Alien intelligence: the extraordinary intellects of octopuses and other cephalopods

After a startling encounter with a cuttlefish, Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith set out to explore the mysterious lives of cephalopods. He was left asking: why do such smart beings live such a short time?

Inches above the seafloor of Sydneys Cabbage Tree Bay, with the proximity attained possible by several millimetres of neoprene and a scuba diving tank, Im just about eyeball to eyeball with this animal: an Australian giant cuttlefish.

Even allowing for the magnifying effects of the mask snug across my snout, it must be about 60 cm( two feet) long, and the peculiarities that abound in the cephalopod household, that includes octopuses and squid, are the more striking writ so large.

Its body shaped around an internal surfboard-like shell, tailing off into a fistful of tentacles has the changing colour of velvet in light, and its W-shaped pupils give it a stern expres. I dont think Im imagining some recognition on its part. The question is, of what?

It was an encounter like this one at exactly the same place, actually, to the foot that first prompted Peter Godfrey-Smith to be considered these most other of minds. An Australian academic philosopher, hed lately been appointed a prof at Harvard.

While snorkelling on a visit home to Sydney in about 2007, he came across a giant cuttlefish. The experience had a profound effect on him, establishing an unlikely framework for his own survey of doctrine, first at Harvard and then the City University of New York.

The cuttlefish hadnt been afraid it had seemed as curious about him as he was about it. But to imagine cephalopods experience of the world as some iteration of our own may sell them short, given the many millions of years of separation between us nearly twice as many as with humans and any other vertebrate( mammal, bird or fish ).

Elle Elle Hunt with an Australian giant cuttlefish at Cabbage Tree Bay, Manly, Sydney. Photo: Peter Godfrey-Smith

Cephalopods high-resolution camera eyes resemble our own, but we otherwise is different than every route. Octopuses including with regard to are peculiarly other. The majority of their 500 m neurons are in their arms, which can not only touch but stench and savor they quite literally have minds of their own.

That it was possible to observe some kind of subjective experience, a sense of self, in cephalopods fascinated Godfrey-Smith. How that might differ to humen is the subject of his volume Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, published this month by HarperCollins.

In it Godfrey-Smith charts his route through philosophical problems as provide guidance to cephalopods in one case quite literally, where reference is recounts an octopus taking his collaborator by hand on a 10 -minute tour to its den, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child.

Charming anecdotes like this abound in Godfrey-Smiths book, especially about captive octopuses frustrating scientists attempts at observation.

A 1959 paper detailed an try at the Naples Zoological Station to teach three octopuses to pull and release a lever in exchange for food. Albert and Bertram performed in a reasonably consistent way, but one named Charles tried to drag a light suspended above the water into the tank; squirted water at anyone who approached; and prematurely objective the experiment where reference is has broken the lever.

Most aquariums that have attempted to keep octopuses have tales to tell of their great escapes even their overnight raids of neighbouring tanks for food. Godfrey-Smith writes of animals learning to turn off sunlights by directing planes of water at them, short-circuiting the power supply. Elsewhere octopuses have plugged their tanks outflow valves, causing them to overflow.

This apparent problem-solving ability has led cephalopods( especially octopuses, because theyve been studied more than squid or cuttlefish) to be recognised as intelligent. Half a billion neurons put octopuses close to the scope of dogs and their brains are large relative to their size, both of which offer biologists a rough guidebook to brainpower.

The The coconut octopus is one of the few cephalopods known to exhibit the behaviour of using a tool. Photo: Mike Veitch/ Alamy

In captivity, they have learned to navigate simple mazes, solve puzzles and open screw-top jars, while wild animals have been observed stacking boulders to protect the entryways to their lairs, and concealing themselves inside coconut shell halves.

But thats also reflective of their dexterity: an animal with fewer than eight legs may accomplish less but not inevitably because it is more stupid. Theres no one metric by which to measure intelligence some markers, such as tool utilize, were settled on simply because they were evident in humans.

