squid. Rather, they’re contingent on what matters most in each animal’s particular environment.

Indeed, according to de Waal, it doesn’t make much sense to compare the mind of an octopus to that of a fish, let alone a monkey’s or a human’s. “Instead of turning the study of cognition into a contest,” he says, “we should avoid putting apples next to oranges.” If I can paraphrase: When pressed with evidence that an octopus might be kind of dumb, we should instead consider all the ways in which it’s different from ourselves. This logic may be sound in scientific terms, but, again, it’s disappointing. If every animal is special, and each one has its own, unique intelligence, then why should we be any more enamored of the octopus than, say, the clownfish or the clam?

I think there’s another reason why we overrate the octopus, and one that gets a little closer to the center of its mass appeal. We love that octopuses are so weird and slippery—that they always seem to find a way to elude our grasp. Godfrey-Smith has said this trait can help explain why it’s been so hard for scientists to comprehend the fullness of octopus cognition. “They’re so hard to experiment on,” he told the Guardian in 2017. “You get a small amount of animals in the lab and some of them refuse to do anything you want them to do—they’re just too unruly.”

They’re too unruly for the lab; they’re too cool for school. We’ve convinced ourselves that octopuses might be so street smart that we’ll never know how intelligent they really are. Think of all those anecdotes of octopuses’ impish misbehavior—hiding inside of teapots, pushing toys around, taking valves apart and flooding rooms, squirting jets of water at the researchers who try to study them. It’s like we’re all a bunch of nerds, and they’re the underwater rebels. Thus our fascination with stories of octopuses living hard and fast, and octopuses going on the lam. We love the ones that break out of the aquarium, outwit pyjama sharks, squeeze through tiny holes, or try to climb a staircase. The octopus may not be an Einstein in the lab, but we like to think that it’s Houdini. We imagine that it has a different, more anarchic and subversive form of genius. We see it as a master of escape.

This characterization is a new one, and seems more a product of what we want the octopus to be than any facts about its nature. In the old days, back when the real Houdini toured the world as “the Handcuff King,” the octopus had a very different meaning. It was not an avatar of mischief, a clever underdog, or the trickster spirit of its time. Rather, it was something like the opposite: an image of relentless, stupid conquest. Cephalopods would serve as H.G. Wells’ model for the malevolent Martians in 1897’s The War of the Worlds. “They were heads—merely heads,” he wrote, with “a pair of very large dark-colored eyes,” a “fleshy beak,” and “whiplike tentacles” about the mouth. The octopuslike aliens’ blood-sucking mission on Earth also mapped on to the metaphor, then widespread, of the octopus as a figure of rapacious capitalism. Frank Norris’ 1901 novel about the California railroads described the robber barons’ monopoly as “the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.” In the ensuing decades, critics would decry such networks of corruption as the “amusement octopus” of theater chains, the “union octopus” with its “strangle-hold on American labor and life,” and—per New York City’s 1920s mayor John Hylan—the “invisible government” of international bankers and oil interests that, “like a giant octopus, sprawls its slimy length over our city, state and nation.”

This sinister interpretation of the octopus isn’t all made-up, in a scientific sense. Cephalopods are indeed colonizing species: They’re weedy ecosystem opportunists, disposable by nature, quick to grow and die. In oceanic terms, squids, cuttlefish, nautiluses, and octopuses are mass-produced. They appear in every underwater niche, from coral reefs to the deepest deeps, and their populations have been blowing up in the past half-century, in tandem with our overfishing of the seas.

However much the older metaphors reflect a real-life penchant for invasion, these days they’re more or less defunct. In place of Wells’ cephalopodic aliens we have the wise, wondrous, inkblot-spurting heptapods of Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival. And while one may still hear, from time to time, invocations of the octopus’s ugliness—Donald Trump “was like an octopus” when he tried to reach up a woman’s skirt, and the lords of Silicon Valley might be described as today’s octopus industrialists—the wording feels all wrong. The modern octopus stands not for terror, exploitation, and expansion, but for amazement and delight.

We know that cephalopods can change their colors in an instant, or even flip their boneless bodies inside out. Now we’ve inverted octopuses for ourselves. We say that we’re enchanted by their shifty, frisky otherness, but I think it’s more apt to say that we’re the victims of that quality—that we’re beguiled by their talent for disguise. Yesterday we peered into the main and thought we’d found a ruthless, suffocating tyrant. Today, we see a charming rascal. Who knows what sort of animal we’ll think we’ve come across tomorrow. The mollusk of a thousand faces appears at different times in different ways, as a monster or a genius or perhaps a bag of slime. Maybe that’s the secret at the heart of its phylogeny: We may be on the hunt for greater meanings, but the octopus evolved to get away.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

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This post originally appeared on Slate and was published March 1, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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