Among the soft-bodied eight-limbed molluscs

Lovely piece on the octopus linked through Maggie’s Farm this morning (here), after one gets through the mandatory Japanese eroticism. They are wonderful slimy things, if you have ever wrestled with one. I haven’t, myself, but the (magnificently Catholic) poet Roy Campbell used to do bouts for the tourists, back home in South Africa. It was a good panhandling gig; earned him enough to get out of the country.

All the octopodes are smart, as too the cuttlefish and squid, though to my certain knowledge, some are smarter than others.

They are very smart, but are they “conscious”? This is a silly question the cognitive types ask, to which the answer may be given by any marine biologist. Of course they are conscious! They observe, they learn, they remember, they adapt; they psych out an adversary; and they don’t waste time on the Internet. True, their brains are distributed through eight arms, which are able to act independently of each other (while humans get flustered with just two). But it is a fine choreography, and the arms will move splendidly to a single end. Never underestimate the dexterity of an octopus.

I should like to solve Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “consciousness” problem for him, mentioned in that link. It is true that the consciousness of an octopus is different from the consciousness of a human, or the consciousness of a fruitfly. This is because God created them severally. The consciousness of one human is different from the consciousness of another, too, because each was endowed with a unique immortal soul. And God didn’t make the octopodes interchangeable, either.

Verily, I am able to report, that even the fruitflies after the nectarines on my counter vary in their caution. Some are easier to kill than others.

From other sources, I must vindicate the reputation of octopodes as talkers. The Darwinoids assume the ability to change colours through intricate patterns in a sudden spectacular way (so that an octopus may disappear without moving) was some evolutionary development for camouflage. But it is also their method of communication. Though solitary by disposition, a travelling octopus can hold one conversation with his swim-mate to the right, another unrelated with his swim-mate on the left — flashing his chromatophores distinctly to each, by way of rhetorical emphasis. (Our politicians have a more primitive form of this ability.)

They, and the cephalopods generally, can hunt in packs when they want to, and by signalling back and forth, become masters of predation against quickly scattering fish. They can open coconuts, and jars — even jam bottles from Bulgaria. They can turn taps on and off; squirt unwelcome guests with water or with ink. They have deadly accuracy, and from a considerable distance, can get you in the eye like a cowboy marksman. For the studious octopus knows exactly which human you are, and has already decided if he doesn’t like you.

Put one in an aquarium, where all his Houdini tricks are foiled, and he gets bored. This is a universal sign of native intelligence; why intellectuals can be such trouble. He (the octopus intellectual) starts looking about for mischief. He protests stale food by jamming it down the drains, as the reviewer reports; he pulls plugs from curiosity, including those on machines; he likes to short out light bulbs. He hops out of one tank then slithers to another, where the fish is fresher, or there’s a cuter octopus babe. The octopodes can design and build themselves little forts, then disassemble and reassemble at another location, using tools where required. Such anecdotes have filled many books already.

Five hundred million years, say the deep-time palaeontologists. That’s the least amount of time since our last plausible common ancestor: some tiny indifferent worm, this side or that of the Cambrian boundary, when the myriad body plans for all future life on Earth suddenly, simultaneously sprang. The deeper we dredge into the geological and biological history of this planet, the odder it appears, and the less we can believe the Darwinian just-so stories.