photo & text by nacrowe
OCTOPUSES are cool. and yes, i said OCTOPUSES, not OCTOPI which is incorrect (as you can't add latin suffixes to greek-derived words for all you grammar nerds out there).
years ago when i was working in VENEZUELA i had the great privilege of scuba diving in the LOS ROQUES archipelago. not once but twice. saw lots of fish, sharks, eels, crabs and other sea-life, but sadly not one OCTOPUS. which was a bummer no doubt. been fascinated with them since childhood.
naturalist SY MONTGOMERY in her book THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A SURPRISING EXPLORATION IN THE WONDER OF CONSCIOUSNESS (ATRIA, 2016) goes about exploring the inner world of several captive OCTOPUSES at the NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM in BOSTON. while the book does give insight into the almost alien capabilities of these amazing cephalopods (i.e. tasting through skin, having appendages that are semi-autonomous from the brain, intelligence derived in evolutionary terms not from group relations but in isolation), what make MONTGOMERY's book compelling is her exploration of the emotional and spiritual ramifications of these abilities. what can an OCTOPUS discern about us via tasting our complex chemical signatures via its touch? what hidden knowledge do they possess about CONSCIOUSNESS and the nature of reality
this book questions the very idea of what constitutes intelligence. even the very nature of CONSCIOUSNESS. it feels that our own tools of discerning reality are limited in comparison. some might mock such consideration as merely uniformed conjecture at best and ANTHROPOMORPHISM at worst, but increasingly science is becoming more open to the possibility that the nature of CONSCIOUSNESS is more complex and less understood than we have defined such in the past. its incredibly interesting stuff.
and what is particularly mystifying about the evolution of said intelligence in OCTOPUSES is that 1) such came from an INVERTEBRATES unlike all other similar organisms (such as VERTEBRATES like horses, dogs, apes, dolphins and humans) and 2) such capacities were not promote and rewarded within a group context (as in all other cases) as OCTOPUSES are defiantly solitary creatures. MONTGOMERY gets into the THEORY OF MIND capacity of being able to mirror empathy an thought processes of other animals in nature and how the OCTOPUS developed such as a defense mechanism, unlike VERTEBRATES who do such to coordinate attacks and develop social relationships with their kin. OCTOPUSES are singular creatures of great intelligence with an entirely unique evolutionary path to the cognitive abilities. they are the closest thing we have to an alien species. just incredible and stimulating to consider.
i thoroughly enjoyed this book, not only for its informative deep dive into anatomy, behavior and rituals of these mysterious solitary, shapeshifting creatures, but for its deeper consideration of our own connection to the natural world. not just as stewards of nature, but as partners since it seems we have much to learn from these secretive and seemingly mystical invertebrates.