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In light of Netflix’s “My Octopus Teacher” winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, a biologist ...
2021-04-27 09:00:00

We Could All Use an Octopus Teacher

We Could All Use an Octopus Teacher

In light of Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, Mikołaj Golachowski – a biologist who also has a fondness for cephalopods – writes about the cleverest animal in the ocean (and not only there).

Read in 6 minutes

I’m getting the impression that recently my life has been teeming with octopuses – or at least with thoughts about these cephalopods. Although as far as I can recall I’ve only had personal contact with them once, many years ago, when one caught my flipper. I don’t know if it wanted to devour me heroically (the flipper was about three times its size, not to mention the rest of me), or invite me to inspect its lair, or just check what the flipper was made of, but I had the feeling that contact had been initiated, and not by me. Of course, I’d like to pass over the few encounters of a culinary nature – also from many years ago – because I’m still ashamed of them. It’s awkward to eat someone potentially more intelligent than yourself, or, really, anyone at all.

We’ve known about the cephalopods’ uncanny intelligence for years. It might seem a bit strange, because, after all, how can relatives of the snail be so clever? Certainly, cephalopods are related to snails – just like we are – and, similarly, to amoebas and green peas. The class Cephalopoda does indeed belong to the phylum of molluscs, along with snails and bivalves. However, a ‘phylum’ is a very large category. Ours is called Chordata, and apart from humans, magpies and common newts, it also contains the sea squirt and the lancelet, not especially famous for their intellect. And molluscs are more numerous than chordates: only anthropods outnumber them in terms of species, and they are the most diverse of all animal phyla. So if we have no problem with the fact that a raven is probably smarter than a tunicate, the intellect of an octopus or a cuttlefish shouldn’t be all that surprising – at least not in comparison with a mussel.

“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix
“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix

Because in itself, the octopus’s intellect is, in fact, staggering. Last year, we made the sensational discovery that a common cuttlefish (which represents Cephalopoda, the same class as the octopus, but belongs to a different order; it’s like us and dolphins or bats – all of us mammals, but not too closely related) passed a cognitive test meant for human children called the marshmallow test. In the original version, the idea was to study the child’s reaction to an experiment in which they are offered a treat along with the information that if they don’t eat it for 15 minutes, they will get another one and can eat both. If the child gives into the temptation, the second treat will not materialize, and it will also become apparent that the child has a poor grasp of delayed gratification, allegedly very necessary in life and a harbinger of future success. Of course, the rules are more difficult to explain to other animals, but with some modification this test has also been passed by chimpanzees, certain corvids and some cleverer dogs. And cuttlefish: they will give up on eating a crab if they know that this means they will later get the much tastier prawn. It pains me to admit this, but if pizza with garlic, capers and sundried tomatoes had been at stake, I would probably turn out to be stupider than a mollusc.

Octopuses are at least as bright as cuttlefish. We know they can learn how to open complex boxes by watching other octopuses tackle this through the glass of the aquarium. We know that they know how to turn off an irritating lamp in the laboratory by squirting a jet of water at the light bulb; they are also perfectly aware that they can escape the aquarium and reach the ocean through the outlet pipe. What’s more, although their soft bodies can squeeze through almost any crack, octopuses even know their own size limitations. The only hard bit in their bodies is a small piece of cartilage between the eyes, and researchers have found that the owners of the cartilage are perfectly aware of its size. They squeeze through openings larger than it, but if the space is a few millimetres tighter, they don’t even try. We also know that in the wild they come up with various tricks to outsmart stronger, but less intellectually gifted predators, such as sharks.

“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix
“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix

In his recent, fascinating book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (William Collins, 2016), Peter Godfrey Smith tells us that an encounter with the mind of an octopus is probably as close as we can get to meeting representatives of an alien civilization. Penetrating another mind is difficult, or even ultimately impossible, even between people, although we can give a detailed report of our thoughts. Of course, it is even more impossible to fully know what is happening in the heads of dolphins or bonobos; we will also never find out what it is exactly that a raven, parrot or monitor lizard is thinking. In the canonical philosophical text “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (The Philosophical Review, 1974) Thomas Nagel dashes our hopes of doing just that, also in the case of the cute little prince of darkness.

But all these animals are vertebrates – even though we live in different environments, different senses dominate our perception and different features of our brains are crucial for us, we share a common, not-too-distant evolutionary past, and the structures of our brains contain similar elements of a shared origin. So there’s reason for us to assume that at least in some respect we perceive the world and react to it similarly. It’s different with cephalopods. Our last common ancestor lived about 500 million years ago, so we are much more closely related even to dinosaurs. We don’t even know whether that ancestor had any sort of central nervous system; perhaps at most some simple sensory organs. This means that their intelligence has evolved completely independently of ours, and the structure of their nervous system is fundamentally different. Two thirds of an octopus’s ganglia aren’t even in its brain – each arm has its own control centre, so it is, to a certain extent, autonomous. Even every sucker has its own sensory organs, so the octopus functions like a state with an all-coordinating federal government, moderately independent delegations and many local offices.

As reported in the most recent issue of Scientific American, it is exactly due to how profoundly they differ from us that octopuses are increasingly seen by researchers as the ideal model for studying the general workings of the nervous system, the formation of intelligence, and cognitive processes. Considering that the cephalopods’ intelligence is many millions of years older than our own, one might wonder how it happened that they were not the ones to dominate our planet, even though they’ve had much more time in which to do so. Except for the theory that perhaps they just aren’t that bothered, in my opinion it’s a question of one very basic flaw of their biology: octopuses only live for about a year, and the mother dies when her offspring hatch from their eggs, so she can’t teach her clever clogs babies anything. Although these animals have ink at their disposal, nothing indicates that they have been passing notes, either. That means that there is no vertical flow of knowledge between generations – and hence every octopus, even the most brilliant one, must reinvent the wheel and learn how to make fire. Lucky for us.

So the chances for an octopus to win the Nobel Prize one day are slim. But last Sunday, one of them won an Oscar: the statuette for Best Documentary Feature went to Craig Foster and his Sea Change Project for My Octopus Teacher, which has been charming viewers across the world for almost a year. I’m not going to describe the film here; do yourself a favour and watch it one of these days, even if you haven’t yet discovered your passion for biology. It has everything a good film needs, including touching moments, a spiritual transformation, dramatic plot twists, daring chases and beautiful landscapes. All this without too much anthropomorphism (there’s some, but in very careful doses) or ostentatious over-interpretation of observed behaviours. It’s a film about how a certain wild octopus becomes a very important part of the life of one tame guy, and a thread of acceptance is established between these two utterly different organisms. We will never find out whether this bond was as important for the octopus as it was for the man, although I highly doubt it. But the animal definitely came to recognize him, stopped fearing him and even initiated interaction. It is a beautiful record of two minds conducting parallel research projects, where both sides are trying to learn more about each other. We might never find ourselves closer to an alien.

“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix
“My Octopus Teacher”. Photo by Craig Foster/Netflix

Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

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Mikołaj Golachowski

is a polar explorer with a PhD in natural sciences, who spends four months every year in Antarctica and in the Arctic. Mikołaj writes about nature for both children and adults. His latest books are “Czochralem antarktycznego słonia” [I’ve Ruffled an Antarctic Elephant] (Marginesy, 2016) and “Gęby, dzioby i nochale” [Gobs, Beaks and Schnozzes] (Babaryba, 2016).