I think its a mistake to look for a single, definitive thing, says Godfrey-Smith. Octopuses are pretty good at sophisticated various kinds of learning, but how good its hard to say, in part because theyre so hard to experiment on. You get a small amount of animals in the lab and some of them refuse to do anything you want them to do theyre just too unruly.

He is of the view that curiosity and opportunism their mischief and craft, as a Roman natural historian put it in the third century AD as characteristic of octopus intelligence.

Their great escapes from captivity, too, reflect an awareness of their special circumstances and their ability to adapt to them. A 2010 experiment corroborated anecdotal reports that cephalopods are able to recognise and like or detest individual humen, even those that are garmented identically.

It is no stretch to say they have personalities. But the inconsistencies of their behaviour, combined with their apparent intelligence, presents an obvious trap of anthropomorphism. Its tempting, acknowledges Godfrey-Smith, to attribute their many enigmas to some clever, human-like explanation.

Octopus A paradox: octopuses have big brains and short life spans. Photo: Peter Godfrey-Smith

Opinions of octopus intelligence consequently vary within the scientific community. A fundamental precept of animal psychology, coined by the 19 th-century British psychologist C Lloyd Morgan, says no behaviour should be attributed to a sophisticated internal process if it can be explained by a simpler one.

That is indicative of a general preference for simplicity of hypothesis in science, says Godfrey-Smith, that as a philosopher he is not persuaded by. But scientific research across the board has become more outcome-driven as a result of the cycle of funding and publishing, and he is in the privileged position of being able to ask open-ended questions.

Thats a great luxury, to be able to roam around year after year, putting pieces together very slowly.

That process, set in motion by his opportunity encounter with a cuttlefish a decade ago, is ongoing. Now back based in Australia, lecturing at the University of Sydney, Godfrey-Smith says his study of cephalopods is increasingly influencing his professional life( and his personal one: Arrival, the 2016 cinema about first contact with cephalopod-esque foreigners, was a good, inventive cinema, he says, though the invaders were a bit more like jellyfish ).

When philosophers meditate the mind-body problem , none poses quite such a challenge as that of the octopuss, and its further consideration of cephalopods devotes some clues to questions about the origins of our own consciousness.

Our last common ancestor existed 600 m years ago and was thought to resemble a flattened worm, perhaps merely millimetres long. Yet somewhere along the line, cephalopods developed high-resolution, camera eyes as did we, entirely independently.

A camera eye, with a lens that focuses an image on a retina weve got it, theyve got it, and thats it, says Godfrey-Smith. That it was arrived at twice in such vastly different animals devotes pause for thought about the process of evolution, as does their inexplicably short life spans: most species of cephalopods live only about one to two years.

a The survey of cephalopods devotes some clues to questions about the origins of our own consciousness. Photo: Peter Godfrey-Smith

When I learned that, I was just amazed it was such a amaze, says Godfrey-Smith, somewhat sadly. Id just gotten to know the animals. I supposed, Ill be visiting these guys for ages. Then I supposed, No, I wont, theyll be dead in a few months.

Its perhaps the biggest paradox presented by an animal that has no deficit of contradictions: A really big brain and a really short life. From an evolutionary perspective, Godfrey-Smith explains, it does not give a good return on investment.

Its a bit like spending a vast amount of money to do a PhD, and then youve got two years to make use of it … the accounting is really weird.

One possibility is that an octopuss brain needs to be powerful just to preside over such an unwieldy form, in the same way that a computer would need a state-of-the-art processor to perform a large volume of complex tasks.

I mean, the body is so hard to control, with eight arms and every possible inch an elbow. But that explanation doesnt account for the flair, even playfulness with which they apply it.

They behave smartly, they do all these novel, inventive things that line of reasoning doesnt resolve things, by any stretching, says Godfrey-Smith. Theres still a somewhat mysterious element there.

Other Intellects: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life is published by William Collins. To order a transcript for 17( RRP 20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of 1.99. It is out through Harper Collins in Australia.

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