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4 November 2017

The irresistible rise of the octopus, the closest creature to an intelligent alien

Perhaps it is the octopus’s talent for trickery that has blinded us to its qualities.

By Philip Hoare

Have we underestimated the octopus? Far from a childhood memory from a Disney film, or something tasty on your plate in a seafood restaurant, the wriggling cephalopod is suddenly in the news. One might be forgiven for thinking some mollusc mastermind was running a very successful PR campaign. But it’s not as if the animals have just started doing all this stuff – they’ve been around for 300 million years.  It’s just that we’ve taken a long time to realise it.

Last week on a Welsh beach, 25 curled octopuses were seen crawling out of the sea and along the strand at night like some eldritch alien invasion. The animals may be ailing, or possibly confused by the recent storms. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which began screening on 29 October, features an armoured octopus off the South African coast filmed for the first time. Living in constant danger from shark-filled waters, the animal picks up stones and shells when threatened, cladding itself in a protective carapace. In a current YouTube sensation, an octopus imprisoned in a jar is seen to unscrew the top and emerge triumphant like some strange unfolding flower.

Then there’s the tale of the fish that were repeatedly going missing overnight in an aquarium. CCTV revealed that a resident octopus would wait till the building was empty, then lift the lid on its own tank, slither over to its supper, collect it, then replace that lid and its own, once it had returned.

In The Soul of an Octopus (2015) Sy Montgomery’s love letter to the animal – the result of her long-time study of octopuses in the New England Aquarium in Boston – the author observed the apparent bonds these captive cephalopods established with some of their keepers and visitors, and how they expressed their literal distaste for others by squirting water at them. Montgomery noted that the animals used their arms to taste during interactions with humans, and took against visitors who smoked because they could sense it on their skin. 

Inevitably, we project our characteristics on to these creatures (of which there are more than 300 species). Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner imagines the eerie deep where, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea”, while during an extended stay on Guernsey, Victor Hugo observed, “all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece. Its most terrible quality is its softness”, he declared in Toilers of the Sea (1866). “It draws you to it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.” Counterpoint that tactile terror with the octopus’s role in a celebrated erotic woodcut by Hokusai from 1814, depicting a female pearl diver being pleasured by those wandering arms.

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The modern evidence for a sentient octopus is increasing. Earlier this year the philosopher of science, Peter Godfrey-Smith, published, an acclaimed study of octopus communities off the east coast of Australia. It revealed the existence of Octopia, coherent social settlements of octopuses that were once believed to be loners, meeting only once a year to mate. Instead, they had formed a kind of artificial reef that to its occupants represents, as Godfrey-Smith speculates, “an island of safety in a dangerous area”.

Then came the news last month of an even more developed Australian cephalopod urb, nicknamed Octlantis. Here common Sydney octopuses have constructed rudimentary “walls” from the shells of their former meals, and there is inner-city strife in the form of inter-octopus fights over living space.

Perhaps it is the octopus’s talent for trickery that has blinded us to its qualities; it covers its traces, literally: the octopus uses millions of chromatophores in its skin to mimic the pattern and even the texture of its terrain. But as Caspar Henderson observes in his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, some commentators have long been aware of its metaphysical qualities. He quotes the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, writing in 1567, who noted “the octopus assumes whatever colour it likes to suit the occasion, hiding, say, from something fearful or lurking for its prey”. The French philosopher suggested that we might consider our own solipsistic perceptions somewhat lacking, and that we could learn from this multi-sensual shape-shifter.

Montaigne was nearer the mark than he knew: scientists have established that each of the octopus’s arms contains an independent “brain”, to the extent that one might fight with another. Montgomery describes this as an intelligence “without a centralised self”. This is an astonishing, different kind of existence, and it challenges our own physical selves and our assumptions about life on our planet. The octopus evolved on an entirely other evolutionary branch than us; it is not subordinate, but parallel. It really is the alien among us. 

Philip Hoare’s latest book is “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” (Fourth Estate) 

This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over