Everyone seems to have a favorite nominee for ‘smartest animal.’ Many prefer the much-lauded chimpanzee or dolphin, but crows, elephants, parrots, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many other species all have their supporters. Recently, there have been studies that champion a somewhat less relatable animal: the octopus. Unlike some of the other nominees, the octopus is truly an alien-looking creature that lives for only a few years. How then can it be intelligent? Luckily for those wanting to understand, a few great new books have come out that answer that question and raise even more interesting ones about the nature of intelligence, consciousness and the limits of human understanding.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Sy Montgomery really loves octopuses. Specifically she develops an admiration and affection for Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, the four individual cephalopods she interacts with at the New England Aquarium. She also expands her quest beyond the aquarium and goes out into the wild to encounter more octopuses in their natural habitat. She becomes convinced of their intelligence: An intelligence that goes beyond the scientifically measurable, such as puzzle solving and the like, to also include feelings of playfulness, friendship, happiness and tenderness on their part. While Montgomery’s utter devotion can produce a risk of ascribing human traits to her subjects a little too easily, it is hard to deny that there seems to be some sort of consciousness in the octopus mind after reading this book.
Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
While no less a devotee of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith takes the long view when examining the intelligence of this fascinating creature. As a philosopher of science, he is well placed to delve into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the octopus in particular. While mammals and birds are closely related on the tree of life, the cephalopods deviated very early on in our evolutionary history, so much so that they are almost a separate evolutionary ‘experiment’ in intelligence. The author isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions: What kind of intelligence do octopuses possess? Is it alien from our own? Can we understand it? While doing this, Godfrey-Smith is no armchair philosopher, however. The book is also full of real world examples of his dives and encounters with these intelligent creatures that drive home his arguments.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By F.B.M. de Waal
De Waal’s goal, in this well written and engaging book, is nothing short of toppling humankind from its lofty, and self-appointed perch at the top of the intelligence and cognition scale. In fact, he argues we shouldn’t think of intelligence as a scale at all, but rather as a bush with cognition taking different forms in each branch, none necessarily higher than the other but always unique. It is an intriguing argument, which he backs up with many observations of the animal world that he has gleaned in his role as an animal behaviorist at Emory University. He is quick to point out the cases of wishful thinking and pure chance (Paul the octopus did not actually know anything about soccer despite his correct predictions during the 2010 World Cup alas) but he does provide convincing examples of animal intelligence using scientific and rational methods.
So is the mysterious and alien looking octopus conscious and intelligent? Based on these excellent books and in the words of the Magic 8-Ball: As I see it, yes.