The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
On a rare, warm day in mid-March, when the snow was melting into mud in New Hampshire, I traveled to Boston, where everyone was strolling along the harbor or sitting on benches licking ice cream cones. But I quit the blessed sunlight for the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium. I had a date with a giant Pacific octopus.
I knew little about octopuses—not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus). But what I did know intrigued me. Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. This bore out what scant experience I had already had; like many who visit octopuses in public aquariums, I’ve often had the feeling that the octopus I was watching was watching me back, with an interest as keen as my own. How could that be? It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. Their bodies aren’t organized like ours. We go: head, body, limbs. They go: body, head, limbs. Their mouths are in their armpits—or, if you prefer to liken their arms to our lower, instead of upper, extremities, between their legs. They breathe water. Their appendages are covered with dexterous, grasping suckers, a structure for which no mammal has an equivalent.
And not only are octopuses on the opposite side of the great vertebral divide that separates the backboned creatures such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from everything else; they are classed within the invertebrates as mollusks, as are slugs and snails and clams, animals that are not particularly renowned for their intellect. Clams don’t even have brains.
More than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the one leading to humans separated. Was it possible, I wondered, to reach another mind on the other side of that divide? Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other. They seem completely alien, and yet their world— the ocean—comprises far more of the Earth (70 percent of its surface area; more than 90 percent of its habitable space) than does land. Most animals on this planet live in the ocean. And most of them are invertebrates.
I wanted to meet the octopus. I wanted to touch an alternate reality. I wanted to explore a different kind of consciousness, if such a thing exists. What is it like to be an octopus? Is it anything like being a human? Is it even possible to know?
So when the aquarium’s director of public relations met me in the lobby and offered to introduce me to Athena, the octopus, I felt like a privileged visitor to another world. But what I began to discover that day was my own sweet blue planet—a world breathtakingly alien, startling, and wondrous; a place where, after half a century of life on this earth, much of it as a naturalist, I would at last feel fully at home.
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